The sole hospital in a remote South Texas county has become so overwhelmed with covid-19 patients that officials could soon start sending home those least likely to survive the disease caused by the coronavirus.
A health board in Starr County debated Thursday whether to authorize critical care guidelines to help workers at Starr County Memorial Hospital make painstaking decisions about how to allocate beds and other dwindling resources as infections soar.
Patients with little chance of recovering could be denied hospital care, said Jose Vasquez, the top health official in the county of 61,000.
“The situation is desperate,” Vasquez said at a news conference. “We cannot continue functioning in the Starr County Memorial Hospital nor in our county in the way that things are going. The numbers are staggering.”
The explosion of coronavirus cases in Texas over the past month has strained resources at health-care systems across the state, and the announcement from Starr County highlights how hospitals in small, rural areas — many of them scarcely affected by the virus in the pandemic’s early stages — are especially unprepared to deal with the surge of sick people.
Many hospitals have ethics panels tasked with making life-or-death decisions about rationing resources, and about half of all states have frameworks for allocating lifesaving devices such as ventilators.
Starr County, about 215 miles south of San Antonio, has become one of the most severely affected areas in Texas, with 31 deaths per 100,000 residents — more than double the death rate in densely populated Harris County, which encompasses the hard-hit Houston metropolitan area.
Starr County Memorial Hospital has 48 beds in total and recently expanded its covid-19 section to 29 beds when the state sent medical workers to the county, according to the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. But even with the additional capacity, the hospital has been sending patients to other counties or even out of state, and those beds are filling, too.
“Unfortunately, Starr County Memorial Hospital has limited resources and our doctors are going to have to decide who receives treatment, and who is sent home to die by their loved ones,” Starr County Judge Eloy Vera said in a statement. “This is what we did not want our community to experience.”