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Nursing shortage continues to trigger low ICU beds for Austin-area hospitals

The Austin Travis County medical director expressed concerns for staff, patients and COVID-19 numbers after the holiday weekend.

AUSTIN, Texas — Austin-area hospitals are once again running low on staffed ICU beds.

There are only two adult beds available as of Monday evening, up from zero on Sunday night. The Texas Department of State Health Services (DSHS) is also reporting five available staffed pediatric ICU beds.

This applies to an 11-county area that serves nearly 2.4 million people.

The shortage concerned Austin Travis County Medical Director Dr. Desmar Walkes.

"We are really concerned when we have this situation occur," she said. "We are having a staffing shortage right now."

Dr. Walkes said Austin-area hospitals are dealing with the nursing shortage the best they can. There is nowhere to send patients because other hospitals are handling COVID-19 surges as well.

"They'll be moved to nontraditional care areas like the recovery rooms for surgery areas and cath labs where normally cardiac cuts occur," Dr. Walkes said.

Selena Xie is an ICU nurse at an Austin hospital.

"It's just really emotionally, mentally and physically exhausting," she said. 

Xie said the State has sent FEMA and travel nurses, which has helped, but it's not enough. Xie said the shortage leads to dangerous working conditions for them and patients.

"I think we're already seeing ways in which patient care is deteriorating because we don't have the staff, so blood sugar checks get missed. We have a much larger workload than we're used to, a 50% increase in our workload, and so we're already starting to see effects of that," Xie said.

Xie said there's also the element of compassion fatigue. Some nurses are getting tired of unkind patients and families, as well as risking their lives for those who have chosen not to get vaccinated.

Over the weekend, Texas's Trauma Service Area O (TSA O) – the 11-county area that includes Austin – had zero staffed adult ICU beds available, according to data from DSHS. That number has now improved.

On Sunday, Sept. 5, there was not a single staffed ICU bed available for any adult who needed one, whether the patient needed it for COVID-19-related illness or otherwise. On Sunday, there were 245 adults in ICU beds in TSA O. There were only four available staffed pediatric ICU beds in the TSA.

By Monday, Sept. 6, the availability of staffed ICU beds had improved a little. As of Sept. 6, there are two staffed adult ICU beds and five staffed pediatric ICU beds available.

It is important to note that it is not necessarily a space issue, but rather the number of beds that can be staffed with medical professionals.  

Texas is split up into 22 "trauma service areas" or TSAs. TSA O serves nearly 2.4 million people.

Austin Public Health released this statement on Sunday:

“The virus is adapting to survive and so must we. We are seeing little to no available intensive care unit beds and increased strain on hospital staff due to the Delta virus and its infection of unvaccinated individuals. We have vaccines that are safe and effective in protecting people who are fully vaccinated from severe illness and death. Each of us has the responsibility to keep our community safe. Please get vaccinated and wear a mask.”

Here is a look at the statistics for Trauma Service Area O as of Monday:

  • 2020 Population Estimate: 2,375,407
  • Lab-confirmed COVID-19 patients currently in hospital: 666
  • Adult COVID-19 Patients in General Beds: 404
  • Adult COVID-19 Patients in ICU Beds: 248
  • Pediatric COVID-19 Patients in Hospitals: 14
  • Confirmed COVID-19 Admissions Previous 24 Hrs: 75
  • Confirmed COVID-19 Patients on Ventilators: 193
  • Total Staffed Hospital Beds: 4,240
  • Total Staffed Inpatient Beds: 3,444
  • Available Staffed Hospital Beds: 494
  • Available Staffed Adult ICU Beds: 2
  • Available Staffed Pediatric ICU Beds: 5
  • Available Ventilators: 360

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