COVID-19 alternate care site is ready to go, but health officials hope they don’t have to use it

Coronavirus

AUSTIN (KXAN) — Austin-Travis County health officials gave media members a tour Friday of the alternate care site, a field hospital of sorts, set up in the Austin Convention Center in the event hospitals are overwhelmed with COVID-19 patients.

KXAN’s Alex Caprariello was one of the first people to get a look inside the site. He said it’s currently set up for 100 patients, but can be configured to fit up to 1,500 patients if needed.

Officials have said they hope they don’t have to use the site at all — it’s a contingency plan, just in case.

“It is my hope taht we never have to put a patient here,” said Dr. Jason Pickett, the Austin-Travis County Alternate Health Authority. “Hospitals are under surge conditions right now. It is not a very big leap from being in surge conditions to being completely underwater.”

Dr. Mark Escott, the Austin Public Health Interim Health Authority, said the trajectory of new hospital admissions and cases were “concerning” a few weeks ago, but he said those numbers are starting to plateau, and he’s happy about that.

Dr. Pickett said the alternate care site is a “regional race horse.”

  • Part of the alternate care site set up at the Austin Convention Center in case hospitals are overwhelmed with COVID-19 patients. (KXAN photo/Alex Caprariello)
  • Part of the alternate care site set up at the Austin Convention Center in case hospitals are overwhelmed with COVID-19 patients. (KXAN photo/Alex Caprariello)
  • Part of the alternate care site set up at the Austin Convention Center in case hospitals are overwhelmed with COVID-19 patients. (KXAN photo/Alex Caprariello)
  • Part of the alternate care site set up at the Austin Convention Center in case hospitals are overwhelmed with COVID-19 patients. (KXAN photo/Alex Caprariello)

“It’s not just for Austin or Travis County,” Dr. Pickett said. “The primary goal is to take care of patients of lower acuity to take pressure off hospitals.”

Dr. Escott clarified that the site isn’t meant for transfers from outside the five-county metropolitan statistical area, so if hosptials from the Rio Grande Valley in South Texas get overwhelmed, the patients there wouldn’t go to the alternate care site. If they needed to go anywhere, they’d go to one of the traditional hospitals in the area.

Dr. Jason Fought, director of the alternate care site, said the site won’t be for COVID-19 patients in the early part of their illness, but would rather be used when a patient stabilizes and is in the latter part of their needed care.

“The focus is on the oxygen requirements. The higher oxygen patients will be in one spot,” Dr. Fought said. “They could get 10 liters of oxygen if they needed it.”

Staff at the alternate care site said they’ll need a two-day notice before they start accepting patients, and Dr. Fought explained when the site needed to open its doors.

“When hospitals get to Phase 2 of their surge plan, at 90% capacity, that’s when we know we’ll need to open,” Dr. Fought said.

On Friday, a spokesperson representing the three hospital systems in Central Texas — Ascension Seton, Baylor Scott & White and St. David’s Healthcare — reported 75% of the 2,473 staffed beds were occupied. Of the 483 ICU beds, 85% were occupied.

The alternate care site has two ICU beds, 5 acute beds and the rest are standard patient beds. There are shower facilities and supply rooms, stocked with additional PPE and basic hygiene needs for patients.

Doctors, respiratory therapists, nurses and paramedics — all found through the Travis County Medical Society and various staffing agencies in partnership with APH — have their own sleeping arrangements upstairs.

KXAN asked how much the facility costs to operate. Austin Public Health was unable to give an exact figure. Leaders said it depends on how much the site is ultimately used and how many doctors, nurses and additional staff are required.

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