Hospital praises lockdown on city on edge of Navajo Nation

(Patrick Sandoval via AP) Yellow caution tape surrounds sections of merchandise at the Walmart in Gallup, N.M., on Friday, May 1, 2020, to advise shoppers that non-essential items aren't available for purchase.

Santa Fe, N.M. • Medical personnel on the front lines of a rural coronavirus hot spot on the outskirts of the Navajo Nation are praising an aggressive lockdown involving roadblocks and the National Guard as they grapple with infections that have spilled over to hospital staff.

About 30 employees at Rehoboth McKinley Christian Health Care Services have tested positive for the coronavirus — half of those from the medical staff — adding to the logistical and psychological challenges of caring for a surge of COVID-19 patients, said Val Wangler, chief medical officer at the 60-bed hospital.

Rehoboth McKinley and the 100-bed Gallup Indian Medical Center are contending together with one of the most virulent surges of coronavirus infections in rural America. A local high school gymnasium has been converted with help from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers into a recuperation facility with 60 oxygen-supplied beds.

Confirmed infections in Gallup and surrounding McKinley County have surpassed 1,230 and account for three out of 10 cases in the state as of Monday. There are at least 4,031 cases statewide.

[Read more: After testing push, San Juan County has the second highest coronavirus case rate in Utah]

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham has invoked the state's Riot Control Act powers, placing the city on lockdown through noon Thursday with guarded roadblocks to prevent nonessential travel, limit retail sales to food and essential provisions and prohibit driving with more than two people in a vehicle.

"It has a powerful effect on controlling the disease," said David Conejo, CEO at Rehoboth McKinley Christian Health Care Services.

Though Gallup has a permanent population of about 22,000 people, Conejo says it's not unusual for 80,000 to descend on the town from rural areas including the Navajo Nation after payday to stock up on supplies and eat out, increasing risks of coronavirus transmission.

"After noon and into the night, the effect can be very drastic in terms of the spread of the disease, just in terms of proximity in shopping and eating," he said. "It's not a small thing to shut it down to control it."

Infections among hospital staff have strained the nursing staff at Rehoboth hospital as it contends with a steady stream of COVID-19 patients with advanced symptoms. Five infected staff members have recovered and returned to work.

"It's not only challenging to the staffing situation, but it's really emotionally hard," Wangler said. "My staff are coming in every day and putting the health of their families on the line. We have amazingly talented and committed groups."

The hospital's eight-bed intensive care unit has been consistently full or nearly full over the past month. About a week ago, the facility started transferring patients with major respiratory problems to Albuquerque.

Despite high rates of infection and underlying health conditions such as diabetes and obesity that can inhibit recovery, McKinley County accounts for a relatively small share of COVID-19 fatalities — 23 out of the statewide death toll of 156.

Christopher Gonzaga, an infectious disease specialist leading the hospital's response, says the hospital is contending with an influx of virus-positive patients from local nursing homes that aren't being allowed to return after recovery. Those patients unnecessarily take up hospital beds, he said.

At the same time, Gallup has seen widespread infection among the homeless. To contain that outbreak, motel rooms have been set aside with food and laundry services for up to 155 people.

Otherwise "that could be 125 people wandering around town with no place to sleep," Conejo said. "Who knows how many of them would huddle together just for body warmth ... and then get up and wander around town."

For most people, the virus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia and death.

Also Monday, the state Supreme Court rejected a petition by the American Civil Liberties Union and others that called for the removal of many vulnerable patients from prisons to allow for greater social distancing amid concerns about COVID-19 transmission among people without clear symptoms. Chief Justice Judith Nakamura said the petition failed to prove the state has been deliberately indifferent to the health and safety of inmates.

New Mexico is screening the state's roughly 6,600 inmates for coronavirus almost entirely based on symptoms such as shortness of breath, fever and cough. Eleven state prison inmates have been tested for coronavirus infections with no positive results.

Three new infections among prison staff were confirmed Monday at the state-operated Western New Mexico Correctional Facility and privately run Northwest New Mexico Correctional Center, both in Grants, in addition to one previous infection in mid-April at the privately operated Guadalupe prison outside Santa Rosa, said Eric Harrison, a spokesman for the Corrections Department.

Contact tracing was underway to search for possible prior exposure and infection, with nine people flagged for testing at Western New Mexico Correctional Facility, including some inmates.

The governor has ordered some prisoners released up to 30 days ahead of time if they have a parole plan in place and sentences don’t involve drunken driving, domestic abuse, sexual offenses or assault on a police officer.