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Health Official Says Austin Needs To Strictly Follow Safety Rules As Schools Prepare To Open

Sisters Danielle and Kimberly Medina pack a U-Haul to move to a new apartment on West Campus before the start of UT's fall semester.
Gabriel C. Pérez
Sisters Danielle and Kimberly Medina pack a U-Haul to move to a new apartment on West Campus before the start of UT's fall semester.

The top doctor at Austin Public Health says Austin and Travis County are doing a good job preventing the spread of coronavirus. But, Dr. Mark Escott says, residents will need to do a better job to lower the number of daily new cases to single digits. 

Pushing through the plateau the area has been going through for weeks has proved to be tough, he said, but based on the experiences of other cities, it is possible. 

“We’ve got to work harder to push through it, because we want to be in a better situation before Sept. 8 comes along, and we want to send our kids back to school, to some extent,” Escott said at a news conference Wednesday. 

He said hospitals continue to be in a better situation, with admission numbers falling. The seven-day average for new hospitalizations fell under 30 on Tuesday, the lowest it’s been in almost two months. Escott said many of the newest infections have occurred among younger people, who tend to have a lower risk of requiring hospitalization. 

“We need to ensure that we can get … our whole community, our communities of color, below that 5% [positivity] mark,” he said, referring to APH back-to-school guidelines concerning positive rates among all races and ethnicities. “So that we can be in a better place to not only open schools at that 25% mark, but keep them open and expand [capacity] so that we can have more children in classrooms in front of teachers.” 

The University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill moved all undergraduate classes online this week after an outbreak on campus. With students moving into dorms at UT Austin this week and classes set to begin next week, Escott said there’s no doubt the area will see a bump in cases because of increased traffic. 

“I don't think the expectation is that we’re going to shut down every school, or recommend the shutdown of colleges and universities that have a single case or small cluster,” he said. 

The start of Longhorn football is less than a month away, and athletics officials are still planning to allow fans into the stadium at no more than 25% capacity. Even at a quarter of the capacity, Escott said, this potentially introduces more risk to attendees, as well as the community at large.

“I think 25,000 is too many; I think we should start small,” he said. “In discussions with the high schools and our superintendents about football games the suggestion has been similarly, ‘Let’s see if we can have two healthy teams play one another,’ and then let’s talk about introducing parents of the athletes into the stands.”

This story has been updated. 

Correction: A previous version of this story said the news conference was Tuesday. It was Wednesday.

Got a tip? Email Jerry Quijano at Follow him on Twitter @jerryquijano.

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Jerry Quijano is the local All Things Considered anchor for KUT. Got a tip? Email him at Follow him on Twitter @jerryquijano.
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