ByBryant Furlow, Carli Brosseau and Isaac Arnsdorf |
Advanced Health Care facility in Albuquerque. Tara Armijo-Prewitt/New Mexico In Depth
This article was produced in partnership with ProPublica, a nonprofit newsroom that investigates abuses of power, and The News & Observer of Raleigh, North Carolina. The N&O and New Mexico In Depth are members of the ProPublica Local Reporting Network. Sign up to receive ProPublica stories as soon as they’re published. On Dec.
Hospital employees across New Mexico are testing positive for the virus that causes COVID-19. A survey of several hospitals this week by NMID found just under 20. But that’s likely an undercount as state officials and many hospitals are refusing to disclose how many healthcare workers have the coronavirus. A spokeswoman for Presbyterian Healthcare Services confirmed Thursday 13 employees have tested positive across its statewide network — up from just two reported cases last week. Other hospitals confirmed a handful of infected employees.
A Rio Rancho retirement and assisted living facility announced a lockdown Sunday after learning a resident had tested positive for COVID-19, New Mexico In Depth has confirmed. The resident is no longer on site, said a company spokesman, who declined to provide further information about the individual.
The resident appears to be the first publicly confirmed case in a New Mexico senior living facility, but it is difficult to say with certainty. State officials have offered few details about who has contracted COVID-19 in New Mexico.
Senior living facilities are particularly vulnerable during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which specifically names nursing homes as high risk facilities. Like nursing homes, senior living and retirement communities are home to groups of “older adults often with underlying chronic medical conditions,” a high risk category for COVID-19. After the test came back positive, the Rio Grande Gracious Retirement Living facility ordered residents to remain in their apartments, one tenant and a company spokesman confirmed Tuesday evening.
“We are locked down because we had one case in our community,” said resident Scott Houghteling, reached on his cell phone at his apartment.
Byby Bryant Furlow, New Mexico In Depth, and Maya Miller, ProPublica |
Hospital employees across the country have been blocked from wearing surgical masks in certain situations to protect against infection by the new coronavirus — including those they bring to work themselves. Workers at the Raymond G. Murphy VA Medical Center in Albuquerque, New Mexico, have been told not to wear face masks unless they have lingering respiratory symptoms after an illness, are under surveillance following COVID-19 exposure or are treating patients showing signs of COVID-19.
The restriction on wearing masks comes amid widespread shortages of personal protective equipment for health workers and confusion over shifting guidelines from federal officials. Such restrictions are in place at other hospitals, but there’s no indication yet that the practice is widespread. “There is little data that wearing surgical masks in general protect[s] the wearer from becoming infected with COVID-19, while giving the wearer a false sense of protection,” Andrew M. Welch, medical center director for the New Mexico VA Health Care System, noted in a Wednesday email obtained by New Mexico In Depth and ProPublica. On Friday morning, Welch sent staff another email responding to workers’ concerns about the mask ban.
This article was produced in partnership with ProPublica. New Mexico In Depth is a member of the ProPublica Local Reporting Network. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs reversed course to allow some administrative staff to work from home during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a Saturday memo obtained by New Mexico In Depth and ProPublica. “Managers and supervisors are encouraged to maximize telework during regular business hours, as appropriate,” wrote Richard A. Stone, the Veterans Health Administration’s executive in charge. The memo was sent to the VHA’s senior leadership on Saturday, one day after New Mexico In Depth and ProPublica reported that Stone had banned such telework authorizations, citing concerns that too many people working from home could overwhelm the VA computer network.
Frontline clinicians in Albuquerque — the hospital workers most likely to come into direct contact with contagious patients — face rationing of personal protective equipment, or PPE, and are not being tested for COVID-19 unless they start to show symptoms, hospital officials and state officials have confirmed.
So far, nine patients have been hospitalized in New Mexico, including one Arizona resident, the governor said Monday.
But hospitals are preparing for many more. Presbyterian hospitals in Albuquerque and elsewhere in the state are setting up outdoor triage and intake tents, for example. Some hospital workers are concerned they could infect patients and peers before they develop COVID symptoms, or take the disease home to loved ones.
