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New Mexico hospitals struggle amid push to vaccinate youths

Rehoboth McKinley Christian Hospital is shown on May 8, 2020, in Gallup, N.M. New Mexico’s health officials said Wednesday that the state’s health care system continues to be heavily burdened by sustained rates of hospitalizations from COVID-19 cases. (Morgan Lee/Associated Press file)

SANTA FE – Hospitals in northwestern New Mexico were grappling Wednesday with a surge in coronavirus cases that has left only a handful of intensive care beds available and led to a rationing of care.

State health officials said New Mexico’s health care system overall remains heavily burdened with high rates of COVID-19 hospitalizations. Hospitals across the state had just eight intensive care beds available Wednesday, making it more difficult to attend to health emergencies such as heart attacks, said David Scrase, the state’s top health official.

But the situation is particularly concerning in the state's far northwest, where hospital administrators recently invoked crisis standards of care to focus resources on critical patients. Federal and state authorities have dispatched medical and support personnel to shore up services at San Juan Regional Medical Center in Farmington.

Coronavirus patients accounted for 90 out of 169 patients at the hospital Wednesday afternoon, with 15 patients sustained by breathing machines.

Wednesday evening, hospital staff members and local government officials held an online town hall meeting, imploring unvaccinated residents to reconsider.

“Our crisis right now is a crisis of the unvaccinated,” said emergency medical physician Brad Greenberg, noting that vaccinated patients in the area are 10 times less likely to die if infected.

San Juan County Sheriff Shane Ferrari lamented that personal decisions about the vaccine have become politicized. The county is a conservative stronghold where registered Republicans outnumber Democrats.

“As of right now, it’s still a personal choice,” he said of vaccination. “You need to have that conversation with your doctor, decide if that’s the right avenue for you. If you choose not to do that, care for your neighbor. ... Wear your mask, wash your hands, don’t get out.”

State epidemiologist Christine Ross visited the hospital in Farmington last week and said she encountered dedicated health workers that have worked to exhaustion.

“They are amazing and they are really, really tired,” Ross said during an online news conference.

Hospital facilities are adequate but staff members have been struggling to keep up with the demands of coronavirus patients, she said.

“The surge staffing that the state was able to send out there, along with the federal team, it’s making a real difference," Ross said.

State health officials say the resurgence of the virus corresponds with waning immunity from early rounds of vaccinations, as residents approach or pass the time they need booster shots.

“New Mexico vaccinated faster than most states, so we’re seeing breakthrough cases earlier than others,” Scrase said.

Just more than 60% of residents in New Mexico are fully vaccinated, including children. About 4% of eligible children ages 5 to 11 statewide made vaccine appointments during the first week of eligibility. Scrase said that response is similar to participation when a vaccine was first made available to children ages 12 to 16.

Local elected leaders, including Farmington Mayor Nate Duckett and San Juan County Commissioner John Beckstead, said there are no plans to extend vaccine mandates to more public employees in their region. New Mexico requires health care employees, teachers and other “high risk” workers to be immunized with few exceptions.

Sheriff Ferrari and Farmington’s police chief said their agencies don’t ticket people for violations of the statewide indoor mask mandate but encourage compliance by example.

Complicating matters in the hard-hit northwest is an an ongoing labor dispute at a county hospital.

In Gallup, a city on the edge of the Navajo Nation, a union representing medical staff at a county-owned hospital has filed a complaint alleging unfair labor practices and retaliation against unionization efforts by doctors and nurses with the National Labor Relations Board, the agency confirmed on Wednesday.

Rehoboth McKinley Christian Hospital was overwhelmed with coronavirus patients in the early stages of the pandemic in 2020, when Gallup was briefly closed to outside visitors and encircled by police barricades.

This year, medical staff voted to unionize as they expressed concern about the hospital’s financial standing and whether it can sustain a high standard of care for patients amid recent layoffs. The hospital’s labor and birthing unit reopened in late October after a weekslong shutdown.

Hospital administrators had no immediate response to the complaint filed by the Union of American Physicians and Dentists, and have not filed an answer with federal regulators.