The doctors at a Santa Fe internal medicine clinic couldn’t find appropriate protective gear anywhere.
So they went to the paint store. Now, they see patients who’ve potentially contracted coronavirus while wearing disposable suits that are meant for construction work or waste cleanup.
“They’re adequate, but it’s ludicrous,” said Dr. Joshua Brown.
More pressing though, Internal Medicine Specialists also ran out of swabs and transport media to preserve specimens.
As a result, the office has been sending patients with symptoms to a lab or a drive-up coronavirus testing site run by a large hospital, but staff members say that’s not optimal.
“That’s such a bad system in so many ways,” Brown said. “A) They’re now waiting in line for up to four or five hours. B) I’ve done all the protective gear. I’ve done a nasal swab. I’ve done everything. For them to have to go expose another provider is insane. We should be limiting provider contact to keep our medical community safe.”
The lack of gear is not unique to New Mexico. Health care workers across the country have seen shortages of personal protective equipment such as masks, gowns and gloves. Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham has criticized the federal government for poorly administering the national stockpile and says the state has received only 25 percent of its allotment.
“This is a situation that many people are finding across the country,” said Kathryn Hanley, a biology professor at New Mexico State University who specializes in virus evolutionary ecology. “It’s an obvious failing.”
The Human Services Department said Thursday that as the state distributes materials, it is prioritizing counties with confirmed COVID-19 cases and focusing on sending the resources to hospitals as well as other health care facilities. The department is urging private clinics to only use their equipment for patients with the most acute cases.
“Testing needs to be prioritized right now for those with symptoms,” said Jodi McGinnis Porter, a spokeswoman for the department. “Anything else unduly strains our health care network as we work to boost capacity for testing.”
The Department of Health announced Thursday that seven more people tested positive for the coronavirus, bringing the state’s total to 35. There were two new cases in Santa Fe County, which brings the county’s total to seven, and one case reported in San Miguel County, the first in that jurisdiction. The cases also include four people in Bernalillo County, which now has 20 cases.
Health officials do not know how one of the new positive cases in Bernalillo County was contracted, suggesting there are now two cases in the state presumed to be caused by “community spread.”
Two people with the virus remained hospitalized in the state as of Thursday. There have been no virus-related deaths reported in New Mexico.
The internal medicine clinic in Santa Fe has set up an outdoor area to evaluate and treat patients exhibiting upper respiratory symptoms while they’re in their cars. They’ve been seeing about 20 to 30 of these patients per day, the clinic’s doctors said.
Doctors there said they did around 30 tests for COVID-19 before they ran out of the swabs and viral media, which preserve specimens so they can be taken to a lab.
William Bacon, a physician assistant at the clinic, has been doing everything he can to try to secure the lacking supplies.
He’s asked other facilities for help, such as Christus St. Vincent Regional Medical Center and TriCore Reference Laboratories, which Bacon said were “very gracious” and gave them some spare supplies. Still, it hasn’t been enough.
“They’re doing the best they can do,” Bacon said. “But on the ground, I feel at a loss to be able to take care of our patients.”
Bacon has made a flurry of calls, too. He said he called the office of U.S. Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., and asked one of his aides for help, as well as John Blair, the former New Mexico deputy secretary of state who is running for Congress in the 3rd District.
Those calls seemed to pay off late Thursday, when Bacon said state Health Secretary Kathy Kunkel called him directly to let him know the state would get his clinic more swabs.
“They’ve been very responsive,” Bacon said of the health department.
The Human Services Department said Thursday that demand for swabs and viral media is high, but clinics may order more through the Department of Health’s state lab.
“They are processing orders as fast as possible and distributing them judiciously,” McGinnis Porter said.
Doctors pointed out that the materials they’re lacking are quite basic and usually easy to procure. Brown said the responsibility for the shortage falls on the federal government.
“Imagine if the construction world ran out of nails,” Brown said. “It’s like, ‘Wait, you didn’t plan ahead for nails?’ ”
Hanley also noted that the swab and viral media are simple, inexpensive supplies.
“It’s a Q-tip, a little bit of chicken broth and a test tube,” she said. “It’s not that different.”
Dr. Walter Dehority, assistant professor in the University of New Mexico School of Medicine Department of Pediatrics, said it’s crucial for doctors to have these materials during a pandemic.
“The viral transport media is necessary to make sure the testing is done correctly,” said Dehority, who is in the school’s division of infectious diseases. “If we were missing those in a particular place, anywhere in the country, that would be a concern.”
Aside from lacking equipment, operations at the internal medicine clinic in Santa Fe have changed drastically in other ways.
Doctors have gotten rid of all art on the walls to limit extraneous surfaces in the office. They’ve taken out half of the chairs and only let a few patients in at a time. They’ve also put away the magazines and pens so patients won’t touch objects others have handled.
“The pens are on lockdown,” Brown said.
But still, it’s the lack of supplies that is the biggest challenge right now.
“We’re all working 12- to 15-hour days and dealing with everyone’s fear and our fear,” Brown said. “On top of it, not having the tools to do your job is really the hardest part.”