AUSTIN, Texas — Cases of COVID-19 have surged in El Paso at an astronomical rate, attributing largely in part to Texas' statewide growing numbers.
In Tuesday's Travis County Commissioners Court meeting, Austin Public Health Authority Dr. Mark Escott gave an eye-opening statistic about the worsening coronavirus situation in El Paso. El Paso has almost as many active cases (34,487) of coronavirus as Travis County has had total since the start of the pandemic, where tallies date back to March (34,769).
While giving these stats, Escott fielded a question about the situation in El Paso while updating the commissioners on the comparison of active cases per 100,000 across the state's metropolitan areas.
"What do you know stat-wise of COVID in Mexico," the commissioner asked. "Because you're trying to figure out what is going on in El Paso? Are the numbers tremendous in Mexico?"
The question led to Escott's breakdown of the situation in El Paso.
"Commissioner, I have not tracked closely the activity in Mexico. I will say that certainly, the proximity to the border may be a factor ... there is also variations in compliance across communities with things like masking and social distancing," Escott replied.
Escott said Travis County has 115 active cases per 100,000 people compared to more than 4,000 cases per 100,000 people in El Paso.
"El Paso is an absolute disaster right now," Escott said.
Escott said what health officials in Travis County are trying to prevent is a surge like El Paso is seeing, which he indicated would mean the Austin area would need more than 600 ICU beds and 2,400 hospital beds, nearly triple what he says the area can support. He said in the commissioners court meeting that initial estimates were that the Austin-area's ICU capacity was approximately 331, but has since dropped to 200. The drop in ICU capacity was not due to lack of beds or ventilators, but rather medical personnel, according to Escott. Escott said medical workers have been deployed to other jurisdictions, which has, in turn, lowered the ICU capacity for Austin-area hospitals.
At the moment, Austin is actually helping other areas of the state with their hospital capacities, notably El Paso. Escott said in the meeting that a "little more than a dozen" patients from El Paso have come to Austin, and officials wanted to send more, but many of those patients died before being transported.
Escott also said El Paso has 10 refrigerated trucks for storing bodies.
"Because we expect over the next couple of weeks that their death count is going to skyrocket," Escott said.
He added that other jurisdictions were in discussions on strategies to potentially support the anticipated excessive death surge from El Paso and to assist the grimly-growing coronavirus situation in the West parts of Texas.
"Their facilities simply can't manage processing that number of bodies," Escott said. "We are talking about a real catastrophe here. Not only in El Paso, and other places in Texas, but across the country. This is the nightmare scenario and we are facing it right now. And if we don't act right now, then Travis County and other jurisdictions across Texas can be in a similar circumstance to what El Paso is facing right now."
In Travis County, there are 1,975 active cases of coronavirus. Since the start of the pandemic, 34,769 people have tested positive for COVID-19 and 466 people have died. There are 182 people hospitalized with coronavirus in the Austin area, according to the dashboard.
Here is a look at the latest numbers in Texas and the Austin area:
GRAPHS: Coronavirus data for Nov. 16
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