ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (KRQE) – As total hospitalizations for COVID-19 cases in New Mexico continue to hover between 500 and 600 patients, the metro area’s two largest hospital systems say patients are seeing up to six-hour wait times to be admitted into their emergency departments. Leaders from Presbyterian Healthcare Services and the University of New Mexico Hospital offered updates Monday morning on the continued pressures facing their facilities.

“We are asking for the public’s help,” said Dr. Jason Mitchell, chief medical officer for Presbyterian Healthcare Services. “We have about 203 patients admitted across the state for COVID into [Presbyterian’s] hospitals, that’s about close to 30% of our hospital beds are patients with COVID.”

For patients at UNM, Department of Emergency Medicine Chair Dr. Steve McLaughlin said Monday “expect six hours” for a wait time in the emergency department on a busy evening or afternoon. “It does depend on exactly why you’re there and what the situation is, but the wait times are very long.”

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“If you need a COVID test, the emergency department is not a place to do it if you’re otherwise well,” Dr. Mitchell said. “There’s a lot of places in the community to get COVID tests.”

Urging vaccinations and booster shots, Mitchell says about 86% of the COVID-19 patients admitted to the Presbyterian Health system’s hospitals are unvaccinated. With continued high numbers of COVID patients, Mitchell says Presbyterian and UNMH are urging patients to go to “the right place for the right level of care.”

“If you are truly very sick and having difficulty breathing, having chest pains, please come to our emergency rooms,” Mitchell said. “But if you’re having mild symptoms, that there’s a lot of other places to consider.”

For Presbyterian, Mitchell urges patients to use the health care system’s “Get Care Today” online portal. “If you come to our emergency rooms and don’t have a severe illness, you’re going to wait a long time and we hate that, we don’t want anyone to wait a long time and be uncomfortable in our emergency rooms.”

Crisis Standards of Care remains in effect for all of Presbyterian’s Albuquerque hospitals and UNMH’s Albuquerque facilities. With that status, both facilities remain overcapacity, which Presbyterian operating at roughly 110% to 120% capacity and UNMH running upwards of 130% to 150% capacity.

Amid the spread of the highly contagious omicron variant, the hospitals say they’re continuing to screen every single patient coming into the facility for COVID-19. New Mexico set a record Friday with the Department of Health announcing more than 4,000 new COVID-19 cases in the state.

“It has spread like wildfire,” Mitchell said. “There’s going to be patients that come in with appendicitis, patients that come in for pregnancy delivery of a baby who could be positive for COVID and not even know it, we screen 100% of patients that come into our hospital to make sure if they’re COVID-positive, we use all of the appropriate precautions.”

“When you’re working a shift in the emergency department, it is one of the most clear indicators of how rapidly this current variant is spreading,” said Dr. Steve McLaughlin, UNMH’s Chair of the Department of Emergency Medicine. “Patients you are testing on admission because they have a broken leg, or they appendicitis, when those patients start show positive for COVID, which they are and they have been for the last couple of weeks, that is a real indicator that it’s spreading dramatically in the community.”

So far, both facilities say they have not had any further changes to staffing protocol due to COVID-positive cases among workers. Within the last few days, a major Phoenix-area hospital system began allowing COVID-positive staff who are improving, mildly symptomatic, or asymptomatic to continue working while wearing N95 masks due to staff shortages.

While South Africa has seen a sharp increase in omicron-related COVID cases followed by a sharp decline, New Mexico hospitals say they’re not sure if the same pattern will develop locally. UNMH’s Dr. McLaughlin says many remain optimistic about the possibility.

“The challenge is that the demographics and the COVID-experience in other communities is not the same as our community here in New Mexico or in the United States,” Dr. McLaughlin said. “It’s very hard to say, to predict that that is what’s going to happen.”

New Mexico’s daily new COVID case numbers show the state is still in an upward trend. Last week, New Mexico reported 1,654 new COVID-19 cases Tuesday; 2,514 cases Wednesday; 3,231 cases Thursday, and 4,246 cases Friday.