U.S. Navy COVID-19
Nurse Kennedy Garcia, a U.S. Navy Lieutenant Junior Grade, prepares her personal protective equipment before entering the isolation room of a COVID-19 positive patient in the ICU at San Juan Regional Medical Center in New Mexico, Dec. 9, 2021. REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton

FARMINGTON, N.M. – Dozens of U.S. Navy medics have deployed to New Mexico to treat a Delta variant-fueled surge in COVID-19 patients as part of a military operation to treat virus hotspots across Western and Midwest states.

The state is suffering one of the highest levels of new coronavirus infections in the country, with its hospitals reaching record capacity levels.

Nearly 50 Navy medics are treating COVID-19 patients at the San Juan Regional Medical Center in Farmington, in northwest New Mexico, where critical care patient numbers have exceeded 200% of capacity for weeks.

“I’m not seeing lots of vaccinated people, we’re seeing the population that is unvaccinated with a very aggressive form of COVID running through it,” said Navy Lieutenant Commander Charles Volk, a pulmonary intensivist, as he sat in the hospital’s intensive care unit.

The Navy group is one of 20 military teams set to be deployed to struggling hospitals in at least seven states including Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Utah, Michigan and Minnesota, according to Navy Staff Sergeant Evan Ruchotzke and a U.S. Army statement.

Navy nurse Kennedy Garcia, working in her fourth COVID ICU hospital ward, said her team received a warm welcome from the Farmington hospital’s tired staff.

Garcia has lost four members of her family to COVID-19, including her grandmother. She urged Americans to get vaccinated.

“A vaccine is quick but the picture of your intubated grandmother isn’t. A lot of people have had to see that picture; it doesn’t go away,” she said.

New Mexico was a vaccination forerunner, leading all states with its rate of fully vaccinated residents earlier in the year. But immunity levels are now waning.

Patient Larry Goff, 61, caught the virus along with his pregnant daughter. She was hospitalized last week and lost her baby. At first a vaccine skeptic, Goff got his shots six months ago.

“I was one of the ones that held out for a long time, but I’m glad I finally broke down to do it and I would do it again,” he said from his hospital bed as he struggled to breathe.

(Reporting by Shannon Stapleton, writing by Andrew Hay; editing by Donna Bryson and Karishma Singh)