AUSTIN (KXAN) — Sunday Texas’ Trauma Service Area O, which includes 2.3 million people in the Austin area, reached the COVID-19 hospitalization rate which automatically triggered additional restrictions for the area under state guidelines.

Under the new restrictions, which went into effect Sunday, businesses and retail establishments in the Austin area must reduce their operations to 50% occupancy. Per state rules, hospitals must also stop elective surgeries must across the area.

Under an order issued by Texas Governor Greg Abbott in October 2020, the 50% occupancy limitations go into effect when more than 15% of overall hospitalizations in any trauma area are COVID-19 hospitalizations for seven consecutive days. Trauma Service Area O, which includes Austin, has exceeded that 15% threshold from January 3 through January 9.

On Sunday, the Texas Department of State Health Services reports Trauma Service Area O has 18.8% of its total hospitalizations coming from COVID-19 patients. As a result, most venues in the area must now reduce occupancy levels to 50% and hospitals must stop elective surgeries.

The counties included in the Trauma Service Area O occupancy restrictions are:

  • Bastrop
  • Blanco
  • Burnet
  • Caldwell
  • Fayette
  • Hays
  • Llano
  • Travis
  • Williamson

The Department of State Health Services says the following counties in Trauma Service Area O have qualified for and submitted an attestation to continue operating at 75%:

  • Lee
  • San Saba

A letter from DSHS Sunday explained that as a result of the seven day COVID-19 hospitalization rate in Trauma Service Area O, all restaurants, retail stores, office buildings, manufacturing facilities, gyms and exercise facilities and classes, museums, libraries are required to return to occupancy levels 50% or lower.

ICU capacity

The updated numbers on Sunday from DSHS in Trauma Service Area O indicate that for the entire region, only 16 available intensive care unit beds remain.

On Saturday, the Austin Public Health dashboard for the five-county area around Austin tracked 180 COVID-19 ICU admissions. Austin Public Health has been told by area hospitals that they have 200 ICU beds available for COVID-19 patients specifically.

Dr. Jordan Weingarten, the Medical Director of the Adult Intensive Care Unit at Ascension Seton Medical Center Austin, explained that his ICU has been affected by the large numbers of COVID-19 hospitalizations the Austin area has been seeing recently.

From Weingarten’s view, the surge the Austin area is seeing now is different the one the area saw this summer.

“The last time the hospitals were trying to limit which hospitals had COVID patients, so all of the COVID patients within Ascension at that time were within just two hospitals, now Ascension is spreading them out over multiple hospitals,” he said, explaining that while Austin is seeing more hospitalizations now than ever before, this spreading out of patients means that any given hospital “maybe not quite as full as they were before. “

Weingarten expects it is going to be weeks before the additional restrictions from the governor’s orders have an impact on Austin’s COVID-19 hospitalizations.

“We haven’t even gotten into the post New Year’s surge that we expect,” he noted.

While Weingarten is glad COVID-19 vaccines are available (he has already received both of his doses), he noted the vaccine won’t tamp down surge of COVID-19 the Austin area is seeing at this moment.

“This is a highly communicable disease,” Weingarten said. “The spread of COVID is going to continue for weeks and months if people do not modify their behaviors, it’s just a simple fact.”

At this point, he said, “we are still able to take care of patients safely within our hospitals.”

However, Weingarten added, “the numbers that we have now are definitely stressing the system and we have finite resources.”

“At this time we have adequate numbers of ventilators and adequate numebrs of beds, but again those are finite resources, and if the numbers continue to increase at the exponential rate they have been, at some point, we will run out of those things,” he said, adding that is a fate he hopes hospital systems can avoid.

Strain across Texas

The update Sunday means Austin is now joining the major municipalities across Texas on the state’s list of areas with high hospitalization numbers. As COVID-19 hospitalizations surge statewide, Trauma Service Areas in Amarillo, Abilene, Lubbock, Dallas/Fort Worth, Paris, Longview, Lufkin, El Paso, Belton, Killeen, El Paso, Waco, Bryan/ College Station, San Antonio, Houston, Galveston, Victoria, Laredo, and the Rio Grande Valley are also on the state’s list for these added restrictions.