Austin Public Health officials are encouraging residents to understand that if the president and first lady of the United States can contract COVID-19, anyone can.
“I think the news from earlier this morning regarding the president and first lady indicates to us and demonstrates that COVID-19 can touch anyone,” Austin-Travis County’s interim Health Authority Dr. Mark Escott said during a news conference Friday. “It also demonstrates the importance of having layers of protection in our community.”
Those layers include screening for symptoms, social distancing, washing hands frequently and wearing face coverings in public. Transmission occurs, he said, when those protective measures are not followed.
“Screening itself is not enough,” Escott said. “Success in decreasing transmission depends on multiple layers.”
He noted the president does have certain factors that put him at risk of developing complications with COVID-19, like his age (74) and obesity. In Austin and Travis County in March and April, the hospitalization rate for people with COVID-19 who were between 70 and 79 was 37.1%, and the fatality rate among those individuals was 12.9%, Escott said.
“Some of the national data sets suggest that the mortality risk for a 74-year-old with a history of obesity may be between 3 and 11%,” he added. “But we also have to remember that the president has unlimited access to health care. He has unlimited physician resources and certainly we expect that his risk will be on the lower end of that estimation.”
Over the last week, Austin and Travis County have been reporting an average of 96 new cases of COVID-19 and 12 new COVID-19 hospital admissions per day. Escott said local data continues to indicate that the cause of the spread is social gatherings.
“We have to make sure that we are being careful not only in the workplace, not only when we’re in grocery stores and restaurants, but in our personal lives with our friends and family,” he said. “Looking well, not having knowledge of being COVID-positive, is not enough protection.”
Football has been one concern. APH’s Chief Epidemiologist Janet Pichette said there have been “some indications” that the UT Austin football game against UT El Paso last month led to some COVID-19 clusters. People meeting up to watch the game outside the stadium also led to transmission, she said.
UT is playing Texas Christian University on Saturday at Darrell K Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium, which is open at 25% capacity. That means around 25,000 people could attend. UT students must test negative to go.
“There’s always an impact when you put a large number of individuals together in a setting, whether it is a UT football game that they are attending or if it’s a gathering outside the arena where they are watching the game together,” APH Director Stephanie Hayden said. “What we have noticed is most of our positivity is as a result of some type of social gathering.”
With Halloween approaching, Hayden said she encourages families to come up with new traditions this year that don’t involve gatherings. She said APH will soon be providing Halloween guidelines that outline what activities are low risk, medium risk and high risk for COVID-19 transmission.
“Individuals have to make the best choice for them and their families,” she said. “I’ve seen people being creative. Instead of going door to door collecting candy, maybe they want to hide the candy in the backyard and do something unique for their children and their families.”
Health officials are also reminding people to get their flu shot. Oct. 1 marked the beginning of flu season.
“We just don’t know what type of flu season we will have,” Hayden said. “Between flu and COVID-19, we are really trying to keep down the number of individuals that end up in our hospital so we don’t overwhelm our systems.”
This story has been updated.
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