Austin Convention Center slated to be ready for hospital patients this week if needed

Coronavirus Hospitalizations

AUSTIN (KXAN) — Austin health leaders have said that the Austin Convention Center will be ready on Tuesday, July 21 to serve as an “alternate care site” should any local hospitals need it. COVID-19 hospitalizations in the Austin area appear to have plateaued over the past 10 days, so it remains unclear whether hospitals will need to use the convention center this week.

The field hospital will be used to treat low acuity patients — those who are not critically ill. KXAN has previously reported that this site has room to care for up to 1,500 patients. Capacity at the field hospital will be increased in 100-bed increments, as needed.

“So obviously the convention center is not a hospital and we would rather take care of everybody in the hospital,” explained Dr. John Abikhaled, an Austin surgeon and the president of the Travis County Medical Society. “But if it becomes impossible to take care of everybody in a hospital, then there can be a location where there are the facilities and the equipment and the staff needed to provide care.”

Abikhaled noted that this field site takes a few weeks to set up, so local officials pulled the trigger now to be ready in the event that hospital capacity was overflowing by this week.

“Maybe the best-case scenario would be that we set it up and we don’t even have to use it, that would be fantastic,” he said.

“I am not aware of a specific plan to actually bring patients there because it’s not needed yet,  but if it does become needed and if the numbers start skyrocketing upwards again then it will be ready,” Abikhaled said.

The Travis County Medical Society has a roster of volunteers available to help with pandemic response and Abikhaled believes these volunteers could be dispatched to help in Austin hospitals or at the alternate care site if needed.

When leaders initiated the field hospital preparations several weeks ago, Austin was in the thick of a significant uptick of COVID-19 hospital admissions. Local officials have been watching the data closely and say that while the hospital numbers have not declined, they have plateaued.

A city spokesperson sent KXAN a statement Monday which read, “Austin Public Health and Travis County are working closely with area hospitals to keep an eye on capacity.”

The statement noted that bed count and equipment are not the only factors used to determining surge capacity.

“If the hospitals begin experiencing capacity issues, the Surge Plan would be implemented, and we would be able to take care of COVID-19 patients,” the spokesperson explained.

“There is no way to know the timing of when, or if, an alternative care site would need to be opened.”

City of Austin Spokesperson July 20, 2020
A chart showing hospitalization data in the Austin MSA as of July 19, 2020 on the Austin-Travis County COVID-19 dashboard. Dark blue line shows COVID-19 hospitalizations, light blue line shows 7-day moving average for daily COVID-19 hospital admissions.

“It has leveled off at a very high, busy level where the hospitals are very full, but not bursting at the seams, at least that’s the impression I get,” Abikhaled said, suggesting that the leveling off of the hospital admissions indicates that people in the Austin area have heeded the calls to increase mask-wearing and social distancing.

In a joint response from Ascension Seton, Baylor Scott & White Health and St. David’s HealthCare, the three major hospital systems in the Austin area, a spokesperson explained that these systems work closely with state and local governments in calculating capacity and whether to use the convention center.

The spokesperson said the most recent update on the capacity of the three hospital systems was issued Thursday. That update noted the 2,473 hospital beds available between the three healthcare systems are 74% full and the 483 ICU beds between the three systems are 89% full.

Last week at a media briefing, Austin’s Alternate Health Authority Dr. Jason Pickett explained that patients may not need to be brought into the field hospital on the first day it is ready.

Pickett said, “that’s largely up to the hospitals where they feel they need to start offloading patients.”

Austin health leaders said last week that they plan to contract with staffing agencies to help staff the convention center and that they will also ask Texas and other states for help too.

The 7-day moving average for new COVID-19 hospital admissions in the Austin MSA as reflected on the stages of Austin-Travis County’s risk based guidelines. Screenshot from the Austin-Travis County dashboard July 19, 2020.

Abikhaled, who still goes into the hospital to perform surgeries, said that based on the people he’s spoken to in Austin, “the folks in the hospital — and this includes the nurses and the respiratory therapists as well as the physicians– everyone is a bit stressed, but managing, everybody is bending but not breaking.”

In addition to busy hospital conditions, Abikhaled said Austin-area medical professionals are faced with the limitations on letting family members into hospitals during COVID-19, which he says can be challenging for patients and their loved ones.

He said the most significant thing the general public can do to help ease the burden on Austin medical professionals right now is to continue wearing face coverings, practice social distancing and stay home when sick.

“The most important thing people can do is stay healthy so they don’t have to go to the hospital, so they don’t have to go to the ICU, and they don’t have to end up on a ventilator,” he said.

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