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Officials Say Austin Will See A Second COVID-19 Surge, Unless People Recommit To Social Distancing

A cyclist passes a Spanish language mural, featuring the popular Mexican television actor Chespirito, reading "put on the mask" on Marcelino's restaurant in East Austin.
Gabriel C. Pérez
A cyclist passes a mural featuring the popular Mexican television actor Chespirito, reading "put on the mask," on Marcelino's restaurant in East Austin.

Health officials are pleading with Austinites to avoid gatherings and get tested for COVID-19 as cases and hospitalizations approach the same levels seen in June, right before the first surge.

Over the past month, the Austin area doubled its moving average of new cases, hospital admissions and ICU admissions. Austin Public Health said the five-county area's positivity rate is also on the rise, which could lead to a surge during the holiday season.

APH interim Medical Director Dr. Mark Escott said Monday the increase in positivity rate is particularly concerning. It's above 5% across a swath of ages – from 10 to 59.

More than half of the overall COVID-19 cases are among patients between 20 and 40, Escott said.

"Right now, we could certainly be at a time where what we're seeing is the beginning of a second surge," he said, adding that the area is seeing the same level of active cases, hospitalizations and ICU admissions that it did June 17 – about two weeks before the first surge.

The increase is due in part to gatherings over Halloween weekend, according to Janet Pichette, APH's chief epidemiologist.

"We are definitely concerned about the increasing number of cases that we're seeing on a daily basis," she said. "Based on some of our case investigation, we're able to identify and beginning to see the impact of Halloween gatherings on our community."

While UT Austin's modeling suggests the area could see a surge later this month, Escott said, it could be avoided if Austinites recommit to social distancing.

APH is also asking people to avoid any gathering with people outside their immediate households, to continue wearing facial coverings when outside and to continue washing hands.

Escott said the Austin area is faring better than other large cities in Texas – namely El Paso, which has seen its hospitals inundated with COVID-19 patients in the last few weeks.

"Travis County has less cases per capita than any other metropolitan county in the state of Texas, with about 255 per 10,000 cumulative cases. This is compared to places like El Paso with more than 800 per 10,000," he said. "So I think our community is engaged. I think our community is interested in keeping itself protected."

Monday's update from APH came on the heels of an announcement from Pfizer of a possible vaccine. The pharmaceutical giant said clinical trials of the vaccine proved 90% effective, well above the FDA's required efficacy rate of 50%. Still, the FDA requires at least two months of follow-up research before it OKs any distribution.

The Austin area could possibly distribute a vaccine some time next year, Escott said.

Austin Public Health is having weekly conversations with the Texas Department of State Health Services and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to hammer out the logistics of who would be given top-priority for the vaccine after first-responders and health care providers.

This story has been updated. 

Correction: An earlier version of this story said Austin's new cases, hospital rate and ICU admissions doubled in the past week. While there have been substantial increases in the last week, they have doubled in the last month.

Got a tip? Email Andrew Weber at Follow him on Twitter @England_Weber.

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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.
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