El PASO — The state of Texas is deploying nearly 500 medical personnel and more than 100 pieces of medical equipment including ambulances, patient monitors and medical beds to this border city to help it combat a record-breaking surge of COVID-19 cases, Gov. Greg Abbott‘s office announced Thursday.
The move comes as novel coronavirus cases surge in many areas of the state. A new model by University of Texas at Austin researchers predicts that many parts of Texas could run out of intensive care unit beds within weeks if current growth rates continue.
The UT-Austin report, released Thursday, says that the El Paso area could run out of hospital beds by Nov. 8 and that five other regions have at least a 25% chance that COVID-19 patients will overwhelm hospital capacity within three weeks: Amarillo, Lubbock, Wichita Falls, San Angelo and Galveston.
Another 13 regions have at least a 25% chance that COVID-19 will overwhelm their ICU bed capacity, the UT-Austin report says.
“El Paso has the highest estimated risk of exceeding its health care capacity over the next three weeks, with an 85% probability of exceeding the estimated COVID-19 hospital capacity and 95% probability of exceeding the estimated COVID-19 ICU capacity,” the report states.
El Paso health officials reported 1,161 new cases of the disease Thursday, continuing two weeks of record-level cases in the area. Mayor Dee Margo said during a Thursday press conference that local officials have reached out to the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Department of Defense for assistance in providing extra hospital beds. El Paso is home to the Fort Bliss Army base, which includes William Beaumont Army Medical Center.
As of Thursday, the seven-day average of hospitalizations due to COVID-19 in the El Paso area was 500, with 571 people hospitalized Thursday, including 159 in intensive care.
“Hospitals are working very diligently on finding space to convert into an ICU or an area for COVID-19 patients,” said Dr. Hector Ocaranza, El Paso’s city and county health authority.
Last month, Abbott lifted statewide restrictions in most counties to allow certain businesses and restaurants to increase capacity to 75%. But the spike in cases in El Paso forced local officials to roll back the allowed maximum capacity at nonessential businesses to 50% to help contain the outbreak.
Officials said Thursday that more needs to be done.
“This message is to our business owners and community: We need your help to stop the spread,” Margo said. “We still want you to continue working and doing as much as you can toward a normal lifestyle. But be mindful that only we, by your behavior, can stop the spread.”
New COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations are on the rise across the state. Nearly 6,000 new cases of the virus were reported Thursday, according to state data, reaching levels not seen since August. New hospitalizations also increased by 668 over the last week; nearly 5,000 Texans were hospitalized with the virus as of Thursday.
Major cities, including the Dallas-Fort Worth area, have seen a steady increase in the spread of the coronavirus since the start of October. Last week, Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins upgraded the region’s warning level to red — the highest possible.
“We are seeing an increase in COVID-19 bed utilization at our hospitals and we are back to the highest numbers that we’ve seen since August in four of our hospital systems,” Jenkins said in a statement Wednesday. “It is not a time to lose our resolve. Things will get better.”
Parts of the Panhandle also are experiencing a rapid growth in cases, with coronavirus patients making up more than 16% of all hospital patients in the region. Area hospitals only have nine available ICU beds, state data shows.
Houston’s COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations haven’t risen as fast as in other parts of the state. The city’s medical experts say they are prepared to handle a surge in cases, and they are closely eyeing the trend and urging residents to follow guidance from health authorities.
“In order to continue success, we have to work with our community and our community has to do all the right things together,” Dr. Umair Shah, executive director of the Harris County Public Health Department, told The Texas Tribune last week.
BY JULIÁN AGUILAR AND SHAWN MULCAHY, texastribune.org