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In North Texas, Hospitalizations Raise Concerns About COVID-19 'Overwhelming' Health System

Man in wheel chair surrounded by plastic cover being pushed by health care worker in gown, mask and gloves.
Eric Gay
/
AP News
A man with COVID-19, wearing a protective cover, is transferred from the emergency room to a COVID-19 unit at Starr County Memorial Hospital in Rio Grande City, Texas.

Two North Texas hospitals hit capacity this week, as the share of hospital beds devoted to COVID-19 patients hit new records across the region. It’s an ominous sign ahead of an expected surge in cases contracted as people gathered for Thanksgiving celebrations.

On opposite ends of the Dallas-Fort Worth region, Palo Pinto General Hospital in Mineral Wells had every single bed full at the same time that Texas Health Hospital Rockwall was bursting beyond capacity.

“I’m worried about two to three weeks from now, after the holiday’s over,” said Ross Korkmas, CEO of Palo Pinto General Hospital. “After Black Friday’s over, what’s going to be the state of health care in the North Texas region?”

When hospitals run out of bed space, they can transfer patients to other hospitals nearby, and that’s what Korkmass’ staff did in Palo Pinto County, sending people as far as Plano.

By Friday morning, his hospital had a couple of beds open again, but he still worries that there is less and less slack every day in the system to absorb more patients as the winter cold drives more people inside.

“What happens when we’re completely full, when we call 15, 20, 30 hospitals and they’re full too? That’s the fear.” he said. “And that’s what we’ve been preaching for a long time is not overwhelming the system.”

According to state data, 15% of hospital beds in North Texas are now filled by COVID-19 patients. That’s worse than it was during the summer peak, and it marks a red line set by Gov. Greg Abbott. In October, he said that regions where more than 15% of hospital beds were filled with coronavirus patients, businesses would have to revert back to 50% capacity. Currently, most are at 75% capacity in North Texas.

"As the number of positive cases grows, our health care heroes need your patriotism and sacrifice," wrote Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins in a statement. "Please put off get togethers and avoid crowds to protect public health and the economy."

In Mineral Wells, Palo Pinto General’s Korkmas has rented more beds, bought more ventilators, turned offices into treatment areas, but he says they need more people, too. He is trying to hire about a dozen more nurses and fill other critical positions to staff up to meet the increased needs, but he said he’s competing with pretty much every other hospital for job candidates.

He said his staff have been working constantly for months, figuring out how to care for all of the COVID-19 patients as they care for all the other people who normally end up in the hospital.

“People need to know that our healthcare system is fragile. It takes a handful of nurses to be sick in my hospital to put us in a bad situation,” Korkmas said. “And so we don’t want anyone else to get sick, we don’t want anyone else to die.”

The best way to prevent that, Korkmas said, is to follow the advice of public health officials: Wear a mask in public, avoid gatherings and stay home as much as possible.

Got a tip? Christopher Connelly is KERA's One Crisis Away Reporter, exploring life on the financial edge. Email Christopher at cconnelly@kera.org.You can follow Christopher on Twitter @hithisischris.

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