IN-DEPTH: Of 25 largest cities, 18 have field hospitals but only 7 have ever used them


COLUMBUS, OHIO (KXAN) — Austin and Travis County health leaders have transformed the Austin Convention Center into a makeshift hospital. At present, it remains on standby. There’s no word yet when it might be used, and city leaders hope it’s never needed.

It’s a similar scene in cities across the country. Of the 25 largest cities in America, 18 have set up field hospitals. Thirteen set up their field hospitals inside their convention centers — just like Austin.

In Columbus, Ohio, a 1,000-bed makeshift hospital inside the Greater Columbus Convention Center sits ready, but remains empty. Jeff Klingler, president and CEO of the Central Ohio Hospital Council, said it’s been that way for three months.

“Beds were in place, partitions were in place, emergency generators were brought in,” Klingler said.

It’s cost the City of Columbus at least $2 million. Health leaders are working to get that money reimbursed through the CARES Act.

“Preparedness is key. It’s what hospitals do but I do think this is certainly a learning opportunity going forward,” he said.

Klingler believes convention centers are the best option, not only because of the open floor plans and exhibit halls that help maintain social distancing, but he said it is what’s hidden from view that matters most.

“You look at the back of your convention center and there’s nothing but loading docks,” Klingler said. “There is all that area that we never see as people who go to conventions that was so key and that we knew in terms of having patient flow and EMS drop off that whole loading space would work out.”

Most field hospitals not needed

Despite 18 of the 25 largest cities setting up field hospitals, most have gone unused. Eleven of those temporary hospitals have never seen a patient despite COVID-19 cases surging nationally. That includes the Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Center in Dallas and the temporary hospital inside NRG Park in Houston.

Harris County closed its temporary hospital in NRG Park without ever taking in a patient despite a cost of $17 million. Our partners at the Texas Tribune report Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo said they could reactivate that temporary hospital within 72 hours if needed.

Even some of those hospitals that have taken in patients have not taken in many. In Detroit, they spent $9 million on a 1,000-bed temporary hospital that was open for less than a month and treated just 39 people. They closed it on May 1. Like other cities, it now sits ready just in case it’s needed again.

In most of these cities, the federal government has funded the multi-million dollar openings of these temporary hospitals.

At present, local leaders do not have an estimate of how much the temporary hospital at the Austin Convention Center will cost.

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