Rural hospitals in Houston area brace for coronavirus impact

EL CAMPO, Texas – Before the coronavirus pandemic, rural hospitals are already stretched thin.

KPRC 2 Investigates visited El Campo Memorial Hospital, one of only two hospitals in Wharton County, to discover how it’s preparing for a potential influx of COVID-19 patients.

El Campo may be a small city touting a little over 11,000 residents, according to the 2010 Census. The residents are just as worried about the coronavirus, as those who live in the big cities.

While there may be fewer coronavirus cases in El Campo compared to Houston, there is only one major hospital to care for the entire community.

"Well, we’re concerned about (COVID-19), said El Campo resident Bill Ansley. He added, “We just try to stay separated.”

El Campo is the largest city in Wharton County, which is southwest of Fort Bend County.

Coronavirus in rural counties

About 60% of rural Texas counties have confirmed cases, according to the CEO of Texas Organization of Rural & Community Hospitals John Henderson.

However, Henderson said the rural communities are prepared and ready to respond.

“But they haven’t been overwhelmed yet," Henderson said.

Henderson said these smaller hospitals are working hard to prepare for a possible surge.

“They have basically cleared out either non-essential surgeries, admissions and limited their clinic volume,” he said.

At El Campo Memorial, officials moved quickly to accommodate coronavirus patients. They created special isolation rooms and built tents outside to screen and test patients to limit contamination and spread.

El Campo Memorial Hospital By The Numbers

  • 49 hospital beds
  • 4 ICU rooms for COVID-19 patients
  • 6 isolation rooms

Is it enough?

El Campo Memorial is currently treating two positive COVID-19 patients. However, if that number were to swell to 20 or 25 patients, the healthcare provider could become overwhelmed, officials said.

“If we were to grow to 25 potential patients, we would probably be overwhelmed,” said Chief Nursing Officer Francis Lerma. “Then, we would have to depend on our sister hospital to help us out."

El Campo Memorial has established relationships with Memorial Hermann and Citizens Hospital in Victoria.

Ventilators in Rural Texas

Another big concern is ventilator machines, which are needed to keep critical patients alive. Channel 2 Investigates calculated that 31 of the 39 rural hospitals had only two ventilators or less, thanks to numbers provided by TORCH. El Campo Memorial has four ventilators.

“If we get a surge, that would not be enough,” Lerma said. "We have two on backorder, but we also have three BiPAP machines we can use. It doesn’t work exactly like a ventilator, but they have been used to help patients in distress.”

Coronavirus testing in El Campo

Medical professionals at the hospital tested 97 people at El Campo Memorial for coronavirus. Five of those people tested positive. Seven others are still pending.

Officials at El Campo Memorial said they stand ready to fight.

“I think we are as best equipped as we can be under the circumstances,” said Dr. Brooke Dorotik of El Campo Memorial.

About the Authors:

Emmy-winning investigative reporter, insanely competitive tennis player, skier, weightlifter, crazy rock & roll drummer (John Bonham is my hero). Husband to Veronica and loving cat father to Bella and Meemo.

Award-winning broadcast journalist covering local, regional, national and international stories. Recognized in the industry for subject matter expertise including: Legal/Court Research, the Space Industry, Education, Environmental Issues, Underserved Populations and Data Visualization.