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Austin Area Down To Two Available ICU Beds As COVID-19 Cases Continue To Surge

A hospital
Spencer Selvidge
Hospitals in the Austin area are running low on ICU capacity as COVID-19 cases surge.

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Hospitals in the Austin area are down to just two staffed intensive care unit beds as COVID-19 hospitalizations continue climbing.

The Austin area is part of Trauma Service Area O, an 11-county region with 2.3 million residents. On Monday, there were six ICU beds left in this region. Now, there are two, Austin-Travis County Health Authority Dr. Desmar Walkes told a meeting of Travis County commissioners and Austin City Council members Tuesday morning.

COVID-19 hospitalizations take up 14.53% of total hospital capacity in the region.

“There are people who are waiting for beds in emergency rooms because we don’t have enough staff to expand our ICU capacity,” Walkes said. “This is a phenomenon that’s come about because we’ve had people working on a response to a pandemic for 19 months now and some people have retired and some people have moved on to different careers.”

She said staffing is a problem not just locally but across Texas and the country. Transferring patients between different regions was possible in the past, but now that cases are so high, it's difficult — if not impossible — to do so. So, Austin Public Health is urging residents to take action to prevent the spread of disease.

“It is imperative that we improve compliance,” Walkes said. “Compliance includes wearing masks, getting vaccinated, staying home and just getting out for essential things.”

She said hospitals are doing all they can to increase capacity by delaying elective surgeries and moving around staff to help balance the load of patients. At current staffing levels, she said, the Austin region has an ICU capacity of 200 beds.

Opening an alternate care site, as APH did last year at the Austin Convention Center, is possible, Walkes said, but she questioned whether there would be enough health care workers to staff it.

“Right now, we are trying to support our hospitals and their ability to withstand the surge that we are experiencing,” Walkes said.

The majority of COVID-19 patients in the Austin area are unvaccinated. Between July 26 and Aug. 8, more than 80% of patients with COVID-19 were not vaccinated, according to data from Austin Public Health.

APH says about 55% of all Travis County residents are fully vaccinated. The COVID-19 vaccines available have not been authorized to be administered to children under 12. State data shows that 64% of Travis County residents who are 12 and older have been fully vaccinated.

The recent surge in cases has been spurred by the highly contagious delta variant. Walkes said this variant has a higher viral load in the pre-symptomatic phase than previous strains of COVID. That means people who may not know they are sick can be spreading the illness before they realize they’ve been infected.

“This is why we’ve asked people to wear masks whether they are vaccinated or unvaccinated,” Walkes said.

The Austin Independent School District on Monday said it would require masks in schools this fall, defying an executive order from Gov. Greg Abbott. Walkes said masking will be especially important in schools because of this more transmissible virus strain, which wasn’t widespread last school year.

“Children who are identified as positive cases and their close contacts are both important because the close contacts, if they’re not identified and isolated, may in fact be carrying virus and not know that they’re sick,” she said.

Thirty-four people under 18 with COVID-19 were admitted to area hospitals in July, including 12 who spent time in the ICU. That’s up from June, when 11 children were hospitalized with COVID, one of whom was in the ICU.

Marisa Charpentier is KUT's assistant digital editor. Got a tip? Email her at Follow her on Twitter @marisacharp.
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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