Hospital capacity and testing lag time concern officials

AUSTIN ( -- Continuing pressure on local hospitals and intensive care units, along with lags in getting testing results are among the biggest concerns Austin health officials are watching as COVID-19 continues to surge across Texas.

Austin Public Health officials held their weekly media availability Wednesday morning, a day after the area's new hospitalizations average moved above the 70 mark.

Dr. Mark Escott, interim health authority for Austin-Travis County, said a decision on whether Stage 5 restrictions are needed will be made in the next 24 hours. They're awaiting updated model data from researchers at the University of Texas to see where hospital projections will be at.

"We’re in a very dangerous situation in the state of Texas," Escott said. "We simply must be careful because we are at the verge of a real crisis in Texas. Now’s the time to act…by staying home."

Escott said recent behavior changes may have started to push the trend in the right direction, but it's still too early to tell. "We can all act in a way right now that will help us get to that point," Escott said. "We must avoid those non-essential trips to places. We must avoid gatherings, even with family and friends. You cannot tell if someone has COVID-19 and the ability to transmit that disease."

The focus right now, Escott said, is on two things - avoiding hospitals becoming overcrowded, and having to recommend another business shutdown to Gov. Greg Abbott.

Escott said efforts to set up a temporary hospital at the Austin Convention Center continue, with up to 1,500 beds for COVID-19 patients. That facility is expected to be ready by July 20, but officials continue to hope that it won't be needed.

Another concern officials are facing is a lag in testing results - one that is growing across the state. As an example, Escott said CommUnity Care is still waiting on some 2,000 test results to come back. Results that used to come back in 2-3 days are now taking 7-10 days or longer. Escott said the lag time and delays are limiting the value of the tests.

One area where progress is being made is some better visibility on existing hospital capacity. Escott said that local health officials don't legally have access to data on all patients in all hospital beds in the area, only those that have been diagnosed with infectious diseases. They're working with hospital partners to get better access to that data in real-time, and hope to have that available on the tracking dashboard by next week.