‘I am frightened by what is coming’: Texas hospitals could soon be overwhelmed by COVID-19 caseload, officials say

State Sen. Lois Kolkhorst, R-Brenham, Chair of the Senate Committee on Health & Human Services, listens to CEO of Harris Health System, Dr. Esmaeil Porsa, left, and Chief Medical Officer at Parkland Health & Hospital System, Dr. Joseph Chang, testify on current trends in COVID-19 hospitalizations at the Texas Capitol on Aug. 10, 2021.
State Sen. Lois Kolkhorst, R-Brenham, Chair of the Senate Committee on Health & Human Services, listens to CEO of Harris Health System, Dr. Esmaeil Porsa, left, and Chief Medical Officer at Parkland Health & Hospital System, Dr. Joseph Chang, testify on current trends in COVID-19 hospitalizations at the Texas Capitol on Aug. 10, 2021.

Texas hospitals are on the brink of catastrophe, close to being completely overwhelmed by COVID-19 patients, leaders of some of the state’s largest hospitals told state lawmakers Tuesday.

Official after official used their strongest descriptions to get the point across to legislators: Hospitalizations are rising too fast for them to keep up with, and it may be too late to do anything about it.

“While more vaccination is the only thing that can ultimately bring this pandemic to an end, we need more decisive actions now to prevent a catastrophe the likes of which we only imagined last year,” Dr. Esmaeil Porsa, CEO of Harris Health System in Houston, told the Texas Senate Health and Human Services Committee on Tuesday.

“This crisis right now is really driving us to a place where it is really unsustainable,” said Dr. Joseph Chang, chief medical officer for Parkland Health and Hospital System in Dallas.

The number of COVID-19 patients in Texas hospitals is accelerating faster than at any other point in the pandemic as the contagious delta variant spreads unchecked, primarily among the unvaccinated.

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Hospitals are struggling to hire nurses as rising hospitalization rates drive up both demand and the cost of paying nurses and other temporary health care workers. The result is hundreds of empty positions and a fraction of the workforce hospitals need at the worst possible time, the officials said. And many hospitals simply don’t have the money to hire as many nurses as they need even if they could find them, officials said.

“I am frightened by what is coming,” Porsa said.

“We can’t compete,” Chang said.

Hospital officials have implored the state to help them track down nurses to help relieve emergency room staffs and treat the sick. That kind of assistance would mean hospitals would no longer have to compete with one another for emergency workers.

“On behalf of hospitals in the state of Texas, having an organized, consistent approach that doesn’t pit hospitals against each other in looking for staffing is what we need,” Marc Boom, chair of the Texas Hospital Association, told lawmakers at the hearing.

That move is already afoot. On Monday, Gov. Greg Abbott said the Department of State Health Services will work to bring nurses from out of state to alleviate the shortage. Hospitals can expect to see additional nurses within the next five days, said Nim Kidd, chief of the Texas Division of Emergency Management.

But Kidd and some senators told the hospital leaders Tuesday that cities and counties should dip into their collective $10.5 billion in federal stimulus dollars to pay for additional nurses — and seek reimbursement from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Some city and county leaders have hesitated to use that money for fear it would reduce their ability to help their communities recover from the pandemic, which is the intent of those funds.

To date, only 56 Texas cities out of 216 have applied for reimbursement through FEMA, Kidd said. “It’s crazy to me that these federal dollars are sitting out there and local governments will not pull them down and use them,” he said.

On top of the nursing shortage, the state’s vaccination rate has stayed relatively flat for weeks. Nearly 54 percent of eligible Texans have been fully vaccinated, according to the Texas Department of State Health Services.

In recent weeks, the number of residents seeking their first dose has ticked up — but not fast enough, health officials say. Even if Texas was 100% vaccinated, it wouldn’t help relieve the pinch that the state’s hospitals are in, Porsa said.

“If this continues, and I have no reason to believe it will not, there is no way my hospital is going to be able to handle this,” Porsa said. “There is no way the region is going to be able to handle this.”

As of Tuesday afternoon, more than 10,000 Texans were hospitalized with COVID-19. In some parts of the state, the number of COVID-19 patients in hospitals threatens to exceed past peaks.

In San Antonio, that number is just 15 patients shy of last summer’s peak, said Eric Epley, CEO of the Southwest Texas Regional Advisory Council for Trauma.

“We are in crisis,” Epley said. “The curve is not slowing. We are definitely at a point where we need urgency.”

Disclosure: Parkland Health and Hospital System and the Texas Hospital Association have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

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