The medical community of San Antonio is rushing to help El Paso as that city copes with a surge in coronavirus cases and the city’s hospitals exceed capacity.

El Paso County has logged 64,158 cases of the virus as of Nov. 9 and 27,311 are still active, according to data from the Texas Department of State Health Services. The death toll stands at 708.

More than 1,000 people are currently hospitalized for COVID-19 in El Paso and more than 300 are in intensive care. Patients with the virus account for nearly half of total hospital capacity. A countywide order put in place Oct. 29 requires residents to stay in their homes.

“It’s really scary what’s happening out there and [we] just hope they’re able to contain it there,” Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff said at Monday’s COVID-19 briefing.

Of the 294 patients with the virus receiving care in San Antonio hospitals as of Monday, 55 were airlifted from El Paso – up from 42 last Friday. 

“We’re neighbors helping neighbors here,” said Mayor Ron Nirenberg. “In June and July, we were near 1,300 to 1,400 COVID patients in the hospital. So we are doing our part and it’s not heavily impacting capacity at the hospital at this point.”

Wanda Helgesen, executive director of the Border Regional Advisory Council in El Paso, said that in addition to sending patients to San Antonio, medical providers from San Antonio, Houston, Dallas, and other Texas cities are helping in El Paso hospitals as part of the state’s emergency medical task force.

Most of the medical support from San Antonio is based in a mobile medical unit, Helgesen said, which is a tent hospital located outside University Medical Center, where they are caring for patients with COVID-19.

She said the city’s greatest need is to find a way to stem hospitalizations, but that won’t happen until the number of positive cases decreases. “Our hospitalizations continue to climb [and] I don’t think we’ve hit our peak yet,” Helgesen said. “I think it’ll be into December for us.”

The crisis in El Paso also has led the Federal Emergency Management Agency to request support from three Air Force Medical Specialty Teams that are part of the federal government’s COVID-19 operation in Texas. 

On Friday, 60 medical providers from several military installations, including about 35 from Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland, deployed to El Paso, where they will assist in three hospitals. 

The deployed teams are made up of active-duty physicians, nurses, respiratory therapists, and others, as well as members of the Guard and Reserve, said Col. Martin O’Donnell, a spokesman for U.S. Army North, which is overseeing the operation. 

They arrived on Saturday and Sunday and are supporting three El Paso city hospitals: the University Medical Center of El Paso, the Hospitals of Providence Transmountain Campus, and Las Palmas Del Sol Medical Center. 

The response is just one part of the “whole-of-nation response to the COVID-19 pandemic,” O’Donnell said. 

In July, with San Antonio’s local hospital system under “severe stress” and 886 residents hospitalized with COVID-19, medical providers from around the country, and the Brooke Army Medical Center, lent support to local hospitals

“We remain steadfast in our commitment to assist those in need as part of the whole-of-nation response to the COVID-19 pandemic and in support of FEMA,” said Lt. Gen. Laura Richardson, Army North and Joint Force Land Component commander. “Alongside our local, state, and federal partners, we will work to mitigate this virus and care for El Pasoans.”

Shari Biediger

Shari Biediger

Shari Biediger is the business beat reporter at the San Antonio Report.