COVID-19 has claimed its first victim in New Mexico, and positive tests for the respiratory disease continue to rise in the state.
The state Department of Health on Wednesday reported a man in his late 70s died Sunday from the illness, caused by the fast-spreading novel coronavirus, at Artesia General Hospital in southeastern New Mexico. The state now has 112 confirmed cases, including three new cases in Santa Fe County and two cases in Rio Arriba County, the first time that jurisdiction has reported positives.
COVID-19, which has spread to 15 of New Mexico’s 33 counties and has led to a dozen hospitalizations in the state, poses a challenge for doctors, who must diagnose and treat a virus that is so far impervious to any approved medications.
“This is a tragic day,” Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham said in a news release Wednesday announcing the death of the Eddy County man. “Across our state, across the country, we are all reeling from the effects of this virus.
“For anyone in our state who had not yet acknowledged this virus as the urgent public health crisis that it is, who has not accepted the extremely compelling need to stay home, today lays bare the very real, very life-or-death consequences of this disease,” the governor said.
The new cases in Santa Fe County involve a woman in her 40s, a woman in her 50s and a man in his 70s. In Rio Arriba County, a man in his 60s and a woman in her 70s tested positive.
The Department of Health noted a previously reported case in Chaves County was a clerical error.
State health officials say the outbreak could escalate as more people get tested, filling up many of the 344 intensive care beds statewide.
About 6,840 New Mexicans have been tested, making the state the third-highest in the nation in per-capita testing.
Around 80 percent of those who contract the respiratory illness can recover at home, and only a small portion of the 20 percent who are hospitalized end up in intensive care.
For some patients, deadly symptoms escalate quickly.
The Health Department said the Eddy County man, who had a variety of chronic health issues, went to the Artesia hospital Sunday and died later that day after his condition deteriorated. The state laboratory received his novel coronavirus test Tuesday and confirmed it as positive.
Doctors at regional hospitals have clearly defined criteria for distinguishing COVID-19 from other respiratory illnesses and when an infection requires a hospital stay.
“If you develop a pneumonia secondary to COVID-19, it’s pretty recognizable because it’s very severe,” said Dr. David Gonzales, an internist with Christus St. Vincent Regional Medical Center.
Typically, both sides of the lungs become inflamed and portions fill with fluids and proteins, making it difficult to breathe, Gonzales said.
Patients who show clear signs of respiratory distress, such as quick breathing — 30 or more breaths per minute — and low oxygen absorption, are placed on a respirator in the intensive care unit, Gonzales said.
Some suffer organ failure, he added.
Patients with less-severe respiratory symptoms can be given oxygen therapy, which involves shooting air through a nose tube or face mask rather than a tube inserted into the windpipe, as is required with a respirator, said Dr. Vesta Sandoval, chief medical officer for the Lovelace Health System in Albuquerque.
Sometimes patients on oxygen therapy can be sent home, but rarely will anyone use a respirator at home because it is difficult for patients to manage on their own, Sandoval said.
According to Gonzales, certain inhalers also can help COVID-19 patients breathe easier.
Criteria for COVID-19 hospitalization is the same as for patients without the virus, including very low blood pressure, difficulty breathing and rapid breathing, Gonzales said.
Someone in the higher-risk groups — with impaired immunity, heart trouble, diabetes or respiratory disease — would still have to display COVID-19 symptoms before being admitted to the hospital, Gonzales said.
Instead, doctors would watch them closely as outpatients, he added, and would bring them into a hospital if their conditions changed.
Although the new coronavirus has no vaccine or medicinal treatment — though several drugs are being studied as possible treatments — some doctors prescribe antibiotics and antiviral medications to help patients fend off other potential illnesses while their bodies are under stress from COVID-19.
Gonzales said those kinds of secondary treatments are applied case by case and not as a standard practice. That’s because an antibiotic might cause a bacteria to grow resistant in the body or cause a negative reaction in the patient, he said.
The key to fighting the virus’ spread and saving the lives of those most vulnerable to the respiratory illness is widespread social isolation, doctors and public officials have said repeatedly.
“If we can really keep those at-risk populations safer by reducing contact,” Sandoval said, “then we may not experience some of the high rates of influx into hospitals that we’ve seen [elsewhere] … so that we can manage these patients well.”