Coronavirus COVID-19 under the microscope. 3d illustration

An Oklahoma woman said her father suffered a cardiac event in Taos last month but died when he couldn't find an ICU bed available locally, in New Mexico or in 4 neighboring states, a stark reminder that hospitals are still being stretched to their limits by patients developing severe cases of COVID-19.

Elizabeth Kolliopoulos said her father, Ken Early, suffered a heart attack in a Taos supermarket. Although Early received quick emergency attention, when he was transported to Holy Cross Medical Center, she said they were told there were no ICU beds available. They then quickly began inquiring with other nearby cities in New Mexico, and even in nearby states. 

“They looked in New Mexico. There was not a single hospital bed, ICU, they could take my father to in Kansas. Nothing in Arizona. Nothing in Texas. Nothing,” Kolliopoulos told the Taos News in an email. “Then his condition started to [worsen]. He started getting a fever … The doctor just came in to the room with that look on her face where you just know you know that it's bad news.”

On Sept. 29, the New Mexico Department of Health reported that hospitals across the state are operating on the cusp of Crisis Standards of Care, and that, as of Sept. 26, only 10 intensive care unit beds remained available for new patients.

“We continue to struggle with our ICU capacity in our state,” said David Scrase, acting cabinet secretary for the NMDOH.

The agency reports there were 19 out-of-state admissions in New Mexico hospitals as of Sept. 27, including five from Arizona, four from Texas, and the rest from Alabama, California, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Michigan and Nevada.

“In all likelihood, most of those out-of-state admissions are people who are vacationing here, are here on business, got sick, and ended up being in the hospital,” said Scrase. “Of those 19 patients, only one of them was actually transferred here from an out-of-state emergency room.”

In early September, 86 hospital patients were transferred from New Mexico to another state – 68 were transferred to Texas and 18 were transferred to other states including Arizona and Colorado.

“We rely heavily on the larger hospital capacity of the states that surround us – New Mexico having the lowest hospital capacity of all of those states,” he said. 

The NMDOH reports there have been more than 253,000 COVID-19 cases in New Mexico, and more than 4,800 deaths since the pandemic began in March 2020. In the United States, there have been more than 43 million cases, and more than 699,000 deaths.

"The staff at Holy Cross Hospital has been going above and beyond for over a year and a half," reads an Oct. 5 email from Holy Cross. "Every employee at our hospital has shown up to provide the best care possible during an extraordinarily challenging time. Holy Cross is staffed with great employees and the service and care that our team provides is professional, compassionate, and prioritizes the patient."

Holy Cross maintains six beds in its "Advanced Care Unit," which is a combined ICU/stepdown unit, the hospital told the Taos News. 

Operating the unit at full capacity, however, isn't possible, the hospital said, due to an ongoing shortage of nurses.

"Holy Cross is currently able to care for 4 ICU level patients at a given time due to a limited number of ICU nurses," the Holy Cross email continued. "Holy Cross, along with many hospitals in the nation, has been attempting to recruit more nurses. We are in the middle of a pandemic that is stressing a nurse force that was already facing a shortage prior to 2020.  Holy Cross seeks to transfer patients that need ICU care if one of two things happen: either our beds are full or the patient needs a specialized service that Holy Cross doesn't offer. While Holy Cross Hospital is able to care for many patients with cardiac conditions, some cardiac patients need specialized services or procedures which require transfer to a different facility."

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