‘Internal disaster’: Lyndon B. Johnson Hospital blames surge in COVID cases, shortage of nurses for longer ER wait times

The hospital said it's due to a surge of COVID-19 patients, non-COVID patients and a nurse shortage

HOUSTON – A Houston hospital said it was inundated with patients over the weekend, prompting it to announce an “internal disaster” and leading to wait times up to 24 hours.

At one point, 130 people were waiting to be seen in the emergency room at Lyndon B. Johnson Hospital on Sunday night, the hospital said.

A Harris Health doctor emailed lawmakers about the situation.

“With COVID once again at elevated rates in our county, our hospitals are once again strained,” the doctor wrote in the message. “We are at an untenable state.”

The doctor said internal disaster mode means the hospital is off the grid for patients coming in from places like the Houston Fire Department’s ambulances, but it doesn’t stop people from showing up in person.

“I was feeling the anxiousness in her message that she needed help,” said state Sen. John Whitmire, who received the message. “If citizens of Harris County and Houston are waiting 24 hours in an emergency room, that’s just unacceptable.”

The Harris Health System is blaming several factors, including a growing surge of COVID-19 patients, a large number of non-COVID patients, and a shortage of nurses.

“When you put all of that together, it kind of creates a perfect storm scenario,” said Dr. Esmaeil Porsa, president and CEO of Harris Health.

The president knows he has a nurse staffing issue. He said he’s short a total of 140 nurses at LBJ and Ben Taub hospitals combined. Porsa said part of that is because of a national shortage, though some are also sick and some have left.

“I’m frustrated. I am disheartened,” Porsa said. “I don’t get the feeling that people understand the gravity of the situation that we are in.”

He said the latest COVID surge is developing faster than the last one, leaving him worried things will only get worse.

While the state previously provided some temporary nurses for the hospital, Porsa said that is no longer happening.

Harris Health plans to close some of its clinics later this week to move those nurses into the hospitals. Porsa said the health system is also considering cutting back on elective procedures to free up more nursing staff.