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Surge of people seeking COVID-19 tests ahead of Thanksgiving, Austin health officials say

Doctors caution a negative test doesn't always give you the all-clear, and you still need to follow the guidelines.

AUSTIN, Texas — Ahead of the Thanksgiving holiday, more and more people are seeking COVID-19 tests in Austin as some states require travelers to provide negative results and college students return home.

This past weekend, nearly 32,000 people flew out of Austin-Bergstrom International Airport. It was the busiest weekend the airport has had since the start of the pandemic, according to an airport spokesperson.

On Monday, at least 1,600 people were scheduled to get tested at Austin Public Health's testing sites. Last week, an average of roughly 1,200 people were tested each day, according to the agency.

Dr. Jay Zdunek, the chief medical officer of Austin Regional Clinic (ARC), said they tested about 8,100 people last week.

"That even exceeds what we were doing when Austin was the hot spot in Texas," he said. "I think it's really a result of people expecting to travel for the holidays and not wanting to take something unexpected home to their family."

David Puentes, an Austin resident, got tested at an ARC location on Sunday, ahead of his drive to Laredo to visit his family for Thanksgiving. He received his negative result on Monday afternoon. 

"Being Latino ... we are family-oriented. And there was going to be no way I'm not going to go see my grandparents or my other family members or hang out with them," he said. "I want to be respectful to them and be mindful of their health as well."

Dr. Zdunek cautions, however, that a negative COVID-19 test result doesn't give you the all-clear. Sometimes, for example, there are false negatives or your body doesn't show the virus at the time of the test.

"We [have] still got to use common sense. We still need to use masks. We still need to use good hand hygiene. We still need to be able to socially distance ourselves from people as best as we can," he said.

You should consider wearing masks around your family members and eating outside, if possible, he recommends. If not, try to remain six feet apart at all times, especially at the dining table.

Austin Public Health released the following statement ahead of the Thanksgiving holiday:

"Standard PCR COVID-19 tests are the most accurate tests available. However, even if a PCR test result returns negative, it is still possible that individuals can contract the virus between the time they were tested and the time in which they arrive at their Thanksgiving gatherings since travel, shopping, dining, and other activities present opportunities for COVID-19 exposure. Many providers also offer rapid antigen COVID-19 tests, which provide highly accurate positive results but are more likely to show a false negative. COVID-19 tests, even standard PCR tests, cannot always catch the virus if individuals are infected too close to the date they are tested. Individuals can still be contagious within the 14 day period after infection, even if they do not feel symptoms or they received a negative test.

Regardless of the outcome of a COVID-19 test, Austin Public Health is recommending that people not gather for the Thanksgiving holiday with non-household individuals to help slow the spread and avoid entering Stage 5 of our Risk-Based Guidelines. Protecting your loved ones this year means that we will all be able to safely gather with our loved ones in years to come."

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