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The omicron wave seems to be waning. But Lubbock hospitals are as stressed as ever

Masks hang from an IV pole at a hospital.
Jenny Kane
/
AP
Masks hang from an IV pole at a hospital.

Lubbock hospital administrators feel like they’re experiencing déjà vu, only this time they lack a few state-provided resources. That’s on top of dealing with staffing shortages.

A summer drop in COVID-19 hospitalizations briefly gave healthcare workers a chance to breathe. Then came the delta variant of the coronavirus, followed soon after by the highly-contagious omicron.

“This one hit all at once,” said Dr. Craig Rhyne, chief medical officer at Covenant Health. “And every single hospital, every single region, had a sudden increase, a dramatic increase, in the number of hospitalizations.”

Rhyne said while the strain of the virus that is currently spreading is generally less severe, that’s not the case for everyone — especially for people who are not vaccinated.

“We still have hospitals that are just absolutely overwhelmed and overflowing with COVID-19 patients,” Rhyne said, “and unfortunately, we've had a lot of deaths from this one.”

Just in January, thousands of Lubbockites tested positive for COVID and over 60 people died from its complications. According to the Texas Department of State Health Services, around 20% of all patients in the 22-county trauma service area that includes Lubbock have COVID. That has stayed steady all year.

Rhyne said healthcare workers are fed up. It’s causing them to leave the hospitals for other jobs.

“As we have fewer and fewer people to take care of more and more patients, their workload increases, their stress increases,” Rhyne said. “It's a domino effect — we just keep losing more and more and more, because of losing more and more and more.”

Staffing has been a consistent issue throughout the pandemic. Texas Tech Public Media interviewed Rhyne in October 2020, when Lubbock saw its first surge in COVID hospitalizations. At that point, the state was offering much more support like installing mobile medical tents and sending additional hospital workers.

“It’s not just about bed capacity,” Rhyne said in the 2020 interview. “It’s about doctors and nurses. We’re running out of doctors and nurses to take care of these patients.”

The situation was different then. We now have vaccines and treatments to better deal with the coronavirus. Still, hospitals are working without one measure that previously made at least a little bit of a difference.

In the fall of 2020, if 15% of all hospital patients in a trauma service area had COVID, it triggered additional rules to help reduce spreading the virus and straining medical resources. That order from Gov. Greg Abbott was instated in October 2020. It ended last summer.

If that order were still in place today, 19 of the 22 trauma service regions in Texas would be under its restrictions, according to the latest statewide data.

Lubbock County’s top elected official, Curtis Parrish, does not expect a mandate like that to return.

“The governor's office has made it abundantly clear that those restrictions that were in place a year ago have been lifted and will not be returning,” Parrish said.

Even without officials telling them to, University Medical Center Health System’s Chief Medical Officer Dr. Mike Ragain said local hospitals are still working under some guidelines from that previous order. For example, he said at his hospital, they are reviewing elective procedures a few days before they are scheduled to see what is urgent and what could wait until COVID hospitalizations stabilize.

Pausing elective procedures was a part of the governor’s order that Ragain said helped. That frees up beds, but more importantly at this point, it frees up care providers.

“There would have been fewer hospitals that found that on their own,” Ragain said. “I think the mandate did help there.”

Ragain said he could use more healthcare workers, like the traveling nurses and other professionals who helped during past COVID surges. But other than that, he does not really know what else would help at this point. He said everyone is tired of the pandemic, including himself.

Now that daily new case counts are coming down again, Ragain is at least a little optimistic.

“Omicron may be a move that helps us get to being endemic,” he said. “And that's where we want to be because then we can put this pandemic behind us.”

On Tuesday, the City of Lubbock confirmed 335 new cases of the virus – an improvement from the over 1,500 new cases three weeks ago.

Have a news tip? Email Sarah Self-Walbrick at saselfwa@ttu.edu. Follow her reporting on Twitter @SarahFromTTUPM.

If you found the reporting above valuable, please consider making a donation to support local nonprofit journalism. Thanks for donating today. 

Sarah Self-Walbrick is the news director at Texas Tech Public Media, where she leads the news team and focuses on underreported stories in Lubbock. Sarah is a Lubbock native and a three-time graduate of Texas Tech University. She started her career at the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal.
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