Doug Colburn, chief operating officer of McAllen Medical Center, speaks about precautions for the coronavirus March 19 at the hospital in McAllen. (Joel Martinez | [email protected])

McALLEN — While reports of a dramatic increase of COVID-19 hospitalizations have sparked concerns about capacity at hospitals across the state, McAllen Medical Center still has plenty of room here to accommodate those needs as well as non-coronavirus patients. At least that’s the case now that the South Texas Health Systems hospital has retrofitted a wing entirely dedicated to the pandemic.

The wing now adds 36 new beds for coronavirus patients and took about three days to complete. Chief Operating Officer Doug Colburn was careful to note that this doesn’t necessarily mean there are as many rooms.

“We sped up the completion of that renovated unit, which includes 36 beds, not 36 rooms, so we could deploy it for one of our dedicated COVID units,” Colburn said Friday, also noting that the wing was intended to be completed in July for renovations.

With more beds now available for COVID-19 patients, Colburn emphasized that the hospital is still available for patients with other needs.

“We want to try to avoid that label because we are open for business over at the emergency department, the operating room and our inpatient tower for all other needs,” Colburn said. “We’ve completely segmented the COVID-19 positive patients, or persons under investigation (PUI) from the rest of the population in all three of those locations. We essentially have two different portions of the ED (emergency department) that are physically separated by a hallway.”

Colburn said that the hospital was able to complete the renovation process with a virtual inspection from the state by Friday.

“Today, they cleared us to reoccupy. We got a certificate of occupancy, and just like we’ve done with our other units, we brought in the make-up air units,” Colburn said. “We’re turning each individual room into a negative pressure isolation room, which would normally not be the case, but when we use the unit as a COVID unit that’s what we do.”

The COO explained that turning each room in the unit into a negative pressure isolation room means that, using window-mounted fans, more air will be taken out than is put in.

“It makes it a very safe environment for staff to work in, in addition to all the PPE (personal protective equipment) that they wear when they encounter patients,” Colburn said. “It takes the virus that’s in the air and pulls it out the window.”

On creating the new wing in three days, Colburn added, “The lucky portion is that we’ve been renovating this hospital for the last three years — one or two units at a time. We happened to have two units that were just completing their renovations here at the end of June going into the beginning of July. We were just able to accelerate one of those units and convert it over to a COVID unit, in addition to the two others that we’ve been running since the beginning of the COVID crisis down here in the Valley back in March.”

In addition to the new COVID-19 unit, the hospital also added a ward-style intensive care unit earlier this week.

Crews work to set up the new COVID-19 wing at McAllen Medical Center. (Special to The Monitor)

Meanwhile, as the number of COVID-19 cases continues to rise throughout the state, Colburn emphasized the need for the public to continue taking preventative measures to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

“It’s extremely important that we not get lax in our response to the virus when we’re in public,” Colburn said. “Universal masking is something that we push here in McAllen for our employees. We ask them to do it when they’re out in the community as well. That is a significant help in slowing the spread of the virus, and of course social distancing and not going to gatherings that are unnecessary.

“Social distancing, the isolation where possible and masking is something I would like the public to continue to take seriously even though we don’t have mandating from the state of Texas right now. They are what’s been proven to help slow the spread of this virus.”