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Austin moves back to Stage 5 of COVID-19 risk-based guidelines as omicron variant surges

Austin moves back to Stage 5 of COVID-19 guidelines as omicron surges

Covid-19 omicron variant
The omicron variant is taking its toll on Austin. Cleveland Clinic

KVUE — Austin-Travis County leaders announced on Thursday, January 6 that the area has moved from Stage 4 to Stage 5 of its COVID-19 risk-based guidelines.

On the City’s dashboard, officials track the seven-day moving average of new hospital admissions, community transmission rate, and positivity rate when determining COVID-19 risk-based guidelines staging. As of January 4, all three indicators were in Stage 5 territory

“Workforces are short-staffed and hospitals have been stressed by staff absences and staffing shortages as a result, due to omicron. There will come a point when schools and businesses and community centers won’t be able to open their doors if we don’t do something,” Austin Public Health’s Dr. Desmar Walkes said, adding, “What does this mean for us? The places where we go for care will be short-staffed, the places where we go to eat will be short-staffed, and the places where we go to buy goods and services will be short-staffed. If we don’t do something, our way of life is in danger.”

Austin moved from Stage 3 to Stage 4 of its COVID-19 risk-based guidelines on December 29. At the time, only two of the three key indicators — community transmission rate and positivity rate — were at Stage 5 levels, at 405 and 15.7 percent, respectively. Since then, those two metrics have grown to 1,066.8 and 29.7 percent, as of January 5.

The seven-day moving average of new hospital admissions crossed the Stage 4 threshold on December 28 at 36, up from 16 just days before Christmas. Now, the seven-day moving average of new hospital admissions has well surpassed the Stage 5 threshold (50-plus). As of January 5, the seven-day moving average of new hospital admissions was 74. An estimated 385 people were hospitalized with COVID-19 as of January 5.

In the January 6 briefing, Walkes also acknowledged that at-home tests aren’t included in the positivity rate as it’s reflected on the City’s dashboard.

“We know that there are many people in the community who are doing at-home tests so that the numbers that we’re seeing are an underrepresentation of what the disease burden is in our community,” Walkes said. “We estimate that there may be 3 to 4 percent of those in our community who are sick at this point. So, to break that down for practical purposes, if you’re in a group of 25 people, say, you can safely assume that there is at least one person in that group who’s been affected by omicron and is sick.”

In the briefing from Austin health officials on Tuesday, January 4, Walkes said the omicron variant is driving the current surge in Central Texas. She said the Austin area saw a 135 percent increase in daily hospital admissions for people who are COVID-19 positive over the past week.

Walkes said that before omicron, 60-70 percent of hospitalizations included unvaccinated people, which has since dropped to 50 percent, meaning more vaccinated individuals are now in the hospital during the surge. Walkes noted that some people were hospitalized for other health problems and subsequently tested positive for coronavirus.

According to Walkes, vaccinations still seem to be preventing severe illness. She said local health officials are noting that people with underlying issues can still get very sick with omicron and encouraged people to get a coronavirus booster shot.

In Stage 5, APH officials advise high-risk individuals to not gather with people outside their households. Low-risk individuals are advised to wear a mask when doing so. These recommendations are the same regardless of whether you’re indoors or outdoors.

Another difference between Stage 4 and Stage 5 is that under Stage 5, high-risk individuals are advised to only travel for essential services or purposes, whereas in Stage 4 it would be okay to travel while masking.

High-risk individuals are also recommended to use takeout and/or curbside shopping under Stage 5.

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