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Austin area moves to Stage 4 risk precautions as COVID cases soar

 Health care workers administer COVID tests to people lined up in cars
Gabriel C. Pérez
Health care workers administer COVID tests to people lined up in cars at the Long Center for Performing Arts on Monday.

This post has been updated to note the city's recommendations for vaccinated people who have not received a booster shot.

The Austin area is returning to Stage 4 of Austin Public Health's risk-based guidelines to help prevent the spread of COVID-19. Stage 4 is the agency's second highest level.

“One of the greatest traits of Austin-Travis County is how we have consistently been one of the leaders in the state when it comes to lower Community Transmission Rates. Our people have continually stepped up for the greater good and been the example of how to navigate the COVID-19 surges with masking, social distancing, and vaccinations,” Dr. Desmar Walkes, Austin-Travis County health authority said in a statement Wednesday. “However, as our vigilance begins to wane, our community is falling behind. We can't afford to be lax in our prevention efforts and I'm confident that Austin-Travis County will once again lead the way."

In this stage, vaccinated people are urged to wear masks at indoor and outdoor gatherings with people outside their households, and while traveling, shopping and dining. People who are unvaccinated, partially vaccinated or still need a booster shot are urged not to gather with people they don't live with, to travel and shop only if essential, and to use takeout and curbside dining services.

To determine the risk stage, APH looks at new hospital admissions, as well as the area's positivity rate, the doubling time of new cases, and the number of  current ICU and ventilator patients. In a press release Wednesday, APH said test positivity rate and the seven-day moving average of hospital admissions are "spiking."

APH last week lowered the threshold for entering Stage 4 because the highly contagious omicron variant is spreading so quickly.

“As we get closer to the New Year celebration, I encourage everyone to follow the Stage 4 guidelines and mask up when recommended," Travis County Judge Andy Brown said in a statement. "These small preventive measures will go a long way when it comes to keeping our entire community safe.”

Health officials urged people to get fully vaccinated and boosted as soon as possible. As of Wednesday, the city said, only 23% of the eligible population had gotten a booster, leaving the community "vulnerable."

Though omicron may be causing milder symptoms, particularly among those who are vaccinated, public health officials say they worry the number of people getting sick could overwhelm hospitals.

Hospitals are already down staff, as employees are out sick with COVID. Because of this, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reduced guidelines for how long health care workers should isolate after getting infected from 10 days to seven. The agency later cut isolation and quarantine periods to five days for everyone.

Austinites have been scrambling to get tested this holiday season. Drugstore shelves are empty of at-home tests, and lines at free testing sites have stretched blocks. With cases surging across the country, the Biden administration announced it would begin mailing rapid tests to people who request them starting next month.

UT Austin researchers say this latest COVID surge will likely peak in Texas in the first few weeks of January. They predict the state is poised for a sharper rise in cases than other parts of the country because of its lower vaccination rate. Just over 60% of people age 5 and older who are eligible for the vaccine in Texas are fully vaccinated. In Travis County, 69.81% of the eligible population is fully vaccinated.

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Stephanie Federico is a digital news editor at Got a tip? Email her at Follow her on Twitter @steph_federico.
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