Letter to City: More than 100 Austin doctors feel uninformed, ask for isolation facility


AUSTIN (KXAN) — More than 100 local doctors signed and sent an open letter to City of Austin and Travis County health authorities on Monday, sharing their growing concerns on the spread of the coronavirus in Central Texas.

The letters asks for improved communication on the front-lines, alternative hospital assignments for COVID-19 patients and suggests converting the convention center into a temporary isolation facility.

As of Monday afternoon, Austin Public Health confirmed 206 cases and two deaths due to COVID-19 in Travis County.

READ: Austin doctors send letter to City of Austin and Travis County health authorities

In the letter, the physicians stated they felt uninformed about what the city was doing in handling the pandemic and admitted to feeling unsure about where to refer patients to receive testing or seek isolation if they didn’t meet the criteria for hospital admittance.

“It would be ideal if the health department holds a regular phone conference that all practicing physicians in Austin area can join to be updated on what is being done about COVID-19 in the community and where we can ask questions,” the letter states.

A spokesperson for Austin Public Health told KXAN that the department has been regularly updating 4,000 physicians through the Travis County Medical Society and that a dedicated phone line has been set up to reach APH directly.

They also ask doctors to frequently check in with the Center for Disease Control and Prevention and the Texas Department of State Health Services for additional advice.

The letter states that personal protective equipment would be better conserved by admitting COVID-19 patients to three designated hospitals in the area instead of widely spreading them out. Shortages of PPE at hospitals around the country has been widely reported for the past several weeks.

Each of the large hospital networks in Central Texas have designated at least two facilities to accept COVID-19 patients, a spokesperson with APH confirmed. However, the city is following CDC guidelines in allowing positive patients to quarantine at home, if they so choose.

The city said this strategy keeps hospitals from becoming overwhelmed and prevents mental health crises due to isolation. A spokesperson said putting patients in a hospital or similar communal facility might also further spread the virus to negative patients.

The final request from these doctors recommends converting the Austin Convention Center to a temporary facility to house COVID-19 patients. This would be a location that people could voluntarily self-isolate instead of choosing to quarantine at home, Dr. Theresa Pham said.

Pham spearheaded this portion of the letter after monitoring the outbreak internationally beginning in January.

“China got its new infection case count close to zero when they began to separate the infected patients from the uninfected population. South Korea uses this same strategy successfully. The capital city of Seoul has a population of 10 million people but have less than 400 COVID-19 cases. Aggressively stopping the transmission is the only meaningful way for us to fight against this epidemic. We can adapt this strategy to the US by making it voluntary. We can construct it in a way to be a valuable public service that our community would want to access.”

Open letter from Austin/Travis County physicians to City of Austin and Travis County Officials

“We are facing four more months of quarantining [based on specific models],” Dr. Pham said. “If Austinites are given the choice, do we want to stay in quarantine for four more months or do we want to self-isolate?”

“We have the unique opportunity right now to do something early to mitigate the spread so our hospital system doesn’t get overwhelmed,” Dr. Pham said.

The city would not confirm that the convention center is currently being considered to isolate patients, however, a spokesperson said similar facilities are under examination.

There is currently a facility being used to isolate patients with COVID-19 who do not have a safe place to isolate. The city also recently announced two new facilities which will be opened in Travis and Williamson County to house positive COVID-19 patients from nursing home facilities.

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