More people are seeking treatment for COVID-19 at Galveston County’s largest hospitals, but officials aren’t near pushing the panic button.
At least not yet.
“People don’t need to think of this doom and gloom,” said Dr. Gulshan Sharma, the medical director at the University of Texas Medical Branch. “We are here. If you show up to our emergency department, we will take care of you.”
Hospitalizations are among the measures used to judge the seriousness of the coronavirus pandemic. And they often are seen as a more reliable indicator of the seriousness in a community than the total number of cases, which includes people who show no symptoms or such mild systems they don’t require medical treatment.
About 4,740 people were being treated for the virus in Texas hospitals Thursday — the highest statewide total reported during the pandemic, according to the Texas Department of State Health Services.
By one frequently published and cited count by the Southeast Texas Advisory Council, Galveston County has 94 intensive care beds available between all hospitals. At times in June, Galveston County ICUs have been at 100 percent capacity, according to council data.
But daily counts don’t necessarily reflect a hospital’s ability to treat patients at a given time or what the unit’s situation will be for an extended period of time, Sharma said.
“The hospital beds are a very fluid situation,” Sharma said. “We have adequate space to expand to whatever we need to take care of patients in our county.”
Medical branch hospitals in League City and Galveston haven’t had to take emergency steps to increase their capacity because of an increase in coronavirus cases, Sharma said. There are plans in place to do that if needed, he said.
The medical branch has reassigned some nurses who would normally be working in outpatient services to inpatient duties in preparation for an increase in patients, Sharma said.
But the medical branch isn’t taking steps in Galveston County that were forced on some other parts of Texas.
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott on Thursday morning ordered hospitals in Harris, Dallas, Bexar and Travis Counties to stop elective surgeries to preserve bed space.
Because of the order, the medical branch will stop elective surgeries at its Clear Lake-area hospital but will continue doing elective procedures in Galveston County, Sharma said.
Officials with HCA Houston Healthcare Mainland did not respond Thursday to questions about its Texas City hospital. The hospital on Wednesday was below its ER and ICU capacity, spokeswoman Kim Mathes said.
“We have the ability to adjust our beds and units to care for a variety of patients as needed,” Mathes said.
WARNINGS AND WALKBACKS
Sharma’s message of reassurance came after the leaders of the Texas Medical Center, including University of Texas Medical Branch interim President Ben Raimer, published an open letter warning of the potential strain on hospital capacity caused by the increase in COVID-19 hospitalizations.
Also Wednesday, the medical center published data saying its hospitals’ ICU capacity could be surpassed by Thursday and its entire capacity overwhelmed within two weeks if current trends persisted.
By Thursday morning, however, the same hospital officials were tempering their warnings and reassuring residents that things were in control.
“I think the Texas Medical Center’s purpose was to urge people to do the right thing in the community and to do so by talking about capacity,” said Marc Boom, CEO of Houston Methodist Hospital, during a news conference Thursday morning. “I think it ended up unintentionally sounding an alarm bell too loudly about capacity.”
The medical center’s hospitals “clearly have capacity,” Boom said.
That point was reiterated by David Callender, the president and CEO of Memorial Hermann Health System.
“This pandemic is not eclipsing our capabilities,” Callender said. “Our hospitals have the capacity, staff and supplies to meet the health care needs of our community.”
READING THE NUMBERS
Interpreting the publicly published data about the strain on Galveston County hospitals is sometimes an effort in divination.
Various sources report on the daily status of hospitalizations, although the data is frequently presented as part of a larger region — or excludes data about how busy local hospitals are.
The Galveston County Health District has reported that 34 county residents were hospitalized every day from June 18 to June 25. The district’s figures report the number of people with Galveston County addresses who have been hospitalized.
At the same time, the Southeast Texas Regional Advisory Council reported the number of people hospitalized by COVID-19 in Galveston County facilities had increased from 85 people on June 18 to 149 people on June 25.
“As a member of the community, I would use that data to say to myself that COVID is really taxing the hospitals in the Galveston area,” said Darrell Pile, the CEO of the advisory council.
The council is a state-created independent organization that helps direct regional disaster responses, Pile said.
What data is available consistently shows there has been an increase in local hospitalizations from COVID-19 since the middle of May. The increase in hospitalizations corresponds with the increases in the total number of cases in the county.
Hospitalizations in Galveston County have not risen at the same rate as new cases are appearing, however.
Whereas the number of total cases of COVID-19 in Galveston County has increased by more than 200 percent since Memorial Day, the average number of people being treated in local hospitals on a daily basis has increased by 34 percent.
Officials have attributed the lower hospitalization rate to the fact that a larger number of people recently diagnosed with the virus have been under the age of 40.