Photo by Gabriel C. Pérez/KUT
Thursday, June 25, 2020 by Audrey McGlinchy

Area hospitals could reach capacity in mere weeks because of Covid-19, Austin officials warn

Austin-area medical professionals and health authorities warned that local hospitals could be overwhelmed by Covid-19 patients in the next several weeks as the number of cases in Central Texas has surged.

“If we do not make significant change right now then we are going to be in a situation within the next week to two weeks where I’m going to have to make the recommendation to the mayor and judge that we shut down,” Austin Public Health interim Medical Director Dr. Mark Escott said at a news conference Wednesday.

Escott said area hospitals can handle siphoning up to 1,500 beds for coronavirus patients; while he couldn’t say how many beds are currently taken up, Travis County’s weekly average for new daily hospital admissions Tuesday was 40.

Escott said there could be as many as 50 new patients hospitalized because of the virus Wednesday.

New models from researchers at UT predict that if nothing in the Austin area changes, local hospitals could exceed their capacity by mid-July.

“Unlike hurricanes, we have the ability to change this storm, to downgrade this storm,” Escott said.

Medical professionals joined the press conference Wednesday to urge people to wear masks in public and to minimize trips away from home.

“During the lockdown we did something amazing,” Dr. John Abikhaled, president of the Travis County Medical Society, said. “We proved that we can control the virus and flatten the curve. … But then we got tired. We got a little stir crazy and we lowered our guard.”

Escott asked business owners to limit occupancy beyond what the state’s orders currently allow.

“If your ceiling is 50 percent and you can stay in business at 25 percent, make the cut now,” he said.

Austin Mayor Steve Adler said he is planning to issue a new order before the weekend that would restrict outdoor gatherings to fewer than 100 people, something Gov. Greg Abbott allowed municipalities to do Monday.

But Adler may try to restrict gatherings further: “I don’t want us to be in groups of 10,” he told KUT.

According to Austin Public Health, roughly 70 percent of new Covid-19 cases are in people in their 20s and 30s.

Dr. Kirsten Nieto, a professor of internal medicine at Dell Medical School, said she’s seen a demographic change in patients; it’s gone from people who contracted the virus because they had to leave their home for work to people who attended parties and other gatherings.

“The new cases that we’re seeing in our community are because people are actively choosing to congregate,” she said.

Officials in Hays County are seeing a similar phenomenon and have attributed a rise in the area’s coronavirus patients to young people going on river floats in the San Marcos area.

This story was produced as part of the Austin Monitor’s reporting partnership with KUT.

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