AUSTIN, Texas — Austin and Travis County leaders are asking Central Texans not to let up on their efforts to stop the spread of COVID-19 as businesses across the state start to reopen to the public.
During a virtual news conference Monday, Interim Austin-Travis County Health Authority Mark Escott, MD, thanked Travis County residents for their efforts to contain COVID-19, saying residents are doing a good job at flattening the curve, but now is not the time to relax. Dr. Escott estimates it will take several weeks for the county to determine the impacts of Gov. Greg Abbott's order allowing some businesses to reopen.
“The efforts that have to continue when businesses are reopening – is that social distancing," Escott said.
But Dr. Escott also shared some promising news, saying the number of people in Travis County who have contracted COVID-19 or are in the hospital as a result of the virus is steady and the hospitals have plenty of capacity. Of the 4,500 people who signed up to take a COVID-19 test through the Public Enrollment Testing Form, 1,900 people have been scheduled for a test and, as of Monday afternoon, nearly 1,000 people had been tested. Despite testing more residents, Dr. Escott said the rate of people testing positive has dropped from between 9 to 12% to 2.5%.
Still, he and city and county leaders are concerned about the risk of COVID-19 spreading. Austin-Travis County residents exceed previous expectations of social distancing by decreasing their interactions by 90%. Mayor Steve Adler said new models show if social distancing in Austin-Travis County falls to below 80%, there will be a spike in cases.
“Bottom line, I am here today to raise a big yellow flag – and that yellow flag says we should not be gathering in big groups socially,” Adler said.
So later this week, Mayor Adler and Travis County Judge Sarah Eckhardt are expected to extend Stay Home, Work Safe orders that are set to expire on May 8. The leaders say the orders will align with Gov. Greg Abbott's order to re-open some businesses and point out that, while the governor's stay-home order expired on April 30, social distancing rules are still in place under the new order.
Gov. Greg Abbott's order number 14 states, in part, "every person in Texas shall, except where necessary to provide or obtain essential services, minimize social gatherings and minimize in-person contact with people who are not in the same household."
The governor's current order, number 18, has near-identical language, with only an addition adding the exception of reopened services. It states, in part, "every person in Texas shall, except where necessary to provide or obtain essential services or reopened services, minimize social gatherings and minimize in-person contact with people who are not in the same household."
Mayor Adler added that while the governor's order removes a municipality's ability to enforce face coverings to be worn in public with civil or criminal penalties, he cannot bring himself to reverse his order making these coverings mandatory.
“The real penalty for not wearing a face-covering in Austin is that more people will get sick and some of them will die,” said Mayor Steve Adler in a statement. “That should be penalty enough. Our community acts through the choices that individuals make. Together, we will decide how COVID-19 will impact us. Let’s make the right choices.”
“With case numbers and deaths continuing to rise, there is no doubt Travis County continues to be threatened by COVID-19. This is why we must extend Stay Home, Work Safe,” said Eckhardt. “Face coverings and social distancing are helping. Now is not the time to abandon these effective measures.”
According to Mayor Adler and Austin-Travis County health officials, if social distancing is reduced to 40%, there will be a spike in hospitalizations that is past the current hospital capacity and the death toll would increase from about 80 people to more than 2,900.
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