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Austin Officials Say Effects Of COVID Spread From Sheltering With Others During The Storm Are Yet To Be Seen

Long lines formed at grocery stores, like this one at the H-E-B on 41st Street in Austin, following last week's winter storm.
Julia Reihs
Long lines formed at grocery stores, like the H-E-B on 41st Street in Austin, as temperatures warmed up last Friday.

Countless people sought shelter last week wherever they could, trying to escape the severe cold when their power went out or to gain access to running water. That led to close contact with others from outside their households and possible exposure to the coronavirus.

Austin Public Health Chief Epidemiologist Janet Pichette encourages people who suspect they might have been exposed to quarantine themselves and schedule a COVID test.

"We haven't seen an uptick as of yet; we're still playing catch-up," Pichette said during a news conference Friday, the first in two weeks. "Obviously, testing operations, even receipt of laboratory reports from testing operations throughout the city and from the state health department kind of ceased during that time period, they kind of trickled in."

As a result, Austin Public Health lacks data on the state of the pandemic in the area, in terms of new case numbers and positivity rates. Those numbers had been trending downward in recent weeks. The APH dashboard may not be updated with data from this week until Sunday or Monday, according to APH Director Stephanie Hayden-Howard.

"We have provided over 20,000 vaccines as of today, just this week, and we are well on our way to completing over 33,000 vaccines," she said.

Austin Public Health Deputy Medical Director Dr. Jason Pickett said he was encouraged by the prospect of a Johnson & Johnson vaccine getting federal approval Friday.

"I'm really excited that we have yet another vaccine that should shortly be available," he said. "That means more people getting protected and fewer people getting the virus."

Even with its approval, though, he said it's not time to stop wearing masks. He said the community is nowhere near herd immunity.

"We've never achieved herd immunity through natural infection to smallpox or to measles or to polio," Pickett said. "All of these required widespread vaccination efforts to really halt those diseases and to protect the population at large. COVID-19 is no different."

He added that he's optimistic about the increased supply of vaccines and their effectiveness, saying Austin Public Health is capable of providing more doses than it currently has and will as soon as more doses are delivered.

Trey Shaar is an All Things Considered producer, reporter and host. Got a tip? Email him at Follow him on Twitter @treyshaar.
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