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Austin Public Health offers guidance for Thanksgiving gatherings in 2021 amid 'slight uptick' in COVID-19 metrics

Health officials say its important to keep COVID-19 preventative measures in mind this holiday season.

AUSTIN, Texas — Austin-area health officials on Tuesday held a press conference to offer locals safety tips for gathering with family and friends this Thanksgiving as the COVID-19 pandemic continues in its second year. 

As of Tuesday, Austin remains in Stage 3 of its COVID-19 risked-based guidelines, despite having been in Stage 2 territory for several weeks. Around 107 people are currently hospitalized with the virus, with 53 in ICUs and 31 on ventilators.

RELATED: Are planning to visit your family for the holidays? Here’s a score sheet to check possible COVID risk

In Stage 3, vaccinated individuals are urged to wear masks in all situations except in outdoor gatherings and while dining and shopping. Meanwhile, unvaccinated and partially vaccinated people are urged to wear masks at all times. The health department added that those at high risk of serious illness should continue wearing masks at indoor gatherings, while shopping, dining and traveling, even if they're vaccinated.

While Stage 3 might remain, health officials said the area is at a much better place than around the holiday season last year.

"This time last year, the message was to stay at home because we didn't have the vaccine," said Adrienne Sturrup, assistant director of health equity and community engagement with Austin Public Health (APH). "We were also on the verge of a surge. Since that time, with partners, we have managed to administer almost half a million doses of the vaccine and provided over 69,000 tests. Because of that effort, 77% of residents in Austin and Travis County five and over have received at least one dose of the vaccine."

About 95% of people 65 and older have received at least one vaccine dose, 65% of 12 to 15-year-olds are fully vaccinated, and 19% of the newly eligible 5- to 11-year-old group have received at least one vaccine dose.

Because surges have been closely monitored in link to holidays, health officials are urging everyone to remain cautious and to continue practicing preventative measures, such as gathering outside or with windows open.

"We want to make sure that if you do plan to celebrate, that people are vaccinated and, if they're not, to make sure that they are wearing their masks and protecting loved ones," said Janet Pichette, chief epidemiologist with APH. "If you're out shopping, just to be safe, you need to make sure that you're also masking up because ... you may encounter someone who may be positive."   

Locally, health officials said they have seen a 33% increase in the number of newly confirmed cases since last week from the previous week.

"So we are beginning to see a slight uptick in our indicators," said Pichette. "And, you know, one reason why we have not changed a stage is the possibility that we're looking at multiple indicators here."

Those indicators include factors such as hospitalizations, community transmission rates and test positivity rates.

On top of it all, health leaders also stressed the importance of continuing to get vaccinated.

"And we know that within Travis County, we began administering our vaccines, administering boosters now that we know that anyone 18 and older is recommended for a booster," said Casandra DeLeon, chief administrative officer for disease prevention and health promotion. "We really want to make sure that everyone knows that they are available, they are free, you don't have to have insurance and you don't need to worry about your resident status."

APH leaders say booster shots and testing are going to be key this holiday season. The CDC recommends booster shots for people 65 and older, those with health issues or jobs that put them at a higher risk, and those who received the Johnson & Johnson vaccine. In addition to those groups, anyone 18 and older, who is eligible, can get their COVID-19 booster shot. APH leaders encourage everyone who is able to to get the booster.

“We know that immunity wanes after six months. So we want to make sure even if you're a healthy individual, that you get that extra layer of protection,” said DeLeon.

You need to wait six months after your second Moderna or Pfizer COVID-19 dose to get the booster shot. If you are infected with COVID-19, you can get the booster as soon as you recover, which is 10 days after infection or 10 days after the onset of symptoms. Health leaders believe that antibodies from COVID-19 infection can last around 90 days. 

It takes two weeks for the antibodies from the booster shots to reach peak protection, so if you get your booster shot now, you will have more protection by Christmas.

APH leaders recommend those who are unvaccinated and people who have any type of symptoms should get tested before a gathering. They say you should do this 48 to 78 hours before a gathering, with 48 hours being preferable.

According to the CDC, PCR tests, which usually take a few days to get results, are the most accurate form of testing and are more likely to detect infections in people that are asymptomatic. But antigen tests can give you results in 15 minutes and are still a good option.

If you truly feel like you may have COVID-19 but get a negative antigen test result, the CDC recommends you do a PCR test as well to make sure. If either of the tests you take come back with a positive result, then you need to go into a 10-day quarantine for that positive test result.

“There are all kinds of things that could be the reason for that false positive or false negative. Odds are, if you have a positive, then you’re positive, so just keep that in mind,” said Pichette.

For more information on COVID-19 rates in the Austin area, click here. And for more information on how to get vaccinated in the Austin area, click here.


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