Watch CBS News

A Texas county's only hospital forced to choose "who is sent home to die" as ICU beds near capacity

A judge representing a Texas county on the U.S.-Mexico border said a local hospital has been forced to choose "who is sent home to die" as resources run thin due to the coronavirus pandemic. The county, which has a population of roughly 64,700 people, has just one hospital to treat what one official called "an exponential" spike in coronavirus cases. 

"Unfortunately, Starr County Memorial Hospital has limited resources and our doctors are going to have to decide who receives treatment, and who is sent home to die by their loved ones," Starr County Judge Eloy Vera wrote on the county's Facebook page on Thursday morning. "This is what we did not want our community to experience. ... We must be responsible for ourselves and our loved ones." 

Vera said he plans to issue a shelter-in-place order, but stressed that it is "only as good as we make it." 

We are seeing the results of socialization during the 4th of July, vacations, and other social opportunities. ...

Posted by Starr County Texas on Thursday, July 23, 2020

Dr. Jose Vasquez of the Starr County Health Authority announced during a press conference on Tuesday that the local hospital is establishing an ethics committee that will set up a triage program to decide how to best allocate limited resources. 

"The reality is that science and statistics are against those people with multiple medical conditions," he said. "We have to start making a triage evaluation and realizing who has a better chance. For all of those patients who most certainly do not have any hope of improving, we believe that they are going to be better taken care of within their own family in the love of their own home, rather than thousands of miles away dying alone in a hospital room." 

Vasquez said that when the pandemic began, the county was able to keep the situation under control.  But after the state started to reopen, Vasquez said, cases increased "in an exponential and alarming way." 

On July 1, the county had 642 cases of coronavirus, according to state data. On Thursday, there were 1,519 cases. 

Vera said the area is "seeing the results of socialization during the 4th of July, vacations, and other social opportunities."  

There are 28 patients in the county's COVID care unit, three of whom are on ventilators and life support, Vasquez said.  

"This is unsustainable," he said. "Texas and the neighboring states have no available ICU beds to spare for us." 

The hospital has been transferring people out of the area on a daily basis, Vasquez told CBS affiliate KGBT-TV.

"There are days worse than others. During the weekend we had 6-7 transfers via helicopter in other places in the state, but every day there are 2 to 3 transfers through helicopter at least," he said.

PRESS CONFERENCE -Starr County Covid-19 Response Update

Posted by La Pistolera on Tuesday, July 21, 2020

The vast majority of Starr's residents are Hispanic or Latino, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, and roughly 33% of residents live in poverty. Nearly 30% of the county's residents who are under the age of 65 do not have health insurance. 

On Sunday, Texas Governor Greg Abbott announced that the U.S. Department of Defense has deployed five U.S. Navy teams to four locations in south and southwest Texas, including Starr County Memorial. 

"If you love your family... by all means, stay at home. Don't go out unless you absolutely have to," Vera said at the press conference. "We are literally in a life or death situation." 

"The number of cases we have seen in the emergency room are growing every day. Fifty percent of the cases we see in the emergency room are COVID-positive with COVID-related symptoms," Vasquez added. "The situation is desperate. We cannot continue functioning in the Starr County Memorial Hospital in the way things are going."

View CBS News In
CBS News App Open
Chrome Safari Continue
Be the first to know
Get browser notifications for breaking news, live events, and exclusive reporting.