A ‘pandemic of the unvaccinated’

Joe Archuletta, 14, receives a Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine in May from nurse Satya Kaur Khalsa at Christus St. Vincent Medical Specialty Clinic in Santa Fe. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal

Leaders of Albuquerque-area hospitals say their beds are filling up quickly as they usher in a new wave of COVID-19 patients.

But unlike earlier in the pandemic, when the elderly and people with preexisting medical conditions were the most likely to get sick, the demographics of the typical COVID-19 patient have changed. The commonality of nearly all COVID-19 patients now is that they haven’t been vaccinated against the disease.

“Evidence shows that COVID-19 is now really a pandemic of the unvaccinated,” said Dr. Denise Gonzales, the medical director at Presbyterian Healthcare Services and one of the physicians who gave a public briefing on COVID-19 on Tuesday. “What we’re seeing is it’s the people who aren’t getting vaccinated (that are being hospitalized). That tends to be younger people, not necessarily with medical problems. Maybe there is a sense that they are invincible.”

The doctors said their hospitals for the past few months were treating a high number of all patients, in part because many had deferred care throughout the pandemic.

On Tuesday, the Presbyterian health system’s non-ICU beds were at 100% capacity and its ICU beds were at 104% capacity, according to a hospital spokeswoman. University of New Mexico Hospital was also above its official capacity Tuesday, according to a UNM spokesman. Lovelace hospital didn’t provide any data about its patient population levels.

Now the hospitals are bracing for more patients with New Mexico seeing an uptick in COVID cases. The state Department of Health reported 688 new cases Tuesday, as well as five additional deaths, pushing the statewide toll to 4,430 deaths since the start of the pandemic.

Of the new cases, 202 were in Bernalillo County.

New Mexico had been averaging about 450 to 500 new COVID-19 cases a week for most of June and early July, but cases have been rising for the last month or so and the state recently reported more than 2,300 cases in a week.

Because the hospitals were already operating with high patient volumes, the recent uptick in unvaccinated COVID-19 patients is stretching resources, said Dr. Rohini McKee, the chief quality and safety officer at UNM Hospital. There were 250 people with COVID-19 hospitalized throughout the state Tuesday, according to the Health Department.

“Every patient with COVID-19 that is in the hospital is taking up the spot of another patient with cancer, a stroke or some other illness that needs care,” McKee said.

Dr. Vesta Sandoval, the chief medical officer of the Lovelace Health System, urged people to talk to their primary care physicians about the vaccine, and to get vaccinated.

“You’re not going to be safe until you get your shot,” she said.

About two out of three New Mexican adults have been fully vaccinated against COVID-19, which is one of the highest rates in the nation. Only about .015% of New Mexicans who have been vaccinated have been hospitalized with COVID-19 after a so-called breakthrough case, according to Health Department data.

Gonzales and the other doctors acknowledged there will continue to be such cases. But she said the vaccine still protects people even if they later test positive for the disease.

“What I tell my patients is that you didn’t land yourself in the hospital and you certainly didn’t die,” she said. “You may still have some symptoms, but that’s OK. It’s better than the alternative.”

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