Ector County ISD schools open Tuesday amid a local spike in COVID-19 cases.

Superintendent Scott Muri, Medical Center Hospital President/CEO Russell Tippin and Chief Nursing Officer Christin Timmons held a news conference in the board room at the ECISD administration building Friday to answer questions about precautions and vaccines.

Tippin said there were 49 COVID patients in the hospital as of Friday afternoon. Of those 49, 41 are unvaccinated; seven are vaccinated.

“So you do the math thereon what the vaccine does. We get them all the time. We want people to make a good choice and an informed choice and choose for yourself what you want to do,” Tippin said.

“When we started looking at the numbers between critical and non-critical and vaccinated and unvaccinated, it’s very clear that the vaccination gives you a better chance to fight this off. And that’s what it’s about,” he said.

Overall, he said the hospital is “pretty full” with 243 patients. Forty-nine of those are COVID patients; 28 of them are critical. Out of those 28, 23 are on ventilators.

“And one interesting fact, all the ventilator patients are unvaccinated,” Tippin said. “So that is some pretty powerful information …”

The 9 Central Unit is full with 21 COVID patients. Tippin said that was created a few days ago to help with the need for bed and ventilator space.

Tippin said the hospital has 10 ventilators left, “which is very, very scary for us.”

“We are doing our best to locate more ventilators. We’re doing our best to find those, whether we use the disposable ones or we rent those … I can tell you everybody, everywhere is looking for a ventilator,” Tippin said. “Every hospital, every facility, nursing home; everybody’s looking for ventilators and they’re very hard to come by right now. So we’re doing our best to get those, but they’re not cheap. They’re not easy to come by and they’re in high demand right now.”

Tippin urged people to be safe, make a good choice, wash your hands, educate yourself on the vaccine and on what the vaccine does.

“These numbers will tell you, the vaccine gives you a better chance of survival with this … Delta variant …,” Tippin said.

Timmons said the hospital has 16 employees out with COVID. Some of those are cases where someone in their family has it and they have been asked to quarantine.

“We are in a crisis staffing situation,” Timmons said, “so we’re pulling from different areas. We’re offering incentives. We’ve requested contract staffing. So we’re really working through that and how to properly staff and safely staff all of the patient care. We’ll be continuing to work through those things and monitor the staff that actually are out or working. Eleven of those employees that are out have been vaccinated, so we’re monitoring those things as well. Overall safety within the hospital, we’re just looking at what we need to do to continue making everyone safe.”

Timmons said MCH has plenty of vaccines at the JBS Urgent Care and West University Boulevard locations.

“We want to make sure that we provide the opportunity for anyone that wants a vaccine to be able to get that, free of charge,” Timmons said. “It takes you about 20 minutes by the time you get in and get your vaccine and recover. So really no wait time at all. We’ll do our best to get you in and out quickly.”

As children return to school, Timmons said she reminded parents that they can wear a mask and she would like to encourage that. Although it is not mandated, Timmons said it is still a good barrier to keep in mind.

“So I’d encourage parents to look at the mask and work with their children on keeping it on, hand sanitizers, washing your hands frequently, distancing from other people.”

Timmons advised parents to wipe down school bags and lunch boxes every day after school and make sure they’re clean.

Muri said ORMC will be at Nimitz Middle School from 8:30 a.m. to noon Monday providing vaccines to children 12 and over and adults as well.

Per Gov. Greg Abbott’s order, Muri said masks are not required, but they are strongly recommended for students and staff indoors.

“In-person attendance is required for all students this year. Virtual is not an option, so all students are required to attend school and that will be in person this year. And because of that, we will continue many of the safety protocols that we had in place last year in ECISD. We’re asking all students and staff members every single day to screen for COVID-19 protocols. There is a form that is located on the ECISD website that outlines those COVID-19 conditions, those indicators that one might have that would indicate that they potentially have COVID-19. (If) any of our students or staff members have any of those conditions in the morning, we’re asking them to remain at home and then seek out to a COVID-19 test to find out if indeed they have the virus or not,” Muri said.

He added that hand sanitizer will be available on all ECISD buildings as schools and staff members enter the facilities.

“Hand sanitizer not only will be available as you enter, but also throughout the buildings. … Routine cleaning and disinfecting will continue. Our custodial staff and maintenance crews elevated their procedures last year and we will maintain all of those safety, those cleaning procedures, this year in all of our campuses. We’ll remind all of our students to use appropriate etiquette when needing to sneeze or cough. Keep your distance from folks, use your elbow and to take advantage of those opportunities. And then we’ll remind our students of proper mask wearing guidance,” Muri said.

Masks and face shields will be available on all campuses for any student or staff member that does not have one available, he added.

“Our teachers will keep seating charts again this year, allowing us to contact trace should any of our students or staff members be found to have COVID-19. Our nurses will engage in the contract tracing process and those seating charts that teachers keep will help us identify any students or staff members that were close, or in close proximity to any individuals that have COVID-19. Our cafeterias will be open this year for lunch service. We will use appropriate social distancing rules when feasible in our cafeterias. Our students will sit together by class, so we will have the typical movement that one might see in a busy cafeteria. We’re adding additional sneeze guards to all of the food areas to help avoid any contamination of food substances,” Muri said.

“Our cafeteria staff, as well as maintenance staff will add enhanced cleaning to all cafeteria facilities this year between the times that children are eating,” Muri said.

