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City urges high-risk people to avoid gatherings as Austin moves to Stage 5 COVID precautions

A sign at the Travis County Community Center at Oak Hill notifies walk-ups that the site is out of at-home COVID-19 test kits on Dec. 22.
Michael Minasi

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Austin and Travis County are back at the highest stage of Austin Public Health’s COVID-19 community risk guidance as the omicron variant of the coronavirus has caused a surge of new infections and hospitalizations.

The health agency reports the area’s community transmission rate — the number of new cases per 100,000 people in the past seven days — is at 1,067 as of Wednesday and nearly 30% of COVID-19 tests administered in the area are coming back positive.

City and county officials announced the move to Stage 5 at a press conference Thursday, saying they’re concerned that increasing infection rates could cause schools, businesses and other services to close because too many people are out sick or in quarantine.

“There will come a point when schools and businesses and community centers will not be able to open their doors if we don’t do something.”
Dr. Desmar Walkes, Austin-Travis County health authority

“We haven’t witnessed the behavior changes necessary to curtail the current spike," Austin-Travis County Health Authority Dr. Desmar Walkes said. “There will come a point when schools and businesses and community centers will not be able to open their doors if we don’t do something.”

The case count is likely much higher than the official number because many Austinites are testing themselves at home. The city is encouraging people to report a positive home test by emailing If they don’t have access to email, the city said people can call 311 and be directed to the health equity line.

The jump to Stage 5 comes a day after Austin ISD students returned to classrooms from winter break, some for the first time this school year. That includes Travis County Judge Andy Brown’s first-grade daughter.

“By the time I picked her up from school, we were already discussing the community conditions that would lead to today’s move to Stage 5," Brown said. "That was tough news to hear.”

Under Stage 5, health officials urge high-risk individuals to avoid indoor and outdoor gatherings, even if taking precautions. Travel is discouraged unless it’s essential and dining in public should be outdoors while taking precautions, APH says. Shopping should be outdoors or curbside.

For people who are low risk, indoor and outdoor private gatherings, travel, shopping and dining should be done with precautions.“ Note that places that require vaccines and masks may pose a lower risk,” APH says.

Austin Mayor Steve Adler says prolonging action in the face of the more transmissible omicron variant could impact staffing levels in industries of all kinds, especially among understaffed and burned out medical workers.

“We really need each of you to be even more vigilant, to take more vigilant action to protect our community, our workforce and our economy,” he said.

Partially vaccinated and unvaccinated people should take precautions for all activities no matter what stage level, health leaders say. Under Stage 4 and 5, people in these groups should avoid most activities unless essential, APH says.

“The challenge before us is daunting, but I’m not worried because as a community we are prepared, we know what to do, we've been here before,” APH interim Director Adrienne Sturrup said. “Right now we need everyone to redouble their commitment to wearing masks. Even if you’ve been vaccinated, even if you’ve been boosted.”

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Andy Jechow is the audience engagement editor for KUT News. Got a tip? Email him at Follow him on Twitter at @AndyJechow.
Jerry Quijano is the local All Things Considered anchor for KUT. Got a tip? Email him at Follow him on Twitter @jerryquijano.
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