Shortly after coronavirus cases skyrocketed in mid-October in El Paso, seven members of the Houston Fire Department were dispatched to the west Texas border city to help relieve hospitals strained by the worsening crisis.
The crew of paramedics worked 12-hour overnight shifts for 36 consecutive days, caring for COVID-19 patients in a mobile medical unit while the cases mounted, bodies piled up in freezer trucks and national media outlets arrived to report on one of the country’s worst hot spots.
“It’s kind of like you’re Daniel in the lion’s den — you’re walking through and you know these people are positive,” said Capt. Beau Moreno of HFD Station 42. “We still go in there and do the job that we were assigned to do.”
Moreno, 40, and four other Houston firefighters returned Sunday after officials closed the tent hospital, which was no longer needed to handle overflow COVID-19 patients as the crisis began to show signs of slowing. Two firefighters remain in El Paso coordinating emergency operations.
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During the course of the HFD deployment, El Paso’s coronavirus case count more than doubled with hundreds of new cases reported each day. The total case count reached 86,752 as of Tuesday. By this weekend, however, the city’s rolling positivity rate had dipped — though still high at nearly 13% — and hospital capacity was opening up.
Houston Fire Chief Samuel Pena said he is proud of the men and women in his department who volunteered for the assignment. He dispatched an HFD team at the request of the Southeast Texas Regional Advisory Council, which coordinates regional medical responses.
Pena grew up in El Paso and served as the city’s fire chief for more than three years before coming to Houston. His grandchildren, friends and other family remain there. But regardless, sending resources to the overhwhelmed city was the “right thing to do,” he said. The pandemic, as well as disasters like Hurricane Harvey and 9-11, demonstrate that even the largest communities at some point need help.
“Really it’s on us to assist our fellow Texans, our fellow Americans, in the time of need,” Pena said. “And this is an opportunity for us to show that we’re unifed in the fight against this pandemic.”
The Houston fire crew left at 5 a.m. Friday, Oct. 23, on an ambulance bus typically used for mass casualty evacuations. Caravanning with other Houston-area groups, they drove west across Texas for more than 750 miles, hardly stopping except for a photo at Buc-ee’s.
Personnel from Chambers County EMS, Cy-Fair Fire Department, Humble Fire/EMS and Windsor EMS were also deployed by the regional advisory council.
The Houston firefighters were originially supposed to transport patients from El Paso to far-away hospitals with open beds, Moreno said, but instead the team was deployed at the mobile medical unit. There, the paramedics performed nursing duties from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. each day.
The 14-bed mobile unit, Moreno said, looked like a smaller version of the tent hospital set up at Houston’s NRG Arena in April amid fears of a possible Houston-area surge.
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The overnight shift began with distributing bedtime medications to each patient, Moreno said. Wearing head-to-toe personal protective equipment, the paramedics set up medication drips, checked oxygen levels and conducted rounds to make sure each patient’s vital signs were stable.
The patients in the mobile unit were too sick to be at home — they needed low levels of oxygen and medication — but not sick enough to be in the intensive care unit within the walls of the hospital, Moreno said.
“The whole idea was to get them out of there,” he said.
The crew cared for more than 100 patients in total, each of them positive for COVID-19, Moreno said. Some were sent home and others were transfered to the ICU, but no one died on their watch.
After the grueling overnight shifts, they slept in a hotel. To keep things light on the job, they joked around, picked on one another in a good-natured way and pulled pranks — “life as normal,” Moreno said. Amid the intense work, they made life-long friends with other paramedics from across the state.
“I think it shows a lot what Houston firefighters are capable of — well, firefighters in general,” Moreno said, ticking off which Texas cities each group came from. “We all worked together like we’d been working together forever.”
One morning, an El Paso woman brought the firefighters breakfast tacos. She posed for a picture with the team, but was overcome with tears.
“She’s like, ‘This has been so hard, you guys are going away from your family, and you guys are here helping us,’” Moreno said, recalling the moment. “That was touching.”