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After six weeks of oscillations, the local trend line in new COVID hospitalizations seems to be pointing more decisively upward.
Both the number of daily COVID-related hospital admissions and the number of hospital beds used by COVID patients across the Austin metro have increased in the past week, Austin-Travis County Interim Health Authority Dr. Mark Escott said Tuesday. Additionally, the number of ICU beds and ventilators currently in use by COVID patients increased over the same time period.
"All four of those (metrics) indicate that we may be moving upward in terms of the disease in Travis County and the surrounding jurisdictions," Escott said.
(Austin Public Health)
The number of area residents 70 years of age or older who have been hospitalized with COVID has also increased sharply—by 68%—in the last week, according to Austin Public Health data.
Escott attributed this jump to increasing disease spread among teenagers and younger adults and loosening adherence to precautionary actions.
"If individuals are going to visit their parents or grandparents or other loved ones … they should be using great caution in the 14 days before that visit," he said.
Recent projections by the COVID-19 Modeling Consortium at the University of Texas at Austin has also raised concerns.
Currently, researchers estimate that there is a 66% chance that the pandemic will worsen over the next month and that the seven-day moving average number of daily COVID-related hospital admissions could double—from the current rate of 14 to 28—by Nov. 1.
"When we look at the current projections from the University of Texas modelers, it's a bit concerning looking forward to November," Escott said.
"Last year, with our bad flu season, we maxed out our ICU capacity," Escott said. "We cannot have that happen this year. We cannot tolerate a twindemic of COVID-19 and influenza."
Given these risk factors, Escott recommended that local bars remain closed, even though Texas Gov. Greg Abbott granted county judges the authority to reopen them, with conditions, starting Wednesday. Travis County Judge Sam Biscoe announced that he would heed Escott's advice and reevaluate the situation in two weeks.
"I cannot in good conscience allow bars to reopen at 50% capacity at this time," Biscoe said in a statement issued on Wednesday. "The risk to our public health is too great, especially now that students of all ages have returned to the classroom."
Despite these developments, Escott expressed hope that Travis County residents could flatten the curve before it gets worse by recommitting to masking, social distancing, hand-washing and limiting gatherings.
"The second surge comes when we as a community get tired of those protective actions," 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.