Comal County hospitals feeling strain of third COVID-19 wave

Waits for beds and diverting ambulances more common; nearly all hospitalized patients unvaccinated

An increase in COVID-19 cases means that hospitals in Comal County are once again feeling the pinch.

New Braunfels – The latest surge of COVID-19 cases has left hospitals in Comal County feeling a familiar pinch as they struggle with capacity issues.

I’d say ‘strained’ is the right word,” said Alex Reynolds, president of the CHRISTUS Santa Rosa Hospital in New Braunfels, when asked how he’d describe his hospital at the moment.

I think the real strain comes from folks who have been -- this is their third round taking care of a COVID surge. And it’s stressful. You know, it’s life and death. And our clinicians have done this for 18 months now.”

Though the number of new cases reported out of Comal County had dipped to 83 on Thursday, the county’s epidemiologist, Connie Alaniz, said they had been seeing much higher counts recently.

The county’s all-time peak for new cases came on Aug. 17, she said, with 218 cases.

“The bad thing is we didn’t just have 218 cases,” Alaniz said. “We just - it was the end of the day, and we had to stop. So there were still more cases to be worked, and to be counted, and acted on. And we just couldn’t do it.”

With the rise in cases has come an increase in hospitalizations. The county says Comal County hospitals had reported caring for 81 COVID-19 patients on Thursday. Of those patients, 21 are in intensive care, and 19 are on ventilators.

This influx of patients has stressed local hospitals’ capacity.

Patients with less urgent needs occasionally have to wait longer in their emergency department during busy times, Reynolds said, and the hospital has more frequently had to use a tactic known as “diverting” - essentially asking EMS crews to bring patients elsewhere to avoid overloading the hospital further.

With so many hospitalized patients, beds can be scarce, and patients in the hospital emergency departments may have to wait for an in-patient bed. Lisa Gardner, the Chief Nursing Officer at Resolute Health Hospital, says the wait can even be a couple of days.

It does cause some problems because we run out of treatment spaces to take care of those patients,” Gardner said.

Gardner said the big problem is having enough staff to handle the volume of patients.

We were able to obtain some contract labor staff who are short-term staff, as well as the state nurses that are just on-boarding,” she said. “We had some more arrive this week. So we are, with them, able to open up more bed space.”

Reynolds said CHRISTUS Santa Rosa is also struggling with staffing. But despite the strain on the hospital, he stressed there are protocols in place to triage patients when capacity is at its peak.

“There are times when the rapid influx of COVID patients does cause stress on our facility,” he said. “However, this being the third wave of COVID, we’ve been able to really implement a lot of processes for our people with our nursing leadership that allows us to really be ready for this at this point.”

The state’s vaccine statistics show 57.8% of eligible Comal County residents have been fully vaccinated. About 98% of the hospitalized patients on Thursday - who aren’t necessarily all residents - were unvaccinated.

“At the end of the day, that is the most effective way to take care of this surge we’re seeing is to have a higher vaccination rate and to get folks safe via the vaccine,” Reynolds said.

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About the Authors:

Garrett Brnger is a reporter with KSAT 12.

Luis Cienfuegos is a photographer at KSAT 12.