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Austin Public Health Could Push For More Restrictions As COVID-19 Hospitalizations Surge

People line up for drive-thru COVID-19 testing in Austin.
Gabriel C. Pérez
People line up for drive-thru COVID-19 testing in Austin.

Austin surpassed a crucial threshold for COVID-19 hospitalizations Tuesday, which could signal possible restrictions on businesses and nonessential travel.

The seven-day average of new COVID-19 hospital admissions hit an all-time high of nearly 75, according to numbers out Tuesday evening. Health officials have said any average above 70 would push the area into the highest stage of Austin Public Health’s five-stage guidelines. Stage 5 would recommend a shutdown of nonessential businesses and would put in place restrictions on nonessential travel.

The average increased from 64.6 to 74.8. In an update to Travis County commissioners earlier Tuesday, APH’s Dr. Mark Escott said this jump was expected, since the public health authority needed to correct a previously incomplete dataset.

Area hospitals had been submitting their admissions for the day, Escott explained, but they weren't counting already admitted patients who had contracted COVID-19. Hospitals have since course-corrected, giving APH a clearer picture.

"The data we have in hand now suggests we are over the 70 for admissions on that 7-day moving average," he said.

Rising above 70 pushes the area into Stage 5 of the risk-based guidelines, but it’s unclear if Austin Public Health will recommend this move. 

“We are currently evaluating the impact of passing the threshold of 70 as well as updated modeling and secondary indicators, such as doubling times of cases, hospitalizations, and ICU patients, to make a final determination of the stage of risk for the City of Austin and Travis County later this week,” the agency said in a statement shortly after the new numbers were released.

On Tuesday night, Austin Mayor Steve Adler said he would defer to Escott as to whether the city would need to move to Stage 5, adding that the Austin City Council would discuss the possibility at its meeting on Thursday.

Stage 5 says only essential businesses should operate, and all individuals should avoid gatherings outside their households. Everyone should also avoid shopping and dining, except as essential.

Those guidelines don't jibe with Gov. Greg Abbott's statewide orders, which allow for nonessential businesses like barbershops, gyms and amusement parks to function amid the pandemic. It's not clear if Austin-area officials would proceed with more restrictions, given their deference to Abbott's orders.

Last week APH and UT Austin epidemiologists floated the idea of another round of stay-at-home orders, including a 35-day lockdown. Adler talked about that possibility on Sunday in an interview with CNN, but admitted it wasn't feasible unless Abbott carved out the possibility in his statewide emergency order. That, Adler argued, would allow Austin to dodge the prospect of its hospitals becoming overrun with COVID-19 patients.

"If we don’t change the trajectory, then I am within two weeks of having our hospitals overrun," Adler said. "And in our ICUs, I could be 10 days away from that."

On Monday, Abbott accused local officials like Adler, Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner and Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins – all of whom have called for local control for stay-at-home orders – of not enforcing what is enforceable in his order.

"All of those local officials who are asking Texas to shut back down – they've absolutely refused to enforce the current executive orders that are already in place," he told KFDM-TV in Beaumont. "What they need to show is action, not absenteeism. They need to show up, enforce the law as it is, before they're given any further authority."

Abbott has insisted his salvo of orders that have reopened Texas have been rooted in medical advice. Critics argue his push to open the economy came at the expense of new COVID-19 cases.

Statewide, Texas saw its ninth-straight day of record-breaking hospitalizations related to COVID-19 on Tuesday.

Andrew Weber is a general assignment reporter for KUT, focusing on criminal justice, policing, courts and homelessness in Austin and Travis County. Got a tip? You can email him at Follow him on Twitter @England_Weber.
Marisa Charpentier is KUT's assistant digital editor. Got a tip? Email her at Follow her on Twitter @marisacharp.
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