A health-care worker prepares to administer a COVID-19 test to a driver at the testing site at the Sandoval County Emergency Operations Center, 1500 Idalia Road, Building C, in Bernalillo. The site is open 9-11 a.m. Tuesday-Thursday. To be tested there, people must pre-register at cvtestingreg.nmhealth.org. They should be prepared to present their test confirmation ID at the site. Workers said they average 250 tests per day when they’re open. Gary Herron photo

Stay at home, the most-recent mantra from New Mexico’s governor and health officials, was reiterated Nov. 23 in a Zoom media conference, along with a previously unmentioned way of treating COVID-19 patients: proning.

“Find your humanity for the next few weeks,” urged Presbyterian Chief Patient Safety Officer and Medical Director of Infection Control Dr. Jeff Salvon-Harman, “thinking of yourself as well as those around you.”

“A lot of New Mexico spread is coming from family gatherings,” noted UNM Hospital Chief Quality and Safety Officer Dr. Rohini McKee, with the trio of physicians urging everyone to get flu shots, socially distance themselves and, “if you are feeling ill, seek medical care.”

The use of proning — keeping COVID-19 patients lying on their stomachs or their sides — helps improve the flow of oxygen throughout the body, and has proven to be very helpful in “re-distributing the oxygen and various fluids within the lungs … (and is) a better way to oxygenate,” said Lovelace Chief Medical Officer Dr. Vesta Sandoval, resulting in “improvement to the patient.”

“Puttying people on ventilators early was not helpful,” added McKee. The New York Times pointed to large gatherings as a primary cause for the recent surge: “… politicians and public-health officials have warned against gatherings among family and friends, calling them a major driver of new coronavirus infections. And they are right that you should minimize your risk this week. … (and data) suggests that the biggest drivers of infections are not small gatherings, but rather the usual culprits: long-term care facilities, food processing plants, prisons, restaurants and bars.”

The numbers

New Mexico is among nine states reporting more than twice as many new cases a day as it did two weeks ago, the Times said, with officials warning that it will only get worse if people disregard warnings about travel and gatherings during the holidays.

Salvon-Harman was somewhat optimistic, noting the state’s rolling five-day average had dipped slightly, attributing that fact to the governor’s latest public-health order. Data showed that five-day rolling average decreased from 2,877 on Nov. 22 to 2,750 on Nov. 23 and then 2,083 on Nov. 26.

In Sandoval County, after only one day with more than 90 positive tests daily through the first 16 days of November, the county experienced 117 or more such cases daily Nov. 17-26.

Nov. 20 marked the day with the most fatalities for the county (five), after no more than two from Nov. 1-19, and then three more Nov. 22 and 24. The county had zero COVID-19 fatalities eight times Nov. 2-19. Through Nov. 26, there have been 4,535 cases reported in Sandoval County for the entire pandemic.

There were nearly 300 beds occupied in the state’s intensive-care units last week.

“It is true we are running out of beds,” cautioned McKee. “It is entirely possible in the next few weeks that we run out of ICU beds,” which will be “exceptionally challenging for our state.”

Plus, added Salvon-Harman, “We absolutely are challenged right now with the staffing.”

Presbyterian facilities — there are nine in the state, with three in the metro area, including Rust Medical Center in Rio Rancho — he said, have seen some employee-employee spread. It has encouraged employees to take breaks apart from each other to stop “unintentional exposures.”

TriCore Reference Laboratories, charged with testing, has been “stretched to the limit,” Salvon-Harman added.

The trio were satisfied that the development of telemedicine can help control the number of actual hospital visits, along with infusion centers apart from hospitals.

Hope on the horizon

Although historically vaccines typically require years of research and testing before reaching the clinic, according to the New York Times, scientists are racing to produce a safe and effective coronavirus vaccine by next year. Researchers are testing 54 vaccines in clinical trials on humans, and at least 87 preclinical vaccines are under active investigation in animals.

The Times also noted that six vaccines have been approved for early or limited use, but none has been approved for full use.

“When vaccines become available, we can flatten the curve, bring the infection rate down,” Salvon-Harman said.

The Times reported Tuesday that in the first distribution push, 6.4 million doses of Pfizer’s vaccine will be shipped across the U.S. around mid-December.

There is no cure yet for COVID-19.