UNM Hospital Urges Caution About ER

COVID, RSV and the flu are stacking up for winter peril

New Mexico’s hospitals remain under stress due to high incidents of respiratory illness, including what state Health Sec. Dr. David Scrase called “a chilling number of children” on ventilators during a news conference Thursday.

Scrase appeared with Dr. Anna Duran, associate chief medical director at University of New Mexico Children’s Hospital, who appealed to residents to be judicious about arriving at its emergency rooms and to expect long waits.

“At any given moment in the UNM Health System, there may be 90 to 100 adults and 10 to 20 children waiting in our emergency rooms for a bed,” Duran said.

The hospital typically has about two to four intubated patients in its 20-bed intensive care unit, she said, but of its current 22 patients in the ICU, 20 are on breathing tubes. While RSV is responsible for the most cases, the hospital is also seeing an increase in influenza and COVID-19 among children and, Duran said, “children who have multiple viral strains at the same time—so very sick.”

UNM issued a resource guide to help parents determine how to respond to illness in children. It recommends the emergency room if children are wheezing, highly dehydrated or have had a fever for more than five days (or any fever at all in an infant less than six weeks old). Urgent care, according to hospital officials, is appropriate if kids have a cold for a week or more; are vomiting or have diarrhea or suspicion of a sinus infection.

“We want you to come to the emergency room if you need emergency care, but please be aware that your wait times may be very long dependent on what is wrong with you. If you don’t need emergency care, please consider going to an urgent care or your primary care provider,” Duran said. “Other ways that you can help are preventative measures. We are all part of this equation. Making sure that you vaccinate against the flu and get COVID boosters I think is probably one of the most important things we can do. Wear a face mask. This allows us to protect our seniors, our children.”

On what he noted was the 1,003rd day of COVID in the state, Scrase said hospitalizations are up for adults, too. He said the confluence of several viruses surging at once is not common.

“The situation in the hospitals is grim,” Scrase said. “I don’t really think COVID has declared itself as a seasonal virus yet—of course you have had cases all summer and have had them since the beginning of the pandemic—but clearly from a hospital perspective and a hospital-crisis perspective, COVID really has been a winter virus that causes the most problems in our late fall and early winter months. We can see that here again.”

Responding later to a question about the other viruses hitting at once, he said, “I think it is unusual. We are seeing RSV two months early and we are seeing influenza start early with a rapid surge, and that is on top of the COVID cases we are seeing this winter...Something different seems to be happening.”

New Mexico is one of 12 states that the CDC Influenza Surveillance Report ranks as “very high” for “influenza-like” activity increasing across the nation.

A new public health order issued Dec. 1 calls on hospitals to reactivate the “hub and spoke” model for transferring patients to appropriate levels of care and to apply for federal waivers to help with capacity. It also recommends New Mexicans wear masks in public indoor settings.

The state has moved into “crises levels of care” during two time periods since COVID arrived on the scene, both during the late fall and winter months.

“This week we’re a little lower, but last week we were very, very close to crisis standards of care levels and I think many people think that it’s just a matter of time, particularly if influenza and RSV both stay at higher levels, that will be back there again,” Scrase said. “We’re watching it closely.”

At Christus St. Vincent Regional Medical Center in Santa Fe, spokesman Arturo Delgado tells SFR the hospital is not at capacity but noted, “We are busy.” Christus is treating eight adult patients with COVID-19 as well as five pediatric RSV patients and six other children with other respiratory issues. “We currently have capacity, which fluctuates throughout the day as patients are discharged,” Delgado said.

Scrase urged workers returning to their offices to exercise caution and to monitor the CDC community transmission levels and masking guidance. Health care workers in all settings, he noted, continue to wear masks.

“Not going to work sick is one of the most important interventions everyone in the workplace can make to minimize transmission,” he said.

As home testing continues to outnumber PCR tests, Curative notified the state that effective Dec. 28, it will conclude its COVID-19 testing services nationwide. That means the state will only provide free, at-home testing going forward. PCR tests are available at pharmacies, urgent care and other providers, Scrase noted, adding that home test are supposed to feel uncomfortable and people should take care to follow instructions carefully.

The health department ordered 1 million free at-home tests from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Dec. 1, to be distributed statewide via existing distribution plans from earlier this year. Additionally, New Mexico residents can still receive free mail order at-home tests through the Rockefeller Foundation’s Project Act program at:

Acting state Epidemiologist Dr. Laura Parajon also reported on recent cases of mpox, a disease that officials formerly called monkeypox. “These revisions are really in line with recent changes from the World Health Organization and the CDC,” she said, noting just two cases have been reported in New Mexico in the last six weeks.

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