With one of the highest testing positivity rates in the country, Lubbock is now a COVID-19 hotspot and area hospitals are filling up.
Dr. Mike Ragain, chief medical officer at University Medical Center, said his hospital hit a few grim milestones last week.
“In our hospital, we had a record number of COVID admissions,” Ragain said. “We also had a record number of COVID patients in the ICU. We had a record number of employees who were out because of COVID.”
The city hit another somber mark on Monday. Over 15% of patients in Lubbock’s hospital trauma service region have COVID-19, according to data from Texas Health and Human Services. Tuesday's rate was over 16%. The region includes an area larger than Lubbock County and several rural hospitals.
This is a data point local and state leaders are watching closely. And if it lasts, the state will intervene.
Businesses that are currently open at 75% capacity would go back to 50%, under a recent executive order from Governor Greg Abbott. The region would operate like that until hospitalizations dip below 15% for another seven straight days.
Dr. Craig Rhyne, chief medical officer for Covenant Health System, says no one wants that.
“We don’t want the economy shut down again,” Rhyne said. “But that’s absolutely dependent on us keeping our caseload below that 15%.”
Last week, local leaders seemed hesitant to impose tighter gathering restrictions, as El Paso did. Lubbock Mayor Dan Pope says he wants citizens to take responsibility and do the things we know slows the spread of the coronavirus - social distancing, wearing masks and practicing good hygiene.
“I don’t think we’re going to go backwards,” the mayor said. “We’ve got to be more disciplined. We’ve got to do what we know keeps us safe.”
Lubbock confirmed 1,645 new cases of COVID-19 last week - the highest weekly total since the pandemic reached the South Plains in March. The number of hospitalized patients has increased over 75% in the past two weeks.
A projection model from the University of Texas at Austin suggests COVID-19 hospitalizations in Lubbock's trauma service region, which includes several smaller hospitals, will top 340 patients before the end of the month.
Health leaders said most patients are older, but they’re seeing more younger patients than earlier in the pandemic.
A second surge last month mostly affected the college-age demographic. A spring spike in diagnoses was isolated to nursing homes. Pope said this recent wave is more widespread.
“Although the largest number of new cases still falls between the ages of 18 and 29, you see a significant spread into the community, into the age groups of 30 to 70,” Pope said.
Pope said organized gatherings, like at schools, are not what’s driving this trend.
“We had a situation in our community where at least nine people went to one of those important birthday parties. And they all came out infected,” Pope said. “Think about the impact that that has on nine families and on, maybe, nine churches or nine workplaces. That’s how this spreads.”
City of Lubbock Health Director Katherine Wells said the problem is also smaller, often informal get-togethers where people let their guards down.
“The places that we are seeing it at are dinner parties, large celebrations such as weddings, clubs and dance halls, crowded restaurants, caretakers not wearing their masks,” Wells said.
Lubbock’s not unique. Similar trends are happening across the country, according to NPR, including Texas cities El Paso and Amarillo. The state recently sent the three cities hospital surge support, like supplies and workers.
Have a news tip? Email Sarah Self-Walbrick at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her reporting on Twitter @SarahFromTTUPM.
If you found the reporting above valuable, please consider making a donation to support local non-profit journalism. Thanks for donating today.