The University of Medical Branch was bracing Monday for a wave of COVID-19 cases, laying plans to add beds, establishing remote triage centers, and urging people to call before they sought care at any of its facilities, interim President Ben Raimer said.
As of Monday morning, 21 patients were under investigation for COVID-19 in the medical branch’s four area hospitals and two had tested positive for the virus at Jennie Sealy Hospital on the Galveston campus, officials said.
The medical branch, which has 600 beds at various hospitals, plans to increase that number substantially in coming weeks, including the number of intensive care beds, Raimer said.
All of the medical branch’s campuses were ready for more virus-related admissions and that number was expected to go up exponentially by the end of this week, Raimer said.
Also as of Monday morning, about 8 percent of patients tested for the virus showed positive results, meaning they are infected with the COVID-19 virus, up from 4 percent over the weekend, he said.
“If that number is solid, more people having positive tests would mean the virus is spreading pretty rapidly through the community,” he said, cautioning the percentage of positive patients tested could continue to climb.
“We’re looking at our estimates on viral replication, and by the end of next week we expect to see large numbers of people presenting with the virus,” Raimer said.
As of Monday, Galveston County health officials have reported 18 positive cases.
Raimer borrowed a saying attributed to hockey great Wayne Gretzky to illustrate what’s happening at the medical branch in preparation for a surge in cases.
“Success in playing hockey is knowing where the puck is going to go in the next few seconds,” Raimer said. “We’re trying to look at where the disease is going to go in the next few weeks. We’ll be constantly updating and bringing new things online.”
Among those new things will be triage units housed in tents outside medical branch hospital emergency rooms and outside urgent care centers, Raimer said.
“The idea is to create two different access points of care,” he said. “This will automatically separate out patients who fear they might have COVID-19 and are symptomatic, keeping them from going into the emergency room.
“Remember, we have to remain open to broken bones and other health crises at all times.”
Patients suspecting they might have COVID-19 should call first, and if they need to be seen will be told exactly where to go, Raimer said. They will be assessed and sent to testing sites, or to evaluation sites to make a prompt diagnosis, although testing requires a day to wait for results.
“Most people, if they’re not ill, will simply be sent back home to await their test results,” Raimer said. “If they’re positive, we’ll treat them based on their symptoms. Remember, 80 percent of people who have coronavirus are likely to complete a course of care without going into the hospital.”
But even 20 percent of a widely infected segment of the population within the county, with a total population over 300,000, could mean a lot of hospital beds will be needed, he said.
Keeping medical branch personnel safe, uninfected and able to work is a top priority and requires a surplus of personal protective equipment such as masks, gowns and gloves, Raimer said.
“At all our major sites, behind the scenes we’ve been amassing a stockpile of N-95 masks, special gowns and gloves, the things healthcare providers wear to remain safe,” he said.
“We’ve been concerned about having enough available, then this weekend we got calls from people with products to sell as well as an incredible number of people in the community who stepped up to donate to the university.”
Raimer cautioned that staying away from other people is the only way to avoid becoming infected, along with good hygiene practices like regular hand washing and spraying countertops and other surfaces with disinfectant.
He urged anyone thinking of going into one of the medical branch’s clinics, the emergency room or urgent care facilities to call first to receive instructions on where to go and what to do. The medical branch’s COVID-19 access center can be reached day or night at 800-917-8906 or 409-772-2222.