Hospital executives in New Mexico warned Monday the state is in danger of overworking limited medical professionals and has few options for transporting patients who might need critical care to other states as the COVID-19 surge continues.
When cases spiked in the spring, New Mexico was able to use a regional system that identified open beds to transfer patients from hospitals that were full, officials said at an online news conference — adding the approach helped ensure the state’s entire health network collaborated in a unified way. In the spring, hundreds of patients were transferred from Gallup and Northwest New Mexico to other areas in the state, and in some cases, to other states.
But during the current surge, the spike is hitting the state and nation in a wave of new cases. The state Department of Health, using a new reporting metric, said 738 COVID-19 patients were in New Mexico hospitals Monday.
“Transportation is becoming a big issue,” said Dr. David Gonzales, chief medical officer at Christus St. Vincent Regional Medical Center. “It’s already a significant issue at present, and it’s only going to get worse as time goes on and numbers continue to increase.”
Other health networks — the University of New Mexico Health System, Presbyterian Healthcare Services and Lovelace Health System — are facing the same dire situation.
Presbyterian is already “filled well beyond what is our typical capacity,” Dr. Denise Gonzales, medical director for Presbyterian Medical Group, said during a news conference Monday with officials from the UNM Health System and Lovelace.
Because of the unified surge, Gonzales said, “We’ve outstripped the local capacities and we no longer have an outlet. There isn’t the outlet of being able to send patients to Arizona, Colorado and Texas. In particular, Texas … they just don’t have the capacity to accommodate patients from outside” the state.
The state has not yet reached a point where there is no outlet, she added. But hospital hubs in the northwest, southeast and southern parts of the state are operating above capacity.
With that in mind, health officials are urging New Mexico residents to avoid getting together with family members who don’t already live in the same house.
“Our advice would be first and foremost not to gather with anyone who’s outside your pod,” said UNM Dr. Rohini McKee. “Think about creative ways like a Zoom dinner or dropping off food at people’s doorsteps. That would be our first suggestion to families.”
If people are planning to get together despite the health warnings, McKee said they should at least quarantine for 14 days beforehand, wear masks indoors and ensure that only one household is doing the cooking and food preparation.
Though many states, including New Mexico, are solidifying distribution plans, health experts warned a vaccine remains a long way off from being available to the general public and isn’t likely to help the state during the surge. On Monday, an experimental vaccine from Moderna Inc. showed strong early results.
Distributing a vaccine presents “enormous logistic challenges” in a rural state like New Mexico, McKee said. But it does offer hope.
“It was almost as if there was no end in sight,” she said. “And now, we have some light at the end of the tunnel, but the tunnel right now is pretty dark.”
An average of 68 percent of Lovelace’s inpatient care is going to people who have not tested positive for COVID-19, according to Whitney Marquez, a spokeswoman for the Lovelace Health System.
But hospitalization surges typically trail caseload spikes by several weeks. So health experts are bracing for an influx of COVID-19 hospitalizations.
At Presbyterian, 238 inpatients tested positive for COVID-19 as of Monday, including 52 in intensive care. Amanda Schoenberg, a spokeswoman for Presbyterian, declined to provide the specific number of ICU units still available.
UNM and and Lovelace also did not provide that data. At Christus St. Vincent, 15 of 18 intensive care unit beds are currently filled, said Monica Leyba, chief nurse executive for the health network.
Meanwhile, the federal Indian Health Service has decided to end emergency room and in-patient care at the Acoma, Laguna, Cañoncito hospital located on Acoma tribal land, Acoma Pueblo announced Monday. The facility served about 9,100 tribal members between the Acoma and Laguna pueblos and had 25 inpatient beds, Indian Country Today reported.
Acoma Gov. Brian D. Vallo decried the decision in a statement. It is the only hospital in the area that featured an emergency room capable of treating patients with COVID-19.
“The decision to close ACL hospital is not only reckless but immoral,” Vallo said. “It is a complete abandonment by the Indian Health Service of its legal responsibilities to the People of Acoma during this global pandemic. Why IHS made this decision at this time and under these conditions is baffling.”
Indian Health Service officials say the facility has not closed, but has refocused on urgent care and other services rather than providing a 24/7 emergency room, IHS Director Rear Admiral Michael Weakhee and Albuquerque-area IHS director Leonard Thomas said in a call with reporters Monday. They said the decision was made because of a staff and severe funding shortages.
The closure could further strain an already stressed statewide health system.
Christus St. Vincent’s Gonzales urged New Mexicans to stay in their own homes for Thanksgiving, to wear masks and, for now, ride out the next wave of the pandemic alone.
“We’re going to have to control that or else we’re going to be in big trouble,” he said.