Austin area in record-breaking omicron surge, likely to go two more weeks before cases peak
Editor's note: A photo caption on this story has been updated to correct surname of vaccine administrator Isabella Grace.
Despite breaking pandemic records for hospitalizations in the past few days, Austin-area health leaders expect at least two more weeks of rising COVID-19 case totals and inpatient counts before the current coronavirus surge reaches its peak.
Dr. Desmar Walkes, Austin-Travis County health authority, told the American-Statesman on Tuesday that hospitals continue to be overrun with coronavirus patients. The total number of COVID-19 inpatients Tuesday was 553, only 100 away from the Austin area's pandemic record high of 653 inpatients on Aug. 25.
The weekly average of new daily hospitalizations, which Austin Public Health uses to determine its risk-based guidelines, is now at a three-day streak of pandemic records.
Understanding CDC recommendations:What's the difference between quarantining and isolating for COVID-19?
The average on Sunday was 102.7, beating out the previous record of 93.7 set exactly one year earlier. That streak continued into this week with a record of 108 set Monday and 110 set Tuesday.
Statewide, health officials on Tuesday recorded 11,040 people in the hospital for COVID-19, the highest number since September, when Texas was in the throes of a summer surge, fueled by the delta variant of the coronavirus. The peak during that surge was 13,932 patients on Aug. 26, 2021. The pandemic high was in January, when 14,218 Texans were hospitalized.
"We have a surge in our hospital systems right now that is putting us in a situation where (critical care) staffing is strained and stressed more than it's been in any other surge," Walkes said. "We need to work together to decrease this by protecting ourselves not only from COVID, but also by making sure you're doing things like wearing your seatbelt so you don't get in a car accident and hurt yourself."
Walkes on Tuesday said initial data show that about 30% to 40% of those coming into the hospital for medical conditions like heart attacks or diabetes, or injuries like broken bones from vehicle collisions, are also testing positive for COVID-19. As a result, those patients are having a more difficult recovery while also infecting hospital staff.
Walkes explained that the omicron variant, now the dominant strain of the coronavirus, is the most contagious form of the disease to date and can still infect those who are fully vaccinated and boosted.
Although many health care workers are experiencing mild symptoms because they're vaccinated, they're still having to call out sick and leave their patients to be cared for by the skeleton crew of healthy staff.
Hospitalizations as a whole are worse under omicron, but intensive care units and ventilators are still available, unlike the capacity crisis that crippled hospitals during the summer surge under the delta variant.
On Tuesday, 132 people were in the ICU. That number hit a pandemic record of 237 on Aug. 22 when the delta surge was at its peak.
The 65 patients on ventilators remained low compared with the pandemic record high of 174 set Aug. 29.
What can Austinites do to help ease strain of COVID omicron cases?
To decrease the strain on the hospital system, Austin Public Health last week moved the area back into Stage 5 of its risk-based guidelines, urging the strictest precautions.
Under Stage 5, if you're not fully protected with both initial vaccines and a booster shot, you should avoid indoor and outdoor gatherings, avoid all travel, only participate in takeout and curbside dining, and only participate in curbside shopping.
If you're fully vaccinated and boosted, but at high-risk for severe symptoms, you should avoid all indoor and outdoor gatherings, avoid all nonessential travel, wear a mask when dining outdoors, dine indoors wearing a mask at places that require vaccinations and masks and avoid all shopping apart from curbside.
If the Austin area abides by these recommendations, Walkes said projections show the community could reach a peak in the current omicron surge in the next two weeks. It's unclear, however, how quickly those cases will decline outside of surge levels.
"If that holds true, we still have a long way to go because we still have hospital systems that need to keep their staff healthy," Walkes said. "And, we still have people in our community who need the services that our hospitals and our health care system provides."
Austin Public Health this week also began urging residents to report all at-home positive coronavirus test results, hoping to help determine a more accurate count of how many people are getting infected.
Walkes said coronavirus cases were significantly unreported because many people are opting for at-home tests, which as of Friday were not being collected by Austin Public Health.
Residents can now email their positive test results to email@example.com.
Even with the underreported cases, Austin Public Health on Tuesday said another key indicator — the community transmission rate, which tracks new cases per 100,000 people over seven days — was 1,880.13. Last week, the average was 1,066.8.
A total of 1,218 new coronavirus cases were reported Tuesday after the pandemic record high of 1,625 set Monday.