COVID-19 Cases Decline, But Austin Public Health Says Personal Safety Precautions Should Not

Sep 1, 2020

As he has done time and again over the past six months, Austin Public Health interim Health Authority Dr. Mark Escott said Tuesday that residents need to stay vigilant about wearing masks and social distancing. Otherwise, in weeks’ time, he says we could return to where we were at the end of June, when public health officials feared coronavirus cases could overwhelm our hospitals.

“Now’s not the time to crowd bars. Now’s not the time to have barbecues or family gatherings on Labor Day,” Escott told City Council members. “Now’s the time to stay the course.”

Daily cases have significantly decreased in Central Texas; the 7-day average of new cases is down from about 550 per day in early July to 89 as of Monday. This drop prompted the City of Austin last week to lower its risk level from Stage 4 to Stage 3, meaning that public health officials have approved some activities like eating out and shopping for healthy people.

“If folks want to go out with their household to a restaurant that’s probably OK, if that household is low-risk,” Escott said Tuesday.

And while rates of infection among Hispanic and Black people have remained disproportionately high, public health officials say that is beginning to improve. In the past several weeks, the rate of Hispanic people who’ve tested positive for the virus has dropped from roughly 17% to just over 10%.

Council members asked Escott how the city is monitoring potential outbreaks among college students, as many returned to campuses in the area last week. The University of Texas at Austin confirmed Monday that two students tested positive.

Austin Public Health Director Stephanie Hayden said the agency is scheduling meetings with fraternities, sororities and other student groups. She also said the city would be sending information on required coronavirus safety measures, such as mask-wearing, to managers of apartment complexes where many students live, including West Campus and Riverside.

While council members worried about the spread of the virus among young people, cases among people living in nursing homes, which made up some of the earliest outbreaks in the city, has been on the decline. On Tuesday, for the first time, the city publicly released the names of nursing homes with confirmed cases among residents and staff, after withholding that information for what they said were legal reasons.

“It’s not at all about transparency. It’s about the law,” Escott said. “Disclosure of information inappropriately means a criminal penalty for me and the city.”

Heritage Park Nursing Home and Rehabilitation Center in Central Austin reported 124 COVID-19 cases, the largest among the area’s nursing homes.

If you found the reporting above valuable, please consider making a donation to support it. Your gift pays for everything you find on KUT.org. Thanks for donating today.

Got a tip? Email Audrey McGlinchy at audrey@kut.org. Follow her on Twitter @AKMcGlinchy.