Austin health leaders preparing for alternate COVID-19 care sites, discussing mass casualty plans

Coronavirus

AUSTIN (KXAN) —Twelve cases of the delta variant have been confirmed in Travis County, Dr. Desmar Walkes said Tuesday in a virtual Travis County Commissioners Court, however local health leaders believe the delta variant accounts for many more cases in the community.

Dr. Walkes said Austin Public Health is seeing a “rapid spread” of the delta variant, mostly in unvaccinated people, and in younger people who are not yet approved to be vaccinated. Nearly 20% of people who are in the ICU with COVID-19 in Austin are under the age of 30.

“We’re at a crossroads,” Dr. Walkes said. “We’re planning for alternate care sites now.” She also said area health leaders are talking seriously about “mass casualty planning.”

KXAN reached out to Austin Public Health to get more details on what that plan entails. A spokesperson told us: “At this time both the alternate care site and mass casualty planning are still discussions and are not being operationalized as the hospitals have not requested that they needed either.”

That spokesperson added that they know surges can happen within a couple of days, which is why they’re having planning conversations now.

Dr. Walkes reported that of the nearly 690,000 people who have been fully vaccinated in Travis County since January 1, 623 people have tested positive for COVID-19 despite being vaccinated. She stressed that even though we’re seeing more breakthrough cases because of the delta variant, it’s still important to get the vaccine.

“That is a good success rate for our community, that is what we need to talk away from this,” Dr. Walkes said. “The rise is not as important as the fact that the vaccine itself does protect.”

Below you can see the University of Texas’ most recent projections for both hospitalizations and ICU patients in the Austin-Round Rock area.

According to the Austin COVID-19 dashboard, which was updated Sunday, 227 people are hospitalized right now. The seven day moving average is 37, which means roughly 37 people are being admitted to area hospitals daily. That statistic is largely what steers risk-based guidelines in the Austin-Travis County area.

Stage 5 risk-based guidelines would be triggered when that seven-day moving average hits 50 or more. Health leaders can trigger it more quickly should they see a dramatic rate of increase. To move back down to Stage 3, the 7-day rolling average of new admissions would need to be less than 30.

“This unrelenting rise has to stop,” Dr. Walkes said, noting that COVID-19 positivity rates have risen rapidly within the community in the past three weeks.

“This rise is unprecedented,” Dr. Walkes said. “In previous surges, it’s taken up to 10 weeks to have this kind of impact in the number of cases and number of positive tests.”

Also in Tuesday’s briefing with Travis County Commissioners, APH Chief Medical Officer Dr. Mark Escott said the rise in hospitalizations is putting a strain on hospitals that have already lost a lot of staff.

“Our healthcare systems are stressed,” Dr. Escott said. “We have hundreds of nurses short in Travis County and the surrounding area. We’ve got dozens of EMTs and paramedics short right now throughout our EMS systems. We don’t have the staffing that we had six months ago because people have left. Additional staffing from the state is gone.”

Officials with Baylor Scott & White say they’re managing through the shortages to staff their hospitals’ needs for now.

“We’re starting to see a lot of patients come back into the hospital that are extremely ill, so that takes a toll on our staff,” said Dr. Rob Watson, Chief Medical Officer of Greater Austin Region of BSW Health.

Dr. Watson says hospital system is working to give employees as much time off as possible to recharge for their mental and physical health. He asks community members to do their part through getting vaccinated and masking.

“Please help us, you know, start to tamp this down and get it going back in the other direction,” Dr. Watson said.

The Austin-Travis County area is in Stage 4 risk-based guidelines right now, which asks people who are unvaccinated to avoid any travel or shopping unless absolutely necessary, and to do so in a mask. It also asks people who are vaccinated to mask up.

COVID-19 risk based guidelines as of 7/26
COVID-19: Risk-Based Guidelines with 7 Day Moving Averages for New Admissions as of 7/26/2021 (Austin MSA)

The guidelines are not enforceable by Austin-Travis County, because of an executive order signed by Gov. Greg Abbott, but are what Dr. Walkes has previously called an individual call to action.

Meanwhile, the CDC is expected to backpedal on some of its masking guidelines Tuesday. A federal official, who anonymously spoke to the Associated Press, said the agency would be recommending that vaccinated people wear masks indoors in parts of the country where the virus was surging.

Several cities nationwide have already reinstated their masks mandates this month including Savannah, Georgia and St. Louis, Missouri.

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