The U.S. Department of Defense is deploying a military medical team to the San Juan Regional Medical Center in Farmington to help care for COVID-19 patients as New Mexico continues to grapple with a high number of hospitalizations and a shortage of health care workers.

The 20-person team from the U.S. Navy is scheduled to begin Dec. 5.

“As COVID-19 hospitalization rates continue to shift across the country, decreasing in certain areas while increasing in others, we unfortunately find new communities and healthcare facilities overburdened and in need of federal, military assistance,” Lt. Gen. John R. Evans Jr., commander of U.S. Army North, said Monday in a statement.

The team heading to New Mexico is one of three scheduled to be deployed in coming days. Two other 20-person teams, both from the U.S. Army, will be dispatched to Michigan.

“The Department of Defense was again called upon by [the Federal Emergency Management Agency] to support New Mexico and the state of Michigan as they, along with the military and the entire nation, continue to fight this pandemic,” Evans said in his statement.

A spokeswoman for the Farmington hospital did not return a message seeking comment.

Nora Meyers Sackett, press secretary for Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, wrote in an email that staffing challenges in health care settings in states across the country are largely due to burnout caused by the ongoing pandemic.

“New Mexico is grateful for the federal staffing support in the northwest region, which continues to see a greater incidence of COVID-19,” she wrote. “The state’s health leadership has been seeking additional federal assistance in order to support our continued efforts to do whatever we can to help ensure hospitals and health care facilities are able to provide the highest quality care to New Mexicans.”

Dr. Nicole Wieman, a spokeswoman for U.S. Army North, said the agency has routinely pulled military medical teams together to help civilian hospitals in need for more than a year and a half as part of the government’s larger response to the coronavirus pandemic. U.S. Army North is part of U.S. Northern Command, which defends America’s homeland.

Since the joint military operation began, more than 400 military medical personnel have worked or are still working in civilian hospitals to help treat COVID-19 patients in nine states, including New Mexico.

“A lot of these missions start off for about 30 days, but we’ve seen extensions throughout the COVID-19 response,” she said. “That’s basically a decision made by FEMA in conjunction with their state and local partners and whether the need remains.”

Military medical teams have been deployed to New Mexico twice before.

A U.S. Navy team of about 10 provided support to the Northern Navajo Medical Center in Shiprock from December 2020 to March. Wieman called it a specialized team the Navy put together to help hospitals in rural areas.

And from January to March, a U.S. Army team of about 15 was deployed to Gallup Indian Medical Center, she said.

“Since the beginning of the COVID-19 response, we’ve just seen the stresses that have been placed upon civilian hospitals, the health care workers in those hospitals and on the communities as well,” she said. “The hospitals, as we’ve seen since the beginning of the response, are just kind of at their capacity to be able to treat patients and so that’s when our teams step in to work alongside those civilian health care workers.”

Wieman said the teams are focused on coronavirus cases.

“They are there to decompress the burden of treating COVID patients,” she said.

Sackett wrote the military staffing support is a sign of effective federal leadership, “which was so sadly lacking” under the administration of former President Donald Trump.

“As the governor has continued to emphasize for months, and as she said to a statewide audience in the COVID-19 briefing before the [Thanksgiving] holiday, we have the tools to emerge from this; getting vaccinated, getting boosters, and masking up,” she wrote.

As of Monday, 572 people were hospitalized in New Mexico with COVID-19.

Health care leaders told a legislative committee last week more than 450 hospital beds statewide are unavailable because of staffing shortages.

Follow Daniel J. Chacón on Twitter @danieljchacon.

(12) comments

Angela Thorndyke

I am grateful for the military staff that are helping! We will take any help we can get in fighting this pandemic.

A Thorndyke RN

Emily Hartigan

I'm just so glad that the people up in the corner of the state who need help, are going to get help.

Mike Johnson

This sort of "relief" is certainly common in third world countries, and so is fitting for this last place state in America, we are America's third world state.

