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Austin Public Health Official Warns Flu Season Plus COVID-19 Could Stress Hospital System

A bed in a field hospital set up at the convention center
Gabriel C. Pérez
The city set up an alternative care site at the convention center over the summer in case area hospitals became overwhelmed by COVID-19 patients.

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Coronavirus cases in Austin and Travis County have been inching up since Sept. 1, though hospitalizations have dropped by 20%, Austin's top doctor said Tuesday.

One of the reasons for that is an increase in infections among 10- to 19-year-olds, most of whom don’t need to be hospitalized, Austin Public Health’s Dr. Mark Escott said. He told Travis County commissioners that hospital capacity is not a problem right now, but that could change with the onset of flu season.

“When we look at last year and the bad flu season that we had, our ICU capacity was maxed out just from flu,” he said. “If you imagine flu plus COVID-19, it’s just not going to be sustainable. We are going to have to ration care.”

Public health officials have been urging people to get vaccinated against flu. The Southern Hemisphere, where winter is ending, offers a glimmer of hope: Australia had a record light flu season, thanks to vaccinations and people wearing masks.

Also Tuesday, the Travis County commissioners approved Escott's reappointment as interim public health authority. Precinct 2 Commissioner Brigid Shea voiced some exasperation over how long the process of finding a permanent health authority has taken. The position has officially been open for more than 18 months.

Escott suggested the pandemic and compensation package might make it difficult to find the right candidate. He told Shea he has not received any extra pay for the 60-to-80-hour work weeks he’s put in since March. 

"OK, I'll just say that's not acceptable to me," Shea said, "and we've been documenting a lot of additional work that's been required by COVID and paying for it with CARES funding. I would certainly hope that the city would find a way to compensate you sufficiently for what you're doing.”

The city has allocated some extra money for someone to cover Escott’s other duties as EMS medical director one day a week. Austin Public Health is governed by both the city and the county. 

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Trey Shaar is an All Things Considered producer, reporter and host. Got a tip? Email him at Follow him on Twitter @treyshaar.
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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