13 Investigates: Patients wait while med center says hundreds of beds still available

Friday, July 10, 2020
Spike in COVID cases causing hospital bed shortage
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A spike in COVID cases is causing a hospital bed shortage in southeast Texas

HOUSTON, Texas (KTRK) -- As Texas continues adding near record-level COVID-19 cases to its totals, Thursday brought a new sign Houston area hospitals are reaching dangerous capacity levels.

Thursday afternoon, the Southeast Texas Regional Advisory Council (SETRAC), a government agency that coordinates hospital use in our area, told 13 Investigates there were 271 patients waiting for a bed in Houston area emergency rooms. Sixty of those patients needed an Intensive Care Unit (ICU) bed.

At the same time, the Texas Medical Center's website showed 813 ICU beds that could be added. "Phase 2 beds are 17 percent occupied," according to the TMC COVID-19 dashboard

The CEO of SETRAC isn't sure all those beds the Medical Center claims to have are actually ready for patients.

"With sufficient capacity, it would be easier to place patients rather than having this many on a waiting list," SETRAC CEO Darrell Pile told 13 Investigates Thursday afternoon.

SETRAC, which also collects available bed data from Houston area hospitals, showed just 72 ICU beds available - that's 72 versus TMC's 813.

ABC13's investigation reveals staffing is what accounts for the difference.

SETRAC only publishes data on beds capable of treating a patient with necessary doctors, nurses, technicians and aides. TMC may report just that the bed exists, whether there is staff to go along with it or not.

Despite repeated requests, the Medical Center's media department, Public Content, an outside agency, and the center's CEO Bill McKeon would not answer specific questions.

"You may be able to go in and stay in a bed, but is there going to be someone there to actually care for you," Dr. Terah Issacson, a Houston surgeon who's seen the hospitals filling up explained to 13 Investigates. "Is there going to be a doctor there?"

Methodist and Harris Health, which run Ben Taub and LBJ hospitals, offered firm numbers on hospital capacity. Ben Taub and LBJ could add just a few dozen ICU beds, Methodist a little more than 100 if staffing were available. Memorial Hermann, St. Luke's, Texas Children's and MD Anderson did not offer any specific data on possible surge beds. It's unclear where the hundreds of surge beds TMC claims are actually located.

To add to the confusion in bed availability, two weeks ago, TMC suggested that if 30 percent of all its beds were filled with COVID-19 patients, it would be an 'unsustainable surge.'

Today, we're almost at that level and the Medical Center has changed its language to simply call it Phase 2. The graphic on its website explaining this is nearly the same, just different words.

Officials at TMC didn't explain change when we asked on July 1, July 7, July 8 and July 9.

In a statement, an outside communications company hired by TMC told 13 Investigates, "Thank you for reaching out! For TMC-specific numbers, please refer to the "Overview of TMC Bed Status" slide on the website found here: https://www.tmc.edu/coronavirus-updates/overview-of-tmc-bed-status/. TMC bed numbers are based on what member hospitals report to TMC directly each day. Phase 2 reflects a planned increase in Intensive Care capacity through increasing staffing levels and ratios, mobilizing additional Intensive Care equipment and utilizing additional beds. The total bed availability may fluctuate over time given ongoing planning and operation considerations. Please let me know if you have any additional questions!"

That statement refers us to the same website we had questions about and asks us to let them know about additional questions. We tried to follow up twice in email and twice on the phone with the spokesperson who sent that to us. We also emailed the TMC CEO. We never heard back from any of our follow-ups.

Thursday evening after a shift at a Houston area hospital, Dr. Issacson told us we all deserve better numbers and would love hospitals to report, "Which hospitals had the staffing levels, which hospitals weren't at capacity, which hospitals are you going to show up to and not be transferred to another one?"

SETRAC will again report tomorrow how many patients are waiting in ERs for a hospital bed.

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