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Austin health leaders say COVID-19 transmission is still too high to move to Stage 2

A COVID-19 vaccine is administered to a patient in East Austin.
Michael Minasi
A COVID-19 vaccine is administered to a patient in East Austin.

Since the end of October, it’s looked like Austin-Travis County was ready to move down to Stage 2 of Austin Public Health’s COVID-19 risk guidance. The seven-day average of new COVID hospital admissions has sunk below 15, putting the area in the Stage 2 range. But health officials said Friday the area will remain in Stage 3 because virus transmission is still too high.

“We take several factors into consideration when we are making decisions about the stage changes,” Health Authority Dr. Desmar Walkes said during a news conference, “and one of those is that concept of how something is spreading in our community.”

That concept is called community-based transmission — a metric APH will be adding to its staging dashboard. The dashboard measures COVID-19 trends and shows how close the area is to moving into different risk stages. (See it here.) Community-based transmission is the number of cases per 100,000 people over a seven-day period. Right now, the Austin area is at 50, which Walkes said means “substantial transmission.”

“It’s for that reason we are going to stay in Stage 3,” she said. “We know that that number is slowly going down, and as it continues to go down, we’ll take another look at things.”

A move to Stage 2 would mean fewer recommended precautions for vaccinated people. They would no longer need to wear masks at indoor gatherings with people outside of their households. APH would still advise unvaccinated people to wear masks at such gatherings, as well as at outdoor gatherings and when dining and shopping.

The goal behind incorporating the community-based transmission metric into staging decisions is to prevent another surge like Austin saw over the summer. In July, COVID cases and hospitalizations were down so much, the area was nearing a move to Stage 1. But the highly contagious delta variant quickly caused cases and hospitalizations to spike. In a matter of weeks, hospitals were overwhelmed and ICUs were over capacity.

“We want to prevent that,” Walkes said. “So, we are going to continue to ask our population … to do what we know has worked: Get vaccinated, wear a mask indoors when you don’t know what the status of someone is that you’re around.”

APH's Chief Epidemiologist Janet Pichette said this is especially important as the holidays approach. Hospitalizations and new cases have been on the decline since the end of August. This week, APH will report 604 new cases and four new deaths, she said. Two months ago, the area was seeing 700 or more new cases in a single day and more than 20 deaths in a week.

“We’ve made huge improvements, and we’ve come a long way,” Pichette said. “So, now is the time to continue to be vigilant so we can enjoy the holidays. We don’t want to see a post-holiday surge.”

This week, the health department began vaccinating children ages 5 to 11, after the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine was approved for use in the age group. APH has received an initial allotment of more than 6,000 pediatric doses of the vaccine and has begun administering them at its Shots for Tots clinics. It plans to offer them at walk-up locations at the Delco Activity Center and the old Sims Elementary School starting next week.

Other health care providers, like pharmacies and doctor’s offices, are also beginning to offer the doses, and some schools will begin providing shots on campuses starting next week.

Cassandra DeLeon, APH’s chief administrative officer for disease prevention and health promotion, said there are 115,000 children between age 5 and 11 in the area. She said APH is working to offer evening and weekend vaccination opportunities and to meet people where they are in order to get as many vaccinated as quickly as possible.

“We think it is critical that before the December holidays that we get the majority of those children vaccinated,” DeLeon said. “We are in a full-court press to try to get as many children that first dose before they break for Thanksgiving.”

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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