College, High School Students In Austin Are Testing Positive For COVID At Exponentially Higher Rates

Sep 15, 2020

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High school and college-aged students are testing positive for COVID-19 at a much higher rate than the area's overall population, Austin's top public health expert says.

At his weekly COVID-19 briefing to Travis County commissioners Tuesday morning, Austin Public Health interim Medical Director Dr. Mark Escott highlighted the need for continued mask wearing and social distancing as high school and college students start school – even though schools and universities are primarily instructing students remotely.

The positivity rate in the Austin metro area is 4.8% – meaning roughly 5% of tests yield a positive result for COVID-19. While that positivity rate has been consistently decreasing among many demographics and age groups, it's been steadily increasing among 10- to 19-year-olds and 20- to 29-year-olds, Escott said.

Last week, high school students had the highest positivity rate at 14% – more than three times the overall positivity rate – across 107 tests.

College students had a rate of 9.4% – double the rate of positivity in the Austin area – across 235 tests.

Middle school and elementary-aged children fared better in terms of positivity last week. Out of the 36 middle school students tested, 5.6% tested positive. Elementary school students had a positivity rate of 1.5% out of 48 tests.

"As colleges have been in session, as schools continue to increase their in-person opportunities – as well as other events happening like athletic events and social gatherings – we're seeing those increases in those age groups who are more likely to gather," he said. "We are working with our superintendents, as well as with our colleges and universities, to really try and get control of the spread in these circumstances."

Escott said earlier this month that Austin Public Health had met with large apartment complexes in the West Campus neighborhood. The health authority met with fraternities and sororities on UT Austin's campus yesterday, he said.

"What we really need is for young people to be engaged in the prevention side [by] avoiding those large gatherings and ensuring they're wearing masking and [keeping] social distance,” Escott said.

Escott said the rise in positivity hasn't translated into an increase in hospitalizations or in the use of ventilators, as patients are younger and are not as at-risk of the respiratory effects of COVID-19.

The briefing comes after more than 90 students on the UT campus tested positive ahead of the Longhorn football game on Saturday. The university instituted mandatory rapid testing for students hoping to attend the game against the University of Texas at El Paso, testing nearly 1,200 students. Those test results were not reported in the APH numbers, the health authority said, because Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reporting guidelines say only PCR test results can be listed as confirmed, while rapid tests are considered "probable."

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