Austin's Pandemic Curve Might Be Flattening. But What Does That Mean For Us?

Jul 23, 2020

Nearly a month after face masks were mandated and bars closed, Austin’s COVID-19 situation appears to be plateauing. New cases are down over the past week or so. Hospital admissions have leveled off.

“We’re seeing a plateau, and a trend towards a decrease, in the number of new cases,” said Dr. Mark Escott, one of Austin’s top public health officials, on Wednesday. “We’ve seen a plateau, and a trend towards a decrease, in terms of the new admissions to the hospital. These are refreshing things.”

But why are cases going down?

Austin Public Health limited who can get tested at one of its public testing sites in early June. But even still, Escott says APH did a record 6,000 COVID-19 tests last week alone. Other testing providers have also amped up their efforts, he said.

“So, I think we’re doing a good job at testing — I don’t think that’s contributing to the decrease in cases,” he said.

There is research that shows many cases simply go undetected. And that could be what is happening in Austin. But from what we can see, things are improving — or at least not getting worse.

“Right now, we’re projecting that we’re in a declining pandemic phase,” said Spencer Fox, the associate director of UT Austin's COVID-19 Modeling Consortium.

His group crunches data about the pandemic to come up with forecasts of where things might go in the coming weeks.

“What I think we’ve proved as a city is we can slow down the epidemic without strict shutdown orders,” Fox said. “But the big question is whether what we’re doing is enough to actually start seeing declines in the epidemic. Our best estimate right now is kind of a ‘yes’ to that. But there’s a lot of uncertainty, so I don’t want to be overly confident.”

One thing that could make someone overconfident is just looking at the daily numbers. But the totals of cases, hospitalizations or even deaths are not a good snapshot of what’s happening right now.

People can become infected and not feel ill for a week or two. It might be another week before they test positive. It might be a week or more then until they’re hospitalized, if the infection gets that bad. Death, if it comes to that, might be weeks after hospitalization.

Still, hospitalizations is the indicator that can’t hide. And in the Austin area, those numbers are still quite high.

“I mean think about it, over 450 people in the Austin area alone hospitalized with COVID,” said Dr. Kristin Mondy, who leads the infectious disease division at UT’s Dell Medical School. “I can’t ever in my entire life think of a disease, like the flu or something, where that many people are hospitalized.”

That level of hospitalizations is putting a strain on the health care system.

“Right now, our concern is still the ICU capacity, in terms of primarily the personnel to staff those beds,” said Escott. “Our hospitals are doing well, they’ve got space at all levels. But they’re strained. The personnel are strained and tired.”

The number of deaths is also likely to continue to rise, since death is a lagging indicator of the severity of the pandemic — coming weeks or more after cases spike. Austin and the state as a whole have seen an increase in reported deaths this week.

And even as we see cases fall, the danger is still there. It doesn’t take much to go back to exponential growth.

“I think the question is: if we see these rates go down, how do you prevent what happened in June and July, where we had this quick spike again — how would you prevent that from happening again?” asks Dr. Mondy.

So what are we supposed to take away from what we’re seeing?

“I can tell you the wrong thing to take away from that," Fox said. "The wrong thing to take away from that is the idea that, ‘Oh, we’re in a declining epidemic phase, so I can go back to life as normal.’”

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