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Omicron variant affecting Austin-area hospitals differently than delta

The executive director for the Capital Area of Texas Regional Advisory Council says the omicron variant is affecting hospitals in a different way than delta has.

AUSTIN, Texas — The COVID-19 omicron variant is greatly impacting area hospitals, according to one local public health expert.

During Austin Public Health's COVID-19 Q&A session on Jan. 21, Douglas Havron, the executive director for the Capital Area of Texas Regional Advisory Council (CATRAC), spoke on how the omicron variant is impacting hospital bed availability and staffing. 

CATRAC is mandated by the Texas Department of State Health Services (DSHS) to serve the 11-county region known as Trauma Service Area O. TSA O includes Bastrop, Blanco, Burnet, Caldwell, Fayette, Hays, Lee, Llano, San Saba, Travis and Williamson counties. 

During the Q&A, Havron said that local emergency departments are "quite saturated" and that on Thursday, Jan. 20, all of the major trauma centers "were saturated or beyond the saturation thresholds." On Tuesday, Jan. 18, those were more than double the saturation thresholds.

"To put that in perspective, on Wednesday [Jan. 19], we had 281 holds in our emergency department, which means patients who were admitted were waiting in the hallways or waiting in the emergency department for inpatient beds. Thirty-six of those were ICU patients," Havron said.

According to data from the DSHS, TSA O had seven ICU beds available as of Friday. There was one adult bed and six pediatric beds open.

While the area is nearing 180 ICU COVID-19 patients, this is less compared to previous peaks, and yet hospitals are nearing their capacity for patients. 

Havron said this is all part of the continued issue of hospital staffing, but noted that the omicron variant is different in the way it is impacting hospital staff. 

"It's impacting our staff, our hospital staff, much more and we're seeing much higher callout rates. Hospitals are following our CDC contingency staffing guidelines, and we're also starting to experience the same type of staffing circumstances in our EMS system, in our ambulance system throughout the region," Havron said. 

Havron said it's important to understand that during the delta variant wave, the ICU numbers were much higher. But, in regard to the holds in emergency departments, he said "our ICU capacity is full, as is our hospital capacity overall."

What does this mean for people who need emergency care? Havron said you will receive help, but you may have to wait.

"The bottom line is, if you need the emergency department, they're there to serve you. But do expect when you visit, it will be a very, very busy emergency department and there will be limitations on, on visitors," Havron said. "And be prepared for very long wait times if you do require admission or transfer."

Just a year ago, the area had an ICU capacity in the 540 range, but now capacity is sitting around 470 to 490 beds available. 

DSHS reported more than 5,500 new cases in the four-county Austin metro with the seven-day average at 3,851 cases per day. The number is growing as it is 5% higher than a week ago and drastically higher than just a month ago.

Hear more from Havron and other local health leaders below.

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