Volunteer group of UT Austin students, faculty and graduates ready to fill medical staffing shortages

Coronavirus Hospitalizations

AUSTIN (KXAN) — Nearly 500 University of Texas students, faculty, graduates and other medical professionals who have volunteered are standing ready to fill staffing shortages across Central Texas caused by increasing hospital admissions.

The University of Texas Medical Reserve Corps said they are willing to staff the newly-activated alternate care site at the Austin Convention Center or deploy to local hospitals to help.

“We have plenty of volunteers that can practice within their scope,” said Dr. Li-Chen Lin, who serves on the command team for the UTMRC and as a faculty member at the School of Nursing. “Say a hospital system would want to put in a request to have UTMRC  join their team. Then they can do that, and we will be deployed.”

Founded after Sept. 11, 2001 as a part of UT Austin’s School of Nursing, the group trains for natural disasters and public health emergencies. They’ve been deployed to everything from floods and hurricanes to flu shot clinics.

Currently, UTMRC volunteers are assisting with vaccine distribution. Kathryn Hanley, another command staff member, said the vaccine clinics have allowed other medical professionals to hear about their group.

“I actually was in contact with a veterinarian today about him coming in to float. I mean, we really have like everybody. We even have somebody that is an embalmer that came in and was a floater kind of directing traffic. So, it’s really anybody that is willing to help out,” she said.

Hanley herself is studying to become a nurse practitioner at UT Austin’s School of Nursing.

Throughout the pandemic, they’ve been recruiting members — seeing the group grow from around 140 volunteers to nearly 500.

Many of these healthcare workers and students volunteer at the vaccine clinics — or other UTMRC deployments — on their days off.

“It’s challenging. It’s a lot of work. It’s exhausting, but at the same time you see people kind of rise and kind of help each other,” Lin said. “We will continue to support the community wherever the needs are.”

She said they worked with the City of Austin back in March regarding the potential of opening alternate care sites to accept overflow patients from hospitals, as the virus began to spread. She noted at the time, their pharmacists and other volunteers consulted with city health leaders on how to set up a field hospital. She said they have an agreement with the city and county to staff the alternate care site at the Convention Center, if necessary.

“If we need to, we are ready to roll with that,” she said.

The site was first set up over the summer during the area’s first major COVID-19 surge, but has not yet taken any patients. The state approved Austin-Travis County’s request to activate the site on Saturday.

A City of Austin spokesperson said they hope to have this site operational within 14 days, but said “it depends on staffing, resources, the needs of the of the local hospitals in the region.” They said the number of staff needed would depend on the number of patients admitted or transferred to the site.

They noted the state would be handling the majority of the staffing needs at the site — meaning groups like UTMRC may not be utilized.

A spokesperson for the Texas Division of Emergency Management said they are working with vendors across the state to provide staffing and other services necessary to open the site. He indicated they will likely pull staff from other parts of the state and country.

“The State is working with Austin-Travis County to determine what their needs are to provide the wrap-around services necessary for the Alternate Care Site to become operational,” the spokesperson said, emphasizing the importance of other services, such as food and equipment.

The TDEM spokesperson said they have stood up similar alternate care sites in the past in around 14 days, so that timeline was not unreasonable. However, they didn’t have a date for when the site would begin accepting patients.

IN-DEPTH: Medical personnel deployed statewide

The Department of State Health Services said 10,715 contracted medical staff were currently working around the state and 471 were in the Central Texas area, serving at healthcare facilities that need additional staff to care for the COVID-19 patients.

The state said these medical surge staff deployments were not specifically tied to the 15% hospital capacity threshold noted in Gov. Greg Abbott’s emergency orders.

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