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Amid a surge in the new, highly contagious omicron variant, overwhelmed hospitals are treating patients in hallways and on chairs and, at one local hospital, a tent was propped up in a parking lot to treat COVID patients.
Meanwhile, on Monday the state eclipsed 6,000 COVID-related deaths since the start of the pandemic.
Leaders of the two major local health systems gave a public briefing Monday on the status of their hospitals. Both University of New Mexico and Presbyterian Health Care Services hospitals in the metro area are operating under “crisis standards of care,” and bracing for patient volumes to increase over the coming days and weeks. The warning comes amid a staggering number of new cases. New Mexico reported 9,284 new cases on Monday, a total that includes cases confirmed over the weekend, as well as 37 new deaths, pushing the statewide toll to 6,020 since the start of the pandemic. The state recorded its first COVID death in March 2020 and hit 5,000 in late-October 2021.
The state set a one-day record Friday, reporting more than 4,200 cases – abut 600 more than the previous peak in November 2020.
Doctors for the two health systems said they have at times operated at 150% of their normal capacity and patients are waiting in the emergency room for up to six hours.
“We’re in a situation where we are pretty overwhelmed with sick patients and, in the next couple of weeks, things are going to get worse,” said Dr. Steve McLaughlin, chair of the Department of Emergency Medicine at UNM. “… It’s a situation where, for each patient that needs care, you have to think very carefully about how you can provide that, given the situation we’re in, which is limited resources, staff that are working incredibly hard and a system that is incredibly overloaded.”
Dr. Jason Mitchell, chief medical officer at Presbyterian, said one trend hospitals are seeing is patients being treated for issues other than COVID who end up testing positive for the disease. Also, many hospital staff are sick with COVID, he said.
The state’s seven-day positivity rate was 25.8%, according to the Department of Health.
Melanie Mozes, a spokeswoman for Presbyterian, said a large majority of COVID patients had a primary diagnosis of COVID. But the number of COVID hospitalizations also includes patients who came in for other procedures and then test positive for COVID. There were a total of 518 patients hospitalized with COVID throughout the state on Monday.
Mitchell said that trend reflects how fast the virus is spreading in the community. He said Albuquerque hospitals will likely continue to operate under their crisis standards of care designation – which allows physicians to work outside their typical specialties and gives them more flexibility to transfer patients – for the foreseeable future.
“It has spread like wildfire,” Mitchell said.
Presbyterian has opened a “triage tent” in the parking lot of its main hospital to treat COVID patients, he said.
But health authorities are also hopeful the new, highly contagious omicron strain of the coronavirus isn’t as lethal as prior versions. McLaughlin said preliminary data suggests places that have already had a surge of the omicron variant haven’t seen as dramatic an increase in hospitalizations and deaths.
But because local hospitals are already full, officials are bracing for an increase in patients as the new variant spreads.
“Even though it’s going to likely cause less hospitalizations per case, with so many cases, it is going to overwhelm us,” Mitchell said.