AUSTIN (KXAN) — The COVID-19 situation in Austin-Travis County is “worsening,” Austin-Travis County Interim Health Authority Dr. Mark Escott said Monday during a news conference, urging people to take precautions and not go out to celebrate the New Year.
“If we continue to see an upward trend, then we are going to have discussions about the possibility of a curfew toward the end of this week, to help mitigate that risk,” Escott said.
After a reported surge following the Thanksgiving holiday, health officials fear another one is coming after Christmas and New Year celebrations, and the numbers before those holidays were grim.
As of Monday, there are 4,411 active cases in the area, including 404 hospitalizations. It’s just shy of a week since Austin-Travis County moved to Stage 5 of COVID-19 risk-based guidelines due to uncontrolled spread.
Escott said the average of new hospital admissions is up 106% since the beginning of December, and new admissions to intensive care units are up 62% since a week ago. Escott said at this rate, ICUs in the area could run out of beds in a week.
“We’ve seen dramatic utilization in ICUs in the past week, and that’s where we have the most limited resources,” Escott said. “There’s plenty of equipment available. The issue is the staffing.”
He said with all of the major metropolitan areas potentially experiencing a surge at once, it’s going to put an even bigger strain on available healthcare workers to staff beds around Texas.
“Dallas and Fort Worth are leading the surge in Texas right now, with San Antonio right behind them,” he said. “Houston is behind San Antonio, and we’re right behind them.”
There’s concern that additional healthcare workers to staff beds won’t be there because of all the surges, he said.
Travis County Judge Andy Brown echoed those worries in an interview with KXAN Monday night. He reminded people how Austin hospitals stepped in and took patients from El Paso when their city was experiencing a surge, but emphasized that route might no longer be an option.
“We don’t want to get to a place where we might need to get help from elsewhere, but that help is not available because there are surges other places as well.”
Escott also warned about the real possibility that the Austin area may also need to bring in refrigerated trucks soon to serve as morgues. However, Escott said local morgues currently have room if needed.
Data released Monday night shows 10 deaths in Travis County, marking the deadliest day since August 13.
Warnings about New Year’s Eve celebrations
The public health experts issued dire warnings about people gathering together to celebrate New Year’s Eve, especially at bars currently operating as restaurants during the pandemic. Escott called those businesses his “number one concern” ahead of this particular holiday.
“We need them to close,” he said. “They’re putting public health at risk.”
Escott added, “We don’t have much capacity left in hospitals and ICUs to take chances this weekend.”
Stephanie Hayden, the director of Austin Public Health, asked people to go a step further and “take the lowest possible risk” on New Year’s Eve by staying home and only doing things with those they live with.
“What is going to be your New Year’s resolutions?” she said. “Are you going to be safe? Are you going to make good decisions? Those are things we can easily check off by saying, ‘I’m going to stay at home. I want to be safe, and I’m going to think about others, as well, so that I don’t bring COVID-19 into my home.'”
“I know people are tired, but we’ve got to push through that,” Escott said. “We’ve got to rally one more time, and, really, I think it’s one more rally for a few weeks to get us over this hump to start the decrease in cases and to allow folks to get vaccinated and save many, many lives.”
Judge Brown agreed that safety is more important than ever, with vaccines around the corner for nursing home residents and vulnerable older Texans.
“We are so close to a point in time where people who are most likely to end up in the ICU will be vaccinated. We, frankly, would have to worry less about those ICU numbers,” he said. “If we could just hold off for a few more weeks, possibly, or maybe a month or two.”
School district recommendations
Now that Austin-Travis County entered Stage 5, Escott said Monday that he may recommend school districts to revert to virtual learning again due to the surge in cases, hospitalizations and ICU admissions. He said he already asked districts to cancel or postpone extracurricular activities, like sports, because that’s where the most spread is happening.
In an update Tuesday with Travis County Judge Andy Brown, Escott said he recommends both middle schools and high schools go to virtual classes for two weeks after winter break.
“The discussions I had with superintendents as well as the [Texas Education Agency] are that we start with transition of high schools to virtual education, then middle schools and then elementary schools as a last resort. I think if we continue to see the transmission increases, the hospitalization and ICU increases that we have over the past week, I will make the recommendation that our schools transition middle and high schools to virtual for the week to two weeks following the break.”
ICU capacity discrepancy
On Monday, APH reported 132 occupied ICU beds across Travis, Williamson, Hays, Bastrop and Caldwell counties. In the past, health officials have reported only having the staffing to care for 200 people in our intensive care units.
Meanwhile, data from the Department of State Health Services showed an even more grim picture. Their COVID-19 data dashboard, which gathers data directly from Texas hospitals, shows only 41 ICU beds remaining in the 11-county “trauma service area,” which includes Travis County.
A spokesperson for DSHS explained those data points could vary based on “when data was collected, how beds are counted, etc.”
KXAN Investigators are working to gain clarity from the state and local officials on the number of ICU beds available to be staffed in our area.
The spokesperson went on to say, “We’ve continued to see increasing numbers of new cases, which inevitably leads to more hospitalizations. As long as people from different households are gathering without taking precautions, increasing the chances the virus will spread, that pattern will likely continue.”
Overall, there have been 48,424 cases of COVID-19 in Austin-Travis County since the start of the pandemic, including 532 deaths.