DALLAS — Parkland Health & Hospital System has filled its additional COVID-19 wards less than a week after they were opened as the highly contagious omicron variant continues to spread through North Texas.
The area’s largest public hospital system had about 170 COVID-19 patients Monday, another “high watermark” for the latest omicron-fueled wave, said Dr. Joseph Chang, Parkland’s chief medical officer. That’s a 60-patient increase from 110 COVID-19 patients last Monday.
While Parkland evaluates other options to accommodate the patient increase, opening more rooms is becoming increasingly difficult as the hospital deals with other diseases during the winter, Chang said.
Parkland Memorial Hospital’s emergency room saw 997 patients on Dec. 28, a one-day record for the hospital.
“Heart disease, pneumonia, other illnesses besides COVID, obviously, are all sort of high prevalence in the wintertime, as well,” he said. “So we’re a little bit limited in how many wards we can open up because we need room for other stuff.”
COVID-19 patients made up nearly 17% of hospital bed capacity in the North Texas trauma service area on Sunday, according to the latest data from the Texas Department of State Health Services.
As part of an executive order issued by Gov. Greg Abbott in September 2020, areas with more than 15% of hospital capacity taken by COVID-19 patients for seven consecutive days were directed to postpone surgeries and procedures that were “not medically necessary” to diagnose or treat a serious condition.
That order has since been lifted, but passing the 15% threshold is still an important measure to watch, said Steve Love, president and CEO of the Dallas-Fort Worth Hospital Council.
“Hospitals are doing their very best to balance treating people with COVID but continuing doing all the things we can do to help people with non-COVID,” Love said. “Many times, some of those elective procedures, whether they be diagnostic tests, etc., are so important that we can’t continue to postpone and postpone.”
Across Texas, the molecular positivity rate among COVID-19 tests in the last seven days reached 33.9% Sunday, a far cry from the 5% positivity rate that public health experts prefer to stay under. The state reported 7,015 COVID-19 hospitalizations Monday.
Nearly 2,260 North Texas patients are currently hospitalized with the coronavirus, a 230-patient increase from the day before, Love said.
While hospitalization numbers have yet to reach the 3,600-person peak seen in September’s delta variant surge, the rapid spread of omicron is unprecedented and placing additional strain on an already short-staffed health care system, health officials said.
Hospital staffs are not immune to the omicron variant, which is better than previous variants at evading COVID-19 vaccinations and boosters. Even though people vaccinated and boosted against the virus are far less likely to experience severe disease, they can still test positive and have to quarantine.
“We’re a reflection of the community,” Chang said of Parkland’s staff. “And as COVID burden remains really high in the community, our employees are obviously members of that community and are affected as well.”
Parkland had “several hundred” workers out Monday morning because of COVID-19. “As the front-line staff are affected, in terms of nurses and others, that also limits our ability to open new [COVID-19] wards,” he said.
Parkland applied for additional staffing help from the state last week, Chang said, which will hopefully fill some of the gaps left by sick employees. Additional workers will likely come from nursing agencies.
Omicron’s rapid spread could also allow for new variants to develop, said Erin Carlson, associate clinical professor and director of graduate public health programs at the University of Texas at Arlington.
Every time there is a new transmission, the virus’s DNA copies itself with small mutations. Eventually, enough changes could be made that a new variant appears, Carlson said.
“With omicron, we have evidence that the virus has found a way to avoid immune defenses,” she said. “Well, the next iteration of it, the next variant, could be able to completely obviate the defenses produced by the vaccine. I think that’s the big concern.”
Chang said he has noticed that trends in hospitalized COVID-19 patients at Parkland are similar to those seen in early data out of South Africa, which show the omicron variant to cause less-severe disease overall, despite how quickly it spreads.
Out of the 150 active COVID-19 cases at Parkland Monday, only 12 to 15 are in the intensive care unit. “That’s much lower than in prior waves,” he said. “Thank God for small miracles, I guess.”
ICU numbers tend to lag behind COVID-19 case numbers, however, so Chang said he can’t be sure the percentage of patients needing intensive care will stay the same.
“For now, at least, it does look like omicron is less severe in terms of the severe, severe cases than delta, and that’s a good thing given how fast it’s spreading,’’ he said.