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Austin Drops To Stage 4 Risk Guidelines As COVID-19 Numbers Trend Down

People wait in line for a COVID-19 vaccine at a Northeast Austin vaccination center on Jan. 14.
Julia Reihs
People wait in line for a COVID-19 vaccine at a Northeast Austin vaccination center on Jan. 14.

The city's interim health authority says coronavirus cases, hospitalizations and intensive care admissions have come down enough to bring the Austin area out of the highest level of risk-based guidelines.

"We feel strongly that there is not an immediate danger of overwhelming our health care system by transitioning to stage 4," Dr. Mark Escott said. "But that doesn't mean it's time to burn the masks and go back to normal. We still have to maintain protections and we still have to work hard to drive down transmission of the disease."

The seven-day average for new daily COVID-19 hospital admissions is at 55, falling below the threshold that kept Austin and Travis County at stage 5 guidelines for nearly a month and a half. Out of more than 20,000 tests reported to Austin Public Health last week, 9.4% tested positive. That's the first time that number has been under double digits in seven weeks, though Escott said that percentage could change slightly as more results come back.

"There are some concerns out there; we're concerned about the impact of the Super Bowl over the past weekend, we're concerned about Valentine's Day, we're concerned about the new variants," Escott said.

Stage 4 guidelines recommend avoiding gatherings of more than 10 people who live outside your household. Higher-risk individuals should limit exposure to no more than two people and should still only travel outside their home for essential trips. Businesses are recommended to operate at a maximum of 50% capacity.

Escott says projections from the UT Austin Modeling Consortium indicate the rolling average for new daily hospitalizations could drop to 30 by next month.

"If we can avoid the crowds, avoid the large gatherings while we're in stage 4, it's going to put us in a better position to push our risk down further and hopefully be in stage 3 by early March," Escott said.

After hearing feedback from the public, Director Stephanie Hayden-Howard said APH is now calling individuals proactively — especially those 80 and older — to alert them about vaccine appointments opening up further in advance. APH originally planned to alert people two hours before appointments were released, but Hayden-Howard said calls were made on Monday to alert people about appointments that opened up Tuesday.

"We are aware that there are 11,000 people over the age of 80 [on the waitlist]," Hayden-Howard said. "So we want to make sure to offer as much opportunity for them getting in [for] a vaccine."

This story has been updated.

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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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