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Small And Rural Cities Reaching Hospital Capacity Could Cause Another COVID-19 Surge

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Dominic Anthony Walsh | Texas Public Radio
UT Health RGV officials administer COVID-19 tests.

There are indications of a third COVID-19 surge in Texas and across the country driven by small cities and rural areas.

Smaller communities are also reaching capacity in their health care systems sooner than their big-city counterparts because they don’t have enough beds to care for patients.

In Texas, city officials in Lubbock, Amarillo and El Paso have all requested extra health care workers to help care for the rising number of COVID patients.

In Lubbock, specifically, hospitals now have the highest number of COVID-19 patients since the beginning of the pandemic. The number of people suffering complications from the disease nearly doubled in the first two weeks of October.

Elsewhere in Texas, communities like Waco and Kerrville are also reporting a rise in case numbers. In Waco, the Waco-McLennan County Public Health District has reported more than 9,200 cases since March. In mid-October, 59 people were in the hospital with the virus.

These numbers might appear low relative to larger metropolitan areas, but in McLennan County that means almost all of the ICU beds are in use.

Other smaller Texas cities that have been at or near their hospital capacity for weeks include Corpus Christi, Harlingen and McAllen.

Models created by University of Texas at San Antonio mathematics department chair Juan Gutierrez suggest that Texas is on its way to a third COVID surge driven by community spread in smaller cities and towns. This has taken many people by surprise, he said.

“Because these are small communities, the numbers in isolation don't look bad,” Gutierrez explained. “But when we look at the aggregation of more than 2,000 counties, this is driving the growth of the disease in many states in this moment.”

Models change if behavior changes. Gutierrez said that happened in Texas this summer. Even though there was a surge here, he said, his model predicted a more intense one. He said Gov. Greg Abbott’s mask mandate, issued in early July, made a big difference in the severity of the surge.

Gutierrez said his fall and winter model can also change, but people must be disciplined.

“This is the moment to put in place our best discipline, our best interventions (and) a consistent message from government and media,” Gutierrez said. “We can put a brake on this disease. We can decrease the number of deaths, just following very basic public health guidelines.”

Those guidelines include wearing masks, social distancing, avoiding large gatherings and washing your hands.

Reported and Produced by: Bonnie Petrie, Dominic Anthony Walsh, Sarah Self-Walbrick, Sam Cedar, Sean Mcminn

Sound Design and Music: Jacob Rosati

Executive Producer: Fernanda Camarena

Host: Bonnie Petrie

TPR News Director: Dan Katz

Texas Newsroom Managing Editor: Mark Memmott

Bonnie Petrie can be reached at Bonnie@TPR.org and on Twitter at @kbonniepetrie
Dominic Anthony Walsh can be reached at Dominic@TPR.org and on Twitter at @_DominicAnthony
Fernanda Camarena is a veteran of the public radio programs Latino USA and Reveal. She is a senior editor for The Texas Newsroom.