Amarillo hospitals near capacity, no staffing help coming as cases surge


AMARILLO, Texas (KAMR/KCIT) — During Wednesday’s City of Amarillo COVID-19 briefing, health leaders said area hospitals are near capacity as the surge of new cases continues.

Dr. Brian Weis, the Chief Medical Officer for Northwest Texas Hospital, said there is a national shortage or hospital staff, particularly nurses, which is causing long waits to get into hospitals.

“We are no different in Amarillo here,” Dr. Weis said on Wednesday. “I can tell you if you come to the hospital and you are sick enough to be admitted to the hospital, you are likely to wait in our emergency room for quite a while for a bit.”

Dr. Weis said this is a major concern, as we are three weeks away from the start of school. He said he anticipates a much faster move in the virus when school starts.

“We are really almost at capacity in the hospitals in Amarillo and in Lubbock,” Dr. Weis continued. “So, please keep yourself safe. Please do what you need to do to prevent getting sick—vaccine, mask, distancing, everything—because at this point, you know the hospitals are somewhat strapped to be able to take care of this surge of patients.”

Public Health Authority, Dr. Todd Bell, said they are using current metrics to predict how hospitals will be affected and what they will soon need, but the strain means hospitals have fewer internal resources to utilize.

“I was seeing a patient this morning down in the emergency room that had been there, certainly longer than what is the norm because we’re waiting for a bed to be available,” Dr. Bell said on Wednesday. “Well, that’s the part of the issue is that COVID actually puts a strain on the entire healthcare system, not just on those folks that are directly taking care of COVID.”

Dr. Weis said they are already being forced to turn away outside patients.

“We are having to decline requests for transfers from outside hospitals, no doubt about it. I can tell you just talking to some of the regional facilities, they’ve had certain days where they had a patient that needed a higher level of care and unfortunately, could not get that patient to either Hospital in Amarillo, or either of the hospitals in Lubbock, because of these same constraints,” said Dr. Weis.

With higher positivity rates and more hospitalizations, Dr. Rodney Gonzales, Medical Center Director of the Amarillo VA Healthcare System, said they are feeling the same stress.

“Not only are we seeing the same thing where our hospital has been full on many days. You know, when those community hospitals are full, then we have nowhere to send our patients,” Dr. Gonzalez said. “So, you’re seeing the same thing. You’re seeing delays here in our emergency room because they’re having to hold on to patients longer, trying to figure out where we can get them to get the care they need.”

During the surge last fall, Amarillo hospitals ramped up to meet the need, but Amarillo City Manager Jared Miller said it would be much harder to do now.

“Because their available pool of employees and nurses that they need to be able to ramp up and step up operations like they did last time doesn’t exist anymore, either. Because those people are no longer available, they have been tasked to other areas that are not available for tasking here, or for a variety of reasons,” Miller said. “If we continue to have our hospitals be overtaxed…we can expect to see our residents and people who need to be in our hospitals and want to be in our hospitals being sent to other locations, no telling how far away.”

Miller continued, “We really need to take very assertive, proactive steps to make sure that we can maintain our capacity in our hospitals for our local residents.”

Dr. Weis said at the height of last year’s surge, staffing help came from the Panhandle Regional Advisory Council. However, that help is not coming this time.

“We have been told that that cavalry does not exist anymore. There will not be any nurses coming from the RAC, or from the state. We’ve been given a list of a number of nursing or temporary nursing agencies, just calling a handful of them, they have no nurses available,” Dr. Weis said.
“So, that’s our biggest concern at the hospital is that cavalry is not coming in, we don’t have that help that’s going to come back us up. So, we’re really dependent on the staff we have, and keeping those staff well and protected.”

Dr. Gonzalez said during the surge last fall, the Amarillo VA also helped by taking non-veteran patients. He said on Wednesday that request must come from the state, and then the VA would determine if it is possible to help.

“I was told last week that some of those talks have already started. But as of right now, I have not heard that we’ve been approved to accept what we call fourth mission patients,” Dr. Gonzalez added. “But I do want to highlight right now our hospital’s full too. So, even if I had that approval right now, I would not be able to accept any.”

If the surge continues, Dr. Weis said Amarillo hospitals are considering working with other area hospitals to pool their resources. He said several community hospitals around Amarillo still have staff and beds, but not doctors available.

“We were actually talking to them about, you know, if we could provide some of the physician expertise through telehealth processes, would they be willing to take some of these patients, knowing that they may have a little more available staff or beds than we do at any particular time?” Dr. Weis said. “So again, no option is being disregarded at this point as to what’s going to happen if we see a surge way beyond where we are right now.”

According to Dr. Weis, because Amarillo’s COVID-19 status level is based on hospital criteria, including ICU beds, we could remain there for quite a while.

He continued, “Unless something changes, you know, I’m concerned that with our staffing challenges, this could go on for quite a while in terms of trying to drop back to a lower level based on the resources, the hospitals have.”

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