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COVID-19

Austin health officials urge people to get booster shots ahead of winter holidays as omicron spreads

A student receives a COVID-19 vaccination as part of a Del Valle Independent School District vaccine distribution on Nov. 12.
Gabriel C. Pérez
/
KUT
A student receives a COVID-19 vaccination as part of a Del Valle Independent School District vaccine distribution last month.

Austin health officials are urging eligible people to get booster shots as the holidays approach and the omicron variant continues to spread in the U.S.

Experts are concerned about how quickly this new variant can spread, but more data is needed to know what impact it will have on the U.S. and if omicron causes more severe illness than other variants. The new variant has been detected in Harris County but not yet in Austin. Local health leaders, though, say it’s likely here as well.

“That is a very big possibility that we do [have it] and it is likely spreading,” Austin Public Health’s Chief Epidemiologist Janet Pichette said during a news conference Friday.

Pichette said if people in Austin test positive for COVID-19, the test won’t tell them if they have the omicron variant; that requires genetic sequencing. She said APH has been working with hospitals and labs to detect variants and that nearly all the cases in Austin right now are caused by delta.

Regardless of what variant is spreading, health officials say the ways to prevent infection are the same as they have been.

“Prevention methods that we … use every day and the recommendations that we make to you every day still are the same and still will help you prevent getting disease,” Pichette said. “And that is wearing a mask; washing your hands; getting vaccinated; if you’re sick, stay at home; go ahead and get your booster vaccination.”

Health officials also urge people who plan to travel during the holidays to test for COVID-19 before they leave and when they return. If they test positive, they should isolate from others and contact their health care provider to see if they are eligible for treatment.

The rate of COVD-19 transmission has been rising in Austin and Travis County, according to Health Authority Dr. Desmar Walkes. To avoid another surge in cases, she said it’s important for people to get vaccinated and for those who are fully vaccinated to get a booster shot.

Walkes said COVID-19 vaccines have been shown to protect people against severe disease, hospitalization and death from the delta variant. Early indications, she said, show the vaccines are protective against the omicron variant as well.

“The importance of [getting a] booster right now is that it will help improve that protection, so it is important for us to use the vaccine that we have available now to protect us now as we prepare for a possible surge in cases,” Walkes said.

This week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention expanded eligibility for booster shots of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine to people ages 16 and 17. Those who got the last dose of the Pfizer vaccine six months or more ago can now get a booster. All people 18 and older were already eligible for boosters.

People can get a booster shot at pharmacies and doctor’s offices around Austin. (Find one near you through Vaccines.gov.) APH also offers boosters at its walk-in clinics in Travis County. Cassandra DeLeon, APH’s chief administration officer for disease prevention and health promotion, said the health department has seen a rise in the number of people getting booster shots. Increased demand may mean longer wait lines. To speed up the process, DeLeon said people can make an appointment with APH online.

Even after receiving a booster shot, the health officials urge, people should continue wearing masks in public indoor spaces. Austin-Travis County remains in Stage 3 of APH’s risk-based guidelines, which means vaccinated people should still mask indoors and when traveling. Unvaccinated people should mask at both indoor and outdoor gatherings, when traveling, and when dining and shopping.

“Please wear your mask,” Walkes said. “A mask is an extra layer of protection. It’s going to protect you from becoming sick with COVID-19. If you happen to be someone who is an asymptomatic carrier of COVID-19, you’ll be protecting someone who you may come in contact with who is unvaccinated or at risk for having a severe case of COVID-19.”

Travis County is seeing a higher vaccination rate than many other parts of Texas. About 69% of people 5 and older are fully vaccinated in the county. In Texas as a whole, about 60% of people 5 and older have been fully vaccinated.

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