LBJ and Ben Taub make staffing adjustments to deal with COVID-19 surge

HOUSTON, Texas (KTRK) -- Both LBJ and Ben Taub hospitals serve a lot of uninsured and indigent patients. The hospitals are part of the Harris Health System. Those hospitals, like many across Houston, are seeing a surge in COVID-19 patients.

LBJ's ICU is over capacity. They're now adding beds to treat patients. Ben Taub, one of the trauma Level One hospitals in the city, is at 80 percent.

"What I'm afraid of, in about a week, 10 days from now, on top of what we're observing now, we're going to surge from New Year's gatherings," said Dr. Esmaeil Porsa, president and CEO of Harris Health System.

Harris Health System started cutting back on elective surgeries weeks ago, ahead of the trigger that required the cutback this week. That helped, but staffing is still a concern.

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Harris County could soon be going back to early COVID-19 restrictions after hospitalizations passed the state's threshold, but in neighboring counties, residents say they are putting their foot down.

To provide more staff, Harris Health System is temporarily closing two clinics and using that staff to bridge the hospitals' staffing gaps.

"You try to close down a clinic where there is another clinic in proximity so that patients can actually have another option," said Porsa.

In addition, many appointments can be done virtually now.

While closing the clinic can help, there are still two big staffing challenges the hospitals have now that they didn't have in July during the last big surge. For one, they're losing nurses. They are getting lucrative offers for more pay as many parts of the country are seeing spikes in cases.

"Nurses are being recruited right and left to other areas that are able to pay them some god-awful numbers that we cannot compete with," said Porsa.

The other issue is the staff that they need to vaccinate patients is also the staff they need to run the hospital.

"So it's really making it challenging, trying to figure out where do you rob Peter to pay Paul? Where do you put the staff? What is more important -- taking care of a COVID patient or vaccinating?" said Porsa.

But there are some good things. Since they're learned a lot more about the disease, Porsa says patient stays are shorter than before. He also expects things to improve in February as gatherings slow down and doses of the vaccine go up.

FULL INTERVIEW: Harris Health Systems CEO talks about new challenges with latest surge
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FULL INTERVIEW: CEO of Harris Health Systems, Dr. Esmaeil Porsa, draws a bleak picture about critical staffing levels at Ben Taub and LBJ hospitals, the latter of which has maxed its hospital capacity.

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