New Mexico’s already-strained hospital system could need more than 700 beds for COVID-19 patients by next week, a startling increase from the nearly 400 beds now used by people being treated for the disease, state health officials said Wednesday.
For more than a week, hospitals statewide have been on the verge of rationing care because they’re so full, a move known as implementing crisis standards of care.
As of Wednesday, 381 patients were hospitalized for COVID-19 across the state. On Tuesday, only 30 intensive care beds were available in New Mexico.
“Keep in mind we already have all the actual beds full. These are stretch beds where we’ve converted areas” into patient rooms, Dr. David Scrase, the state’s human services secretary and acting secretary of the Department of Health, said Wednesday during an online news briefing.
“Our transfer center continues to run, continues to move people around the state to try to get people into whatever hospital bed is open,” he added.
During a surge last winter, more than 900 COVID-19 patients were hospitalized across the state. The most recent surge has been exacerbated by a nursing shortage many attribute to burnout from a pandemic that has pushed the medical community to the brink.
The spike in hospitalizations comes as the state struggles to curb the highly infectious delta variant. Modeling from Los Alamos National Laboratory projects 700 to 1,500 new cases of the coronavirus and three to eight additional deaths a day in early September.
“Even though we might be seeing the beginning of a leveling off of cases — it’s not so much cases are coming down but that rate of increase is declining — we are still going to have a couple of really rough weeks,” Scrase said.
New Mexico also is beginning to see an increase in deaths related to COVID-19, which usually occurs around six weeks after case counts begin to rise, Scrase said.
On Wednesday, the state reported 11 additional fatalities. A few weeks ago, it averaged two or three a day.
Health officials on Wednesday reported 875 new infections, including 19 in Santa Fe County. “Our case counts are still way, way too high,” Scrase said.
Still, the virus seems to be spreading at a less rapid pace than a week ago.
“We hope we are seeing the semblance or the beginning of a possible plateau, though it’s too early to say that for sure,” said Dr. Christine Ross, the state epidemiologist, who also attended Wednesday’s briefing.
Nearly 68 percent of eligible New Mexicans are fully vaccinated, though there are several pockets, mostly in the southeastern part of the state, where the vaccination rate is below 50 percent.
“The majority of infections that we’re seeing is among unvaccinated individuals, and this is what’s driving this current surge of cases,” Ross said.
Earlier in the pandemic, health officials indicated New Mexico could achieve herd immunity once 60 percent of the eligible population was inoculated. Now they seem less sure.
“It’s a really complex topic,” Ross said. “We’re not really sure there is a magical number that we can reach where life is going to return to normal.”
As of Wednesday, 47.4 percent of New Mexico children ages 12 to 17 were fully vaccinated. Although that rate continues to increase, more parents need to get their kids vaccinated, especially as they return to class, said Dr. Laura Parajón, deputy secretary of the Department of Health.
“What we think we might be seeing here is some parents may be willing to be vaccinated themselves, but they have concerns about their children getting vaccinated,” she said.
She reminded parents the Pfizer vaccine has been approved for children 12 and up.
“Kids who get COVID, they can get really, really sick,” Parajón said.