Austin hospitals are better prepared, see lower COVID-19 mortality rates despite increased admissions
Despite an exponential increase in confirmed COVID-19 cases and related hospitalizations in the Austin region, local health care workers feel better armed to respond to a surge than they did in March—and the results are good for patients.
"I feel like we're much more prepared now than we were when this was all starting," said Dr. Doug Jeffrey, a local ER doctor and board member of the Texas College of Emergency Physicians. "We were all extremely worried when we were looking at New York and what was happening there."
New procedures and protocols
In the past few months, Austin's major hospital networks—Ascension Seton, Baylor Scott & White Health and St. David's HealthCare—have had time to stock up on personal protective equipment, implement protocols that reduce risk of exposure and finesse treatment.
Emergency departments have implemented universal masking, visitor restrictions, mandatory temperature checks and more regular cleaning, Dr. Jeffrey said. "We've had a lot of time to think about these protocols and put them in practice," he added.
At St. David's South Austin Medical Center, staff have spaced out the chairs in its waiting rooms, transitioned to a wireless keyboard for patient check-in, switched to disposable blood pressure cuffs and cohorted patients suspected to have COVID-19 away from those who are seeking care for other reasons.
"We feel very, very comfortable that we're prepared to care for patients as they present," Chief Medical Officer Dr. DeVry Anderson said. "And really care not just for COVID patients but for all patients that are presenting with both routine and emergent conditions."
Lower mortality for patients
Another positive development is that treatment for COVID-19 patients is improving, as evidenced by a lower mortality rate—now down to 1.7%, from 3.6% in early June—despite increasing hospitalizations.
(Austin Public Health)
Dr. Anderson attributed this shift to a number of factors, including convalescent plasma therapy, access to the antiviral drug remdesivir and more familiarity with how the disease progresses."Having physicians and staff that have gotten, not comfortable, but now understand how to treat and care for these patients, I think it's seamless in the way we transition those [patients] to higher levels of care," he said.
Ventilator management is also better, with patients who may have been put on a ventilator before now being treated with high-flow oxygen and simple position changes—laying on their side instead of their back—to positive effect. "This is where it's nice to not be the first group going through [this]," Dr. Jeffrey said.
Higher exposure for health care workers
But challenges remain, including the continued rationing of PPE, making sure patients don't avoid the ER for fear of the coronavirus and staffing concerns should area hospitals reach capacity.
"I think that's where we would see a situation like we did in New York and in Michigan, where we're going to be getting nurses from other states to come in and help us out," said Serena Bumpus, director of practice for the Texas Nurses Association.
There is also the question of whether doctors and nurses will get COVID-19 themselves—especially considering their increased exposure to sick patients—and further strain staffing levels.
But Bumpus said the danger may not be where people expect: "Our health care workers, with the amount of PPE that they do have access to and that they're wearing inside the hospital, they actually might be more protected than they are out in the general community because the community is not masking fully and maintaining social distancing and washing their hands."
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- San Marcos favorite Industry Burger opens "mid-October" on E. 5th, featuring "low key healthy" Texas fare.
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- San Francisco's Marufuku Ramen opens next Wednesday, October 12, in the Mueller District.
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With major entertainment events slated for October, the Austin-Bergstrom International Airport is gearing up for a busy month.
Artists and music lovers are set to pack into Zilker Park for The Austin City Limits Music Festival in the coming two weekends. Following that, Formula One will bring racing fans to the Circuit of the Americas.
For those two events, the airport is anticipating high passenger days with 30,000 or more people departing flights.
ABIA recommends arriving at least two and a half hours in advance for domestic flights on those days. For ACL, it's expected on both Sundays of the festival along with the Monday and Tuesday after. The F1-driven high passenger days are expected on Oct. 20-21 and Oct. 23-26.
\u201c#AustinCityLimits visitors, you\u2019re in for a weird and wild ride \ud83e\udd18\u262e\ufe0f \n\nFlying in or out of our airport? We got firm and fun tips for you: https://t.co/RawVRalOXN\u201d— Austin-Bergstrom International Airport (AUS) (@Austin-Bergstrom International Airport (AUS)) 1664894083
F1, especially, could draw in loads of travelers as the three-day event saw 400,000 attendees last year. ABIA warns that highways leading to the airport may see even higher traffic than usual around the event and that travelers should plan their route accordingly.
Bailey Grimmett, a spokesperson for ABIA, said travel numbers come in 24 hours in advance. So, it's hard to predict if the airport will see travel volumes at the same levels that have happened around previous F1 races or if it'll top ACL's flight traffic.
Still, she says historical knowledge points to a chance for it.
“We've had that Monday after F1 break the record for single busiest in airport history," Grimmett said. "So context clues I would say yes, but I can't confirm that. But the historical background points to that."
In anticipation of the high volume of flyers, the airport received additional TSA officers for security screening through the end of October. To prepare even further, the Department of Aviation and partners hosted a job showcase and hiring fair to address the continued labor shortage the airport has experienced.
Relief from hectic travel days is on the horizon with November likely to see a slowdown.
"I don't anticipate it will be as busy as October just because we don't have as many events going on," Grimmett said. "Thanksgiving is kind of our primary holiday that we see a lot of passengers coming in and out of the airport."