Coronavirus Wave Threatens to Flood Florida and Texas Hospitals

Just weeks after the coronavirus overwhelmed hospitals in and around New York City, medical centers in Arizona, Florida, Texas, and other states with dizzying infections are rapidly filling up with sick patients, threatening health systems state.

The rapid increase has forced hospital leaders to begin bringing in additional staff, converting the space into dedicated coronavirus units, and in some cases moving sick patients hundreds of miles to reach available beds.

An increasing number of COVID-19 patients, while still living up to the wave that hit New York, also raises the possibility of new restrictions on nonessential healthcare to free beds for virus-infected patients.

“The numbers are definitely scary,” said Judy Rich, executive director of Tucson Medical Center, a more than 500-bed hospital serving patients in southern Arizona. Tucson Medical Center has seen a triple increase in COVID-19 patients since early June.

“When we started opening the state, we immediately saw photos of people packing up bars at night and celebrating,” Rich said. “It seems we did too fast, and now we are paying the price.”

California, where infections are also on the rise, is beginning to experience its own crush, with the number of patients hospitalized with COVID-19 increasing 32% in the past two weeks, Governor Gavin Newsom reported Thursday.

Now hospital leaders, doctors, and public health officials are issuing new pleas for people to wear masks and stay away from each other to stem the pandemic and prevent the collapse of health systems.

In Arizona, as of Wednesday, 88% of Intensive Care Unit beds statewide were occupied, up from 68% in mid-May, according to state figures.

Banner Health, the state’s largest hospital system, is already implementing its emergency plan, including hiring 200 new contract nurses to handle the increased demand.

In Texas, state health authorities registered 4,739 hospitalized patients with COVID-19, more than double that of just 10 days ago.

The sharp increase prompted Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican who has resisted imposing restrictions on state residents, to issue an executive order Thursday suspending elective surgeries at hospitals in the state’s largest counties, including those that They are found in Houston, Dallas and San Antonio.

Abbott said the order was necessary “to help ensure that hospitals in these counties continue to have an ample supply of beds available to treat patients with COVID-19.”

Florida, another emerging hot spot, does not report the number of patients hospitalized with COVID-19. (Republican Governor Ron DeSantis, an ally of President Trump, for months has tried to minimize the severity of the pandemic.)

But Miami-Dade County, the state’s largest county, which reports hospitalization data, posted a new record Thursday, with 885 patients infected in hospitals, compared with 546 two weeks ago.

“The trend is not reassuring,” said Kathleen Sposato, who oversees infection control at Jackson Health, the county’s giant medical safety net system. “We are very, very concerned.”

The number of COVID-19 patients at Jackson Health has more than doubled since June 8.

The increasing pressure on medical systems is not felt everywhere.

In Jacksonville, Florida, Baptist Health, one of the largest medical systems in North Florida, currently has only 24 patients with COVID-19, authorities reported.

And Christus Health, a large system of Catholic medical centers across the South that includes 30 hospitals in Texas, is not close to capacity, said Dr. Sam Bagchi, the system’s medical director.

Bagchi compared current demand at Christus hospitals to a peak flu season. “There are yellow flags, but the red ones are not there,” he said.

Even in more stressed systems like Tucson Medical Center, hospital officials noted that they are now seeing younger, healthier patients with COVID-19, compared to earlier this year, which has made caring for them easier.

Advances in treatments, including the use of medications such as remdesevir and dexamethasone, have also alleviated some of the burdens hospitals have experienced when the crisis first hit earlier this year.

But health officials warned that the rapid spread of the infection in places like Texas, Florida, Arizona and California means that even the systems that have been spared so far are probably not safe.

“We can see the storm coming,” said John Henderson, who heads the Texas Rural and Community Hospital Organization.

Henderson noted that several member hospitals in suburban and rural areas around Houston are already being called to bring seriously ill patients from overburdened medical centers in the city, which is experiencing one of the worst coronavirus outbreaks.

In California, hospitals as far north as Sacramento are taking COVID-19 patients from hospitals in Imperial and San Diego counties, who have been overwhelmed with expatriates returning home from Mexico for treatment.

Carmela Coyle, executive director of the California Hospital Association, said authorities hope more patient transfers will be necessary as demand increases statewide. “Our sense is that we are out from a week to 10 days,” he said.

Coyle said the hospital group is working with state officials on an increase plan to meet the expected increase in COVID-19 patients. One of the goals is to avoid the need for the kind of stops that earlier this spring dramatically limited medical services for non-infected patients.

But she and others also stressed that public participation to prevent further spread of the virus will be essential to preserve access to hospitals.

“This is a community problem,” said Sposato, the Miami hospital official. “There should be much more community participation in this effort.”