This article has been updated.
When the Regional Infusion Center closed its doors in March, city and county officials were glad to see it go; the shutdown of the COVID-19 treatment center for patients with mild to moderate symptoms was a sign that local hospitals were no longer being overrun by COVID-19 patients.
Officials grimly announced the reestablishment of the center Monday as local hospitalizations continue to rise along with case numbers due to the highly contagious delta variant.
The goal of reopening the center is to treat patients with milder COVID-19 symptoms with an antibody infusion so they won’t get sicker and be sent into hospitals, Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff said. He noted that almost nine out of ten people currently hospitalized for COVID-19 are unvaccinated.
The center, located inside the Freeman Coliseum’s Expo Hall, will operate daily from 8 a.m. until 7 p.m., starting Tuesday morning, said Derrick Howard, the coliseum’s executive director.
Treatment inside the center will be free to all patients, said Mayor Ron Nirenberg, but they must have a referral from a doctor to book an appointment at the center — it is not a walk-up clinic.
Patients will be treated over the course of two hours with Regeneron’s COVID-19 antibody treatment — the same treatment former President Donald Trump received after contracting the virus last fall.
The center has been sized up from the 80 beds utilized inside the coliseum earlier this year to 143 beds inside the larger expo hall. Between October and March, the previous center served more than 3,000 people, Wolff said.
Officials are expecting this newest wave to possibly be the largest one yet, he added — already local hospitals are over capacity. As of Monday, 1,197 people are hospitalized in San Antonio for COVID-19, according to the city’s dashboard.
“What you see behind us is what it looks like when you have a medical system in crisis,” Nirenberg said, gesturing to the medical beds and chairs in the expo hall.
Last week University Health announced it is postponing all non-emergency, non-urgent surgeries as local hospitals once again take in a flood of COVID-19 patients. Gov. Greg Abbott sent a letter to the Texas Hospital Association Monday asking all Texas hospitals to do the same “in order to increase hospital capacity for COVID-19 patients.”
This is the first of five new infusion centers to open statewide. The state’s other new centers are located in Houston, Austin, Fort Worth, and Corpus Christi, Nirenberg said. Locally, it will be run by BCFS and is being funded by the Federal Emergency Management Agency through the Texas Department of Emergency Management, Wolff said.
In a press release Monday, Abbot took credit for directing the Texas Division of Emergency Management and the Department of State Health Services to open these five regional centers, although Nirenberg told the San Antonio Report he’s been asking the governor’s office and the federal government to set one up in San Antonio for the past two weeks.
In the press release, Abbott urges all Texans to “bolster” state efforts by getting vaccinated against COVID-19. These efforts include widening vaccine availability across Texas and expanding existing infusion centers, the release states. Mask wearing is not mentioned.
“The COVID-19 vaccine is safe and effective, and is our best defense against this virus,” Abbott said in the release.
Nirenberg and Wolff again encouraged locals to go get vaccinated, and urged San Antonians to continue to wear masks, even if they are vaccinated. Vaccination rates are ticking up: as of Monday, approximately 78.2% of eligible Bexar County residents have received at least one dose of the vaccine, while about 63.9% are fully vaccinated.
Vaccines are available at no cost and on a walk-up basis at the Alamodome Wednesday through Friday from 4 p.m. to 8 p.m. Pharmacies such as H-E-B, CVS, and Walgreens also offer the vaccine for free, along with pop-up clinics around San Antonio.
Correction: The percentage of vaccinated individuals has been updated to correctly reflect the city dashboard.