‘Adding beds in hospital cafeteria better than creating makeshift hospital,’ STRAC director says

Eric Epley describes how hospitals are adding capacity to treat more patients during COVID-19 surge

Eric Epley, the executive director with Southwest Texas Regional Advisory Council, discusses hospital capacity in San Antonio and how hospitals are making room for more beds as the number of COVID-19 hospitalizations continues to surge.

SAN ANTONIO – San Antonio hospitals are doing everything they can to make more beds available to patients who need them.

On Monday, the amount of available staffed hospital beds, which is also known as hospital capacity, was listed at 12%.

During a Q&A with Eric Epley, the executive director of Southwest Texas Regional Advisory Council, or STRAC, it was discussed how hospitals are making room for more patients during the pandemic.

Epley said it’s better for hospitals to build capacity within their own walls rather than create makeshift hospitals. For example, instead of using Freeman Coliseum as an overflow hospital, hospitals would be better off adding beds to their cafeterias.

“That would be to be an alternate care site, because you’re still inside that hospital have laboratory services, and respiratory services, and imaging capabilities and other things that are essential. So, our push right now is to put as many care providers as we can into the hospitals and build new capability,” Epley said.

The Texas Department of State Health Services and the Department of Defense have sent nurses and other medical professionals, including respiratory therapists, to Bexar County to help with the surge in hospitalizations.

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As COVID-19 cases spike in Texas, and other places like Arizona and Florida, there is a need for more medical professionals across the nation.

“The reality is that the national model for disaster response is built to take assets that are in an unaffected area and send them to that affected area. And right now, in a pandemic, everybody is basically, sort of, affected,” Epley said.

If hospitals reach their limit, it doesn’t impact only COVID-19 patients. It also impacts other patients who need immediate care, including people suffering from heart attacks.

“When the system is overloaded, if we do get to that point, it’s not going to be available for anyone. And I don’t think in modern times we’ve really seen a situation like that,” he said.

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Freeman Coliseum, which could fit roughly 250 hospital beds, could be used as an alternative care site if the state reaches the fifth level of its surge plan, according to Epley.

During a city and county briefing on Tuesday, Dr. Colleen Bridger, the interim director of Metro Health, said using Freeman Coliseum is a last resort.

“Our first priority is to increase staffing in order to keep patients in the full service hospitals. If we get to the point where we’ve filled every possible bed by bringing in every possible nurse to do that, then our next step is to go to TCID (Texas Center for Infectious Disease),” Bridger said.

The Texas Center for Infectious Disease was used at the start of the pandemic to monitor COVID-19 evacuees.

Epley said hospitals in rural areas, including Del Rio and Eagle Pass, are also experiencing an increase in hospitalizations. He said STRAC is trying to help them with equipment and staffing needs.

Epley said the goal is to “keep patients near their home and where they’re more comfortable and also try to lessen the burden on San Antonio by not just automatically transferring someone in.”

San Antonio hospital capacity surge impacting surrounding rural communities

WATCH: Part 2 of Eric Epley’s interview

STRAC director talks about hospital capacity in San Antonio.

About the Authors:

Steve Spriester started at KSAT in 1995 as a general assignments reporter. Now, he anchors the station's top-rated 5, 6 and 10 p.m. newscasts.

Brina is the Executive Producer of the NightBeat and KSAT Explains. She has been with KSAT since 2015. She is a Houston native and proud to call San Antonio home.