Houston Hospitals Navigate NY-Like Surge, Mixed Messages

New York Times correspondent Dr. Sheri Fink observed the response at Houston Methodist hospital, where COVID-19 units are being expanded on the fly.

By Laura RiceJuly 14, 2020 11:36 am,

Houston is going the way of New York when it comes to rising coronavirus cases and hospitalizations – that’s according to New York Times correspondent Dr. Sheri Fink.

Fink reported on the steep rise in coronavirus cases in New York last spring, when that city was the world’s epicenter of the pandemic. Now, she says she sees similarities between what happened there and what’s happening now in Houston. Fink recently observed the COVID-19 response at
Houston Methodist hospital, and wrote about it for the Times.

“We are seeing hospitals admitting patient after patient with COVID-19,” Fink told Texas Standard host David Brown on Tuesday.

More than that, though, she said Houston Methodist and other hospitals are having to expand or create new intensive care units on the fly, calling that practice “surge.” But these expanded or new units also require specially trained doctors and nurses, and they can be hard to come by as health care workers, themselves, are starting to fall ill with COVID-19.

At Harris Health, a system of “safety net” hospitals in the Houston area that often serve patients with lower incomes who are insured through Medicaid, Fink said they don’t have the capacity for large numbers of intensive care patients; they’ve “reached a limit,” she said. So they’re transferring patients to hospitals elsewhere in the state.

Similar things are happening at private hospitals. They’re doing what Fink called “load-leveling” – in other words, transferring patients between different hospitals within their own systems.

When cases started to rise in Texas in June, Fink said the expectation was that because many of the new cases were younger people who statistically face less risk from COVID-19, it wouldn’t lead to a strain on hospitals. But it takes weeks before those individuals spread COVID-19 to more vulnerable people who do end up needing special care. That process doesn’t happen right away, she said.

“That wave of the sicker patients is hitting now.”

As much as Fink sees similarities between Texas and New York, she said there’s one major difference: a sense of national unity about the pandemic. When cases surged in New York in March, government leaders were united in fighting the spread of the virus. But much of that unity has dissolved.

“There was a national pause .. and, of course, that’s gone away,” Fink said.

And, she said, that lack of unity is confusing everyone, including the people who get sick.

“A lot of the medical staff I’m meeting, they feel a real sympathy for the patients,” Fink said. “With so many messages out there, mixed messages about how to keep safe or what is acceptable risk … people just don’t, they don’t really know.”

Web story by Caroline Covington.

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