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Health Officials Say Austin Area Needs To Lower ICU Admissions For Restrictions To Ease

A field hospital is set up at the Austin Convention Center to handle coronavirus patients if hospitals in the area get overwhelmed.
Gabriel C. Pérez
A field hospital is set up at the Austin Convention Center to handle coronavirus patients if hospitals in the area get overwhelmed.

Austin Public Health officials say Austin and Travis County residents have done a great job to help lower COVID-19 numbers over the last few weeks, but caution there is still a lot to be done – especially with colleges and schools reopening in the coming weeks.

“We need to stay the course,” APH Director Stephanie Hayden said in a news briefing Friday. “The thing that got us here has been the call to action, that you all stood up and said, ‘Yes, sign me up. I am going to be that person that’s going to make a difference with COVID-19.' And we need you to continue to make a difference.”

The county’s seven-day average of hospital admissions dropped below 40 this week, which could have allowed for a downgrade in the county’s restrictions from stage 4 to stage 3. But interim Public Health Director Dr. Mark Escott said this is not the time.

“The staging we’ve created is designed so that we do not exceed hospital capacity,” he said. “Right now, our [intensive care units] are still full. There’s not extra room in the ICUs. ... So, until we’re in a better place in terms of our ICU capacity and in terms of our personnel in the hospitals, we’re going to need to stay at stage 4.”

While hospitalizations are moving in the right direction, the virus is still disproportionately affecting people of color. Latino and Black patients make up 60% of those hospitalized, Escott said, but together make up less than 50 percent of the population in the county. He said health officials are aware and trying to correct the problem.

“We’ve got ongoing evidence that this disease is disproportionately impacting our communities of color,” he said. “This is why we all must come together to make sure we are providing protections for these two communities, and at the same time, addressing the underlying disparities that have plagued these communities for decades. We’ve got a lot of work to do.”

He said decreasing transmission as quickly as possible will help when public schools open in the fall. 

Earlier this week, the Texas Education Agency said schools that don't open classrooms risk funding cuts from the state. Escott said the schools aren't ready.

“There’s quite a bit of heavy lifting that the school districts have to do to make the fall semester work,” he said. “Quite frankly, I don’t believe the TEA commissioner is best suited to determine what’s in the best interest of the public health. I think that that needs to be up to local officials working with our stakeholders. I think the decision to withhold funding is contrary to what the National Academy of Sciences has recommended.” 

As for extracurricular activities this fall, Escott said he does not see football with fans in the stadium as a possibility. It would be difficult to field even two teams every week, he said.

Hayden and Escott both said they’ve been communicating with local colleges about their plans to reopen campuses.

APH also reminded Austinites that there are other health dangers out there. Epidemiologist Janet Pichette said while people are protecting themselves from COVID, they should remember to look out for other health threats, like West Nile virus.

“We’ve had five positive mosquito pools in the Austin-Travis County area and one probable human case,” Pichette said. She says draining any standing water outside and wearing mosquito repellant will help.  

This story has been updated. 

Got a tip? Email Jimmy Maas at Follow him on Twitter @maasdinero.

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Jimmy is the assistant program director, but still reports on business and sports every now and then. Got a tip? Email him at Follow him on Twitter @maasdinero.
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