Hospital CEOs in northwest Houston provide updates on capacity, staffing challenges

Keith Barber, CEO of the Houston Methodist Willowbrook Hospital, moderated a discussion of local health care leaders hosted July 21 by the Cy-Fair Houston Chamber of Commerce. (Screenshot courtesy Zoom)
Keith Barber, CEO of the Houston Methodist Willowbrook Hospital, moderated a discussion of local health care leaders hosted July 21 by the Cy-Fair Houston Chamber of Commerce. (Screenshot courtesy Zoom)

Keith Barber, CEO of the Houston Methodist Willowbrook Hospital, moderated a discussion of local health care leaders hosted July 21 by the Cy-Fair Houston Chamber of Commerce. (Screenshot courtesy Zoom)

With COVID-19 hospitalizations up more than 150% since mid-June in Harris County, hospital leaders with several of the largest hospitals in the northwest Houston area spoke July 21 about the current situation, including how hospitals are meeting the demand for beds, the importance of wearing face coverings and the toll the pandemic is taking on health care workers.

Speakers at the virtual event—hosted by the Cy-Fair Houston Chamber of Commerce—included Keith Barber, CEO of the Houston Methodist Willowbrook Hospital; Jim Brown, CEO of HCA Houston Healthcare's North Cypress Hospital; Mario Garner, president of CHI St. Luke's Health—The Vintage Hospital; and Josh Urban, senior vice president of community hospital operations with Memorial Hermann Health System.

With COVID-19 hospitalizations up, the Willowbrook hospital is able to "flex up" medical surge units into expanded intensive care units, Barber said. The number of ICUs at the hospital has nearly doubled at times, he said. At Memorial Hermann, Urban said officials have started expanding beds into nontraditional parts of the hospital, such as recovery rooms, as well as some operating rooms and endoscopy suites.

Some of the panelists reported an increase in staff absenteeism caused by illness. To increase staffing levels, several of the hospital systems have begun using national organizations to help bring in contractors from outside of Houston, importing nurses from areas that are less affected by the pandemic.

"We eliminated all outside contract labor in the beginning to protect and preserve jobs for our own team," Brown said. "At this point, we're now calling on more national contractors to help us manage absences caused by community spread."


Brown pointed out all four panelists are part of larger hospital systems, which he said provides major benefits when it comes to leveraging those systems for resources.

"The strength of our supply chains benefits us greatly in a situation like this," Brown said. "Thus far, to my knowledge, we have not seen some of the challenges that might be fought in rural areas or areas with health systems not to this scale."

The four panelists each stressed hospitals are safe and urged people not to delay critical appointments, a call that has also been echoed recently by the head of the Houston Fire Department, which has reported an increase in at-home deaths. Leaders at each hospital said it has been standard practice to separate COVID-19 patients from non-COVID-19 patients in an effort to keep the virus from spreading within hospital walls.

"When we shut our procedures down in April and then started opening up in May and June, we saw serious issues from people who delayed care in that month," Barber said. "As we’re going through this again, we’re thinking about simultaneously taking care of COVID patients but also taking care other diseases so people aren’t creating larger, acute situations that are harder to recover from later on."

Throughout the discussion, Barber stressed the importance of having a unified plan where the broader community all works together to slow the spread of the virus. People were unified in the early stage of the pandemic, he said, but started going in different directions around June.

"I think we’ve really payed for that as a community and as health care providers," he said. "The biggest thing we’re learning is how important it is to have a unified plan. There’s opportunity as a metro area for us to be more unified in how we handle this pandemic."

Each panelist stressed the importance of wearing face coverings as a part of that unified plan, in addition to other common methods such as social distancing and hygiene. Urban said the unity toward the beginning of the pandemic came in part from shutdown orders put in place at the county level—something both Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner and Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo have advocated bringing back but Gov. Greg Abbott has opposed. However, Urban stopped short of calling for a second shutdown.

"I’m not suggesting another shutdown, but if we could all do our part to follow those rules, I really do think that is what can bend the curve downward because we’ve seen it work a few months ago," he said.

Moving forward, Barber said one of the bigger challenges involves taking care of physicians, nurses and staff members who have been overexerted for going on four months. HCA has created A teams and B teams designed to give people a chance to rest, Brown said. Memorial Hermann and Houston Methodist have both created committees focused specifically on the people side of the business and staff morale.

