Wait times increase in Albuquerque’s emergency rooms, as hospitals treat patients in hallways and chairs

By: - January 10, 2022 1:30 pm

An ambulance pulls out of the bay at UNM Hospital in late August. (Photo by Shelby Kleinhans for Source NM)

Leading doctors at Albuquerque’s two biggest hospitals urged residents not to visit emergency rooms unless they have a severe health issue, citing the surge of coronavirus patients that stretched hospitals beyond capacity. 

Emergency room wait times at the University of New Mexico Hospital are regularly six hours for some patients, said Dr. Steve McLaughlin, chair of the hospital’s department of emergency medicine. Wait times at Presbyterian Hospital are similar, according to an official there. 

Have you waited a long time in the ER?

If you’ve spent many hours waiting for treatment at the UNMH or Presbyterian ERs in recent days and feel comfortable sharing your story, email plohmann [at] source NM [dot] com. We’d like to interview you for a followup story.

“We don’t want anybody to have to wait,” McLaughlin told a group of reporters via a Zoom news conference. “It’s just a symptom of this terrible crisis we are in.”

Wait times in the afternoon and evenings tend to be longer, McLaughlin said, especially on Mondays and Tuesdays. But it depends on what a patient’s illness or injury is and other factors, he said.

Both UNMH and Presbyterian have since Nov. 11 treated patients under Crisis Standards of Care, which, among other things, authorize health care professionals to delay non-medically necessary procedures. 

However, neither McLaughlin nor his counterpart at Presbyterian – Chief Medical Officer Dr. Jason Mitchell – said their hospitals were rationing care. A news release from Nov. 11 also stated that neither hospital had yet taken that drastic step. 

Instead, they said staff are working tirelessly to treat all patients and getting creative to find ways and space to treat them. Instead of in hospital rooms, some patients are being treated on gurneys in hallways with curtains around them, and Presbyterian has set up a triage tent outside to care for patients with COVID-19 and COVID-19 symptoms, Mitchell said.

About 200 patients across the Presbyterian system are hospitalized due to coronavirus, Mitchell said, which is about 30% of the total number of beds there. 

Some patients at UNMH are being treated in waiting rooms or in a chair instead of a bed, McClaughlin said. 

The hospitals are also transferring patients to other hospitals with more room, sometimes out of state or out of a patient’s insurance network. Mitchell said he could not immediately say how many patients have been transferred in recent weeks.

And staff are working additional hours under high stress to manage the patient volume. Presbyterian has hired between 400 and 500 agency nurses to boost staff counts. 

In early December, more than 150 people were waiting for a bed at Albuquerque hospitals,state health officials reported. The intensive care unit at UNMH across the state was at 126% of its capacity on Tuesday, Dec. 7, an official said at the time. 

So both doctors are urging residents to get vaccinated against COVID and, if already vaxed, to get the booster shot. They also are asking patients not to come to the emergency room unless the situation is severe. 

He also urged patients not to come to the emergency room seeking a COVID test.

“If you are very sick, we are here for you and we want you to come in,” McLaughlin said. “If your illness is mild, we really encourage you to seek care through your primary care physician, a virtual visit or some other alternative and not come to the emergency department.”

Presbyterian recommends you go to the emergency room for:

  • Chest pain
  • Any sudden or severe pain
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Head injuries
  • Sudden changes in vision
  • Difficulty speaking
  • Sudden confusion or dizziness
  • Suicidal feelings
  • Coughing up or throwing up blood
  • Major broken bones, such as a leg
  • Severe diarrhea or throwing up
  • Severe bleeding
  • Abdominal pain
  • Active labor

Pres recommends you go to urgent care for:

  • Sprains and strains
  • Sore throats, coughs, colds or the flu
  • Ear or sinus infection
  • Allergy flare-ups
  • Mild asthma
  • Minor broken bones, such as a finger
  • Minor cuts that may need stitches
  • Nausea

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Patrick Lohmann
Patrick Lohmann

Patrick Lohmann has been a reporter since 2007, when he wrote stories for $15 apiece at a now-defunct tabloid in Gallup, his hometown. Since then, he's worked at UNM's Daily Lobo, the Albuquerque Journal and the Syracuse Post-Standard. Along the way, he's won several state and national awards for his reporting, including for an exposé on a cult-like Alcoholics Anonymous group and a feature on an Upstate New York militia member who died of COVID-19. He's thrilled to be back home in New Mexico, where he works to tell stories that resonate and make an impact.