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Hospitals In San Antonio Are Filling With COVID-19 Patients, Only 10% Of Staffed Beds Available

Led by Dr. Joseph Varon, medical workers prepare to intubate a coronavirus disease (COVID-19) patient at the United Memorial Medical Center's coronavirus disease (COVID-19) intensive care unit in Houston, Texas, U.S., June 29, 2020.
Callaghan O'Hare | REUTERS
Led by Dr. Joseph Varon, medical workers prepare to intubate a coronavirus disease (COVID-19) patient at the United Memorial Medical Center's coronavirus disease (COVID-19) intensive care unit in Houston, Texas, U.S., June 29, 2020.

This post has been updated. It was originally published on Sunday, July 5, at 10:48 p.m.

San Antonio hospitals are under duress, and they have been for weeks. As COVID-19 hospitalizations and new cases increase, staffed hospital beds and ventilator capacity are decreasing.

The lack of availability of beds and ventilators is concerning for Bexar County and the smaller, rural counties that may rely on San Antonio hospitals for intensive care.
Mayor Ron Nirenberg, speaking on CNN Monday morning, said San Antonio is on the verge of losing its capacity.

"From the beginning of June, this was a stark difference, and we had one of the lowest infection rates of any big city in the country. And now we are looking at an acceleration of cases and if the pace continues, we're a week away from running out of hospital beds and ICU capacity,” Nirenberg said.

He added this is a dangerous situation. He said people need to do what they can to help limit the spread of this virus, which in some ways is as simple as putting a face covering between you and another person.

In the San Antonio area, hospital capacity is dipping steeply. On Sunday, June 28, 25% of staffed beds in local hospitals were available. This Sunday, July 5, that number dropped to 10%.

“Everybody is doing what they can to open up new beds. We're being creative,” said Dr. Ruth Berggren, infectious disease expert for UT Health San Antonio. “We are using post-surgical acute care units for COVID patients and trying as best we can to care for our patients inside the brick and mortar hospital walls, which is the best place to take care of them.”

Ventilator availability is also shrinking: it dropped from 72% to 57% between June 28 and July 5.

In an interview on TPR’s “The Source,” Berggren said the surge of cases Bexar County has seen has put this strain on the region’s hospital system, which has been under “high stress” for weeks.

“We have been seeing consistently — since at least the 24th of June, every single day — it's been 10% to even 19% increase in the number of cases from the day before,” Berggren said. “So if you increase on average 10% per day, you have a doubling every seven days.”

Colleen Bridger, assistant city manager and interim director of Metro Health in San Antonio, said on TPR’s “The Source” that the city’s focus is on decreasing cases altogether, which she said will lead to a decrease in stress on the hospital system.

“It’s very, very clear that our healthcare system is extremely stressed right now. And you know, they're doubling every week. And if that keeps happening, we're going to run out of bed space. So that's why we're so focused on decreasing the number of cases. Because if we can decrease the number of cases that will result in a decrease in the number of people needing to go to the hospital,” Bridger said.

But even if the increase of cases in San Antonio slows, other counties rely on the city’s medical industry. Last week, Laredo Medical Center’s COVID-19 unit reached capacity due to lack of staffing. The state responded by sending back-up medical staff from San Antonio.

| Related: Laredo Confronts 'Managed Crisis' After Sharp Rise In Hospitalizations From COVID-19 |

In the Rio Grande Valley, 10 of 12 hospitals in Hidalgo, Cameron and Starr counties are full. The hospitals have begun to transfer patients elsewhere, including to San Antonio.

Erik Epley, the executive director for the Southwestern Texas Regional Advisory Council said 250 additional nurses from other parts of the state have arrived in San Antonio to help as of Monday.

A similar action has been taken for hospitals in the Rio Grande Valley: More than 100 healthcare professionals, including nurses and epidemiologists from across the state, have been sent to the region to assist staff last week.

Over the weekend, 10 of the 12 hospitals in the Rio Grande Valley were at capacity for staffed beds.

Many small rural hospitals rely on San Antonio medical centers for intensive care, and the city is still accepting transfers.

In addition to local hospitals, the City of San Antonio has opened up other venues as potential alternate care centers, including Freeman Coliseum.

Epley said Freeman Coliseum would need additional staff and about five days to "warm up" before staffers would open it to patients. The Texas Center for Infectious Diseases could also be used for COVID-19 patients if the need arose.

However, those options are not yet required, Epley said.

Kathleen Creedon can be reached at kathleen@tpr.org or on Twitter at @Kath_Creedon.

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