Positive Test Means You Can't Go To Work. That's Keeping Some Austinites From Getting Tested At All.

May 19, 2020

People are afraid during this pandemic. And in some cases, they’re more afraid of being out of work and unable to provide for their families than they are of the coronavirus.

Dr. Mark Escott, interim health authority at Austin Public Health, said that's a "substantial barrier" that will "create challenges for us as we try to control the outbreak of COVID-19 in Austin and Travis County as we open things up.”

In particular, he told Austin City Council members at their work session Tuesday, "there are some challenges associated with testing at construction sites."

Escott said there are more clusters associated with construction work than with any other field except long-term care facilities, such as nursing homes. He said Austin Public Health has identified nine “general contractor-related cluster investigations.”

Austin and Travis County ordered a halt to construction in late March, only to be overruled by an order from Gov. Greg Abbott deeming construction work “essential.”

"We really do have to work hard on breaking these barriers and these disincentives if we're going to be able to maintain control and keep businesses open."

Since then, Austin Public Health initiated targeted testing of construction sites. At two sites in the past week, Escott said, 127 people were tested, with positive rates of 7.8% and 7.9%. In comparison, the positive rate among the general public at the agency's drive-thru testing site is “in the neighborhood of 2.3%,” he said.

"Quite frankly, there’s a disincentive right now for people to get tested, because if they test positive, then they’re out of work, and in some circumstances, they don’t have assurances of a paycheck," he told council members. "And that’s not only construction; that goes for all of our workforce."

The issue is something the community should be concerned about, he said. “We really do have to work hard on breaking these barriers and these disincentives if we’re going to be able to maintain control and keep businesses open.”   

Central Health, which provides health care to Travis County residents who otherwise would be unable to afford it, has been stepping up its own testing and working to get the word out.

Ted Burton, the agency's vice president of communications, told council members Tuesday the next phase of Central Health’s media campaign will have, “a heavy focus on the Latinx community and low-wage workers, including construction workers.”

Burton said the campaign will inform people about how to get tested and what happens if someone tests positive for the coronavirus. 

“We also want to address some of these critical barriers that might prevent somebody from getting tested, acknowledging that there is a fear ... of testing positive and not being able to work, not being able to earn a living and care for your family," he said. "We want to talk about that and explain what can happen if you do test, how to protect your family, how to isolate so you don’t infect your family, especially for families who may be multigenerational, living under one roof."

As testing capacity increases, Austin Public Health is encouraging more people to fill out the assessment form. Escott said Tuesday the goal is to be able to test people who have no symptoms and even those who know of no contact they might have had with people with the virus. He said that level of testing is among the next steps toward a better understanding of the extent of the virus in the Austin area. 

Correction: A previous version of this story said 27 people had been tested at two construction sites. It was 127 people.

Got a tip? Email Trey Shaar at tshaar@kut.org. Follow him on Twitter @treyshaar.

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