Keep Austin Well town hall: Central Texas doctors, leaders answer your COVID-19 questions

Coronavirus

AUSTIN (KXAN) — On Wednesday, KXAN hosted its live Keep Austin Well interactive town hall — meant to answer your COVID-19 questions as the delta variant complicates life and preparations for back to school in Central Texas.

Austin-Travis County Health Authority Dr. Desmar Walkes along with other doctors representing Austin’s major hospital systems answered viewer questions. KXAN anchors Robert Hadlock and Britt Moreno later interviewed Austin Mayor Steve Adler and Travis County Judge Andy Brown.

Q: What are you seeing in our hospitals now?

Dr. Walkes: “Unfortunately, we are experiencing an oh-so high surge in case numbers in the past three to four weeks. We’ve gone from having 70 new cases a day to almost 600 new cases a day. Right now in our hospitals, we have 477 people admitted to the hospital with COVID-19. And 161 of them are in ICU. One hundred people on ventilators. So, we’ve come to a serious time in our community… almost all of the people who are in the hospital right now are unfortunately unvaccinated.”

Q: How is the delta variant different from the original strain?

Dr. Pamela Cowper, Internal Medicine: “It’s different on so many levels. It is a rapidly spreading virus — more contagious, as you know, as the original COVID variant. It’s affecting the younger populations so much more severely. If you want to look at the numbers: currently, about 10% are between 20 and 29, 10% between 30 and 39, 12% between 40 and 49, 17% between 50 and 59. And actually as they get older, 80-plus year-olds are at 13%. This is not the case as it was in January.”

Cowper also said there are currently 14 children in the hospital for COVID-19 pneumonia.

Q: Is it safe for unvaccinated children to go to school?

Dr. Anna Vu-Wallace, Internal Medicine/Hospitalist: “As a physician, I can say definitely that our children are at risk. With delta, all bets are off. We don’t know what this will do in our pediatric population. We’re seeing it in real life right now, as we’re seeing higher and higher child hospitalization and higher infection rates for children than we saw previously. So, yes. I remain very concerned.”

Q: What are the most common reasons you’ve heard from people about why they’re not vaccinated?

Dr. Cowper: “There’re several reasons. The first one is probably the most popular: people thought the vaccines were too quickly developed and so people mistrust that. The second reason is just vaccine hesitancy. That’s been around since the 1800s, when vaccines were first introduced into our society. That’s a tough one, because you can convince somebody that the vaccines are safe, even though they were developed very quickly, but in my opinion, mRNA vaccines, they’ve been doing research on them for the last two decades. And then, there’s the propaganda — which is what to me is the most frustrating part of this. It’s not based on science, it’s not based on valid data. It’s just based on people’s opinions.”

Q: What do you say to people who say ‘the vaccines just don’t work’?

Dr. Natasha Kathuria, Emergency Medicine Physician & Global Health Specialist: “I would make it very clear that the overwhelming majority of people being hospitalized — and every single patient I’ve personally admitted myself — is unvaccinated… of course there are exceptions, there are people who are immunocompromised, and they can get very ill with COVID-19 even after getting vaccinated. We’ve never had it so clear that the vaccines are working. We have breakthrough infections, of course. We anticipated that, as with every vaccine. But the patients who are getting COVID after being vaccinated are doing remarkably well. And if they get hospitalized, they turn around really quickly.”

Q: Are there plans if Austin-Travis County runs out of available ICU beds? Will we return to an overflow center like before?

Dr. Walkes: “We have plans in place that would allow for us to open up an alternate care site if we need to, but right now we’re working closely with our hospital systems, and they are able to manage with the capacities that we are seeing right now. But that could change at any moment.”

Q: We’re hearing about a nursing shortage in the whole country, can you explain?

Dr. Kathuria: “Our ERs have been functioning well over capacity for quite some time now with no real end in sight. And we have severe nursing shortages statewide and even nationwide. So that’s making it even more challenging, because our hospital capacity is limited, because we don’t have enough staff of nurses.”

Q: We know someone who has had COVID can get COVID again — what about if they’re vaccinated?

Dr. Vu-Wallace: “As far as reinfection, this is very rare. There have only been a few incidental cases. As far as vaccination, you can still get infected, certainly. The vaccine is not 100%, but it does protect you 97%. It does protect you from severe illnesses as well as hospitalization. In our ICU, we do not have anyone who’s intubated and was vaccinated.”

Q: What can you tell us about the delta-plus variant?

Dr. Kavita Patel, Brookings Institution fellow/NBC News contributor: “It was inevitable. Just remember that it was only a few short months ago that we were talking about alpha, the variant that originated in the U.K., as being the most predominant. It was, until delta came along. So delta-plus has a lot of the mutations that the delta variant has — but some additional variations to that red spiky protein, which we are worried will make it even more of a threat than the delta variant. Meanwhile, the lambda variant, which we’ve seen in South America, that variant also has a series of mutations that make it potentially more deadly.”

Patel added every time the virus mutates, it has a chance to become smarter.

“By getting vaccinated, we can prevent the virus from replicating and taking that chance,” Patel added. “Until the majority of the world is vaccinated, we will still be hearing about these variants.”

Q: Why has the criteria changed for entering Stage 5 risk-based guidelines?

Austin Mayor Steve Adler: “I understand the frustration. These rules change, it’s hard to keep up, but this is a meaner virus than we have seen in the past. It’s adapting, so it’s important that we adapt too. So there are going to be new guidelines that come out that people will be able to see. Basically, it divides the community into three groups. If you’re vaccinated, then you have more ability — more freedoms — under the guidelines to do things.”

Travis County Judge Andy Brown: “We can expect to go into Stage 5 COVID-19 risk pretty soon. We’re doing everything we can to get people to get vaccinated and wear the mask. And that’s what all this is really about. Do we want this to be a surge that lasts a really long time or do we want to do all the right things and we get through it a lot quicker that way?”

Q: In regards to big events in the area, do city leaders anticipate doing anything differently when it comes to holding the Austin City Limits music festival in October?

Mayor Adler: “I think the guidelines ought to be pretty clear. Again, people need to mask — even outdoors, especially in large groups. If you’re not vaccinated, you shouldn’t go to ACL. The risk is just way too great.”

Q: What’s the latest research on booster vaccines?

Dr. Patel: “I do think that boosters are in the future for all of us. You do not need a booster today unless you fall into one of those very specialized categories. I think 4% of the population who have organ transplants, HIV medications, cancer therapies, other chronic medications that are specific and can suppress your immune system. They are likely to be the first and best populations to get a booster. But if you are healthy and vaccinated, your current vaccines do protect you.”

Q: We’ve heard a lot about herd immunity and how we’ll be okay when we get there. Can you expand on that?

Dr. Kathuria: “We would love to get to herd immunity, but right now we’re still trying to 50% of Texans fully vaccinated. We’re not even at that point yet. And it will take us quite a while to get to herd immunity at this rate that we’re at right now.”

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