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With Hospitals In Good Shape, Austin's Top Doctor Says Now Is The Time For Surgeries, Immunizations

A sign requiring face coverings at Mission Funeral Home in Austin.
Michael Minasi
A sign requiring face coverings at Mission Funeral Home in Austin.

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Hospitals in the Austin area are in “a very good situation,” the city’s top doctor said Wednesday, adding that now is the time for residents to take care of elective surgeries and immunizations, like getting flu shots.

Austin Public Health interim Medical Authority Dr. Mark Escott said the number of hospital beds, intensive care beds and ventilators in use are all down since the beginning of September. 

However, he said, “what we’re seeing right now is a 50% increase between Sept. 1 and Sept. 21 in our moving average of new cases.” That’s why people need to continue to be engaged. 

On Monday, the seven-day average of new cases in the area was 117. In mid-June, Escott said, the average was 121 new cases each day. Less than three weeks later, that average soared to 558 per day. 

“So this thing can change really quickly,” he said. “This is why we have to continue the caution, continue our concern … to ensure that we are doing enough and that we are staying safe to avoid this exponential growth in cases that we saw back in June.”

Many spaces like restaurants, gyms and office buildings were allowed to expand capacity to 75% this week after Gov. Greg Abbott eased some pandemic restrictions. He said the changes were possible because Texans continue to follow pandemic guidelines, like wearing masks in public. 

Escott said the governor's mask mandate – which was repeatedly lobbied for by local officials – caused new coronavirus cases in the area to “fall off a cliff.”

“I will say this policy change from the governor had the most substantial impact of any policy that we’ve seen throughout this pandemic,” he said. 

The Austin Independent School District is set to partially reopen doors to some students in two weeks. Janet Pichette, Austin Public Health chief epidemiologist, said the area can expect to see an increase in cases when that happens. 

“In 2009, during H1N1 [the swine flu], we did see an uptick in cases when schools reopened,” Pichette said. “So what’s going to be critically important is what [people] do when they go back to school. … You need to make sure you are protecting yourself and your family.”

Escott said he is “very concerned” about the convergence of flu season and the pandemic in the coming months. ICUs in the Austin area were almost full during last year’s flu season – without the addition of a coronavirus. 

“Obviously, if we have a repeat of a bad flu season this year, that leaves little to no capacity for COVID-19,” he said. “This is why it’s critically important for us to manage the thing we can manage well, because we have a vaccine, and that’s flu. We need people to get their flu shots. Flu season starts in a week.”

This story has been updated. 

Got a tip? Email Jerry Quijano at Follow him on Twitter @jerryquijano.

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Jerry Quijano is the local All Things Considered anchor for KUT. Got a tip? Email him at Follow him on Twitter @jerryquijano.
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