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Austin's seeing another spike in COVID cases. Medics say they're overworked.

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Gabriel C. Pérez
/
KUT

As Austin and Travis County see a steep rise in COVID cases, Austin-Travis County EMS medics say they're short-staffed because they're testing positive themselves.

Nearly 30 medics are out because of the virus, resulting in a staff-crunch amid a rise in COVID-related 911 calls. Austin-Travis County EMS Association President Selena Xie said the medics who are working are burnt out and now on call 24 hours a day.

"We’ve been doing this for two years and our medics have been working more overtime in the last six months," she said. "And now, we’re basically on permanent on-call status, which is making it really challenging for our medics to feel like they can rest at all between shifts.”

Xie says EMS has 40 ambulances available around the clock, with seven on part-time duty, but the staff shortage has led to ambulances being shut down and not able to service calls.

"They're just working us to the bone," she said. "And now we're on permanent on-call status — and we're not being paid for it, either."

The Austin area has seen a surge in cases in the last week. Austin Public Health on Wednesday raised its COVID risk-based guidelines to Stage 4. Those guidelines recommend people who are fully vaccinated wear a mask at any gathering with people outside their home. For people who are unvaccinated — including people who haven't yet received a booster shot — APH recommends avoiding any gatherings and traveling or shopping only if its essential.

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Xie said many of the COVID-related calls EMS has received don't quite reach the threshold for hospitalization. Many of the patients' blood-oxygen levels are not critical, compared to earlier waves in the pandemic.

"It confirms what a lot of the leading epidemiologists are saying, [which is] that likely this is a milder form, a milder variant," she said. "So, even though people feel bad, they actually aren't getting as sick and needing to be admitted to the hospital."

Still, EMS saw a marked increase in the number of respiratory-related calls in the last two weeks. Xie recommends people call their doctor before dialing 911 and that they get an oximeter to measure their blood-oxygen levels, if possible.

Ahead of New Year's celebrations, local officials Wednesday urged folks to follow APH's guidelines and, if possible, get boosted. Only 23% of people eligible for booster shots have gotten one, according to APH.

UT Austin's COVID-19 Modeling Consortium has forecast the latest spike in cases could peak statewide in the next two weeks. The surge comes as lines for COVID testing at sites snake for blocks, as at-home tests are exceedingly hard to find and as burnout and understaffing at medical labs slows test results.

Andrew Weber is a general assignment reporter for KUT, focusing on criminal justice, policing, courts and homelessness in Austin and Travis County. Got a tip? You can email him at aweber@kut.org. Follow him on Twitter @England_Weber.
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