AMARILLO, Texas (KAMR/KCIT) — As of Wednesday, more than 150 patients were reported to be in one of the three Amarillo hospitals with COVID-19. Out of that total, officials reported that 56 of those patients were reported to be in the intensive care unit (ICU) in the facilities.
“We’re still having major challenges with staff. Some days, we have upwards of 25 people holding in our emergency room waiting for beds,” Brian Weis, the chief medical officer at the Northwest Texas Healthcare System, said during Wednesday’s COVID-19 news conference. “I know today, we have 17 people out in the region waiting to be transferred into a higher level of care but we certainly can’t accept it because of our staffing limitations. We have 32 staff members quarantined today because of COVID-19.”
The BSA Health System is also seeing staff issues in the midst of what Michael Lamnateer, BSA’s chief medical officer, calls a “high census.” Out of its 334 total patients it had in the hospital as of Wednesday, there were 18 patients on hold in the emergency room, as well as numerous others throughout the region.
“With increasing pressures from the smaller facilities that are in our Panhandle that need to transfer us patients that we want to accept, that we’ve been accepting, there’s only so much we can do when our beds are full and our staffing limitations are taxed,” Lamanteer said. “That’s the point that we’re at again.”
While that number is not as high as it has been historically, the lack of staff and state resources for the facilities have started to trickle down, impacting not only the Amarillo VA, BSA and Northwest, but regional facilities throughout the Texas Panhandle.
This comes as cases within the Texas Panhandle continue to rise. According to previous reports by MyHighPlains.com, the city of Amarillo’s public health department reported an increase of 333 new COVID-19 cases Thursday from Wednesday, while the region is reporting an 18.82% COVID-19 hospitalization rate.
According to data from the Texas Department of State Health Services, Trauma Service Area A, which consists of the counties in the Texas Panhandle as well as Potter and Randall counties, is reporting that 192 lab-confirmed COVID-19 patients were reported as hospitalized as of Thursday. Out of the total, 69 were reported to be in the ICU and 30 were admitted into the hospital in the last 24 hours.
Jeff Barnhart, the chief executive officer of the Deaf Smith County Hospital District, the entity that oversees the Hereford Regional Medical Center, said his hospital has also recently been full with COVID-19 patients.
“Probably a couple of weeks ago, we started back up, spiking again,” he said. “…We’ve had, you know, as high as 13 or 14 patients and 100% COVID. Interestingly enough, 100% unvaccinated as well. And then, of course, we’ve got a two-bed ICU and that’s been full as well.”
In Moore County, Ronda Crow, the chief nursing officer at the Moore County Hospital District, said as of Thursday, they have nine COVID-19 patients, two of whom are on ventilators.
But with the current hospitalization situation in Amarillo, Crow said it has taken multiple hours, multiple phone calls and multiple people to find a place to transfer both COVID and non-COVID patients to hospitals that provide a higher level of care.
“It’s very difficult to transfer a patient, COVID or non COVID for that matter,” she said. “This weekend, we had to go all the way to Santa Fe, New Mexico with a patient on a ventilator and then we had to fly someone to Dallas Methodist for a surgery that we can’t do here on Monday. Nothing was available in Amarillo, Lubbock, Oklahoma City, any of those places.”
Regarding the patient who had to be sent to Santa Fe, Crow said that would not have been possible without the help of a regional community partner.
“One of our fellow communities on a volunteer ambulance volunteered when we called them to take the patient for us,” she said. “Because if I take my EMS crew, for example, out of town, and I only run two ambulances at a time, then that other ambulance can never leave town because they still have to be able to respond. We were lucky in that (situation)… that fellow community came in and said ‘hey, we’re volunteer, we’ll go and we’ll take him.’”
In the past year and a half, Barnhart also said his hospital has had to send patients to some of the same places, including New Mexico, Oklahoma City, and even as far as Kansas City. Right now, Dallas is the place where they mainly are sending patients, with both Amarillo and Lubbock not being able to take transfers.
As the president and chief executive officer of the Texas Organization of Rural and Community Hospitals (TORCH), John Henderson said regional rural hospitals across the Texas Panhandle are facing the same issues that have arisen in the numerous spikes of COVID-19 that have occurred during the pandemic.
For the rural hospitals, Henderson said they contact the larger hospitals first. If those locations cannot accept those patients, those facilities resort to looking outside the region, even outside the state, to find an accepting facility.
“It’s the expected approach. It’s not a normal situation. In normal times, most every patient from the rural areas of the Panhandle is going to end up at an Amarillo hospital when they have a higher acuity need. But these aren’t normal times,” Henderson said. “You know, it’s kind of any port in a storm: you take the bed where and when it’s available.”
The process of finding that facility for patients who need it impacts the level of care given to other patients, Henderson said.
“I think it almost certainly (negatively impacts) the care of the next person in line at the ER,” Henderson said. “You know, when they’re stuck trying to get a COVID or non-COVID transfer out, they can’t get to the next patient until they do it.”
But as the pandemic continues, Crow said the nurses are going to continue providing the care the best they can at the Moore County Hospital District, even if it may take a toll on some other hospital tasks.
“I do know that with staffing, you know, I have a limited number of beds, limited number of staff. I don’t have any travel nurses here,” she said. “So, what I do is I pull any nurse that’s not normally doing patient care to come up and help, but that also takes a toll on doing the other things that we need to do for the hospital.”
Because of this, Barnhart said it may impact the ability to transfer patients to other places.
“It’s sure not a good time right now to have a heart attack or, you know, an accident or any other medical condition simply because of the fact that we’re having a hard time, you know, finding hospitals to transfer to,” Barnhart said.
Based on what Barnhart has seen through his experience at the Hereford Regional Medical Center, he continues to encourage individuals to receive the COVID-19 vaccine.
“It’s pretty telling… when I’ve got a hospital full of sick, and critically ill, people and 100% of them are unvaccinated,” Barnhart said. “So this is something to think about and take seriously.”