McALLEN, Texas (Border Report) — Texas Gov. Greg Abbott visited the Rio Grande Valley in South Texas on Tuesday for the third time in three weeks just as the first COVID-19 patients were admitted into the McAllen Convention Center, which has been converted into a “hospital-like facility” to free up local hospital beds as the region surpassed 1,000 coronavirus deaths.

Abbott toured the converted facility on Tuesday afternoon with Texas Division of Emergency Management Chief Nim Kidd, and local leaders. Kidd described it as a “machine that moves” and Abbott said “it is a well-done product.”

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott is flanked by state Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, left, and McAllen Mayor Jim Darling, right, after they toured the McAllen Convention Center on Tuesday, Aug. 4, 2020, which has been converted into a facility for COVID-19 patients. (Border Report Photo/Sandra Sanchez)

Kidd said over 7,000 workers have been sent by the state to convert the 60,000-square-foot exhibit hall into a working hospital that is capable of receiving 250 coronavirus patients. The first patients arrived just as Abbott finished his tour. And 50 initial beds have been set up, he said.

Another makeshift facility also was being opened in the city of Harlingen in Cameron County, Kidd said.

Both are designed to take overflow patients from hospitals and those not in need of extreme acute care but who are not quite ready to be sent home, Abbott said. And the facilities are being paid for, staffed and overseen with funds from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, as well as CARES Act funds that have been sent to the state.

Abbott toured the region last week following Hurricane Hanna and announced that the convention center would be converted due to the growing need for more hospital beds in the region, which is one of the nation’s worst hot spots for coronavirus cases right now.

“One of the strategies to assure that everyone who needs care gets care is to open up facilities like this,” Abbott said. “This is going to be a very effective relief valve, as needed, for local hospitals whether it be in Hidalgo County or the surrounding counties to make sure that hospitals will not be overloaded and hospitals will be able to fully address all the healthcare needs of the patients that arrive in those hospitals, knowing that overflow facilities, like this, will exist and take care of additional patients.

“The bottom line is this: That the health care needs of the people of this region are first and foremost among our priorities in the state of Texas and this is one of the strategies that we are using to make sure those healthcare needs are being met,” Abbott said.

Abbott was again joined by state Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, a Democrat from McAllen who advises the governor daily on the COVID-19 situation in the Rio Grande Valley, as well as McAllen Mayor Jim Darling, and Hidalgo County Judge Richard Cortez.

Hinojosa said the state is spending $100 million each week on COVID-19 expenses on hotspots like the Rio Grande Valley.

“This is a very welcome relief for us,” Cortez said. We thank you for caring for our people. … This is not an easy problem to solve, it will take a lot of difficult steps to solve this problem, but I think we’re getting closer and closer every time we meet.”

“I never envisioned that our convention center, which has had so many fun events, would turn into a hospital and an acute-care hospital, but here we are,” Darling said.

The McAllen Convention Center has been converted into a makeshift hospital with 50 beds available on Tuesday and the potential for 250 COVID-19 patients. These photos by the Texas Division of Emergency Management show workers preparing the facility. (Courtesy Photos)

Hidalgo County has suffered the most from coronavirus cases and deaths with 682 deaths, including 45 on Tuesday. There are 757 patients hospitalized, 247 in intensive care units, the county reports.

Regionwide, 35,243 people have tested positive for the coronavirus and 1,010 people have died.

Abbott and Kidd stressed that this facility will be for convalescing and recovering patients who do not require one-on-one intensive care.

But getting patients to the facility will require that hospitals refer them, and that means hospitals will lose money from those departing patients. There is a real concern that hospitals in the Rio Grande Valley won’t want to send patients to the McAllen Convention Center and relinquish care.

In response to a question from Border Report, Abbott said they would do everything in their power to encourage hospitals to release patients to the McAllen Convention Center to free up bed space for those with more pressing acute-care needs.

“Our goal is to work collaboratively with hospitals,” Abbott said.

That hasn’t worked in the South Texas city of Laredo, where a Red Roof Inn has also been converted into a facility for COVID-19 patients. On Monday, officials there reported that although there are 106 beds available, the hotel only has eight patients.

Kidd said the problem in Laredo was hospitals were trying to release patients with severe acute care needs to the hotel. He said those released in McAllen and Harlingen would be convalescing and would be thoroughly screened to ensure they meet the parameters.

The private nonprofit contractor BCFS Health and Human Services is overseeing the McAllen Convention Center facility and will only accept adult patients who are COVID-19 positive and who are “medium acuity patients who do not require ICU care,” Texas Department of State Health Services spokeswoman Lyndsey Rosales told Border Report.

Patients at these alternative care sites “will not be charged for medical care received at the site,” Rosales said in an email Tuesday.

Rosales said the state of Texas will pay for immediate facility expenses using CARES Act funds and then will apply for FEMA reimbursement funds “for all alternative care site and medical surge staffing efforts.” FEMA will reimburse up to 75% and the state will match 25% of the costs, she said.