AUSTIN, Texas – Some hospitals, short of heat or water, urgently rushed to relocate their most critically ill patients. Other hospitals were full of patients who had been injured by the winter storm or who fell ill during the winter storm, who boarded in corridors. In one hospital, the pipes burst, spraying water through the emergency room, while in another hospital, patients were told to clean themselves with hand sanitizer and stop showering in a desperate effort to conserve water.
Chaotic scenes took place all over Texas on Thursday as hospitals faced a series of problems from the brutal storm: winter indoor temperatures, a shortage of generators, acute water shortages and a spike in emergency room visits by patients urgently in need of dialysis treatment and oxygen tanks. .
“We transport water in trucks to flush toilets,” said Roberta L. Schwartz, executive vice president and chief innovation officer at Houston Methodist, which operates seven hospitals in the country's fourth-largest city. Water, she said, was so scarce that health workers used bottled water for chemotherapy treatments.
“We actually had a downpour after the ice storm, so we collected the rainwater because we needed it,” added Ms. Schwartz.
The uproar comes at an already irritating time for Texas hospitals, nearly a year in a pandemic that has stretched many to its limits. While new cases of coronavirus in Texas have declined sharply, from an average of more than 20,000 a day a month ago to less than half that number in recent days, much of the state is struggling as the virus continues to spread and as vaccine distribution was slowed by this week's storms.
The areas of Odessa, Eagle Pass and Huntsville have reported new virus cases at some of the highest rates in the country. And state officials have warned that the number of cases would likely be artificially low this week due to gaps reporting during the storm. In Travis County, which includes Austin, officials had not provided new data on cases since Friday and said they did not expect this again until the weekend, citing the storm's impact on their staff.
Hospitals such as St. David's South Austin Medical Center said they transferred some patients to other facilities while desperately trying to conserve resources. In a statement, David Huffstutler, the CEO of St. David's HealthCare, said the hospital was working to get water trucks and portable toilets as soon as possible.
In Dallas, parts of the ceiling at Baylor University Medical Center collapsed after a pipe burst, injecting water directly into the emergency room. Julie Smith, a spokeswoman for the hospital, said the workers had made the first repairs that allowed patients to be treated there.
The scenes took place in a state where health workers have struggled with repeated crises in recent years: hurricanes. Floods. Tropical storms. Blackouts. Pandemic peaks.
Dr. Sarah Olstyn Martinez, emergency room physician at a hospital in Austin, outlined the situation bluntly on Facebook: "There is no place to post anyone."
"I don't want to panic, but I also want people to understand the gravity of the situation in the hope that people will stay at home," Dr. Martinez, adding, "We put patients 2 in a room and take patients on board. In corridors."
"I've never seen a medical system in the city in such a difficult situation as I do now in Austin," continued Dr. Martinez. "COVID peaks were nothing compared to the current situation."
In a telephone interview, Dr. Martinez operating her hospital with skeletal personnel. Doctors and nurses, she said, were staying in a number of hospitals, "sleeping in whatever open nook and cranny there is."
Some of the challenges facing Texas hospitals are related to problems that have arisen in the state-beleaguered health care system since the storm and the electricity crisis. For example, an influx of dialysis patients is putting pressure on hospital emergency rooms because many dialysis centers – which require electricity, heat, and large amounts of filtered water to provide care – are temporarily closed.
In one of Houston Methodist hospitals, doctors converted an old intensive care unit into a makeshift dialysis unit, transferring 42 patients from the cramped emergency room on Wednesday. And in parts of East Texas, health workers are so alarmed that patients have not received dialysis treatment for the past week that they are asking local police to run welfare checks.
"This could be a death sentence for some of our patients," said Kara McClure, a social worker in the Tyler area. She said dialysis clinics in Tyler, Athens and Palestine were closed due to a lack of water, and a Jacksonville clinic was closed because staff were unable to reach the site. Even nearby hospitals are struggling with water shortages that can complicate dialysis treatment.
"This is a widespread system bug, and it's overwhelming," said Ms. McClure. "I'm afraid people will die."
Federal officials pledged help on Thursday. Liz Sherwood-Randall, President Biden's homeland security adviser, told reporters that the Federal Emergency Management Agency supplied 60 generators to critical locations such as hospitals and water supplies, and sent 729,000 gallons of water and 50,000 cotton blankets to the state.
Still, some Texas doctors warned the situation could get worse, pointing to the possibility of increasing risks associated with Covid-19 as the state tries to recover from the storm. According to the Covid Tracking Project, about 7,600 coronavirus patients statewide were hospitalized as of Wednesday, compared to about 14,000 during the mid-January peak.
While Texas avoided its worst pandemic last spring, the state has struggled many times since. The number of cases rose last summer and again in the fall and early winter. The Eagle Pass, Lubbock, and Laredo areas are among the country's five metropolitan areas with the highest rates of known cases during the pandemic.
About 10.6 percent of Texans had received at least one dose of a coronavirus vaccine on Thursday and about 4.3 percent were fully vaccinated, putting the state below the national average in both statistics, but not among the worst-performing countries.
In Laredo, on the border with Mexico, Dr. Ricardo Cigarroa, a cardiologist who has switched to In the treatment of coronavirus patients during the pandemic, the distribution of vaccines was delayed by about a week due to problems associated with the power grid failure.
The storm also brought additional risks. Many people found comfort, he said, huddling together to warm up. "But Covid loves that," said Dr. Cigarroa.
David Montgomery reported from Austin, and Simon Romero from Albuquerque. Reporting was contributed by Mitch Smith from Chicago, James Dobbins from San Antonio, and Marina Trahan Martinez and Richard Webner from Austin. Sheelagh McNeill contributed research.