Rural hospitals struggling to transfer patients in need during COVID surge

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AMARILLO, Texas (KAMR/KCIT) — As this coronavirus surge continues, rural hospitals in the Texas Panhandle are facing a breakdown in the patient transfer process.

John Henderson, the president and CEO of the Texas Organization of Rural and Community Hospitals (TORCH), said hospitals in Amarillo and other urban areas in Texas remain strained.

As reported on August 4, Northwest Texas Hospital was already forced to turn away patients one week ago, citing staffing shortages and and increased number of COVID patients in the ICU.

Hospitals in the High Plains region faced a similar issue in fall of 2020, but Henderson said the difference is the virus variant.

“It’s COVID spikes related to the Delta variant and a couple of weeks ago, it was more regionalized. But, I think at this moment in Texas, and actually Oklahoma and Louisiana, we have everybody in the same situation,” Henderson said. “Which is, hospitals that are full, real staffing challenges, inability to transfer and even treat COVID and non-COVID patients. We’re in a bad spot.”

A hospital bed (Nexstar, file).

As a result, Henderson said transfers for patients at smaller, regional hospitals who require a higher of level of care, are being delayed.

“That’s the conundrum our hospitals find themselves in, trying to find the appropriate level of care for both the COVID patients and those that need more specialized physician services, like cardiac patients and stroke patients,” Henderson added.

Jeff Barnhart, the president and CEO of the Deaf Smith County Hospital District, said the Hereford Regional Medical Center (HRMC) has beds available, but does not have the medical staff to care for every patient, especially those who have been through trauma.

“We’ve got six patients total. So, we’re still doing okay, as far as capacity goes, but I can tell you this this afternoon, our ER is covered up. It’s not all COVID, but it’s it’s covered up right now,” said Barnhart.

Barnhart said they have transferred two patients several hours away to Albuquerque in the past two weeks.

Jeff Barnhart, who helps transfer patients with the EMS service, in the back of an ambulance in 2020.

“Amarillo is getting full, Lubbock is full. We searched and searched for a patient that came in here yesterday morning and after about 12 hours, we located a bed for her in Albuquerque, New Mexico,” Barnhart said. “Of course, the second challenge with that is the transportation.”

Barnhart said they attempted to locate an aircraft for transport, calling three or four flight services, before ultimately deciding to drive the patient themselves.

“They weren’t flying last night, because of weather. We finally found one that said, ‘You know, we can wait ’til later, but you’re the fourth in line,'” he said.

Henderson said there are several other hospitals that have been unable to transfer patients in recent weeks.

“Some of the worst, most tragic stories I’ve heard this week came from Hemphill hospital in Canadian and Golden Plains in Borger,” Henderson said. “They’ve got significant transfer delays that are causing bad outcomes among their patients, both those with COVID and those without.”

Luckily, help is on the way for Texas hospitals facing staffing shortages.

Gov. Gregg Abbott and the Texas Department of State Health Services announced Wednesday evening they are deploying medical personnel to help mitigate the recent rise in COVID-19 cases.

According to that announcement, 2,500 medical personnel have been arranged for this deployment, which is fully funded by the State of Texas through September 30.

However, it is unclear whether, or how many, nurses and staff will be deployed to Amarillo hospitals or the surrounding area.

Prior to that announcement Wednesday, Henderson addressed the Governor’s efforts.

“At the end of the day, having a hospital bed is one thing, but it doesn’t do you much good if you can’t staff it,” Henderson said. “So, I hope to see an improvement in our capacity to treat from a nurse staffing standpoint in the coming weeks.”

When asked if he believed staffing more hospital beds would alleviate the transfer issues, Henderson said, “To some extent, it certainly will. If you can take care of patients locally, you don’t have to transfer them but there’s still going to be pressure on the healthcare system statewide for the remainder of August at least.”

Unfortunately, Henderson said other states are experiencing the same issues.

“I’ve actually talked to hospital leaders in Louisiana and Oklahoma today and they tell me it’s the exact same situation there with the same pressure,” Henderson said, noting the demand for medical staff across several states. “I think we can have some effect, but it’ll be incremental. It’s not going to be like flipping a switch.”

For weeks, federal, state, and local health officials have urged the public to get vaccinated to mitigate the spread of the virus.

“The State of Texas is taking action to ensure that our hospitals are properly staffed and supported in the fight against COVID-19,” said Governor Abbott on Wednesday. “Texans can help bolster the state’s efforts to combat the virus by getting vaccinated. The COVID-19 vaccine is safe and effective, and it is our best defense against the virus.”

While Amarillo’s COVID-19 vaccination clinic saw some increased demand in the past week, fewer than 40% of Potter and Randall Counties’ eligible populations are fully vaccinated.

“It’s nowhere near where we need to be and what you’re seeing in Potter and Randall county is what we see generally across rural Texas,” said Henderson. “For whatever reason, we’ve been lagging behind state and national indicators, and there’s just no more time to wait. You need to get vaccinated.”

He continued, “Get vaccinated so that you don’t have to receive health care of any kind and you can help bring down the pressure on urban and rural hospitals alike.”

Barnhart said the HRMC has seen a few breakthrough cases, meaning that fully vaccinated people tested positive, but the majority were not vaccinated.

“My medical staff continues to feel like this is going to be the pandemic of the unvaccinated. So, these are the ones that we’re seeing coming in, that are sick with this,” Barnhart said. “All of them would have been the Delta variant, with the exception of one. We had a Colombian variant.”

Barnhart said those interested in getting vaccinated against COVID-19 can call the hospital’s clinic.

The Amarillo Public Health Department is also open at 1000 Martin Rd. every Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. for free vaccinations.

Copyright 2021 Nexstar Media Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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