What to know about COVID in Austin this fall
Texans are starting their fourth fall with COVID-19, along with a fresh crop of resources to help mitigate the virus, including updated vaccines.
As has consistently been the case during the back-to-school season, COVID-19 surged in recent weeks — although not to the same extent as previous years. Lab testing data reported by Austin Public Health shows the local number of positive tests increased throughout August, peaking with 211 positive cases on Aug. 21. That number has been trending down in September.
However, as APH Chief Epidemiologist Janet Pichette told KUT last month, lab-confirmed tests no longer provide the full picture of how much the virus is circulating in the community.
"Part of that reason is because of the use of rapid antigen tests at home," Pichette said. “And, in some cases, because people are vaccinated, they may be experiencing mild disease, or may be asymptomatic and not getting tested at all — but they're out there transmitting disease.”
Increasingly, health authorities are studying the concentration of COVID-19 in wastewater samples to track the virus’s spread. In Austin, this concentration peaked around Aug. 30. It has dipped since then, but the virus still appears a lot more active than it did back in June, when wastewater data flattened.
Amid this recent rise in cases, hospitalizations in Travis County have remained relatively low, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
How to test
With the end of the federal emergency for COVID-19 this spring, insurance companies are no longer required to cover the cost of rapid antigen tests for at-home COVID testing. H-E-B currently stocks tests for $10.18 each; CVS stocks a variety of two-packs for $24.
The Biden administration announced last week it would provide a new round of free at-home tests by mail, with a limit of four per household. Those are now available for request. Austin Public Health also offers free rapid antigen tests at local neighborhood centers when supplies are available.
If you test negative using an at-home test, the Food and Drug Administration recommends following up with a second test after 48 hours, particularly if you have possible COVID-19 symptoms, such as a sore throat, fever, cough, shortness of breath or loss of taste and smell.
However, the CDC still considers a molecular PCR test to be the “gold standard” test that provides the most accurate results. These tests are available in health care settings and are submitted to a lab for processing, which typically takes around three days.
If you test positive for COVID-19, the CDC says you should isolate for at least five days, continuing to test as symptoms improve. You can also consult your doctor about antiviral treatments such as Paxlovid, which can help prevent severe disease.
The FDA and CDC gave their stamps of approval to updated vaccines from Pfizer and Moderna this month. The new formulation uses the same mRNA technology as the original vaccine, but is tailored to target more recent variants of COVID-19. The FDA says the vaccine has shown strong protection against severe disease from the most common variants circulating now, including the widespread EG.5, a subvariant of omicron. Additionally, the vaccine may reduce the chance of developing long-term complications from the virus, such as long COVID.
The CDC recommends everyone over the age of six months get the new shot, as long as it has been at least eight weeks since a previous COVID vaccination. People who have recently had COVID may want to wait up to three months before getting another shot, but there is no hard and fast rule. You can get a flu shot at the same time as the COVID vaccine.
"Our message is simple: If you are being turned away for no coverage, please call your insurance for details about in-network coverage to receive the updated COVID-19 vaccine."Health and Human Services spokesperson
Many pharmacies and health care providers have already opened appointments to offer the new shot, including major chains like CVS and Walgreens. Austin Public Health had ordered a shipment of the new vaccine in order to stock its clinics, but the shipment had not yet arrived.
You can find a comprehensive list of locations offering the vaccine at Vaccines.gov.
According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, most private insurance plans should cover the cost of the new vaccine, as should Medicare and Medicaid. However, over the past few days, some insured people have reported being charged $130 or more out-of-pocket for the vaccine.
A representative from CVS confirmed to KUT that CVS customers have encountered this issue due to delays on the insurers’ end.
“Some payers are still updating their systems and may not yet be set up to cover the updated COVID-19 vaccines,” Matt Blanchette, a communications manager for CVS, said. “If this happens, our pharmacy teams can help patients schedule an appointment for a later date.”
An HHS spokesperson also said the agency was aware that “some consumers have experienced unexpected insurance coverage denials at the point of service.”
“Our message is simple: If you are being turned away for no coverage, please call your insurance for details about in-network coverage to receive the updated COVID-19 vaccine,” the spokesperson said.
Uninsured adults who want to find the vaccine free or at low cost can visit vaccine providers that participate in the CDC’s Bridge Access Program. Parents who want to find vaccines for their kids can also seek a provider through the Vaccines for Children program, which APH participates in.