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Laredo Officials Brace For More COVID-19 Cases As Local Hospitalization Rate Reaches Top 5 In Texas

U.S Army critical care nurses 1st Lt. Charles Gilcrist and 1st Lt. Lauryn Hudgins from Urban Augmentation Medical Task Force - 627 work to provide medical care to a COVID-19 patient alongside Baptist Hospital medical staff in San Antonio, July 10, 2020.
Luis A. Deya | U.S. Army

The hospitalization rate for the Laredo hospital region peaked at 29.5% on Sunday, the highest for Laredo so far and the third-highest reported in Texas that day.

“It’s the highest we’ve ever been,” Laredo Health Director Richard Chamberlain said during a briefing Monday afternoon. “And this is predicted to go up due to the family gatherings that were observed over the Thanksgiving holiday and the travel that was associated with that holiday.”

The Laredo area’s hospitalization rate only trailed behind the 37.7% rate for the Panhandle hospital region and 36.8% rate for the El Paso region on Sunday, according to state data mapped by the Texas Tribune. On Monday, it fell slightly to fourth-highest at 28.1%.

Laredo and Webb County’s death toll also surpassed 400 on Monday with 403 deaths reported since the onset of the pandemic. Laredo Health Authority Dr. Victor Treviño said all hospital units are at or near capacity, despite previous efforts to expand capacity.

“This morning we had 23 people waiting in the emergency rooms for admissions,” he said. “If this trend continues, for safety reasons and the contagious nature of the virus, these hospitals may need to start asking patients, after they triage, to wait in their vehicles to avoid overcrowding in the emergency rooms.”

On Monday afternoon, 129 people were reported to be hospitalized, including 46 in intensive care units. Laredo hospitals have struggled with staffed bed shortages before, but Mayor Pete Saenz said he is increasingly worried they will not receive timely medical reinforcements from the state.

“We’ve had limitations before, they’re growing,” Saenz. “There’s a strong likelihood that they will not be sending resources as we need them. That’s very disturbing, very concerning.”

Under these constraints, some Laredo patients were transferred to San Antonio last week, but Saenz said San Antonio hospitals are not taking more transfers. As of Monday 78 patients from El Paso with COVID-19 were being treated in San Antonio hospitals. Laredo officials are looking at hospitals in the Rio Grande Valley, but they know cases are also rising in The Valley.

He also said capacity hasn't been growing because Laredo hospitals have lost some medical staff hired by the state for higher pay, who are then placed back in local hospitals.

“We need to plan for the worst case,” Saenz said.

After Laredo’s two major hospitals became overwhelmed in the summer, a Laredo standalone emergency room and a specialty long-term care facility began taking in COVID-19 patients this fall.

Now, officials said they’re looking to work with more local providers to care for the expected wave of COVID-19 patients in December because of Thanksgiving gatherings. They are also looking to create a tent facility to triage new patients and plan to ramp up enforcement of public health measures.

Laredo and Webb County reported 241 new COVID-19 cases on Monday, and Laredo City Manager Robert Eads said he and his family had also recently tested positive. He said he would be working from home while isolating.

“Just as concerning to everyone as well is to know that you could be doing everything exactly spot on obviously, but corona can catch up to you,” he said. “COVID can catch up to you, and you just have to make the best of it, so we’ll work through it, but we’re praying for everyone that is suffering.”

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María Méndez can be reached at maría@tpr.org or on Twitter at @anxious_maria