Hospital CEO stresses the importance of social distancing during coronavirus pandemic

Jeff Bourgeois says multiple factors are contributing to San Juan County's high rate of COVID-19 infections

Hannah Grover
Farmington Daily Times

AZTEC — San Juan Regional Medical Center CEO Jeff Bourgeois says it is extremely important for residents to maintain social distancing, wash their hands frequently and wear masks when they go into public to reduce the spread of COVID-19.

Bourgeois said the medical community is continuing to learn more about the disease that has brought much of America to a standstill.

He said they now know people are most contagious prior to developing any symptoms of the coronavirus.

Jeff Bourgeois

"They feel fine," Bourgeois said. "They don't know they're carrying the virus."

That means asymptomatic people who are not wearing masks in public are most likely to transmit the virus to others.

"We are aware of circumstances in our community where friends having lunch over a lunch table without a mask have infected each other," Bourgeois said.

Meanwhile, Bourgeois said epidemiological models show San Juan County leads the state in transmission rates.

"In our community right now, I don't think any of us should assume that we are not at risk for spreading the virus regardless of how we feel," he said.

The county has the highest number of coronavirus-related fatalities in the state, and the region has the highest percentage of positive test results.

Bourgeois said the northwest region of the state has 15% of its test results come back positive. In contrast, the next highest region — the central part of the state, including Bernalillo County — has a 4% positive rate.

The northwest region — which includes San Juan, McKinley and Cibola counties — also has the highest hospitalization rates per 100,000 people.

Members of the New Mexico National Guard load COVID-19 test samples into an airplane on Wednesday, May 6, 2020, at Four Corners Regional Airport in Farmington. The test samples were flown out to Albuquerque and delivered to a laboratory being run by the New Mexico Department of Health.

He said there are likely multiple factors contributing to the high rate. San Juan County has a higher number of essential businesses than many other parts of the state and tends to have more people living in the same house. He said household density can influence the spread of the disease.

The rate of the virus' spread can be slowed by social distancing, washing hands and wearing masks.

Bourgeois said the San Juan Regional Medical Center has shipped intensive care patients to Albuquerque to ensure there is enough bed space available here. He said the patients flown to Albuquerque include COVID-19 patients. A central command center coordinates with hospitals across the state to move patients from areas where the ICU is nearing capacity to other hospitals that may have more bed space available.

The fourth floor at Bourgeois' facility has been reserved for patients who have tested positive for COVID-19. The number of patients with coronavirus at San Juan Regional Medical Center fluctuates. At 7 a.m. on May 6, there were 30 coronavirus patients at the medical center, and four of those were on ventilators.

Bourgeois said he feels bad for businesses that have had to close their doors due to the state orders barring nonessential business operations.

A United States Air Force Auxiliary Civil Air Patrol airplane departs from Four Corners Regional Airport in Farmington on Wednesday, May 6, 2020, to transport COVID-19 test samples to Albuquerque.

"This is devastating to them. ... I can't begin to put myself in the place of a small business owner and the pain they must be feeling," he said. "I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but I will tell you until we get our (case) growth rate under control, I don't expect to see any softening of these public health orders for San Juan County. So we have got to as a community pull together and say 'We are going to really take these public health, social distancing orders seriously.' Stay home unless you absolutely need to get out."

He anticipates the number of cases identified in the county will increase because of increased testing efforts in the community. This week, test sites were set up in Shiprock and other Navajo Nation communities.

As the hospital works to fight the coronavirus pandemic, health care workers face a mental and emotional burden. Bourgeois said the hospital is providing access to mental health professionals to help the health care workers.

"We have a number of resources that we have already made available for our teams via our internal Internet site," he said. "And we are continuing to expand that with access to mental health providers that we have on our team."

He said the hospital is also asking managers and team leaders to check in with their staff members on a regular basis to see how they are doing.

Bourgeois said one of the lessons the medical center has learned from this pandemic is that it is important to prepare early on. In that regard, San Juan Regional Medical Center has been ahead of the curve. It started preparing for the virus well before the state reported its first positive COVID-19 test result. This effort began at the prompting of physicians in the hospital.

He said he has heard that it is important to be over prepared and underwhelmed.

"We're not overwhelmed, but we're not underwhelmed," he said. "We are caring for very sick COVID patients on a daily basis now, and we're not sure when that's going to end. So the organizational structure we stood up to support this effort has proved to be beneficial."

Hannah Grover covers government for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4652 or via email at

Support local journalism with a digital subscription: