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Last Time COVID Cases Surged, Austin Opened A Field Hospital. Here's Why That May Not Work Now.

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
The city set up a field hospital at the Austin Convention Center to take in spillover COVID patients who require less intensive care. It closed in March.

When Austin-area hospitals began admitting about 100 new COVID patients a day last January, the City of Austin did something it hoped it would never have to: It set up hospital beds in the convention center, transforming the conference space into a field hospital.

“I want to be very clear: Our hope is that we never see a patient in this site,” then-interim Health Authority Dr. Mark Escott told council members at the time. “But unfortunately at this stage, our expectation is that we will receive patients.”

The hope was to relieve some of the pressure on hospitals, as critically ill people filled beds. According to a KXAN report at the time, there were 324 staffed hospital beds available then.

Of greater concern, though, was the number of ICU beds. The KXAN report noted there were 39 staffed ICU beds in hospitals across an 11-county region of Central Texas in January.

We’re at a similar tipping point now.

As of Sunday afternoon, Central Texas hospitals reported there were 470 hospital beds but only six staffed ICU beds available in a region of roughly 2.3 million people.

But officials say this time around they can’t open a field hospital, or what they call an “alternate care site.”

“Earlier in the year, hospitals didn’t have space,” Matt Lara, a spokesperson for Austin Public Health, told KUT. “There was nowhere to put patients, so … overflow and acute-care patients would go to the alternate care site.”

The issue is no longer a lack of room for patients, but a lack of health care workers to care for them. The city could put hospital beds in the convention center again, but it says it wouldn’t have staff to work them.

“There are additional ICU beds available [in hospitals], but there’s no staff there to actually manage them,” Lara said. “Hospitals aren’t out of space to put patients, they just don’t have the staff to manage patients beyond those limits.”

The Texas Nurses Association told KUT last month that a historic shortage of nurses in the state has been exacerbated by the demands of the pandemic on hospital staff. On Monday, the governor's office announced the state would be using staffing agencies to bring in out-of-state medical personnel to help with the shortage. It also advised hospitals to postpone elective surgeries.

A spokesperson for the three hospital chains in the Austin area did not respond to a request for comment on staffing shortages by deadline. But in late July, a spokesperson wrote that hospitals needed more workers:

“The latest COVID-19 spike is putting extraordinary pressure on our hospitals, emergency departments and healthcare professionals, and it has further challenged hospital staffing due to a longstanding nursing shortage. Ascension Seton, Baylor Scott & White Health and St. David’s HealthCare continue to ask our community to help us and each other by getting vaccinated, practicing social distancing and wearing a mask.”

Audrey McGlinchy is KUT's housing reporter. She focuses on affordable housing solutions, renters’ rights and the battles over zoning. Got a tip? Email her at Follow her on Twitter @AKMcGlinchy.
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