This time last year, almost 1,500 COVID-19 patients crowded local hospitals. Hospitalizations neared that peak again at the end of August, as the delta surge gripped the region.

Now fueled by the omicron variant, COVID-19 hospitalizations reached 898 on Tuesday, a 385% increase since Dec. 20. Officials say those cases, along with a severe shortage of health care workers, are straining hospital systems as never before.

While the state has deployed 411 contract nurses and respiratory therapists to local hospitals, Mayor Ron Nirenberg and Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff have already reached out to Gov. Greg Abbott seeking additional relief.

Bexar County hospitals have activated internal response/surge plans and contingency staffing models, Nirenberg and Wolff wrote on Jan. 10, “but with hundreds of our nurses out each day, we are going to need a lot more help soon.”

The shortage is driven in part by nurses leaving the field altogether, burnt out after almost two years of grueling hours, serial coronavirus outbreaks and increasingly abusive patients and families. Exacerbating the shortage, many healthcare workers themselves are testing positive for COVID-19 and so cannot report to work.

A medical professional approaches the entrance to the Baptist Orthopedic Hospital Wednesday.
A medical professional approaches the entrance to the Baptist Orthopedic Hospital in August last year. Credit: Bria Woods / San Antonio Report

Bexar County’s trends are mirrored statewide. More than 11,000 Texans are currently hospitalized, according to data from the Texas Department of State Health Services; at the height of the last two peaks, hospitalizations hit almost 14,000.

Nationally, COVID-19 hospitalizations have surpassed the record high recorded in January 2021; almost 146,000 patients were reported hospitalized across the U.S. on Tuesday.

Hospitalization rates are up for every age group, said Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the CDC, during a Jan. 7 briefing. She noted that “while children still have the lowest rate of hospitalization of any group, pediatric hospitalizations are at the highest rate compared to any prior point in the pandemic.” 

Just 11% of all local staffed hospital beds and 65% of ventilators are currently available, according to the Southwest Texas Regional Advisory Council, which collects and tallies daily numbers across relevant hospitals and health care systems.

Hospitals are reporting fewer patients needing ventilators and intensive care compared to previous surges. Some patients who entered the hospital for other reasons have tested positive for COVID-19, and show mild or no symptoms.

“The acuity isn’t as bad as with delta,” said Katy Kiser, spokeswoman with Christus Health.

But as Dr. Bryan Alsip, chief medical officer for University Health System noted, a hospital’s response is the same as for those who are seriously ill with the virus.

“All inpatients who test positive with COVID-19 have the same isolation requirements and infection control precautions to prevent transmission of the SARS-CoV-2 virus to other patients or staff as recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for patients in health care settings,” he said in a statement to the San Antonio Report.

A person performs a nasal swab collection while testing for Covid-19 at a Curative test site on the West Side on Sunday.
A person performs a nasal swab collection while testing for COVID-19 at a Curative test site on the West Side last week. Credit: Nick Wagner / San Antonio Report

In a YouTube video created by UHS, Alsip also advised against taking a casual approach to catching omicron. “Every individual has a different response to being infected,” he warned, and said that while at the population level, a smaller percentage of individuals are developing severe illness compared to delta, “any individual patient can get severe disease.”

Because omicron is dominant right now, Alsip said, it’s clear that this variant, “in and of itself, can cause hospitalizations, severe disease and death.”

As omicron spreads through the community, it has become easier to get tested, as more free testing sites have opened to meet the growing demand. On Tuesday, Bexar County Commissioners Court pledged up to $1 million to the nonprofit Community Labs, to further expand test sites.

The increase in free test sites is a welcome one for hospital emergency rooms, said Christus Health’s Kiser. “If you need to get tested, please don’t come to the ER,” she said.

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Tracy Idell Hamilton

Tracy Idell Hamilton is Story Editor for the San Antonio Report.