Officials predict dire consequences if state doesn’t practice social distancing

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Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham on Tuesday announced a fifth COVID-19 death in New Mexico, a Bernalillo County man in his 40s. 

That was just the beginning of the grim news.

State officials, using what they called a more accurate model than one quoted widely in recent days from the University of Washington, said anywhere from 2,500 to 12,500 New Mexicans could die over the life of the pandemic. That is, if they don’t do a better job of social distancing.

Lujan Grisham said repeatedly during Tuesday’s hour-and-a-half long press conference that New Mexicans had to improve their commitment to not going out in public and to mingle in groups of fewer than five individuals. Social distancing is the best weapon New Mexico has to fight COVID-19, the governor said, looking into the cameras broadcasting her warnings from the Roundhouse in Santa Fe.

As of Tuesday, New Mexico had 315 confirmed cases out of more than 13,000 tested, according to the state Department of Health.  But many more cases — and deaths — are coming.

“This social contract has to be taken seriously by New Mexicans,” Lujan Grisham said. She knew some New Mexicans weren’t abiding by those rules, she said, speaking of seeing videos of large groups in big-box retailers. “This is not safe for your families, it is unfair to your neighbors,” she said. 

Indeed, there are signs that some are not heeding state officials’ warnings. In Las Cruces, medical staff and city council members encouraged Mayor Ken Miyagishima to proclaim an emergency during a city council meeting Monday as some Las Crucans continue to mingle in large groups despite warnings.

And in Albuquerque, people posted photographs on social media of large groups congregating in parking lots and downtown over the weekend.

“We’ve been light on enforcement,” the governor said, “…but if that’s a vehicle for increasing our social distancing, and minimizing social interaction, it’s something that could be under consideration.”

New Mexico In Depth came up with a range of possible deaths through its own analysis of numbers provided during Tuesday’s presentation. State officials confirmed them Tuesday evening following the news conference.

The range of possible deaths diverge significantly from the more than 500 New Mexicans who might die from COVID-19 as predicted by the University of Washington model.  

“A lot of people called me over the weekend and said, is it really going to be this bad, and I said this is the best possible case scenario,” Dr. David Scrase, the state’s human services cabinet secretary, said of the Washington state model.  “We do not anticipate that we’ll have that low of an infection rate, that low of a number of deaths.”

New Mexico could be looking at anywhere from 250,000 to 1.25 million people who are infected, Scrase said. 

For every 1% of the New Mexico population that is infected–21,000 people–210 people will die, according to Scrase. By those numbers, the state is projecting between 2,520 and 12,500 deaths if social distancing isn’t observed and improved. 

In addition to the range of possible deaths, Scrase predicted New Mexico would be short of hospital beds and ventilators, the machines that help people breathe during extreme respiratory distress, during the peak of the pandemic’s spread in New Mexico. 

Scrase detailed the projected shortage::

• The state has 2,500 general hospital beds, but would need 3498;
• It has 365 ICU beds, but would need 2,175.
• It has 471 ventilators, but would need 630. 

Scrase said they would continue updating their model in coming weeks as the state receives more data, meaning the range of deaths and infections could rise or fall depending on many factors. 

He predicted  waves of peak moments from region to region in the state, and emphasized repeatedly that the need for social distancing is real to guard against peak demand overwhelming the hospital systems.  The state will also increase capacity for testing for New Mexicans in coming weeks, and on Tuesday expanded the criteria for who could get tested, said Kathy Kunkel, secretary of the New Mexico Department of Health.

“We’re preparing for the worst case scenario,” said Tripp Stelnicki, the governor’s communications director. 

Part of that planning includes building “surge capacity” in some of the city’s more populated areas — Las Cruces, Gallup and Farmington to name a few — in case those areas are hit with many infections that require hospitalization. 

The state also commandeered the old Lovelace medical facility in Albuquerque, giving the state an additional 100 to 200 beds, and the  governor announced the state will be getting an army field hospital from the federal government. The state hasn’t yet decided where that hospital will go. 

“We’re gonna locate that field hospital which will have ICU beds in areas where we think we’re going to have the kind of surges where leveraging that kind of capacity will make the most sense,” Lujan Grisham said. 

Scrase added that 90% of the state’s ICU beds are already located in Albuquerque, and that will factor into where the field hospital goes. 

Lujan Grisham said she did not know the size of the field hospital or how many beds it would add. 

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