Opinion: Reopen? How strong is your hospital?
May 17, 2020
Looking at the positive COVID-19 numbers around the state, I have to sympathize with people in Lincoln, Sierra or San Miguel counties, which at this writing have two, one, and six cases, respectively. Lea and Eddy counties, with just 14 cases each, don’t sound awful.
Why couldn’t those counties reopen?
Before I answer that question, let me say nobody is overjoyed to keep you at home, especially the governor, who can only see her grandchildren through a car window. Nobody wants to keep the economy paralyzed. I have two brothers out of work and friends and relatives working half-time. My step-mom just recovered from COVID-19. Nobody is unscathed.
What I’ve learned in reporting on the virus and trying to understand its behavior is that nothing is quite what it seems. And the links between people and communities render us all dominoes standing in rows.
First we didn’t have enough testing, so we didn’t know the extent of the virus. Now the state Health Department is testing aggressively, but we don’t know the results for days, so whatever number you’re looking at is old. The only certainty is that the numbers will increase.
We’ve learned that some people testing positive don’t have symptoms. You can be Typhoid Mary, leaving a wake of contamination in your daily interactions and not even know it. Apparently, 44% of transmission occurs this way.
The virus moves with people. When the mayor of Grants attempted to open his town, he risked attracting traffic and customers from neighboring McKinley County, where the case numbers have exploded. At the time, Cibola County had 39 cases. Last week it had 86 cases.
As Texas, Arizona and Colorado reopen, and New Mexicans travel to shop or eat out, the case numbers will rise.
So I hang on every word of the governor’s numbers guy, Dr. David Scrase, who is secretary of the Human Services Department. Scrase, bless him, is human and credible and works hard to make the data understandable.
During a recent briefing, Scrase explained that reopening New Mexico depends on four measures: The rate of spread, testing capacity, contact tracing (finding every person Typhoid Mary encountered), and statewide healthcare system capacity.
The rate of spread started at 2.5, meaning that one person who tests positive infected 2.5 people. Last week, in northwestern New Mexico, the rate of spread was 1.31, the Albuquerque metro area was 1.24, the southeast was 1.16, the northeast was 1.15, and the southwest was 1.23.
The target is 1.15. Think about that number. Anything over 1.0 means the contagion still spreads. So the governor accepts a tradeoff — a certain level of disease — as we attempt to reopen. If she specified zero, it would be cause to complain because the economy would expire long before the virus.
The fourth measure, New Mexico’s healthcare system, was never as robust as those in surrounding states, and now it’s being sorely tested. When somebody says “healthcare system,” what they really mean is ICU beds, and when they say ICU beds, they mean ICU beds in Albuquerque and other hubs.
Consider what’s happened in the last couple of weeks.
Who could have foreseen that cases would skyrocket on the Navajo Reservation? That caseload has overwhelmed local hospitals and swamped Albuquerque’s ICUs. We don’t have the capacity for cases to spiral caseloads anywhere else.
So, when she was asked early this month about renewing the original stay-home order, the governor didn’t hesitate to say, “I cannot overwhelm the healthcare system.” Credit the governor and her people with focus.
This is the bottom line, not political clamor about “rights.” I wish we could say, if you want to expose yourself, go right ahead. But you drag others into your risky decision.
Sherry Robinson is editor for New Mexico News Services. Contact her at: