In the Permian Basin, hospitals are seeing more COVID-19 patients than ever before while local schools are seeing hundreds of students and staff test positive for the coronavirus. Meanwhile, healthcare providers have made it clear: they’re burnt out and have fewer resources now than what was available last year.
By Mitch Borden
In Midland and Odessa, the number of patients hospitalized for the coronavirus has reached record-breaking levels. At the same time, the vaccination rate in the area is hovering around 40%, well behind the statewide and national average.
Marfa Public Radio’s Permian Basin reporter Mitch Borden spoke with news director Carlos Morales about the latest.
Where Midland and Odessa stands at this point in the pandemic
Both major hospitals in the Midland-Odessa area have broken their records for the number of patients hospitalized for COVID-19 in the past week.
In Odessa, healthcare officials with Medical Center Hospital have said the facility may need to set up specially outfitted medical tents in its parking lot to create additional bed space for patients — but staffing remains a pressing problem. To operate the tents, officials have said the hospital needs enough staff, which it doesn’t have currently.
Meanwhile, Midland Memorial Hospital has also requested an emergency tent from the state along with more medical personnel. Staffing shortages have been one of the biggest challenges facing both Midland Memorial and Medical Center. State and federal governments aren’t offering as much aid as they were last year, which has left facilities in the two Permian Basin cities in a lurch as healthcare providers face the worst surge of COVID-19 patents they’ve seen so far in the pandemic.
The level of support Midland and Odessa Hospitals currently need
As of Thursday, Midland Memorial has sent requests to the state, as well as nursing agencies, for 115 nurses and about 20 respiratory therapists. In Odessa, Medical Center is looking for dozens of nurses and other personnel to bolster its ranks.
Hospital leaders have described crowded spaces and have at times had to treat patients in hallways.
During an Aug. 17 press conference, Medical Center leaders asked the public to avoid the hospital because they were inundated with patients needing care. Officials said they wouldn’t turn anyone away, but asked for people with only “extreme” emergencies to come to the hospital.
Midland and Odessa vaccination rates
The majority of residents in the Midland-Odessa area are not fully vaccinated. In Midland County, according to the latest state data, the vaccination rate for eligible residents is just under 41%.
In Ector County, the vaccination rate is about 39%. Both vaccination rates lag far behind the state and national average.
Medical providers are still encouraging individuals to get vaccinated, wear masks and practice social distancing. Health officials have offered anecdotal evidence to suggest more Midland and Odessa residents are getting vaccinated now, but there hasn’t been a significant uptick in recent weeks, according to state data.
Concern mounts over large gatherings as local leaders take little action
Health officials are warning residents about upcoming events, saying these kinds of mass gatherings could become coronavirus hot spots and they should be canceled — but many are moving forward as planned.
Organizers for Odessa’s Permian Basin Fair & Expo, a nine-day event beginning Sept. 3, expect they could see daily attendance for the event reach over 3,000 people. A spokesperson for the fair said there would be hand sanitizer as well as a vaccination booth for attendees.
Russell Tippin, the CEO of Medical Center Hospital, appeared before the Odessa City Council on Sep. 24 to warn about the danger holding community events could pose, but the city council refused to cancel or postpone upcoming gatherings.
In Midland, the County Judge has said he will not close the Midland County Horseshoe Arena, which means all events there will go on as scheduled.
The impact the current COVID spike is having on Midland-Odessa schools so far
Hundreds of cases are emerging among staff and students in both Midland and Ector County Independent School Districts. Earlier this week, Midland ISD Superintendent Angelica Ramsey told reporters her district is seeing around 300 staff personnel out daily due to the virus and the district’s pool of substitute teachers is tapped out.
Ramsey also told reporters the district is assessing when schools will need to be shut down due to staff shortages.
Ector County ISD’s school board passed a resolution on Thursday empowering Superintendent Scot Muri to instate a mask mandate once it is “legally and medically appropriate.” Currently, the state of Texas is in a court battle contesting the ability school districts have to require students and staff to wear face coverings.
Until it becomes clear what is legal, Ector County ISD is holding back on a mask mandate. That means students in Odessa can still attend class without a mask, but that could change in the future.