AUSTIN (KXAN) — City and county officials are having just as difficult a time getting capacity data from major hospitals as KXAN’s investigative team.
Former Travis County Judge Sarah Eckhardt wrote a strongly-worded email to high-ranking hospital officials, including the heads of Ascension, St. David’s, and Baylor Scott & White Hospitals.
Eckhardt wrote the email Tuesday morning, several hours before it was obtained by KXAN.
She refers to “another frustrating phone call” with hospital leadership from Monday and asks those leaders five different times in the email this question: “What is your capacity?”
The email reflects the sense of urgency and concern from local leaders, who wonder why they’re not getting a clear picture of how to prepare based on what is happening inside the hospitals.
Since last week, the KXAN investigative team has been asking for available and occupied bed numbers at the hospital level. COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations have spiked dramatically both locally and statewide.
“I know one of our local facilities just overnight, saw a 26% increase in the number of sick COVID patients,” said Serena Bumpus, Director of Practice at the Texas Nurses Association.
But the three major healthcare systems in central Texas have been in lockstep as we’ve asked for the numbers.
Ascension, St. David’s and Baylor Scott & White hospitals have issued joint statements in response to our questions about their hospital capacity data and the release of it.
They’ve diverted us to get the numbers from Austin Public Health, the authority who calls the data it’s getting from these hospitals “inconsistent.”
“The three local healthcare systems are working in close coordination and providing timely information on hospital bed availability to Austin Public Health, our local health authority, so that it may provide a complete picture for the community,” a spokesperson for the three systems told us Friday.
“As such, we will continue to refer local media outlets to Austin Public Health in response to inquiries on this topic.”
Regardless, KXAN has filed a Public Information Request for it.
Austin Public Health needs consistent hospital metrics to know when to pull the trigger on opening a temporary hospital, and to know which patients to send there. APH says it’s finalizing plans for a space that if needed, could take up to 1,500 patients.
“When there is ‘no more room at the inn’ of the private hospitals, your public partners will be left scrambling to staff beds in an Alternative Care Site that should have been brought on gradually and in partnership with you,” wrote Eckhardt.
She added that the hospitals need to come up with a single number representing the ability of the local hospital system to take on COVID-19 patients.
“Travis County and other public entities in our partnership have been stressing the need for this single number for months,” she wrote.
Added Austin Mayor Steve Adler: “When we take the universe of beds that are available, how many should we be holding out for people that are non-COVID?”
As KXAN reported, most hospitals in Dallas report a daily number of occupied and non-occupied beds, ICU beds and ventilators, in an email that goes straight to its Mayor.
For Austin, this data is blended in with ten other counties when its reported by the state.
Hospitals individually submit data to the Texas Department of State Health Services (DSHS), including numbers for available and occupied beds.
KXAN has filed a public information request for it, because DSHS said it won’t give the data at the hospital level.”I don’t think we truly understand how our data from our electronic healthcare records is being translated into the Department of State Health Services data,” said Bumpus. ‘There needs to be a little more transparency on both sides.”
Sarah Eckhardt is no longer Travis County judge, having resigned her seat to run for the Texas Senate.
In her email, she lists herself as a special assistant to current Travis County Judge Sam Biscoe. She has also remained a vocal part of the local government response to COVID-19.
Her primary opponent for Senate District 14 is longtime state house Rep. Eddie Rodriguez.
In response to KXAN’s investigation, his office writes:
“The health and safety of Texans is paramount right now, and all levels of government must work together to ensure our hospitals have enough capacity to help as COVID-related cases and hospitalizations spike. I have spoken regularly with DHS and will continue fighting to make sure they are using the tools the legislature has given them to help this effort.
“Unfortunately, the email found by KXAN further indicates that Travis County’s response is being compromised. Sarah Eckhardt no longer represents the people of Travis County since quitting her office, has a substantial conflict of interest, and is unaccountable. It is long overdue for our actual County Judge, Sam Biscoe, to represent the county as we know he ably can.”