AUSTIN, Texas — Austin got its first look inside the city's new field hospital at the Austin Convention Center for coronavirus patients on Friday. It's where an overflow of COVID-19 patients would be taken if hospitals were overburdened.
CBS Austin's Bettie Cross was one of the first to tour the alternate care site and says it's sobering to see row after row of temporary hospital rooms halfway filling a giant exhibit hall. It's the same hall where people normally attend home and garden shows, gaming conventions and hear big-name speakers at SXSW.
"We don't need to open it today. We don't need to prepare to receive 100 patients on Monday. But it is needed. The infrastructure needs to be there. We need to have that buffer," said Dr. Mark Escott, Interim Health Authority with Austin Public Health.
100 beds are now ready to treat a possible overflow of coronavirus patients from hospitals in Travis, Hays, Williamson, Bastrop and Caldwell counties. The decision to create the alternate care site was made in June when Austin was seeing record numbers of new COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations. Now there's less concern that hospitals could be overwhelmed.
"Things seem to be plateauing and in come circumstances improving," said Dr. Escott.
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The trigger to open the alternate care site is when area hospitals get to Phase 2 of their surge plan which is 90-percent of capacity. Hospitals are currently averaging 80-percent of capacity and ICUs have up to 85-percent of their beds full.
"The hospitals are operating in their surge plans right now. They are under surge conditions. So, it is not a very big leap to being in surge conditions to being completely underwater," said Dr. Jason Pickett with Austin Public Health.
Patients using most of the beds in the convention center would likely have stabilized and be in the recovery phase of their illness. The exceptions are two tents separated from the rest of the makeshift rooms. They can handle patients who relapse and need more extensive care.
"We need to have something that's available because if we don't and the surge happens we don't want to see scenarios like we did in New York," said Dr. Jason Fought, Chief Medical Officer at the Alternate Care Site.
Health officials were concerned they would not have enough nurses and respiratory technicians to staff the field hospital. But now Dr. Escott says more healthcare workers are becoming available.
"The staffing situation seems to be improving a bit. The word that we're getting from hospital systems is that requests for contracts to fill staffing positions are improving, as well," said Dr. Escott.
On Friday, two exhibit halls are being used for the alternate care site. One hall is for patients. The other exhibit hall is partially filled with extra beds, staff scrubs, patient gowns, masks and medical supplies. To expand to the building's full capacity of 1500 patients, the entire convention center would need to be transformed into a field hospital.