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Austin sees 135% increase in daily hospital admissions in past week, leaders say

Officials said that before omicron, 60-70% of hospitalizations were unvaccinated people, which has since dropped to 50%.

AUSTIN, Texas — Austin health and city leaders met Tuesday to discuss the latest developments of COVID-19 in the community, including an increase of the fast-spreading omicron variant. 

Austin Public Health (APH) Medical Director and Health Authority Dr. Desmar Walkes said the omicron variant is driving the current surge in Central Texas. She said the Austin area saw a 135% increase in daily hospital admissions for people who are COVID-19 positive over the past week.

Walkes said that before omicron, 60-70% of hospitalizations were unvaccinated people, which has since dropped to 50%, meaning more vaccinated individuals are now in the hospital during the surge. Walkes noted that some people were hospitalized for other health problems and subsequently tested positive for coronavirus.

According to Walkes, vaccinations still seem to be preventing severe illness. She said local health officials are noting that people with underlying issues can still get very sick with omicron and encouraged getting a coronavirus booster shot.

We spoke with Dr. Matthew Robinson, an infectious diseases physician and the medical director for infectious disease at St. David’s South Austin Medical Center, about this surge. He said over the past week they have seen a rapid increase in hospitalizations, but that they are seeing people have less severe symptoms and that overall, people are having shorter hospital stays with omicron. But, he expects this higher number of COVID-9 patients to stay consistent through January.

"I don't know when the crest will be, but I expect to see numbers stay at least as high as we're seeing now for the next few weeks, in all likelihood," said Dr. Robinson. 

He said many of their vaccinated COVID-19 cases at the hospital are actually people who came for other reasons, but then produced a positive COVID-19 test result during screening. 

APH Interim Director Dr. Adrienne Sturrup said 71% of Travis County is fully vaccinated. Sturrup said more than 14,000 booster shots were given out by APH in December. 

Booster shots seem to make a difference, based off data and advice from health leaders. Over the past two weeks, 13 vaccinated people were in the ICU with COVID-19. This is while only two people who were boosted were in the ICU in that same timeframe. 

"Not everyone responds to the vaccines in the same manner, either because of underlying illness or other reasons," said Dr. Robinson. "But it is by far a more severe disease as seen in the unvaccinated population."

Walkes said there have been more than 13,000 "breakthrough cases" – someone who was vaccinated and still contracted coronavirus – in Travis County from Jan. 1, 2021, to Jan. 3, 2022,  and of those, 57 people have died. Including all cases of coronavirus, Walkes said 647 people have died in Travis County during that same time period. That means 8% of the deaths were breakthrough cases. The youngest Travis County victim was 17 years old and the oldest was 103. The median age of those who died was 67, Walkes said. 

Watch the full briefing from health leaders here

The City moved from Stage 3 to Stage 4 of its COVID-19 risk-based guidelines on Dec. 29. As of Jan. 4, the City remains in Stage 4 despite all metrics lying in Stage 5 thresholds. Here is a deeper look at where the City's "key indicators" for coronavirus staging lies.

Walkes said in the meeting that hospitals are experiencing staff shortages and that since now the area is over the Stage 5 threshold, people need to change their behavior, including masking indoors. Sturrup said APH wants everyone to wear masks, vaccinated or not, and encouraged people to not mistake cedar fever for COVID-19. Sturrup advised those who are unsure of their status to get tested for coronavirus.

KVUE's Conner Board listened in on the meeting and provided live updates on her Twitter page. You can find more details from the meeting in her thread here.

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