I can already see what the arguments will be after the coronavirus crisis is over.
If New Mexico escapes a major outbreak and many deaths, due largely to the governor’s sweeping precautionary measures, some people will say the state overreacted. Some will even insist the whole thing was a political hoax.
If New Mexico suffers from a major outbreak with many deaths, because we didn’t have the resources to act quickly or decisively enough, some people will say our leadership was ineffective and incompetent.
As of the date that I’m writing this, the virus numbers in New Mexico have been mercifully low so far. Those numbers probably do not reflect what’s really going on, because there has not been nearly enough testing.
It takes several days for symptoms of the virus to develop. An infected person may be walking around the community, unaware and infecting other people. If a person gets the virus from another person who did not know that he or she had the virus, and none of these people are isolating, it can multiply like weeds before the cluster is detected. The theory is that happened in New Orleans during Mardi Gras, causing the growing crisis in Louisiana.
It would not take very big numbers for New Mexico to have caseloads beyond the capacity of the state’s fragile health care system. That’s the fear, and it’s a reason to act decisively.
We have known for years that we don’t have enough doctors. As of last year, New Mexico was reported to have 241 doctors per 100,000 people, ranking 31 out of all the states, but was ranked 48th in patient access to doctors. Out of New Mexico’s 33 counties, 32 are federally designated as Health Professional Shortage Areas.
So New Mexico cannot afford to put its healthcare providers at risk by allowing them to be exposed to becoming sick themselves through lack of personal protective equipment.
And we don’t know when we will have filled every intensive care bed in the state.
As of mid-March, two weeks ago, New Mexico in Depth reported that 54 of 344 state-licensed ICU beds were vacant (there are additional beds in Indian Health Service hospitals and the Veteran Affairs hospital in Albuquerque). It’s impossible to say how many we will need if the number of cases spikes, because we don’t know where an unexpected outbreak could occur or how severe it would be.
Some counties have no reported cases. They also have no testing sites and very long distances to the nearest health facility.
New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, whose daily press briefings have been nationally televised, observed that the American healthcare system is not designed to have excess capacity for emergencies. Our hospitals do not have extra intensive care units; they are too expensive. So even though the possibility of a pandemic is predictable, we are not prepared for it.
I have watched several of those briefings, which have been methodical, businesslike and comprehensive. Watching them has been a crash course in crisis management.
Cuomo has referred to his past experience as secretary of the federal Housing and Urban Development Department. Because of that experience, he said, he knows firsthand what resources are available. The knowledge is invaluable at a moment like this.
As I have watched New Mexico Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham handle the crisis here with firmness and clarity, I’ve seen Cuomo as a benchmark. I’m reminded that she has been the secretary of New Mexico’s Health Department — experience and knowledge that are exactly on point.
We have been watching Governor Cuomo warn that what’s happening in New York will happen elsewhere in the country, because that’s the nature of this virus. If New Mexico is spared an overwhelming outbreak, it won’t be because he was wrong. It will be because we acted decisively in time.
Contact Merilee Dannemann through www.triplespacedagain.com.