John Cook

I like it here. As we wean ourselves off of right-wing tax policy that has kept our state poor, I'll like it even better.

Robert Fields

Maybe Texas would be a better fit for you, Mike?

Mike Johnson

I lived in Texas most of my career, and loved it for the most part. The people are wonderful, the Texas spirit and political culture are far superior to NM. But, Texas has hot, humid weather, hurricanes, and too many people, and not enough mountains. And as a 3rd generation New Mexican, retired and not needing a job, to educate kids anymore, or a vibrant economy, and much in need of good weather, the mountains, scenery, and bucolic ambiance, and traditional long term family ties, I can put up with the dysfunctional and irrational politicians and sorry government here, at least for now......[beam]

Kirk Holmes

Agreed Mike. Having lived here now spanning 5 decades I’ve come to believe in that ol’ saying “you can’t fix stupid”. But I still very much enjoy living in my adopted state of NM (I’m a bit of a thrill seeker and like doomsday movies), and NM is one heck of a pertpetual horror movie regarding the state’s Left Leaning Politicians. Keeps the adrenaline going and keeps a person young.

Mike Johnson

[thumbup] Exactly, agreed! And it does have so many comedy aspects to the politicians and government, it entertains me some times when I am feeling low, how can anyone be that stupid, it can be uplifting.

Patricia McMahon

Nothing to see here. Staffing shortages. Definitely not due to vaccine mandates

Red Eagle

You took the words right out of my mouth!

Robert Fields

I’m betting you are just “owning the libs” and getting your digs in. Enjoy it while you can.

Staffing shortages are indeed likely due in part to the vaccine mandates, but also simply due to staff overworked and quitting from right wing vaccine, mask, and distancing hesitancy. Who would want to stay in that meat grinder if you don’t have to? Watching people slowly die because they believed the bizarro right wing hysteria about the covid vaccines?

Well good news for you! The Moderna CEO said yesterday that their scientists are saying their current vaccine isn’t all that great against omicron. Time to crank up the faux rage against vaccines again seeing how this is all going exactly as was predicted long ago - when covid is allowed to circulate it can accumulate mutations that disguise it from current treatments. Omicron appears to have originated in South Africa, so we can’t pin it on the vaccine hesitant here, but it could just as easily have been born here.

But this is why there are vaccine mandates. Part of the reasons were to minimize the chances of mutations like omicron from emerging here. Bigger reasons are to keep people from getting sick, overwhelming hospitals, and causing many more to die, but those don’t seem to matter to the fringe right either. These vaccines are lifesavers in multiple ways.

There’s still lots to know about omicron but if it is looking like it’s fairly effective evading vaccine antibodies. That would at least suggest current “miracle” antibody treatments might not be so effective against it and that antibody-based testing could also be compromised to some extent.

All the unvaccinated counting on monoclonal antibodies as a magic bullet to save them if they get covid might find that safety net a bit inadequate with omicron. Time will certainly tell. Apparently the herd and natural immunity folks are in similar boats to those counting on the antibody treatments and those also won’t be providing the protection many are counting on.

Meanwhile, fully vaccinated and boosted are believed to have the strongest protection which is also looking weak according to the Moderna CEO yesterday. It could be nobody wins with omicron. Our best hope now may be that even though it’s appearing more infectious and possibly able to evade antibody-based vaccines, treatments, and testing, maybe it’s less deadly. But bet it still overflows hospitals.

That means washing/getting those masks ready and getting back in the habit of distancing as those work against all variants. Welcome to December 2020. Groundhog day.

John Cook

The same kind of claim was made about tens of thousands leaving the New York City Police Department. It didn’t happen. And thousands more abandoning the military. It didn’t happen. And planes grounded by crews leaving the airlines. It didn’t happen. In the widely publicized case of a healthcare system in Houston, where headlines blared those 150 workers who quit, they failed to mention that over 99% of workers did not. Big talk about giving up a paycheck for right-wing ideology evaporates in the face of having to pay for those lies.

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