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City could use Austin Convention Center field hospital in matter of weeks if COVID-19 trends continue

Currently, hospital capacity and staffing is "stable."

AUSTIN, Texas — Austin could be weeks away from using its field hospital set up at the Austin Convention Center, health leaders warned Dec. 23 after the city entered Stage 5.

Dr. Mark Escott, Austin's top doctor, said staffing and hospital bed capacity at Austin hospitals is currently "stable." He said the concern is what will happen if cases surge and more space and staffing are needed.

"What we see during this COVID-19 pandemic is just a huge increase in demand for nurses, particularly nurses with experience in acute and intensive care," Cindy Zolnierek, the CEO of Texas Nurses Association and a Registered Nurse, said. "Unlike normal situations where there are travel nurses that can kind of fill in when one area is in need at a particular time, right now, we see throughout the country, all throughout the country is in a high demand for nurses – and the same kind of nurses at the same time."

Health leaders are concerned that if trends continue at the current rate, the field hospital at the convention center could come in use in a matter of weeks.

This marked the first time since the beginning of the pandemic that Austin moved to Stage 5 of the risk-based COVID-19 guidelines. It's the final and most strict stage of recommendations. 

Dr. John Abikhaled, the president of Travis County Medical Society, said it was no surprise Austin reached Stage 5.

"Coming off the heels of Thanksgiving with, you know, a lot of people getting together with family, which is something we all want to like we all want to do, but it just increases the risk of transmission of the virus," Abikhaled said. "We have seen the numbers starting to spike up in our area now."

Escott said in the Dec. 23 Austin Public Health press conference that there was a 97% increase in new cases since Dec. 1. There has also been an 80% increase in hospital admissions and a 50% increase in the use of hospital beds for COVID-19 patients since Dec. 1, as well, according to Escott. The positivity rate for Travis County the past two weeks has been 9.9% and 9.1%, Escott said. 

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