The unrelenting surge in coronavirus caseloads continues to strain New Mexico’s largest hospitals as the state slides deeper into the most infectious time of the year.
The more contagious delta variant accounts for almost all COVID-19 hospitalizations in New Mexico — and across the U.S. — making it the most pressing concern, hospital officials said in an online news conference Tuesday.
They said it’s the focus over the omicron variant that recently emerged in South Africa and has yet to be reported in the U.S.
“Although we always think about the next variant and how we’re going to address it and how we’re going to work with it, we have to stop and say, ‘Today, what’s going on?’ ” said Jason Mitchell, Presbyterian Healthcare Services’ chief medical officer. “And today, delta is burning through America, and we can stop it with a vaccine.”
South Africa’s strong surveillance quickly spotted omicron as it emerged, but much is unknown, such as whether the nation is allowing “superspreader events” and whether its low vaccination rate — about 29 percent — led to an accelerated spread, said Rohini McKee, University of New Mexico Hospital’s chief quality and safety officer.
“I think we will have a lot more answers in about two weeks,” McKee said. “One of the most important things we’re waiting on is how effective existing vaccines are against the omicron variant.”
Medical experts say it’s too soon to know whether omicron’s mutations make it more able to evade the body’s immune system, even after vaccination, and whether it will cause more severe illness.
As with other variants, the best safeguards are getting vaccinated, including with booster shots, and being vigilant with wearing masks, washing hands and avoiding indoor gatherings, McKee said.
“We need to stay calm and understand that we have the tools that we need to deal with omicron or delta or any other variant, and we know what they are,” McKee said. “They may not be glamorous, but they work.”
State and federal health officials say the vaccine’s effectiveness wanes after six months, and anyone who has gone that long after receiving Pfizer or Moderna shots should seek a booster. Those who received a Johnson & Johnson shot should be boosted after two months, they say.
So far, only about 23 percent of adults in the state have gotten a booster, Mitchell said. Just over 74 percent of adults have completed the initial vaccine series.
High daily case counts show little sign of abating.
The state Department of Health reported 1,132 new cases and 12 additional COVID-19 deaths Tuesday. There were 633 patients hospitalized for treatment of the illness in the state, a more than 10 percent increase from a day earlier.
Daily hospitalizations have remained lower than the 700 some doctors predicted but are still well above overall bed capacity.
McKee and Mitchell said their hospitals are packed, which is made more challenging by the difficulties in keeping them fully staffed.
Christus St. Vincent Regional Medical Center is grappling with the same problems as it runs at 110 percent of normal capacity.
“Like all other healthcare organizations, staffing continues to be a challenge as we see increased volume,” Christus spokesman Arturo Delgado wrote in an email. “We continue to monitor this and we are taking steps to ensure we have sufficient staff to care for our patients.”
Those steps includes rescheduling some elective procedures so the hospital has sufficient beds and care providers for more acutely ill patients, Delgado added.
UNM and Presbyterian are running on crisis standards of care, a status given to hospitals with heavy overflow, enabling them to more easily transfer patients to other facilities.
Mitchell said 28 percent of Presbyterian’s patients have COVID-19, a jump from 20 percent two weeks ago. A sizable portion of patients have other illnesses that were made worse from delaying care during the coronavirus pandemic, he added.
He said current COVID-19 hospitalizations stem from infections that occurred two or three weeks ago, so the number is likely to climb through December.
“The way things are going, we expect higher levels of hospitalizations,” Mitchell said.