Rio Grande Valley becomes Texas site for COVID-19 recovery centers

HARLINGEN — The Rio Grande Valley is Texas’ only region in which state officials are setting up COVID-19 recovery centers in such facilities as the McAllen Convention Center as part of a plan to help free patient beds in hospitals that have reached capacity, a state official said Friday.

State emergency management officials are also setting up a COVID-19 recovery center at Harlingen’s 13,000-square-foot Casa de Amistad.

“The Valley is the area where they have the need,” Seth Christensen, spokesman for the state Division of Emergency Management, said Friday.

By Monday, hospitals are expected to begin transferring recovered COVID-19 patients to the Harlingen conference hall, Tom Hushen, Cameron County’s emergency management coordinator, said.

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.

“Valley Baptist Health System continues to work closely with both Cameron County and state officials to determine admission criteria related to the Casa de Amistad project in response to the needs and demands resulting from the ongoing surge of COVID-19 patients in the Rio Grande Valley,” hospital officials stated.

“We appreciate the state’s continued efforts to support our region’s healthcare providers in our collaborative fight against the virus in addition to our continued efforts to provide appropriate healthcare for our entire community.”

Developing COVID-19 recovery centers

On Friday, state-contracted SLS, a Galveston-based company, was renovating the conference hall, partitioning patient beds while installing medical equipment.

“It’s just like a hospital,” Hushen said, noting the recovery center won’t offer a hospital’s level of medical care.

“You’re not going to have a full ICU,” he said, referring to the center’s intensive care unit.

“It’s for people scheduled to be released soon and people who are not in critical care,” he said.

Hushen said the recovery center will not admit patients. Instead, hospitals will transfer their patients to the center which will include as many as 100 beds.

Meanwhile, contractors are installing equipment to provide patients suffering respiratory problems with oxygen, Hushen said.

Construction continues Friday as Casa de Amistad in Harlingen is converted into a temporary “step-down” care facility for patients recovering from COVID-19 in Cameron County. The facility is expected to open soon and will help free up hospital beds for patients who need more acute care.(Denise Cathey/The Brownsville Herald)

“It’s going to be in-house oxygen, just like the hospitals,” he said.

Earlier this week, Mayor Chris Boswell said the city offered the convention hall to help hospitals free patient beds.

Converting the McAllen Convention Center

In McAllen, hospitals could begin transferring patients to the 174,000-square-foot convention center as early as this weekend.

“We look forward to putting the finishing touches on the facility this weekend and we expect the first patients to arrive in the later part of the weekend or early next week,” Christensen said.

Contractors are renovating the convention center to include as many as 250 beds.

On Tuesday, Abbott outlined plans to convert part of the 174,000-square-foot convention center into a COVID-19 recovery center to include 50 acute-care beds with the option of adding 200 acute or convalescent beds, “depending on the need,” Hidalgo County Judge Richard F. Cortez said earlier this week.

Meanwhile, hospital officials will determine the center’s level of care, Christensen said.

“We will be working with these hospitals to determine what level of acuity we will need,” he said. “We are prepared to support any level of need.”

The state is sending a medical team including doctors, nurses and respiratory therapists, Christensen said.

“The number of staff depends on the number of patients,” he said.

Hospital patient transfers

In Cameron County, hospitals including Valley Baptist Medical Center, Harlingen Medical Center and Brownsville’s Valley Regional Medical Center will transfer patients to the recovery center being set up at Casa de Amistad, Josh Ramirez, Harlingen’s public health director, said.

Meanwhile, Hidalgo County hospitals will transfer their patients to the recovery center at the McAllen Convention Center, he said.

fdelvalle@valleystar.com