COVID Critical

A local perspective from Dr. Robert Underwood, Chief Medical Officer of San Juan Regional Medical Center and Dr. Brad Greenberg, Emergency Medicine Physician and Medical Director of Emergency Preparedness at San Juan Regional Medical Center, as the hospital battles a sustained surge of COVID-19 cases

COVID-19 cases are continuing to rise in the latest wave of the pandemic across the country, and hospitalizations are beating the record high patient admissions that we saw in 2020. With the discovery of a new concerning variant, Omicron, it is easy to feel tired of COVID. We all want to get back to our normal lives. Indeed, the caregivers at San Juan Regional Medical Center, a community owned and operated hospital in northwest New Mexico, can attest that we are tired of COVID, too. However, as we gather for the holidays, we recognize that this year many more people in our community won’t be seeing the loved ones they lost to the virus. Dozens more will be spending the holidays in a hospital fighting for their lives.

San Juan Regional Medical Center serves the Four Corners area of New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado, Utah, as well as much of the Navajo Nation and other tribal lands. Our community is about as different from New York or Los Angeles as you can get, but even here, the COVID-19 pandemic isn’t slowing down. This is largely due to those that have chosen to remain unvaccinated. That translates into a single diagnosis consuming the majority of our hospital’s finite resources, which should never be the case. With such a high burden of COVID-related hospital care (especially intensive care), our staff is challenged to provide appropriate trauma, cardiac, neurologic, and neurosurgical care. Our hospital is at roughly 200% capacity, so we remained concerned that people injured in car crashes, or other types of accident or even who suffer medical emergencies such as heart attacks or strokes, may not be able to get the lifesaving treatment they need.

A marker board inside the ICU at San Juan Regional Medical Center tracks current patient status and diagnosis.

In early November, we were the first hospital in New Mexico to implement crisis standards of care. This approach has helped us to manage our limited resources while continuing to provide critically needed care for our community, but crisis standards of care are a last resort and something as healthcare providers we hoped never to have to use. The declaration also opened the doors to much needed assistance. The federal government provided much needed assistance to our hospital through the Department of Health and Human Services’ National Disaster Medical System; we welcomed these medical professionals who came from hospitals in their own communities to work alongside our staff. After six weeks, the NDMS medical professionals are now being replaced by medical personnel from the Department of Defense who will work with our medical staff.

Think about that. Nearly two years into the pandemic, we are caring for a surge of COVID-19 patients that far exceeds the levels we saw last winter when we didn’t have the vaccine to prevent severe illness and keep people out of the hospital.

Our experience shows why it is critical for every American to do everything in their power to protect themselves and their loved ones from COVID-19. The best thing you can do is get one of the three safe, effective COVID vaccines. If you’ve already gotten the vaccine, get a booster. Get your vaccine-eligible children vaccinated. In addition to getting vaccinated, continue to follow proven COVID-safe practices. If you are in crowded, unventilated areas, continue to wear masks properly and socially distance. Make sure you continue to wash your hands regularly. Most of all, follow the science! Take COVID seriously; don’t fall for claims about unproven COVID-19 treatments or misinformation about vaccines which have spread like wildfire across social media.

??A patient is wheeled out of the ICU at San Juan Regional Medical Center.?

We need to get through this. We and our partners with the local, state and federal health departments continue to monitor spread and the developing science of the COVID-19, including the Omicron variant, but it doesn’t change the fact that a surge in COVID-19 cases is right here, right now in our community – very real to the patients suffering from it and the doctors, nurses, and countless other professionals working around-the-clock at our hospital to care for them.

Please do your part to help hospitals like mine. Whether you are a healthcare provider or a member of the public, please help us all by getting vaccinated today, getting boosted, putting on your mask, and continuing to social distance. By taking these actions right now you can protect yourself, your loved ones, and your community. Your choices matter. If we work together, we can all get back to normal and celebrate future holidays without hospitals overwhelmed by COVID and health care workers burnt out from caring for COVID patients.

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