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'Not The Time To Flip On The Light Switch': Health Experts Warn Of More Outbreaks If Austin Reopens

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Gabriel C. Pérez
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KUT

The graphs UT Austin professor Lauren Ancel Meyers presented to Austin City Council members in a virtual meeting Tuesday were “plausible futures” and not “forecasts.”

Nevertheless, they illustrated two possible dire scenarios for the Austin area. Remain at home as we are doing now, with schools and many businesses closed, until September 2021 and avoid a surge in hospitalizations – and have fewer than 200 deaths. Alternatively, open up a bit, as Gov. Greg Abbott has suggested, while still protecting vulnerable populations, then lock down when there's a surge in hospitalizations – and see about 6,500 deaths.

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Credit The University of Texas COVID-19 Modeling Consortium

Reality will likely fall somewhere in the middle, with the city playing an in-and-out game, relaxing a lockdown once hospitalizations are steady and then instituting a lockdown once hospitalizations spike.

“How to gamble if you must,” said Meyers, who runs a research lab looking at mathematical approaches for predicting the spread of infectious diseases.

Council members called the meeting to respond to the governor's order Monday that allows malls, restaurants and movie theaters to open their doors Friday as long as owners limit occupancy to 25%.

"We're not just going to open up and hope for the best," Abbott said. There will be "measures in place to contain the virus and keep Texas safe."

Some malls –including Barton Creek, Lakeline and The Domain – announced they will reopen Friday, though it’s unclear which stores will be open. The Broken Spoke said Monday it would open its doors, although there will be no live music and no dancing.

But other establishments said they will remain shuttered, including the Alamo Drafthouse, which said: “Opening safely is a very complex project that involves countless new procedures and equipment, all of which require extensive training. This is something we cannot and will not do casually or quickly.”

Public health officials told council members Tuesday that in order to successfully open up the city, Austin needs more testing and contact tracing. That way, public health officials can monitor and isolate outbreaks they expect to happen if people return to shopping and dining outside their homes.

“Now’s not the time to flip on the light switch,” Mark Escott, interim medical director for Austin Public Health, warned.

While Travis County has a higher per capita testing rate than other urban counties in the state – including Bexar, Harris and Dallas counties – experts said Tuesday the county needs to be doing about seven times the amount of testing that's currently happening.

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Credit Austin Public Health

“We’re not even close to where we need to be. We’re talking about 2,000 tests a week; we need 2,000 tests a day,” Escott said. “We don’t have enough capacity to test everybody who’s admitted to the hospital. We don’t have enough capacity to test every resident of every nursing home that comes into the hospital.”

Testing, he said, is important to detect when cases are spiking and to track where the virus is spreading. Adler said the city can use that information to put in place more restrictions and isolate certain groups of people.

Meyers said she and researchers came up with a number that would trigger more restrictions: 100 new COVID-19 hospitalizations in a day. As of Monday evening, there were 71 people in the Austin area hospitalized with the virus.

So far, Austin has avoided the fate of places like New York City and New Orleans, where patients infected with COVID-19 have overwhelmed hospitals. Meyers said that’s thanks to the city’s current stay-at-home order, which was set to expire May 8, but was overridden by the state’s action.

“That is why we’re not seeing gigantic surges in hospitalizations or catastrophic numbers of deaths,” she said.

But under one of her "worst-case scenarios," the area could. If we return to a semblance of normal life with some restrictions, she said– some people still wear face masks and we don’t have mass gatherings – we could overwhelm Austin area hospitals by July.

Dell Medical School Dean Clay Johnston said a surge of hospitalizations would mean “doubling up beds, leaving people in the emergency rooms, using hallways.” He said then hospitals would be more deadly for COVID-19 patients.

“When we get to that point, the rates of death in the hospital will be much higher,” he said.

Got a tip? Email Audrey McGlinchy at audrey@kut.org. Follow her on Twitter @AKMcGlinchy.

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