As ACL kicks off, Austin health officials urge people to remain vigilant and prevent COVID-19 spread
COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations have been on the decline over the last few weeks, but health officials are still urging people to be vigilant — especially as many people prepare to attend the Austin City Limits Music Festival this weekend and next.
A move down to Stage 3 of Austin Public Health’s COVID guidance could be in the near future, but officials say more time is needed to monitor case numbers.
“We are in Stage 4, but this is not the time to give up,” interim APH Director Adrienne Sturrup said during a news conference Friday. “We have to keep the pedal to the metal and stay strong in our course.”
The outdoor festival kicks off Friday at 3 p.m., a later start than anticipated because overnight rain impacted the Zilker Park grounds. ACL is requiring attendees to test negative for COVID-19 or show proof of vaccination. People are also supposed to wear masks in certain crowded spaces of the festival.
“With the mitigation plan ACL has presented … we are anticipating that we should have a low number of cases that result from this large gathering event,” said Austin-Travis County Health Authority Dr. Desmar Walkes.
Crowds, heat and alcohol at ACL can lead to heat exhaustion, car crashes and other kinds of injuries. COVID-19 has been straining hospitals over the last few months, but Walkes said that with the recent decline in cases, hospitals should be able to take on any increase in demand from the festival. ACL will also have a medical unit on site to take care of a lot of the injuries that may occur.
“We’ve done an extensive look at those issues and what is usually seen at the festival grounds and feel confident if they follow their plan, we will have a low impact on our hospital system,” Walkes said.
But she said it’s important for festival attendees to recognize their role in preventing injury or illness to avoid adding strain to hospitals. She urges attendees to stay hydrated, don’t drink and drive and wear masks when in crowded spaces. Walkes asked anyone who feels sick or has COVID symptoms during the festival to refrain from going out afterward. Instead, they should stay home, get tested and seek medical care if needed.
The number of patients in local intensive care units has been declining over the last couple weeks. There were 158 people in Austin-area ICUs as of Thursday, which is below the 200-bed capacity. During the last two months, ICU patients were exceeding that capacity, forcing health care providers to stretch their resources to meet the demand caused by an influx of COVID-19 patients.
COVID hospitalizations in the region and the number of new cases reported each day have been decreasing as well. The region moved to Stage 4 of APH’s COVID risk guidance on Tuesday. As daily new hospitalizations continue to decline, a move down to Stage 3 could be coming soon. But Walkes said more data is needed. Unlike during previous surges, the delta variant is still prevalent in the Austin community and can quickly cause an uptick in cases, she said.
“We are looking at the modeling, we are looking at the science and we are going to be assessing what and if any changes need to be made before we make our next move in regards to staging,” Walkes said.
Health officials attribute the recent decline in cases to increased mitigation efforts, like people masking in public and getting vaccinated. About 71% of people eligible for a COVID vaccine in Travis County are now fully vaccinated against the virus, according to state data.
“Delta is a game changer in that it spreads rapidly. It causes more severe disease, but we won,” Walkes said. “As a community, we did what it took to get us to where we are now: better vaccine rates and decreased case numbers.”
But more work is needed to protect the Austin area's hospital systems and bring the pandemic to an end. About 300,000 people eligible for the vaccine have not been vaccinated yet, according to Cassandra DeLeon, APH’s chief administrative officer for disease prevention and health promotion. Health officials urge people to get vaccinated (both against COVID-19 and the flu), social distance, stay home when sick and wear masks in public no matter your vaccination status.
They also urge people to get third doses or booster shots if they are eligible. People with moderately or severely compromised immune systems and who got two doses of Pfizer’s or Moderna’s vaccines should seek a third dose, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Some Pfizer COVID vaccine recipients who completed their last dose at least six months ago are now eligible for booster shots. People in that group who are 65 or older, or who are 18 or older and have underlying medical conditions or work in high-risk settings, should seek a booster shot, according to the CDC.
“We know that immunity starts to wane over time so we encourage folks if you meet that criteria, that you seek that Pfizer booster so that you can have assurance that you have full protection and to help us reduce further spread,” DeLeon said.
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