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UT models now suggest Austin-area ICU capacity to reach limit on Jan. 21

"We cannot grow more doctors, nurses and respiratory therapists out of thin air," an Austin-area ICU doctor warns as people resources are stretched thin.

AUSTIN, Texas — Although Austin-area ICUs were projected to run out of capacity on Thursday, Jan. 14, as COVID-19 hospitalizations continue to rise in Travis County, projections from the University of Texas COVID-19 Modeling Consortium are now showing a different date – Jan. 21.

Previously, UT's projections had ICUs in Austin hitting the 203 mark on Jan. 14 (200 is said to be the capacity limit for the area). Now, the projection for Jan. 14 shows 187.

KVUE spoke with an Austin-area ICU physician about the trends and what it looks like inside of ICUs right now. 

"This has been my reality since March 2020. I was taking care of the first patient that came with COVID to this hospital in Travis County. We took care of him. He survived. We're very, very happy," said Dr. Koonj Shah. "We thought this was going to be over multiple times. We saw different projections, and it just hasn't. And I'm not expecting it to be over. And I'm mentally preparing myself such that I'm going to be taking care of this for the long haul."

Shah said health care workers, their greatest resource, are limited. 

RELATED: UT COVID-19 Modeling Consortium speaks on ICU capacity predictions

"We can make up tent hospitals. We can gather more protective equipment and medications, but we cannot grow more doctors, nurses and respiratory therapists out of thin air," said Shah. "And so, while, we are not at capacity right now, we have to realize that if we continue getting more and more COVID cases, we will be stretched thin. We also have to understand that other diseases that I take care of on a regular basis, like heart attacks, strokes, serious infections, those didn't stop. And so as we get more and more disease from COVID, our ability to take care of trauma, car accidents, heart attacks, that will also get more and more squeezed."

Interim Health Authority Dr. Mark Escott warned people on Wednesday that if ICUs continued on this trend of having more and more patients, they may have to enact a crisis standard of care. Shah said that is a scary thought.

"Ultimately, if we have patients who we are not able to salvage, we may have to be making some tough decisions where we have to really concentrate our resources and energies on those that we have the ability to their lives to save. And I hope to God that we don't get to that point," said Shah.

In an update with City leaders on Tuesday, Austin Public Health (APH) said ICU capacity still teeters the line of becoming overrun. Escott said hospital capacity becoming overwhelmed was "inevitable," according to data from UT's COVID-19 Modeling Consortium.

Austin's hospitalization rate was at 19% as of Jan. 12, meaning COVID-19 patients make up 19% of total hospital capacity. Dr. Escott said, for ICU beds, the median projection for exceeding capacity is in two days, according to the UT models.

By Jan. 12, ICU admissions for COVID-19 patients were at 180, out of the total capacity of 200 for the area. Dr. Escott said the area has been at the 180 mark for three days in a row and added that the plateau was helpful "for us to catch our breath."

City Councilmember Greg Casar said positivity rates in the area are down this week, but other metrics remain dire.

“Our community has administered a big increase in the number of tests, because more people are getting sick,” Casar said on Twitter. “So the percent positive has dipped some, but the overall number of sick is rising.”

On Tuesday, the City opened an alternate care site at the Austin Convention Center to take in COVID-19 patients. The facility has a capacity of 25 beds and can expand to 250 more beds if needed.

RELATED: Alternate care site at Austin Convention Center now open and ready for patients

"Activating the Alternate Care Site means that we believe that it is inevitable that the healthcare system in Central Texas will exceed capacity and will soon be overwhelmed," said Dr. Jason Pickett, the alternate health authority for Austin-Travis County. "When we exceed capacity, we will do so not only for COVID patients but for all individuals needing hospital care in this community. We need this community to take substantial steps now to avoid a catastrophic surge."

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