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97 percent of ICU beds at Texas Medical Center now occupied as COVID-19 cases reach record highs

“Should the number of new cases grow too rapidly, it will eventually challenge our ability to treat both COVID-19 and non-COVID 19 patients," said Methodist's CEO.

HOUSTON — As the number of patients hospitalized with the coronavirus has reached record highs 12 days in a row, there are warning signs that Houston hospitals are nearing a tipping point.

At the Texas Medical Center in Houston, 97 percent of ICU beds were occupied on Tuesday. Twenty-seven percent of those ICU patients have COVID-19.

The normal base occupancy rate at the world's largest medical center is 70 to 80 percent.

The hospitals have contingency plans to add additional ICU beds for temporary surges. But if the number of COVID cases continues at the current rate, the TWC could fill up all of those beds in the next two weeks.

"Sustainable surge capacity" is a federal requirement that hospitals must be able to repurpose general beds into ICU beds, adding ventilators, monitoring equipment, and trained staff.

The Medical Center sent a letter Wednesday that warned Houstonians 'If this trend continues, our hospital system capacity will become overwhelmed."

"Emergency surge capacity" is what Texas Medical Center leaders consider "crisis level," giving examples of two patients staying in the same room, increasing patient-to-nurse ratios, and converting non-patient care spaces into places where the critically ill can be treated, as well as setting up field hospitals.

“That’s crisis level. That’s New York, Lombardi sort of crisis," said Dr. James McDeavitt, the Senior Vice President and Dean of Clinical Affairs at Baylor College of Medicine. Dr. McDeavitt also serves as one the leaders of the Texas Medical Center, helping with planning for surge capacity scenarios.

“We can do surge for a good long while and get through this. We can’t do emergency surge for a long time," he said.

Credit: Texas Medical Center
This is a two-week projection for ICU hospital bed occupancy in the Texas Medical Center. At the current rate of COVID cases, all beds -- including the backups added during surges -- will be full.

Hospital officials in other parts of Houston are also reporting that intensive care units — for seriously ill patients, like those on ventilators — are near or over capacity. Local leaders have warned that hospitals could get overwhelmed if the number of infections keeps climbing.

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Some hospitals have begun moving coronavirus patients from crowded ICUs to other facilities. Texas Children's Hospital said this week it is admitting adult transfer patients, with and without the virus, to help other facilities manage their capacity. 

“We appear to be nearing the tipping point,” Dr. Marc Boom, head of the Houston Methodist hospital system, wrote in an email to employees Friday. “Should the number of new cases grow too rapidly, it will eventually challenge our ability to treat both COVID-19 and non-COVID 19 patients."

Elsewhere, counties like Travis and Harris, which includes Houston, have eyed local convention centers or stadiums as temporary hospital overflow facilities — reviving plans mapped out early in the pandemic that were largely abandoned due to lack of need at the time.

The number of patients hospitalized with the virus in Texas has more than doubled since the beginning of the month, reaching 4,092 Tuesday. The figure began rising in early June, a month after Abbott let a stay-at-home order expire and allowed businesses to begin reopening.

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Gov. Greg Abbott and other health officials continue to stress that the state has “abundant” capacity to care for COVID patients.

Statewide, there were 14,260 available hospital beds and nearly 1,500 intensive care unit beds as of Tuesday.

The governor struck a newly urgent tone Monday in a televised press conference to say COVID-19 was “spreading at an unacceptable rate” and that multiple metrics to gauge the virus’ spread and severity had significantly increased. Epidemiologists have attributed upticks in infections and hospitalizations to changes in behavior, including lax mask use and less social distancing.

Abbott spokesperson John Wittman said hospitals in Houston and Austin have been “emphatic” that beds will be available for coronavirus patients. He also said the governor has made clear that “he will utilize tools as necessary to ensure hospitals will provide beds for anyone who tests positive for COVID-19.”

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This story comes from our partners at the Texas Tribune. Read more Texas headlines in the Tribune.