U.S. Rep Deb Haaland, joined by officials from the state Department of Health and the UNM Hospital, fielded questions Tuesday evening from constituents about testing parameters, equipment shortages and whether the state has enough hospital beds.
The telephone town hall was held Tuesday evening, before Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham enacted further restrictions on businesses to enforce social distancing to prevent the spread of COVID-19, a disease caused by a type of coronavirus. U.S. Rep Ben Ray Lujan held a separate conference call on Tuesday about the coronavirus.
“We are working extremely hard to make sure we have everything we need,” Haaland said. “The $6 million that came to the state, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham is putting that to excellent use.”
Facilities around the country are facing shortages in medical supplies, such as personal protective equipment like gloves and masks, including New Mexico. On Wednesday, Lujan Grisham said the state received only 25 percent of the state’s allocation of personal protective equipment from federal storage.
Haaland pointed to work the state’s congressional delegation is doing to help New Mexico receive the supplies it needs from the federal government.
“Right now we’re at 25 percent, and we know that they need 100 percent. We’re working very hard to make sure Gov. Lujan Grisham has all the help she needs,” Haaland said. “We also signed onto a letter urging the administration to use the Defense Production Act to manufacture many of those needed instruments and equipment.”
The Defense Production Act is a law that allows the president to order domestic manufacturing industries to make products like personal protective gear during a time of crisis. President Donald Trump invoked the Defense Production Act on Wednesday after a presidential briefing, though Trump seemed to imply in a tweet that he wouldn’t begin manufacturing supplies until a later date.
Daniel Sosin, medical epidemiologist for the Emerging Infections Program at the state DOH, acknowledged the state’s shortage in personal protective equipment and other supplies.
“We are experiencing shortages, and hopefully some of the measures at the federal level will help increase supply,” Sosin said on the call. “For the time being, we have activated our emergency operations center. A part of that is to monitor shortages in personal protective equipment that are needed in practices around the state, and to intervene with distributors where necessary to try and assure that there is an appropriate distribution of these materials around the state.”
Sosin recommended healthcare workers visit the state DOH website or the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website for information on how to stretch supplies.
“It’s very important that all clinical facilities are reviewing their personal protective equipment policies, looking at the guidance at our website, or at the CDC website, about optimizing personal protective equipment,” Sosin said. “It will give you tips on how to make sure the supply you have can last as long as possible.”
Sosin added that healthcare workers can help supplies last by being more stringent about who receives care.
“It’s extremely important that we not overuse medical care as well,” Sosin said. “We know that certain groups are at higher risk for severe disease, we want to ensure that we have medical capacity in healthcare settings to care for those persons — older persons, and persons with chronic medical conditions that make them medically frail, heart disease, lung disease, immune-compromising diseases. So making sure that we are using medical care only when we need it. The demand side is important in surging up our capability in medical care as well.”
Dr. Nestor Sosa, Division Chief for Infectious Diseases at UNM Hospital, said the hospital is now taking actions to ensure it has enough capacity to care for more COVID-19 cases, if and when the need arises.
“We have activated the emergency operations center, and we have taken some concrete measures. We are making an effort to slowly increase our capacity to accept some of the patients with this coronavirus,” Sosa said. “We’re also preparing the intensive care unit and are evaluating how we can increase our capacity in the next few days by redirecting our staff and analyzing different scenarios to respond to a potential increase in the number of cases.”
The hospital has halted elective surgeries for the time being, for example, and is only conducting emergency surgeries, “so we have less patients in the hospital,” Sosa said.
Sosin said the state has no current plan to establish alternate care facilities, but did not rule it out for the future.
“We are monitoring, multiple times per week, bed counts to better understand what kind of bed capacity and what kind of healthcare capacity we have,” Sosin said. “Hospitals run nearly at capacity all the time, so the ability to surge for an emergency is always challenging. But we are monitoring this, and we are discussing with our facility partners the options that we have, and when we might need to turn those on.”
Sosa also acknowledged testing shortages and how that is impacting the testing parameters.
“We are rational in the use of this testing, because there’s not an unlimited amount of tests, and the personnel who run these tests are limited to some degree,” Sosa said.
The state is prioritizing individuals who are currently experiencing fever, dry cough and shortness of breath; those who have been exposed to the virus either through direct contact or travel; and those who are at-risk of severe complications of COVID-19, such as those who are elderly, or who have chronic disease.
Sosin also suggested that individuals considered high-risk for COVID-19 take proactive steps to distance themselves from any situation that may increase their risk of exposure to the virus.
“In addition to using quarantine in this response to known exposures, we are also making the recommendation that persons who are older, or have chronic medical conditions, also take extra steps to separate themselves from gatherings, from crowds, and having others go out and do shopping for them,” Sosin said. “Use that method of separation, while you’re healthy.”
“The public response to these unprecedented measures across the country has really been outstanding. We all have a role to play in preventing the spread of this disease,” Sosin added. “We’ve been relatively fortunate in New Mexico, we can see spread in other places and understand the approaches that are helping to control spread, before we experience it ourselves. But we definitely need to use our resources in a targeted and appropriate way as we scale up for the ability to do more testing over time.”