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Director of Houston COVID-19 ward at 65% capacity says he’s worried about possibility of overwhelming spike

HOUSTON – At the United Memorial Medical Center, the COVID-19 surge is not numbers and statistics. It’s a real, everyday struggle with life and death.

KPRC 2 visited the ward Wednesday. That day, doctors and nurses struggled to save an 82-year-old man with a history of heart disease whose heart had stopped.

The same scene plays out daily, at this small hospital in a low-income north Houston neighborhood that primarily treats minority patients.

Last month, KPRC 2 visited the ward and Wednesday the crew was invited back by Director of Medicine, Dr. Joseph Varon who sought documentation of the steady rise in caseload that he fears could overwhelm his hospital and others in the coming weeks.

“People are being very cavalier about corona. People are forgetting what corona is all about.” Varon said.

As Texas sets new records for COVID-19 infection daily, Texans continue to congregate at beaches, in bars, or in demonstrations, as if the danger of the deadly virus has passed.

“In the next two weeks, we’re going to see the spike of the protests that we had the last few weeks, and then we’re going to see the spike of the Fourth of July weekend,” Varon said. “I’m not predicting it, this is going to happen. I’m a hundred percent sure it’s going to happen.”

The increased patient count at this ward shows the spike has already begun. The hospital is at 65% capacity and the case count grows daily.

At present, just about all of the hospital’s 46 beds are full and the patients who are filling them are coming in much sicker than before, Varon said.

Yet, even as the case count climbs, Texas’ rush to reopen has not slowed. Dr. Varon says there needs to be a balance.

“Opening up the economy makes sense, but you should do that in a way that people understand that opening the economy doesn’t mean coronavirus is gone. Ideas such as requirement of using face masks should be mandatory.” Varon said.

Gov. Greg Abbott softened his stance on face masks Wednesday, allowing counties and cities to issue executive orders mandating businesses require customers and employees to wear masks in the business.

However, the governor insists that even with the surge in cases, Texas has enough hospital beds and ventilators to accommodate the increase of new cases.

But, Varon says that’s only part of the story.

“I can have all the beds that I want (but) if I don’t have the personnel, it’s completely worthless and I am having problems getting nurses. And I hear from the medical center they are also (having) problems finding nurses,” he said.

This small hospital is struggling to recruit more staff and add beds to prepare for what may be a grim summer.

“What we’re trying to do is not overwhelm the system. Which is what’s going to happen in the next few weeks. It’s going to happen.” Varone said.

Thursday, another 3,517 people tested positive for COVID-19. So far more than 2,500 have died from the virus in Texas.