“We expect to catch it, especially in the [Emergency Department],” one Albuquerque emergency room nurse told New Mexico In Depth, which is withholding that person’s name because of a fear of employer retribution. “Health care workers have rights to PPE and that right is being violated. We are being given equipment but [are] asked to reuse it in an unsafe manner.
New Mexico is experiencing community transmission of COVID-19.
Seventy of 83 cases the state had identified as of Monday involved travel-related transmission of the virus that causes COVID-19. That means the person acquired it while traveling, or came into contact with someone who travelled.
But 13 are community-acquired, which is more worrisome to public health experts. The cases signal the virus is loose in the community, possibly spreading undetected and at a rate that’s unknown. The virus doesn’t just spread from one person to another, but potentially from one person to many given how many other people an individual can come into contact with during their daily lives. That’s why officials have been calling repeatedly and loudly for social distancing.
The community-transmission cases have been identified in just two of 11 counties with positive cases — Bernalillo and Santa Fe, Jodi McGinnis Porter of the New Mexico Human Services Department told New Mexico In Depth in an email Monday.
This article was produced in partnership with ProPublica. New Mexico In Depth is a member of the ProPublica Local Reporting Network. The head of the U.S. Veterans Health Administration, the nation’s largest integrated health care system, has banned most administrative staff from working at home, despite calls from public health officials and the White House for more Americans to stay home during the COVID-19 pandemic. In a March 13 memo obtained by New Mexico In Depth and ProPublica, Richard A. Stone, the VHA’s executive in charge, called for a halt to authorizations for administrative employees to telework until further notice, citing concern about overwhelming computer servers that are needed by health care providers for telemedicine.
“Telework is not to be authorized for administrative staff at this time,” the document states. “Telework may be authorized for patient care providers if that is the only way by which they can continue to provide patient care.”
Stone’s memo is the latest indication of how federal agencies are straining to function in the face of the crisis brought on by the novel coronavirus.
The March 13 memo came one day after the White House Office of Management and Budget called for agencies to maximize how many federal employees are allowed to work from home during the COVID-19 pandemic.
An Albuquerque Veterans Affairs Medical Center employee tested positive for COVID-19 on March 12, a VA spokeswoman confirmed to New Mexico In Depth Wednesday morning — nearly a week after the hospital received that test result.
The state Department of Health confirmed Wednesday morning that the infected employee was a physician. That physician was a close household member of a person who had traveled recently, a spokesman wrote in an email. The VA on Wednesday morning declined to confirm the employee’s profession, citing privacy concerns.
“The facility is currently awaiting confirmatory results from the Centers for Disease Control,” VA spokeswoman Paula Aragon wrote in an email following repeated requests for information. “Due to privacy concerns, we cannot provide additional information.”
However, the NMDOH announced last week that tests “no longer need to be verified positive by the CDC.”
New Mexico In Depth obtained a March 17 e-mail authored by Medical Center Director Andrew M. Welch to VA staff noting that both the employee and those VA staff and patients “who had significant exposure” to the employee were sent home for 14 days of quarantine and home monitoring by the New Mexico Department of Health (NMDOH). No patients or staff who were similarly isolated at home because of contact with this employee have developed symptoms, Aragon reported Wednesday morning.
Two days after Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham declared a statewide emergency to marshal public health resources against a global pandemic, and as President Trump announced a national emergency Friday, it was unclear how prepared New Mexico hospitals would be for a surge of seriously-ill patients. A spike in caseloads would require sufficient intensive care unit (ICU) beds, negative-pressure isolation rooms, mechanical ventilators to help patients breathe, and personal protection equipment like masks, gowns and gloves. Officials at UNM and Presbyterian hospitals report having enough masks, gowns and gloves on hand. But unknown is how many ICU beds and ventilators might be needed for a surge of COVID-19 patients.
In Italy, both ICU beds and medical ventilators have been in short supply as COVID-19 patients overwhelmed hospitals.
Currently, the great majority of New Mexico’s ICU beds are occupied. Just 54 of 344 state-licensed ICU beds are vacant.