Local mortuaries have brought in a second mobile morgue to handle COVID-19 deaths, hospitals are short on nurses and Waco’s mayor is warning that the local health care system is near “the brink of collapse.”
In a press conference Wednesday, city leaders and health care officials pleaded with the public to get vaccinated to help get the crisis under control. Waco Mayor Dillon Meek said health outcomes in the current surge are worse than any point in the pandemic.
“Like all of you, I desperately want COVID-19 to be in the rearview mirror, but the unfortunate reality is that we’re in a standoff with this delta variant,” Meek said.
“As your mayor it is my responsibility to stand before you and present you with the data and the facts, all of which indisputably illustrate just how close our local health care system is to the brink of collapse.”
Meek said 92% of hospitalized COVID-19 patients are unvaccinated, and the crowding at both Waco hospitals means people going for other reasons have to wait longer for treatment. He said if the community fails to curb the delta variant’s spread, patients of all kinds may not get the care they need.
Baylor Scott & White Hillcrest and Ascension Providence officials said they are converting other beds to house critical care patients and relying on personnel reinforcements from a state program.
Meek said during a tour of a local hospital, he saw firsthand that doctors, nurses and technicians are stressed and exhausted.
“Doctors and nurses are having to make unthinkable choices about who to care for and for how long,” Meek said.
Meek asked for those who are still on the fence about getting the vaccine to talk to a trusted doctor about it and asked that those who choose not to get it still socially distance, wear masks in public and generally respect how dangerous the virus is to strangers.
“I know this is not popular with many people, but please know our hospitals need this,” Meek said.
The Waco-McLennan County Public Health District reported 318 new cases Wednesday, raising the number of active cases from 1,197 to 1,416. The district reported one more death, bringing the county’s death toll to 517.
Waco hospitals Wednesday had 161 COVID-19 patients and were using a record 37 ventilators to treat them. All 54 intensive care unit beds in the county were in use, with 45 in use for COVID-19 patients, health officials said Wednesday.
Public Health District Director LaShonda Malrey-Horne said only 7.6% of current COVID-19 hospital patients were vaccinated before getting sick.
“Our hospitals are really at a point where they’re having to make hard decisions,” Malrey-Horne said.
Baylor Scott & White Hillcrest and Ascension Providence are converting other beds to house critical care patients. Meek said he saw firsthand during a tour of a local hospital that doctors, nurses and technicians are stressed and exhausted.
“We are close to reaching (capacity), and that’s a fact,” Meek said.
Ascension Providence Chief Medical Officer Dr. Brian Becker said the hospital has “sufficient capacity and staff” to care for patients but is facing a shortage of nurses and support staff. Hospital employees are “exhausted,” Becker said, and the hospital has requested nurses and respiratory therapists from the Texas Department of State Health Services and some have arrived in the last week.
“This latest spike in COVID hospitalizations is putting extraordinary pressure on our hospitals, emergency departments, intensive care units and in general,” Becker said. “Across all the health care profession, the rising number is discouraging.”
Becker said the Ascension Providence emergency room has been “extremely busy” and some patients have stayed in the emergency room for hospitalization for lack of anywhere else to treat them.
He said the emergency room will remain open for walk-in traffic, but suggested people use freestanding emergency rooms and urgent care clinics as alternatives.
“We will continue to take care of the needs of the community as necessary, but I do urge you to consider other options for care as well,” Becker said.
Dr. Umad Ahmad, interim chief medical officer at Baylor Scott & White Hillcrest, said 40% of the hospital’s acute care beds are occupied by COVID-19 patients, and patients’ needs are more critical.
“The patients are younger, they are sicker, and we are also seeing pregnant patients,” Ahmad said.
The hospital is also seeing more infections among children, and has partnered with McLane Children’s Hospital in Temple to treat them. Elective surgeries have halted, and anesthesiology staff have been reassigned to help treat patients.
“We believe with vaccination in the coming weeks we’ll be able to get through this,” Ahmad said.
He said the hospital is deferring care for everything except emergency cases when possible, because there are sicker patients who need those resources immediately.
