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Permian Basin Hospitals Concerned Over Limited Staffing As Coronavirus Case Counts Rise

By Mitch Borden

Odessa’s largest hospital is closing its doors to nearby communities as the Permian Basin’s already limited healthcare infrastructure struggles to care for the growing number of COVID-19 patients in the region. 

Midland and Odessa have seen over 1400 COVID-19 cases so far, with a sizable portion appearing in the past month. In early June, the cities had fewer than 300 cases combined.

That influx of coronavirus patients has forced Permian Basin hospitals to grapple with a rapidly changing situation. On Wednesday, Russell Tippin, CEO of Medical Center Hospital in Odessa, announced transfers from surrounding rural hospitals would temporarily stop for at least a week.

As of Wednesday evening, the hospital now has 32 coronavirus patients with about a third of them in critical condition. Another floor is now being dedicated to caring for more COVID-19 patients. Tippin said diverting additional staff to the coronavirus wards will relieve the strain on healthcare workers dedicated for those patients. 

“We have to protect our resources, we have to protect our staff, and most importantly protect our patients,” Tippin said. “I know that is going to create some situations outside of Ector County, but right now we have got a situation at Medical Center.”

The decision was reversal from what officials said just a day before when Amanda Everett, MCH’s Emergency Management Coordinator, told Marfa Public Radio the hospital would not be refusing patients from outside of Ector County anytime soon.

"For us to get to a point to where we can't accept patients anymore from the region then all of our hospitals would be pretty full,” Everett said. “We would be to the point where we don't have any staff left, and we are down to our last several ventilators."

Odessa Regional Medical Center’s chief medical officer Dr. Rohith Saravanan said his hospital is also facing a staffing shortage with the facility’s 15-bed coronavirus ward nearly full.

Hospital officials state they’re are able to expand their coronavirus wards should they see a greater increase in patients: Medical Center Hospital currently has 78 beds for COVID-19 patients but could almost double that if needed; Odessa Regional Medical Center can expand to 39 beds; Midland Memorial Hospital could potentially care for up to 138 coronavirus patients.

Saravanan explained Odessa Regional Medical Center may need to hire additional staff from nursing agencies if the facility needs to significantly expand. However, staffing agencies are expensive and may not be reliable as the state has already been dealing with a shortage of healthcare professionals since before the coronavirus pandemic. “If some of our bigger cities start utilizing those agency staff we are not going to be able to get those people here,” Saravanan said. 

Before relying on outside agencies, Midland Memorial Hospital and Medical Center Hospital are looking to the community to recruit healthcare providers who could potentially work in the hospitals if needed. MCH may also look to healthcare professionals from nearby states.

The shrinking hospital capacity in Odessa and Midland has stark ramifications for surrounding areas, which often rely on the two cities for higher-level medical care, including the communities of Far West Texas. Medical Center Hospital in Odessa has taken in at least three patients from Big Bend Regional Medical Center in Alpine, but will stop those transfers for the time being. 

It is currently unclear if BBRMC has transferred patients to other hospitals in the Permian Basin, El Paso, or other locations. BBRMC declined Marfa Public Radio’s request for information on where COVID-19 patients are transferred. 

Healthcare officials in the Permian Basin are stressing the importance of mitigating the spread of the coronavirus before the staffing shortage becomes more dire. 

Mitch Borden is Permian Basin Reporter & Producer at Marfa Public Radio.