It’s already happening in some parts of Texas, mostly out west.
Presidio and Brewster counties, home to Marfa and Big Bend, along with nearby Culberson County, lead the state in cases per 1,000 residents in the last two weeks, according to a Texas Tribune analysis. In fact, all of West Texas, including Jeff Davis, Hudspeth and El Paso counties, is ablaze with increasing COVID-19 cases and low on hospital beds.
Big Bend Regional Medical Center, the only hospital in Presidio, has just 25 acute care beds. Culberson County’s 2,200 residents have just Culberson Hospital, where there are 14 beds and two ventilators, but at least one doctor said she doesn’t feel adequately prepared to use them.
Patients in dire condition are often transferred from the small towns to regional hospitals in larger metropolitan areas. But those closest hospital systems in El Paso, Lubbock and Midland, which have more resources, are already struggling with their own influxes of local cases, leaving doctors and county officials worried a bump in cases from Thanksgiving gatherings will fill beds beyond capacity with nowhere left to send the sickest patients.
“It’s unlikely we’d be able to help them at this point,” said Ricardo Samaniego, the county judge of El Paso, where COVID-19 patients occupy more than 35% of hospital beds.
Without El Paso as an option to send patients, nearby doctors and officials are scrambling.
“It’s a scary feeling to have a critically ill patient with nowhere to go,” said Gilda Morales, a Culberson County commissioner and doctor at Culberson Hospital.
She said that in recent weeks, the county has sent struggling patients to hospitals in San Antonio — more than 400 miles away — including Culberson County Judge Carlos Urias, who’s been there for nearly four weeks.
If a flood of residents need to be hospitalized quickly, and cases in San Antonio and other metropolitan areas swell, Culberson might not have the resources to treat everyone in need, Morales said.
“We’re worried those beds will run out, and then what?” Morales said. “We’re all holding our breath because as much as we told people not to get together for Thanksgiving, the holidays and family give a false sense of security.”
Hospitals across the West Texas region are “bumping capacity and stretched absolutely to the limit,” said John Henderson, president of the Texas Organization of Rural and Community Hospitals. Administrators have struggled to find open beds, in some cases calling 15 or 20 facilities, he said.
“Everyone is headed the wrong direction,” he said. “Every week is a little worse than the last one.”
In Odessa and in neighboring Midland, the area’s three hospitals serve as “referral centers,” accepting patients from small-town facilities that are ill equipped to treat serious illnesses.
“All of our outlying facilities, they don’t have ICUs or ventilators that can take care of patients long term,” said Dr. Rohith Saravanan, chief medical officer of Odessa Regional Medical Center. The hospital in recent weeks added 34 beds for people with COVID-19, and, as of Tuesday, only four were still empty.
“If we see any more sharp rises, I don’t think our hospitals will be able to keep up with capacity,” Saravanan said.
Scenic Mountain Medical Center in Big Spring is one of those outlying community hospitals. The facility’s seven intensive care unit beds are full, as are 18 overflow beds that fill the hallways.
Just as a reminder, people still have heart attacks and get in car crashes and fall down stairs and get shot. They’re competing for increasingly scarce hospital resources with all of the COVID patients, too. I don’t have any answers for this, or at least I don’t have any answers beyond what I and many others have been saying for months – wear your face mask, avoid indoor gatherings, observe social distancing. More to the point, Greg Abbott doesn’t have any answers, either. That’s a lot more consequential.