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Austin Health Officials Ready Alternate Care Site At Convention Center As COVID Hospitalizations Surge

Austin Public Health has set up an alternate care site at the Austin Convention Center to take in COVID-19 patients, if needed.
Gabriel C. Pérez
Austin Public Health has set up an alternate care site at the Austin Convention Center to take in patients if area hospitals become overwhelmed.

Austin Public Health is preparing to use the alternate care site at the city’s convention center to open up beds in local hospitals as COVID-19 admissions continue surging in Central Texas. There were 115 new hospital admissions Tuesday, and the city’s interim health authority says ICUs could reach capacity by next week.

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

The rolling average of new daily hospitalizations is 83, the highest at any point of the pandemic. Escott said 17.8% of tests in the Austin area are coming back positive for COVID and that number could rise to 25% soon. He said APH has reached the limits of what it can recommend to reduce transmission under state law and the governor’s executive orders.

“I think we would encourage the state to reassess their plan. ... I don't think the rollback to 50% occupancy at retail and restaurants is doing the trick,” Escott said. “I think it was a good strategy, it was forward thinking to set those benchmarks. But I think we have to assess the situation and identify whether or not the strategy is working or not. It’s clearly not working.”

Coronavirus in Austin, Texas: Health leaders give live updates | KVUE

Public health officials said the current numbers in the area reflect the impact from Christmas gatherings, and they expect a surge next week from New Year’s celebrations. They’re asking anyone who traveled in the last week to get a COVID test as soon as possible.

Officials are also asking residents to be patient about receiving a vaccine and to continue measures like distancing and masking, which have proven to reduce transmission.

APH Director Stephanie Hayden said Travis County would want “a significant amount of doses, at least 10,000 or more,” before establishing walk-up vaccination sites like in other Texas cities.

“The situation that we have currently in Travis County is that the amount of [vaccine] allocation we received is really enough to focus on our 1A population,” interim Assistant Director Cassandra DeLeon said, referring to those who have been prioritized to receive the vaccine first. “We’ve not received enough vaccines to really expand efficiently to that 1B population.”

Groups classified as 1A include frontline health care workers and residents of long-term care facilities; 1B includes individuals over 65 and anyone over 16 with an underlying condition.

“We will not be able to vaccinate our way out of this surge. We’re working hard on vaccine distribution, but we do need people to reduce their risk today,” Escott said. “We are getting very close to the stage where our hospitals are going to run out of beds. And if they run out of beds they not only run out for COVID-19 patients, but for everybody.”

This story has been updated.

Got a tip? Email Jerry Quijano at Follow him on Twitter@jerryquijano.

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Jerry Quijano is the local All Things Considered anchor for KUT. Got a tip? Email him at Follow him on Twitter @jerryquijano.
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