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COVID-19

Austin Doctors Urge People To Get Vaccinated As ICUs Fill With Younger And Pregnant COVID Patients

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Gabriel C. Pérez
/
KUT
Matthew Ruiz gets a COVID vaccine at a clinic in March hosted by the Central Texas Allied Health Institute in partnership with the African American Youth Harvest Foundation. Doctors say they are seeing more unvaccinated young people showing up at the hospital with severe COVID illnesses.

Severe COVID-19 illnesses are sending unvaccinated pregnant women and younger people to local ICUs, doctors from Ascension Seton Medical Center Austin warned Friday.

During a Facebook Live event, Dr. Jeny Ghartey, a maternal medical director, said she’s seeing an alarming rate of unvaccinated pregnant women with severe COVID illness. Pregnant women with COVID-19 are more likely to be admitted to an ICU and need invasive machinery to help them breathe, she said. They're also more likely to die compared to nonpregnant women.

“It is hard to see unvaccinated patients in general, but especially young, otherwise healthy pregnant women come in so incredibly sick,” said Ghartey, who treats women with high-risk pregnancies. “And they need to immediately be placed on a ventilator and on [extracorporeal membrane oxygenation].”

“Our circuits are so limited that we’re really going to only offer it to young pregnant females so we can save two lives instead of one. We are not going to offer it to a 35-year-old male. How sad is that? That we’re having to make those kinds of ethical decisions.”
Dr. John Hinze

Dr. John David Hinze, chief of endoscopic lung surgery and a pulmonary critical care specialist, uses this device in the ICU. He said the ECMO draws blood out of a person, sends it through an artificial heart and lung, and then pumps it back into the person in a rewarmed state. The process removes carbon dioxide and adds oxygen, giving the patient's lungs time to rest. It buys time.
Hinze said the device helped two people in the ICU last week – a woman in her 20s and a girl in her teens. But, he said, there aren’t enough ECMO machines for everybody.

“In fact, our circuits are so limited that we’re really going to only offer it to young pregnant females so we can save two lives instead of one,” Hinze said. “We are not going to offer it to a 35-year-old male. How sad is that? That we’re having to make those kinds of ethical decisions.”

Hinze said the virus is now affecting younger people, including otherwise healthy teenagers. The age range of patients in Ascension Seton's ICU is currently between 19 and 74.

Both doctors emphasized the importance and safety of COVID-19 vaccines.

Ghartey said while pregnant women weren’t included in the initial clinical trials, there is now data on 35,000 women who registered information with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. She said that data shows getting a vaccine doesn’t change the risk of pre-term birth or congenital abnormalities in the fetus. She said there is also no evidence to support myths that the vaccines could affect the placenta or the fertility of men or women.

Hinze said the ICU wouldn't be at capacity if people were vaccinated.

“You don’t want to go through what this one patient told me right before I intubated him,” Hinze said. “He said ‘I’m terrified.’ You know how you keep from being terrified? You get the vaccine.”

Travis County Judge Andy Brown, who hosted the event, said doctors and local officials cannot stop urging vaccinations until all the Austin-Travis County ZIP codes and neighborhoods are at 70% to 80% vaccinated.

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