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Doctors, First-Responders See Need For More Resources – And Distancing – Before COVID-19 Cases Rise

A sign telling people how to stay healthy.
Gabriel C. Pérez

As Central Texas prepares for an inevitable spike in COVID-19 diagnoses, medical professionals are calling on local officials to address unmet needs and implement tighter restrictions on public gatherings.

In an open letter to officials Monday, nearly 200 doctors asked authorities to "implement mandatory lockdown measures to enforce social distancing."

"Public health officials should not assume that such businesses will take these drastic measures voluntarily," they said.

The letter suggests schools stay closed for longer than two weeks while authorities gauge the severity of COVID-19's spread. A handful of school districts in Central Texas announced shortly after the letter's release that they would suspend operations until early April.

Events with more than 250 people are prohibited in Austin. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended Sunday that gatherings with more than 50 attendees should be banned, and now the federal government is asking people to avoid gatherings of more than 10 people.

When it announced its restriction on events Saturday, city officials suggested the ban could become more severe.

  Meanwhile, those on the frontlines – Austin-Travis County Emergency Medical Services – say they hope local officials can help supply crucial equipment ahead of what they expect to be an explosion of calls for service.

Selena Xie, head of the Austin EMS Association, said she supports the city's response, though she expects Austin to reduce the number of people allowed at an event even further.

She said she also expects more calls for medics to respond to COVID-19.

"I do think that we're going to see a huge explosion in COVID cases," she said, "but that's OK, because that's what's in our community and we need to find out where it is in order to contain it."

Gov. Greg Abbott said Monday that Texans should prepare for the "mathematical reality" of a large increase in confirmed cases as the state ramps up testing.

Medics have seen an uptick in calls that could've been handled by primary care physicians or one of several hotlines set up to triage suspected coronavirus cases, Xie said.

Each one of those calls takes valuable time and resources, she said.

"The whole process can take four hours, and so it's quite demanding," Xie said. "We have not seen the explosion of call volume that we're sure to see soon, but we are seeing a lot of unnecessary calls about COVID."

On top of that, both doctors and first-responders are prepared for the prospect of equipment shortages amid runs on things like masks and respirators.

In their letter, the physicians demanded the city and county buy more protective equipment for people treating COVID patients and suggested going so far as asking the public to "turn in personal stores" of the gear.

Xie told KUT that EMS will need a host of supplies over the next few months – things like respirators, better thermometers, pumps for IV machines and portable ultrasound machines. These items could be hard to get a hold of as cases ramp up.

"Even at a certain point, even if we're still ahead of the curve, many of these portable machines will be bought out," she said. "And so we need to be thinking about that now – before that happens."

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 Follow him on Twitter @England_Weber.
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