Austin's Convention Center Is Almost Ready For COVID-19 Patients. Officials Hope They Never Use It.

Jul 24, 2020

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The Austin Convention Center will be ready next week to take in COVID-19 patients, if needed, local health officials say, but ideally, they hope that never happens.

Dr. Jason Pickett, an Austin-Travis County alternate health authority, said at a media conference today that local officials have been working for months to set up a de facto field hospital if local hospitals get overrun with cases during the pandemic.

“It is my hope they we don’t ever have to put a patient here,” he said.

One of two tents on the convention center floor set aside for emergency treatment.
Credit Gabriel C. Pérez / KUT

The Austin-Travis County Alternate Care Site will be available to hospitals who need to send patients who require less intensive care, in an effort to open up beds for more serious cases.

Austin repurposed tote bags from SXSW 2020 to store welcome gifts for the would-be patients at the Alternative Care Site. The festival was canceled in March due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Credit Gabriel C. Pérez / KUT

Pickett described the site as “a regional resource” that could take pressure off of hospitals in the broader Central Texas area, as well.

Patients can only be transferred to the site from a hospital, and it is not available as a walk-up location. According to city officials, the city could accommodate up to 1,500 patients.

However, it is currently not built up to take in that many patients right now. Dr. Mark Escott, the Austin-Travis County Interim Health Authority, said a fully functional site is not needed at the moment, but can be built out.

“We don’t need to open it today,” he said. “We don’t need to staff it to prepare to receive a hundred patients on Monday. The infrastructure needs to be there. We need that buffer.”

Escott says the Austin area needs to be prepared in cases surge again, though.

“I am happy to say that we continue to be in a plateau situation,” he said. “But we have to keep in mind that we are still in a very serious situation.”

Austin Public Health says 100 beds will be set up next week.
Credit Gabriel C. Pérez / KUT

The Austin area saw a spike in COVID-19 cases earlier this month, but the level of new cases and hospitalizations have plateaued in the last week or so. 

While that is a welcome respite, officials are still urging Austinites to continue practicing good hygiene, wearing facial coverings when going outdoors and avoiding non-essential travel.

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