Travis County officials: 20 new coronavirus hospitalizations per day would strain local hospital capacity

Travis County continues to urge residents to follow social distancing guidelines when out in public. (Nicholas Cicale/Community Impact Newspaper)
Travis County continues to urge residents to follow social distancing guidelines when out in public. (Nicholas Cicale/Community Impact Newspaper)

Travis County continues to urge residents to follow social distancing guidelines when out in public. (Nicholas Cicale/Community Impact Newspaper)

The city of Austin and Travis County have averaged 8-10 new coronavirus hospitalizations per day since late March. However, Dr. Mark Escott, Austin-Travis County interim health authority, said at a news conference May 28 that if that number were to exceed an average of 20 per day for a week, local health facilities would be over capacity, and the county would move from its current Stage 3 orders into Stage 4 restrictions.

“If we exceed the capacity, we're going to experience excess deaths," he said. "This means we run out of hospital spaces, ventilators, ICU beds to care for people—not only for COVID-19, but for anything else.”

Escott said new admissions per day is a key measure the county is using to determine if it should be more or less restrictive in its guidance to residents and businesses. Because hospitals have a fixed capacity, the data about new admissions is a better indicator of when communities are feeling stress as it relates to COVID-19, he said.

Continued social distancing measures and taking precaution, such as wearing face coverings in public, could allow the county to stay in Stage 3 or to transition back down to Stage 2, which could allow open the economy further, he said.

“We can all work together to transition out of this stage,” Escott said. “We've been talking for quite some time about the need to continue the social distancing, to continue that personal hygiene, to continue masking in public, so that we can balance the public health and the economy in a way that can grow both.”

Mayor Steve Adler said at the press conference that overall, the community is approaching the pandemic cautiously and following guidelines but that there were examples Memorial Day weekend of businesses not following state orders, of gatherings taking place and of patrons not social distancing at bars and clubs. He said the community would not be able to sustain its current admissions rate if those actions were to continue or to take place communitywide.

“If we get to 20 [new hospitalizations per day], we're on a path to overwhelm our hospitals, and we're going to have to pull back [on loosening restrictions], and nobody wants to do that,” Adler said.

He said he hope if the county were to exceed 20 new admissions per day, residents would want to take action themselves to slow the spread of the virus.

Although local officials do not currently have the authority to require individuals to wear face masks, Sarah Eckhardt, former Travis County judge and current county health assistant, said the county will still enforce other restrictions, such as those on mass gatherings, which require local permits.

She said the objective is not to punish residents but to inform them so they can make safe choices about activities that could put them or others at risk.

“COVID-19 is not finished with us yet, but the best medical and scientific advice for staying safe at our homes, in our communities and at work is to keep practicing social distancing, face masking, personal hygiene, avoiding gatherings of 10 or more and staying home when you are sick,” she said.

Escott also said that the county would be updating its coronavirus dashboard either this weekend or early next week to display additional information. Changes will include showing the seven-day daily average of new hospitalizations overtime, as well as showing the estimated active cases in the county, which is calculated by taking cumulative cases and subtracting coronavirus deaths and recoveries.

“We're going to change the way that recoveries are displayed and decided. Historically, we have been utilizing the method where we are calling folks back to confirm a recovery, however, as the outbreak has grown we're going to have to transition to what the state is using, and that is a calculated recovery [over time],” he said.