‘Blinking yellow light warning moment,’ as Austin inches closer to hospital capacity trigger

Coronavirus

AUSTIN (KXAN) — This is Austin and Travis County’s “blinking yellow light warning moment,” Mayor Steve Adler said in a press conference Thursday morning.

He was talking about the concerning upward trend in COVID-19 cases in the area and, particularly, the number of people hospitalized for the disease.

Interim Austin Public Health Authority Dr. Mark Escott says while testing in the area has increased, which may show more positive cases, the numbers that help put in context the level of concern are the percent of people positive and the number of people hospitalized.

Escott said the area’s percent positive has doubled in the past few weeks, from 4% or 5% two or three weeks ago to a 9.3% average for the past seven days. He says hospitalizations, in the past, had remained steady between a 7 day average of 8 and 10 new hospitalizations each day. On Wednesday, there was a record new number of people hospitalized in a single day: 24.

“This is a real surge that is happening and, again, not a surge that is out of control yet. We’re still in a stage where we can keep it under control, but that’s going to take community action,” Escott said, adding while there is still “plenty of capacity” in hospitals, people need to keep being careful by wearing masks and staying socially distant.

“Once we enter this trajectory, it’s very difficult to get out,” Escott said.

Austin and Travis County outlined a system of guidelines for people to follow depending on that hospitalization average. Currently, we’re in Stage 3 — but we enter Stage 4 when the average number of people hospitalized each day over a 7 day period reaches 20.

“That trigger was when we would know, unless we did something real and substantial, our hospitals would get overrun,” Adler said.

Sarah Eckhart, in her new role as special assistant to Travis County Judge Sam Biscoe, said that would mark a time to start discussing whether things need to shut down again to not overwhelm the hospitals. It could mean having more serious conversations with the state about “dialing back,” Escott said.

Austin and Travis County have plans if that happens — they can get equipment from the state and start setting patients up in hallways, field hospitals or convention centers.

“But, while we’ll have beds, they’re not the same kinds of beds,” Adler said. “People in those facilities don’t get the same kind of care.”

And, Escott said, if health care workers and first responders start to get sick, they’ll have to reduce the hospital capacity.

“If we don’t have people to go with that equipment, those beds are not useful,” Escott said.

‘Need everybody’s discipline’

Adler said he wants people to keep paying attention to these numbers and know that they have control over them, if they step up and take precautions. We’re going to “need everybody’s discipline” he said.

“We had gotten to a place in this community where more and more people were wearing masks,” he said. “I walk around this city now and it’s hard to find somebody in many places that are wearing face coverings. We used to be doing a really good job all over the six-foot distancing, and now you see so many people that are gathered so much more closely than that. We have to do better. No one wants to slow down the opening of the economy if there is any way to avoid it, and we are in the ‘If there’s any way to avoid it’ stage.”

Adler said he expected the city will re-issue its Stay-Home Work Safe orders that are set to expire to June 15 and that current guidelines will continue.

Eckhart said Travis County will be issuing a concurrent order. She said while Gov. Greg Abbott’s orders take a lot of enforcement off the table, the steps people take like wearing masks and staying socially distant that are what is required to slow the disease’s spread. She said business as usual is “not scientifically possible in a pandemic.”

“We can’t keep hospitalizations below 20 if don’t do these steps,” she said.

Adler emphasized that there are not enough code officers or law enforcement “for us to police our way to discipline to get this done,” and that the city needs to step up to make it happen.

The city and county, in fact, have already seen success — they just have to continue it, Escott said. He said while officials had originally hoped social distancing measures would flatten the curve by 50%, the area was able to do it by 95%.

“That’s been an amazing example of what this community can do together if we really care about limiting this disease, flattening the curve, saving people’s lives,” Escott said.

“What we’re really trying to say is that we’re being sold that we have to be polar on this issue — we either have to care about public health or the economy, but we can’t care about both — and that is simply not the case. I don’t talk about politics a lot, but you’re hearing this from a Republican doctor working for a Democratic city council and commissioners court: this is not a political issue. This is science, and we have to be serious about this.”

Dr. Mark Escott

While pools and other services have just reopened in the area, Escott added that the city and county will reevaluate the services it provides depending on coronavirus situation and that decisions about what is open are not fixed.

Testing updates

Escott said he expects to have an updated report on case clusters by the end of the week and that investigations into new cases are ongoing. There will also soon be a final report on nursing home testing

He said there continues to be a “surge in the Latinx community,” but that no community in the city is immune. They are working to draft a strategy to help that particular community, which will include a Facebook Live in Spanish Saturday at 10 a.m., as well as strategies that help workers know their rights.

So far no cases have been tracked back to recent protests against policy brutality in the area, Escott said, but they will keep testing. He said he supported people’s right to protest but that it comes with a higher risk.

“Social distancing does not mean civic disengagement and masking does not mean silence,” Eckhardt said. “We are asking people to adapt. Really, our way forward is through adaptation.”

Officials are targeting next week to roll out targeted testing after securing a contract with a private entity, Escott said, and are working to finalize data input into a database to be able to assess what areas of the city need more testing resources.

People can go to the city’s website right now to get tested for free, including drive through and walk up options at CommUnity Care clinics. Appointments are encouraged but not necessary, Eckhardt said.

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