Top doctors: Local field hospital doesn’t meet needs for many virus hospitalizations

Coronavirus New Mexico

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (KRQE) – Albuquerque-area hospitals say they’ve never had more COVID-19 patients than right now. However, even with more patients expected, local medical experts aren’t expecting they’ll end up using the field hospital the state’s spent millions setting up for COVID patients due to the facility’s limitations.

In April, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers rushed to set up around 200 rooms in the old Lovelace hospital on Gibson Boulevard for an expected surge of COVID-19 patients. Earlier this week, doctors from the University of New Mexico Hospital and Presbyterian said that the facility isn’t ideal for the treatment of many COVID patients.

“The level of care that could be provided at those types of facilities doesn’t really meet the needs of what we’re seeing in terms of the hospitalizations for COVID,” said Dr. David Pitcher, UNM Health System’s Executive Physician. “Now, those are not off the table completely as I understand it, but they’re not a primary part of the solutions going forward.”

The state is leasing the Gibson Medical Center from private owners until at least the end of March at a cost of $8.64-million. Even though no one’s used that facility, Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham said in May she’d rather have it available just in case.

“I would rather have it, ask for it, make it available and be prepared,” the Governor said in a May news conference. “It’s hard to say what will happen in the summer or in the winter when they’re predicting that the virus comes back, quite frankly with a vengeance, and we have to wait and see, but I still feel really good about having access to those efforts and making those decisions.”

As of late October, metro-area hospitals are filling up fast. For example, Presbyterian said Monday they had four times as many patients as they did a month ago for all kinds of medical conditions, including COVID-19.

There are now more than 300 New Mexicans hospitalized with the virus statewide. About a quarter of those COVID patients at Presbyterian. Rather than counting on the field hospital for relief, a top doctor at Presbyterian said Monday they’re trying to stay in their own facilities.

“Using the old hospital facility, the amount of remediation it would take for it to become a true hospital that could take care of acutely ill patients makes it very limited,” said Dr. Jason Mitchell, Presbyterian’s Chief Medical Officer. “At this point, we’re really focused on balancing the load across our different hospitals, partnering together, making sure we have our staff prepared, and working with the community to decrease transmission.”

KRQE News 13 asked Governor Lujan Grisham’s office Wednesday if the state is looking at improving its field hospitals to further meet the needs of what the hospitals are seeing in terms of hospitalizations for COVID. KRQE News 13 also asked if the field hospitals are not suited for taking care of acutely ill COVID patients, is there any use for these facilities in the future?

A spokeswoman from the New Mexico Department of Health responded in-part, saying the facilities “can be used for COVID patients that don’t need acute care or for other patients who do not have COVID.”

As you mentioned, the field hospitals are available as overflow facilities. The facilities can be used for COVID patients that do not require acute care or for other patients who do not have COVID. When we report on hospital capacity, we are giving the full scope of the number of beds used in total.  These are not all COVID patients. There are still sick people who do not have COVID but require hospitalization for a number of other reasons. When COVID hit, the state responded by securing these overflow facilities so that we would be ready in the event they were needed. The only prediction we can safely make is this.  The more cases of COVID we have, the more hospitals fill up. The only way to stop that trend is for people to stay home as much as possible, wear their masks and stay away from gatherings of more than five people. Everyone knows this but it’s worth repeating because the problem lies with behaviors. In order to relieve our hospitals, we have to stay well.

Marisa Maez, NMDOH Communications Director

The state has another field hospital inside a high school gym in Gallup. In May, the state said the facility has been used by at least six medical patients.

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