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Health officials from University of New Mexico Health Sciences and Presbyterian Healthcare Services say their emergency departments reached a point where they’re prioritizing patients with more severe symptoms when it comes to COVID-19.

Dr. Steve McLaughlin, chairman of the UNM Department of Emergency Medicine, said during Monday’s media conference that those coming to the emergency department with a mild or moderate medical complaints are experiencing extended wait times because of higher volumes of sick patients. He also said that because the hospitals and emergency departments are so full, emergency care may be taking place in a hallway or waiting room.

Dr. Jason Mitchell, Presbyterian chief medical officer, said about 203 patients statewide have been admitted for COVID at Presbyterian, filling close to 30 percent of Presbyterian’s beds. Of that group, Mitchell said about 86 percent are unvaccinated.

“Similar to UNM, our hospitals are much fuller than they have ever been in the past,” Mitchell said.

Because of those higher volumes, McLaughlin said emergency rooms aren’t able to do COVID testing for people who are asymptomatic or are experiencing mild symptoms.

“If you’re very sick, we’re here for you and we want you to come in. If your illness is mild, we really encourage you to seek care through your primary care physician, a virtual visit or some other alternative and not come to the emergency department,” McLaughlin said.

Mitchell echoed McLaughlin’s advice on going to emergency departments if symptoms are severe, such as difficulty breathing. Mitchell also said people can visit Presbyterian’s Get Care Today option online at phsgetcare.org if their symptoms are milder.

McLaughlin said New Mexico’s seeing a rapid increase of the Omicron variant and things are projected to worsen over the next couple weeks.

“The situation in the emergency departments is pretty concerning at the moment,” McLaughlin said, adding there are a lot of patients who have to wait for a hospital bed.

Mitchell said crisis standards of care remain in effect for Presbyterian’s Albuquerque-area hospitals, which include Rust Medical Center and Kaseman Hospital. He also said patient volumes are above licensed capacity to a point where one may be treated in “non-traditional places” like a stretcher in the hallway or at a triage tent outdoors.

McLaughlin said UNM Health’s wait times in the afternoons and evenings tend to be several hours, especially on Mondays and Tuesdays. Mitchell said Presbyterian’s wait times aren’t much different from UNM Health’s.

Non-COVID admissions

When it comes to hospitalizations, Mitchell said COVID’s spreading “like wildfire” to the point of patients coming in for something else like appendicitis or to have a baby could be COVID-positive and not know it. He also said 100 percent of patients are screened for COVID upon arrival to ensure all appropriate precautions are taken.

McLaughlin said those scenarios of being admitted for something not related to COVID and then testing positive for the virus indicates it’s spreading dramatically in the community.

Reason for optimism?

Data compiled by Johns Hopkins University shows that while South Africa, where Omicron reportedly originated, saw a steep rise in cases between Thanksgiving weekend and around Dec. 15, it’s seeing an equally steep drop in cases since then.

McLaughlin said he hopes that scenario happens in New Mexico, but added the challenge in predicting that is community demographics differing across the United States.

“There’s some hopeful optimism that we may see case numbers drop quickly, but we’re just not sure. We’re going to have to follow that and see what happens,” McLaughlin said. “We are still in a situation in New Mexico right now where case numbers are going up dramatically.”

McLaughlin said the most recent preliminary data from New York indicates that intensive care unit admissions aren’t rising quite as high as cases, but it may still be another several weeks before it’s clear what the burden on ICUs will be.

Vaccination still highly encouraged amid Omicron

Given how “exceptionally contagious” the Omicron variant is, Mitchell recommended getting vaccinated, getting boosted and avoiding situations where one may be susceptible to contracting the virus.

As of Monday afternoon, 518 New Mexicans are hospitalized with COVID-19.

As of Monday afternoon, New Mexico Department of Health data reported that 76.2 percent of New Mexicans ages 18 and older have completed their two-shot vaccination series, with 89.4 percent of that age group receiving at least one vaccine dose. Of that age group, 37.5 percent received a booster dose.

The number of Sandoval County and Bernalillo County residents who completed their two-shot vaccination series are 81.8 percent and 79 percent, respectively.

About the author

Matt Hollinshead | Staff writer