With hospitals running low on space, alternative care sites may be activated soon, health officials say

Travis County

AUSTIN (KXAN) — “It seems pretty clear to us that we will run out of hospital beds.”

Those were the words of Austin-Travis County Interim Health Authority Dr. Mark Escott during a COVID-19 briefing Wednesday, and he added the process of activating the city’s overflow hospital at the Austin Convention Center will start “either this week or next.”

“It appears through the modeling we might run out of ICU beds next week,” he said. “There’s a phased-based approach to surge in our hospitals, and then out of hospitals and into alternate care sites.”

Earlier models suggested ICU beds would be full this week, but as Escott explained, the models don’t necessarily tell the future. They use movement trends and current transmission data to give health officials an idea of what could potentially come, but the numbers can be changed if people listen to APH recommendations, Escott said.

“It’s a great sign that date is getting pushed off,” he said. “Our hope is we can avoid overwhelming surge. That’s still a possibility. It’s still within us as a community. It takes all of us to do that.”

Escott said these projections are similar to what the models said during the first surge in June and July, but “people responded” and the transmission rate decreased, thus flattening the curve.

“Our community said, ‘we’re not going to let this happen here,'” Escott said. “They stayed home, they reduced risk, and the curve was flattened and declined. That’s what we need to happen again.”

Escott said this can change if people continue the preventative measures health officials have been saying since the beginning of the pandemic — wear a mask, social distance and wash or sanitize hands frequently. He stressed that just because vaccines are available now, they won’t help much to get the area out of the current surge.

“We can’t vaccinate ourselves out of this surge,” Escott said. “This is going to require all of us to change our behaviors.”

Rollbacks likely just days away for Austin-Travis County

Escott also said as hospital admissions and positivity rates continue to rise in the area, Austin-Travis County may be one of the next parts of Texas to face roll backs.

The Houston area is the latest area where bars are closed, businesses are limited to 50% capacity and elective procedures are on hold at hospitals.

Escott said Wednesday he worries even limiting businesses to half-capacity might not be enough to slow down an unmanageable surge.

“What we’ve seen is jurisdiction after jurisdiction transitioning into a surge, and then, once they transition into surge, it continues to worsen. I don’t think the rollback to 50% occupancy that retail and the restaurants is doing the trick.”

Escott is imploring state leaders to reassess their plan and require tougher restrictions.

It’s a recommendation that would hurt already struggling businesses, but owners of downtown Austin restaurant Verbena and hotel Canopy say they understand any measures that must be taken to help slow the spread of the virus.

“Following the standards in place is for everybody’s health and safety and making sure that we keep Austin safe, our employees safe, our guests safe. So following that, it’s there for a reason, and we just have to manage with it,” said Verbena and Canopy General Manager Jeff Ossenkop, adding, “Luckily, we can all push to-go orders, if needed.”

Verbena and Canopy are owned by Hilton, which has already required them to operate at a reduced capacity of 50%.

Update on vaccines

Escott said the vaccine strategy right now is focused on preventing future surges, and APH Director Stephanie Hayden said once the area gets a large enough allocation of vaccine doses, then they can start setting up vaccination centers.

“We would want to be able to receive a significant amount of doses, at least 10,000 or more, to establish that type of process,” Hayden said. “As soon as we receive that type of allocation, we will distribute it to the public.”

While the state is allowing vaccinations for frontline healthcare workers, those who live and work in long-term care facilities, people aged 65 years or older, and those 16 years or older with a chronic health condition, most of the providers giving the shots don’t have enough doses to move past the group of 1A eligible people, frontline healthcare workers.

“The amount of allocation we’ve received is really enough to focus on our 1A population,” said Cassandra DeLeon, interim assistant director at APH. “We haven’t received enough vaccine to really expand efficiently to the 1B population.”

DeLeon said she knows the Department of State Health Services has opened up the vaccination process to include the 1B group, but she said it’s simply a supply issue that hasn’t allowed that to happen in the area.

In a presentation Tuesday at the Travis County Commissioners Court, Hayden said APH has 1,300 vaccine doses, and Public Safety Wellness has an additional 1,300 doses. In all, providers in the county have been sent around 42,000 doses, and that’s not nearly enough to vaccinate all those who need or want it in Travis County.

AstraZeneca’s vaccine is next up for emergency use clearance from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, and that should happen mid-January, Hayden said. With another manufacturer in the vaccine pool, that will eventually increase the chances of getting more vaccines to the area in a timely manner.

In the meantime, providers with doses available also have the challenge of timing when to thaw vaccine doses. Both Pfizer and Moderna’s vaccines have to be frozen during transportation and storage and they must be used as soon as they are thawed, and that’s why Escott thinks some reports of some who fall outside the priority groups have received vaccines.

“I think what we’re likely to see is very small numbers of individuals who may fall out of the 1A and 1B groups that receive the vaccine are from providers trying to avoid waste,” Escott said. “They’re trying to get vaccines into arms before they aren’t useful.”

KXAN reported Tuesday that a “handful” of ineligible people received the vaccine Saturday during an Austin Regional Clinic event. It said it was working to refine its distribution to ensure only those in the correct groups received the vaccine, including requiring everyone to have an appointment.

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