EL PASO, Texas (KXAN) — A few months ago, coronavirus cases were surging in El Paso, and hospitals there were overwhelmed. Area health leaders announced an alternate care site would begin accepting patients at their Convention Center.
Now, Austin health leaders are eliciting similar warnings.
At a meeting Tuesday morning, Austin-Travis County Interim Health Authority Dr. Mark Escott projected intensive care units could run out within two days. He announced Austin’s alternate care site — which has been prepped since the summer — would begin taking patients.
A spokesperson for the Texas Department of Emergency Management said they made the decision to open the doors with enough staff and resources to serve 25 coronavirus patients who need hospitalization, but a lower level of care. They explained the site has the ability to expand or shrink, depending on the needs of area hospitals each day.
Healthcare workers and support staff from more than 20 states around the country have come to Austin to provide services at the site.
Dr. Ogechika Alozie, an infectious disease expert and co-chair of the El Paso COVID-19 task force, said it will allow area hospitals to “breathe” and focus on the most severely ill. He calls it a “transition zone.”
“To allow you to get better on oxygen, to do physical therapy, and really get you set to go home and be safe,” he said. “These people are doing better. They are about to go home, and this can bridge that gap.”
He went on, “We might have had to send patients home that might not be ready to get there. Having that specialty hospital that could take them in, that could give them that care, that could get them therapy that they need to transition them to a safe discharge home eventually? I think was immensely important.”
According to the TDEM spokesperson, the El Paso site launched with the ability to care for 50 patients, then expanded to 100 beds “when capacity demanded.” At its peak, staff there served 63 patients at one time, but nearly 300 patients have stayed at the site since it opened.
They have scaled the site back to a 75-bed total capacity, with 23 patients as of Tuesday.
The spokesperson said it will “continue to be reduced in the coming weeks as long as we don’t see a surge in hospitalizations in the area.
Alozie prefers the term ‘COVID-specialty hospital’ to ‘field hospital’ — noting community members should become comfortable with the idea of these sites.
“People have the ability to get even a better type of transitional care than even in the hospital. They can walk around. They can go watch TV. They have down time. The ratio of nurses they are going to see may actually be higher than most hospitals,” he said.
He also lauded the ability to offer monoclonal antibody infusion treatments at these sites.
In fact, Alozie has first-hand experience with these infusions at the El Paso alternate care site, qualifying for care there after contracting COVID-19 at the end of last year. KXAN’s affiliate news station in El Paso, KTSM, first reported on his battle with the virus.
“I do remember feeling tired one day and that was it,” Alozie said.
The federal government provided 1,000 doses of bamlanivimab, a monoclonal antibody therapy, to the El Paso site for infusions.
Currently, the Austin alternate care site is not offering these infusions, but Escott said that could happen in the future. For now, it’s being administered in a mobile infusion center set up in east Austin.