AUSTIN (KXAN) — As hospitalizations increase amid a surge in COVID-19 cases due to the omicron variant, Texas health leaders said the next few weeks will be “very telling” in hospital capacity levels and healthcare staffing.

On Monday, two health indicators rose to Stage 5 levels of Austin Public Health’s COVID-19 risk-based guidelines: hospital admissions along with the number of people in intensive care units and on ventilators. Community transmission rates, or the 7-day average of new cases per 100,000 people, has been in the Stage 5 threshold since Dec. 18.

There are currently 354 people hospitalized within the Bastrop, Caldwell, Hays, Travis and Williams counties region. Of those 354 patients, 61 are currently in the intensive care unit and 25 are on ventilators.

Health leaders revealed this week that even people in the hospital for reasons unrelated to COVID-19 are included in those overall hospitalization numbers. They also added that, under current trends, this latest surge could last through the winter.

Joyce Batcheller, president-elect of the Texas Nurses Association, said that with people traveling and returning from holiday gatherings, the likelihood of increased community transmission remains incredibly high. This also comes, she said, as many Central Texas students return to the classroom this week.

“The next two to four weeks or so are going to be very telling for us.”

joyce batcheller, president-elect, texas nurses association

The next two-to-four-week window will be essential in determining the extent of the omicron variant’s impact on hospitals, Batcheller said; already, she recounted anecdotal instances from healthcare personnel in San Antonio and Dallas who are seeing strains on hospital admissions.

“This [variant] seems to be very contagious and spreading pretty rapidly to a lot of people,” she said, adding: “And so it’s putting a strain, as you could imagine, on our resources once again.”

Along with the contagiousness of the omicron variant is fully vaccinated and boosted people contracting COVID-19. While the majority of those cases remain mild, Batcheller said that still puts significant strain on healthcare personnel who must now quarantine following a confirmed positive case.

In a statement, representatives for Ascension Texas, Baylor Scott & White Health and St. David’s Healthcare said they will be adhering to current Centers for Disease Control and Prevention protocols for personnel who test positive, as well as monitoring the statuses elective surgeries. Currently, elective surgeries are continuing as planned.

“Since the beginning of COVID-19, Ascension Texas, Baylor Scott & White Health and St. David’s HealthCare have implemented the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) recommended guidelines in an effort to keep our healthcare colleagues and patients safe. Each hospital system has plans in place to have the means to safely care for all patients in our community.”

Ascension Texas, Baylor Scott & White Health, and St. David’s HealthCare

With nurses contracting COVID-19 and out on quarantine, that limits the number of beds hospitals can readily supply for all patients, not just those with the coronavirus. But it isn’t only nurses who are being impacted by these transmission levels, she added; it’s also the physicians, cleaning staff and food services personnel who help keep the lights on.

“The services may be slow and it has to become more like everybody’s all hands on deck to be able to really take care of what’s needed,” Batcheller said.

As hospitalizations increase, so, too has the demand for out-of-state healthcare personnel, Batcheller said. Currently, there are nearly 4,000 travel nursing positions available in the state of Texas — the highest in the country, according to data from travel nursing agency Aya Healthcare.

During the delta variant’s surge throughout the summer and fall, those Texas figures rose to more than 6,000, Aya Healthcare officials previously told KXAN. In August, Gov. Greg Abbott requested an increase in out-of-state personnel to help combat the surge in Texas cases and hospitalizations.

Even with a swell of out-of-state nursing positions available in Texas, that doesn’t account for the financial impact hiring travel nurses can have on a hospital system’s bottom line, she said.

With heightened pay offered to travel nurses, it can act as a double-edged sword: pulling resources already in place at hospitals as people leave set positions to become travel workers, or competing against a finite number of resources with other hospital systems throughout the state.

“There’s a limited number of travel nurses out there. And if [hospital networks] start throwing bonuses and things like that at the travelers, that just makes it harder, in some ways, to keep your own staff,” she said. “So it’s become very complex.”