Jeffrey Pinkerton received home care from Presbyterian Healthcare Services in July.

Not everyone who needs medical treatment for COVID-19 has to go to the hospital.

New Mexico’s largest health care provider is giving high-risk patients who test positive for the disease the option of receiving care such as oxygen support while remaining at home.

Presbyterian Healthcare Services says its remote monitoring program makes it easier to provide treatments that can address symptoms before they become severe, helping to reduce the overall number of hospitalizations.

“Every time we prescribe and have delivered and monitor home oxygen for a patient, that’s one less person having to drive somewhere to get care,” said Dr. Nancy Guinn, the medical director for Presbyterian Healthcare at Home, which oversees the COVID-19 home care program.

Presbyterian has instituted the service as “hospital at home” programs take off across the country for patients who have a range of illnesses — not just COVID-19 — but who want to stay at home to avoid coming into contact with the new coronavirus.

Guinn said allowing patients with COVID-19 to stay at home helps reduce the patient loads at emergency rooms and alleviates some of the strains medical centers experience when trying to ensure the virus doesn’t spread within their facilities.

“Treating COVID in the emergency room and in clinics is complicated,” Guinn said. “There are a lot of precautions that always need to be taken.”

Additionally, staying in the comfort of their own home can help patients recover faster, she said.

“It’s better for people to get COVID care at home if it works for them,” Guinn said.

It’s a departure from how most providers around the country handle COVID-19 patients, as people who test positive usually monitor themselves at home and then go to urgent care if they begin having acute symptoms.

A spokesman for Christus St. Vincent Regional Medical Center in Santa Fe said the hospital’s nurses monitor COVID-19 patients by phone, but the provider does not offer treatments such as oxygen support at home.

The University of New Mexico Hospital, meanwhile, said it has a telehealth network that uses video visits for patients. Oxygen treatments at home “can potentially be deployed if needed.”

So far, around 100 patients with COVID-19 have entered the Presbyterian program, and only six of them have later been hospitalized, the provider said.

As New Mexico’s overall COVID-19 case count has diminished, so has the number of people joining the program. There were 30 people receiving the service a month ago, and that number fell to 12 last week and now is only six.

To ask people if they want to participate, Presbyterian reaches out to people over 40 years of age who test positive, and those who have a high risk of complications tend to accept, Guinn said.

For those who do, Presbyterian sends them a smartphone application, a thermometer and a pulse oximeter to measure oxygen levels, and then it tracks them twice a day.

“They’ll get an outreach from us if anything comes back abnormal from their oxygen level, from their pulse, from the questionnaire that they get twice a day asking them how they are,” Guinn said.

The program is available to Presbyterian Health Plan members statewide who meet certain criteria.

About 80 percent of the people in the program end up needing treatment at home such as oxygen support, medications or help with symptoms like fever or vomiting.

Guinn said that is a much higher percentage than the provider expected when the program began in June.

“What we found is that most people who are monitored will need our medical support and a vast majority of those need home oxygen,” she said.

Most of the people receiving oxygen at home would have had to go to an emergency room to get that treatment under normal circumstances, she said.

New Mexico Human Services Secretary David Scrasesaid last week that statewide COVID-19 trends have remained encouraging.

The seven-day rolling average of new cases was 120 as of Aug. 31, less than the state’s target of below 168. The state had 237 intensive care beds filled Tuesday, much lower than the 439-bed ceiling the state is targeting.


Jens Gould covers politics for the Santa Fe New Mexican. He was a correspondent for Bloomberg News in Mexico City, a regular contributor for TIME in California, and produced the video series Bravery Tapes.

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