Survival potential will determine whether South Texas county hospital takes in COVID-19 patients

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'We cannot continue functioning the way things are going. The numbers are staggering,'

McALLEN, Texas (Border Report) — In a stunning admission of how dire the COVID-19 situation is in South Texas, the health authority for one border county on Tuesday announced the formation of an ethics committee that will screen all patients for survival potential and will send home those with low probabilities.

Starr County Health Authority Dr. Jose Vazquez said Starr County Memorial Hospital, the county’s only hospital, on Tuesday implemented an ethics committee and a triage committee to review all coronavirus patients as they come in to determine what type of life-saving equipment and treatment they would likely require and whether they would likely survive. Those deemed too fragile or sick or elderly will be advised to go home to loved ones, he said.

Starr County Health Authority Dr. Jose Vazquez speaks via a video conference call with media on Tuesday.

“There is nowhere to put these patients. The whole state of Texas and neighboring states have no ICU beds to spare for us,” Vazquez said Tuesday afternoon during a video conference call with media.

“We are going to have these committees reviewing each case,” Vazquez said. “End-of-life decisions and hospice decisions and comfort-care situation for all those patients who most certainly do not have any hope of improving we believe they will be better taken care in the love of their own family and home rather than thousands of miles away dying alone.”

Vazquez said the rural county of 61,000 residents has been slammed with cases after Gov. Greg Abbott reopened the state in phases beginning on May 1. The county has had 1,573 cases and 16 deaths with 27 fatality cases pending.

Starr County Judge Eloy Vera blames residents for continuing to gather in groups for weddings, quinceañeras, and pachanga parties where he said communal spread of the novel virus is being propagated. He said physicians are having to make these end-of-life decisions because residents are not making good decisions.

“It is important that we all know the situation that we’re facing in the county, not only the community but the hospital is overwhelmed right now,” Vera said. “Our backs are to the wall.”

“We are not gods or anybody to make a decision for who should live or who should die. However, when you have a mass-casualty situation there are guidelines that makes you work in a more efficient manner and to help save the maximum number of people,” said Vazquez, who added in his entire career as a physician he has never experienced such a desperate mass medical situation.

Starr County has an eight-bed COVID-19 unit at its hospital, but currently there are 28 patients with three on ventilators and life support, including one in the emergency room. Vazquez said physicians will be using a mass-casualty treatment plan devised by physicians in North Texas to determine who gets treatment and who does not.

“The number of cases we see in the ER are growing every day; 50% of cases in the ER are COVID. The situation is desperate. We cannot continue functioning at Starr County Memorial Hospital the way things are going. The numbers are staggering,” Vazquez said.

Vera said he will likely issue shelter-at-home orders later this week, probably by Thursday, similar to orders that took effect this week in neighboring Hidalgo County. The orders are not legally binding since the governor’s reopening orders supersede local authority, but Vera said he hopes residents will voluntarily comply.

Vera said a mobile refrigerated truck has been loaned to Hidalgo County to help store bodies with the agreement that Starr County can use it if necessary. Also two Navy doctors with intensive care training have come to help. But Vera said daily patients are being airlifted to hospitals in other cities in Texas and other states.

“There’s more danger now than we’ve ever had,” Vera said.

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