Please ensure Javascript is enabled for purposes of website accessibility

In town for SXSW, Hewitt (’05) plays a big role as Austin fights COVID-19

by Chuck Gordon

In late February, Dr. Chris Hewitt was all set to soak in South by Southwest, a sprawling festival that was to feature guest speakers such as Hillary Clinton, Judd Apatow and Ozzy Osbourne. A doctor in the Air Force, Hewitt was in Austin, Texas, as part of a graduate fellowship program, working with the city’s Emergency Medical Services Department.

“I was going to work with the ambulances and everybody, doing medicine,” the 2005 Wingate grad says. “I was going to be out, rolling around in tactical vehicles and doing all that stuff. It was going to be great.

“Instead, I ended up helping collect the research that supported the decision to cancel South by Southwest.”

Shortly after Hewitt’s arrival in Austin, the coronavirus outbreak started gaining real momentum in the United States, rolling quickly toward pandemic status. With help from tons of research by Hewitt, city leaders decided to cancel the event, which annually brings 200,000 visitors to the city.

The festival may have been canceled, but that didn’t mean life went back to normal. Like cities around the world, Austin shortly went into lockdown mode, and Hewitt, who lives in San Antonio, has stayed with the city, in its Public Health Department, to help keep the coronavirus at bay. Working as Austin’s assistant medical director, Hewitt has proved invaluable for his organizational skills and medical knowledge as the region of 2 million people has fought to keep COVID-19 from overwhelming its hospital system.

Thanks to Hewitt’s methodical, thorough work, Austin has built a robust testing system that has helped minimize the spread of SARS-CoV-2, the novel coronavirus that has crippled the nation. A combat search-and-rescue flight surgeon for six years and an emergency-medicine resident for three, Hewitt jumped into action. After South by Southwest was shut down, he quickly went to work helping streamline Austin’s response to the pandemic.

“I started asking a lot of questions that annoyed people for a long time,” he says, “but I was the new guy who didn’t know how anything worked, and I just played that role.”

Hewitt, who has worked with disaster-response planning as a major in the Air Force, could tell that as the number of cases ramped up, the city would be overwhelmed. He sat down with members of Austin Public Health’s information-technology (IT) department to discuss his plans for how to make testing as efficient as possible, using technology.

“Basically, every dry-erase board in Public Health had something scribbled on it by me, in front of somebody that I was holding hostage for a little while,” Hewitt says. “They translated all of my crazy ideas into different ways to start to optimize our testing process.”

Now, testing at Austin’s two public drive-through facilities takes an average of eight minutes per person. The efficiency means more and more Austinites know whether they have COVID-19. That information is crucial to limiting the disease’s spread.

“I’ve never accepted that things have been working fine, so we’re just going to do it this way, not if there’s a better option or if we could make it better,” Hewitt says.

Always looking to lead

Hewitt has continued to help reshape and refine Austin’s approach to dealing with the coronavirus.

This week, the city launched an online tool that will enable people to be screened for coronavirus symptoms and even be referred for testing without seeing a doctor. Another innovation Hewitt and his team are planning for is “crowdsourcing” – in this case, giving nursing-home employees the resources and training in order to test patients themselves.

Dr. Chris Hewitt at coronavirus-testing site in Austin, Texas

“For long-term planning, we’re going to try to put testing in the hands of the teams that are out there doing this, instead of funneling everybody into these megasites,” Hewitt says. “But the megasites do work for testing a lot of people every day. We’re gonna have to sustain that for a little while too, but we’re definitely looking at short-term and long-term plans simultaneously.”

It’s not surprising that Hewitt has been so effective during this crisis. He’s searched out leadership and organizational roles since entering Wingate as a freshman in 2001, when he was the only student at the University in ROTC (through a partnership with UNC Charlotte). Hewitt was in uniform, in class, when he heard about the Twin Towers being hit.

Being a college student, he was not called up to serve as the U.S. went to war. But he knew he still had a role to play.

“They said, ‘Your job is going to be to figure out, in the next four years, what the next couple of decades are going to look like,’” Hewitt says. “And they were wrong. We're still figuring it out.”

Hewitt took on other leadership roles at Wingate. He was an informal member of the soccer team for a couple of years, practicing with the team as a freshman and sophomore but not playing because of his commitments to his major (biology) and ROTC. As his workload eased, he eventually became a full-fledged team member his senior year, when he also served as class president.

Wingate’s small size made him feel comfortable leading groups.

“I like more of a small-team environment,” Hewitt says. “Wingate was really great for that opportunity. It taught me a lot of really important things about leadership and involvement and community. That’s all translated over to what I get to do.”

Hewitt’s Wingate experiences laid the groundwork for his career as a military doctor, which has undoubtedly helped save lives during the coronavirus pandemic. Hewitt found himself in a unique position in February: a doctor with the planning and logistics background to make a difference during a crisis.

Hewitt spends time at the testing sites every day, but when his rotation ends next month he’ll take on a much larger role on the frontlines as he returns to the emergency room at the Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, where he is an EMS and Disaster Medicine Fellow.

As Hewitt reflects on his time in Austin, does he think canceling South by Southwest was worth it? After all, the city lost about $400 million.

“Had we had South by Southwest, I honestly think that Austin would have been in the same position as New York or Seattle or Louisiana,” Hewitt says. “I mean, New Orleans, after having Mardi Gras, that was only a few weeks before everything came out. They’ve seen some really unfortunate outcomes because of the large population gathering, and New York is a demonstration of just large populations and what can happen with a virus that we don’t have a vaccine for.

“I think South by Southwest would have really crippled the city. It was by far the right choice to make.”

April 28, 2020

  • COVID-19 Community Spotlights