Texas hospitals don’t have enough beds for coronavirus patients if too many people get sick at once

The front lines of Texas’ health care workforce are preparing for the possibility of widespread COVID-19 infection — and sounding the alarm about the state’s limited number of hospital beds.

Some hospitals are restricting who may visit and screening outsiders for fever. Some are asking doctors and nurses to work longer hours. Others are building drive-through testing sites, temporary triage centers and fever clinics in anticipation of high patient volumes.

And all of them are urging Texans to stay as isolated as possible in order to slow the spread of the new coronavirus, because there aren’t enough hospital beds to care for critical patients if too many people get sick at once.

“If we can get people to stay out of crowds, stay out of crowded environments to slow down the transmission of this virus from person to person, we should be able to stretch our resources to the point where we can take care of the entire population that needs hospitalized care,” said Craig Rhyne, the Lubbock-based regional chief medical officer for Covenant Health.

The Texas Tribune interviewed more than a dozen doctors, nurses and other health care workers about how ready the state’s health care system is for an expected spike in coronavirus cases. Most spoke on the condition of anonymity because their employers did not allow them to talk to reporters.

Because COVID-19 is a respiratory disease that attacks the lungs, some doctors worried that they would run short on ventilators, machines that provide oxygen to patients who become so sick they cannot breathe on their own.

“Capacity is a big problem if this thing continues to continue to prove to be a nasty bug,” said one emergency room doctor who works at multiple suburban and rural hospitals in North Texas. “The doomsday scenario that we’re worrying about is what does a relatively small hospital do when we’re using all four or five of our ventilators.”

Texas’ hospital capacity — the number of beds available per person in the general population — is about 2.9 beds per 1,000 Texans, according to state regulators. The U.S. rate is about 2.8 beds per 1,000 people.