Dr. Esmaeil Porsa, president and CEO of Harris Health System, said the hospitals in the system were at a breaking point when he learned that 100 temporary medical workers were being sent to help.
As cases surged, the hospitals were admitting more children and pregnant women with complications from COVID-19, and patients who needed intensive care waited in emergency rooms for ICU beds to become available.
The nurses, respiratory therapists and other contract staff “definitely arrived here at a pivotal moment,” Porsa said. “They did exactly what I had hoped that they would do, which is allowing us the opportunity of a couple of things: to provide a little bit of relief for front-line staff who have been running around ragged, but also created an opportunity for us to expand our capacity.”
Gov. Greg Abbott announced the Texas Department of State Health Services would deploy state-funded relief workers to hospitals, and 8,100 have either arrived from other states or are expected soon.
It’s the second time the state has taken such action. At the height of the state’s winter surge, almost 14,000 medical workers were deployed across the state, according to DSHS. From July 2020 to early August of this year, the state spent more than $5 billion in federal disaster funds and coronavirus relief funds on medical personnel.
Abbott’s move came after hospitals and local health officials complained that they were having to outbid each other to hire contract nurses amid a statewide shortage of hospital staff.
W. Stephen Love, president and CEO of the Dallas-Fort Worth Hospital Council, said that competition among hospitals meant “they’re going to take from Peter to give to Paul, so to speak. That’s why using the state with their purchasing power [is important].”
The new push to bring more health workers to Texas comes as many have reached their limits, said Carrie Williams, spokesperson for the Texas Hospital Association.
“This surge has come faster and stronger than previous surges, and it comes at a time when the frontline [worker] is burned out,” Williams said in a statement. “We were already starting from behind when this surge hit.”
According to DSHS, the state’s hospitals requested more than 15,000 temporary staffers between Aug. 12 and Aug. 25. As of Aug. 25, almost 4,000 have been deployed, with most going to regions with the state’s most populous counties and metro areas.
Health officials continue to stress that the main way to reduce the need for additional staff is clear: more vaccinations. As of Aug. 25, about 47% of Texans were fully vaccinated.
Since Jan. 1, Porsa said, everyone who has died at LBJ Hospital and Ben Taub Hospital from COVID-19 has been unvaccinated.
“Space is not unlimited, resources are not unlimited,” Porsa said. “At some point it doesn’t matter how many nurses you throw at the problem, we are going to arrive at a situation where we’re not going to have enough clinicians, we’re not going to have enough doctors, we’re not going to have enough something else.
“We will run out of options at some point, and this is really really important for people to realize that this cannot go on forever, and they know what the solution is.”
It’s still not clear to me how there could even be that many not currently working medical staff out there to be brought in, but they do exist in some number, for which we are grateful and lucky. It’s also not clear at what point demand will outstrip supply, and as noted above, we may run into other limits even sooner than that.
How long can we last? There’s actually a tiny bit of cause for optimism in the most recent data.
The average number of daily COVID hospitalizations in the Texas Medical Center dropped for the first time since early July from a record 390 patients to 388, the medical center reported Monday.
The metric reflects the daily average of hospitalized patients over the previous week. The drop comes amid declining COVID hospitalizations both nationally and statewide.
A three-day decline in total COVID hospitalizations in Texas brought the number to 13,557 on Saturday, the most recent day for which data is available. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also reported a drop in the average number of new daily hospitalizations nationwide, from 12,354 on Thursday to 12,051 on Friday. More recent national data is not yet available.
Dr. James McDeavitt, executive vice president and dean of clinical affairs at Baylor College of Medicine, said the decline is part of the natural course of the pandemic.
“When you see an outbreak like this, the virus kind of runs through the population until it gets to the point where it starts running out of people to infect,” he said, adding, “That does not mean herd immunity.”
He warned that the virus still has room to spread, especially as schools reopen. In an interview last week, McDeavitt said hospitals will continue to feel the strain of the current surge as cases decline.
Burnout among nurses, lingering staffing shortages and the record number of hospitalizations all factor into a longer recovery period.
“From the peak, we’re probably still a month-and-a-half to getting to something that feels like business as usual,” he said last week. “So best case, we’re into October now before we start to get some relief.”
So don’t get too cocky. It’s good that maybe we’ve peaked and will start to see a decline, but we’re still a long way out from where we were in May and June, and we could easily reverse course again. We need to keep getting people vaccinated, because the alternative is more of what we’re going through now.