How rural communities are coping with COVID-19

At the height of the COVID-19 outbreak in Houston, hospitals were full and patient transfers were sometimes denied. Meanwhile, in rural counties, they have felt the crisis too.

"It makes for some unique challenges for a smaller organization like ourselves. We're not like some of the larger EMS services throughout the region. We don't have an abundance of staff," said Ronald Nichols, Emergency Services Director in Chambers County.

Chambers County EMS has 32 medics and about half of those are part-time. Recently, as many as 10 medics were out, that's almost a third of their staff. Some have been sick, others have been quarantined.

"To lose 10 people, all at the same time, creates a unique challenge for us, a smaller community, to keep those trucks staffed and make sure the community is covered," Nichols said.

They made some scheduling adjustments to make it through. Another big issue they were experiencing weeks ago, was that the smaller hospitals out in the county became busy.

Some of the patients needed to be transferred to a larger hospital but that became an issue because the large hospitals were full.

"We had some extended wait times. So we had to put in some alternative destination protocols. We had to start transporting some to free-standing ERs," Nichols said.

The City of Wharton, another rural area, has felt that too. Their EMS director says some patients were waiting an hour or more for a bed.

In Matagorda County, they saw a huge spike in hospitalizations, so much so, they were looking at adding a temporary hospital to ensure patients had a bed. Fortunately, the situation has improved.

Hospitalizations are down, which has helped. Another huge help came from the SouthEast Texas Regional Advisory Council, or SETRAC.

In mid-July SETRAC teamed up with larger hospital systems to create a rotation system for patient transfers. It ensures patients in rural areas get a bed.

"Especially for us, two rural community hospitals, that's helped us out tremendously," Nichols said.

While things have improved, it's something the small communities are keeping an eye on. Something else they have is, each other. If one city or county gets overwhelmed, they turn to their neighboring county for help.

"Everything we do is for our community," Nichols said.

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