State turning facilities in COVID-19 recovery centers

HARLINGEN — State officials are converting Casa de Amistad and the McAllen Convention Center into COVID-19 recovery centers as part of a plan to free Rio Grande Valley hospital beds.

On Wednesday, area hospital chief executive officers were meeting with state and federal officials to finalize plans to convert Casa de Amistad into a recovery center, which will include some intensive care beds, Juan Martinez, operations section chief with the Cameron County Emergency Management department, said Wednesday.

“We don’t have the final floor plan set up yet,” he said.

In Harlingen, state emergency management and health officials are considering staffing the 13,000-square-foot Casa de Amistad with a medical team overseeing as many as 100 beds, including an area similar to a hospital intensive care unit to treat recovered COVID-19 patients, Josh Ramirez, the city’s health director, said.

Ramirez said the facility, which will not admit patients, could open as early as Friday.

“It’s a big task,” he said. “We started looking at hospital capacity and the idea of releasing some patients to have space in hospitals for patients who really need hospitalization.”

On Tuesday, Gov. Greg Abbott unveiled the plans aimed at freeing beds in hospitals reaching capacity as a result of a surge of COVID-19 patients amid a dramatic rise in new cases.

Some COVID-19 patients with underlying medical conditions require hospitalization.

Mayor Chris Boswell said the city offered the convention hall’s use to help free hospital beds.

“I feel very good we’re able to support the hospitals in this way,” Boswell said. “I believe it’s our responsibility to do as much as we can to relieve the strain on the hospitals.”

Ramirez said the COVID-19 recovery center will include “a transitioning ICU — not a hospital ICU.”

“The goal is to make it as close as possible to the level of care of an ICU of a hospital,” he said.

The recovery center will also include “low-acuity beds,” Martinez said.

Boswell said hospital officials will determine the facilities’ medical roles.

“These facilities are going to be tailored to what the hospitals need at any given time,” Boswell said. “They are getting direction from hospitals as to what is needed.”

Converting the McAllen Convention Center

In McAllen, state officials are converting the McAllen Convention Center into a treatment center with as many as 250 beds, Hidalgo County Judge Richard F. Cortez said.

“We’re ecstatic about this,” Cortez said, noting many patients wait outside hospitals for beds. “It’s a sense of relief when you have people waiting in the ambulance at a hospital.”

On Tuesday, Abbott outlined plans to convert part of the 174,000-square-foot convention center into a facility including 50 acute-care beds with the option of adding 200 acute or convalescent beds, “depending on the need,” Cortez said.

As part of the plan, state and federal officials will operate the facility with a medical team that will help relieve the area’s staffing shortage, he said.

“The great news is we’re talking about a 24-hour operation,” Cortez said. “Staff is in short supply in the Rio Grande Valley.”

The convention center will be converted into a “health care facility,” bringing in staff and equipment aimed at freeing beds in hospitals which have reached capacity, U.S. Rep. Vicente Gonzalez stated in a press release.

“While it’s been some time since our hospitals reached capacity, I am thankful that Gov. Abbott is acting and allocating additional resources to transition the McAllen Convention Center to a health care facility,” Gonzalez stated. “This equipment and personnel will help our overwhelmed health systems save lives.”

Assessing hospital needs

On Tuesday, a state National Guard team arrived in Harlingen to help plan Casa de Amistad’s conversion, Ramirez said.

“They’re going to be going through our hospitals and evaluating and assessing the needs for capacity,” he said.

Martinez said hospital officials will help determine the equipment to be installed in the facility.

“We’re waiting for the finalization so we can make sure we have the proper equipment,” Martinez said.