An 11-month-old girl ill with COVID-19 had to be intubated and airlifted more than 150 miles from Houston to Temple, Texas, for treatment this week because pediatric hospitals in the state’s largest city were full, hospital officials said.

The case is a dramatic example of the steps emergency workers say they’ve been forced to take as surging coronavirus infections threaten to overwhelm medical systems in the Houston area, which is known for having an extensive conglomerate of hospitals and clinics.

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The baby, Ava Amira Rivera, was having seizures and struggling to breathe on Thursday when her mother brought her to Lyndon B. Johnson Hospital in northeast Houston, where she tested positive for the virus that causes COVID-19. The hospital doesn’t offer pediatric services, so staff scrambled to find a facility that could accommodate her.

“She needed to be intubated immediately,” said Patricia Darnauer, the hospital’s administrator told local media. “We looked at all five major pediatric hospital groups [in the city] and none [had beds] available.”

Eventually, doctors at Baylor Scott & White McLane Children’s Medical Center in Temple said they could help. Photos released by Harris Health Systems showed workers wheeling the girl in a stretcher across a helipad to a red air ambulance before making the flight to central Texas.


The center’s chief medical officer, Dominic Lucia, said Ava was intubated but stable when she arrived Thursday morning. Because she was doing well on the breathing machine, he said, doctors started to wean her off the oxygen, watching closely for signs of trouble.

By Friday, she had improved enough for them to remove the tube, Lucia said. She was discharged soon after.

“It was obviously scary and traumatic for the family. You never want to see an 11-month-old intubated,” Lucia said in an interview. “But I think the right things were done up front, and our team was able to take it from there.”

Children infected with the coronavirus are far less likely than adults to develop severe symptoms or die, but falling ill with COVID-19 can still be life-threatening for youngsters.

Pediatricians have voiced concerns about cases rising among kids as the new school year approaches and the highly transmissible delta variant spreads rapidly. While it’s unclear whether the variant is more deadly than other versions of the virus — some experts say they haven’t see a significant difference — there’s no question that it spreads more easily.

Ava’s mother, Estafani Lopez, said her baby started showing mild symptoms Wednesday. When they suddenly worsened early Thursday morning, she rushed the girl to the emergency room. She told television station ABC13 she was haunted by the images of Ava with a tube in her throat.


“It hurts,” Lopez said. “I wouldn’t want this pain on no other mother.”

Texas has become one of the nation’s coronavirus hot spots as the delta variant has swept across the country over the past month. Statewide, hospitalizations have jumped 42% in the past week, and new daily cases have risen by nearly 50%, according to The Washington Post’s tracking. On Friday alone, the state reported more than 19,000 infections, the most it has registered since mid-February, and the state’s test positivity rate is a staggering 18%.

In Houston, the influx of patients is putting immense strain on hospitals and medical staff already exhausted from overwork during the pandemic’s previous waves. One patient in the area was recently transferred to North Dakota for treatment, the Houston Chronicle reported.

Houston’s Texas Medical Center, the nation’s largest medical complex, is admitting coronavirus patients at near-record rates while also grappling with a nursing shortage in the region, according to William McKeon, the center’s chief executive.

“Hospitalizations across the Texas Medical Center are escalating at a pace we have not observed since the highest COVID-19 peak in summer 2020,” McKeon said in a statement. “Among patients hospitalized with COVID-19, a majority are younger and unvaccinated.”

Citywide, the health-care system was nearing a “breaking point,” Houston’s medical director, David Persse, told The Associated Press this week. “For the next three weeks or so, I see no relief on what’s happening in emergency departments.”


Adding to the stress on the system, the state has seen a sharp uptick in pediatric illnesses that had declined when people were stuck inside during the early stages of the pandemic. More children are being hospitalized with respiratory syncytial virus this summer than in previous years — and it’s happening at a time when emergency rooms are already treating more bumps and broken bones from kids playing outdoors.

“What we are dealing with is an already extremely busy summer for pediatric illness, really an unprecedented one,” Lucia said. “All the things that were quiet for a while really made a sensational comeback.”

“It’s a complex picture,” he added, “but what it adds up to is we have too many patients and not enough beds.”

As the state’s public health crisis has deepened, Gov. Greg Abbott, has doubled down on his opposition to mask mandates and restrictions on businesses. The Republican governor has encouraged Texans to get vaccinated but has threatened to penalize cities that defy his orders banning mandatory masking. “There will not be any government imposed shutdowns or mask mandates,” he told reporters this week.

Some local officials in Texas are pressing forward with mask mandates regardless. Among them is Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner, who announced Wednesday that the city’s roughly 22,000 employees will be required to wear face coverings in municipal buildings.

After her daughter’s ordeal this week, Lopez hopes people will take the proper precautions.

“It’s making me kind of mad that people have taken COVID as a joke. It’s not a joke. It’s very, very serious,” she told ABC13. “You want your babies at home, not in a hospital.”