Health officials: Amarillo area ‘one to two weeks’ behind El Paso, could overwhelm hospital system with COVID-19

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AMARILLO, Texas (KAMR/KCIT) — As Amarillo hospitals continue to see strained resources, our area is poised to overwhelm our hospital system with COVID-19.

On Friday, Nov. 20, the Texas Department of State Health Services (DSHS) data showed the Amarillo area’s COVID-19 hospitalization rate at 37.44% in Trauma Service Area A, just trailing hard-hit El Paso at 39.72%. According to DSHS, there were also six available ICU beds in all of Area A, which encompasses the top portion of the Panhandle.

“I think they’re probably a week or two behind El Paso,” said Texas Organization of Rural and Community Hospitals CEO and President, John Henderson on Friday. “But on a similar trajectory, you almost have this split-screen effect where we have really good encouraging news regarding the vaccine.”

Henderson continued, “But at least a couple more weeks to a month before that data turns into needles going into healthcare workers’ arms. And in the interim, for at least the next couple of weeks, we’ve got a really ugly situation playing out on the ground in these rural communities, where they’re just exceeding their capacity to treat in in every West Texas town.”

Henderson said rural and community hospitals are at a breaking point—both with staff issues and fostering transfers to larger hospitals.

“The normal transfer referral relationships are broken at the moment. You know, most Panhandle patients that need a higher level of care go to Amarillo, and it’s not that Amarillo is not doing everything they can to take everything they can—if you don’t have a bed and you can’t staff it with the nurse, it’s got to go somewhere else,” Henderson continued.

Hereford Regional Medical Center CEO Jeff Barnhart said he has already requested a tent from the State of Texas, like we recently saw in Lubbock, in anticipation of more COVID-19 patients.

Barnhart said earlier this week, their hospital saw an increase from 12 to 20 patients in a matter of six hours, while their med-surge floor has 28 beds in total.

“I’m gonna be honest with you, I’m very nervous about what’s going to happen in the next two weeks with Thanksgiving. I’m afraid that our numbers are going to go way up and so I’m trying to proactively been able to address that volume, and so we’re looking at setting up a different site in town to be able to handle overload,” Barnhart said.

Barnhart said he believes he should know by early next week whether the state will grant a tent to expand HRMC’s hospital capacity or potentially an already existing building in Hereford to serve as an alternative care site.

“The thing about it is the situation not only in Hereford, Texas, but Trauma Service A at the top of the Texas Panhandle is dire and the decisions that we make, good or bad, are gonna affect us in the next two weeks,” said Barnhart.

The State of Texas is helping to provide nurses to Amarillo hospitals, as well as smaller regional hospitals, as many are in quarantine, Henderson said.

“[It’s a] similar situation in Spearman, Texas, up in Hansford County, Dumas…Childress,” Henderson added. “Hospitals like Dalhart are trying to convert nursing home beds into COVID wings. Hospital CEOs, like Jeff in Hereford that you mentioned, are not only running with the ambulance, but he told a heart-rending story about donning PPE to sit with a COVID patient as they died just because he didn’t want them to die alone.”

Barnhart and Henderson both echoed CDC guidance asking people to stay home for Thanksgiving celebrations.

“I know Thanksgiving is a holiday for families and things like that but this is not a normal year,” Barnhart added. “…I’m concerned that we could have folks get together with their family and get some people very ill and in turn, it wouldn’t take a whole lot of, you know, critical patients to overwhelm our health system.”

Barnhart said at this juncture, it would be quite easy to overwhelm the area’s complete health system, especially if we see a steep increase in cases following the Thanksgiving holiday.

Henderson said, “Show the people that you love and your family, that you’re grateful for them by keeping them safe. If you respect frontline caregivers at your local community hospital, stay home if you can, because they’re going to be working through the holidays, taking care of more than they can handle. So do your part to try to ease that burden in your community.”

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