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ICU Capacity In Austin Area Hits Lowest Point In The Pandemic As COVID-19 Hospitalizations Rise

A bed in a field hospital set up at the convention center
Gabriel C. Pérez
Officials have not yet announced whether they plan to reopen the alternative care site at the Austin Convention Center, which closed in March. It was set up as a safety net for overflow hospital patients.

The number of beds available at intensive care units in the Austin area is at its lowest point since the pandemic started, according to data from the Texas Department of State Health Services.

The number of staffed beds available at ICU units in the 11-county area that includes Austin is fluctuating around 16. That’s 16 ICU beds for 11 counties with more than 2.3 million residents. It was down to only 13 available beds Wednesday. The previous low was 23 beds — back in July 2020.

Public health officials are sounding the alarm and urging people to act.

“We are running out of time and our community must act now,” Austin-Travis County Health Authority Dr. Desmar Walkes said in a press release Friday. “Our ICU capacity is reaching a critical point where the level of risk to the entire community has significantly increased, and not just to those who are needing treatment for COVID. If we fail to come together as a community now, we jeopardize the lives of loved ones who might need critical care.”

Texas is broken up into 22 Trauma Service Areas. Travis, Hays, Williamson and eight others fall under TSA-O.

The area's record low ICU capacity comes as the highly contagious delta variant has caused a resurgence of COVID-19. Austin Public Health reported 546 new cases Friday, according toAPH's COVID-19 dashboard. The number of daily new cases was below 100 just a month ago.

Hospitalizations have also skyrocketed. The seven-day average of daily hospitalizations in Travis County went from eight at the beginning of the month to 50 on Friday.

Local authorities pay close attention to that average when making health recommendations. APH elevated its COVID-19 risk-based guidelines to Stage 3 on July 15, and raised it again to Stage 4 a week later. A seven-day average of 50 hospitalizations brings the area within the threshold for Stage 5, the highest level in APH’s risk-based scale.

Right now, Austin Public Health officials say vaccinated people should:

  • Choose drive-thru and curbside options and outdoor activities
  • Limit group sizes when returning to social interactions
  • Social distance and wear masks indoors

They say partially vaccinated and unvaccinated people should:

  • Avoid gatherings, travel, dining and shopping (choose curbside and delivery options instead)
  • Wear a mask when conducting essential activities

Hospital capacity has been a primary concern since the pandemic started. From the beginning, health officials worried rampant spread of the virus might overwhelm the health care system’s staff and resources. Local officials turned the Austin Convention Center into an alternative care site for COVID-19 patients in January as a safety net for overflow hospital patients. The site was closed in late March, and no new contingency plans have been announced as of yet.

The Texas Nurses Association this week said nurses are facing burnout amid the recent tide of patients and urged those who haven’t been vaccinated to do so. Health officials across the country have said the vast majority of those hospitalized with COVID-19 are unvaccinated.

In response to the growing threat, two of the area’s main hospital systems, Baylor Scott & White and Ascension Seton, have ordered mandatory vaccinations for most of its employees. The Biden administration said federal employees and contractors will need to provide proof of vaccination or be tested at least once a week for the virus.

Austin Mayor Steve Adler asked City Manager Spencer Cronk to make vaccines mandatory for most city employees, but the city said Cronk was limited by an executive order from Gov. Greg Abbott barring government entities from requesting proof of vaccination from individuals.

On Thursday, Abbott issued a new executive order in which he reiterated that governments cannot require people to wear masks or get vaccinated.

Marisa Charpentier contributed to this report.

Alejandro Martínez-Cabrera is an assistant digital editor for KUT.
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