(AP) — Texas hospital systems are increasingly closing temporarily their off-site emergency rooms and sending their staff to their hospitals to support staff overstretched by COVID-19.
The moves came as the coronavirus continues to rage throughout the state.

Memorial Hermann Health System in Houston closed three suburban emergency rooms Monday in Kingwood, Spring and Sienna to help ease the burden on its hospital staffs, it said in a statement.

“Closing these locations allows us to reassign the staff to other Memorial Hermann locations where their help is critically needed,” the Memorial Hermann statement said.

St. Luke’s Health in Houston has closed its Conroe ER to help meet surging admissions at its hospital in nearby The Woodlands.

Texas Health Hospital Rockwall, near Dallas, has closed its free-standing ER to help its hospital ER. An air-conditioned tent also has been erected outside the hospital to accommodate 10-15 overflow patients, according to a hospital statement.

Hunt Regional Healthcare has closed its ER in Commerce to supplement the staff at its flagship hospital in nearby Greenville.

Of the 7,258 intensive care unit beds in Texas hospitals, 6,746 were filled Tuesday, or 93%, with 3,592 beds taken by COVID-19 cases, or 51%, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Meantime, 48,996 of the state’s 62,203 inpatient hospital beds were filled, or 79%, with 13,998 beds taken by COVID-19 cases, or 22.5%. That is the most in more than seven months.

“Our hospitals are feeling the burn with a tremendous number of new patients. They are pulling all the levers to extend their abilities, but even if we have the space, we don’t have the staff,” said Texas Hospital Association spokeswoman Carrie Williams. “We are grateful the state has stepped in and is helping us with. This surge has come faster and with more force, and at a time when we were already depleted.”

In the past month, coronavirus hospitalizations in Texas have increased by nearly 200%.

Texas is quickly approaching its record for the most coronavirus hospitalizations during the pandemic: 14,218 on Jan. 11. State health officials on Tuesday reported 199 new deaths.

Meantime, in rural Chambers County east of Houston, officials this past weekend announced that COVID-19 patients were overwhelming local hospitals and the county’s EMS service. Chambers County EMS call volume had increased 73% compared to the same time last year and 67% of these calls were either COVID-19 positive cases or suspected cases.

Patients were spending an average of 96 hours in the emergency room before they could be moved to a bed, according to Chambers County officials.

During Tuesday’s Chambers County Commissioners Court meeting, Ron Nichols, county emergency services director, said that in the last seven days, the county’s emergency call volume was up 112%.

Nichols told commissioners that at about 7:30 p.m. last Friday, not one ambulance was available in Chambers County or in nearby Hardin and Jefferson counties to provide responses to 911 calls.

This was “because of extreme hospital wait times,” he said.

In Fort Bend County in suburban Houston, school district officials approved a mask mandate for students and staff Monday night.

“We are aware that some families may feel anxious about the mask mandate, but we hope that we can all unite in the spirit of cooperation and support of our students and staff,” Fort Bend school district Acting Superintendent Diana Sayavedra said in a statement.

The mask mandate comes as one elementary school in the Fort Bend district was switching to virtual instruction for the rest of this week.

And in the Austin suburb of Leander, the Leander school board decided not to close district schools despite a recommendation by Williamson County health officials that they shut down after more than 400 COVID-19 cases were confirmed among students and teachers.