As COVID-19 cases in Texas continue to surge, young people appear to be the driving force.
Texas reported nearly 6,000 new cases of COVID-19 on Thursday, a single-day record for the state. The Texas Medical Center — a massive cluster of health care facilities based in Houston — warned that intensive care units are near capacity and have the potential to be overwhelmed.
Dr. Marc Boom, president and CEO of Houston Methodist Hospital, which is part of the Texas Medical Center, told NPR's All Things Considered that there's been a shift in the patients at his hospital. In the beginning of the pandemic, about 60% of people with COVID-19 in the hospital were over 50 years old, and 40% were younger, Boom said. Now that has "completely flipped," he said.
"What it tells me is that the older, more vulnerable population is staying home and staying safe and the people younger who said, 'Hey, you know what, this is behind us, this is a lot of hype,' they let their guard down, they went out doing life as usual, and we're paying the price for that," Boom said.
On Friday, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott ordered bars in the state to close and limited restaurant capacity, and earlier he had canceled elective surgeries at hospitals in four counties, including Harris County — home to the country's fourth largest city, Houston.
"The majority of people who tested positive since the beginning of June have been people under the age of 30," Abbott said at a press conference last week, adding that some of the increase was a result of "bar-type settings."
Boom said he was thrilled by the governor's decision to close down bars, and said he is hopeful that the community will respond.
"The time is now for everybody to dramatically change their behaviors to get this virus under control so that our hospitals for the weeks to come are there and able to handle this, and we feel confident we can as long as people act now and help bring the curve down over the next couple, three weeks," Boom said.
Boom's comments come as some officials — including Vice President Pence — have blamed the increase of positive test results on the increase of tests altogether. Boom said that is not accurate.
"None of what we're seeing now is really a testing phenomenon," Boom said. "What we're seeing now, this is a 'the virus is spreading rapidly through the community phenomenon.' "
SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:
In Texas this week, a cacophony of alarm bells around a surge of new cases of the coronavirus. The state reported nearly 6,000 new cases yesterday, a record. The governor has taken steps to close bars in the state, reduce restaurant capacity and cancel elective surgeries at hospitals in four counties. That includes Harris County, home to the country's fourth largest city - Houston. The Texas Medical Center, a giant cluster of health care facilities in Houston, this week warned that ICUs were near capacity and had the potential of being overwhelmed. The president and CEO of Houston Methodist, one of the hospitals that's part of the Texas Medical Center, joins us now. Dr. Marc Boom, hello. Welcome to the program.
MARC BOOM: Thank you.
MCCAMMON: We're hearing that ICUs in your area are near capacity. What does that mean?
BOOM: Well, it's important to keep that in context. Right now, clearly the virus is spreading very rapidly throughout Houston, but our hospitals are handling the capacity. ICU capacity is a very fluid thing. We have lots of plans in place to both surge capacity up as well as to ramp back some elective procedures to free up a great deal of additional ICU capacity. The fundamental message in town here is the time is now for everybody to dramatically change their behaviors to get this virus under control so that our hospitals for the weeks to come are there and able to handle this. And we feel confident we can as long as people act now and help bring the curve down over the next couple three weeks.
MCCAMMON: In your hospital system, how are you making space? And how long can you continue to make space if this growth in the coronavirus transmission rate continues?
BOOM: So in my system right now, our ICU capacity is in the 90s. We always manage in the 90s because we have kind of a right-sized ICU to what we do. The big difference now is 1 in 4 people in those ICUs have COVID. So clearly, to even manage to that level, we've done less of other procedures, less of other patients requiring ICU. The other thing to remember is every single hospital bed can ultimately be ramped up to do more intensive care somewhere on the spectrum.
MCCAMMON: Vice President Mike Pence said today that part of the reason for more cases being reported right now is simply more testing. How does that fit with what you're seeing on the ground there in Houston?
BOOM: Well, let me talk Houston experience and our experience. None of what we're seeing now is really a testing phenomenon. We have had, you know, record after record after record over the last 10 days of the number of people who have tested positive. Very interestingly, we've seen a younger shift. What it tells me is that the older, more vulnerable population is staying home and staying safe. And the people younger who said, hey; you know what? This is behind us. This is a lot of hype - they let their guard down. They went out doing life as usual, and we're paying the price for that.
MCCAMMON: And finally, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott reopened the state a couple of weeks ago. But now, as you know, he's taken steps to dial that back in response to these new numbers. Did he proceed too quickly?
BOOM: So, you know, I'm really happy that he closed the bars today and cut back on restaurants. I suspect more will be needed to get control of this at this point in time. When I look at some of the data, Texas was a pretty loose state in terms of defining key or critical businesses. And yet we got over the first curve, got this in control with all of those businesses running. I think this is much more about everybody thinking they can somehow outrun this virus and just letting their guard down than it is about directly the businesses opening up. Now, a consequence of that now is we're seeing businesses and others have to be curtailed. I'm hopeful that together, everybody messaging together and focusing together can get this in control.
MCCAMMON: Dr. Marc Boom is president and CEO of Houston Methodist in Houston, Texas. Thanks so much, Dr. Boom.
BOOM: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.