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Austin, Travis County Move Back To Stage 4 COVID-19 Guidelines

A Spanish language mural, featuring the popular Mexican television actor Chespirito, reads "put on the mask" on a restaurant's outer wall.
Gabriel C. Pérez
A Spanish language mural, featuring the popular Mexican television actor Chespirito, reads "put on the mask" on Marcelino's restaurant in East Austin.

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Austin-Travis County health officials have scaled back their COVID risk-based guidelines to Stage 4 as cases and hospitalizations have steadily decreased.

Dr. Desmar Walkes, Austin-Travis County health authority, credits mitigation efforts such as masking and vaccinations for the improvements.

"The behaviors that have been undertaken by our community to get our numbers of cases down have been effective," Walkes said Tuesday during a joint session of the Austin City Council and the Travis County Commissioners Court.

The highly contagious delta variant of COVID-19 spurred a new outbreak in the state over the summer, quickly filling up hospitals and raising concerns about the health care system’s ability to keep pace. In a matter of weeks, local officials elevated the risk-based guidelines from Stage 2 to Stage 5, the strictest level of recommendations, as hospitalizations skyrocketed. Available ICU beds in the 11-county Trauma Service Area that includes Austin dropped to their lowest point since the pandemic started.

In a news release Tuesday, Austin Public Health said the number of patients in intensive care units remains high, but new COVID-19 hospital admissions and positive tests have continued to drop over the last few weeks.

According to health officials, the weekly positivity rate — that is, the percentage of people who got a positive test result out of everyone who got a COVID-19 test each week — dropped from 14.8% during its peak in early August to 8.3%. The seven-day moving average of hospitalizations — a figure health officials closely monitor when making decisions about community-wide health guidelines — also dropped from its peak of 641.9 on Aug. 27 to 440 on Monday. And the number of patients in local ICUs decreased nearly 21% from 230.6 on Aug. 27 to 181.1 on Monday.

Walkes cautioned that hospitals remain under duress. The number of cases has decreased, but patients with the delta variant tend to stay in the hospital longer and beds continue to be in short supply.

“The delta variant showed us how unpredictable and deadly this virus can be, especially for the unvaccinated,” Walkes said. “However, even as we continue to see the data trending in a positive direction, we cannot act as if the pandemic is over. Our hospitals and ICUs still remain at critical levels, and we need the public to continue to work together to ensure we do not contribute to a new surge.”

Under Stage 4, APH says fully vaccinated individuals should wear a mask when gathering indoors, traveling and dining or shopping, and should wear a mask for outdoor gatherings, if they are unable to socially distance.

Austin Public Health

Local health officials say partially or unvaccinated people should avoid gatherings, travel, dining and shopping unless essential. APH said they should wear a mask when out doing essential activities.

Austin Public Health

In Travis County, 71% of the eligible population is now fully vaccinated and about 81% have received at least one vaccine dose. The numbers are lower in surrounding counties whose residents represent a growing percentage of people hospitalized for COVID.

KUT's Trey Shaar contributed to this report.

Alejandro Martínez-Cabrera is an assistant digital editor for KUT.
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