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Austin Area Moves To Stage 4 COVID-19 Risk Guidelines

A "Heroes work here" sign on the skybridge at Dell Seton Medical Center in Austin.
Gabriel C. Pérez
A "Heroes work here" sign on the skybridge at Dell Seton Medical Center in Austin.

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Austin is now under stage 4 coronavirus risk guidelines, interim Austin-Travis County Health Authority Dr. Mark Escott announced Thursday, following an increase in hospitalizations and cases.

Under these guidelines, the public is urged to avoid gatherings of more than 10 people, and businesses are recommended to reduce capacity to 25-50%. High-risk individuals – those over 65 and those who are immunocompromised – are advised to avoid gatherings of more than two people.

Escott said the area could soon be at stage 5 if steps are not taken to reduce disease transmission in the community.

“We have worked hard, and we have kept the disease spread down here in Travis County,” he said during a news conference. “But what we are concerned about is what’s happening in El Paso… and Lubbock.”

"We don't have that many beds."
Dr. Mark Escott

Both cities are experiencing COVID surges. Earlier this week, Escott said intensive care capacity in the Austin area had fallen because of the increased need for staffing in other cities.

A similar surge in Austin would require the area to have more than 600 ICU beds and more than 2,400 hospital beds.

“We don’t have that many beds,” he said.

When the first surge of COVID-19 hit the Austin hospital system over the summer, there were 331 intensive care units. On Tuesday, Escott told Travis County commissioners there are now only 200.

The number of new COVID cases in the area surpassed 300 for the first time in nearly three months Wednesday, and Escott said the positivity rate was almost 7% for all of Austin and Travis County. For these reasons and others, Austin Public Health reduced the threshold to move into stage 4.

“We know this has been a hard time for our businesses, but we want to keep them open,” he said. “The best way to do that is to limit the risk we have now, and keep them functioning, open and productive.”

Escott said there's been an increase in demand for testing as people prepare to visit family for the Thanksgiving holiday. He said testing is only one part of the effort to reduce transmission, adding that wearing a mask and socially distancing are still necessary.

“A negative test this week does not provide you any effective information for next week,” he said.

This story has been updated.

Andy Jechow contributed to this report.

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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