Health officials say the novel coronavirus isn’t dangerous to most people, but local hospitals, schools and government agencies have plans to handle the disease if it shows up locally.

No cases have been reported in New Mexico as of press time, according to the New Mexico Department of Health.

Coronavirus discovered in December 2019. Courtesy of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

COVID-19 was first identified in December in China, and is believed to have spread to humans from an animal at a market. According to NMDOH, people who have the disease report a fever, coughing or trouble breathing, and may experience a runny nose, headache, sore throat and generally sick feeling.

“COVID-19 is not this immensely dangerous infection,” said Dr. Jeff Salvon-Harman, Presbyterian Healthcare Services chief patient safety officer.

Globally, there have been less than 100,000 cases of the novel coronavirus, with just more than 3,000 deaths, he said. In comparison, he continued, 26 million people have gotten influenza this flu season, with about 16,000 deaths.

“So people really need to be protecting themselves against the flu and knowing those same measures protect them against COVID-19,” Salvon-Harman said.

The novel coronavirus has a death rate of about 3.4 percent, while the flu’s death rate is well under 1 percent, according to the World Health Organization.

People older than age 60 and people with pre-existing health problems are at the greatest risk of dying from the novel coronavirus. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, children seem to be less likely to get COVID-19 than adults are, and if they do get sick, children are less likely to have severe symptoms.

Dr. Dave Pitcher, University of New Mexico School of Clinical Medicine senior associate dean of clinical affairs, said health care in New Mexico is on top of the novel coronavirus situation.

“I think the most important thing is to be informed but not panicked,” he said.

School & government preparations

In the City of Rio Rancho, Fire Chief Paul Bearce said department members are keeping track of updates and following prevention advice from the CDC and NMDOH.

“We are making sure that our folks are using the proper procedures for disinfecting our equipment, disinfecting our apparatus, protecting themselves,” he said, adding that firefighters do those things to prevent any infectious disease.

Rio Rancho Fire Rescue Department has had a pandemic plan since the swine flu outbreak in 2009, Bearce said. It provides a guide on how to function in case a pandemic affects employees.

The city Emergency Management program works closely with state and federal health and disaster-management entities, Bearce said.

He added that RRFR conducts a yearly exercise to practice handling health crises of various types. The exercise allows them to have a plan, equipment and cooperation with other agencies in place.

“A lot of it is about communicating,” Bearce said.

Rio Rancho Public Schools spokeswoman Melissa Perez said the district also has a pandemic plan and is in the lowest level, “prevention,” since no COVID-19 cases have been confirmed in New Mexico. Leaders are communicating with the Department of Health and CDC, and are prepared to move to the next level, “protection,” if the DOH advises.

The protection level of the plan would involve communicating with the public and timing school closures.

“In addition, we continue to remind students and staff about the importance of washing their hands properly and staying home when sick,” Perez said.

The district also emailed information and prevention tips for the novel coronavirus to parents.

For Sandoval County, spokesman Stephen Montoya said the county was current with pandemic and epidemic protocols, as well as staying up-to-date with CDC information.

Hospital preparations

Leaders in hospital systems with facilities in the Rio Rancho area say their medical centers are prepared if the novel coronavirus appears here.

Salvon-Harman, Pitcher and Lovelace Health System Chief Medical Officer Vesta Sandoval said employees at Presbyterian Rust Medical Center, UNM Sandoval Regional Medical Center and Lovelace Westside Hospital have trained on and practiced system-wide contingency plans for care of patients with COVID-19.

“The core structure of the plan is identical for all these entities (in the UNM system) and then the details are adapted for all these environments and communities,” Pitcher said.

Sandoval said Lovelace staff members had been modifying plans as drills showed need and had developed three plans to handle differing amounts of patients.

“It’s likely to be a situation that changes rapidly as it moves along,” she said, adding that the Lovelace system is prepared to be adaptable.

At all three care centers, staff would screen patients for symptoms and travel history that might indicate the novel coronavirus. Patients who might have the virus will be given face masks and isolated until they can be tested in coordination with the state Department of Health.

If the patient tests positive for COVID-19, providers will keep them in isolation and plan treatment.

About 20 percent of patients who test positive for COVID-19 need hospitalization, but that number doesn’t take into account the people with no or mild symptoms who don’t seek treatment or testing, Salvon-Harman said.

“The majority of people who have mild cold-like symptoms, flu-like symptoms, can stay at home and treat themselves with over-the-counter remedies,” he said.

Lovelace Westside, Rust and SRMC have isolation rooms and capability to treat someone with severe symptoms of COVID-19, although people might have to be moved to downtown Albuquerque hospitals if patients outnumbered beds or there were particular complications.

Pitcher said UNM had been managing its inventory of personal protective equipment such as face masks and protective gowns for at least five weeks to make sure the university system had enough for its employees and to share with smaller hospitals if need be.

“We are more than reassured we have adequate supplies at all our facilities, including SRMC,” he said.

Sandoval said Lovelace Westside had not only a sufficient supply of masks, but more sophisticated air-filtering personal protective equipment also.

“We’re just doing our very best to make sure we can take care of the community, take care of the state,” she said.


COVID-19 Prevention

Prevention of the novel coronavirus is much like that for other respiratory viruses.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend:

• Washing your hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, especially after using the bathroom, before eating and after coughing or sneezing. If soap and water aren’t available, use a hand sanitizer that’s at least 60 percent alcohol.

• Avoid close contact with people who are sick.

• Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth.

• If you’re sick, stay home, except to get medical care.

• Disinfect frequently touched surfaces with regular household cleaners.

• Cover your coughs and sneezes.

The CDC doesn’t recommend that people in the general public wear face masks if they’re not sick. Dr. Meghan Brett, University of New Mexico Hospital epidemiologist, said in an online update buying face masks for people who aren’t sick takes away from the supply health-care workers would need if the virus arose locally.


Reliable information sources

For more information about COVID-19, visit:

• University of New Mexico Health Sciences Center:

• New Mexico Department of Health:

• U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention:

• World Health Organization: