SANTA FE — New Mexico hospitals are so overwhelmed that about 50 patients were waiting Wednesday in emergency rooms or elsewhere for intensive care beds — a crunch due partly to the spike in COVID-19 infections, a state official said.
Dr. David Scrase, who leads the state departments of health and human services, said hospitals may invoke crisis standards of care next week, a situation that means they would start choosing who gets care when demand outstrips the supply of resources.
“It’s a really harsh and grim reality,” Scrase said in a public briefing Wednesday. “It’s going to be very uncomfortable the next two weeks for folks needing hospital care in New Mexico.”
More than 50 people were on a waiting list for a bed in an intensive care unit, he said, because there aren’t enough beds available. The patients are “super sick,” Scrase said, but stuck in emergency rooms or general hospital beds.
The spike in hospitalizations come as New Mexico endures a wave of COVID-19 infections. The case rate is higher in areas with lower vaccination rates, Scrase said.
The hospital crowding, Scrase and other health officials said Wednesday, isn’t only a result of COVID-19. Health care systems in New Mexico are having a higher patient load resulting from a variety of medical conditions — some of which were worsened when people avoided seeking care during earlier parts of the pandemic.
Hospitals are also facing staffing shortages, especially among nurses, Scrase said, a phenomenon playing out nationwide and making it difficult to recruit nurses from out of state.
The state is transferring patients among regions to help balance the load, he said, but there simply aren’t enough ICU beds to meet demand.
New Mexico last engaged crisis standards of care in December, when COVID-19 hospitalizations reached their high point. Crisis standards are a declaration that can allow for the rationing of care if the demand exceeds the supply of ventilators or other resources.
Top health officials urged New Mexicans on Wednesday to get vaccinated against COVID-19 if they haven’t already, to wear masks indoors and to follow other social distancing protocols to limit the spread of the disease.
State Epidemiologist Christine Ross said rapidly spreading infections among unvaccinated individuals are driving the spike in new cases and hospitalizations. People who aren’t fully vaccinated accounted for 88% of COVID-19 hospitalizations in a recent four-week period, she said.
The state has seen breakthrough cases among vaccinated people, too, she said, but they are at much lower risk of hospitalization, even if they test positive.
Statistical modeling suggests the surge in cases will continue through mid-September, although Scrase said that it’s difficult to project so far in advance and that people’s behavior will influence the caseload.
There are also signs for optimism.
Deputy Health Secretary Laura Parajón said the pace of vaccinations in New Mexico has picked up, perhaps as people talk to their primary care providers or take advantage of the state’s $100 vaccination incentive, which ends Aug. 31.
An estimated 66.9% of New Mexicans 18 and older have completed their vaccine series, and 76.4% have received at least one dose.
Vaccination, Parajón said, is “our only way out right now to protect our state and our families.”
Scrase said the ICU waiting list is a “completely new phenomenon” for New Mexico.
“We are working to do everything we can to make more room,” Scrase said, “but we are just running out of rooms and, of course, staff to take care of patients.”
New Mexico has fewer hospital beds per capita than the nation as a whole.
Scrase encouraged anyone who tests positive for COVID-19 and has certain risk factors — such as those who are obese and those older than 64 — to seek medical treatment, which might prevent the need for hospitalization.
The state Department of Health reported 433 hospitalizations for COVID-19 on Wednesday, a 23% increase in the past week alone.
The state also announced 770 new cases of COVID-19 and five additional virus-related deaths, bringing the death toll to 4,488 residents.