AMARILLO, Texas (KAMR/KCIT) – For the second week in a row, health leaders from the City of Amarillo briefed the community on the state of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The briefing came amid a recent “exponential” spike in hospitalizations from COVID-19, stretching healthcare resources thin and leaving patients across the region waiting in emergency rooms or in rural areas for available space and staff. It also followed strengthened CDC recommendations for booster shots, and reports from Pfizer claiming that booster shots of its COVID-19 vaccine have proven effective against variants such as omicron.
Amarillo Public Health Department Director Casie Stoughton expressed a hope for the community to work towards a safe and healthy Christmas. The Public Health Department has continued to offer COVID-19 vaccinations and booster shots on a walk-in basis for all people eligible, and Stoughton continued the fervent urge by healthcare leaders for community members to be vaccinated.
Northwest Texas Healthcare System’s (NWTH) Dr. Brian Weis opened his comments with, “I’m panicked,” regarding the state of the healthcare system both nationally and specifically in the Amarillo area.
“I have never seen the system so much on the brink of collapse,” Weis said, as the number of people hospitalized from COVID-19 has continued to drastically rise over the last few weeks.
Amarillo’s Trauma Service Area, Area A, Weis said, has reported the highest COVID-19 hospitalization rate across Texas out of its total of 22 designated service areas. He further noted that the NWTH ER has reported over 20 people each day waiting for care. Across the region, as the hospital continues to get calls requesting space for patients from even out of state areas, there were 29 patients waiting for care on Wednesday morning. 19 of those, according to Weis, have been in need of critical care.
For those able to be treated in the hospital, Weis said NWTH had 68 COVID-19 patients on Wednesday morning, with 28 of that number in the ICU and 18 of those patients on ventilators. Around 33 members of staff have been in quarantine.
Staffing, Weis said, has remained among the most critical struggles the healthcare system faces. While no staff have left NWTH due to issues such as vaccine requirements, Weis said that 50% of its nursing positions are empty. Between supply chain issues, severe staffing shortages, and viruses such as COVID-19 and RSV and influenza making patients in need of care, he described hospitals as dealing with a crisis.
BSA Healthcare System’s Dr. Michael Lamanteer presented similar concerns to Weis. He noted he has been, “highly concerned” about the way the healthcare system and infrastructure has been taxed. With 34 staff quarantined at BSA, he also noted the ongoing staffing difficulty and a request to the RAC for physicians.
Lamanteer reported 110 COVID-19 patients hospitalized at BSA, a “very disturbing” number with a significant rise since October. 40 of those COVID-19 patients were noted to be in the ICU, with 24 of those on ventilators.
With around 24 people on hold in the ER Wednesday morning and 45 out of 48 ICU beds occupied, Lamanteer noted grimly that it has been critically difficult, or even not possible, to accept regional patients waiting for care. 57 patients have gone through the respiratory triage unit at BSA, also, “in the last 24 hours.”
Both Lamanteer and Weis said that not only has vaccination remained important, but the booster shot is “critical.” The vast majority of patients hospitalized for COVID-19 have not been vaccinated.
“The best way to help us, and to help you,” said Lamanteer, “is to get vaccinated.”
Because of the staffing shortage and high number of patients in need of care, Lamanteer and Weis later discussed the fact that regional patients have had to be evaluated for priority in triage care. Those comments were evocative once again of crisis standard policies, though BSA recently stated it was not operating in that manner and NWTH had not responded to MyHighPlains.com questions about its individual policy.
“…If we don’t have some reprieve soon,” Lamanteer commented at the end of his initial briefing remarks, “it’s going to be a long winter.”
The Amarillo VA Hospital’s Dr. Rodney Gonzalez reported four COVID-19 patients, two of whom were on ventilators. Once again, Gonzalez continued to agree with other healthcare leaders in encouraging every eligible person to be vaccinated against COVID-19 to effectively lower the odds of severe infection, hospitalization, and death.