‘We’re going to break our health care system’: Bexar County, San Antonio officials testify in support of mask mandate

Bexar County seeks temporary injunction against Gov. Abbott’s executive order

(AP Photo/Jefferson Bernardes, File) (Jefferson Bernardes, Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)

SAN ANTONIO – San Antonio and Bexar County officials painted a grim picture of what frontline responders are facing right now during the latest coronavirus surge fueled by the delta variant.

The testimony came Monday during a hearing as Bexar County seeks an injunction against Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s executive order that barred local governments from issuing coronavirus-related mandates. If the injunction is granted, Bexar County will continue mandating masks in public schools and public facilities.

A ruling may come as early as Monday afternoon from 57th Civil District Court Judge Toni Arteaga, who last week sided with Bexar County.

Monday’s hearing comes one day after the Texas Supreme Court invalidated the temporary restraining order that was granted last week by Arteaga. The judge’s decision in Monday’s case could volley the issue back to a higher court.

The hours-long hearing took a break for lunch and continues Monday around 1:30 p.m. Arteaga is not allowing the hearing to be livestreamed or recorded.

Health care staffing crisis

In the morning, Metro Health Medical Director Dr. Junda Woo was the first witness called to testify by city and county attorneys. Woo described a staffing crisis in her testimony, which detailed the severity of the current situation.

“I worry we’re going to break our health care system,” Woo said. “I think the level of burnout and anger that I see among health care providers who I’ve known for years is at levels I’ve never seen before. We can’t keep asking people to do this over and over again.”

While COVID-19 hospitalizations are lower in Bexar County than the record highs seen at the beginning of the pandemic, hospital staffing levels are down by about 1,600 health care workers, Woo said.

“We don’t have enough staff in our hospitals right now, so it doesn’t do any good to just have beds there are available,” Woo said. “There are available beds, there are available ventilators but there’s not a human being there to care for a person, so those beds and ventilations are not being used.”

As a result, 93% of hospital beds were occupied as of Friday, according to the city and county’s COVID-19 dashboard, putting extreme stress on hospitals.

Pediatric hospitals are also seeing a surge due to COVID-19 and Respiratory Syncytial Virus, a virus that is usually seen more during the winter. As children return to in-person instruction, some schools have already reported more COVID-19 cases than the previous school year.

The transmission of both of those viruses would be curbed by a mask mandate for schools, Woo testified.

San Antonio City Manager Erik Walsh testified about the strain placed on city staff and services due to the surge of COVID-19.

Walsh said the city was without an ambulance for nearly 30 minutes on Thursday due to an extremely high number of COVID-19 calls and hospitalizations.

Without curbing infection levels, Walsh worries that more city services could be affected or interrupted. That could include police and fire services, trash pickup, airport operations and public library functions.

“Everything we do is geared toward an element of community service and all those could be impacted,” Walsh said.

The county plans to call three more witnesses Monday afternoon.

They include Bexar County Manager David Smith, Fire Marshal Chris Lopez and Edna Coleman. Coleman’s husband, Kyle Coleman, served as Bexar County’s emergency management coordinator before he died of COVID-19.

The state plans to call Michelle Means, a Bexar County parent, to testify in support of their case.

The state’s attorneys argued that the local officials cannot go against the governor’s order because it would violate state law. They also pointed out that officials have not been prohibited from encouraging voluntary mask-wearing.