By Carla Astudillo and Karen Brooks Harper, The Texas Tribune

The highly contagious delta variant of COVID-19 continues to send hundreds of unvaccinated Texans to the hospital with serious illness every day, putting those facilities under enormous pressure to find room for new patients.

After peaking in August, the number of hospitals reporting full ICU units has begun to decline — but it is still more than the state saw at any point during the deadliest surge of the pandemic over the winter.

Every Monday, hospitals in Texas report their current ICU bed capacity to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Hospital staff has never been in shorter supply, which deepens the strain on all departments, including emergency rooms, respiratory therapy and even labor and delivery. Without the capacity to take on new patients — and equally thin resources elsewhere to transfer them to — doctors fear they’ll have to start making heartbreaking decisions about care in order to save the most lives possible.

According to the federal government, the weekly ICU capacity numbers should not discourage patients from seeking medical care in these facilities. “Hospitals have protocols in place to keep patients safe from exposure and to ensure all patients are prioritized for care,” the agency said in December.

The vast majority of COVID-19 patients in hospitals and ICUs are unvaccinated. Doctors say mask-wearing, hand-washing and social distancing are the best ways to slow down the hospital numbers in the short term, and that monoclonal antibody therapies for people with COVID-19 symptoms can keep them out of the hospital in many cases. They also say the only way to permanently slow down the spike in hospitalizations is to vaccinate a majority of the state.