Austin’s top doctor says he’ll recommend city shutdown soon if changes aren’t made now

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AUSTIN (KXAN) — On Wednesday afternoon, medical professionals from the Austin-Travis County area joined Dr. Mark Escott, Interim Health Authority, in a virtual event to urge residents and businesses to take the threat of COVID-19 seriously.

“If we don’t make significant change right now, if the situation doesn’t improve in the next week to two weeks — I’m going to have to make a recommendation to the mayor and the [Travis County] Judge that we shut down. And I don’t want to do that,” announced Escott during the meeting.

Escott was joined by doctors from Dell Medical School, Travis County Medical Society, Seton Medical Center and St. David’s Emergency Care, among others — all who echoed warnings that residents scale back on relaxed attitudes and and increase safety practices.

“Now is not the time to go to the bar,” warned Escott. “I wish it were. But it’s not.”

Escott’s warning of a possible second shut down comes on the heels of several weeks featuring record highs for new cases of COVID-19. On Tuesday, Travis County reported 257 new cases — giving the county 6,596 total cases. Of these cases 4,512 are considered recovered and 1,970 are considered active.

During the event, Escott explained Austin’s current situation as the city nears the end of its fourth month into a pandemic:

  • Average of 276 new cases per day
  • “Doubling time” dropping — which, means the time it takes for cases numbers to double is taking less time. The doctor says that the doubling time has dropped from 44 days for cases to double to 18 days for doubling
  • Occupied hospital beds have increased to over 200 in a “very short amount of time”

Escott also revealed a stark prediction.

“If things don’t change… by mid-July we’re going to exceed hospital capacity.”

Dr. Mark Escott, APH Interim Health Director

As of Tuesday’s reporting, there are 236 total hospitalizations in Travis County, 94 people in the ICU and 34 patients on ventilators.

On Wednesday afternoon, Ascension Seton, Baylor Scott & White Health and St. David’s HealthCare released a joint statement on the area’s hospital capacity:

“At this time, the three healthcare systems have 2,470 staffed beds collectively, and occupancy of those staffed beds is at 71%. Collectively, the three healthcare systems have 483 ICU beds and occupancy of those ICU beds is currently at 70%.”

The health care providers also explained that staffed bed numbers (beds that are set up and ready to use) are different than licensed bed numbers (total number of beds a hospital can operate).

The hospitals say they have a total 3,250 licensed beds and that while they have the ability to “surge” to that capacity, doing so would require staffing beyond what they have for daily operations.

There have been 114 COVID-19-related deaths in Travis County.

THE LATEST: TRAVIS COUNTY CORONAVIRUS LIVE BLOG

Also on Tuesday, the state of Texas reported a record 5,489 new COVID-19 cases and 381 new hospitalizations — the 12th straight day of record hospitalizations.

Dr. Kirsten Nieto, Dell Children’s Pediatric Specialist, says that the increase in cases is due in large part to many in the community who have “abandoned” physical distancing measures.

“The new cases we’re seeing are because people are actively choosing to congregate and not wear masks. This choice is based on a false hope that because the Austin area has few deaths.”

Dr. Kirsten Nieto, Dell Children’s Pediatric Specialist

Nieto explained that there are and can be long-reaching after-effects of COVID-19, saying that the recovery time is unusual for respiratory diseases. She says that most similar diseases take relatively short amounts of times to recover from, but COVID-19 can take weeks to months.

The increasing politicization of mask wearing and staying at home was also referenced during the meeting by Dr. Christopher Ziebell, US Acute Care Solutions Southwest Medical Director.

“I’ve had conversations with a lot of people that I’m close to who see masking as an attack on one’s personal liberties. I can understand that perspective. I also can understand that while you are free to do the wrong thing, you are also free to do the right thing.”

Dr. Christopher Ziebell, US Acute Care Solution Southwest Medical Director

Escott rounded up the meeting by saying that with the July 4 holiday approaching, it’s likely that people will want to see family and friends to celebrate.

He explained that Austin is still at the point where gatherings should be limited to 10 or fewer people — if they’re held at all.

Escott explained:

“I know it’s Independence Day and we want to celebrate our country, we want to celebrate with our family. But we are putting people in danger when we do that… We have to understand that we are responsible for each other.”

What is Austin’s ‘surge capacity’?

For major hospitals in the Austin area, the surge capacity for COVID-19 patients is 1500 beds.

The agreement on the number was reached during a high-level meeting Wednesday that included three hospital presidents along with Austin and Travis County leadership.

The development comes after our investigative team spent five days asking major hospitals and local government about hospitals’ capacity to care for COVID-19 patients, as admissions continue to increase.

The 1500-bed capacity represents totals from Ascension, St. David’s and Baylor Scott & White hospitals.

The number represents 60 percent of the hospitals’ licensed beds but doesn’t include neonatal or psychiatric beds.

The number is important to local health officials, who need consistent hospital metrics to know when to pull the trigger on opening a temporary hospital, and to know which patients to send there. Austin Public Health says it’s finalizing plans for a space that if needed, could take up to 1,500 patients.

Our reporting has highlighted the frustration of city and county leaders, who have been trying to get this data from the hospitals for months.

“When there is ‘no more room at the inn’ of the private hospitals, your public partners will be left scrambling to staff beds in an Alternative Care Site that should have been brought on gradually and in partnership with you,” wrote former Travis County Judge Sarah Eckhardt in a recent email sent to the hospital heads.

According to latest numbers from Austin Public Health’s COVID-19 dashboard, the 7-day moving average for hospital admissions is at 43. However, Tuesday and Wednesday had a record number of new admissions, each with 56.

In a phone call Wednesday, Austin Mayor Steve Adler said if the 7-day rolling average reaches between 70-110 admissions, another shutdown or the implementation of a temporary field hospital are possible.

He added that this depends how quickly our area gets to that point, and that the 1500-surge capacity number is also subject to change.

Copyright 2020 Nexstar Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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