'Greatest surge ever' — Hospital ER doctor warns of increase in COVID-19 numbers

Health care, government officials say situation in San Juan County is alarming

Mike Easterling
Farmington Daily Times
  • As of Nov. 3, the hospital reported it was treating 88 COVID-19 patients.
  • That was a dramatic increase over the number of COVID patients the hospital was treating in the middle of May 2020, when that figure peaked in the middle 50s.
  • The hospital treated 289 COVID-19 patients between Oct. 1 and Nov. 1.

FARMINGTON — A day after the San Juan Regional Medical Center announced it was implementing crisis standards of care because of the COVID-19 pandemic, health care providers and government officials from throughout San Juan County continued to sound the alarm over the spread of the virus and implored residents who have not received the vaccine to do so.

The group of officials addressed the media in the form of a virtual press conference presented by the hospital on the afternoon of Nov. 4. Dr. Brad Greenberg, an emergency medicine physician at the hospital, described the increase in the number of patients with COVID-19 in the community as unprecedented.

"This is likely to be our greatest surge ever," he said.

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Greenberg was joined by hospital president and CEO Jeff Bourgeois, chief nursing officer Suzanne Smith, San Juan County Commissioner Terri Fortner, Farmington Mayor Nate Duckett, Aztec Mayor pro-tem Rosalyn Fry and Bloomfield City Manager George Duncan. Every official who spoke repeated a variation on the same theme — the situation in San Juan County is dire, and it could get worse if more residents don't get vaccinated, and resume wearing a mask and practicing social distancing.

Dr. Brad Greenberg

As of Nov. 3, the hospital reported it was treating 88 COVID-19 patients. That was a dramatic increase over the number of COVID patients the hospital was treating in the middle of May 2020, when that figure peaked in the middle 50s, according to The Daily Times archives.

Hospital officials presented a series of statistics to drive home their point about how grave the situation has become. Bourgeois said from Oct. 1 through Nov. 1, his facility treated a total of 289 COVID-19 patients. He said 81% of those patients had not been fully vaccinated, while 91% of the COVID-19 patients who were admitted to the hospital's ICU had not been vaccinated. Of the 17 COVID-19 patients who died during that period, he said, 16 of them — 94% — were not fully vaccinated.

Smith, the hospital's chief nursing officer, said the community needs to adopt the same mindset it had in the early days of the pandemic, even among those who have been vaccinated.

"It's critical that everybody return to their previous COVID safe practices," she said.

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Terri Fortner

Fortner, a longtime nurse practitioner, talked about the fear that has gripped the community as the surge has taken place and read messages she has received from a pair of her fellow nurses.

One of those nurses described the huge strain health care providers are under, explaining that the long hours they have worked since the pandemic began has left them emotionally and physically exhausted.  Another nurse wrote to Fortner that he believes the community is on the verge of a systemic failure because of the surge and noted that many health care workers are leaving their jobs.

Duckett, whose wife is a nurse at the hospital, said anyone who thinks they don't have to worry about becoming gravely ill if they catch the virus is mistaken.

"I've seen healthy people get sick and be hospitalized," he said.

Nate Duckett

He said some of those folks include people his age who have wound up with severe respiratory problems.

"That's not a situation I want to see anybody in," he said.

Fry described the series of COVID-19 alerts that went out throughout San Juan County on Nov. 3 as an eye opener for the community and pleaded with residents to get the vaccine, wear a mask in public and limit their group activity.

Duncan said the recent death of a City of Bloomfield employee from COVID-19 has devastated the community, but he believes it may have served as an impetus for those reluctant to get vaccinated to do so.

Greenberg said hospital officials were not caught flat footed by the move to crisis standards of care, noting that the situation has been difficult since the pandemic began.

"This is not a switch that gets flipped," he said. " … We've been living in this space for quite some time."

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Nevertheless, he expressed the hospital's appreciation for the arrival in recent days of additional caregivers from outside the community, including more than 30 people from the New Mexico Department of Health and a Florida-based national disaster medical assistance team from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

"This is a dynamic situation," Greenberg said, hinting that San Juan County could be in for a very difficult time in the weeks ahead. "We will continue to struggle to get out of crisis standards of care."

But he expressed confidence that local health care providers, and residents, are up to the task.

"We will get through this," he said.

Mike Easterling can be reached at 505-564-4610 or measterling@daily-times.com. Support local journalism with a digital subscription.