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As Active COVID Cases Rise, Officials Warn Of Possible Curfew, Urge Austinites To Have Socially Distanced Holidays

A medical professional walks outside Dell Seton Medical Center in Austin.
Gabriel C. Pérez
A medical professional walks outside Dell Seton Medical Center in Austin.

Roughly nine months into the pandemic, Austin is seeing its highest number of active COVID-19 infections ahead of the holidays, and health officials are begging residents to limit contact to battle back the virus' spread.

Austin Public Health attributes the rise in cases largely to gatherings over Thanksgiving. Forecasts suggest that if left unchecked, the spread could lead to a "real disaster" that could cripple Austin's hospital capacity.

"Right now we are at a place where we have more active infections in our community than at any other point in time in this pandemic," Austin Public Health's interim Medical Director Dr. Mark Escott said Wednesday.

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Austin received 13,650 doses of the new vaccine this week, according to the Texas Department of State Health Services. Per state guidelines, those initial doses are reserved for health-care workers and people working at or residing in longterm-care facilities.

Eventually, more than 200 providers in the area will be able to deliver vaccinations. That would ultimately mean a return to relative normalcy by summer, Escott said.

But if people don’t take heed of warnings, he said, Austin could see uncontrollable spread – like El Paso has seen in recent weeks.

"When we look at El Paso's situation, and the volume of surge they have, we'd expect somewhere in the neighborhood of 1,500 additional deaths in the next couple of months," he said. "It's not a theoretical risk. We've seen it happen already in Texas."

Public health officials also reiterated their call to limit holiday gatherings to people within your household and abide by the Austin-Travis County stay-at-home order, which was extended Tuesday until Feb. 16.

In short, APH Director Stephanie Hayden said, Austin needs to stop treating this holiday season like a normal holiday season.

"We've got to change that," she said. "We cannot move forward and not realize how serious this community-wide transmission is. And so, we've got to delay any of these gatherings."

Austin has been teetering on the edge of its highest level of restrictions, stage 5. That could kick in if the seven-day average for hospital admissions rises above 50. Last week, the average eclipsed 40 for the first time since late July.

Escott said a curfew could be instituted if Austin moves to stage 5. That curfew wouldn't be widespread, he said, though it could target bars that have been allowed to continue operation as restaurants because of a loophole in state law allowed by Gov. Greg Abbott.

So far, more than 500 people in the area have died as a result of complications from COVID-19.

This story has been updated.

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.
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