McALLEN — Samaritan’s Purse, the Christian organization that visited McAllen on Monday to assess the Rio Grande Valley’s need for a field hospital, said Wednesday it decided not to open a tent hospital here after speaking with Gov. Greg Abbott.
“In our discussions with the Texas governor’s office, they informed us that they are supplementing local hospitals with doctors and nurses. They feel that this is sufficient now to meet the community’s needs,” the organization said in an email Wednesday evening. “Because of this, Samaritan’s Purse will not be deploying an Emergency Field Hospital to McAllen, Texas, at this time.”
The news did not sit well with U.S. Rep. Vicente Gonzalez, who requested the help from Samaritan’s Purse last week and invited its team to tour the area on Monday. The faith-based organization previously set up field hospitals in Italy and New York to treat patients and relieve local medical professionals while COVID-19 cases surged there.
“I’m disappointed and saddened by the news of the Governor’s actions to disallow Samaritan’s Purse to establish a field hospital in the Rio Grande Valley,” Gonzalez said Thursday. “The Governor needs to let those who want to help our overextended and exhausted medical personnel in South Texas do so. We have people who are suffering and dying.
“How can any Governor see fit to deny a field hospital and critical medical services to overrun COVID-19 hospitals?”
On Monday, Elliott Tenpenny, director of the international health unit at Samaritan’s Purse, foresaw several challenges in bringing a field hospital to South Texas, including high temperatures, possible hurricane threats and a lack of oxygen supply.
“But otherwise, nothing outside the ordinary that we haven’t faced elsewhere,” he said about the organization, which previously responded to an Ebola outbreak in West Africa and has helped countless people recover from natural disasters around the globe, including in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey in Houston.
“Samaritan’s Purse disaster relief units were in Texas for months to equip staff and volunteers as they served residents recovering from Hurricane Harvey and its aftermath,” the organization’s website states. “Our disaster responses in Santa Fe, Houston, Pearland, Rockport, and Victoria are now completed; over 10,000 volunteers served nearly 3,000 homeowners.”
The organization noted in Wednesday’s email that Abbott is not a stranger to the group.
“Governor Abbott has been a longtime friend of the ministry of Samaritan’s Purse who we have worked with in the past. He volunteered with our teams to help provide relief to homeowners in Rockport, TX, in 2017, after Hurricane Harvey devastated that community,” the email stated. “We will be praying for him, the front line medical workers of his state, and all those suffering the effects of COVID-19.”
Still, relief for South Texas by way of the organization will not be possible without a strong partnership with a local hospital and a green light from the local and state governments, Tenpenny indicated Monday.
“It’s critical to have state leadership buy-in, especially for medical licensure and things like that…” the emergency physician said.
On Thursday, Abbott’s spokesman John Wittman cited the same weather-related challenges Tenpenny had spoken about and indicated the governor’s office instead believes using hotels to house patients is “the best course of action.”
“It’s just a better option for the folks down there,” Wittman said. “We’ve coordinated with the locals. This is the best way to provide care and in fact does provide greater (bed) capacity.”
Texas Emergency Management Chief Nim Kidd reiterated those points, saying it wasn’t feasible to bring a 60-bed tent hospital to the area given the weather conditions.
He specifically mentioned the COVID-19 testing site at Bert Ogden Arena in Edinburg, which was forced to close early because of the heat. Kidd said the asphalt marked more than 140 degrees on a thermometer.
Retrofitting a hotel would be more feasible, he said, adding that Texas Department of Emergency Management staff were already working closely with local authorities to formalize contracts.
Wittman said the operation could be set up within a day or two, but local officials indicate there are still many moving parts that need to be figured out before launching a makeshift medical facility. Hidalgo County Emergency Management Coordinator Rick Saldaña estimated one such facility could be made available as early as next week.
“We’re almost there,” Hidalgo County Judge Richard Cortez said Thursday via text. “It is complicated.”
Kidd also noted the U.S. Army is sending a medical task force with 85 healthcare professionals to help staff local hospitals.
This should create additional capacity as well, Wittman said, referencing a letter Gonzalez and other Mid-Valley lawmakers sent Abbott on Tuesday requesting more personnel at Knapp Medical Center.
“Surrounding hospitals in the Rio Grande Valley have received over 200 nurses and Knapp Medical Center in Weslaco has only received 29,” the officials told the governor. “Currently, Knapp Medical Center has 223 beds available; however, only approximately 100 beds are being used. Knapp is considered ‘at capacity’ because of the lack of nurses, not because of the lack of beds.”
The hospital needs 90 more nurses to bring it to full capacity, the letter stated.
“We must consider the utilization of available resources prior to alternative sites,” the document continued.
Gonzalez, however, urged Abbott to reconsider the offer made by Samaritan’s Purse.
“McAllen and South Texas need help now,” the congressman wrote. “I urge the Governor’s support and ask that he invite Samaritan’s Purse to South Texas. I am here to work with him. We can’t afford to play politics with people’s lives at stake during this pandemic.”
The faith-based organization said it is still willing to provide aid if the governor approves.
“If the need changes and we are asked by the governor’s office to come, we are ready and will immediately respond,” the group’s email stated.
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to correct that U.S Rep. Vicente Gonzalez and other Mid-Valley lawmakers penned the letter to Abbott requesting additional personnel at Knapp Medical Center.