Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Center

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The Bizarre Case and Uncertain Future of Dallas County’s Pop-Up COVID-19 Hospital

How a voicemail led to a blistering email from the governor’s office, “disappointment” from the mayor, and utter confusion in the county.

On Sunday afternoon, members of the media were alerted to a letter sent from Gov. Greg Abbott’s chief of staff to County Judge Clay Jenkins. It threatened to relocate to another county the planned pop-up hospital at the Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Center, which Jenkins had said would be activated once hospital capacity takes a hit from cases of COVID-19.

The confusion apparently started when Maj. Gen. Mike Stone left a voice mail on Saturday night for Nim Kidd, the chief of the Texas Division of Emergency Management, which he then relayed to Abbott’s office.

“We had a call with Judge Clay Jenkins; his team … has no intention of moving patients into the convention center and the Department of Defense is confused,” Stone said in the message.

That triggered the letter. Luis Saenz, the governor’s chief of staff, wrote, “I have been informed by federal government officials that if you cannot make clear the acceptance of these facilities by 5:00 on Monday, April 6, the federal government may be forced to relocate these healthcare facilities to other regions.” From there, the confusion spread.

Allow me to break it down as best I can. That phrasing—“make clear the acceptance of these facilities”—is what doesn’t make sense. Because Jenkins has made the county’s intentions clear for the past week: this was to be a “step-down” facility for patients recovering from COVID-19, to free up beds at the hospitals for patients needing critical services. The county was working in tandem with the National Guard to get the hospital ready. But we aren’t there yet.

Jenkins says he found out about the letter from a reporter, before seeing it in an email from the governor’s office. He’s been operating under the belief that the county would get the pop-up hospital ready to go and activate it only when capacity at other hospitals was threatened. It was never planned to happen immediately. Lauren Trimble, Jenkins’ chief of staff, says the county has been “operating under ‘use it when needed’ and have been working under this assumption with city, state, and federal partners.” Currently, capacity at Dallas County’s hospitals is hovering around 50 percent, Jenkins says, not enough to activate the pop-up hospital.

So the threat to remove it, Jenkins said Sunday, was “odd.” Shortly after the letter was made public, Mayor Eric Johnson issued a statement saying he was “stunned and deeply disappointed” about “Dallas County’s position on the pop-up hospital.” Jenkins says he hasn’t spoken to Johnson regarding this and noted that the mayor did not call him before issuing that statement. Tristan Hallman, the mayor’s chief of communications, said Johnson spoke earlier in the day with Gov. Abbott and knew about the letter. “The governor’s letter outright says they’ll relocate the facility if we don’t use it,” he said in a text.

“We’re just working to get (the pop-up hospital) up and operational as soon as possible,” Hallman said later.

Jenkins also said Rocky Vaz, the city’s director of emergency operations, was on that earlier call when the hospital’s operations were discussed with federal leaders. Vaz says he was not. But he also says he’s been on daily calls with Jenkins and has no reason to believe that Jenkins was turning down the services. He shares the county’s stance—we don’t need it yet.

“We want the asset,” Vaz said. “But it’s not like we’re going to turn it on tomorrow. The asset will be used as needed based on capacity and the hospital council telling us about the need for those additional beds.”

The city and the county appear aligned in their plan to prepare the hospital to be activated when needed. That’s been the policy since early last week. Did the state change its mind about its operations? I’ve left a message with the governor’s spokesman for comment. Jenkins says he hasn’t spoken to Abbott in two weeks and implored him to call. “I’ve got the same cell phone number I did when Rick Perry was governor,” he said. “I’d encourage you to pick up the phone and use it.”

Jenkins called this a “telephone gossip tree” that grew all the way to the highest levels of government. Only there’s nothing amusing about the threatened outcome that could result from these garbled messages. If we lose the pop-up hospital, we could very well lose more lives.

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