Health & Science

Texas Hospitals Head Towards Full Capacity Due To COVID-19 Uptick

Hospitals in Houston, Austin, Dallas, San Antonio and the Rio Grande Valley are struggling to keep up with the constant and growing flow of COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations.

Dr. Joseph Varon, top with JV on shield, leads a team as they tried without success to save the life of a patient inside the Coronavirus Unit at United Memorial Medical Center, Monday, July 6, 2020, in Houston. Cases of COVID-19 are rising in Southern cities like Houston and leaving hospitals at a crisis point.

Hospitals in Houston, Austin, Dallas, San Antonio and the Rio Grande Valley are struggling to keep up with the constant and growing flow of COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations. And many hospitals are reaching full capacity while making preparations on how to treat an overflow of patients.

"It's no different than any of the urban centers in Texas," said San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg on Monday. "We're seeing hospitalizations increase and accelerate to the point where we're now in single digits in capacity with hospital beds, ICUs and ventilators.”

Three weeks ago, Houston found itself in this very spot when the Texas Medical Center reported that it was completely full. Since then, Houston hospitals have been forced to get creative, resorting to unconventional ways to make space for these patients.

Houston Methodist Hospital, for example, hired traveling nurses and converted facilities originally designed for totally separate purposes into ICU units.

"Picture it like this: Would you rather cook in your kitchen or cook in your bedroom?" said Roberta Schwartz, Executive Vice President of Houston Methodist. "I’m sure you could cook in your bedroom, right? You drive in the toaster oven and you know you can make it work. It's just not ideal."

Many other parts of the state are starting to make similar decisions. Austin plans to open a pop-up field hospital next week. Hospitals in Dallas are considering adding multiple patients to a room and also converting recovery areas for elective procedures to house COVID-19 patients.

With Texas hospitals spread so thin, a host of emergency measures, including outside resources, are the new normal.

The U.S. military has sent medical staff to the state's biggest hotspots. Gov. Greg Abbott recently announced the state will be working with the Department of Defense to house patients in hotels in the Rio Grande Valley.

Abbott also expanded the suspension of elective surgeries that take up ICU space to more than 100 counties.

However, Abbott hasn't issued a new statewide stay-at-home order, although several city and county leaders are asking Abbott to give that power to local authorities.

On Monday, Cameron County Judge Eddie Treviño Jr. in Brownsville said that he's considering a lockdown without the Governor's OK.

"I think the danger and risk to our community calls for that," said Treviño. "We're talking to Legal and we're weighing our options and it may end up becoming a legal dispute between us and the state. I don't think it should be. And I don't want to hurt the economy, but what's an economy worth if people are dying. "

On the front lines, many doctors and medical workers are urging for some kind of relief.

"I’m not suggesting that we should shut down, but I'm running, really running out of ideas on what else we can do," said Dr. Esmaeil Porsa, the CEO of Harris Health, which includes Houston's two public hospitals.

He is afraid that operating at surge capacity for too long will lead to burnout of his staff and substandard care for patients.

Studies have shown a higher risk of mortality the longer a patient waits in the ER to be admitted.

Dr. Porsa has seen wait times grow.

"Now, it’s not uncommon for somebody to stay in the emergency room for more than 24 hours," said Dr. Porsa. "The question is that are we going to get to a situation where in New York patients stay in the emergency room for 3, 4 ,5, 6, 7 days or they may never get a bed?"

Luckily, the number of reported COVID-19 deaths in Texas so far has remained low compared to case numbers, though all at-home deaths and probable cases are likely not reflected in the official death count.

But COVID-19 is a disease with a significant lag time, which means the number of deaths will likely rise. Public and hospital officials in San Antonio, Austin, Brownsville and Corpus Christi are already preparing for that potential reality. Refrigerated trucks to temporarily hold the bodies of deceased patients have either arrived or are on their way to these places.

At a press conference in San Antonio on Monday, Dr. Ken Davis, Chief Medical Officer of CHRISTUS Hospitals in San Antonio, said that the morgue and funeral homes are filling up.

"In the hospital there are only so many places to put bodies of the loved one," said Dr. Davis. "We're out of space...so we're looking for refrigerated trucks to put bodies and hold them, which sounds terrible, but is true."

Sara Willa Ernst is a corps member with Report For America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms. Sara’s work at Houston Public Media is made possible with support from KERA in Dallas.

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