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Houston ICUs Surpass 100% Capacity As Texas Medical Center Makes Beds Available

Intensive care units in one of the world’s largest medical centers are operating at 102% capacity as coronavirus cases surge in Texas, according to a report Wednesday from Texas Medical Center in Houston.

An estimated 36% of the center’s 1,330 ICU beds were occupied by COVID-19 patients. The sprawling medical campus reported that there were 480 current patients with the virus in total.

As the medical center reached capacity, it enacted Phase 2 of a plan to address the surge by making 373 more beds available by reallocating hospital staff and equipment to ICUs in order to take in more patients, the Houston Chronicle reported.

This is the first time that the Houston medical center’s intensive care units have surpassed their capacity since the coronavirus pandemic hit the U.S. The Texas Medical Center campus contains most of Houston’s hospitals, including Baylor College of Medicine, M.D. Anderson Cancer Center, Memorial Hermann and Houston Methodist.

Texas was one of the first states to push for an aggressive strategy to reopen businesses and activities after quarantine regulations forced a national shutdown. However, Gov. Greg Abbott slowed down some of the state’s reopening plans as coronavirus hospitalizations rose again. Abbott ordered bars to shut down again and called for restaurants to operate at 50% capacity after allowing them to reopen.

Meanwhile, county and city officials in Texas have began enacting face mask requirements to try to slow the surge.

On Tuesday, the state saw 6,975 new COVID-19 cases in a single day, marking a new record for the state. Texas has also seen 75,000 more reported cases over the month of June, according to the Texas Department of Health and Human Services.

If the additional beds under Phase 2 also become occupied, the medical center could enter Phase 3 of its ICU overflow plan, which would add 504 beds.

The adaptations in response to ICU overflow caused confusion Tuesday after the center’s reports on its website showed that the hospitals on its campus had already reached capacity.

Texas Medical Center CEO Bill McKeon told KHOU-TV in Houston that it has since updated its information to show that, although ICU capacity may have been reached, there are still ways to make more beds available.

“We’re four times what we were in May and April, so we’re very concerned. We don’t want this discussion about capacity to lose sight of this virus being highly active in our community,” McKeon said.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misnamed one of the hospitals that make up Texas Medical Center. It is called Houston Methodist, not Houston Memorial.

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World News

In Hot-Spot States, Those Seeking Tests Meet Long Lines, Delays

The U.S. is again grappling with a shortfall of testing that has hobbled the nation since the pandemic’s early weeks, and now threatens to further undermine containment efforts at a crucial moment.

In new hot spots like Arizona, Texas and Florida, where Covid-19 is rapidly spreading, lines for testing extend outside of urgent-care offices and other sites. Two high-school football stadiums in Houston regularly hit capacity by mid-morning and have to turn people away.

The country’s largest labs are forecasting a surge in demand that could lead to longer waits for test results, and have warned that limited amounts of critical testing supplies could become a constraint. Though capacity has expanded, widespread testing remains elusive, in part due to persistent supply shortages.

“We are still grossly inadequate. We’re so far behind,” said Howard Forman, director of the Yale School of Public Health’s health-care management program. “We still have a supply issue, and then we had a demand issue. You have both issues playing out. At the federal, state and local level, you need both those things addressed.”

The testing dearth comes months into a public-health crisis in which, absent a vaccine, Covid-19 screenings have become the first line of defense. Reopening states only turned up the pressure, boosting demand for testing as Americans increasingly went back to work, ate out, got haircuts and gathered socially.

The surge in cases has forced states to reconsider their reopening efforts. New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy on Monday paused plans to restart indoor dining on July 2. New York Mayor Bill de Blasio and New York Governor Andrew Cuomo also said skyrocketing cases in the South and West have prompted them to consider postponing dining’s return. U.S. virus deaths have exceeded 125,000 out of more than 2.5 million reported cases.

The pause in reopening was endorsed by Larry Kudlow, the top White House economic adviser. And Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell on Monday joined Vice President Mike Pence in encouraging the public to wear masks. On Tuesday, top federal health officials including infectious-disease expert Anthony Fauci are expected to appear at a Senate committee hearing to discuss efforts to get back to work and school.

Worldwide, deaths have surpassed 500,000. The World Health Organization said “the worst is yet to come” as some countries see a resurgence of cases. Half the deaths are coming from the Americas.

The shortfalls in U.S. testing availability highlight the Trump administration’s failure to execute a cohesive national strategy. The burden shifted to states, which were provided some testing supplies in May and but have been told only limited amounts are available thereafter.

The U.S. processed about 557,000 tests each day, on average, over the last week, according to the Covid Tracking Project. Given the size of the current U.S. outbreak, 2 million to 4 million tests a day would be needed “to do something to really wipe it out,” Forman estimated. “We’re not really close to that.”

In Texas, which is quickly becoming the new U.S. epicenter, the strain from increasing testing demand was felt by hospitals, public-health departments and patients alike. Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said capacity at the Delmar and Butler stadium sites will be expanded by 30% starting Tuesday.

A line that started before 5 a.m. Sunday at an urgent-care center in South Austin was compared to the wait for a wristband to Austin City Limits, the city’s annual music festival, or the queue for barbecue at Franklin’s, which would draw dozens customers to its doors before sunrise.

Kaitlin Heikes, a 26-year-old San Antonio resident, had to drive 45 minutes to Spring Branch for a rapid test. She made an appointment on Sunday for the following day after she didn’t have any luck on Friday or Saturday.

At the Houston Methodist hospital system, demand for testing doubled over the last week or so, David Bernard, medical director of clinical pathology, said in a Friday interview. The lab has faced an uphill battle securing supplies, and equipment is needed after diagnostics companies initially prioritized early hot spots like New York.

“We’ve been stretched,” Bernard said. Test manufacturers “don’t give you as much as you want, and it’s been a struggle. We’ve had to work as hard as we can to get things done.”

Covid cases are on the rise in Harris County, home to sprawling Houston, which for a time had been able to meet demand, said Umair Shah, executive director of Harris County Public Health.

‘Not Enough’

“We’re doing everything we can to meet or increase capacity,” Shah said in an interview. “But it is not enough right now.”

A local Texas health department was still receiving test results by fax as recently as last week, slowing them down further, said David Lakey, UT System’s vice chancellor for health affairs and chief medical officer and the former commissioner of the Texas Department of State Health Services.

“If we had today 6,400 new cases and you have that kind of volume each day, there isn’t possibly a way for the staff of the local health departments” to do contact tracing, he said. “They are getting overwhelmed right now.”

California has experienced delays, too. Barbara Ferrer, who directs Los Angeles County’s health department, said in an interview that some testing centers can take a week to report results, also creating problems for contact tracing. At that point, those who test positive will have had days to go around infecting more people before the county can talk to them and the people around them, Ferrer said.

In Florida, hundreds of cars have been lining up at test centers. Health officials said wait times could be up to four hours on Monday at the Hard Rock Stadium site serving the Miami metropolitan area, and the Orange County Convention Center site in Central Florida had waits of about five hours. In St. Petersburg, local police said a site at Tropicana Field ran out of tests only about an hour due to “overwhelming turnout.”

“The testing capacity is disappointing,” St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman wrote in a tweet. “We are working with the state to bring additional, expanded testing.”

— With assistance by Joe Carroll, David R Baker, Jonathan Levin, and Rachel Adams-Heard

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