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As coronavirus cases in the Houston area surge, will the healthcare system be able to handle it?

HOUSTON – A key question many are asking is when there is an increase in the number of coronavirus patients, will our healthcare system be able to handle the surge? Harris County Health Authority, Dr. Umair Shah referenced this concern Thursday in a press conference.

Officials say contingency plans are being identified as coronavirus continues to ravage other countries. On one hand, Houston is home to a one-of-a-kind complex medical center.

However, as this surge happens, how will the healthcare system in the area deal with it?

KPRC 2 examined the numbers.

Harris County and some neighboring counties have about 12,700 hospital beds. Approximately 10% are intensive care beds with the average occupancy of those beds prior to COVID-19 at about 60%.

In Texas as a whole, there are more than 45,000 beds, with about 10% identified as intensive care beds. The occupancy rate for intensive care beds before the virus was between 51% and 56%.

Hospitals, beds and capacity in the Houston area
Hospitals, beds and capacity in the Houston area (KPRC)

However, those percentages will rise as a dramatic increase is expected with the number of coronavirus patients. Multiple doctors told KPRC 2 they are deeply concerned with what the future holds.

They are not the only ones.

“If we all don’t do all do our part, from millennials to those older, to our senior citizens, the health care delivery system in the State of Texas, in the City of Houston, quite frankly the United States, cannot handle the load.” said Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner in a press conference Thursday.

Other sectors have started ramping up. For example, ventilator manufacturer Hamilton Medical announced Friday it is increasing production capacity by 50% from last year. The company says it expects to double production capacity, a month from now.

It is important to note that these are mechanical lifesavers. What about the flesh and blood kind?

"We’re trying to find individuals all across the country willing to relocate to some of these extremely hard-hit areas,” said Shawn Dargusch with the medical staffing company GQR.

Dargusch said GQR has assisted in staffing various Texas hospitals with nurses.

“It’s kind of scary right now," he said.

On major cause for Dargusch’s concern is that those on the front lines have a higher percentage of exposure. This, along with the fact the industry is always in need of more nurses. He said due to this virus, recently retired nurses are coming back into the workforce and are offering assistance.

“That is the amazing (thing) about the healthcare community, is that everyone wants to do their part,” he said.

Before the coronavirus outbreak in the Houston area, 10% to 15% of Dargusch’s business operations relied on overseas personnel. However, with the country’s borders partially closed, that is no longer the case.