"People are getting worn out and tired and don’t necessarily see the light at the end of the tunnel," Urban said. "We're asking staff to stretch beyond what they usually do ... and that creates stress for our physicians too."

The pandemic has long-term implications that go far beyond the direct care of patients, including how children are educated, people's ability to earn a wage and the need for social services, Urban said. Those issues all have connections to the health care sector as well, he said.

"I think that will have a long-term affect on the community that will be important for all of us to continue to focus on, outside of providing acute care services," he said.
By Shawn Arrajj
Shawn Arrajj serves as the editor of the Cy-Fair edition of Community Impact Newspaper where he covers the Cy-Fair and Jersey Village communities. He mainly writes about development, transportation and issues in Harris County.


MOST RECENT

Harris County continues to confirm more COVID-19 cases in Cy-Fair ISD. (Community Impact Newspaper staff)
Cy-Fair’s COVID-19 cases down 50% month over month

The number of active cases in Cy-Fair has not been this low since late November, but 34 local residents died with COVID-19 in February—up from 16 in January.

An effort to widen White Oak Bayou is one of several flood mitigation projects that are moving forward in Jersey Village, according to a series of Nov. 30 announcements. (Shawn Arrajj/Community Impact Newspaper)
Contract approved for two flood-control projects in Jersey Village

Two flood-control projects in the city of Jersey Village are moving forward after city council members unanimously approved two contracts at a Feb. 22 meeting.

Houston City Hall in rainbow lighting
Greater Houston LGBT Chamber of Commerce celebrates five years of service

The organization is open to all and serves members throughout the Greater Houston area.

The new Fort Bend Epicenter multipurpose facility could be used as a spot for trade shows and sporting events, could act as a large-scale shelter for county residents in an emergency and more. (Community Impact Newspaper staff)
Large multipurpose complex coming to Fort Bend County; Sugar Land to widen University Blvd. and more top Houston-area news

Read the top business and community news from the past week from the Houston area.

Snow covers I-45 in Houston during a winter storm that hit Texas the night of Feb. 14. (Shawn Arrajj/Community Impact Newspaper)
Legislators probe energy officials over power failures, lack of preparation heading into winter storm

The Texas Legislature held hearings Feb. 25 with energy companies including Oncor Electric Delivery and the Electric Reliability Council of Texas in response to last week’s historic winter storm, which left millions of Texans without electricity for days.

Keith Luechtefeld spoke with Community Impact Newspaper about some of the short-term and long-term repercussions of the storm as well as some of the reasons why so many homes saw burst pipes during the freezing weather. (Community Impact staff)
Q&A: Greater Houston Builders Association President Keith Luechtefeld discusses power, plumbing, frozen pipes after Winter Storm Uri

Keith Luechtefeld spoke with Community Impact Newspaper about some of the short-term and long-term repercussions of the storm as well as some of the reasons why so many homes saw burst pipes during the freezing weather.

Harris County ESD No. 11 commissioners met for a meeting Feb. 25. (Courtesy Cypress Creek EMS)
Harris County ESD No. 11 begins construction process on new facility

District offiicials have said they hope Phase 1 of construction will be complete by August.

Winter Storm Uri led to closures across the Greater Houston area during the third week of February. (Courtesy Metropolitan Transit Authority of Harris County)
‘It’s been a rough year for us’: Expert explains economic effects of winter storm, ongoing pandemic in Houston region

“It's been a rough year for us economically; it's been a rough year for us public health wise. It's just been a rough year for us psychologically—first the coronavirus and then the freeze," said Patrick Jankowski, senior vice president of research with the Greater Houston Partnership.

The $560 million central processor, which is part of the new Mickey Leland International Terminal, will replace the parking garage for terminals D and E. (Courtesy Houston Airport System)
Parking garage at George Bush Intercontinental Airport to be demolished to make way for new Mickey Leland International Terminal

The international central processor, which is part of the new Mickey Leland International Terminal, will replace the parking garage for terminals D and E.

As many as 31 stores across nine states will be shuttered as Fry's Electronics shuts down due to market changes and the pandemic. (Courtesy Qygen, Wikimedia Commons)
Fry's Electronics calls it quits after nearly 36 years in business

As many as 31 stores across nine states will be shuttered as Fry's Electronics shuts down due to market changes and the pandemic.