HOUSTON—At one hospital, patients were being rejected from overflowing emergency rooms after waiting upwards of 24 hours. Across town, another facility was stockpiling refrigerated trailers for temporary storage in anticipation of a surge of the dead.
Early this week, officials estimated COVID-19 patients accounted for half of the intensive care unit population in Texas’ Harris County, the third-largest county in the United States, which includes Houston. Every indication is that those numbers will continue to rise.
“We’re completely out of our depth here,” one Houston ER nurse, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of professional retaliation, told The Daily Beast on Tuesday. “We’ll have non-COVID-19 patents come in and wait for hours—maybe all day—before we have to turn them away to make room for patients with the virus. This is an ongoing battle that we are losing, and we need help, fast.”
One of the earliest states to loosen coronavirus restrictions, Texas saw its case counts skyrocket in June and early July, and over the last week in Houston the hospital system has felt the effects of the cascading outbreak. Now, after weeks of officials and public health experts calling for Gov. Greg Abbott—who gets to decide how strict local rules are—to take control of the situation, some Houston residents feel no choice but to beg to be confined to their homes.
“If they decide to shut down again, we’re going to take another hit,” Karen Sellers, a designer at KMD Hospitality, a small Houston business that specializes in school cafeteria redesigns, told The Daily Beast. “But any way we can buy more time so we can slow [COVID-19] down is better.”
Harris County Public Health data on Tuesday reported new cases in the Houston area had risen by 4.3 percent, or 2,758 cases, overnight. To date, 466 people have died in the area and 47,369 have been infected—continuing a trend across much of the South and West after states lifted lockdown measures. Even worse, the agency’s executive director, Dr. Umair Shah, said Monday the percentage of tests that came back positive was increasing, showing the spike could not be explained by greater testing capacity.
Also on Tuesday, the Texas Department of State Health Services reported a record-high 10,745 new cases across the state, with 87 new deaths. All told, approximately 3,235 people had died and 275,058 people tested positive with the deadly virus in Texas—with Harris County reporting the most cases and fatalities.
In a Monday press conference calling for a “two-week shutdown” to “blunt” the deadly contagion, Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner stressed that while GOP Gov. Abbott has taken steps over the past several weeks to roll back some of his plans to reopen the state, it’s not enough.
"If we cannot have a shutdown, then at least step back to state’s Phase I. This will allow us to reset and reassess,” Turner later tweeted, hours after Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo, the county’s chief executive, urged “drastic action.”
The governor’s office did not immediately respond to The Daily Beast’s request for comment. Ada Ortega, the press secretary for the mayor’s office, told The Daily Beast Turner had not yet received a response about his shutdown proposal from Abbott as of Tuesday afternoon.
Meanwhile, local health experts believe Abbott needs to do more to help struggling Texas cities beyond expanded federal support to community testing sites and deployment of Department of Defense personnel to some hospitals. Dr. Peter Hotez, one of the country’s top infectious disease experts and a professor at Baylor’s College of Medicine, suggested the only way to curtail the surge of cases was to create a uniform approach across the Lone Star state.
So far, everything from mask rules to the capacity limits of businesses have varied widely, with judges and officials in suburban Houston openly saying they won’t enforce mask mandates.
“I think we need a policy covering all of the populated areas in the Texas triangle and South Texas where transmission is raging,” Hotez, who is also co-director of Texas Children's Hospitals Center for Vaccine Development, told The Daily Beast. “As long as the cases continue to spike, as well as ICU admissions, we’ll likely have to take additional measures.”
Hotez added that Turner and Hidalgo “seem to have a good understanding of what needs to be done” and believe that these local officials know what the “trigger” will be for dialing back reopening plans.
For Kyra Halbert-Elliott, a third-year biomedical engineering student at Georgia Tech who has been volunteering with Harris County as part of its mobile testing units since March, the need for change in the COVID-19 response was exemplified by surging demand.
“In the last week, we have processed about 200 people per day at each mobile site, which is a marked increase from when we started,” Halbert-Elliott told The Daily Beast, noting that testing hours had been moved earlier in the day to “protect everyone from the heat.”
While Abbott stressed in June that shutting Texas back down was the “last thing we want to do,” he has taken steps to try to pull off the balancing act of keeping both the state open and the virus at bay. Earlier this month, he issued a statewide order requiring face masks in certain Texas counties that have more than 20 positive COVID-19 cases.
Additionally, the U.S. Army was set to dispatch a specialty unit of 85 doctors, nurses, and other personnel to open a new COVID-19 care unit at United Memorial Medical Center in Acres Homes—a community hit hard by the virus.
Some residents, of course, refused to accept the idea of a new lockdown.
Anthony Coveny, an attorney and Harris County Tea Party leader, was still siding with Abbott on the need to keep the economy running, telling The Daily Beast that instead of another shutdown, Houston residents just need to be vigilant on the consistent use of masks and social distancing.
“From a strictly medical point of view, shutting down could help prevent spread in the short term—but we’re not going to prevent spread ultimately,” he said.
But according to the ER nurse in Houston, the governor’s attempts to stop the bleeding are not enough to relieve the siege on local hospitals. The situation has also forced one of Houston’s largest hospital systems, HCA Healthcare, to begin caring for dozens of virus patients in its emergency departments, a spokesperson told The Daily Beast. Outside HCA Healthcare Northwest, a large refrigerated trailer was set up earlier this month to be used as temporary storage for virus victims before going to funeral homes, the spokesperson confirmed.
And, as of July 10, at least one public hospital in Houston had run out of a remdesivir, an antiviral drug used to treat COVID-19 patients, according to ProPublica.
The nurse, who said she has worked “hundreds of hours at this point” in the emergency room, stressed that while some residents and state officials were worried about what a second shutdown might do to the economy, people should be more concerned about the “collapse of the public health-care system.”
“The government is helping us, sure, but there is only so much they can do,” she said. “We have so many patients we have to send non-COVID-19 people home. People that need medical attention. We need to nip this in the bud already.”
Terri Cervenka, a former public school teacher who still consults and substitute teaches in Houston schools, agreed with the nurse’s plea for a second shutdown. Admitting that as recently as last week she would not have supported such harsh action, she told The Daily Beast that some of her family, across the state, started testing positive for the virus.
“If what’s happening in my family is a fair representation of what’s happening in Texas, then we need to do something so we don’t overwhelm the medical system,” she said. “Our hospitals are screaming for help—what choice do we have but to keep people home so more people aren’t infected?”