WACO, TX – Workers spread thin at Waco’s two hospitals are holding the line, even as officials stand at the ready with plans to use overflow space outside the facilities if necessary, representatives of both hospitals said during a weekly press conference.
Dr. Marc Elieson, representing Baylor Scott & White Hillcrest Medical Center, and Dr. Brian Becker, representing Ascension Providence Medical Center, said the organizations remain equipped to deal with the new highs in COVID-19 hospitalizations seen this week, though they have concerns, including about what the weeks after Thanksgiving will bring. Hillcrest and Providence were treating a combined 94 COVID-19 patients as of Wednesday, up from 69 a week earlier and 44 at the end of last month.
Mayor Dillon Meek said the average number of new cases per day continued to increase heading into the holiday, and further increases in hospitalizations and then deaths are likely to follow. The 96 COVID-19 patients in Waco hospitals as of Tuesday marked the high point.
“While I am thankful for our hospitals who have good news to report in terms of capacity, that is not guaranteed or assured,” Meek said.
Mobility data indicates people in McLennan County have not adjusted their behavior in response to this month’s spike in cases in the way they did as a spike in cases started over the summer, Waco Family Health Center CEO Dr. Jackson Griggs said. The data, collected by Google and presented by the University of Texas School of Public Health in Houston, indicates activity at workplaces, retail sites, bars and restaurants is down and activity at homes is up compared to pre-pandemic baseline levels.
However, the retail and recreational category that includes bars and restaurants, among other categories, has remained flat over the past month, though it showed a further decrease in activity over the summer, Griggs said.
“What concerns me is that while numbers are climbing rapidly, we’re not seeing a commensurate decrease in visitation to these areas that pose the greatest risk of spreading the virus,” Griggs said.
Dr. Elieson, with Hillcrest, said he is disheartened by the number of noses he has seen poking out over masks, but he is not sure how to impart the importance of masks and social distancing in a way that will make people understand.
“We’ve tried to be clear. We tried to be helpful. The governor has even made a state mandate to wear masks and to restrict some of our activities,” Elieson said. “But we’re still just not there as a community yet, and consequently we’re having a huge surge. And people are getting sick and some people are dying.”
The Waco-McLennan County Public Health District reported 212 new COVID-19 cases in residents of the county Wednesday, bringing the total number of active cases to 1,408 and the cumulative total to 14,029. The health district also announced Wednesday that three more residents of the county have died because of the virus, bringing the death toll to 185. There were 76 active COVID-19 cases among the 17 long-term care facilities in the county with at least one confirmed case, and the county has seen 72 fatalities associated with long-term care facilities. There were two active cases at McLennan County Jail. There were three active clusters of cases associated with local churches.
On a per capita basis, the county is seeing significantly more new cases than both the sate and the country as a whole, Griggs said. The county’s daily number of new cases, on a rolling seven-day average, was at 73 cases per 100,000 residents, compared to 52 for the country and 38 for the state.
Out of the 94 COVID-19 patients in local hospitals as of Wednesday, 72 are McLennan County residents and 16 were on ventilators.
Becker and Elieson both said their respective hospitals still have ventilator capacity and plans for overflow space outside of the hospitals if it ever becomes necessary.
Becker said Ascension Providence, as usual, has a small number of patients who came from outside the surrounding area, but no COVID-19 patients have been transferred in from another hospital.
“The positivity rate in Austin is certainly far below what we see in our area, so our sister Ascension facilities in Austin have been absorbing most of the transfer requests that we get, so as to keep our facility within ability to manage our patients here locally,” Becker said.
Elieson said so far only one COVID-19 patient, from the El Paso area, has been transferred into Baylor Scott & White Hillcrest.
Both officials said the hospitals have solid supplies of personal protective equipment and medication, staff members are feeling the weight of months of heavy workloads, losing patients to the virus, filling in for sick coworkers and falling sick themselves.
Becker said Ascension’s staff, like the rest of the community, is growing weary.
“They’re taking care of people who are sick, and that can be frustrating,” Becker said. “The ability to interact with these patients is pretty limited. … It is a taxing job: I’d say our nursing staff, first and foremost, but it goes across all positions.”
Both hospitals have longstanding relationships with agencies that provide nurses on a temporary basis, and both have used the services over the years in the normal course of business. Elieson said Hillcrest currently has a small number of temporary nurses, and Becker said Providence will have some start soon.
“There are a number of needs across our country, and that is a limited resource as well,” Becker said of the services. “So it does afford the ability to bring in some temporary nursing assistance.”
Meek said the city’s health response team has been working on a plan to provide the vaccine to local health care providers who have signed up to administer the vaccine when the time comes.
“To ensure we’re prepared for this, the state is really going to dictate a lot of how this gets rolled out,” Meek said. “At the same time, there’s going to be a lot of things we can do.”