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With rising COVID hospitalizations, Austin health officials say convention center field hospital may be activated soon
Austin public health officials expect to start the activation process to open the convention center as a field hospital in the next week or two due to the COVID-19 surge.
"It seems very clear to us that we are going to run out of hospital beds," Austin-Travis County Interim Health Authority Dr. Mark Escott said on Wednesday.
Over the last month, the average number of new COVID cases confirmed in Travis County increased 98% to 537. The average number of COVID-related hospital admission grew even more rapidly, increasing 140% to 77 in that same time period.
Between Monday and Tuesday, the average number of COVID-related hospitalizations jumped from 77 to 83 daily, pushing Travis County deeper into the red zone of Stage 5.
The COVID-19 Modeling Consortium at the University of Texas at Austin projects the Austin metro will exceed its ICU capacity by Jan. 15 if transmission continues at its current rate. Nearly 90% of ICU beds at the metro's three hospital systems—Ascension Seton, Baylor Scott & White Health and St. David's HealthCare—are occupied, as of Tuesday afternoon.
(COVID-19 Modeling Consortium at the University of Texas at Austin)
This surge in hospitalizations is likely fueled by holiday gatherings.
Typically, it takes about two weeks after an event to see the impact it has on the local caseload and hospitalization numbers. The Austin metro is "smack in the middle" of seeing the impact of Christmas gatherings, Escott said, and will likely see hospitalizations continue to increase over the next week as New Year's gatherings reveal their own impact.
"I had one case investigator mention this morning every single person he investigated was directly related to a holiday gathering," Austin Public Health Chief Epidemiologist Janet Pichette said.
The local positivity rate is also rising sharply. It is now 17.8%, up from 15.5% on Tuesday and 12.7% last week. Escott said it could exceed 20% in the next week if residents do not change their behaviors now.
The high rate of community transmission, combined with the presence of a new, more contagious variant of COVID-19 and a higher number of families opting into in-person learning this semester, has raised concerns about the spread of COVID-19 in schools.
"Those three things are going to lead us to have outbreaks related to schools that we may not have seen in the past," Escott said.
Because the Texas Education Agency has tied state funding of public schools to in-person operations, local officials have avoided ordering another shutdown. But Escott reiterated his recommendation that families opt into virtual learning for the next two weeks, at least, if they are able to. His own teenage children attended school in-person last semester but will now be learning from home.
This is not the only incident in which local officials have bristled at the state's pandemic response in recent weeks. The Texas Supreme Court recently blocked Austin-area orders that restricted dining in and drinking at restaurants over the New Year's weekend.
"We have reached the limits of what we can do under state law and through executive orders," Escott said. "We would encourage the state to reassess its plans."
With most areas of the state in surge and record numbers of hospitalizations and deaths, he argued it is time for the state to consider stronger policies. "It(s strategy) is clearly not working," he said.
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After reaching Stage 4 last week of Austin Public Health's risk-based guidelines, Austin-Travis County is now at the Stage 5 threshold with a seven-day average of 50 hospitalizations and dwindling ICU capacity.
While unenforceable under Gov. Greg's Abbott order against local mandates, vaccinated individuals are asked to choose drive-through and curbside options, outdoor activities, social interactions with limited group sizes, as well as social distance and wearing masks indoors. Partially or unvaccinated individuals are asked to avoid gatherings, travel, dining and shopping, choose curbside and delivery options, as well as wear a mask on essential trips.
Flashing back to early-pandemic times, hospitals are at critical capacity—the 11 county Trauma Service Region of 2.3 million people is fluctuating at 16 staffed beds, according to APH.
In a statement on behalf of Ascension Seton, Baylor Scott & White Health and St. David's Healthcare, a spokesperson said that hospitals are asking residents to "help us and each other" by getting vaccinated and continuing to utilize safety practices to slow the spread of the virus.
According to the statement, a "longstanding" nurse staffing challenge combined with the recent COVID-19 spike is putting "extraordinary pressure" on hospital systems.
Along with the unmitigated spread of the virus in unvaccinated, the more contagious Delta variant is also to blame for the spike in cases. The seven-day moving average of COVID hospitalizations in the Austin area reached the Stage 5 threshold of 50 on Friday, triggering local health officials to ask residents to take action.
Local hospitals have a "surge plan" that includes utilization of "all available patient care space and employees within our hospitals and in other settings" that will go into effect when capacity is hit, according to the statement.
The hospitals are working on sourcing supplemental staff and emphasized that emergency care will still be available but it may involve patient transfers "in order to provide the most appropriate care."
Healthcare systems have hit this threshold previously during the pandemic: the city held an alternate care site at the Austin Convention Center from January to March of this year.
"Our responsibility during this pandemic continues to be balancing our readiness to care for patients with COVID-19, while making sure patients who depend on our hospitals receive needed and timely care," the statement said. "We do not want to see necessary non-COVID care delayed as it was during the early stages of the pandemic."
This story has been updated to after publication to include that Austin has reached the Stage 5 threshold.
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Austin legend Willie Nelson will perform at the Texas Capitol today, his first large performance since the pandemic began, closing out a four-day long march across Central Texas to build support for federal voting protections.
Organized by The Poor People's Campaign, the march began in Georgetown on Wednesday and will end with a 10 a.m. rally at the Capitol featuring appearances from former U.S. Congressman Beto O'Rourke and Rev. Dr. William Barber.
Willie Nelson (with Charlie Sexton & friends) will play a free concert at the Poor People's Campaign march for democracy & justice in Austin this Saturday! https://t.co/zZSA0BpbWA
Sign up to join us and see Willie at 10am Saturday: https://t.co/KrDPIFIvST
— Beto O'Rourke (@BetoORourke) July 29, 2021
The rally calls on Congress to "stop attacks on democracy" by ending the filibuster, pass all provisions of the For the People Act, restore the 1965 Voting Rights Act, raise the federal minimum wage to $15 per hour and pass permanent protections for all 11 million undocumented immigrants.
Nelson denounced election law proposals gaining traction in red states, such as Senate Bill 1 and House Bill 3 in Texas, which 55 House Democrats foiled by fleeing to Washington, D.C., on July 12.
The bills would require additional ID verifications for mail-in ballots, allow partisan poll watchers "free movement" and prohibit elections officials from sending absentee ballot applications to voters who didn't request one.
"Laws making it more difficult for people to vote are unAmerican and are intended to punish people of color, the elderly and disabled," Nelson said. "If you can't win by playing the rules, then it's you and your platform–not everyone else's ability to vote."
The march is in the spirit of the Selma to Montgomery March of 1965, led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., which protested the blocking of Black Americans' right to vote by Jim Crow laws.