In June, the United Memorial Medical Center in Houston was so overwhelmed by the pandemic that two of its wings were turned into Covid-19 wards.
There are three now.
Dr. Joseph Varon, chief medical officer, had not had a day off since the virus struck Monday earlier.
He hasn’t done it yet.
At the time, the intensive care nurse, Tanna Ingraham, was battling the disease alone after receiving it from a patient, she believes.
She recovered, but then took it again. “It’s like hell and back,” she says of 2020.
From bad to worse, this hospital is a perfect microcosm of how the disease escalates – even as vaccines are launched across the country.
“The next six weeks will be the darkest weeks in modern American medical history,” says Varon. “We are right during Christmas when people do not listen.”
Cases are exploding in Texas. The seven-day average of positive cases is at a record high – averaging more than 16,000 new cases daily, according to Johns Hopkins University. This average is up 15% from last week.
Lone Star State staggered
About 40% of patients with Covid-19 in the hospital come from other parts of the state that are experiencing a pandemic.
Walter Cuellar was transferred from West Texas, about 500 miles away. He thinks he and his wife got the virus at the supermarket. He had mild symptoms. Today, he is preparing, but when he arrived he was almost put on a fan.
“Where I live, there are a lot of people who don’t wear masks,” he says. “There were many times when I went to the store with my wife and she and I were the only ones wearing masks, and other people didn’t wear masks at all.”
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Bri Smith works with foreign exchange students and recently moved to Columbus, about 73 miles west of Houston. The wife and mother of three also believe she received the virus while shopping.
“It’s the worst I’ve ever felt in my life,” says Smith. “Pain and pain.”
Varon says patients are getting sicker now, after waiting longer to seek medical attention.
“Our average patient spent about 20 days with symptoms before they came to us,” he says. In recent months, the hospital has used various means of treating the disease.
Richard Gonzales thought he could last, so he resisted for a week going to the hospital. He works two jobs, has a wife and five children and is not sure how he got the virus.
“I got a little confused” because the symptoms I had, when I received them, I should have gone to the hospital or the emergency room immediately, but I didn’t. I lay in bed thinking he was going to disappear. “
“It’s like we’ve been forgotten”
For Varon and personally, frustrations continue to grow.
“Even if I give them holy water, it will be difficult for them to improve,” says Varon.
Varon – who was nicknamed “the hunter Covid” and has a license plate that says the same thing – was the first to receive the Moderna vaccine on Monday to assure staff and the largely minority community that the vaccine is safe.
Dr. John Okereke, director of emergency services, was also vaccinated. He is black and says it is essential for minorities to seek treatment and get the vaccine when it is available.
Okereke says doctors are “ecstatic” about vaccinations.
“When you watch TV, you don’t really know what the doctors are going through,” he says. “I have no idea what we’re going through. Sometimes we’re really afraid we’ll get the disease.”
The vaccines could not have come at a better time. Hospitalizations have continued to rise statewide, with 10,000 patients starting Monday, according to the COVID follow-up project – a level not seen since July.
Texas has registered 113,049 new cases of Covid-19 in the past seven days, according to Johns Hopkins. It is the second largest state in the world, behind California.
Nurse Ingraham says she is stressed by the ongoing fight against the disease and has a message about the charge she and others have suffered at the hospital.
“It’s like we’re non-existent,” she says. “You realize that we are still here, taking care that these people endanger my life, the life of my child, the life of my mother.
“I feel like we were literally forgotten.”