Hospitalizations declining, Mu variant, vaccine hesitancy: 5 things to know about COVID-19 in Austin
Waning off a summer surge, Austin is seeing declining hospital admissions in the wake of a high number of deaths and as the new Mu variant is in town.
Here's what you need to know to be caught up with the COVID-19 situation in Austin.
In the past several weeks, hospital admissions for COVID have been on a week-on-week decline for all age groups, Austin Health Authority Desmar Walkes said at a Tuesday special joint meeting between the Travis County Commissioners Court and Austin City Council.
Since the onset of the pandemic, the most hospitalized age group has been those in the 50-69 age group.
Pediatric cases continue to be a concern to health officials as there are 133 kids hospitalized with 15 admissions on just Monday. None of the hospitalized children were vaccinated, although only those 12 and older are eligible.
Deaths peaked this month with a record 23 COVID-related fatalities on Sept. 8. Since the start of the year until Sept. 10, there has been a total of 447 deaths.
The rise in deaths is being attributed to those unvaccinated and the Delta variant, according to Walkes; 7.3% of vaccinated people have died of COVID between Jan. 1 to Sept. 10.
Of the deaths, 50% have been Hispanic and 58% have been male.
Mu vs. Delta
The Delta variant continues to be the predominant variant in the community at 99% of cases.
The Mu variant, discovered in Colombia back in January, has spread across the U.S. Research suggests it is more transmissible and vaccine-resistant than the Delta variant. However, it currently makes up .1% of lab-confirmed cases in Travis County.
Austin health officials continue to encourage the community to get vaccinated to have protection against variants. Research shared by Austin Public Health shows those vaccinated were 5 times less to contract the Delta variant, 10 times less likely to be hospitalized and more than 10 times less likely to die from it.
Of the 750,000-plus that are fully-vaccinated in the county, 5,964 have had breakthrough cases. APH's disease surveillance team interviewed 1,378 of those with breakthrough cases and found only 59 were hospitalized, or 1%. Thirty two of those cases resulted in death from ages 17-98.Those hospitiziiled as a breakthrough cases ranged from ages 19-96. Here's the breakdown of what vaccine they had:
- 13 Johnson & Johnson
- 18 Moderna
- 28 Pfizer
Why some are vaccine hesitant
APH conducted a survey in Austin-Travis County among those unvaccinated and found that 68% of survey respondents were vaccine-hesitant.
Of that number, the top reason for hesitancy was not sure if safe (55%), followed by not sure if effective (49%).
APH is continuing with outreach efforts to reach the herd immunity threshold.
- Austin ties for highest COVID deaths in a single day in Sept - austonia ›
- Travis County COVID-19 death rate decreasing despite surge ... ›
- Delta variant, unvaccinated fuel rise of Austin COVID cases - austonia ›
- Austin reaches Stage 5 as hospitalizations and cases rise - austonia ›
- UT warn of full-capacity ICUs, up to 11,000 more hospitalizations ... ›
- Austin ICUs exceed capacity as COVID hospitalizations remain high ... ›
- Most patients hospitalized for COVID-19 are unvaccinated - austonia ›
- Austin metro sees record-breaking hospitalizations, ICU admissions ... ›
- COVID hospitalizations reach Stage 4 threshold - austonia ›
Central Health is looking to acquire a former Sears department store as a new headquarters, a move that it says will save taxpayers money in the long term by consolidating existing administrative spaces. Central Health, also known by its legal name, the Travis County Healthcare District, is a public hospital district governed by an appointed board of managers under the oversight of the county commissioners court. Its primary purpose is to pay for indigent healthcare services.
The immediate impact of the plan will be a higher tax bill, and the cost savings of the consolidation won't be realized for more than a decade, according to a breakeven analysis presented at a recent board meeting.
Read the full story at The Austin Bulldog.
The Austin community is still reeling from a hostage incident at a local pediatric practice late last month, in which Dr. Katherine Lindley Dodson was killed in a murder-suicide. The crime remains under investigation, and it is unclear what role the pandemic may have played in the suspect's motives. However, recent studies have found a dramatic increase in suicidal ideation over the course of the pandemic, as many people contend with social isolation and financial stress.
