October 21, 2020

Hospital capacity a looming problem amid COVID-19 surge, and restaurants have to get COVID-safe certified

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham during a socially distanced press conference on COVID-19 on Oct. 8, 2020.

“The state of New Mexico last week experienced its worst week for COVID-19 infections throughout the duration of the pandemic,” Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham said during a press conference on Tuesday with other state officials.

She also acknowledged troubling patterns when it came to hospitalizations.

Because of this, she announced further restrictions on businesses, including restaurants, beginning on Friday. But she did not put a stop to indoor dining—as long as restaurants complete the state’s COVID-safe certification program.

Restaurants that complete the online program will be able to continue serving 25 percent of maximum capacity of indoor patrons, along with outdoor service.

She also announced a program where if a business has four rapid responses, which occur when a worker tests positive for COVID-19, within two weeks, that business will be required to shut down fourteen days.

Any business with two or more rapid responses will be placed on a public “watchlist” by the state Environment Department.

“We have to find a way to safely do indoor dining,” Lujan Grisham said.

Retail businesses will also have to close by 10 p.m. each night, the same closure time as restaurants and breweries must abide by now.

A major focus was on the problems with hospital capacity.

As of Oct. 20, 81 percent of adult general beds were occupied and 71 percent of ICU beds were occupied. Not all, or even a majority, are occupied by COVID-19 patients, though the increase in cases threatens to overwhelm the healthcare system.

And there are currently 205 individuals hospitalized for COVID-19 in New Mexico, the most since late-May. The peak number of those hospitalized for COVID-19 was 223 on May 15.

This is because the state has less healthcare capacity than other states, Lujan Grisham said, as well as high incidents of preexisting conditions among New Mexico residents. 

“We have the room,” Dr. David Scrase, the secretary of the Human Services Department, said. “We’re concerned about the next two weeks.”

He also noted that hospitals are typically 60 percent to 65 percent full when not in a pandemic.

Scrase said the nature of the increase has led to more concern about problems.

“It’s not only the increase, it’s how rapidly all of these increases are occurring,” he said.

Scrase said the high volume of hospitalizations at the University of New Mexico Hospital and Presbyterian Hospital in Albuquerque is particularly concerning because those are the hospitals that typically take transfers from throughout the state.

Hospitals, he said, are already self-regulating with things like limiting visitation and limiting elective procedures.

Lujan Grisham warned that if the state goes over capacity it could mean the state would have to use field hospitals, something the state avoided earlier this year. 

Lujan Grisham said the test positivity rate has increased to 6.5 percent—a 91 percent increase since the start of the month.

It’s one of the six pieces of gating criteria that New Mexico is currently not meeting, including the number of cases per day, which is over three times the state’s goal.

“We’re really headed to a more-than doubling of the average number of cases than any elevation we’ve had before,” Scrase said.

The spread itself has reached new peaks among all age groups, with the 18-34 age group by far the highest. But the higher-risk age groups of 35 to 64 and 65 and over also are reporting more cases than they did during the mid-summer surge that was the peak for the state until the current rise in cases which Lujan Grisham referred to as “exponential.”

Republican Party of New Mexico Chairman Steve Pearce criticized the move, as he has other actions related to COVID-19 by the governor.

“Locking down New Mexico more is not the answer. It’s not going to fix the problem the governor has created,” said Republican Party of New Mexico Chairman Steve Pearce. “Florida reopened, and Floridians persevered. We must get our state moving again.”

Lujan Grisham encouraged New Mexicans to limit their travel outside the house, saying they should limit the locations they go to each day to three—or if possible to not leave the house for several days.

“We’re in the fourth quarter,” Lujan Grisham said. “The virus doesn’t have to win. We can win. We can manage it.”