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Health officials warn Austin 'moving in the wrong direction' as holidays fuel COVID-19 case surge

Dr. Mark Escott said the region has seen "dozens and dozens" of entire families infected based on Thanksgiving holiday gatherings.

AUSTIN, Texas — On Tuesday, Austin Public Health’s top doctor said there are concerns as the Christmas and New Year’s holidays approach, as Thanksgiving gatherings fueled rising COVID-19 cases in the region.

Interim Health Authority Dr. Mark Escott said the “ongoing aggressive surge increases” may place the sustainability of operations at our hospitals at risk.

“What we're seeing here is as a result of Thanksgiving interactions, and in our discussions with our epidemiologic team, there are simply dozens and dozens of examples, entire families being infected based on Thanksgiving holidays in our jurisdiction – case after case after case of an individual who traveled to another part of the state, other countries, other states in the U.S. that resulted in transmission to the individual and to their household,” he said.

If the trend continues into Christmas, Central Texas risks a catastrophic surge similar to El Paso or Lubbock, in which hospitals are overwhelmed beyond capacity, he said.

“This is bad and we're moving in the wrong direction, and I really don't know how to make the message any more clear – that what we are doing now as a community is not working,” said Dr. Escott. “We thought Thanksgiving was bad. This is going to be a memorable Christmas for folks for the wrong reasons. We are going to see unprecedented levels of cases and deaths in this community between now and the end of January if we don't take action right now.”


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If new COVID-19 cases don't slow, Austin may soon move to Stage 5 with city curfew possible

If trends continue on the current path, the Austin area will exceed the average of 50 hospital admissions per day this week and quickly pass the 60 mark within the following week – a trigger to move the region to Stage 5 of its risk-based COVID-19 response. Under Stage 5 guidelines, it is suggested only essential businesses remain open and that all people avoid non-essential travel and gatherings outside their own household. Currently, Travis County remains under Stage 4 risk, with it recommended to avoid all social gatherings and all gatherings of more than 10 people, avoid non-essential travel and cut business capacity to 25% to 50%.

If Travis County moves to Stage 5 in the coming weeks, Austin Public Health will recommend extracurricular activities be put on hold at local school campuses.

“The primary concerns related to risk in schools, particularly as we look at the possibility of entering Stage 5, are extracurricular activities, by and large,” said Dr. Escott. “That is where we're seeing disease spread – extracurricular activities on campus, as well as when those student-athletes, dance teams, cheerleaders are sitting outside of the school environment in private gyms.”

As rollout begins for vaccination, Dr. Escott stressed the importance of remaining vigilant over the winter months.

“Those vaccinations have begun, but it's important for us to realize that this is only the beginning of the end,” he said. “There's still a long road to travel until we can declare actual victory over this virus, and it could take many months of getting folks vaccinated of our community continuing those protective actions.”

On Monday, the first Central Texas medical facility received its first round of coronavirus vaccines. The University of Texas Dell Medical School received 2,925 Pfizer doses around 9:30 a.m. The first vaccine doses have been administered at the school as of Tuesday at around 8 a.m.

Dell Medical School is one of four facilities statewide to receive the first shipment of vaccines. Exactly 19 other facilities are scheduled to receive shipments on Tuesday. And by the end of the week, more than 220,000 of Pfizer’s doses should be in 110 hospitals across 34 Texas counties.

“Now's not the time to take risk,” said Dr. Escott. “Now's not the time to celebrate. Now's the time to buckle down so that we can protect the rest of this community, so that we can prevent needless deaths from a disease that we now have a vaccine for.”

Austin Public Health expects hospital workers and EMS medics will be vaccinated by the end of the month, before the region begins the process of vaccinating nursing home staff and residents.

Here's a breakdown of which facilities and counties in Central Texas are receiving the first doses in the first week:

Travis County

  • Seton Medical Center – 2,925 doses
  • Dell Children's Medical Center of Central Texas – 1,950 doses
  • South Austin Medical Center – 975 doses
  • Dell Seton Medical Center – 1,950 doses
  • UT Health Austin (Dell Medical School) – 2,925 doses
  • Austin State Hospital – 975 doses
  • North Austin Medical Center – 975 doses
  • St. David's Medical Center – 975 doses

Williamson County

  • Round Rock Medical Center – 975 doses
  • Baylor Scott and White Health Medical Center Round Rock – 975 doses

Hays County

Seton Medical Center Hays – 975 doses

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