Local mental health providers say that demand for services—whether in the form of client referrals or hotline calls—are up. State and federal emergency orders have improved access to telemedicine, which enables some people with insurance to access therapy virtually, but in-person outreach and other suicide prevention efforts may be affected by the pandemic.
The University of Texas Police Department received 368 calls with a mental health element between Jan. 1 and Nov. 17, 2020, compared to 493 calls in the entirety of 2019. Although this represents a slight decrease year-over-year, about half of UT students had a fully online course load, suggesting that for students on campus such calls were more common. "From what we have seen, even in the pandemic, our call volume is high," Lt. Samantha Stanford told Austonia.
UTPD recently created a specialized team of officers—the University Crisis Intervention Team, or UCIT—to respond to 911 calls with a potential mental health element.
Colors of Austin Counseling, a local therapy practice, held 6,606 therapy sessions in 2020—a 60% year-over-year increase—and more than doubled in size, from seven clinicians to 15. "The evolution of our practice has been amazing on the business side of things, and it's devastating to see the need that people have," owner and licensed therapist Vanessa Flores told Austonia.
Despite the clear increase in the number of people seeking out mental health care, Flores and other local therapists said it has not necessarily been accompanied by an increase in the severity of cases.
Integral Care's 24/7 helpline has received more calls since the pandemic began, according to practice administrator and Central Texas Suicide Prevention Coalition co-chair Melody Palmer-Arizola. But most are from people looking for someone to talk to. "A lot of the calls are people who are just like, 'When is this going to be over?'" she said.
A universal concern
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that 11% of U.S. adults reported seriously considering suicide and 40% reported struggling with mental health or substance use during a weeklong period in late June. Alarmed by the mental health repercussions, some people questioned public health officials about the safety of social distancing and other pandemic precautions.
(Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)
Last August, Austin-Travis County Interim Health Authority Dr. Mark Escott addressed this concern in one of his regular COVID-19 briefings. "There's no evidence to support that suicides during COVID-19 … are higher than they were in 2019," he said.
Since then, however, new studies have emerged that suggest suicide may be increasing. "Evidence from previous pandemics suggests a short-term decrease in suicide can occur initially—possibly linked to a 'honeymoon period' or 'pulling together' phenomenon," according to a November editorial in the British Medical Journal. Last month, Nature published a study that found an increase in suicide following an initial decline during the pandemic in Japan.
Real-time American statistics are not yet available and Austonia is awaiting a response from the Austin Police Department regarding the number of calls it has received regarding a mental health crisis. Last week, APD's 911 call operators began using an updated script when greeting callers: "Austin, 9-1-1, do you need police, fire, EMS or mental health services?"
Criminal justice reform advocates have lobbied for this change for years, hoping to limit interactions between police officers, who may not be trained to respond to mental health crises, and people experiencing them. Although it is too early to know the impact of this change, local therapists report that the demand for mental health support and services has increased significantly since the pandemic began.
Many mental health care providers have successfully transitioned to teletherapy, offering appointments over video or the phone, but those seeking out mental health treatment may face other challenges posed by the pandemic.
"Affordability is a barrier to entry," said Dr. David Hill, an Austin-based licensed psychologist and member of the Texas Psychological Association, which recently launched a resource guide that includes a psychologist search tool. Many people are facing increased financial stress due to pandemic-related layoffs—and may also have lost their health care coverage. "It's a bit of a catch-22," he added.
Nonprofits that help to fill these gaps are also affected by the pandemic.
Pick With Austin, a local organization that donates guitars and other musical instruments to children and teenagers with depression, saw its outreach curbed by the pandemic because many of its partner organizations—children's hospitals, community therapy groups, juvenile detention centers—were closed to visitors.
"What's happened with the pandemic is we've suddenly been cut off from all of those places," PYA Founder Jeff Curley told Austonia. His son, teenage guitarist Alan Carter Villaruz-Curley, died by suicide in 2010 when he was 18.
In 2019, the nonprofit distributed around 200 guitars. Last year, it was only able to give out around a quarter of that, despite having a surplus amount of donations.
"The pandemic has kept (young people) from going to school, from socializing with friends … so they've actually increased their depression," Curley said.
Despite the very serious mental health concerns surfaced by the pandemic, therapists and other experts expressed hope that the current crisis might lead to better health care coverage, wider use of teletherapy and decreased stigma around seeking out support.
