August 11, 2021

Hospital leaders urge vaccinations among surge during ‘pandemic of the unvaccinated’

Leaders from New Mexico’s largest healthcare systems had a message for New Mexicans: Get vaccinated.

During a press conference Tuesday, they discussed the current surge in cases, which they all described as largely among those who remain unvaccinated.

“Evidence shows that COVID-19 is now really a pandemic of the unvaccinated,” Presbyterian Healthcare Services Medical Director Dr. Denise Gonzales said. “In New Mexico, 93 percent of hospitalizations for COVID-19 are in the unvaccinated. In Presbyterian hospitals statewide, we’re experiencing a doubling of cases every week.”

A majority of New Mexico adults, 65.5 percent, were fully vaccinated as of Tuesday, and over 53 percent of the total population is fully vaccinated. No vaccine is currently approved for use in children under the age of 12.

Hospital beds, both in the Intensive Care Unit and general beds, are in rare supply in central New Mexico.

Cases and hospitalizations have been growing nationwide, and New Mexico has been part of that trend. As of Tuesday, the state Department of Health reported 250 individuals hospitalized for COVID-19 in New Mexico. A month earlier, on July 9, there were just 77 individuals hospitalized for COVID-19 in the state.

Lovelace Chief Medical Officer Dr. Vesta Sandoval said vaccinations would help avoid another surge in patients in the hospitals.

“We have many, many very sick high-acuity patients already in the hospitals, we need to avoid another surge,” she said.

The demographics of those who are being hospitalized for COVID-19 have also changed. Gonzales said that early in the pandemic, those hospitalized “tended to be people with underlying medical conditions” which are often older people. But now they are seeing more “younger people, not necessarily with medical problems” who are not vaccinated hospitalized for COVID-19.

Among those 65 or older, 75.3 percent of New Mexico’s population are fully vaccinated, compared to just 42.1 percent of 18-24 year olds.

Pediatric cases are also on the rise, but the number remains small, UNM Hospital Chief Quality & Safety Officer Dr. Rohini McKee said. 

She said that at the same time, there has been an increase in pediatric cases of RSV, a respiratory illness that the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says can be serious for infants and older adults.

“We know from last winter that masking and appropriate social distancing causes those cases to plummet,” she said.

Currently, the Delta variant has become the dominant strain in the United States, including New Mexico. It is much more contagious than other variants, though it is not clear if it has caused worse health outcomes.

McKee also noted the importance of vaccinations to stop different mutations to create new possibly “even more dangerous” variants in the future.

So-called “breakthrough” infections, or when someone who is vaccinated tests positive for COVID-19, remain a rarity for hospitalizations. 

UNM Hospital has received “just a handful of patients who have been vaccinated” and said they are not in the ICU, according to McKee.

The bottom line is that New Mexicans should be vaccinated for COVID-19, McKee said.

“We would strongly encourage you to go do that so that we don’t cycle through this again. Every patient with COVID-19 that is in the hospital is taking up the spot of another patient with a cancer or stroke or some other illness that needs care,” she said.