Army, New York medical teams giving Houston a helping hand during pandemic

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HOUSTON — Teams of doctors and nurses from New York and the U.S. Army have descended on Houston after the nation’s fourth-largest city sought help to deal with a surge of coronavirus cases and hospitalizations.

A 86-person Army team of doctors, nurses, and support staff on Thursday worked to take over a wing of United Memorial Medical Center, a small north Houston hospital, to help it treat COVID-19 patients.

The military personnel were expected to pair up with hospital staff and treat up to about 40 patients at a time in the coming days. As the pandemic has progressed, the hospital has been rapidly dedicating more and more space to virus care.

Some of the soldiers on Thursday wore their duty uniforms. Others wore scrubs affixed with strips of surgical tape that bore their ranks, names and medical titles.

The soldiers have come from around the country, overseen by U.S. Army North in San Antonio. Around 580 Army and Navy personnel have been assigned to help fight COVID-19 in Texas.

“This facility, working with the United States military, is something that we asked for,” said U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, a Houston Democrat, standing near the soldiers as they moved through the hospital wing. “We have exhausted medical personnel that we’re so grateful to, but we didn’t have enough.”

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Registered nurse Army Maj. Andrew Wieher, with the Urban Augmentation Medical Task Force, stands at a nurses station inside a wing at United Memorial Medical Center, Thursday, July 16, 2020, in Houston. (David J. Phillip/AP)

The Army medical team’s arrival came as Texas has struggled to contain one of the biggest recent coronavirus surges in the U.S.

On Thursday, Texas again set a single-day record for new deaths with 129. Nearly a third of the state’s 3,561 deaths since the pandemic began have been reported in July. Texas reported 10,291 confirmed new cases on Thursday, slightly down from Wednesday’s state record high of 10,791. The state reported 10,457 people were hospitalized for COVID-19.

Gov. Greg Abbott told KRIV-TV that in Harris County, where Houston is located, hospitalizations look like “they’re beginning to get contained.” Data showed that new COVID-19 hospitalizations in the Houston area appeared to have leveled off in the last week.

“We’re certainly not out of the woods yet, but this could be a glimmer of hope coming if people will continue wearing face masks wherever possible,” said Abbott, who two weeks ago had ordered most of the state’s 30 million residents to wear masks.

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In addition to the military personnel, a group of doctors and nurses from New York, along with personal protective equipment and other supplies arrived in Houston last weekend to help set up testing sites at two churches, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said during a conference call.

One of the testing sites opened on Thursday and people “are taking full advantage” of it, said Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner. The other site is set to open on Friday.

Houston has been struggling to meet the growing demand for COVID-19 testing, with long waits and sites often running out of daily test supplies by noon.

“A lot of people … are wanting testing, needing testing and they’re having to wait a long time,” Turner said.

United Memorial Medical Center’s Dr. Joesph Varon, center, talks with Infectious Disease Physician Army Maj. Gadiel Alvarado, right, as Maj. Katy Bessler, left, checks her phone as members of the Urban Augmentation Medical Task Force work to setup a wing in the hospital Thursday, July 16, 2020, in Houston. (David J. Phillip/AP)

Cuomo said it was in his state’s best interests to help other communities — it is also assisting Atlanta — and to return the help New York received when it was the epicenter of the U.S. outbreak in the spring.

Cuomo’s office sent 19 clinical staff and five support staff to Houston, along with supplies to support the two testing sites, according to Mary Benton, a spokeswoman for Turner.

“All New Yorkers stand with you in solidarity. Anything you need, know that we are here and you can call on us,” Cuomo told Turner.

Also Thursday, in Dallas County, officials said that schools in the county won’t open for on-campus instruction until Sept. 8.

Associated Press writer Paul J. Weber in Austin, Texas, contributed to this report.

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