‘Tired to the bone’: Hospitals overwhelmed with COVID cases surpassing 250K
A health care employee works at a walk-up COVID-19 testing site, Wednesday, Nov. 18, 2020, in Miami. The number of people hospitalized with COVID-19 in the U.S. has doubled in the past month and set new records every day this week. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)

The number of Texas intensive care unit beds available for adult patients is at an all-time low for the pandemic, with only 259 staffed beds open across the state as of Wednesday, as hospitals fight a historic staffing crisis and more unvaccinated people infected by the omicron variant pour into hospitals.

That’s 11 fewer beds than the previous record set in September during the deadly surge of the delta variant of COVID-19, according to the Texas Department of State Health Services. An average of 295 available beds has been reported in the last week, which is also lower than previous record averages.

The crunch on the state’s intensive care units comes as patient cases skyrocket and as hospitals themselves work to fill shifts left open by more workers home sick from COVID-19.

As of Wednesday, more than 13,300 hospitalized Texans have tested positive for the virus.

“Because of the high level of transmission and infectivity of the omicron variant, so many of our staff are getting positive,” said Bryan Alsip, chief medical officer for University Health in San Antonio. “We’ve been doing this a long time now — close to two years. We’re now experiencing our fourth large surge of those patients. It can get tiring.”

Alsip said University Health — the public hospital system for the San Antonio and the third largest of its kind in the state — is approaching numbers of hospitalized COVID-19 patients that the system has not seen since the last deadly surges in the early months of 2021 or the fall and summer of 2020.

The most recent surge of cases, which started in December, is being blamed on the omicron variant of COVID-19 — a less serious but more contagious version of the virus than the more recent delta variant. Carrie Kroll, vice president of advocacy, public policy and political strategy for the Texas Hospital Association, said the omicron surge compounded with the lingering jump in cases from the delta variant, leading to fewer available resources.

“A lot of our state wasn’t necessarily done with delta when omicron came on,” Kroll said.

Indeed, ICU admissions for adults with COVID are lower than previous surges, and fewer of those patients need ventilators now, according to state data. Smaller percentages of patients who test positive are being admitted into the hospital for COVID treatment, and hospital stays are getting shorter, according to hospital officials.

In Dallas-Fort Worth area hospitals, most of the city’s major hospitals are all reporting ICU capacity levels over the 90% mark as of earlier this month. A little less than half of those patients have COVID-19, Steve Love, president and chief executive of the DFW Hospital Council, said Thursday. That proportion of COVID-19 patients in ICU matches last year’s peak in the number from last year.

But while omicron is putting fewer patients into the ICU than in previous surges, there are also fewer ICU beds that are able to be staffed due to a nursing shortage, officials say — and the sheer number of omicron cases is pushing patient counts higher.

The bottom line, they say, is that there are fewer beds for any Texas patient who may be suffering a serious medical event and need intensive care — whether they were put there by omicron or not.

“There’s trauma, there’s heart attacks, there’s strokes — and those are critical illnesses and injuries that need care in a timely manner,” Alsip said. “When you have lower capacity … it’s harder and harder sometimes for patients to access those services.”