City officials addressed the current response to the COVID-19 positivity and hospitalization rate in Lubbock County and the future availability of COVID-19 vaccines during Wednesday’s virtual news conference.

Whether it be at University Medical Center or the Covenant Health System in Lubbock, local health institutions have faced a variety of challenges regarding the hospital capacity and the resources needed to care for COVID-19 patients.

Mark Funderburk, UMC president and CEO, said UMC is at maximum capacity with about 48 percent of available beds being dedicated to COVID-19 patients. UMC has 12 open beds and 16 patients waiting for beds as of Wednesday morning.

“As far as our medical units, our tents, we have two of those just in the west area of the campus, and those are primarily being used for patients that are waiting for placement in some other place, such as a long-term care facility or something like that,” he said. “So, those are saving beds or rescuing beds in the hospital, and we're grateful for those two tents as well.”

For staff, Funderburk said UMC has received support from the state.

“As far as staffing, we have about 126 staff that have been supplied by the state, and we're very grateful for that,” he said. “Registered nurses, respiratory therapists, medical doctors. Texas Tech has done a wonderful job in bringing in some local healthcare providers as well, so we're very, very grateful for each of those individuals.”

More recently, Funderburk said the physicians, intensivists and pulmonologists that are in short supply at UMC are the ones recruiting individuals from the Tech Health Sciences Center on a permanent or temporary basis.

“We feel better about the availability of positions in our ICUs taking care of COVID patients because of that effort, that partnership,” he said. “So, it's much, much appreciated.”

Walt Cathey, CEO of Covenant Health System, said there are 176 current COVID-19 cases at Covenant Medical Center, which is two percent shy of being 50 percent occupied by COVID-19 cases.

“We as well have a negative bed situation inside of our hospital. We're actually at negative two as of today,” he said. “We have about 16 cases currently waiting inside of our emergency departments to actually get fit, so we are still in this bed crisis situation. We're still working through that from a system standpoint and from a community standpoint as well.”

The goal for Covenant Health System with the use of an Auxiliary Medical Unit (AMU) system is to decrease the number of COVID-19 patients that need a bed, Cathey said.

“With us doing the antibody therapies, with us doing some of the Regeneron, those types of things we’re able to do in this infusion center, we believe that we can see about a 20-percent reduction on that utilization on fighting the COVID virus,” he said.

Covenant is asking for people to go to their primary-care physician (PCP) and asking PCPs in the community to put forward admissions into these AMUs to allow for infusions to begin inside of the community, Cathey said.

“That's another battleground that we can use instead of going to the main hospital, whether it be UMC or Covenant,” he said.

Amid discussions about the negative aspects of COVID-19’s impact, the availability of COVID-19 vaccines in the coming months also was discussed during the conference.

Dr. Ronald Cook, local health authority, said the Food and Drug Administration will meet Dec. 10 to determine whether or not to release the Pfizer and Moderna COVID-19 vaccine for emergency use authorization. If approved on that day, after about 48 hours from that approval, Lubbock should receive doses of the vaccine.

“We don't know how much we will get because it has to be spread out over the entire United States,” he said. “But I know that Texas will get some, and I know that Lubbock will get some.”

The first doses will go to frontline healthcare workers and those living in congregate settings, such as nursing homes, Katherine Wells, director of the Lubbock Health Department, said.

“We are still months away from having a vaccine available to the general public,” she said. 

At UMC, Funderburk said there are plans to provide health care workers this vaccine.

“We are preparing for a Dec. 14 start date as far as when we'll open up our first vaccine clinic here in the hospital for frontline care providers,” Funderburk said, “and then we'll have other dates set up and locations as well.”

The drug, which is safe, is 90 to 95 percent effective in creating immunity against COVID-19, Cook said.

“It's going to take about 80 percent of our population being vaccinated to get into herd immunity,” he said. 

Despite hopes for a vaccine, Cathey said people need to continue practicing COVID-19 health guidelines, such as social distancing, wearing a mask and avoiding large gatherings.

“This will help us all as we continue to fight this battle because I do think it is going to continue for a little while until we can get to the vaccine, and we can get to a herd immunity status within our community,” he said, “and that's going to take several more months for us to get there, so I think we all have to be diligent as we are going into the holiday months.”

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