One of the most profound lessons the state’s medical teams learned during the coronavirus pandemic was how well they could work together to aid afflicted patients, especially when the outbreak pushed critical care units to a near crisis in late fall, hospital officials said Thursday.
Reflecting on the pandemic’s one-year anniversary during a news conference, leaders at New Mexico’s largest hospitals said the virus drastically changed hospitals’ approach to medical care — and opened up new ways of thinking that can be applied to future outbreaks and health care in general.
“We had done something that we probably have never done to this degree, and that is to lean on each other … in order to care for an entire state,” said Lillian Montoya, CEO of Christus St. Vincent Regional Medical Center.
“It meant being open to sharing information and data and ideas — and innovating,” Montoya added. “And we’re not going to lose that.”
Forced by necessity, hospitals learned to collaborate more than they ever had, and not just with each other. There had always been some cooperation, officials said, but the deadly pandemic raging through the state drove it to a new level.
That teamwork culminated late last year, when a third COVID-19 wave hit a peak and put a record number of people into critical care, said Dr. Jason Mitchell, Presbyterian Health Services’ chief medical officer.
Hospitals were meeting regularly about lending each other ventilators, transferring patients to available beds and doing everything else possible to get people treated, he said.
“If we didn’t have the team approach across all of our health care systems … we would’ve exceeded capacity in some of our areas,” he said.
The crisis in late 2020 put the state on the verge of declaring “crisis care” standards — a scenario that terrified state officials for weeks as hospitalizations increased and ICU capacities dwindled. At one point, more than 900 people were hospitalized. On Thursday, that number had fallen to 130.
Dr. Vesta Sandoval, Lovelace Health Systems’ chief medical officer, said the peak outbreak caused an “hour-by-hour” search for open beds and available staff amid the tide of patients.
“It was very, very close during that time,” Sandoval said.
She agreed collaboration between the hospitals became vital in ensuring a particular hospital wasn’t overrun.
The pandemic also spurred a cultural change within hospitals that made it acceptable for medical staff members, including new resident physicians, to acknowledge they were overwhelmed and needed help, said Kate Becker, CEO of University of New Mexico Hospitals.
“It’s a really big change,” Becker said. “It’s fortunate that culturally we were prepared to support people and not just expect them to suck it up and get on with it.”
A few officials talked about how the pandemic elevated employees’ stress, not just from the heavier workload and higher death toll, but from fear that they might catch the virus.
“This was a serious trauma for health care providers, and it went on day after day after day,” Mitchell said.
On the plus side, Mitchell said internal communications improved greatly. Town halls with sometimes hundreds of employees were held, and real-time communication with front-line workers increased out of necessity, he said.
“That ability to communicate and interact, and that awareness on the front line will serve us well in the future,” Mitchell said.
Montoya said it also taught those in the medical profession how resilient they can be.
“We’ve learned so much about ourselves and what we’re able to accomplish under great challenge and great stress,” she said.
Christus St. Vincent staffers learned more about communities they don’t normally serve, including the Navajo Nation, as COVID-19 patients from those areas wound up in emergency care, Montoya said.
Mitchell said the pandemic has led to greater research into the state’s more vulnerable communities and how to serve them better. That has helped hospitals and health officials to recognize hidden, underserved populations, which is critical in creating more equitable care, he said.
Mitchell credited early action from the Governor’s Office and other state agencies in the pandemic’s first months with keeping the situation from becoming even more dire.
“We would’ve lost a ton of life,” he said, “and devastated our state for years to come.”