Outbreak on edge of Navajo Nation overwhelms rural hospital

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In this photo taken May 8, 2020, medical staff from Rehoboth McKinley Christian Hospital including Chief Medical Officer Val Wangler, center, hold a protest over working conditions and depleted staff in Gallup, N.M. Many nurses and doctors say staffing at the hospital was inadequate because of hospital CEO David Conejo's move to cut back on nurses in the first week of March to offset declining hospital revenues after elective surgeries were suspended. They voiced their discontent at the recent protest calling for his resignation. (AP Photo/Morgan Lee)

GALLUP, N.M. – On the eve of New Mexico's shutdown of bars and restaurants to stem the spread of the coronavirus, the city of Gallup came alive for one last night of revelry.

Before the night was out in the desert oasis on the fringes of the Navajo Nation, 98 people were detained for public intoxication and sent to sober up at a detox center. Several homeless people also sought refuge in the same cinder block building, which doubles as a shelter. Somewhere in the mix, lurked the virus.

The outbreak seeded at the Na’Nizhoozhi Center would combine with the small, local hospital’s ill-fated staffing decisions and its well-intentioned but potentially overambitious treatment plans to create a perfect storm that has overwhelmed doctors and nurses and paralyzed this community in the state’s hard-hit northwest.

In all, 22 people infected with the coronavirus were transferred from the detox center to Rehoboth McKinley Christian Hospital, the only acute care medical center for the general public within 110 miles (180 kilometers) of Gallup.

“They were putting multiple cots in one room to accommodate them,” said pulmonologist Rajiv Patel, who helped lead the hospital’s initial response.

To care for that influx, any available doctor was pressed into service, including those who normally don't handle critically ill patients, Patel said.

“That’s right when we overloaded,” said hospital CEO David Conejo. “Now we’ve got too many patients, and too few (staff) to help.”

Rehoboth’s eight intensive care beds are full, and now it has to transfer all coronavirus patients with severe breathing problems away from the facility and the adjacent Gallup Indian Medical Center, which attends exclusively to the Native American community.