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.