New Mexico’s COVID-19 cases increased to 191 today, 17 people are hospitalized, one person has died. And now, the governor wants the U.S. Department of Defense to set up a staffed 248-bed combat hospital in Albuquerque.
Lujan Grisham wrote it’s “urgently needed” in a letter to Defense Secretary Mark Esper because COVID-19 might overwhelm New Mexico’s medical facilities. That’s where New Mexico stands at the moment, and the combination of those stats, not to mention all the data and modeling that’s swirling around the internet, might make you anxious.
Many turn to data to help them understand the world. But the big problem with data about COVID-19 is the gaps. There are many.
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.
This article was published by ProPublica, an independent, nonprofit news organization that publishes investigative journalism. New Mexico In Depth is part of the ProPublica Local Reporting Network. Over the next three months, nearly a million women in the United States will give birth to nearly a million babies — a huge influx of mostly healthy, highly vulnerable patients into a hospital system that’s about to come under unprecedented strain. Pregnant women, not surprisingly, are anxious. Those in their third trimester, looking to deliver during an epidemic, are close to frantic.
This article was published by ProPublica, an independent, nonprofit news organization that publishes investigative journalism. New Mexico In Depth is part of the ProPublica Local Reporting Network. The coronavirus is threatening crowded Immigration and Customs Enforcement facilities with long histories of mishandling infectious diseases that can rapidly spread outside their walls, a ProPublica review of thousands of pages of death reports found. The ICE population presents a particular danger as communities grapple with the novel disease. The analysis found that ICE has repeatedly failed to follow rules meant to contain communicable diseases inside its detention centers, which can become breeding grounds for illness.
Commissioners for New Mexico’s fourth largest county on Thursday asked a judge to release non-violent jail inmates “during the State of Emergency caused by the COVID-19 virus,” New Mexico In Depth has learned. Sandoval County Attorney Robin Hammer on Thursday filed a three-page petition for writ of mandamus — a fast-tracking procedure used in exceptional circumstances — asking the District Court to blunt the “serious health risk” of the new coronavirus to those inside the jail by releasing people immediately. Hammer’s petition also asks the court to prohibit future bookings of anyone else charged with a misdemeanor or non-violent felony into the detention center until Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham lifts her State of Emergency declaration. The petition is set to be heard Tuesday by Chief District Judge George Eichwald. The move marks the first time a voice from outside New Mexico’s criminal defense community has called for releasing inmates amid the growing COVID-19 crisis.
Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez sat at a desk with Chlorox handwipes as he announced through an online broadcast that the Navajo Nation was closed to outside visitors now that two Navajo people have tested positive in the Kayenta, AZ area.
There won’t be barricaded roads, but tourist areas are closed and he asked everyone to respect the sovereignty of the Navajo Nation by not visiting during what he called an unprecedented situation. “The best thing to do is stay at home,” he said.
In making the case for travelers to not come to the Navajo Nation, he noted that the first cases that emerged in New Mexico were from people who had traveled outside the state, bringing the “bug” home. He explained “bug,” saying was the best translation of virus in the Navajo language.
Nez emphasized rapidly changing conditions, noting that recommendations from the federal government first limited gatherings to under 100, but have lowered now to groups of 10. He urged people to pay attention and to follow the advice of leaders.
“We’re not closing down churches or ceremonies, but these are recommendations, just like we’re doing now, keeping 6 feet between us, rotating in and out of this room,” he said about how he and his colleagues were operating the press conference.
The two people who tested positive are in stable condition at hospitals in Phoenix. They are from Chilchinbeto, AZ, which is in Navajo County.
Dr. Loretta Christensen, chief medical officer for the Navajo area Indian Health Service, said extensive contact tracing is happening in Chilchinbeto to identify anyone who might have been exposed to the virus through contact with the people who tested positive so they can get tested.
In total, she said there have been over 100 people tested in Navajo area IHS facilities and they have results from about 20% of those.
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.
Click on the map to see how many cases currently exist in New Mexico. Credit: Celia Raney
The hospital system in New Mexico is likely to be significantly overburdened by Covid-19 patients, very soon, if social distancing does not sufficiently slow down the spread of the highly infectious virus, according to an analysis by ProPublica of data released by the Harvard Global Health Institute.
ProPublica utilized the institute’s data to create maps by region showing the potential burden on hospitals under different scenarios based on the percentage of population that contracts the virus and the length of time over which those infections occur. Last week, New Mexico In Depth reported that just 54 of 344 state licensed intensive care unit beds were available as the outbreak in New Mexico was just beginning. The ProPublica hospital bed projections for Albuquerque and El Paso regions suggest 344 intensive care beds won’t be near enough, even if they were all empty and ready for Covid-19 patients. Here are charts showing hospital beds in short supply for all scenarios other than the most favorable, in which fewer people get sick over a longer period of time. In both the Albuquerque region, which includes Santa Fe, Farmington and Gallup, and the El Paso region, which includes Las Cruces, the HHI data shows that under most scenarios, more hospital beds in general will be needed to care for sick people as the virus begins to spread more widely.