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Cook Children's is seeing more severe illness now than at any point during the pandemic

On Monday, there were over 1,400 patients at the six Cook Children's Urgent Care locations. That's twice the number that they typically see on a busy winter day.

FORT WORTH, Texas — Several physicians from Cook Children's had a message for parents in North Texas: they are begging for your help.

During a news conference Wednesday, several physicians asked parents to take their children to their primary care doctor if they have minor COVID symptoms rather than to the urgent care and emergency room locations. COVID tests are also available at multiple locations, not just the Urgent Care or emergency room.

What to know:

  • Cook Children's is triaging patients who show up to the ER
  • Elective surgeries are being selected on a case-by-case basis
  • Parents are being asked to not take their kids to the ER or Urgent Care if they have minor symptoms or need a COVID test
  • More mask-wearing and more eligible people need to get vaccinated to stop the spread

The Urgent Care location in Hurst was closed due to staff shortages. Some locations are still operating under half the staff.

"We don’t typically close our facilities and this move should sound an alarm -- a canary in the coalmines," said Wini King with Cook Children's. "[This is] what could come if we don’t take measures as a community to slow down the spread of COVID-19."

Cook Children's is seeing more severe illness now than at any point during the pandemic, said Medical Director of Infectious Diseases Mary Whitworth.

"The January surge is nothing compared to what we're dealing with now," Whitworth said. "Our hospitals can only handle so many patients."

On Monday, Cook Children's opened a third COVID unit for the first time during the pandemic. It had nine hospital beds. Within 24 hours, they were all full.

Demand for services at Cook Children's right now is worse than the H1N1 outbreak a few years ago, one doctor said during the news conference.

Staff shortages

Cook Children's is experiencing a shortage of staff at all levels because of burnout, staff getting sick and being out for quarantine. The pool of applicants is very low.

Gov. Greg Abbott and the state health department granted more health care workers to support hospitals with COVID surges. Cook Children's requested 18 nurses and the state granted four because the majority of them were not pediatric trained, Cook Children's said Wednesday.

The hospital has put in a vaccine requirement which goes into effect later in September. They're not seeing many people leave due to that at this time, said Medical Director of Urgent Care Services Dr. Kara Starnes.

"People are tired," Starnes said. "They are exhausted. They're being asked to work overtime."

RELATED: Children's Health, Cook Children's announce vaccine requirement for employees, following move by other medical systems

Influx of patients

On Monday, there were over 1,400 patients at the six Cook Children's Urgent Care locations. That's twice the number that they typically see on a busy day in the winter, Starnes said.

"We are hitting a crisis mode when we are having trouble seeing all the children presented us," Starnes said.

She said you can expect at least a 2 to 3-hour wait at Urgent Care. At the emergency room, you can expect to be there all day, said Medical Director of ER Services, Dr. Corwin Warmink.

At the Cook Children's Emergency Room, patients are being triaged, prioritized by the degree of illness or injury, Warmink said.

"If you say 'I was exposed to COVID and I have no symptoms' then you aren't our priority," Warmink said. "We're having a hard time seeing the kid that has appendicitis. He's stuck in the waiting room for hours."

The ER typically sees about 300 kids a day. On Monday, there were 601, an all-time record, Warmink said.

"At 600 we are physically unable to care for kids in a timely fashion," Warmink said. "It's a dangerous time for us as we’re being overrun."

"We really are imploring people to use us when their child is severely ill, not to get a COVID test," he said. "Really, we're asking the community, 'Can this wait until tomorrow?' If it could, then don't come to an ER. If you're gonna come, temper your expectations."

Cook Children's has patients of all ages: from birth to teenagers. They're evaluating elective surgeries on a case-by-case basis.

Minor symptoms

Don't bring your kid to the ER or Urgent Care if they've been exposed to someone with COVID and they need a COVID test, the doctors said.

There's a record number of parents coming to the Urgent Care locations wanting a rapid COVID test. There are at-home tests and testing sites available, according to Starnes. 

"You don't need to panic if your child has been exposed or has some symptoms," Starnes said. "They [at-home tests] are relatively inexpensive and don't require the waits that we're experiencing in our clinics."

The doctors said right now they're seeing symptoms of cough, fever, runny nose, vomiting, diarrhea when it comes to COVID. Those are all symptoms that can be managed at home, Starnes said.

See your regular pediatrician, and the doctors added that Cook Children's Pediatrics locations are accepting new patients.

What to watch for - COVID

If you see your child has difficulty breathing, not drinking well, they're not urinating normally then those are things to watch out for and to see a doctor right away, Starnes said.

If you have COVID-positive cases in your family, then you can safely assume that everyone has COVID as well.

"We are begging for the public's help so we can get to those kids that are really sick more quickly," Starnes said. 

When the pandemic first began, COVID didn't affect children as much, but the delta variant has changed that. It's more likely to spread to children, but most children who get COVID experience minor symptoms, Whitworth said.

Students need to wear a mask, social distance and have strong hand hygiene.

The doctors were alarmed to see photos at schools: packed pep rallies and students in passing periods shoulder-to-shoulder with no masks on.

"This is the same thing as a super spreader event occurring continuously in these schools," Whitworth said.

Get vaccinated and wear a mask

Get vaccinated. Whitworth said that if there were more people vaccinated, then Cook Children's would be in a better place right now.

"I believe that the overwhelming majority of what we are dealing with in adult and pediatric facilities is due to the people who are unvaccinated," Whitworth said.

Warmink said parents need to mask up their kids.

"If you want your child to get sick, it's not a question of whether they get sick, but when," he said.

Warmink said adults in the room need to stand up and do what's right.

"We're employing people get back to the basics: wear a mask, social distance, hand hygiene," he said. 

On Labor Day, don't get in a closed room with a bunch of people.

"If you’re around children and you’re unvaccinated, you're playing Russian Roulette every time you’re around them," he said. "I get paid and everything in my training and my career was to not freak out, but I'm freaking out."