AUSTIN, Texas — In his weekly briefing on Thursday, Interim Public Health Authority Dr. Mark Escott announced that Austin-Travis County is now taking a step backward in its risk-based guidelines for COVID-19, moving from Stage 3 to Stage 4.
This comes as the state of Texas is seeing a recent surge in cases, notably in the city of El Paso.
"The challenge is that a surge like this in Austin will require us to have more than 600 ICU beds and more than 2,400 hospital beds just to care for the people in our jurisdiction," said Dr. Escott. "We don't have that many beds."
In Stage 4:
- Higher-risk individuals (those over the age of 65 and those who have chronic medical conditions) should stay home, except for essential trips such as buying groceries or seeking medical care.
- Lower-risk individuals should avoid social gatherings, any gatherings greater than 10 people, and non-essential travel.
- Recommend businesses and restaurants voluntarily reduce capacity to 25-50%.
- Recommend schools limit attendance at sporting events to players, coaches, and parents.
The original threshold for transitioning to Stage 4 was set at 40 (7-day average of hospital admissions), based on ICU beds around 300 to 400. Using data from the University of Texas COVID-19 Modeling Consortium, Austin Public Health later determined that 200 was about all it could manage due to staffing issues.
"When we see a surge like this happening around the state, staffing resources are severely diminished," said Dr. Escott. "Because of this, we have had to transition the thresholds for Stage 4 and Stage 5."
The Stage 4 transition has now been set at 30 and Stage 5 at 50.
Dr. Escott said the decision to transition a step back was based on data such as that new cases were up to 300 Wednesday for the first time since the middle of August, and the increasing positivity rate, which is now close to 7%.
"This is at a time where we must also consider the fact that we're at a stage that we can still do something about it," said Dr. Escott. "We can still affect the increase that we're seeing and prevent a surge from happening – a catastrophic surge that is being seen in El Paso and in Lubbock."
Dr. Escott said that if locals reduce their activity and exposure by 50% from where it is on Thursday, Travis County can flatten the curve as it has done in the past.
"If we achieve even greater goals of 75% reduction, we can really flatten the curve very quickly and keep it flat until we get a vaccine, which is within reach right now," he said.
Following the Thanksgiving holiday, Dr. Escott said there will be a significant increase in the risk regarding hospital admissions.
"Because Thanksgiving is a time where we all get together. Thanksgiving is a time where, for COVID-19, where we are going to be the most vulnerable," said Dr. Escott. "It's effectively – Labor Day and Memorial Day and Independence Day all combined into one big event that, unfortunately, due to the nature of the transmission of this disease, poses the most significant risk that we've seen throughout this pandemic."
Escott urged everyone over the age of 65 or at high risk to simply stay home, not just for the holidays but also for day-to-day tasks and, instead, send someone out who is lower risk. And for those who are at lower risk, Escott said that if you must go out, to wear a mask and social distance at all times when interacting with others.
"We have lots of cases that we've reviewed, and what we're seeing is the same thing we've been seeing throughout this pandemic," Dr. Escott said. "And that is where masks are being worn and people are distanced, disease is not spreading effectively. Where it's spreading is where people take off that mask and close that 6 feet of distance to be closer to other people. I know it's challenging, but we have to renew the call to action."
If individuals do not take the pandemic seriously, Escott said Stage 4 might not be the only backstep for the area.
"If we do not take the steps to change now to mitigate the risk, to flatten the curve, we could be in Stage 5 territory in just a few weeks," Dr. Escott said. "And we must do all that we can to keep that from happening, to keep our businesses healthy, keep our schools healthy, and keep our community healthy."
GRAPHS: Coronavirus data Nov. 19
Austin Mayor Steve Adler released the following statement after Escott's briefing:
Today we move to the Orange, Risk Level 4 because with more discipline we’re more likely to avoid Red, Risk Level 5, and closing schools and more businesses. By our actions together – especially over Thanksgiving — we get to decide how badly we want to stop the increasing hospitalizations. We have control over our future.
We’ve done this before; let’s do it again.
The vaccine is close, we’re almost there. We need to commit just a little longer. Mask … small groups … stay home when you can … distance … Look at your family and remember who you’re doing this for. Don’t jeopardize years of future holidays by taking unnecessary risks this Thanksgiving.
Newly sworn-in Travis County Judge Andy Brown also addressed the devastating financial impact this pandemic continues to have on local mom-and-pop shops, and said working to help local businesses will be a top priority as we enter into this new stage.
"I'm going to join with the mayor, and every other person here in Travis County to ask both that the state and the federal level help our local businesses out as we go through this time period," said Judge Brown.
Austin Public Health Director Stephanie Hayden urged local residents to take some time to reflect on the daily decisions being made as cases continue to increase.
"Austin and Travis County, it is a call for action for us to move forward and look at our behavior," said Hayden.
Travis County Parks has been operating alongside the guidelines and announced it would be limiting access to some amenities. All athletic fields, group shelters, picnic tables and barbecue grills are closed in the Travis County Park system. Camping by reservation, operational boat ramps, playgrounds, access to trails and some other amenities will remain open. For a list of open parks, click here.
More information on the key indicators for the risk-based guidelines can be found here.
It is worth noting that the risk-based guidelines only serve as recommendations and that the City of Austin does not have the distinct power to add any new restrictions, due to an executive order from Gov. Greg Abbott.
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