Austin-Travis County Loosens COVID-19 Guidelines As Schools Prepare To Reopen

Aug 25, 2020

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The Austin area is loosening COVID-19 guidelines as new cases level off.

Dr. Mark Escott, the interim medical authority for Austin Public Health, told the Austin City Council on Tuesday that cases have plateaued in the last few weeks and that he's "confident" in suggesting a transition from stage 4 of the health authority's risk-based guidelines to stage 3.

Under stage 3, Austinites are no longer urged to avoid nonessential travel and dining or shopping. The guidance for higher-risk individuals has also shifted, with the current recommendation being to avoid gatherings of more than 10 people, up from just two. The city recommends people who are at a higher risk of complications continue to avoid nonessential travel and outings.

"Everyone, regardless of risk, should avoid social gatherings and any gatherings greater than 10 people," the city said in a press release.

Austin Public Health has been handling a backlog of cases from the state within the last week – cases that, in some instances, stretched back months. State officials attributed the delay to coding errors in the state's epidemiology software. Despite that, the overall number of new cases has plateaued, Escott said.

The leveling off, combined with a dip in hospitalizations, bodes well for the Austin area, he said.

Still, he cautioned Austinites to continue social distancing and avoid gatherings with more than 10 people as UT Austin and some public schools begin in-person classes. 

"Now that we have the evidence that many of the new cases that we've seen over the past two weeks are, in fact, old cases and a result of the state-delayed reporting," Escott said, "I feel confident now in making the recommendation that we change our staging risk to stage 3."

The risk-based guidelines are based on the weekly average of hospitalizations and the positivity rate of tests in the Austin area, among other metrics. While the Austin-Travis County hospitalization average has been at stage 3 levels for the past week or so, health officials wanted to see how the number of new cases trended in light of the backlogged data.

APH said Tuesday that Austin-Travis County's positivity rate is at around 7.6%. It said it would like the area's positivity rate to drop to below 5% when schools begin in-person classes.

APH has recommended local school districts open at 25% capacity when in-person classes resume. APH Director Stephanie Hayden said the health authority is in talks with the city's parks department to look into staging outdoor classes at city parks and facilities.

Escott said he hopes the Texas Education Agency allows Austin-area schools to continue online-only classes past the first eight weeks. The agency is requiring schools to have some in-person classes after that. Escott said he doesn't want to repeat the same "costly" mistakes made when state officials pushed to open nonessential businesses.

"The challenge we have is that TEA has threatened to not fund those schools that go beyond their grace period," he said, "and I think what we need now is we need some more flexibility ... so that it will allow communities like ours ... to go slow and steady and ensure we can do things safely."

Both the governor and the attorney general have said local health authorities cannot limit in-person instruction unless there has been an outbreak of COVID-19.

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

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