Health officials warn ICU space is critically low as Travis County sees its 900th COVID-19 death

Photo of medical professions in a hospital
Travis County has seen 900 COVID-19 deaths. (Courtesy Adobe Stock)

Travis County has seen 900 COVID-19 deaths. (Courtesy Adobe Stock)

Austin Public Health said July 30 that intensive care units are critically low in Travis County and Central Texas as COVID-19 hospitalizations ramp up, with only 16 staffed ICU beds open in the 11-county Trauma Service Region that includes Austin.

“Our ICU capacity is reaching a critical point where the level of risk to the entire community has significantly increased, and not just to those who are needing treatment for COVID. If we fail to come together as a community now, we jeopardize the lives of loved ones who might need critical care," said Dr. Desmar Walkes, Austin-Travis County health authority, in a statement.

Texas Department of State Health Services data shows the Austin area has 534 ICU beds, and 117 coronavirus patients alone are currently in the ICU. Local hospitals have said COVID-19 admissions, combined with staffing shortages, are putting their systems under strain. In a July 29 joint statement, Ascension Seton, Baylor Scott & White Health, and St. David's HealthCare said they were considering surge plans as ICUs fill up.

“The latest COVID-19 spike is putting extraordinary pressure on our hospitals, emergency departments and health care professionals, and it has further challenged hospital staffing due to a longstanding nursing shortage. [We] continue to ask our community to help us and each other by getting vaccinated, practicing social distancing and wearing a mask. We cannot emphasize strongly enough the increased transmissibility of the delta variant," the hospital systems said.

During the month of July, Travis County has seen more than 4,150 confirmed new cases of coronavirus, including cases of the contagious delta variant, which local public health officials have said is likely circulating widely and driving up transmission rates. The county also saw its 900th coronavirus-related death among Austin and Travis County residents.

On July 30, the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention published a study suggesting the delta variant is more transmissible than the original strain of COVID-19, including among vaccinated people, citing infections traced to a large gathering held in Barnstable County, Massachusetts. The CDC reiterated its guidance for all people, regardless of vaccination status, to wear masks indoors, as well as outside when social distancing is not possible. However, the agency also said vaccination remains the best defense against severe illness and death, as most hospitalized individuals continue to be unvaccinated.

Meanwhile, APH is warning that Travis County could be on the verge of an increased COVID-19 risk status. Since the beginning of July, the area's risk has been upgraded from Stage 2 to Stage 4, starting the month with a seven-day moving average of eight daily coronavirus-related hospital admissions and building to 49.9 by July 30. The threshold that triggers APH to consider a move to Stage 5—the highest risk status—is 50. In the July 30 news release, APH acknowledged a move to Stage 5 was possible if hospitalizations continue to track upward.

Stage 4 recommendations ask all community members to mask up while out and about, and encourage unvaccinated people to stay home except to engage in essential activities. In APH's July 30 statement, the agency encouraged residents to heighten precautions even further, asking vaccinated individuals to opt for drive-thru options, outdoor activities and small group gatherings with masking in place.

“One COVID-19 related death is too many; we are mourning 900 loved ones. I implore our community to get vaccinated and follow the basic precautions we know work: wear a mask, socially distance, wash your hands regularly, and stay home if you are sick," Walkes said.
By Olivia Aldridge

Reporter, Central Austin

Olivia joined Community Impact Newspaper as a reporter in March 2019. She covers public health, business, development and Travis County government. A graduate of Presbyterian College in South Carolina, Olivia worked as a reporter and producer for South Carolina Public Radio before moving to Texas. Her work has appeared on NPR and in the New York Times.


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