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COVID-19

'We Need Your Help': Austin Public Health Urges COVID-19 Vaccination As ICU Patients Exceed Capacity

A COVID-19 vaccine is administered to a patient during a pop-up vaccine clinic in East Austin.
Michael Minasi
/
KUT
A COVID-19 vaccine is administered to a patient during a pop-up vaccine clinic in East Austin.

The number of COVID-19 patients in intensive care units has exceeded the Austin area's capacity as the delta variant spreads through the region, local health officials said during a Friday news conference.

Health care providers are stretching their resources “to the max” to meet the demand, Austin-Travis County Health Authority Dr. Desmar Walkes said.

“This delta variant is moving like wildfire through our city,” she said. “We really want our community to understand that we need your help. We need you to wear a mask. We need you to go and get vaccinated.”

The number of people hospitalized with COVID-19 in the five-county region (Travis, Hays, Williamson, Bastrop and Caldwell) hit 653 this week — the highest since the start of the pandemic. The large majority of people hospitalized with COVID-19 are unvaccinated. About 67% of people 12 and older are fully vaccinated in Travis County, according to state data.

“There are so many people getting sick in our community that are unvaccinated and unprotected that we are seeing more severe disease from COVID-19 developing and more people requiring hospitalization,” Walkes said.

There are 229 people in intensive care units in the five-county region, which exceeds its 200-bed capacity. Walkes said hospitals are stretching the resources they have to accommodate the surge, but patients can’t be transferred to other metro areas since their systems are also strained. Likewise, Austin’s health care system is too full to take any transfers.

“We serve as the place to take care of patients that require ICU care for a number of surrounding counties, and we have a lot of people who are waiting to be transferred into our system, and they cannot be because we don’t have beds to accommodate them,” Walkes said. “The situation is still dire.”

Watch the news conference below:

The state has sent some health care staff to Austin to help with the surge, but Walkes said more are needed, especially as the reopening of schools is fueling a rise in cases.

Local COVID data in the last two weeks suggests that cases and hospitalizations have reached their peak — meaning they’ve begun to level off. But Walkes says it’s too soon to know for sure. Since schools have just reopened, she said it’ll take another two or three weeks before the full impact is clear.

Some school districts are requiring students and staff to wear masks, going against Gov. Greg Abbott's ban on mask mandates. Austin Public Health’s Chief Epidemiologist Janet Pichette said schools that are requiring masks are not seeing the same increase in cases that schools where masks are optional are having.

“When school starts and you have situations where people are exposed, especially without masks, you’re just going to see the number of cases increase,” Pichette said.

The conflict over mask rules continues to play out in the courts. In one of several lawsuits against the governor's orders, a district judge had granted San Antonio and Bexar County a temporary injunction to put the ban on mask mandates on hold while litigation was pending. But the Texas Supreme Court on Thursday sided with Abbott and agreed to let the ban stand. It is unclear how the decision will affect mask mandates in other cities and counties.

UT Austin students also headed back to class this week. Some classes are starting off virtually for the first few weeks because of the recent rise in cases. Masks are recommended but not required in campus buildings like they were last semester.

The Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine received full approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration this week, opening the door for some cities, counties and school districts to issue vaccine requirements. But two days later, the governor issued a new order prohibiting government entities from requiring any type of COVID-19 vaccine, including those with full FDA approval. He added the issue — whether state or local government agencies can require people to get vaccinated — to the special legislative session agenda.

Got a tip? Email Marisa Charpentier at mcharpentier@kut.org. Follow her on Twitter @marisacharp.

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