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Doctors, first responders see need for more resources – and distancing – before COVID-19 cases rise

Tuesday, March 17, 2020 by Andrew Weber, KUT

As Central Texas prepares for an inevitable spike in COVID-19 diagnoses, medical professionals are calling on local officials to address unmet needs and implement tighter restrictions on public gatherings.

In an open letter to officials Monday, nearly 200 doctors asked authorities to “implement mandatory lockdown measures to enforce social distancing.”

“Public health officials should not assume that such businesses will take these drastic measures voluntarily,” the doctors said.

The letter suggests schools stay closed for longer than two weeks while authorities gauge the severity of COVID-19’s spread. A handful of school districts in Central Texas announced shortly after the letter’s release that they would suspend operations until early April.

Events with more than 250 people are prohibited in Austin. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended Sunday that gatherings with more than 50 attendees should be banned, and the federal government is now asking people to avoid gatherings of more than 10 people.

When Austin announced the restriction on events Saturday, city officials suggested the ban could become more severe.

Meanwhile, those on the front lines – Austin-Travis County Emergency Medical Services – say they hope local officials can help supply crucial equipment ahead of what they expect to be an explosion of calls for service.

Selena Xie, head of the Austin EMS Association, said she supports the city’s response, though she expects Austin to reduce the number of people allowed at events even further.

She also expects more calls for medics to respond to COVID-19.

“I do think that we’re going to see a huge explosion in COVID-19 cases,” she said, “but that’s OK, because that’s what’s in our community and we need to find out where it is in order to contain it.”

Gov. Greg Abbott said Monday that Texans should prepare for the “mathematical reality” of a large increase in confirmed cases as the state ramps up testing.

Medics have seen an uptick in calls that could’ve been handled by primary care physicians or one of several hotlines set up to triage suspected coronavirus cases, Xie said.

Each of those calls takes valuable time and resources.

“The whole process can take four hours, and so it’s quite demanding,” Xie said. “We have not seen the explosion of call volume that we’re sure to see soon, but we are seeing a lot of unnecessary calls about COVID.”

On top of that, both doctors and first responders are prepared for the prospect of equipment shortages amid runs on items like masks and respirators.

In their letter, the physicians urged the city and county to buy more protective equipment for those treating COVID-19 patients and suggested going so far as asking the public to “turn in personal stores” of gear.

Xie told KUT that EMS will need a host of supplies over the next few months – things like respirators, better thermometers, pumps for IV machines and portable ultrasound machines. These items could be hard to obtain as cases ramp up.

“Even at a certain point, even if we’re still ahead of the curve, many of these portable machines will be bought out,” she said. “And so we need to be thinking about that now – before that happens.”

This story was produced as part of the Austin Monitor’s reporting partnership with KUT. Photo by Gabriel Cristóver Pérez/KUT News.

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