With hundreds of nurses out sick, San Antonio lawmakers of both parties ask for governor’s help staffing hospitals

More than 3,400 red hearts were posted on a fence last year to honor San Antonio residents who have died from COVID-19 during the pandemic. (Chris Stokes For The Texas Tribune, Chris Stokes For The Texas Tribune)

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As hospitals in the San Antonio region see a crushing surge of patients with COVID-19, a bipartisan group of area lawmakers is calling on Gov. Greg Abbott to send more health care workers to help relieve a staffing shortage amid the omicron wave.

“If we’re having a major surge because people refuse to either get vaccinated or wear masks, we need help,” state Sen. José Menéndez said. “As the leader of the state, as the CEO of the state, he [Abbott] needs to step up and find a way to help us.”

A representative for Abbott referred a request for comment to the Texas Department of State Health Services, which did not respond Friday.

Officials in Texas’ major metropolitan areas are increasingly scrambling to find health care workers to deal with a wave of patients with COVID-19 driven by the highly contagious omicron variant. Burnout among health care workers, departures from the industry and infections among staff have strained hospitals as they deal with a huge influx of new COVID-19 patients.

This week, San Antonio officials sounded the alarm over the staffing shortage as the region’s hospitals are pushed to the brink. In the two-week period ending Thursday, Bexar County has seen the steepest increase in new COVID-19 cases among Texas’ largest counties.

As of Friday evening, San Antonio-area hospitals held more than 1,000 coronavirus patients — more than five times the number of such patients in area hospital beds on Dec. 24, according to city data.

Meanwhile, hundreds of nurses in Bexar County hospitals are out sick each day as they, too, contract the virus, according to a letter co-written by Menéndez, a Democrat, and 13 other regional lawmakers — including Republicans Donna Campbell and Steve Allison.

It’s unclear just how many additional health care workers the region would need to deal with staff shortages amid the omicron surge. Last week, Abbott sent some 411 nurses and respiratory therapists to Bexar County hospitals — but that’s not enough, local officials have said.

“With experts stating that the omicron variant has not yet hit its peak, we will continue to see a dramatic rise in cases,” the letter reads. “Additional help is needed to keep our hospital systems afloat and to provide care for patients when they are hospitalized.”

The bipartisan letter backs up a similar request made earlier this week by San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg and Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff, who warned that area hospitals could soon be overwhelmed if more help doesn’t arrive soon.

“We will quickly reach capacity in our hospitals as admissions of COVID-19 patients continue to increase rapidly,” Nirenberg and Wolff wrote to Abbott on Monday.

Some officials aren’t waiting on Abbott for help. In Houston, Harris County commissioners approved a $40 million contract this week to hire more than 600 nurses to back up area hospitals.

In the meantime, health care workers are encountering a sense of déjà vu from previous surges. At University Health System in San Antonio, many staffers have been asked to take extra shifts and work several days in a row without a day off, spokesperson Elizabeth Allen said.

As it did earlier in the pandemic, the public hospital system has had to postpone non-emergency elective surgeries. But staffers are under strain — dealing with typical health emergencies like heart attacks, car wrecks and strokes as well as the COVID-19 surge.

“It’s almost like we’ve come full circle in some strange ways,” Allen said.

Karen Brooks Harper contributed to this report.