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The COVID-19 public health emergency is ending, but Austin says people should remain careful

 A sign outside of a store reads, "Dogs: Yes please. Masks: Preferred."
Gabriel C. Pérez
/
KUT
Austin Public Health officials say masks are still a good way to prevent the spread of COVID and the choice to wear them should be respected.

Even though the federal public health emergency is expiring and the World Health Organization announced there's no longer a global health emergency, Austin Public Health says COVID-19 has not gone away.

"It's still going to be here and will still be in the background in public health monitoring," Austin Public Health Medical Director and Health Authority Dr. Desmar Walkes says, "to make sure that we don't get new variants that are causing more cases."

To help with that effort, Walkes encourages everyone to stay up-to-date on COVID-19 vaccines. She says those will still be available for free through APH's Big Shots program for adults and Shots for Tots for children. Vaccines can also be found through a federal website.

Austin Public Health also still recommends anyone with symptoms of COVID-19 get tested. Those who do test positive can get treatment if they qualify.

KUT talked with Walkes about ongoing efforts to address COVID in Austin-Travis County as the federal public health emergency expires.

The following transcript has been edited lightly for length and clarity.

Interview highlights

On the current Austin-Travis County COVID-19 landscape:

We are currently seeing a decrease in the amount of wastewater viral content. [Traces of the virus can show up in the feces of people who are infected.] Our hospitalization numbers have declined. We are now at a community level of low, which is a metric that's based on our hospitalization numbers. That's been low for a good period of time now — for the last couple of months. And that is through times when we've had some pretty large events here in town.

We have a robust — right now — ability to continue on with our economic, school and all of our pursuits without having a sharp trend upward in cases, which is really a good sign.

We're going to continue to monitor and continue to hope that those who have not been vaccinated will go out there and get vaccinated. And it's easier now because we now have the bivalent vaccine, so it's only one shot.

All of those things make us hopeful that we're on the other side of this, and we can go into a recovery phase of this pandemic and start taking care of people with long COVID and checking on our kids and making sure they're thriving and not having trouble with mental health issues.

On living life now with COVID still circulating:

COVID’s not gone. It's still with us. It still can cause severe disease, particularly in people who are at risk for that because of their underlying health issues or their inability to fight off infection well. It's still here, but we've had three years' practice of knowing how to test, stay home if we're sick. If we're going to be in a crowded area that's got really poor ventilation and we're one of those people that might become ill and we haven't gotten that vaccination — an extra layer of protection by wearing a mask is still a good idea.

We know now how to go back to our lives, you know, going to work and school and socializing and addressing how we present ourselves and in the situation to protect ourselves.

If we're going to visit somebody who is immunocompromised — protecting them by making sure we're not sick is still going to be important. We now have the availability of the bivalent booster as an option for people over the age of 65. So anybody who's not taking the opportunity to get that bivalent vaccine — to be up to date — now would be a good time to do that as we go and celebrate the achievements of our kids who are graduating.

On masking:

Masks are something that we found out years and years ago helped stop the spread of disease. They're used in health care [settings] to protect the spread of disease that's transmitted by particles that are coming out of our mouths and going out through the air to other people. And they help to block that from going and spreading to others and also help protect us from breathing those things. And like hand-washing, they're just part of a good way of preventing infections, what we call infection control.

I recently was on an airplane and they said, "Please respect those who are wearing a mask or choose to wear a mask." And I think we've now come to a place in our society where if somebody is wearing a mask, it's their choice. And if they choose to do that, we need to respect that. I feel that that's where we are now, and we need to start respecting the choice of others to do that.

On the importance of following up on children’s mental health:

For many children, this has been their lives through the last three years and now they're graduating. We've all been through a lot. Their lives as children are going to be a story that they tell for years to come. And our ability to help them now — to spend some time with them, to check in on them, to make sure that they are doing well, that they're not struggling with any mental health issues or needing some counseling — it's going to be important.

We have a chance to change the trajectory of those that may otherwise fall through the cracks and not get that help by just taking that time to talk.

Jennifer Stayton is the local host for NPR's "Morning Edition" on KUT. Got a tip? Email her at jstayton@kut.org. Follow her on X @jenstayton.
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