New Mexico officials painted a grim picture of the state’s health care capacity Monday, warning hospitals are filled to the brim and still bracing for a new onslaught of COVID-19 cases after Thanksgiving.
“Our hospital is full and we are very close to running out of ICU beds and regular beds,” said Dr. Rohini McKee, University of New Mexico Hospital’s chief quality and safety officer. “Given the numbers we’ve seen over the past few weeks our health care system is going to be overwhelmed. But our behaviors will determine how long that system is going to be overwhelmed.”
Jason Mitchell, Presbyterian Health Care Services’ chief medical care officer, said the company’s nine hospitals are operating at about 110 percent of capacity.
“We are out of ICU beds,” Mitchell said. “We really are totally full.”
A medical dam-break had been part of repeated warnings by state officials for weeks as COVID-19 counts surged in October and November. The human toll includes health care workers — at least 18 have died since the crisis began earlier this year, state Human Services Department Secretary David Scrase said during a separate news conference with Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham later in the day.
“Every death is a tragedy,” he said. “But when we lose a health care worker, we lose the opportunity to care for hundreds of other New Mexicans.”
Scrase also said the state has experienced an alarming increase — almost 90 percent — in hospitalizations tied to the virus over the past 14 days.
The crisis is so severe that Mitchell said small rural hospitals can still call around to larger hub hospitals to see to try to find a bed for a seriously ill patient, but they could be placed on waiting lists.
Christus St. Vincent Regional Medical Center spokesman Arturo Delgado said the Santa Fe hospital still has some capacity to accept more patients if needed but wouldn’t elaborate. He said 41 of the 200-bed hospital’s rooms are occupied by people being treated for COVID-19.
Statewide, the state reported 876 people were hospitalized with the highly communicable respiratory disease. State Department of Health spokeswoman Marisa Maez said 86 percent of the state’s adult ICU beds were occupied, but hospital administrators were vague about how many total beds exist and how many are occupied.
“We’ve been really transparent about our numbers, that one is just — we can’t provide a number because it’s moving by the minute,” Presbyterian Healthcare Services spokeswoman Melanie Mozes said. “There are just so many variables that we haven’t been giving out that number.”
But, she added: “We are full, there is no doubt we are full.”
Mozes said about 292 patients are being treated for COVID-19 across Presbyterian’s nine hospitals, up from 72 patients during the initial spring surge.
Officials say part of the reason the numbers are inexact is because hospitals are finding ways to create more capacity as needed, such as repurposing operating rooms as patient rooms or creating outpatient clinics where COVID-19 patients can receive the antiviral drug remdesivir and antibody treatments so hospital beds can be reserved for the severely ill.
Medical officials acknowledged it’s too soon to know what impact the Thanksgiving weekend and the potential for gradual reopening of certain types of business will have on hospitalizations, but they expected there will be one.
“It’s just math and science,” Mitchell said. “If you are spiking and you close down, things go down. If you go back, we would expect another spike. We could get into a really dangerous spot very, very quickly.”
The doctors urged people to continue social distancing and mask-wearing to avoid catching the virus.
“Even if we had unlimited beds and doctors and staff, you still don’t want to get it,” Mitchell said, adding the virus has claimed the lives of young and otherwise healthy people. And even for those who survive, there is the potential for long-term effects on the heart, brain and lungs, plus problems with cognition, depression, anxiety, insomnia and “fatigue that seems to last for months.”
The doctors said mortality rates are often undercounted because patients sometimes die weeks or months after being discharged from the hospital.
Mitchell said it’s the “worst nightmare” of any health care provider to think about rationing health care resources, such as rooms or ventilators.
“Hopefully it does not come to that,” he said.
He added it’s “scary” to think about having to prioritize certain patients over others but if that becomes the case, “teams of clinicians will make those decisions together.”
Dr. Vesta Sandoval, chief medical officer at Lovelace Health System, said “a process is being worked” on for making those determinations and “the state will be working on it and release more information.”
A document called the New Mexico Crisis Standards of Care Plan, updated in April, lays out some of the frameworks for determining how to allocate limited resources. In an email, Maez wrote each hospital is required to develop its own plan, but added the state is “operating in a medical surge model.” She did not elaborate.