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Texas Health Care Workers On The State's COVID-19 Spike


The CDC has very simple advice for Americans this Thanksgiving - spend the holiday with people you live with. The U.S. keeps setting coronavirus records. We're now detecting around 200,000 cases every day.


This morning, we're going to look at Texas, where the average number of daily cases has increased more than 50% over the past two weeks. Dr. Philip Huang is the director of Dallas County Health and Human Services. He's on the county's public health committee.

PHILIP HUANG: These numbers are very serious. I mean, the thing is, you know, we've seen that we can impact this. We can slow it down. We know what to do. We just need to do it.

KING: But in Texas, like in a lot of states, public officials are divided over how to respond. Governor Greg Abbott has resisted strict-statewide measures. He has asked Texans to be personally responsible instead.


GREG ABBOTT: Shutdowns will not lead to the positive results that some people think.

MARTIN: Local officials have pushed to expand restrictions in their jurisdictions - close businesses or limit gatherings. But Governor Abbott has refused to let them go beyond his statewide measures, and he's been blocking them for months.

JOSEPH VARON: I mean, it's like a deja vu of what we went through.

KING: That's Dr. Joseph Varon. He's chief medical officer at United Memorial Medical Center in Houston. We first talked to him in July when cases there were surging, and he says things are even worse now.

VARON: You have no idea how crazy things are. I mean, it's beyond ridiculous. The number of patients have increased. The severity of illness has increased.

MARTIN: Last week, the hospital reached capacity again. Today is Dr. Varon's 245th day in a row working with COVID-19 patients in the ICU, and he is getting ready for the situation to get worse.

VARON: I truly believe that the next six weeks are going to be probably the darkest weeks that Houston has had just because we're getting, also, an influx of patients, as we are a center of excellence for COVID. We're getting patients from El Paso, and we have been helping out by receiving some of those patients. At this time, we need people to just keep on fighting, you know? I know it's tiring. I mean, I'm exhausted, you can imagine. I mean, it is very tough.

KING: You heard him mention El Paso. More than a thousand people in that city are hospitalized with COVID right now. There are more infections in El Paso than there are in many states. Lizette Torres is a registered nurse at Del Sol Medical Center in El Paso. Good morning, Nurse Torres. Thanks for being with us.

LIZETTE TORRES: Good morning. Thank you for having me.

KING: I understand that you're at the hospital right now. What is it like there?

TORRES: I am. You know, you can just feel the tension as the nurses walk into their shift. We feel frustrated when we don't see our patients get any better. We don't feel like heroes. We're tired. We're working tirelessly. We leave our shifts thinking, surely, we have COVID. I mean, we go - we walk into our shifts facing the unknown. And we don't feel safe. We don't feel protected here at Del Sol Medical Center. We are short-staffed. We are in lack of personal protective equipment. And we're at maximum capacity.

KING: Why do you have a shortage of PPE in the hospital? I would think by this point - months into the pandemic, in a city where so many people are sick - you would have what you need. What's going on?

TORRES: I'm not too sure why we're lacking PPE at this moment. We're being obligated to use one N95 for 12 hours, which is an entire shift, when these masks should be discarded after one-time use. And it is not safe to be using the same mask for all our patients. It's not proper protection for our patients, neither for us. How are we going to go home, you know, and explain to our children, to our family members that we are going to have to quarantine and not see them because, surely, we got infected at the hospital? We're short staffed, and we're at maximum capacity, so it's frustrating to us.

KING: Let me ask you about maximum capacity. We heard Dr. Varon in Houston talking about receiving patients from El Paso because El Paso simply has too many. How many people are you turning away on a daily basis or on a weekly basis? How often is this happening?

TORRES: It's every day. So we've already set up the tents near the emergency rooms. And if patients come in that do not have COVID - if they're coming in for other emergencies and we don't have room for them, we tell them to go to the next nearby hospital. And if they don't have room, they have to go to the other one and so on and so forth. So we've - El Paso has broken its record for active cases every day for the past six weeks. I believe we've had - we've surpassed 800 COVID deaths in these eight months that we've been battling this virus. It's unfortunate that we've had to get more mobile morgues for the dead bodies, as well.

KING: It sounds like what you're saying - you said, if we don't have room here, then we send patients to other hospitals in the area. And if they don't have room - based on that series of ifs, what I'm hearing is you are sending people not just out of El Paso but pretty far from El Paso in some cases because you simply do not have enough beds.

TORRES: Correct. And we mainly need our community to support us in keeping each other safe. We're frustrated, and we see no end. There's a long way to go for us. And we're just trying to see the light at the end of the tunnel. But without the community and the city leaders supporting us with shutdowns or slowing down the cases and putting bigger measures, then it's hard to see that light.

KING: Let's talk about what support would look like. You're saying you're frustrated. You sound as though you're frustrated with local officials. If you could tell them there are one or two things that really need to happen here to make my job easier and to save lives, what would those one or two things be? What does the local government need to do?

TORRES: We want a shutdown. We want people to stay home and abide by the rules and listen to the warning signs. We're no longer the front-liners anymore. It is the people. We are the last line of defense now for the community. And we wish people can take the precautions more seriously.

KING: And we know that Texas's governor, as we said, has - he's resisted strict statewide measures. We heard Dr. Varon in Houston say he is preparing for what he calls the darkest weeks that Houston has ever had. Do you anticipate the same in El Paso?

TORRES: I do. I do.


TORRES: We need more PPE. We need the people to care about the public health and join us in protecting each other.

KING: OK. Lizette Torres is a registered nurse in El Paso, Texas. Nurse Torres, thank you so much for your time. We really appreciate it.

TORRES: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.