Media Reports: Texas Hospitals Are Struggling During Winter-Weather Crisis

Feb. 18, 2021
The Washington Post, Houston Chronicle, Austin American-Statesman, and other media outlets reported on Feb. 17 and 18 on how Texas’ weather crisis has been affecting hospitals and nursing homes across the state

Media reports are indicating that hospitals in the state of Texas are struggling with some of the same issues that the state’s residents are struggling with, putting them into crisis even as their services are more desperately needed than ever.

As the New York Times’s James Dobbins and Richard Fausset reported on Feb. 18, “The power crisis spurred by the massive winter storm currently hobbling Texas has also become a water crisis, with hundreds of thousands of homes and businesses dealing with burst pipes or ordered to boil water, as water utilities suffer from frozen wells and treatment plants run on backup power. In Harris County,” they wrote, “which includes Houston, the nation’s fourth-largest city, more than one million people have been affected by local water systems that have either issued boil-water notices or that cannot deliver water at all, said Brian Murray, a spokesman for the county emergency management agency. Mayor Sylvester Turner of Houston on Thursday said the city’s water pressure was slowly improving, and that power had been restored to many residents. Even so, the city would probably be under a boil-water order until Sunday or Monday, he said.”

As the crisis rolled forward, the Washington Post’s Timothy Bella and Katie Shepherd published an article on Feb. 18 sharing with readers the struggles the state’s hospitals have been facing. “When St. David’s South Austin Medical Center ran out of water and lost heat on Wednesday amid a historic cold burst in Texas, the hospital was forced to ask staffers to use trash bags to remove feces from toilets, KVUE reported,” they wrote, referencing a Feb. 17 report by Shawn M. Reding of KVUE, the ABC affiliate station in Austin.

“That dire scene captured a growing crisis for hospitals in the state,” the Post’s Bella and Shepherd wrote. “As millions of Texans remain without power for what could be days, hospitals throughout Texas have now lost water and heat, leaving doctors scrambling to conserve resources and coronavirus vaccine shots while caring for vulnerable residents. Some are now moving patients to other facilities for their safety — if they can find anywhere with the ability to take them amid an ongoing pandemic and power emergency.” And they quoted David Huffstutler, St. David’s HealthCare’s CEO, who said in a statement early Thursday in which he said that “No one hospital currently has the capacity to accept transport of a large number of patients.”

“Water feeds the facility’s boiler, so as a result, it is also losing heat,” Huffstutler said, according to KXAN. Like other hospitals in the area, St. David’s is trying to bring water trucks on-site, securing portable toilets and finding transportation for discharged patients. The hospital is also “canceling all non-emergent procedures,” a statement from St. David’s said. And, the Post reporters wrote, “Lost water pressure is affecting a number of hospitals in the Austin area, including Ascension Seton Southwest Hospital and Dell Children’s Medical Center. Ascension Seton announced Wednesday it would reschedule all elective surgeries to preserve personnel and bed capacity, reported the Austin American-Statesman. Dell Children’s, which lost power, said in a memo to patients obtained by KUT that its managers were ‘doing their best to keep everyone safe and warm,” but noted that toilets did not have ‘flushing capabilities.’” “While extreme weather conditions have caused intermittent water issues at several Ascension Seton sites of care, facility teams are working quickly to resolve the issues,” Ascension Seton said in a statement provided to the Post.

Speaking of the St. David’s situation, the Austin American-Statesman’s Tony Plohetski reported on Feb. 17 that “St. David's South Austin Medical Center is suffering from a loss of water pressure and heat and is taking several steps to get water to the hospital, officials said Wednesday evening. In an email, David Huffstutler, CEO of St. David's HealthCare, said the facility's boiler depends on water, contributing to falling temperatures inside.  The water issue is also impacting "a number of other hospitals in the area," he said. ‘Because this is a state-wide emergency situation that is also impacting other hospitals within the Austin area, no one hospital currently has the capacity to accept transport of a large number of patients,’ the statement said. The email did not say which other facilities are facing problems. But officials with Ascension Seton Southwest Hospital, in Southwest Austin, said they are also facing intermittent issues with water pressure. Effective immediately, the hospital is rescheduling elective surgeries to preserve bed capacity and personnel, according to a statement from Ascension Seton.

The Post’s reporters wrote that, “In Houston, another major city under a water boil notice enacted Wednesday, Mayor Sylvester Turner (D) pleaded with residents to stop running water to prevent pipes from freezing to help conserve resources for hospitals. Pipes have already burst at multiple Houston Methodist hospitals across the city, and at least two facilities are operating without water, according to the Houston Chronicle. Roberta L. Schwartz, executive vice president at Houston Methodist, told the Houston Business Journal that the hospital system is still operating using jugs and bottles of water for patients. Houston Methodist’s locations have also tried to conserve water by limiting showers and having staffers wash their hands with hand sanitizer instead of water and soap.”

Indeed, the Houston Chronicle’s Jasper Scherer, Zach Despart, and other staff writers published an article on Feb. 17 that began, “Houston-area hospitals are canceling surgeries, dealing with burst pipes and conserving water as the region suffers from extremely low water pressure on Wednesday. Mayor Sylvester Turner issued a boil water notice for the city Wednesday morning. He urged residents to stop running water to keep pipes from freezing, shut off water if pipes had burst and otherwise conserve so water is available for hospitals and firefighters,” the Chronicle’s reporters stated.

Further, they wrote, “Amid the water crisis, Houston Methodist hospitals canceled most non-urgent surgeries and procedures Wednesday and may do so again Thursday, spokesperson Stefanie Asin said. Pipes have burst at Houston Methodist hospitals across the area, and two locations — in Baytown and west Houston — are operating without water altogether. Those two hospitals still are ‘managing to meet essential needs of the community,’ Asin said. The specialty clinics at Lyndon B. Johnson Hospital and outpatient center at Ben Taub Hospital did not reopen at noon today as planned because of low water pressure, a Harris Health spokeswoman said. Emergency facilities remained open. Water pressure at the main Baylor St. Luke’s Medical Center campus is low but not critically so, spokeswoman Vanessa Astros said.” And they quoted Astros as stating that “Baylor St. Luke’s is in the process of implementing water conservation strategies, including limiting water usage to essential tasks, storing water throughout the hospital, and having portable water tanks on hand.”

The Chronicle reporters also wrote that “Texas Children’s Hospital also is experiencing low water pressure at its campuses in the Medical Center and west Houston, said spokeswoman Jenn Jacome. Hospital officials are working to conserve water and are “effectively managing” the situation, Jacome said. Some Memorial Hermann facilities were conserving water after experiencing low water pressure, though patient care “has not been impacted,” spokeswoman Kathryn Williams said. City officials are meanwhile providing water to various hospitals in the Houston area, Turner said at a news conference Wednesday. The Houston Fire Department has sent water to Lyndon B. Johnson Hospital, and the city has dipped into its water supply for irrigating parks to provide water to other hospitals.” The Chronicle reporters added that “A spokesperson for the Texas Medical Center did not respond to a requests for comment. Despite the water issues, Houston Methodist hospitals maintained full operations for essential medical needs, Asin said. The hospital system’s emergency rooms are very crowded ‘due to patients being unable to meet their medical needs at home without electricity,’ she said.”

Separately, the Chronicle’s Emily Foxhall reported on Feb. 17 that one-fifth of the long-term care facilities in the state were in crisis around heating, water, and other issues, with 18 of about 1,220 nursing homes statewide having to relocate or evacuate residents.

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