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Austin remains in Stage 4 of COVID guidance but that could change next week

A rally calling for increased COVID-19 safety measures on the UT Austin campus on Aug. 25.
Michael Minasi
Protesters call for increased COVID-19 safety measures on the UT Austin campus in August.

As COVID-19 hospitalizations and new cases continue to decline, Austin Public Health is eyeing a move to Stage 3 of its COVID-19 guidance, but isn’t making the move just yet.

Austin-Travis County Health Authority Dr. Desmar Walkes said Friday it’s likely the area will move to Stage 3 early next week if current trends continue. But the health department is also reassessing its guidance to take flu season into account.

“We are reevaluating our risk-based guidance and taking into account the situation as it is now and what we’re anticipating will happen as we look to the impact of unvaccinated folks who may develop COVID-19 or those who are unvaccinated who may develop the flu,” Walkes said during a news conference. “There will be more to come as we finalize those guidance documents.”

The Austin area is in a much better place than it was a month ago, when ICUs were operating above capacity and hundreds — sometimes more than 1,000 — new cases were being reported each day. Chief Epidemiologist Janet Pichette said APH will report 162 new cases and three new deaths Friday, and the testing positivity rate continues to decline.

“Those are all good signs that we are returning back to a better position than we were a month ago,” she said.

But now that flu season has begun, health officials across the country are trying to avoid a “twindemic” of influenza and COVID-19, which didn’t occur last year, likely due to social distancing and masking measures that were in place. Some experts fear last year’s mild flu season could mean this year’s will be a lot worse because fewer people built immunity.

More flu cases combined with the delta variant could overwhelm health care workers, who are already burnt out and short staffed.

Austin Public Health has been encouraging people to get vaccinated for both COVID-19 and flu. The vaccines can be given at the same time.

Pichette said the vaccines are readily available in the community, through pharmacies, doctor’s offices and Austin Public Health. Methods used to slow the spread of COVID-19 also work in preventing the flu, like masking, social distancing and washing hands often. All of these efforts helped the Austin area have a mild flu season last year.

“I’m concerned that we will be hit hard with flu if we are not prepared,” Pichette said. “We need to maintain being a healthy community.”

The health officials are urging people to keep up precautions, particularly when attending large gatherings, like the Austin City Limits Music Festival, and as they prepare for holiday gatherings in the coming months.

Walkes said four cases have been reported so far from those who have attended ACL. The second weekend of the festival kicks off Friday. Event organizers are requiring attendees to test negative for COVID-19 or show proof of vaccination.

Pichette says, still, it’s apparent cases were present within the crowd, so people should stay vigilant. She said if you have symptoms of COVID-19, like runny nose, fever or a sore throat, you should stay home to not place others at risk.

“It’s just not worth it,” she said.

Although hospitals are faring better than they were a month ago, Walkes warns there are still a lot of people in ICUs and on ventilators who will continue to need care for quite some time. She said this is because the delta variant is causing more severe illness than past versions of the virus. Area hospitals received additional staff to help handle the recent surge in COVID patients, most of whom were unvaccinated, but Walkes said those contracted staffers will be leaving in the coming weeks.

“So, it’s going to be even more important for our community to protect itself and get vaccinated,” Walkes said.

So far, 71.45% of people eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine in Travis County are fully vaccinated against the virus, according to state data. Williamson County has also crossed the 70% mark. In Hays County, 63.4% of eligible people are fully vaccinated.

Approval of a vaccine for people under age 12 could be coming soon. This week, Pfizer requested the Food and Drug Administration authorize its COVID-19 vaccine for children ages 5 to 11.

When the vaccine is approved for that age group, Austin Public Health says it’ll be ready to distribute the vaccine at its clinics around the community and at schools.

“We know it takes a special type of nurse to administer a shot to our tiny tots,” interim APH Director Adrienne Stirrup said. “We’re staffed up, and … we are ready to go.”

Got a tip? Email Marisa Charpentier at Follow her on Twitter @marisacharp.

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Marisa Charpentier is KUT's assistant digital editor. Got a tip? Email her at Follow her on Twitter @marisacharp.
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