29 ICU Beds Available in Dallas County as Vaccine Begins its Slow Rollout

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Sit tight. This might be the only vaccine you see for a while.
As Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine slowly trickles into hospitals, the Thanksgiving wave of cases is settling into ICU units. Tuesday morning, the director of Dallas County Health and Human Services, Dr. Philip Huang, reported there are just 29 ICU beds available in all of Dallas County.

Steve Love, president and CEO of the DFW Hospital Council, told the Dallas County Commissioners Court approximately 40% of local ICU beds are occupied by COVID-19 patients. He also said most of the experts and epidemiologists he’s talked to agree that we’re seeing the impact from Thanksgiving travel and gatherings.

According to data examined by NPR, Parkland Hospital is at 98% capacity and 15% of those are COVID-19 patients. Methodist Medical Center in Dallas is at 99% capacity and 30% are COVID-19 patients. Baylor University Medical Center is at 96% capacity and 25% are COVID-19 patients.

Huang told the court percentages are potentially even higher because there are patients in hospitals who no longer test positive but are being treated for complications caused by the virus.

State officials are expected to announce soon how many doses of the vaccine Texas will receive next week. Hospitals that did not get the vaccine in the first round will likely get it in the second. There’s also hope that a  second vaccine, from Moderna, will be approved by the Food and Drug Administration and available as early as next week.

But, Love and Huang both emphasized that we still have a long way to go until the entire public receives the vaccines and we reach herd immunity. They stressed the need to make sacrifices during the upcoming holidays by not traveling, staying with immediate family and continuing to follow all suggested protocols.

A Slow Vaccine Rollout
The state has released allocation guidelines aimed at immunizing front line health care workers and long-term care facilities first (both patients and workers). Several local hospitals have already received the vaccine and some staff who are working directly with COVID-19 patients have received the shot or will later this week.

Huang said that next week's round of doses will go directly to pharmacies — CVS and Walgreens — which will coordinate and administer immunizations to long-term care facilities.

Since the Pfizer vaccine requires two shots 21 days apart, the third round of doses will need to go back to the first group.

The shipments hospitals received this week, which were at most 5,850 doses per location, aren’t enough to cover tier-one hospital staff populations. For instance, Parkland Hospital has 10,000 people on staff, even though only a small proportion of them interacts with COVID-19 patients, “it will take weeks to even get the first tier covered,” Huang said.

“We’re going to have to continue to do this for five or six months, but we can see the light at the end of the tunnel,” Love said.

Wave After Wave
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the median length of hospitalization due to COVID-19 is 10 to 13 days. So, much of the Thanksgiving wave could leave the hospital around Dec. 24 or 25. That's why public health officials caution against Christmas-time travel despite the rollout of the vaccine; with beds near capacity, another wave will only exhaust an already-weary legion of frontline workers.

In good news and a sign the Thanksgiving wave is abating, Dallas County appears to be flattening the curve based on UT Southwestern's most recent modeling this week.

Tarrant County to the west is on a different trajectory though. UT Southwestern offered commentary on the divergence between the two counties:

“While Dallas County hospitalizations are expected to stay flat at their current high levels until Christmas, Tarrant County hospitalizations are expected to grow another 20% in the same time frame.”

UT Southwestern’s modeling predicts roughly 2,400 new COVID-19 infections per day in Tarrant County by Christmas. (On Dec. 15 they reported 1,544 new daily cases.)

Another key difference between the two counties is that Tarrant County, while exhibiting recent signs of being blue-curious, has historically been a widely Republican county. In the last presidential election,  Biden won by less than 2,000 votes, but the county was red down the ballot. Dallas, on the other hand, voted Democratic by roughly 30 percentage points.

The Associated Press reported Nov. 5 that "in 376 counties with the highest number of new cases per capita, the overwhelming majority — 93% of those counties — went for Trump, a rate above other less severely hit areas."

Further illustrating the point, on Tuesday, Texas Republican Gov. Greg Abbott Tweeted a photo of medical workers in Houston who received their vaccine, but not without assuaging fears of government overreach. "Always voluntary. Never forced," he wrote.

According to NPR data, John Peter Smith Hospital in Fort Worth is at 100% capacity, and 25% of adult-inpatient beds are occupied by COVID-19 patients. Methodist Hospital in Mansfield is at 99% capacity and 36% are COVID patients. If you need to go to the hospital in Tarrant County, Arlington has the lowest numbers.