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Coronavirus Surge Strains Texas Medical Facilities

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

A jump in COVID hospitalizations across Texas is pushing its medical centers to full capacity. Hospitals and city governments are scrambling to treat more patients, as Houston Public Media's Sara Willa Ernst reports.

SARA WILLA ERNST, BYLINE: At Houston Methodist Hospital, the work's been nonstop - converting facilities designed for totally separate purposes, taking on staff that don't have the time to be fully trained.

ROBERTA SCHWARTZ: Adding more capacity is a little complicated because it's not the beds; it's the staff.

ERNST: Roberta Schwartz is the hospital's executive vice president.

SCHWARTZ: We have nurses, but I don't have 200 nurses that are perfect that are going to rain down from the sky tomorrow. So we are bringing in travelers, and we are stretching our staff.

ERNST: Houston hospitals have been operating at this surge capacity for three weeks now. Other parts of Texas are now at or heading towards something similar. That includes Dallas-Fort Worth, Austin, the Rio Grande Valley and more. Here's San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg speaking on Tuesday.

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RON NIRENBERG: We're now in single digits in capacity with hospital beds, ICUs and ventilators.

ERNST: With the state's hospital resources spread so thin, several emergency measures are underway. The U.S. military and New York Governor Andrew Cuomo have sent medical staff to the biggest hot spots in Texas. Public field hospitals are in the works. The city of Austin opens one next week. Patients in Houston and Laredo are being sent hundreds of miles west to Lubbock, where some ICU beds are still available.

Governor Greg Abbott says the state will be working with hotels to house patients in the Rio Grande Valley. Abbott also expanded the suspension of elective surgeries that take up ICU space to more than a hundred counties. The governor hasn't issued a new statewide stay-at-home order, and he said this week he has no plans to do so. Several city and county leaders are pressing for that or asking Abbott to give that power to local authorities.

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EDDIE TREVINO JR: I think the danger and the risk to our community calls for that.

ERNST: Eddie Trevino Jr. represents Cameron County. Speaking in Brownsville this week, he said he's considering a lockdown without the governor's OK.

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TREVINO: We're talking with 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 we don't want to hurt the economy anymore. But what's an economy worth if its people are dying?

ERNST: Lockdown or no, doctors and nurses on the front lines are eager for some relief. That's because a very real consequence of hamstrung hospitals is medical worker burnout, as well as substandard care for patients, according to Dr. Esmaeil Porsa, CEO of Houston's two public hospitals. Studies show patients' risk of death grows the longer they wait in the ER to be admitted. Dr. Porsa says his hospital's ERs have sometimes been full.

ESMAEIL PORSA: Now it's not uncommon for somebody to stay in the emergency room for more than 24 hours, an issue that's becoming commonplace now. Are we going to get to a situation where in New York - where patients stay in the emergency room for three, four, five, six, seven days or they may never get a bed?

ERNST: In Texas, the number of reported COVID-19 deaths has so far remained low compared to positive coronavirus cases. But COVID-19 is a disease with a significant lag time, which means deaths will probably rise, stretching already packed funeral homes and morgues. Here's Ken Davis, chief medical officer of CHRISTUS hospitals in San Antonio.

KEN DAVIS: In the hospital, there are only so many places to put bodies of the loved ones, and we're out of space. So we're looking ourself for refrigerated trucks to put bodies and to hold them, which sounds terrible, but it's true.

ERNST: Other San Antonio hospitals are following suit. And facilities in Austin, Brownsville and Corpus Christi have refrigerated trucks ready or on the way.

For NPR News, I'm Sara Willa Ernst in Houston. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.