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.
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.
Doña Ana county’s positive COVID-19 cases have jumped into the double digits — now at 13 — the third largest total after Santa Fe and Bernalillo counties. Las Cruces, the largest metropolitan area in Doña Ana county and southern New Mexico, has yet to declare a public emergency, however. That may change soon.
The city council is scheduled to hold a special meeting tomorrow at 9:30 a.m. to amend the Las Cruces Municipal Code to include a new article giving the mayor additional powers during an emergency. Mayor Ken Miyagishima said without that action, he’s hindered from taking emergency action.
“According to our city attorney, it’s not as clear or as concise as it should be to allow me to [take emergency action],” Miyagishima said in an interview.
Albuquerque Mayor Tim Keller declared a local state of emergency on March 18, when New Mexico was reporting 28 cases statewide. But Keller needed the city council to approve new powers for the mayor.
If passed tomorrow, the ordinance will allow Miyagshima to move forward with emergency actions without getting votes from the city council.
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 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.
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.
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.
A group of more than two dozen New Mexico prison inmates, many with compromised immune systems, are considering legal claims against the state Corrections Department for its “gross negligence and deliberate indifference to the dangers of COVID-19,” according to documents obtained by SFR and New Mexico In Depth. As the rest of New Mexico remains under an order against gatherings of over 50 people and pleas from officials to practice social distancing, the state’s prison system has not tested any of the thousands of inmates locked up or the corrections officers guarding them. And there do not appear to be contingency plans in place should an outbreak occur. Parrish Collins, an Albuquerque-based attorney who specializes in civil rights, visited clients at the Central New Mexico Correctional Facility in Los Lunas on March 9, he wrote in a notice sent to Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham and corrections officials four days later. An officer told him the minimum-security lockup “was taking no precautions against coronavirus.”
“It was indicated that it was not a serious threat and there was nothing to worry about,” Collins wrote in the notice.