Travis County health experts say local hospitals are prepared to handle spike in COVID-19 cases

Travis County
COVID-19 Travis County Cases 102920

A graph tracking the number of COVID-19 cases in Travis County as of Oct. 28, 2020 (KXAN Photo)

AUSTIN (KXAN) — As COVID-19 cases rise in Central Texas, five Travis County health experts gathered Thursday to discuss the local outbreak and encourage people to keep up their safety practices.

Representatives from several local health organizations, such as the University of Texas at Austin’s Dell Medical School and St. David’s Medical Center, explained how COVID-19 has changed since earlier in the summer and how the community can help flatten the curve in the winter.

Nearly 450 people in Travis County have died due to the pandemic, conference moderator Jen Samp said.

Dr. John Abikhaled, the president at the Travis County Medical Society, said hospitals were dangerously full with sick patients when COVID-19 cases spiked in August, but they have since flattened the curve. He said the pandemic will more easily end when hospitals aren’t full, and he encouraged residents to continue precautions, such as wearing a mask.

“As a surgeon, I spend most of my adult life wearing a mask and washing my hands frequently,” Dr. Abikhaled said. “We do it to protect our patients from infection, and we do it to prevent ourselves from getting infected. This is a time where we all need to do that exact same thing. The pandemic will end, and eventually we’ll get back to life as we know it.”

It will be community effort that will decide whether people will get sick again, Dr. Elizabeth Douglass, an infectious disease specialist at Dell Medical, added.

She said it’s especially important to limit gatherings of more than 10 people as the holidays approach. However, she assured people that hospitals are safe and ready to expand as needed.

“I can say with confidence not to panic,” Douglass said. “Do the best you can. Keep your distance, wear your mask, limit large gatherings, but I do believe the hospital systems will be able to increase as the cases increase.”

Coleen Backus, the chief nursing officer at Dell Seton Medical Center, said the hospital sent people from their emergency management, but not necessarily healthcare workers, to El Paso to help with the response against the coronavirus. The city reached 100% capacity at hospitals and intensive care units on Sunday, and more than 1,400 new cases were reported as of Monday.

“It’s always a balance to make sure that we can help places in need but still make sure that we always have enough health care people here for whatever may come our way,” Backus said.

Dr. Brian Metzger, the director of infectious diseases at St. David’s Medical Center, said it was important to be mindful of flu season, too, since hospitals reached levels of near-full capacity during previous winters, adding that a “twindemic” will only make things more difficult. He said there were encouraging signs that flu cases have gone down in the southern hemisphere, but medical centers locally will still prepare for the worst.

“We still need to get our flu vaccinations, and we still need to watch our distance, wash our hands and wear a mask,” Dr. Metzger said.

Dr. Metzger said that while professionals are still learning about how COVID-19 can affect people differently from case to case, there are certainly links to high-risk health conditions, such as diabetes and obesity, that can lead to more severe cases.

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