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Saving 'Several Thousand Lives' Will Come Down To How Motivated Austinites Are, Adler Says

The Fairmont Hotel is lit up with ATX inside a heart.
Gabriel C. Pérez
The Fairmont Hotel is lit up Monday.

Austin Mayor Steve Adler commended Austinites this week for their work in physical distancing and cutting daily interactions by 50%. New models from UT Austin suggest we’ll need to cut those interactions even more – to 90% – to keep our health care system from being overloaded.

Adler joined KUT’s Jimmy Maas for All Things Considered to talk about getting those interactions down and slowing the spread of the coronavirus. 

This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity.

KUT: [Modeling] numbers recommend we cut our daily interactions by 90 percent. How do we reach that number without some sort of enforcement? And what would that enforcement look like?

Austin Mayor Steve Adler: We've successfully gotten to a 50 percent decrease in physical interactions, which has put us in a better place than we would have been. But in order for us to prevent our system from being overloaded, we have to keep going and get to 90 percent. But it's not something we're going to be able to achieve through enforcement. There's not enough people or enough ways to enforce it, really. And it's going to come down to whether or not it's something that our community wants to do. It's going to be a question of just how much as a community - recognizing that that's the collection of individual actions - how motivated we are to save several thousand lives.  

KUT: So enforcement, it's more of a social enforcement, if anything?

Adler: Really at this level, it is that kind of social enforcement. It's personal responsibility. It's people going to sleep at night and thinking through the day and counting how many physical interactions they had over the course of the day and trying to drive that number down as low as we can get it. But there are people all over this city doing things all over the city. And it's going to be impossible for us to police it.

We are planning and building contingencies for what we're going to have to do as a city if we can't achieve those levels - in terms of having greater supplies and greater places for people to be, making sure that we can build to a surge in need for hospital beds or equipment. That said, the best and most effective thing we can do and the only thing that can ultimately get us to the place where we just don't lose very many people is if there is an individually based but collective desire to police our own actions.

KUT: On those numbers: we have a relatively low count of cases here in the Austin area. The worry by some is that that number could be artificially low because of testing or the lack thereof. How many tests do we have and how many tests have we been able to complete locally?

Adler: I don't have that number offhand, but I will tell you that I am virtually certain that there is greater spread of the virus than our numbers reflect. We started taking action earlier based on that belief and also the belief that sooner or later it was going to start spreading from person to person because we knew those things would happen as they are now happening.

We started taking actions before people died. And as of today [Friday], we now have our first death. So we're working on the assumption that it is spreading in the community. It’s a virus. That's what viruses do. This virus is going to spread as well. The only question is how fast does it spread, and how quickly does it come upon us? And that's what we can control.

KUT:When you and other city leaders made that call to cancel South by Southwest - not just one of the first big cancelations here, but really one of the first mass gathering cancelations I think in the U.S. - you did so because you did not want to have an epicenter here. Now, when you look at New York, New Orleans and other cities that are in the middle of an outbreak that may have pre-dated that decision by a few weeks - are you worried that despite all of this, all of what we're doing, the stay at home orders, the lost jobs, et cetera, that it might not be enough?

Adler:  I'm happy we acted when we did and when I made that decision with respect to South By it was quite the outlier. Clearly not the outlier now. But yes, I do have a concern about whether what we're doing  - whether it's going to be enough or not. I can only make sure that we do everything that we can do. And that means that we point out to the community the information that would be necessary for it, for our community, to drive the numbers down and to spread out this peak, if that's something that we are motivated to do. But it's also planning for execution of what happens in our city if we are unable to do that and our hospitals don't have the capacity to be able to handle the people that are getting sick.  

KUT:  Mr. Mayor, anything that we've left off here that you'd like to get out to the public before we say goodbye?

Adler:  Well, just a reminder that there's great hope I think and self-empowerment in knowing that at this point where we are right now, because we acted early enough to get to 50 percent decrease in physical interactions, we get to decide what our next six to eight to 12 weeks are going to be like.

And I would urge everybody to stay at home as much as they can; only go out when it's essential or critical. It’s OK to go out and exercise and jog. Best to do it yourself or with someone in your family. And we police ourselves and remind our neighbors if they seem to be forgetting, maybe this is something that we can do. We're in this together.

This post was updated March 28 with the addition of the interview transcript.

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