By Ronald M. Stewart, submitted to the San Antonio Express-News as an opinion piece and published on June 30.

Ronald Stewart, M.D.
Ronald M. Stewart, M.D.

I am one of the most senior trauma surgeons in South Texas. I have helped care for thousands of injured and critically ill patients from across all South Texas. For a quarter of a century, I have worked with and learned from a truly amazing team of (mostly behind the scenes) paramedics, nurses, emergency physicians, medical specialists, surgeons and technical experts who collectively manage our emergency health care system. This team monitors the impact of COVID-19 in our region. We are at a critical juncture that requires all of our action now.

Since the end of the first week in June, the number of patients suffering from COVID-19 in San Antonio hospitals has increased about 10% per day, which means the number of hospitalized COVID-19 patients has doubled every week. As of Monday, there were 881 hospitalized COVID-19 patients.

Three weeks ago, 96 COVID-19 patients were hospitalized in San Antonio; as of Monday, we have 881 admitted patients. In addition to patients with COVID-19, our hospitals provide vital care for people suffering from injuries, heart attacks, strokes, cancer and many other problems. If the current rate of growth for COVID-19 continues, within one to two weeks, we will likely exceed the capability of San Antonio hospitals to safely care for any type of patient. We are all at significant risk if we do not respond responsibly today.

We have great hospitals and an innovative emergency health care system, but physical limits are real. Hospitals and health care professionals are doing what we can to free up beds, expand the number of hospital beds, create new places to care for sick patients, and distribute patients and resources to ensure optimal care. However, unless we — and I mean all of us — do our part to stop the momentum of the spread of COVID-19, we will be in a major crisis very soon.

Treatment is not enough: In our work, we have learned to prevent disastrous situations by making potentially dangerous activities as safe as reasonably possible. These prevention efforts require cooperation and communication, and are greatly benefited by a “friends helping friends” approach. Through this work, we have learned, safety and freedom are not antagonistic. They are complementary; both require responsibility. Free people are more free when our freedoms are tightly coupled with responsibility.

Communication and cooperation save lives: The people of San Antonio and South Texas are among the friendliest, most welcoming and hardest-working people on Earth. We live in a place where cooperation comes naturally. We must respond to this crisis together, in a true San Antonio and South Texas fashion, by working together as “friends helping friends.”

We must counter the momentum of the spread of the virus: Just as in sports, there is momentum to a pandemic. To stop the momentum requires a great cooperative effort focused on doing a few simple things well. We must work together to apply a force that is greater than the surge of the virus.

To change the momentum we  must choose to:

  • 1) Correctly wear a mask or face covering when in public.
  • 2) Diligently practice physical distancing of at least six feet.
  • 3) Use frequent hand hygiene.
  • 4) Stay home except when necessary for work or service to our family and community.

We must do this because it is the right thing to do for ourselves, our families, our neighbors and our friends. These simple measures are critically important.

Freedom with responsibility is our only viable option. There is no place my colleagues and I would rather be than here with you today, responding to the biggest challenge we have faced in our lifetimes. We are honored and grateful. We have been through bad situations before. Anger, fear, frustration and fatigue are understandable, but these emotions make us less able to respond.

Responsibility, compassion, composure and teamwork are the keys to an effective response. Together, we have the power to reduce the spread of the virus. Please help your friends and family wear a mask, physically distance, pay extra attention to hand hygiene and take care of each other.

Ronald M. Stewart, MD, is a professor of surgery and the Dr. Witten B. Russ Chair in Surgery at UT Health San Antonio. He has been board chair of the Southwest Texas Regional Advisory Council for 24 years, and is a trauma surgeon at University Health System.