Southwest Texas Regional Advisory Council leading effort to transfer El Paso ICU patients to major Texas cities

Special aircraft with trained crews will transport critically ill patients

SAN ANTONIO – A statewide effort to ease the burden on intensive care units in El Paso, currently overwhelmed by COVID-19 cases, is being coordinated by the Southwest Texas Regional Advisory Council (STRAC).

STRAC, which falls under the state’s emergency management division, oversees regional trauma and emergency health care systems in 22 counties.

Eric Epley, executive director of STRAC, is coordinating what’s known as “load balancing” to free up beds for incoming patients.

“We’re trying to move critical patients that need to be on ventilators, for instance, for long periods of time and move them to every other jurisdiction in Texas,” Epley said.

Epley said they could be COVID or non-COVID patients whose families have agreed to the voluntary transfer. So far, only one patient has been brought to a hospital in San Antonio.

Six other El Paso patients were ready to fly out of area hospitals, Epley said, until the border community was hit by snow and ice.

“We expect that to clear, and then we’ll start moving those patients again to all parts of Texas,” Epley said.

Epley said specially-equipped critical care aircraft are used with trained medical crews on board.

The goal is to airlift 15 to 20 patients a day, but not to one place. Ideally, Epley said, maybe two or three per hospital to avoid creating the same situation they just left.

“No sense in moving the problem from one place to another,” Epley said. “There is an old saying that many hands makes light work.”

Epley said it’s difficult to say how long patients will need to be transferred. A lot of that math, he explained, depends on El Paso’s COVID-19 positivity rate and how long the community is “under siege” by the virus.

Typically, Epley said, it’s only for the short-term.

Not that long ago, San Antonio was in a similar predicament and is now seeing a slow rise in COVID-19 hospitalizations.

“We may have a time when we’re going to need that help, as well,” Epley said. “So I think Texans helping Texans is the way to look at it.”

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