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(Travel_With_Me/Shutterstock)

The Austin Convention Center is being prepared as a field hospital for up to 1,500 low-acuity coronavirus patients, local officials confirmed.


Sarah Eckhardt, special assistant to Travis County Judge Sam Biscoe, told the Austin American-Statesman that it will open on July 20, if needed, and is being paid for with local property tax dollars, a reimbursable expense under the CARES Act—the federal coronavirus relief package.

Austin-Travis County Interim Health Authority Dr. Mark Escott said on Wednesday that the convention center is intended to serve as a buffer in case hospitals reach capacity. But his goal is to avoid this outcome.

"We are desperately trying to avoid two things," he said. "Number one, the hospitals overcrowding and not being able to provide the world-class care they already do." Number two is a second economic shutdown, Dr. Escott.

Dr. Escott recommended the city begin preparing the convention center in late June, as COVID-19 cases and related hospitalizations skyrocketed.

The city's surge plan, released in early April, did not name the convention center as an alternate care site, but said such facilities would be similar to combat surgical hospitals or large wards and serve low-acuity patients, such as those who need IVs or supplemental oxygen.

Austin's three hospital systems—Ascension Seton, Baylor Scott & White Health and St. Davids HealthCare—are collectively at 76% hospital capacity and 85% ICU capacity, they reported Tuesday evening. About 30% of in-use ICU beds are occupied by COVID patients, Dr. Escott told Travis County Commissioners on Tuesday.

ICU capacity is a particular concern—Dr. Escott called it a "pinch point" on Wednesday—and said that hospitals may need to transition non-ICU beds to meet demand. This would limit the number of hospital beds available for less critical patients and could perhaps hasten the need for the convention center as an alternate care side.

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