“Any time a sick patient is coming who needs emergency care, our doors will remain open,” Ahmad said. “Will will provide care, and we are fully staffed to support emergencies.”
Dr. Clint McHenry, president of the McLennan County Medical Society, read a letter signed by 294 area physicians that emphasizes doctors from all backgrounds and of all political persuasions have reached a consensus on the safety and effectiveness of the available vaccines.
“For several months following the rollout of the vaccine, we saw a decrease in the number of COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and death,” McHenry said. “However, within the last month, we have once again seen a remarkable increase in these numbers. We are experiencing the dreadful feeling: Here we go again.”
Meanwhile, local mortuary capacity ran low this week, and a truck brought in to deal with the overflow has filled with the bodies of 12 deceased, officials said Wednesday. A second trailer arrived Tuesday at Waco Mortuary, which operates the 24-hour-a-day morgue that has custody of bodies before they are sent to other funeral homes.
COVID-19 deaths tend to spike weeks after cases and hospitalizations rise.
Larry Merington, CEO of Empath Way, the company that operates Waco Mortuary, said bringing in refrigerated storage is part of the facility’s emergency response.
Merington said the mortuary can house 50 to 70 bodies on its own, and the trucks allow it to store another 50. He said the first refrigerated truck came Aug. 16, and a second, larger truck was delivered Tuesday.
“Now we have the capacity to help some of our customers, mostly funeral homes, hospitals and hospices where they can’t store the bodies of the deceased,” Merington said. “We now have a reverent place to place them until we can process them.”
Merington said caring for the recently deceased is a “sacred duty,” and proper storage is crucial to it. Under Texas law, families wait 48 hours after a death before finalizing funeral arrangements.
He said workers are caring for about twice the number of deceased people than usual over the last two weeks, and staff who work with them are getting worn down.
“When they don’t get to go home for two or three days in a row because all they’re doing is working and catching cat naps at work, that can be pretty demanding on everybody, for sure,” Merington said.
In the press conference Wednesday, Waco Family Medicine spokesperson Rae Jefferson shared her account of how the ongoing pandemic has delayed her mother’s kidney transplant 10 years after her diagnosis with kidney disease. Right after she was cleared for surgery last year, hospitals stopped performing elective surgeries, including transplants.
“Not only will she have to continue to do dialysis, which her entire life has come to revolve around, she’s also an immunocompromised person in the middle of a global pandemic,” Jefferson said.
She said she stayed inside as much as possible for a year and knew she’d get the vaccine as soon as she possibly could to protect her mom, but also because she had seen firsthand what it is like to suffer from long-term illness.
David Littlewood, president of TFNB Your Bank for Life, followed Jefferson with his firsthand account of the symptoms he experienced from COVID-19 and the ongoing heart condition it left him with.
He said in December he got sick and lost his sense of taste, but did not believe he had contracted COVID-19 until he tested positive. After that he quarantined at home and felt optimistic. He had always been a healthy person, and rarely got sick.
“Then my case turned very, very dark and drastic,” he said.
His mild symptoms took a sudden turn about eight days in. For the next 10 days he had a fever between 102 and 105, his oxygen level was low and his resting heart rate stayed between 140 and 200 beats per minute. Between 60 and 100 beats per minute is considered the normal range for an adult’s resting heart rate, according to the American Heart Association.
After the virus passed, Littlewood still felt continually fatigued. After multiple tests doctors diagnosed him with atrial fibrillation, which causes irregular heartbeats that leave patients more vulnerable to strokes and heart failure. He said the condition will require either medication or surgery.
“Don’t take for granted that COVID is not going to do some really bad things to you,” Littlewood said. “It’s completely indiscriminate. It can happen to you, it can happen to a loved one. Don’t let that be the case.”
Malrey-Horne said the public health district has administered 1,896 doses of the vaccine since May. The district will now take immunocompromised patients on a walk-in basis and will release information about booster doses in the coming weeks for people who got vaccinated through the health district from December to March.
“Doctors and nurses are having to make unthinkable choices about who to care for and for how long.”
— Waco Mayor Dillon Meek