AUSTIN (KXAN) — As the Austin area continues to see COVID-19 hospitalization numbers higher than any witnessed during the region’s summer surge, Austin health leaders are discussing activating the “alternate care site” or “field hospital” at the Austin Convention Center.

“My guess is this week or next week, we will start that activation process for the alternate care site,” Austin-Travis County Interim Health Authority Dr. Mark Escott said Wednesday morning at a press briefing. “It seems very clear to us that we will run out of hospital beds and that we are going to have to stretch resources in order to meet the needs of our community.”

A photo of the Austin Convention Center which will be used as a regional alternate care site if hospitals are overwhelmed by COVID-19. (KXAN Photo/Alyssa Goard)

Escott cited the most recent projections from UT Austin’s COVID-19 Modeling Consortium, which expects by Jan. 11, the five-county Austin Metropolitan Statistical Area (MSA) will exceed 200 COVID-19 hospitalizations — a number the Austin area has not reached yet this pandemic.

Austin area healthcare systems have told Austin Public Health they collectively have 200 ICU beds in their hospitals for COVID-19 patients. An APH spokesperson explained to KXAN that exceeding that 200 number will mean all spare beds will be filled.

Wednesday, the Austin MSA reported 162 COVID-19 ICU admissions, meaning only 38 of those spare beds remain for the entire five-county area.

The three major healthcare systems in the Austin area — Ascension Seton, Baylor Scott & White Health and St. David’s HealthCare — only offer a few details about how this is impacting their individual ICUs.

Tuesday, a spokesperson for all three healthcare systems told KXAN between the three systems there are 2,473 staffed beds, which were 79% occupied, and 483 ICU beds, which are 88% occupied.

KXAN asked the three healthcare systems Wednesday how many and which of their individual hospital ICUs were completely full. A spokesperson responded saying they do not believe it would be beneficial to KXAN’s viewers for the healthcare systems to share information about each specific hospital’s ICU capacity. The information about hospital capacity is constantly changing, and people should go to the nearest hospital when they are in need of care, the spokesperson said.

“Ascension Seton, Baylor Scott & White and St. David’s HealthCare continue to monitor and adapt to local COVID-19 activity, as well as the healthcare demands within our community. 

Currently, all facilities have the capacity to treat all patients, including those diagnosed with COVID-19. However, if our hospitals reach a capacity where we cannot safely accommodate demand, each of our hospitals has a surge plan that includes the utilization of all available patient care space within our hospitals and in other settings across our healthcare system. While we will always make emergency care available, we may also have to adjust our staffing needs and limit the services we are able to offer to patients. In some cases, we may transfer patients between facilities within our healthcare systems in order to provide the most appropriate care. 

Additionally, we support the use of alternate care sites, and we are working with community leaders to plan for this potential need.”

A statement from Ascension Seton, Baylor Scott & White and St. David’s HealthCare on Jan. 6, 2021

While the hospital systems declined to provide this information, KXAN is receiving reports from hospital employees who claim that individual Austin ICUs are already at capacity.

A St. David’s South Austin Medical Center healthcare worker who wished to remain anonymous said SAMC’s ICU is currently more than 100% full with some ICU patients being treated in the Intermediate Care Unit.

A screenshot of the data for Texas Trauma Service Area O which covers eleven counties (including Travis County). Screenshot taken from DSHS website 5 p.m. on Jan. 6, 2021.

The Texas Department of State Health Services also tracks hospital capacity for Trauma Service Areas across the state. Austin is in Trauma Service Area “O” which includes more than 2.3 million people and 11 counties: Bastrop, Blanco, Burnet, Caldwell, Fayette, Hays, Lee, Llano, San Saba, Travis and Williamson. As of Wednesday morning, the DSHS chart for Trauma Service Area O showed 61 ICU beds available for the area. As of 4 p.m. on Wednesday, the chart was updated to show 39 available ICU beds for the area.

KXAN asked APH if it gets updates from Austin’s healthcare systems about how full individual hospital ICUs are. A spokesperson for APH replied, “we receive generalized daily information that we share with the public on our dashboards.”

The APH spokesperson went on to say that some of factors that will be looked at to determine whether the Austin Convention Center will need to be used as a field hospital include: the number of hospital beds available in the region, the number of ICU beds available, hospital staffing after regional hospitals have expanded to their maximum surge capacities and the daily number of admissions to hospitals in the Austin MSA.

Escott explained Wednesday there is “a phased-based approach to surge within our hospitals and then out of our hospitals into alternate care sites.”

Part of the alternate care site set up at the Austin Convention Center in case hospitals are overwhelmed with COVID-19 patients. (KXAN photo/Alex Caprariello)
Part of the alternate care site set up at the Austin Convention Center in case hospitals are overwhelmed with COVID-19 patients. (KXAN photo/Alex Caprariello)

Dr. John Abikhaled, who is the Immediate Past President of the Travis County Medical Society, explained as he transitions out of the president role, he and the current president have been talking about the possible need for volunteers and physicians to help staff the alternate care site at the Austin Convention Center.

TCMS has a roster of physicians willing to help out in the event of a disaster, and Abikhaled said TCMS is “looking at revisiting that list and seeing what the availability is in case we end up in an all-hands-on-deck situation.”

He also noted, “the more critical shortage than doctors [right now] is nurses and respiratory therapists that can manage oxygen and things like that.”

A screenshot of the UT Austin COVID-19 Modeling Consortium projection for ICU patients in the Austin MSA. Screenshot taken 6 p.m. on Jan. 6, 2021.