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'We don't want to be caught flat-footed' | $11 million NRG medical shelter is ready for up to 250 patients

It's not active, but if the time comes, the shelter will handle overflow from hospitals throughout the Houston area.

HOUSTON — Houston and Harris County leaders toured a medical shelter at NRG Park Saturday to see how the area could handle a potential surge in COVID-19 patients should the hospital system become overwhelmed.

Earlier this week, county commissioners unanimously approved $60 million to build the temporary medical shelter— the federal government is expected to reimburse 75 percent of that.

Currently, the county has only spent $11 million on this emergency overflow center.

The shelter can serve 250 patients and is set up with equipment, doctors, nurses, technicians and other medical professionals from all over the region, particularly areas that are experiencing lower rates of coronavirus.

"We were caught by surprise in this country, but we will not be caught by surprise in this community," said County Judge Lina Hidalgo. "We don’t want to be caught flat-footed."

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It has several units including two for COVID-19-positive patients and one for
"people under investigation," that's patients who are showing signs of coronavirus, but who have not tested positive yet. It also has one "step-down" unit.

Both the city and county have partnered with the SouthEast Texas Regional Advisory Council, which is running a mobile medical unit that provides ICU level care for patients after they've taken a downward turn and need to be transferred to a hospital.

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo said if hospitals reach capacity, SETRAC staff will work with them to have patients and personnel assigned to the NRG shelter.

The medical shelter can serve everyone within Houston, the county and other areas in the region, Hildalgo said. 

"The likelihood of us using this facility is anyone's guess. Right now, projections show us peaking underneath hospital capacity," Hidalgo said. "Those projections are all based on the assumption that people continue to stay home for until we peak and we have not peaked yet."

It's crucial residents continue following the "stay home, work safe" order and practice social distancing, she said. Ignoring it could cause the peak in cases to be higher and happen later, according to the county. 

"Let's hope we don't need this," Hidalgo added. "It's truly sobering to see this stand up."

The shelter is designed to handle varying weather conditions, too. The tents are climate-controlled for heat and raised off the ground to avoid rain and flooding. 

The county has explored expanding the shelter within NRG Park, but due to the Rodeo, the air inside those buildings is not up to hospital standards yet.

"I would rather say I did too much, I know there’s no winning," Hildalgo said. "The cost of having an outbreak, losing lives, overwhelmed hospitals, the kind of thing we’re seeing elsewhere, you can be sure that will cost more."

She said that under normal circumstances, she would have preferred the millions in new funds be invested in early childhood education, flood control, adequate public transportation, but she said the county's main priority right now is human life. 

Plans to expand community-based testing

The Harris County and Houston testing sites are each testing at a rate of 500 people per day, nearly doubling their capacity since roll outs in mid-March.

The details of when those tests will be available are not clear, but officials confirmed there are plans to expanded community-based testing.

At least, 8,461 people have been tested between the two county testing sites and more than 6,000 at the two city sites. 

"In order to get better sense of community spread, we need to do more testing," Mayor Sylvester Turner said. 

Houston is trying to do more testing, beyond the FEMA community-based sites, ideally in areas closer to vulnerable communities such as those where socioeconomic status is low and where residents are predominantly people of color.

Turner hopes to begin testing in Sunnyside and the East End before next week.

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For now, Hidalgo believes it's too early to reopen the county and return to business as usual. She is concerned doing so before faster testing is readily available could lead to a second peak.

Real-time testing that produces results in minutes is not available yet on a scale large enough to efficiently service the millions of county residents, she said. 

In the meantime, Hildalgo said the county is working to leverage the private sector to make real-time testing more available within the next few weeks.

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