Local health experts speak on COVID-19 hospitalization rates, updates

Coronavirus New Mexico

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ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (KRQE) – Experts from the University of New Mexico Health, Presbyterian, and Lovelace Health System discussed COVID-19 hospitalization rates, trends, updates, as well as the latest evidence on Monday. UNM Hospital Chief Medical Officer Dr. Irene Agostini, Presbyterian Chief Patient Safety Officer and Medical Director of Infection Control Dr. Jeff Salvon-Harman, Lovelace Chief Medical Officer Dr. Vesta Sandoval, and UNM Sandoval Regional Medical Center Interim Chief Medical Officer Dr. Gurdeep Singh were present during the discussion.

The hospitals in the state said they are full and are on the brink of having to ration care among patients, ultimately having to decide which severely sick COVID-19 patient should get the most thorough care and which shouldn’t. On Friday, Governor Michelle Lujan signed an executive order making it easier for hospitals to implement “Crisis Standards of Care” which includes rationing care if deemed neccessary by her medical advisory team. But, hospitals are urging New Mexicans, especially with the holidays coming up, to stay home and help them avoid getting to that point.

“Your gift to healthcare workers is to wear your mask and stay home. Because those, those decisions are awful. And no healthcare worker, no matter how experienced, how much guidance they have should be in that position. And no patient should be in that position,” Dr. Irene Agostini, Chief Medial Officer at UNM health, said.

“While it’s heartbreaking to not spend holiday with loved one, it’s better to speak on the phone or it’s better to speak to them via facetime or online video chat platform than to attend their funeral. That’s what this really comes down to,” Dr. Jeff Salvon-Harman, Presbyterian Chief Patient Safety Officer and Medical Director of Infection Control, said.

During the discussion, health experts talked about how if hospitalizations rise and hit a breaking point, healthcare workers who have tested positive for COVID-19 but are asymptomatic may still continue to care for COVID-19 patients. Though, all three health systems said that is not happening now.

“This state’s allowances for a tier two or tier three infected healthcare worker to provide care is something we’re trying to avoid at all costs,” Dr. Salvon-Harman said.

Right now the healthcare system is streched so thin, hosptials said healthcare workers who have had high-risk exposure to the virus are still returning to work. The hospitals are preparing for the possibility for the Pfizer vaccine to get emergency-use approval from the FDA this week.

“That is an amazing time in our history of science to bring a vaccine to market that rapidly and it’s also appearing to be a very effective vaccine,” Dr. Salvon-Harman said. “We’re all hoping we receive very good news from the FDA about safety and effectiveness of the vaccine. And want to encourage a wide acceptance of covid-safe vaccines as they come to market as a means of getting ourselves to herd immunity faster than natural infection and safer than natural infection. “

One of the biggest challenges of the vaccine is its need to be stored at ultra cold temepratures. Though, all three hospitals said through purchasing storage and partnerships with research facilities and the state, they are well-positioned to properly store the vaccine if and when it is available.

“We’re very fortunate in that the state has been very active and taking the lead on this. We’re able to arrange through the Lovelace Research Institute a large of ultra cold storage facilities. They’ll be receiving vaccine and then distributing from there,” Dr. Vesta Sandoval, Lovelace Chief Medical Officer, said.

If approved by the FDA, New Mexico could get more than 17,000 doses of the Pfizer vaccine by next week. Frontline workers would be the first to get the vaccination. Health experts said while the vaccine won’t increase the healthcare workforce, it will help maintain it and keep workers safe, in addition to their PPE.

“It will help them so they feel a little more sure about not bringing this home to their family,” Dr. Agostini said. Despite hospitals and the workforce being stretched thin, health experts are encouraging people to still go to the hopsital for emergencies and urgent care.

“We want to encourage patients not to put off emergencies. We need to continue to try and treat these conditions urgently. People, if they wait when they’re having a heart attack, can of course have very severe consequences to that. So, we want to encourage patients to continue coming to emergency rooms and continuing to get care. It’s very important,” Dr. Sandoval said.

In an update on Nov. 30, health experts said they expected hospitalizations to increase over the next few weeks as infections from Thanksgiving gatherings came in. Doctors also discussed the challenges that would come with vaccine distribution such as the temperatures the vaccines need to be kept at and how to distribute multiple vaccines if available.

This is a developing story, KRQE News 13 will provide updates as they are made available.

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