As COVID-19 surges, Austin ICU doctor urges community to stay home, wear masks


AUSTIN (KXAN) — As COVID-19 hospitalizations continue to surge in the Austin area and across Texas, one doctor who works directly with those patients wants to emphasize to the community how wearing masks and staying home now will help to keep intensive care units from being overrun.

Healthcare workers put on Personal Protective Equipment. (Photo: Ascension Seton)

Dr. Shailaja Hayden has been treating COVID-19 patients for 10 months now, she says she actually treated the very first patient diagnosed with COVID-19 in the Austin area. Hayden is a pulmonologist and critical care specialist at Dell Seton Medical Center as well as an assistant professor in the Department of Internal Medicine at Dell Medical School. She spoke with KXAN Thursday about what her experience has been like treating patients in intensive care during the pandemic and what the public can do to help ease the burden on healthcare workers.

The phrase “healthcare heroes” can be seen on medical facilities and on social media posts in the Austin community, which Hayden says is fitting, because she does work with a lot of heroes.

“I mean all of the people in our ICU, the nurses the physical therapists, respiratory therapists, the pharmacists, the other physicians these people have all risen to an incredible challenge,” Hayden said.

“And it’s emotionally and physically exhausting to take care of COVID patients,” she continued. “Studies have shown higher rates of anxiety, sleep problems posttraumatic stress in frontline health care workers, and I think we all do appreciate the community showing support.”

“I honestly think the best way to show support is to show that you understand the scope of the problem and make the sacrifices to stay home when you can to socially distance. Because then you’re not only showing that you care about the experience of healthcare workers but that we all care about the health of our community and want to do what we can to keep everybody safe.”

Dr. Shailaja Hayden, pulmonologist and critical care specialist at Dell Seton Medical Center

Hayden emphasized, “the more all of us buckle down and stay home when we can, mask when we have to go out, to wash our hands, stay distanced — it keeps the whole community safer.”

This message comes during a week when COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations have been reported than at any other time during the pandemic. As of Thursday, the Austin area reported 186 COVID-19 ICU admissions, just patients shy of the 200 beds Austin hospitals have said they have spare to treat COVID-19 patients. Austin Public Health tells KXAN Thursday it appears likely the Austin area will reach the “200 ICU bed number very soon.”

“I just want to emphasize to our whole community that this pandemic is not over, that this is the worst it’s ever been,” Hayden reiterated. “And we’re all tired of it, we all miss being with our family and friends, there is an end in sight, vaccines have given us that hope, but now is the time to buckle down and make safe decisions for ourselves our families and our community.”

Healthcare workers in personal protective equipment. (Photo: Ascension Seton)

The physical toll of COVID-19

Hayden said from what she has seen in the ICU, it can really vary how long patients with COVID-19 stay there depending on how well that person’s body is able to recover.

“Most of the patients we see in the ICU have what we call ‘COVID pneumonia’, meaning that the virus has affected their lungs and lead to inflammation in their lungs making it difficult to breathe,” she said.

FILE – This illustration provided by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in January 2020 shows the 2019 Novel Coronavirus (2019-nCoV). Health officials hope to avoid stigma and error in naming the virus causing an international outbreak of respiratory illnesses. But some researchers say the current moniker, 2019 nCoV, which stands for 2019 novel coronavirus, probably won’t stick in the public’s mind. (CDC via AP, File)

Patients with COVID-19 pneumonia who are not as sick can stay in the hospital for several days, and those who are sicker can stay in the hospital for weeks or even months at a time, Hayden explained.

Compared to the start of the pandemic, Hayden said healthcare workers have more information available to them now about what kinds of treatments work for patients with COVID-19.

“Unfortunately, none of those treatments have been magic bullets, and our COVID-19 patients are still very, very sick and still very much at risk of death,” she cautioned.

Risk for those under 40

“I think it’s a really important point that we talk about COVID-19 affecting elderly patients and people with underlying medical conditions, which is true, those people are at the highest risk of death,” Hayden noted. “But we have seen plenty of, you know, relatively young previously healthy people who have to come into the hospital with pneumonia, some of whom have had hellish journeys and are left with serious disabilities that change their lives forever.”

A chart showing COVID-19 weekly hospitalizations by age group in the Austin Metropolitan Statistical Area.
(Chart presented by Austin Public Health on Jan. 12, 2020)

The data from Austin Public Health aligns with Hayden’s account, data from last week in the five-county Austin Metropolitan Statistical Area shows dozens of people under the age of 40 were hospitalized with COVID-19. Austin-Travis County Interim Health Authority Dr. Mark Escott has said because the risk of hospitalization is so low for people under the age of 40, the number of people in those age groups being hospitalized indicates the virus is spreading very quickly among younger people in the Austin area.

Hayden acknowledged most young people who contract COVID-19 will likely have a very mild experience with the disease and are more likely to survive than older people.

“But it’s still a really big deal even for a young person to have COVID,” she emphasized, noting the youngest patient she lost to COVID-19 was 25 years old.

So far in the Austin area, four people between the ages of 20 and 29 have died of COVID-19 as have ten people between the ages of 30 and 39.

“I would just plead with the young people out there to make safe decisions, not only for yourselves but for everybody in our community,” Hayden said. “Even the average 28-year-old who hangs out with other people in their twenties probably has some contact with people with an underlying condition or older people, whether it’s their family or teachers or employers or the person who checks you out at the grocery store.”

A message to the public

KXAN asked Hayden: what does she wish people who aren’t in hospitals right now knew about COVID-19?

She responded:

“That it’s bad, and that you know the projections of numbers increasing and increasing exponentially is really frightening to all of us on the ground. We want to be able to take outstanding care of everybody, and right now we can — I do want to emphasize that if you think you’re having a medical emergency please don’t stay home, please come to your closest emergency department. We can and will take great care of you. But it’s frightening to think of a time when we have to use less experienced staff. All the resources we have are finite, and I hope we never come to a place where we can’t provide the same excellent care that we always have.”

Dr. Shailaja Hayden speaks with KXAN via Zoom about her experiences treating patients with COVID-19 in the intensive care unit over the past ten months. Hayden is a pulmonologist and critical care specialist at Dell Seton Medical Center as well as an assistant professor in the Department of Internal Medicine at Dell Medical School. Photo Via Zoom Screenshot Jan. 14, 2020.

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