Updated Jan. 16 at 4:30 p.m.
Citing a significant surge in new cases of the COVID-19 Omicron variant this winter, supply shortages and a lack of staffing, Holy Cross Medical Center's press team announced on Friday (Jan. 14) the hospital has activated "Crisis Standards of Care."
The classification has been used throughout the pandemic to describe a significant shift in a medical facility's operations when the volume of patients seeking care greatly outnumbers the amount of beds and other resources available to treat them. "There might not be enough beds or equipment to handle patient loads, or there may not be enough staff to handle an increase in patients. Hospitals throughout the state are stressed on both fronts."
While Crisis Standards of Care are in place, a hospital is able to determine which patients it provides care for locally and which it may recommend for treatment for other facilities. While this is the first time Holy Cross has activated Crisis Standards of Care during the pandemic, it is also a Critical Access Hospital, and so has routinely transferred patients requiring higher levels of care to other facilities with greater capacity throughout the public health crisis.
The announcement also came on the heels of a story published by USA Today on Jan. 13, describing the experience of a 65-year-old New Mexico man who was transferred from a hospital in Homan this week to Holy Cross, where he said he was given an EKG but was then told that no beds were available—either at the local hospital or anywhere else in the state.
In another instance in September, Ken Early was visiting Taos with his family when he had a heart attack at a local grocery store. His daughter, Elizabeth Kolliopoulos, told the Taos News that her father was rushed to Holy Cross, where he was told no beds were available. She said her father died while the hospital unsuccessfully sought an ICU bed for him at other hospitals, but none were available in New Mexico, Oklahoma, Texas, Arizona, Colorado or Kansas.
"Holy Cross Hospital has continually strived to go above and beyond in its efforts to handle the burden, but the current wave of the pandemic is stressing a system that was already under extreme pressure," reads a press release from the hospital's marketing department. "Many hospitals in New Mexico reached crisis standards of care late in 2021, but our local hospital has been able to avoid this designation until now. Supply shortages, high patient volumes, and staffing challenges have finally pressured Holy Cross Hospital to activate crisis standards of care."
Holy Cross Chief Executive Officer Bill Patten said in an email to the Taos News on Friday that the hospital's ICU unit was full as of midnight Thursday night (Jan. 13), with six patients. He said the facility was treating seven COVID-positive patients, "which is the lowest it has been in a couple of weeks, at least," he said. Patten explained that the hospital has only been flying patients out when their "medical condition warrants it or when we cannot get ground transportation in a timely manner," adding that ambulance crews have been affected by the new variant as well.
Taos County saw a 67 percent increase in new COVID-19 cases last week, and cases have only continue to rise every day since.
The county saw a total of 142 new cases from Jan. 8-10, 29 on Tuesday (Jan. 11), 42 on Wednesday (Jan. 12), 38 on Thursday and 56 on Friday. The New Mexico Department of Health also reported that 609 people were hospitalized with COVID-19 as of Thursday. That number dropped slightly to 586 patients on Friday.
On Jan. 7 the state health department also renewed public health orders related to the pandemic, including its requirement that people wear masks in public and vaccination requirements for some workers.
"The public health orders come as case numbers reach highs not seen since 2020 and as hospitals around the state continue to operate under crisis standards of care," reads an update on the department's website.