Why It Matters: Central Texas hospitals & officials not releasing suspected COVID-19 case counts

AUSTIN (KXAN) — Michelle Lee Carter’s family says she died from COVID-19 after seven days in the ICU at a Round Rock hospital.

“She drove herself to the emergency room, she told me [doctors] insist I go and I can’t breathe,” said Kristen Campbell, Carter’s daughter.

Campbell said Baylor Scott and White Medical Center Round Rock immediately put her mom into an isolated room in the emergency room, and then quickly tested her for COVID-19. The next day the results came back positive.

Michelle Lee Carter (Courtesy: Lauren Mayes)

“The most difficult part was not being able to see her, hold her hand, encourage her fight, or get much more than one quick phone call with the doctor a day,” said Carter’s other daughter Lauren Mayes.

Carter had told her daughters the week prior doctors she saw through telemedicine appointments thought she just had the flu. That means about a week went by when Carter had the coronavirus, but nobody knew.

And then there are people on the other end of spectrum who get a mild case of COVID-19 or show no symptoms and never get tested, and then recover.

“There are certainly a lot of positive cases that are not officially confirmed,” said Austin Mayor Steve Adler.

On Wednesday, he admitted in a one-on-one interview with KXAN, the numbers being put out daily by the state and county are not telling the full story.

“As we get more tests, we’re going to be checking more and more people so we would expect the positive number to go up,” said Adler.

A number that’s also proving to be impossible to get in Central Texas: the number of people being admitted to local hospitals with COVID-19 symptoms, not just patients in hospitals who test positive.

These numbers would paint a more accurate real-time picture of what doctors and nurses in local hospitals are facing so far in this pandemic. They would also illustrate how many ill patients are showing up in their hospitals showing signs of the virus, who could eventually test positive.

A recent NBC report revealed a jump in hospital admissions in the Houston area does not match up with the number of cases being reported by officials in that region, and suggests most coronavirus cases have gone undetected.

While limited testing has prevented officials across the state from getting a complete accounting of how many people have been infected with the coronavirus, the story said hospitals in greater Houston have seen a steep increase — 40 percent over four days — in the number of patients believed to be suffering from the virus, according to a daily census of hospital admissions collected by the SouthEast Texas Regional Advisory Council, which helps coordinate emergency response efforts.

As of Monday, the 25-county region surrounding Houston reported fewer than 950 confirmed coronavirus cases among its 9.3 million residents. But on that same day, there were 996 people hospitalized in the region with confirmed or suspected cases of COVID-19, according to the advisory council count.

Dr. Peter Hotez, an infectious disease expert and dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at the Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, told NBC News the disconnect between the number of positive test results and the number of people hospitalized for COVID-19 suggests that a significant majority of coronavirus cases are going undetected there.

“We know that about 1 in 5 or 1 in 10 COVID-19 patients needs to be hospitalized, so what you’re seeing in hospital admissions would suggest that the actual number of cases could be five to 10 times higher in Texas than what’s been reported to this point,” he said.

KXAN reached out to the Capital Area Trauma Regional Advisory Council and requested the hospital admittance data for the greater Austin area, which was provided by a similar advisory council in Houston. We are still waiting for a response.

In addition, KXAN reached out to the three major local hospital systems: St. David’s HealthCare, Baylor Scott & White Health and Ascension and requested hospital admittance data for COVID-19 related patients. All responded saying they cannot provide the information.

The Texas Department of State Health Services, and the City of Austin have not responded with the information either.

On Wednesday afternoon, after KXAN started requesting the data, a section was added to the Austin-Travis County COVID-19 dashboard that shows current hospitalizations of positive COVID-19 patients with is 75 — triple what it was a week ago.

KXAN will continue trying to get the total number of COVID-19-related hospitalizations.

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