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Travis County Is Testing For Possible Coronavirus, But Says Risk Of Contracting Is 'Low'

Gabriel C. Pérez

Health officials are testing "one or more" individuals for COVID-19 in the Austin-Travis County area, Austin Public Health's interim health director said.  

This is a recent development, Mark Escott told Travis County Commissioners at a meeting Tuesday. But given how the disease caused by the new coronavirus has overlapping symptoms with other illnesses, officials are testing out of caution.

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"We are currently in Phase 2," he said. "We've had persons under investigation across [Travis County] over the period of the past six weeks. ... None of those individuals have tested positive."

Because of privacy concerns, he could not provide any more details about these cases.

"We have no evidence of community spread," he said, adding the risk of contracting COVID-19 is "low."

Credit Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
The CDC's guidelines for testing for COVID-19 as of March 3.

Because the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently expanded its requirements for COVID-19 testing, Austin Public Health says, it's likely there could be more cases under investigation going forward.

Despite that, concern about the new coronavirus has caused a number of companies to cancel plans to attend South by Southwest this year. Intel and Mashable joined Twitter and Facebook in saying they will be staying away.

Earlier Tuesday, Mayor Steve Adler said any decision to cancel the event will be driven by concern over the public health and safety of the community.

Austin Mayor Steve Adler talks to members of the press.
Credit Jorge Sanhueza-Lyon / KUT
Austin Mayor Steve Adler says he and a county judge have the authority to declare an emergency if the situation warrants.

“I recognize that South by Southwest is a big activity, but that can’t be the basis for the decision that we make," he said. "And my understanding is that South by Southwest will follow whatever direction comes from the public health officers.”

Public health officials in Austin have formed an advisory panel made up of people from major hospital groups and leading physicians. Adler said city officials are in regular contact to discuss reports and review information. 

“I think for the community we need to know that it’s been looked at every day," he said. "The number one priority is to make sure we keep the community safe and the people that travel here safe.”

Other events, including the Texas Relays and Rodeo Austin, will draw crowds of people this month. Adler said Austin has plans in place to address the potential spread of viruses.  

The mayor and county judge have the authority to declare an emergency if the situation warrants. Public health officials ultimately would make the final call to cancel any events. 

The city is urging people to wash their hands, use hand sanitizer and bump elbows instead of shaking hands – all things normally recommended during flu season. 


Andrew Weber is a general assignment reporter for KUT, focusing on criminal justice, policing, courts and homelessness in Austin and Travis County. Got a tip? You can email him at Follow him on Twitter @England_Weber.
Dani Matias is a producer and host for KUT's Morning Edition. Before moving to Austin, she wrote breaking news for NPR and witnessed the Jonas Brothers’ Tiny Desk Concert in Washington, D.C.
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