Dr. Elizabeth Portman Minne owns Vida Clinic, which provides mental health services to individual clients as well as to school districts, including Austin ISD. Over the course of the pandemic, she has seen children and teenage clients embrace teletherapy. "It's versatile," she told Austonia. "Regardless of whether people are in school or wherever they are, they're still able to stay connected with their therapist."
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott recently identified mental health care funding, statewide broadband access and making permanent some temporary telemedicine regulatory waivers as top priorities this legislative session.
Minne is optimistic that the pandemic, in laying bare so many of the mental health challenges people are facing, will normalize seeking out care.
"It's an odd silver lining of the pandemic," she said. "It kind of made us connect with our own fragility and become more open to reaching out for help."
You can reach the Texas COVID-19 Mental Health Support Line at 833-986-1919 an the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255.
- Physicians group holds vigil, mourn for killing of Dr. Lindley Dodson ... ›
- Community mourns death of Dr. Katherine Lindley Dodson killed in ... ›
- Austin pediatrician Dr. Lindley Dodson shot dead by hostage taker ... ›
- Austin teens can find mental health support during pandemic ... ›
- Mental health takes on the pandemic and holiday stress - austonia ›
- Austin nonprofit and local buildings promote mental health - austonia ›
Several Reddit users identifying themselves as Austin-area health care workers took to the popular social media platform Thursday and Friday to post observations about dire situations at some facilities treating COVID-19 patients.
They described full ICUs, multiple ventilator patients sharing rooms, deceased patients waiting for space at the hospital morgue, running home at night to study old textbooks to prepare for work every day, conserving PPE, and vital medicines that could go on backorder.
All of the users were anonymous, and their identities could not be immediately verified. But they spoke in specific terms about the facilities they are working in—and the situations they are seeing at work on the front lines of a pandemic.
Their stories appeared on a post from late Thursday that drew more than 260 comments, many from people identifying themselves as other health care workers, before it was deleted Friday morning. The comments are still there. The post was first made in response to user RationalAnarchy's daily COVID-19 updates, the user wrote.
"For the first time in my career I was scared," wrote the original commenter, who said they are a registered nurse at a local hospital. "Not to be alarmist, just to tell you how serious it is. I'm a pretty chill/laid back person and this translates to my nursing care. I've been in plenty of codes and in many emergency situations, but this is different. I've never seen SO many people so so severely sick and there not being much we can do for them."
Hospital space has become an issue in Austin, especially in ICUs. Officials are planning to open a field hospital at the Austin Convention Center on July 21, but it will serve low-acuity patients—those who don't need to be in the ICU.
The three main Austin hospital systems—Ascension Seton, Baylor Scott & White Health and St. David's—said on Thursday that, collectively, ICU occupancy was at 89%, but it varies by hospital.
"COVID numbers at our hospital, much like the rest of Central Texas, are higher than what we've seen previously in this year. This certainly is a COVID surge," said Dr. DeVry Anderson, chief medical officer at St. David's South Austin Medical Center." And it's tight. We're managing ICU space day-to-day to make sure we have the space that's needed. When we do not, we're making sure that we transfer within our hospital system or even to other hospital systems when it's appropriate or needed to make sure that the patients get the level of care that is needed."
All three hospital systems are private organizations that do not release occupancy rates on any schedule. Officials have, in the recent past, expressed frustration with the lack of information.
Health care staff members at hospitals are generally not allowed to speak publicly about the facilities, but some use social media to communicate concerns anonymously.
Reddit, Facebook, Twitter and other discussion-based platforms are a popular option for getting details and insights from people on the front lines of the pandemic who cannot speak on the record to the press out of fear of losing their jobs.
Additional reporting by Chase Karacostas.
Want to read more stories like this one? Start every day with a quick look at what's happening in Austin. Sign up for Austonia.com's free daily morning email.
- Austin Public Health may raise COVID risk level to Stage 5 - austonia ›
- Austin prepares field hospital, changes strategy amid surge - austonia ›
- Austin's COVID surge, Texas' reopening and hospital capacity ... ›
- Austin prepares Convention Center as a COVID field hospital ... ›
- Austin Convention Center field hospital does not need to open today, city says - austonia ›