In West Texas, Rural Hospitals Feel Strain as Virus Cases Grow

Hospitals in the oilfield cities of Odessa and Midland are seeing staffing shortages because of employees catching the virus themselves.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott adjusts his mask after speaking in Austin on June 16, 2020. (Ricardo B. Brazziell/Austin American-Statesman via AP, File)

(CN) — As coronavirus cases spike in major Texas cities like Houston and San Antonio, prompting the governor to order people to wear masks in public Thursday, small hospitals in the West Texas oil patch are reporting struggles and planning for an even tougher road ahead.

Across the Lone Star State, coronavirus case numbers have surged since Memorial Day weekend, with Republican Governor Greg Abbott warning in recent days of a “very swift and very dangerous turn” for the pandemic.

The situation prompted Abbott to issue a statewide executive order on Thursday requiring most Texans to wear a face covering in public. The order, effective Friday, requires most people to wear a mask in buildings or outdoor spaces “wherever it is not feasible to maintain six feet of social distancing from another person not in the same household.”

In Odessa, a blue-collar oilfield city of about 120,000 people, an influx of Covid-19 patients this week has forced one of the region’s three major hospitals to convert an entire floor into a new coronavirus unit.

Medical Center Hospital also announced Wednesday it would stop accepting transfers of patients from outside its home county for at least a week, a potentially troubling development for people in smaller towns across the sprawling region who will have one less option for critical care as the virus continues to spread.

“We went 20 days without a single Covid patient, probably less than 30 days ago, and then we go from zero patients to having to open another floor,” Russell Tippin, CEO of the Odessa hospital, said in an interview Thursday morning.

“For our hospital, that is dramatic. It’s worrisome to me just because of the level of stress that it puts on our resources,” he said.

As the virus soars statewide, a similar though perhaps less dramatic growth in cases has played out in recent weeks across the Permian Basin oilfield of West Texas, a region where those lucky enough to have held onto their industry jobs after a devastating fall in oil prices were deemed “essential” and have continued to work throughout the pandemic, even despite earlier stay-at-home orders.

Downtown Midland, Texas. (Photo via Hellorawr/Wikipedia Commons)

Active coronavirus cases in Midland and Ector counties — home to the sister cities of Midland and Odessa, respectively — grew from just over 50 at the beginning of June to about 700 by the end of the month, according to estimates from the Texas Department of State Health Services.

“Hospital capacity has been really stretched because of Covid-19 patients,” said Rohith Saravanan, chief medical officer at Odessa Regional Medical Center, a small hospital in the city.

Saravanan said an initial 15-bed coronavirus unit at the hospital is “almost full at this point,” but that the hospital does have the ability to expand into another 24-bed unit if needed.

In both cities, hospitals are reporting staffing shortages because of employees catching the virus themselves.

“The limiting factor is not the beds, it is nursing staff,” Saravanan said. “We are short nurses with current volume, so it is going to be really difficult for us to open these units if we can’t get more nursing help.”

Forty-one employees at neighboring Midland Memorial Hospital had tested positive and were therefore at home and unable to work as of Thursday, the hospital’s CEO Russell Meyers said during a Zoom conference call.

“We’re very concerned about it, not only because these people are sick and we want to be sure they get good care, but because we rely on them to care for others,” he said.

Meyers sounded less concerned about capacity issues, though he said the hospital could soon have to find extra room for Covid-19 patients.

The Midland hospital currently has 17 of its 24 beds dedicated to coronavirus patients occupied, Meyers said, while another 12 beds are still available for patients with the disease who fall critically ill. The hospital’s next step would be to open up an entire floor of its building just for coronavirus patients, like the Odessa facility has already done.

“We do have a plan for a surge and are prepared to manage some additional patients without question,” Meyers said. “We’re getting close to needing to move into the next phase of our surge plan.”

South of the oilfields in the state’s more mountainous and tourism-dependent Big Bend region, a local outbreak has grown in sparsely populated Brewster County, with more than 100 of the county’s 9,000 or so residents currently sick with Covid-19.

At least three people with the disease in the Big Bend had to be transferred hours away to the hospital in Odessa in June, according to Marfa Public Radio, prompting concerns about what will happen if the hospital continues to block such transfers for longer than a week.

“I think that is a definite possibility that these patients will have to go to El Paso, Lubbock,” Tippin said. “But we got to a point in Odessa where we had to decide, look, if we don’t get a handle on this now, we’re going to get in a situation that we’re not going to be able — there won’t be any exit strategy.”

“We felt like we had to pause it now, to get things in our own house straightened and ready,” he added. “If we didn’t control it now, man, it’s going to blow up, it’s going to get out of control.”

The Odessa hospital has stressed, however, that “anyone who comes through our doors will be treated and cared for appropriately.”

Meyers, the hospital CEO in Midland, said the facility there is prepared for now to accept patients from across the region.

“That ability to help is not unlimited, but we do have a couple more stages of surge capacity we can put online,” he said.

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