'Maxed out'


Medical community urges caution while celebrating holiday with COVID cases on the rise in Texas

  • Jefferson County, Texas data from July 1
    Jefferson County, Texas data from July 1

Holiday plans include hitting up a Texas water park? Catching some sun at the beach? Barbecuing with family and friends? Whatever Fourth of July plans are carried out this holiday, health care and emergency management officials are urging caution and announcing near-capacity medical facilities at vacation hotspots and communities throughout the Lone Star State.

Texas ICU beds in the last couple weeks have come into critically short supply, as shown in data reported by hospitals to the Department of State Health Services and the Texas Regional Healthcare Preparedness Coalition. For all Texas facilities reporting on July 1, there were 157 available ICU beds for critically ill or injured patients.

In Galveston County, only one regular ICU bed was available from the past weekend, with 179 confirmed COVID patients in ICU beds and general population isolated hospital beds. 

COVID patients in Southeast Texas have also been increasing exponentially. So far, the virus has been detected locally in frontline workers, food industry professionals, the Orange County Judge, police departments and school districts in Beaumont, Port Arthur, Hamshire-Fannett, West Orange and Port Neches-Groves, to name a few. Double-digit increases in persons testing positive for the disease are announced daily in cities throughout Southeast Texas – and the number of those having severe reactions to the virus has resulted in data that reflects, in Jefferson County on July 1, just eight regular available ICU beds. 

“Our hospital census has doubled,” Baptist Beaumont Hospital COVID Unit Lead Intensivist Dr. Qamar Arfeen told The Examiner on July 1. “For four or five days, we have been getting a whole lot of people.”

Since March, Arfeen said Beaumont hospitals have seen steady admission of suspected COVID-19 cases. With patients trickling in, the load has been difficult, but mostly manageable. With the recent spike in admission trends, the doctor is concerned that the infrastructure will not be able to keep up.

“We have ‘x’ amount of beds dedicated to take care of coronavirus patients – and we are maxed out. We may not be maxed out on total space, but we only have so much staff.

“You can buy 10,000 ventilators, 10,000 beds … but if you don’t have enough doctors, nurses or pharmacists to take care of you, you’re … out of luck.”

COVID patient care, Arfeen described, takes a specialized workforce. “For these kinds of patients, we need nurses who have critical care background. Beds, space ... more important, the challenge is having that quality staff.”

 Arfeen, who’s logged one day off in the four months since the coronavirus was first detected in Southeast Texas, also warns of mental and physical burnout of medical professionals tasked with the rigorous job of treating patients with severe COVID symptoms. 

“The process of taking care of this patient is not a simple one,” he explained. “It’s a very difficult job – super challenging work.” 

Convalescent plasma therapy (a plasma transfusion from a COVID survivor to a patient battling the disease to transfer antibodies) and medication like Remdesivir has reduced mortality rates in Jefferson County, but now that the hospital has seen a surge in COVID patients, the plasma bank has been depleted. 

“The benefits have been awesome, but now we have no plasma,” Arfeen said. Patients are coming to the hospital in need of plasma faster than the rate of donation – especially when those who recover seldom donate plasma to save the next patient. “We have patients now admitted in the hospital and we can’t find plasma for them. There’s none available. Those who have recovered aren’t donating, and I don’t know any other way to get them to.”

The best way to survive COVID is to not be infected in the first place.

“People, though, have gotten relaxed and started mingling,” Arfeen warned of why he suspects we’re seeing a spike in COVID cases.

“We went to the lake” and “We went to the beach,” are contact tracking spiels Arfeen said he hears all too often.

“We have to be modest in our approach,” Arfeen urged. “We don’t have to be partying with all our friends at the river, or be so strict to the other side of the extreme.

“It’s not that we have to shut our life down or shut our business down. We have to have a permanent lifestyle change – keeping social distancing, using proper sanitation – all the things we should be doing.”

As championed by his colleagues in medicine and ordered for use by Jefferson County Judge Jeff Branick through at least July 7 unless extended, Arfeen likewise suggests the use of face coverings when in public, combined as much as possible with keeping a social distance of 6 feet from anyone not living in your immediate household.

“It’s easily transmittable… it goes from one person to another person very fast,” the doctor explained. Stopping COVID in its tracks will be all but impossible without medical breakthrough, but slowing transmission is vital to survival, Arfeen further detailed. 

“We’ll steadily see patients coming to the hospital with COVID until we have a vaccine or reliable medication,” he said. “We just do not want too many people getting sick at the same time. That’s where we run out our hospital and supply backing. We know this virus isn’t going anywhere, but we don’t want it to be like Houston where it’s just overflowing with COVID patients.”

July 1, the city of Beaumont announced an additional 35 confirmed cases of COVID, totaling 1,031 for the city and nearby municipalities; the city of Port Arthur and mid Jefferson County numbers were in excess of 300 cases the same day.

“I plead for compliance for the sake of our community and its health during these unprecedented times,” Port Arthur Mayor Thurman Bartie proposed to the public in a press conference July 1, urging fellow Southeast Texans to wash their hands, social distance and wear a mask when out in public. The benefits, he argued, “far outweigh the stated inconveniences that have been expressed by certain individuals.”

“I ask that the citizens be cautious with personal celebrations,” Bartie further imposed on those looking to let loose for the Fourth of July holiday, asking resident not to “indulge” in firework displays for the common good of the community and staying  on the right side of local ordinance that bans setting off fireworks in the city. 

“Whatever we do, we’ll see the impact at the end of July,” Dr. Afeen warned. “There is no end to this in sight. 

“It’s going to be a continuous challenge. Bad things will happen if we overburden the system. I hope we don’t see that. It’s going to be very ugly, and it can get super ugly super fast. “