The emergency room entrance at Del Sol Medical Center in East El Paso. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

Local hospitals are seeing a spike in patients who delayed getting treatment for illnesses during the COVID-19 pandemic as cases of the coronavirus in El Paso have declined and more El Pasoans have been vaccinated.

At least three area hospitals are seeing a rise in patients with non-COVID-19 related health issues, including some showing signs of delayed care for chronic health conditions like heart disease, diabetes and acute psychiatric complications.

“The number of these patients has gone up dramatically and I’ve seen this over the last several months,” said Dr. Edward Michelson, chair of emergency medicine at Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center El Paso.

Officials with Hospitals of Providence and Las Palmas Del Sol said there has been an increase of non-COVID-19 related patients in their facilities as well.

Hospitals were overwhelmed for months when El Paso saw its peak in COVID-19 cases last fall, but medical experts encouraged those who needed medical attention for other conditions to still seek needed care.

Michelson said some of the patients currently being admitted are not only showing severe symptoms of delayed care, but also need to stay in the hospital longer.

“We are at capacity and we’re not alone. I’m pretty sure that’s common across the city,” Michelson said.

Michelson said the hospital has been able to adapt during the pandemic by adding more bed capacity under Gov. Greg Abbott’s executive orders, which allowed hospitals to use tents and treat patients in non-traditional areas of hospitals. But Michelson said he is concerned that if the order is rescinded, space will become an issue. The executive order remains in place until Abbott declares otherwise.

“Those areas continue to be used to treat other patients that don’t have COVID because otherwise we would have no place to put them,” Michelson said.

Despite the increase, some hospitals said they are managing, but are moving forward cautiously. Dr. Oscar Vega, chief medical officer at Las Palmas Medical Center, said the hospital currently has space for patients.

“It’s busy. I’m not going to take that away from it, but we’re not overwhelmed,” Vega said. “We came close to that during the surge (of COVID cases), but we’re not overwhelmed right now. We’re busy and we are looking at catching up here.” 

Vega said a lot of patients who had chronic conditions are showing up with exacerbated symptoms such as dangerously high blood pressure and blood glucose levels. 

“We’re seeing a lot of those folks coming in maybe a little bit worse off than they might have normally been, had they continued with their routine doctor’s visits and the occasional ER visits,” Vega said.

He also said they are seeing an increase of patients seeking preventative care like colonoscopies and elective surgeries that include knee surgeries and hernia repairs.

Vega said they are trying to take care of as many patients as possible in case there is another rise in COVID-19 cases as businesses reopen and the possibility of the U.S.- Mexico border reopening stays in focus.

“There’s always that possibility … that we’re going to see a resurgence of COVID,” Vega said.

COVID-19 hospitalizations have continued to decline since March, when more than 300 patients were hospitalized and more than 120 required treatment in intensive care units. As of July 7, 51 patients with COVID-19 are being treated in area hospitals with 17 in the ICU, according to recent data.

Though cases have dipped, doctors are adamant El Paso isn’t completely in the clear. 

Positive COVID-19 cases are above 300 for the first time since mid-June, which Michelson said is likely due to the highly contagious Delta variant. He said the best way for the community to lower the chances of another spike is to get vaccinated.

“Almost all of the patients now getting COVID have not had their vaccines,” Michelson said.

About 66% of El Pasoans age 12 and older are fully vaccinated and about 77% have received at least one dose.

Elida S. Perez is a senior reporter for El Paso Matters. Her experience includes work as city government watchdog reporter for the El Paso Times, investigative reporter for El Paso Newspaper Tree and communities...