Most of Harris County's $43M in emergency funds to pay for 'army of nurses'

HOUSTON, Texas (KTRK) -- At both the city and county level, COVID-19 is playing havoc with staffing and the ability to deliver some services. But elected leaders told ABC13 they are working to mitigate that impact.

On Tuesday, Harris County commissioners approved more than $43 million in spending on two emergency COVID measures. The first is hiring up to 664 temporary nurses to battle the shortage in local hospitals across the county. This is the second time commissioners have had to supplement a sick and burned-out health care workforce on the front lines of the pandemic for close to two years.

"They're on standby and should be here within a week, is what we're told," Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo said. "They will be deployed to all of our hospitals across our region."

"Working day-in and day-out with patients in the COVID unit is exhausting. It's emotionally and physically exhausting," said Dr. Joseph Varon with United Memorial Medical Center.

In 2020, Varon's hospital received supplemental help from the National Guard.

Houston Methodist Hospital says they are preparing to receive around 100 temporary workers from the county's approved funding on Tuesday.

SEE ALSO: Harris County's omicron-driven COVID-19 surge pushes threat level back up to 'severe'

The other measure was to buy up to 100,000 rapid COVID tests - 95% of them will go to local schools. But some will help the county better cope with sick employees across its five precincts.
"One of the most important things we've got to do as a county is maintain services to the extent that we can," said Harris County Commissioner Adrian Garcia. "We're having to really adjust and be flexible and be thoughtful about how we're dealing with this pandemic."

The city of Houston also has service issues. One of the most publicized, and one on which we've reported for months, is a shortage of trash and recycling pickup drivers. The city even offered $3,000 bonuses this summer for new hires, and on Monday, Mayor Sylvester Turner acknowledged it is still a challenge.

SEE ALSO: Despite warnings about omicron, now is not the time to shut down, local leaders say

"We might not be able to cover as much territory, as much ground, as if we had a full crew operating," Turner said.

On Tuesday, ABC13 spoke with the city's solid waste director, Mark Wilfak. He was new to the job in October. As of Tuesday, the department is short 58 drivers, not to mention those out sick with COVID.

"Challenge is somewhat of an understatement. But it isn't because the team we have here in Houston hasn't been putting forth its best effort," Wilfak said. "I really appreciate the patience of our residents and our customers that are out there. We know these are trying times. But rest assured that our teams are working hard."

SEE ALSO: City of Houston seeking 100 CDL solid waste drivers, offering $3K sign-on bonus

It's not just trash. As of Jan. 11, 729 city employees are out sick with COVID. More than 200 of those employees are firefighters. While at the same time, the fire department has seen a 10% increase in calls per day over the last two months. Those issues and elongated hospital times have combined to increase response times.

"We are working through this virus just like everyone else," said Mayor Turner.
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