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Texas health officials warn of full ICUs as state grapples with worsening COVID-19 surge

A healthcare worker prepares a dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech Covid-19 vaccine at Boston Medical Center in Boston, Massachusetts, U.S., on Thursday, June 17, 2021. The first pandemic surge flooded Boston Medical Center with coronavirus patients: 229 at last springs peak, filling nearly two-thirds of its beds. This week, the Covid-19 count hit zero. (Photographer: Adam Glanzman/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

(CNN) — The latest surge in Covid-19 hospitalizations this summer is having a deepening effect in Texas, a state that has seen its leadership rebuke steps such as mandatory mask wearing, yet now faces hospitals stretched to capacity with sick patients.

And amid both the crises at health care facilities as well as court battles raging over the legality of safety measures in schools, recent news of Gov. Greg Abbott’s positive test for Covid-19 has punctuated messaging from health officials that Texans need to remain vigilant during the pandemic.

The state’s Department of State Health Services said Texas is in “one of its worst fights” it has faced with Covid-19, and mortuary trailers were requested this month as a preparatory maneuver.

“Hospital capacity concerns worsening. Fatalities are increasing faster,” the department said Wednesday. More than 12,400 people are hospitalized with the virus as of Wednesday, according to state data, an increase from 10,791 last Wednesday.

ICU beds are running low, and health care employees are working frantically to find available space for those in need.

At Goodall Witcher Hospital in the central Texas town of Clifton, officials are finding it difficult to transfer Covid-19 patients in need of ICU care to other hospitals since they are at capacity, they say.

Chief Nursing Officer Joycesarah McCabe told CNN affiliate KWTX she calls hospitals throughout Texas, looking for availability. Sometimes calls are made to neighboring states, such as Louisiana or New Mexico.

“We have no beds, and then that’s the end of the conversation. Some will say ‘we are closed, we are on full divert, we’ve been on full divert for two weeks,’” McCabe told KWTX. “Sometimes on the other end of the phone you get someone that says, ‘I’m sorry, I’m so sorry.’ Because they know we are desperate.”

McCabe said staffers themselves have lost relatives or friends while providing care at the rural hospital. “A nurse, a sonographer and one of our physicians all lost someone either Saturday or Sunday to Covid. The youngest was 21, the oldest was 38,” McCabe told KWTX.

Justin Squyres, a physician at the hospital, said to KWTX, “I lost my brother on Saturday. We waited five days for an ICU bed and it never happened.

“I have no way of knowing if an ICU bed would have saved him,” Squyres said. “But he’s not the only one, there are so many others.”

Data shows uphill battle to slow pandemic

The Texas DSHS is encouraging residents to get Covid-19 vaccines to stave off the worsening number of infections, saying only 322 ICU beds are available in the state.

“Full vaccination prevents nearly all cases of severe illness, hospitalization and death,” the department said.

Nearly 66% of Texans who are eligible to get the vaccine have received at least one dose, according to state data, and 54.7% were fully vaccinated. This slightly trails the national average of 70.2% of eligible recipients with at least one dose and 59.6% fully vaccinated, according to the CDC.

Younger people nationwide have been vaccinated at lesser rates than older individuals, and health experts point to increased inoculations across all age groups as a way to help curb the pandemic.

The seven-day moving average of vaccinations for children ages 12-17 is increasing in Texas, the DSHS said, up from an average of around 10,500 vaccinations in early July to around 21,500 on Monday. A third of children ages 12-17 in the state are now fully vaccinated, the department said.

However, children under the age of 12 are not yet eligible for vaccination, and Texas has the most pediatric Covid-19 hospitalizations in the nation at 239, according to the latest data released Monday by the US Department of Health and Human Services.

Florida, which has also been hit hard with pediatric infections and received criticism alongside Texas for state leaders’ refusals to allow for local mask mandates, had 170 children in hospitals with Covid-19.

Local districts defy mask mandate ban

Elected state officials have made it no secret that they intend to continue preventing local school districts from enforcing mandatory mask wearing in schools.

This week, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton’s office released an updated list of government entities he says are “unlawfully imposing mask mandates,” and not in compliance with Abbott’s executive order prohibiting governmental entities, including school districts, from requiring mask wearing.

“I’m committed to protecting the rights and freedoms of all Texans,” Paxton said on Twitter.

Some of the entities listed as non-compliant have filed lawsuits that are currently working through the court system. A recent Texas Supreme Court ruling sided with Abbott’s order.

Yet some districts are pushing back by finding solutions outside the courtroom. The Paris Independent School District, located northeast of Dallas, voted to amend its current dress code to include masks.

“The board believes the dress code can be used to mitigate communicable health issues, and therefore has amended the PISD dress code to protect our students and employees,” the district said in a statement.

“The Texas governor does not have the authority to usurp the board of trustees’ exclusive power and duty to govern and oversee the management of the public schools of the district,” it said.

With Abbott — who is fully vaccinated and assured Texans Wednesday that he was in good spirits — testing positive for Covid-19, critics highlighted the moment as additional evidence for mask wearing and caution. Texas Democratic Party Chair Gilberto Hinojosa urged local governments to continue moving forward with mandates.

“I wish Governor Abbott well — no one deserves to be sick or to suffer from this unyielding virus. My hope is that the governor will realize how vulnerable we are in the face of this health crisis, stop playing politics, and do what is necessary for the health of all Texans,” Hinojosa said.

“Children’s lives cannot be negotiated for a potential political win. I commend the nearly dozen school districts and local governments who continue to defy the governor’s orders and in spite of forceful opposition, choose to do the right thing for the safety of our kids and communities.”