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'They're very tired': Rural healthcare workers feel strain, as Omicron cases surge in Texas

Wednesday, Wise Health System's Med/Surge/ICU capacity was at 100%. EMS officials in Wise County are also grappling with challenges amid COVID surge.

WISE COUNTY, Texas — It’s not the way frontline workers envisioned the start of a new year.

Like much of the U.S., rural areas such as Wise County, northwest of Fort Worth, are dealing with yet another COVID surge.

Randall Preuninger, the head of Emergency Medical Services in Wise County told WFAA the latest surge has made emergency operations a challenge. Preuninger said some EMS staff have worked longer hours as staff become infected with COVID.

“It kind of blindsided us a little bit,” Preuninger said. “The whole term 'COVID fatigue' sets in, especially for crews out in the field having to deal with it over and over.

Wednesday, Wise Health System, the only hospital in the county, reported that its Medsurge/ICU units were at 100% capacity. Currently, the hospital has 32 patients with COVID. COVID patients make up 31% of the hospital’s patients, according to hospital communications director Shannon Spann. 

Last summer, the hospital opened tents outside to handle the overflow of patients. The hospital is no longer using tents. 

An antibody infusion center outside of the hospital has also closed amid supply shortages, according to Spann.

COVID patients make up more than 30% of all hospitalizations.

Lee Ann Jennings, chief nursing officer at Wise Health System said the hospital’s nursing staff is stretched thin.

“They’re very tired,” Jennings said. “It’s very taxing on the staff. I’ve been nursing for 28 years, and I’ve never seen anything like this. We’re trying to find beds for them, what we can do for them, what staff we have. That’s a daily topic."

RELATED: COVID-19 updates: Texas sets pandemic record for new cases reported in one day -- 75,817 new cases

This week, the hospital received some relief with the help of 14 additional state-provided nurses. 

Preuninger told WFAA that EMS is dealing with more COVID-related 911 calls, and first responders are up against major challenges.

“Right now, with the way the hospitals are full, sometimes getting patients to the right facility becomes difficult,” Preuninger said. “Once we get to the ER, there’s times we have to put them in hallway beds.”

Medical staff and hospitals across North Texas are being pushed to their limits.

During a press conference on Wednesday, Cook Children’s Medical Center in Fort Worth announced it’s currently treating 69 COVID-positive children, which is more than at any point during the pandemic.

Cheryl Petersen, chief nursing officer and vice president at Cook Children’s Medical Center said the hospital has been running at capacity for several weeks.

“We’re approaching what we consider a crisis point,” Petersen said. “We are scrambling every day.”

RELATED: Cook Children's reaches highest level of COVID-19 patients, more than doubling in two weeks

Petersen said quite often, patients from rural areas are being transported to Cook Children’s to seek the proper care for children.

“Our partners at rural hospitals are all a little different. Some of those are not comfortable taking care of children, so that would be where our request for transfers would come from,” Petersen said.

Wise County’s current surge forced Boyd ISD county to close all schools for a week beginning Wednesday. In a letter to parents, Superintendent Tami Vardy said the decision to close campuses came after a sharp rise in COVID cases across the district. Boyd ISD schools will reopen Tuesday.

RELATED: Several more North Texas districts canceling classes due to COVID cases

Healthcare workers are eager to see a slowdown soon.

“It’s 24/7, it’s constant with COVID patients, heart attacks, and strokes,” Jennings said. “Nurses are taking care of all of them. It’s just a new attitude with each new day.”