TEXAS — Hospital staff across the state are preparing for the potential of another crisis as COVID patients start to fill up ICUs again. City leaders in Austin Friday announced a move to Stage 4 of risk-based COVID-19 recommendations, reporting a more than 200% increase in COVID hospitalizations since July 4. While frontline medical workers are at the forefront of this conversation, family physicians and even businesses are also dealing with their own set of issues.
The new normal at Zamora Medical Center is treating patients curbside. Doctors at the East Austin family physician private practice suit up in PPE from head to toe and trek outdoors to see anyone with possible COVID-19 symptoms. The door stays locked at all times and can only be opened by one of the staff with a key.
Patients drove up to the front entrance and waited to be treated. One woman got a COVID test and an examination outside while we were there with our cameras.
Dr. Guadalupe Zamora says that currently these visits are a daily occurrence; meanwhile, his vaccination appointments are about the same.
“We were seeing five to 10 positive patients per day all last year,” Dr. Zamora said. “Now we’re seeing three or four a day again, positives, and that’s why we’ve gone to Stage 4.”
In the Dallas area, the risk level is not as high as in Austin, but hospitals are seeing the same increases in COVID patients.
Spectrum News 1 spoke to Parkland Health and Hospital System Chief Medical Officer Dr. Joseph Chang on a Zoom call. He says while the total numbers of COVID patients aren’t as high as before, the rate at which they are increasing is unprecedented.
“About four weeks ago we had seven patients admitted in the hospital with COVID-19 and now we have 45,” Dr. Chang said.
He says his staff just recently celebrated closing four of their five COVID ICUs and now he is discussing the possibility of having to reopen some of them again.
“To see our vaccine numbers plateau and see these cases come back is disheartening to say the least," he said.
Overall, most cities are reporting that more than 90% of these new COVID cases involve people who are unvaccinated, and the few cases of those vaccinated are very mild and do not require hospitalization, which is the main public health concern.
Dr. Chang says out of all the COVID patients at Parkland since January he can count on a single hand the number of them who were vaccinated. Still, health experts are now urging even vaccinated people to start wearing masks in public places again.
In a virtual press conference Friday, Austin medical leaders said that there is still a risk of vaccinated people having COVID without knowing it and spreading it to the unvaccinated. This is because most cities have not reached heard immunity yet because not enough people are vaccinated.
And while city leaders are urging the public to wear masks, they can’t enforce it, so the leaves businesses with the responsibility.
Waterloo Records in Austin recently reinstated its mask mandate last week. Store manager Jessy Schwartz says she hopes more businesses do the same.
“We were watching the numbers and seeing that the hospitalizations going up,” she said. “Unvaccinated people are going maskless and we just felt like this is a safer way of doing things.”
For now, this will remain the norm for businesses and doctors who say they are trying to do their part to keep hospitals from another crisis. The responding cry from scientists, health experts and medical staff: Get vaccinated. It’s that simple.