UNM Sandoval Regional Medical Center

Presbyterian Rust Medical Center

Both Rio Rancho hospitals have activated crisis care standards amid surging COVID-19 numbers, but state health officials say the vaccines remain 98.5-97.5 percent effective.

Thursday, the University of New Mexico and Presbyterian Healthcare Services hospital systems announced they were activating crisis care standards for their Albuquerque metro area hospitals as of that day. The activation includes Presbyterian Rust Medical Center and UNM Sandoval Regional Medical Center, both in Rio Rancho.

“While both systems will not be deallocating or rationing care at this time, activating CSC will allow us to care for our patients as safely and effectively as possible in this environment of unrelenting patient volumes,” according to a UNM news release.

The declaration helps standardize decision-making for who gets medical resources when demand out-paces supply.

A state public health order last month allowed the option of crisis care standards.

UNM and Presbyterian hospitals are operating as high as 140 percent of their normal capacity.

“This has lasted a very long time,” said Dr. Michael Richards, the vice chancellor of clinical affairs for UNM’s health system. “And the scale of this has gotten to the point where we are now having to go to the next step of our overall statewide response. This really is an unsustainable level of activity.”

Dr. Jason Mitchell, Presbyterian’s chief medical officer, said the activation doesn’t mean physicians will have to decide which patient gets a ventilator, or something that dramatic.

“The decision may be, ‘We don’t have beds in our hospitals; who else can take this patient?’” he said. “And it may mean that a patient goes to a regional hospital that still has capacity; they may go to a different Albuquerque hospital … it also may mean that some patients have to go out of state.”

Presbyterian isn’t closing clinics, re-deploying staff or closing operating rooms, according to an email it sent to its providers. The system is trying to increase staff, creating more flexibility to transfer patients to other hospitals, trying to treat COVID patients with outpatient antibody infusions and postponing some surgical procedures.

Meanwhile, during a virtual press conference Wednesday, New Mexico Department of Health Acting Cabinet Secretary Dr. David Scrase said unvaccinated people account for 95 percent of COVID-related deaths, 77 percent of hospitalizations and 71.6 percent of new COVID cases.

Breakthrough cases are happening in 1.5-2.5 percent of vaccinated people. New Mexico’s population was vaccinated faster than most states, so it’s seeing breakthrough cases sooner, he said.

He attributed breakthrough cases to the Delta variant and waning immunity from vaccines.

“What this means for us is we all need to start getting in line for a booster,” Scrase said.

Boosters are recommended for people age 18 and older two months after getting the one-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine or six months after getting the second shot of Pfizer or Moderna vaccines.

Ross said 73 percent of New Mexicans 18 and older are fully vaccinated. Across all age groups, the state has a vaccination rate just over 60 percent.

Also, 5- to 11-year-olds are eligible for vaccination, with two doses that are one-third the size of adult doses.

“COVID in children is generally milder than in adults, but some kids can still get really sick and require hospitalization,” DOH Deputy Secretary Dr. Laura Parajón said.

The Delta variant has increased U.S. pediatric COVID hospitalizations by a factor of five, Parajón said. Ross said school-aged children make up 20-23 percent of COVID cases now, compared to 10 percent early in the pandemic.

While the Delta variant is causing COVID surges globally, State Epidemiologist Dr. Christine Ross said, countries with higher percentages of vaccinated residents are seeing few hospitalizations and deaths from the disease.

The NMDOH has reported well over 1,000 new cases most days for the last few weeks.

According to the state epidemiology report, 13.6 percent of New Mexicans have contracted COVID since March 2020, with 6.6 percent of those people being hospitalized and 1.7 percent dying.

At this point, Scrase said, New Mexico hospitals may not have an ICU bed for non-COVID emergencies like heart attacks. Tuesday, eight ICU beds were available statewide, he said.

He attributed the problem mainly to people not wearing masks inside.

“This is a really serious time,” he said.

He said 281 traveling medical workers were at or en route to New Mexico hospitals, with 100 percent of costs eligible for Federal Emergency Management Agency reimbursement.

Scrase said officials aren’t considering more public-health shutdowns.

“This is something we’re going to have to learn to live with,” he said of the coronavirus. “We’re probably going to have COVID with us for years.”

So, officials are trying to let people live relatively normal lives that allow for education of children and restoration of the economy, he said.

(Journal staff writer Ryan Boetel contributed to this article.)

This screenshot shows state Department of Health officials and one of two American Sign Language interpreters during the virtual press conference Wednesday.