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With Thousands Hospitalized For COVID-19 In North Texas, Hospitals Are ‘Stretched Very Thin’

A photograph of a nurse in full protective equipment photographed through a window as she cares for a patient.
Jae C. Hong/AP
/
AP
A registered nurse tends to her COVID-19 patient in Orange, Calif.

Hospitalizations in North Texas due to COVID-19 have already set new and dismal records in the New Year.

More than 4,000 hospital patients across 18 counties in the Dallas-Fort Worth area had COVID-19 when this week began.

When cases were spiking over the summer, that number never reached 2,000.

“I can tell you that we’re stretched very thin right now,” said Barclay Berdan, CEO of Texas Health Resources.

Since September, the numbers of hospitalized coronavirus patients have been surging. About 30% of all the patients in North Texas hospitals are now COVID-19 positive, according to state data.

That’s led all of Texas Health Resources’ 28 hospitals in the region to activate surge plans, diverting resources away from all but the most urgent care. Surgical recovery beds were converted into ICU beds. Nurses and other staffers who don’t typically work directly with patients in the hospital were re-tasked to help those that do.

The hospital chain is working with multiple recruiters to bring in more nurses, respiratory therapists and other critical workers, but the ever-growing need has left workers exhausted, Berdan said.

Hospital staffers are falling ill, too, exposed the coronavirus that is spreading unchecked outside of the hospitals. That can render them unable to come into work for days or weeks at a time, he said.

“Our challenge is primarily people, basically stretching to take care of more patients,” Berdan said.

Few ICU beds

Another alarming statistic: There were fewer than 60 available intensive care unit beds for the sickest patients in North Texas on Tuesday. There are millions of residents across the region.

If all of those ICU beds fill up, hospitals will struggle to care for their sickest and most seriously injured patients, according to Rajesh Nandy, a professor of biostatistics and epidemiology at UNT Health Science Center in Fort Worth.

“Patients in intensive care units are in life-threatening situations, COVID or no COVID,” Nandy said. “So once they’re at a full level, patients may or may not receive the best care possible, simply because of a lack of resources.”

That’s a bad situation, but Nandy said he doesn’t think this dire situation is poised to get worse in the next few days. Recent data show show new coronavirus cases levelling off in recent days, likely a reflection of the end of the holiday season, with its increase in gatherings and travel.

People simply move around less this time of year, Nandy said.

“Right now, the situation is that we are still at a very critical level, but the only minimal good sign is that it seems to have steadied. The growth seems to have stopped,” Nandy said.

That comes just in time. If hospitalizations continued on the trend seen for the last few months, the results could be "catastrophic" for local hospitals, he said.

A longer wait for vaccine relief

Another cause for optimism, Nandy said, is the rollout of vaccines for the coronavirus, though how quickly the effect of vaccinations will be seen in case numbers is difficult to predict.

The vaccines still aren’t available to a majority of the population. Also, the rollout of Texas’ inoculation program has been slow and uneven, though. Gov. Greg Abbott pledged to speed up the process.

“Things are chaotic as far as vaccinations go, so it’s very hard to put that parameter in our forecasting models,” Nandy said.

  • Looking for more information about vaccinations in North Texas? Find it here.

Public health officials caution that it’ll likely take months before vaccines are widely available, and millions of Texans will likely need to be vaccinated for coronavirus case numbers to be significantly effected by the shots.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious diseases expert, told NPR that 50% of Americans would likely need to be vaccinated before the nation would see much impact from the vaccines on COVID-19 cases.

By Wednesday, about 816,000 Texans had received at least one of the two injections required for full immunization, according to state data. About 113,000 people had been fully vaccinated.

For comparison, Texas has nearly 29 million residents, though the vaccines are only approved in the US for people who are 16 or older.

Texas Health Resources’ Berdan said that’s why people need to remain focused on keeping their distance, avoiding gatherings, wearing masks and keeping up with the basic precautions public health officials have been touting for months.

“There is light at the end of the tunnel, but the tunnel is still pretty lengthy,” he said.

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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