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Austin opens COVID field hospital as ICUs near capacity
(Laura Figi)

The alternate care site, or field hospital, at the Austin Convention Center is now open.

Amid the current surge and a bumpy vaccine rollout, Austin public health officials announced the opening of the alternate care site—a field hospital at the convention center downtown—on Tuesday morning. The Texas Division of Emergency Management has provided contract staff, who previously worked at the alternate care sites in El Paso and Arlington, to care for up to 25 low- and moderate-acuity COVID patients in an attempt to free up hospital and ICU capacity for more critical cases.

The alternate care site will accept COVID patients referred by area hospitals and who have been determined to be stable enough for transfer. It will provide treatments such as supplemental oxygen and IVs. With additional staff, the current set-up could accept up to 250 patients.

"Our hope is that we never see a patient at this site," Austin-Travis County Interim Health Authority Dr. Mark Escott said. "Our expectation is that we will see patients."

Hospitalizations update

Travis County is in the middle of a surge that has exceeded the peak seen during the last surge, in late June and early July. The average number of COVID-related hospital admissions reported each day is now 87, up 14% from last week and 102% from last month.

The average number of ICU patients in the five-county Austin metro is now 165.7, the highest recorded this pandemic. Updated projections from the COVID-19 Modeling Consortium at the University of Texas at Austin estimate that the metro will overwhelm its ICU capacity later this week.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott announced additional occupancy limits in Austin on Sunday, triggered by the rising hospitalizations. Travis County is part of the 11-county Trauma Service Area O, where COVID patients have represented at least 15% of overall hospitalizations for over a week, which is the threshold for stricter rules. Businesses, including restaurants, are now required to decrease their occupancy cap from 75% to 50%, and hospitals must stop elective surgeries.

This is not enough to reverse the upward trendlines, Escott said, pointing to other metro areas in Texas that have already triggered these limits—only to see their surges worsen. "What we need … is for our entire community to really embrace the concept of: We must stay home," he said.

Caseload update

In better news, it appears some Austinites are taking their advice to heart. The average number of new COVID cases confirmed each day in Travis County has fallen 4.7%—from 616 to 588.1—since Saturday. Although it's too early to tell if this represents a post-peak decline, Escott is hopeful it is reflective of the curfew he and local officials implemented over the New Year's weekend. "If we were going to see an intervention with the action that we took … we would see it now," he said.

(Austin Public Health)

But the virus continues to spread across the community. Austin Public Health detected 17% more cases last week than the week prior, Escott said. The positivity rates among school-age children and people 80 years of age and older also remain alarmingly high.

Last week, APH reported the following positivity rates:

  • High school: 20.2%
  • Middle school: 27.1%
  • Elementary school: 19.8%
  • Preschool: 10%

Austin ISD Superintendent Stephanie Elizalde encouraged parents to choose virtual learning for the rest of this week due to the current COVID caseload. The district, however, remains open for families who choose to remain in-person—and because of state funding requirements. Escott also continued to encourage parents to opt into virtual learning. "As we get more and more concerned about the new variant … (and) as the in-person school numbers increase, it's going to be more and more difficult for us to control outbreaks at school," he said.

Elderly adults are particularly vulnerable to COVID-19 and disproportionately likely to require hospitalization. So far, more than 40 area long-term care facilities have administered vaccines to over 7,000 residents through a federal partnership with CVS and Walgreens pharmacies. APH, which received 12,000 doses from the state this week, is working to vaccinate any nursing home residents who were not covered by that effort.

Vaccine update

APH will debut an online vaccine registration system, as well as a companion phone line for those without internet access, tomorrow. It also plans to establish distribution sites throughout the Eastern Crescent. The department is focusing its vaccine distribution efforts on individuals in group 1A and the following communities:

  • Populations of color
  • Those living in poverty
  • Those living in areas where disease transmission is highest
  • Those without transportation access

But access remains extremely limited. APH has already administered around 4,000 of its 12,000 dose allocation, and there are more than 200,000 vulnerable individuals in the community. "We know that we do not have enough vaccine," Director Stephanie Hayden said.

Treatment update

Last week, the state opened a therapeutic infusion center in Austin to treat COVID patients and reduce the number of hospitalizations. Patients must meet certain criteria and be referred by their doctors to the center, where they will then be treated with the monoclonal antibody cocktail Regeneron. "That's the treatment the president got," Austin Mayor Steve Adler said. So far, the center has treated 93 patients and has a daily capacity of 26 patients, with the aim of ramping that up to 75.


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