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VA hospital steps in as Texas hospital launches 'ethics' committee for COVID-19 patients

A Texas hospital at the breaking point approved an "ethics committee" to decide if certain COVID-19 patients should seek end-of-life compassionate care.

AUSTIN, Texas — In his 20 years, Dr. Jose Vazquez never thought patients would need to be transported from his care and flown to a VA hospital in San Antonio because bed space nearby wasn’t an option. The patients are civilians.

“It's been a terrible situation. Everybody has a family member or somebody that we know that's unfortunately passed away through this terrible disease. We have had families that have lost three and four members in a matter of a week or so,” said Dr. Jose Vazquez, M.D., president of the Starr County Memorial Hospital at the Starr County Health Authority.

Starr County’s hospital is full. With 28 beds inside, 27 of them hold someone with COVID-19. It’s been this way for a while.

The county formed an “ethics committee.” It’s a group to decide which patients were most likely to die.

“This epic committee is all about taking that difficult decision and taking those responsibilities away from the hands of the treating physicians and putting it in a group of people that understand the situation,” said Vazquez.

Last week, he told us the committee would urge patients and families to seek compassionate end-of-life care if they had a low chance of survival.

“Families are always going to have the last word. We will never, ever do something against patients' or family wishes,” said Vazquez.

Plans changed. The Veterans Health Administration will transfer patients to the Audie Murphy VA Hospital in San Antonio.

“We have built significant capacity here because of where the numbers were headed in San Antonio,” said Christopher Sandles, MBA, FACHE, VA Medical Center director and CEO for South Texas Veterans Health Care System.

Sandles reached out to Starr County, offering services under the “Fourth Mission,” a federal emergency response following a state request for help during a national emergency.

The San Antonio hospital has around 160 surgical beds and nearly 70 intensive care beds. The entire fifth and sixth floors are dedicated to COVID-19 patients.

It’s 60% full, but administrators say they can add more beds if needed.

“We've spent a lot of time preparing for this pandemic starting in late February, and so we're ready for this,” said Valerie Rodriguez-Yu, associate director for patient care services and nurse executive of South Texas Veterans Health Care System.

They’re also taking patients from other parts of the Rio Grande Valley.

“We feel like we're all in this together, whole community,” said Dr. Julianne Flynn, South Texas Veterans Health Care System chief of staff.

“Thanks to the Veterans Administration, we have been able to provide services to every one of the sick patients here,” said Vazquez.

The Starr County Ethics Committee will be in place should they be needed.