South Texas COVID-19 step-down facilities may not be ready or needed — yet

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Coronavirus care facilities were paid for with federal CARES Act funds

HARLINGEN, Texas (Border Report) — U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, met with hospital administrators and three county judges in South Texas on Tuesday where he repeatedly heard pleas for federal resources to keep flowing to this region that has been hit hard by COVID-19. But it was unclear whether CARES Act funding of two step-down facilities for recovering coronavirus patients at converted convention centers was actually needed due to few, and in one facility, no patients.

The empty facility — located at the Casa de Amistad conference center in the town of Harlingen — has not yet received any patients. State officials told Border Report on Tuesday afternoon that it is not operational and there is no working contract with the medical facility’s administrator — a for-profit company that has received over $500 million in border wall contracts.

“Regarding the Casa de Amistad facility, this facility has not been opened and no contracts have been signed,” Seth Christensen, chief of media and communications for the Texas Division of Emergency Management, told Border Report in an email.

Border Report last week reported that SLSCO Ltd., of Galveston, Texas, had been hired by state officials and paid with federal funds from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, or CARES Act to convert the Casa de Amistad into a 96-bed secure COVID-19 treatment facility for recovering patients who are referred by local area hospitals, similar to coronavirus field hospitals that the company built in New York City and elsewhere. SLSCO also has half a dozen contracts to build border wall segments throughout the Southwest with U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

However, City of Harlingen spokeswoman Irma Garza, in response to questions from Border Report, disputed this was the case. She said the facility is ready to take patients and has medical staff waiting. And Harlingen Health Director Josh Ramirez on Thursday said “they’re here … they’re contracted through the state Emergency management.”

“The facility is open. It is ready to go. It does not have patients because they were lacking a waiver to transfer patients from the state,” Garza said. “We have doctors, respiratory therapists and nurses. They’re all waiting for patients as we speak.”

We have doctors, respiratory therapists and nurses. They’re all waiting for patients.”

City of Harlingen Spokeswoman Irma Garza

But Christensen said the entire contract is still being negotiated the facility will not receive patients until all paperwork is ready. “It’s being worked on. The complete contract is being negotiated,” he said.

Cornyn, the state’s senior senator, said he was aware of both converted medical facilities, saying the reason CARES Act funds were sent was to open up hospital beds for acute patients in dire need.

“The big concern with the spike in cases was that it would overrun the hospital facilities, hospital ICU beds, the number of ventilators and the like, and so we worked to bend that curve the possibility that there would need to be additional surge facilities built is what those facilities is for and the fact that they are not widely needed is actually good news. But they are there if they are needed,” Cornyn said during a news conference held at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley Regional Academic Health Center immediately following the round table discussion with hospital administrators.

“The senator hit the nail on the head,” Cameron County Judge Eddie Treviño Jr., said during the news conference in response to Cornyn’s answer.

U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, is flanked by three county judges from South Texas and local hospital administrators on Aug. 11, 2020, while answering questions to media at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley campus in Harlingen, Texas. (Sandra Sanchez/Border Report)

But afterward, Treviño told Border Report that he was unaware that SLSCO was the company selected to operate and manage the facility in Harlingen. “I didn’t know about that,” he said.

During his two-hour meeting with leaders from seven regional hospitals and the county judges for Hidalgo, Cameron and Willacy, Cornyn announced that $530 million in federal relief funds have been sent to the Rio Grande Valley already to help hospitals, public schools, public transportation and airports and even for public housing, as part of the CARES Act.

Cornyn’s visit came a week after Texas Gov. Greg Abbott visited South Texas for the second week in a row and toured the converted McAllen Convention Center, about 40 miles away, which that day opened with 48 hospital beds to help recovering coronavirus patients.

A nonprofit company, BCFS Health and Human Services renovated the facility. The San Antonio-based company has operated controversial emergency shelters for unaccompanied migrant youths in Carrizo Springs and Tornillo, Texas.

The TDEM’s Christensen told Border Report that “to date, 8 patients have been admitted to the McAllen Convention Center alternate care site. The site is providing care for patients that are expected to recover from COVID-19.”

Todd Mann, CEO for South Texas Health System, which operates several hospitals in the Rio Grande Valley, told Border Report that the immediate need is for acute-care beds and most of the hundreds of patients currently in area hospitals are not yet well enough for a step-down facility, but he urged that the resources continue.

“One of the things is we just have incredibly highly acute census right now. Our patients are extremely sick. They’re mainly in ICU settings and so their best cared for within the four walls of a hospital. We just don’t have the lower acuity patients at this point in time. We have sent a couple over there but they’re really folks that have been discharged out of the acute care and really just need somebody to watch over them, whether they need oxygen or additional help,” Mann said. “But it’s nice to know that we do have an option to send these patients to a secondary site.”

Cornyn likened what is happening in South Texas with the awaiting facility to a hospital ship that was sent to New York in the spring and additional temporary medical facilities “but they didn’t need them, even amidst what was probably one of the worst outbreaks in the country.”

The Rio Grande Valley currently is one of the nation’s worst hot spots for coronavirus cases with over 40,254 cases to date, including 1,232 deaths. On Tuesday, there were 20 more deaths in Hidalgo County and 283 more cases. Cameron County had 11 deaths and 378 new cases on Monday, the county reported.

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