Some Texas cities revive plans to add hospital bed capacity at convention centers if coronavirus cases climb

Intensive care units in one of the medical tents at NRG Park in Houston.      Annie Mulligan for The Texas Tribune
Intensive care units in one of the medical tents at NRG Park in Houston. Annie Mulligan for The Texas Tribune

As Texas finishes a second week of record hospitalizations, some local officials are eyeing convention centers and stadiums as potential overflow facilities, reviving efforts tabled earlier in the pandemic.

In Travis County, authorities have been quietly recruiting dozens of volunteer doctors and nurses to staff a possible 100-bed hospital in the Austin Convention Center. The site is not “currently functioning” but volunteers were given an estimated start date of mid-July, according to June emails sent to a member of the state’s disaster volunteer force and obtained by The Texas Tribune.

“Staff will provide hands-on care to COVID + patients with personal protective equipment (PPE) provided. The setting will be similar to a Medical-Surgical Unit with the capability of treating critical care patients," the email says.

The solicitations for volunteers come as researchers predict local hospitals could run out of beds to care for coronavirus patients next month, and as intensive care units in parts of the state have grown increasingly crowded.

Since June, numerous metrics to gauge the spread and severity of the coronavirus have lurched upwards in Texas, prompting Gov. Greg Abbott to pause elective procedures in four big counties Thursday, to free up hospital beds for COVID-19 patients.

Like Travis, Harris County may use a temporary medical facility at a stadium if need arises. The mayor of Dallas said Thursday a previously discussed pop-up hospital would not be erected “at this time.”

A spokesperson for the City of Austin's Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Management, Bryce Bencivengo, said local officials have been planning an alternate care site since March but are not certain it will be needed.

“The community should do everything in its power to stem the current rising tide of infections so this type of facility is not required,” Bencivengo said. “The volunteers could be used in other communities to provide care or they could ultimately not be used.”