COVID cases pushing Houston hospitals to near breaking point

HOUSTON, Texas -- Houston area officials say the latest wave of COVID-19 cases is pushing the local health care system to nearly "a breaking point," resulting in some patients having to be transferred out of the city to get medical care, including one who had to be taken to North Dakota.

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Dr. David Persse, who is health authority for the Houston Health Department and EMS medical director, said some ambulances were waiting hours to offload patients at Houston area hospitals because no beds were available. Persse said he feared this would lead to prolonged respond times to 911 medical calls.

"The health care system right now is nearly at a breaking point ... For the next three weeks or so, I see no relief on what's happening in emergency departments," Persse said.

Last weekend, a patient in Houston had to be transferred to North Dakota to get medical care. Persse said he has an ill family member in Livingston, about 70 miles northeast of Houston, who wound up being taken to Shreveport, Louisiana.

"Our problem today is a nursing shortage. We have hospitals in the region that have physical beds but don't have nurses to staff them," Persse said. Other hospitals around the state are facing similar nursing shortages.

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An 11-month-old girl with COVID-19 and who was having seizures had to be transported on Thursday from Houston to a hospital 170 miles away in Temple, said Harris Health System spokeswoman Amanda Callaway. She told The Associated Press that since Lyndon B. Johnson Hospital in Houston doesn't have inpatient pediatrics, children who come there needing hospitalization are typically transferred.

"We looked at all five major pediatric hospital groups and none (had beds) available," Patricia Darnauer, the administrator for LBJ Hospital, told KTRK-TV.

Officials at the Texas Medical Center, a sprawling medical complex made up of Houston's major hospitals, were also sounding the alarm.

"Hospitalizations across the Texas Medical Center are escalating at a pace we have not observed since the highest COVID-19 peak in summer 2020. Among patients hospitalized with COVID-19, a majority are younger and unvaccinated," William F. McKeon, CEO of Texas Medical Center, said in a statement.

According to the Texas Medical Center, 336 new COVID-19 patients were admitted to its hospitals on Thursday, compared to 72 on July 7.

The rise in COVID-19 cases is being blamed on the highly contagious delta variant. Persse estimated that 85% to 95% of COVID patients in Houston area hospitals are unvaccinated.

On Friday, there were 8,522 people in Texas hospitals with COVID-19, the most since Feb. 11.

Since July 1, coronavirus hospitalizations in Texas have increased by 436%, according to data from the Texas Department of State Health Services. The state reported more than 7,900 hospital beds were available on Friday, including 450 ICU beds.

The rising hospitalization and positivity rate in the Houston area prompted Houston Independent School District Superintendent Millard House II on Thursday to announce he plans to ask the school board during its meeting next week to approve a mandate requiring all students, teachers and staff to wear masks. Classes in the Houston school district, the state's largest, begin Aug. 23.

"We know that we're going to get pushback for this," House said. "If we have an opportunity to save one life, it's what we should be doing."

If approved, the mask mandate would go against an executive order Gov. Greg Abbott repeated last month banning such mandates by any state, county or local government entity.

New guidance issued Thursday by the Texas Education Agency reiterated school districts can't require students or staff to wear masks. The guidance also stated school systems won't be required to conduct COVID-19 contact tracing when positive cases are identified and schools will not be required to directly inform parents when there's a positive case on a campus, something which had been done in the previous school year. The guidance also said that parents of children who come in close contact with someone who tested positive don't have to keep their kids at home in quarantine.

Legislation ensuring masks and vaccinations are not mandatory in schools is one of the items Abbott hopes to pass during the next special legislative session he's called for and which begins on Saturday.

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Associated Press writer Jamie Stengle in Dallas contributed to this report.
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