Juniors and seniors at four of the five high schools will be able to leave for lunch opening up more space in the cafeteria. George H.W. New Tech Odessa does not have students leave for lunch, spokesman Mike Adkins said.

Water bottles will be provided to all students every morning.

Free breakfast and lunch will be served again this year. Water bottles will be included with breakfast each morning.

Water fountains will be closed again this year. But water filling stations will be open.

“Our transportation department will continue to follow the public health guidance that is issued specifically for public transportation and school buses. Our buses will have normal occupancy this year. They will keep the windows down to keep air flow throughout the bus to keep kids safe. …”

Hand sanitizer will be available to all students when they enter the bus. Buses will be sanitized twice a day before students get on in the morning and before students return in the afternoon, Muri said.

“All of our athletics and fine arts programming will follow TEA and UIL guidance in relation to all UIL activities. And so as the UIL and the Texas Education Agency release guidance, we will make sure that all of our athletic programs and fine arts follow that guidance that is released,” Muri said.

ECISD staff must report COVID-19 test results to their supervisor on a daily basis.
Any staff member that does contract COVID-19 must be reported to their supervisor and that staff member is quarantined. Muri said the same thing is planned for students and those students must be quarantined for a period of time. The district provides COVID-19 testing should a student or staff member display any COVID-19 symptoms during the day.

“Our staff members have an opportunity to receive a quick test that can identify if they’re COVID positive. Students have that same opportunity. Every nurse in our schools has access to testing facilities and students have access to that. That is with parent permission. A parent must give permission in order for a student to receive the COVID-19 tests. But again, those are available in each of our schools throughout the day should any students or staff members display symptoms of COVID-19.”

“We will continue to report cases of COVID-19, so should a staff member or student attract COVID-19, and we have that positive test result, we will continue to report that to parents of the affected school, as well as on our dashboard. We maintain a public dashboard that lists the COVID-19 positive cases every day for students and staff members by school and we will continue to report that on a daily basis,” Muri said. “And then all of this information will be available, or actually is currently available, on the ECISD website.”

Muri said the number of nurses has not increased, but there are nurses at every level.

He said the district is ready for large numbers of COVID cases.

“Our processes and systems worked well last year to keep our children safe. In fact, school was the safest place last year for children to be. But yes, should there be a significant outbreak we’re ready to handle that in partnership with our medical community,” Muri said.

Currently, the district could not offer remote learning as it would not be funded. An emergency situation would have to be declared.

Asked if the district could require masks and vaccines in defiance of Abbott’s order, Muri said he does not have the authority to do that.

“… We are strongly recommending that our children and staff members wear a mask every day. We know last year that kept us safe along with the other procedures that we have in place,” Muri said.

He said the vaccine is a personal decision.

“… I personally have been vaccinated and I would certainly recommend that for anyone. But at the end of the day, everyone has the ability to make their own decision and different individuals have different circumstances that … may prevent them from being vaccinated for whatever reason.”

Alicia Syverson, assistant superintendent of student and school support, said if a student tests positive they’ll be required to go home for the days that are required.

“If a student is exposed to someone who tests positive, we will contact the parent if we see that the exposure happened at school and of course ask them to come pick up their child if possible. If the student is vaccinated, of course, they don’t have to quarantine, according to the CDC …,” Syverson said.

If a student is diagnosed lab confirmed with COVID-19, she said, they do have to quarantine for the recommended time before returning back to school.

Muri said when a child tests positive for COVID-19 and they are quarantined, the state has given us some guidance that will allow for that child to continue to engage in the school process.

“We’re right now working on what the details of that will look like. But the good news there is if a child has positive for COVID-19, and is quarantined, they will have a chance to virtually attend school and engage in the learning process so that we can present as long as they’re fully engaged in what they get more information about that will be forthcoming,” Muri said.

He added that the district will be funded for that, but the child has to engage for a minimum of four hours a day.

Earlier in the pandemic, Timmons said when FEMA helped them, they had over 100 nurses. There are about 30 currently and 30 more have been requested.

There are 73 open positions in their organization currently, but Timmons said there are about 37 coming on board so that number will come down.

“… I noticed yesterday that there’s about 25,000 agency positions posted currently, so all of us are fighting the same battle,” Timmons said. “There’s wage wars going on out there to try to see where they’re going to go. We see the contract staff are going to who’s paying the highest.”

She noted that the hospital only has so much money to work with.

Tippin said last year an agency nurse would probably cost $80 to $90 an hour. “The most recent as of yesterday was $160 an hour to get an agency nurse here. And we are aware that it is basically an auction. They’re going to the highest bidder. As Kristen said, 25,000 requests in right now with no FEMA nurses available and it makes it very difficult to get that kind of staff in here,” Tippin said.

He added that MCH is not turning anybody away, but they are on diversion status regionwide meaning they can only handle what’s in Ector County.

“We serve 17 counties all around us that usually send patients into us and right now those patients are going to have to find somewhere else to be served because we were handling our own patients. Usually our COVID census has several people from out of county. Today, there’s only one from out of county so everybody in there is from Ector County. But we’re not having to turn them away from here. If they’re in another hospital and they’re trying to get to a higher level of care, we are on diversion just like everybody else’s.”

Tippin said the biggest frustration right now is that they are concerned about patients, their families and the hospital staff.

Tippin said the staff is going through post-traumatic stress.

“They’ve been through this before. We got through it. We thought it was behind us, like we all did and now here we are facing it again. And we are really seeing a lot of our staff suffering with just the mental part of watching these healthy people come in and suffering …,” Tippin said.