Starr County has received a life-line through the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs which has agreed to accept COVID-19 patients who require advanced levels of care at a San Antonio facility.

Running at capacity for weeks and struggling to find available beds at other Rio Grande Valley hospitals that can take their more critical patients, Starr County Memorial Hospital will be able to transfer those individuals to Audie L. Murphy Memorial VA Hospital in San Antonio.

The offer for help came during a meeting Wednesday morning with county officials, hospital staff and officials with Veterans Affairs Coastal Bend Health Care System.

“They were concerned with the situation we have in Starr County,” said Dr. Jose Vazquez, the county’s health authority. “Their initial offer was to send some medical equipment as well as to send a mobile unit that has four hospital beds, fully equipped.”

But rather than sending a mobile unit there, VA officials instead offered a direct line of transfers between Starr County and the VA hospital in San Antonio.

Audie L. Murphy Memorial is a Level 1 facility which means they have all the specialty services available to care for their severely sick patients.

“We came to know that they’re running out of resources, that they’re limited in resources … to be able to attend to their patients in their area,” said Hugo Martinez, spokesperson for VCB Health Care System. “We want to help out the communities that can benefit from the help we can provide them with.”

The hospital is for veterans but Martinez said that as the COVID-19 pandemic progressed, VA facilities across the nation created more space.

“We’ve activated it and so we’re lending a helping hand to our non-veterans as well,” Martinez said.

During a visit to the Rio Grande Valley on Tuesday, Gov. Greg Abbott announced the McAllen Convention Center would be converted into a healthcare facility with up to 250 beds for COVID-19 patients.

With that additional bed space, Vazquez said that could create the needed availability within Valley hospitals so that Starr County patients could be transferred within the area instead of to San Antonio.

“If a hospital in McAllen were to start having available beds, we will do transfers within the Valley like we have always done between our hospital and the Valley hospitals,” Vazquez said. “But, if the situation were to continue being complicated as it is being now, and for the last month or so, then now we have this great, great alternative to be able to transfer patients to a Level 1 hospital facility.”

Vazquez said the VA offered to take their acute care, intensive care, and post-acute care patients.

That includes patients pending respiratory failure and pending ventilatory support.

“Those are patients who could highly benefit from a higher level of care, a place where there are pulmonologists and respiratory therapists and intensivists that could help us to perhaps prevent those intubations,” Vazquez said. “We know that once a patient has to be intubated and has to go into ventilatory support, their chances of survival significantly decreases.”

The second group of patients are those who are already on ventilators but need other services such as dialysis or surgical services.

“A lot of these patients that remain on ventilators for two weeks or more need a tracheostomy or a feeding tube in place,” he said. “Well, those are cases that we cannot manage here now, we don’t have a way to do tracheostomies or feeding tubes.”

The third group of patients are those who recovered from COVID-19 but are not stable or strong enough to be sent home.

But before any patients are transferred to the San Antonio hospital, consent is required from the patients and their families.

“In those cases, where higher level of care is indicated, we are going to recommend to those patients and those families to be transferred there to this Level 1 facility,” he said. “If families and patients were to agree, then we will call and initiate the transfer process and they will send us the ambulance and they will pick up the patient and take care of the patient from that moment on.”

For several weeks, the situation at Starr County Memorial Hospital has been “dire,” Vazquez.

The hospital is not equipped to care for patients who require intensive care unit services, but hospital officials reached a point where they couldn’t transfer patients within the Valley because all those hospitals were at capacity.

Patients then had to be airlifted to facilities in distant cities such as Dallas, New Braunfels, Amarillo, Lubbock, and Oklahoma City.

Over the last month and a half, 37 patients had to be transferred out of Starr County via helicopter.

With this new space available for Starr County patients, Vazquez said all their needs are, basically, going to be met.

“When we have complicated cases, those that require services that we cannot provide here … then we will have a place where to send those patients to be taken care of,” he said.

He added that as a result of Abbott’s visit on Tuesday, they were able to get additional resources such as 15 ventilators, 16 oxygen concentrators and IV pumps that arrived that night.

“(Those are) much-needed medical supplies to continue providing medical services here,” Vazquez said. “So the situation is becoming much more positive now. We see a light at the end of the tunnel.”