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Austin cautiously downgrades to Stage 4 of COVID-19 risk guidelines

Austin cautiously downgrades to Stage 4 of COVID-19 risk guidelines

Coronavirus COVID-19
Things are trending in the right direction but we've got to stay diligent, Austin. Photo courtesy of the CDC

In news that couldn’t come at a better time for the hundreds of thousands of visitors and locals heading to the Austin City Limits Music Festival this week, city and county officials have downgraded Austin to Stage 4, the second-highest level on the scale of COVID-19 risk-based guidelines.

During a joint session on Tuesday, September 28 involving the Austin City Council and the Travis County Commissioners, Dr. Desmar Walkes, Austin-Travis County health authority, announced Austin Public Health has moved the area into Stage 4 risk, cautiously noting a drop in local hospital admissions and the COVID-19 positivity rate. She also indicated that the number of local COVID-19 patients requiring ICU beds remains high.

“The Delta variant showed us how unpredictable and deadly this virus can be, especially for the unvaccinated,” Walkes says via a city release. “However, even as we continue to see the data trending in a positive direction, we cannot act as if the pandemic is over. Our hospitals and ICUs still remain at critical levels, and we need the public to continue to work together to ensure we do not contribute to a new surge.”

Austin had been at Stage 5, the highest level of risk, since August 5, one of several times during the pandemic the city and county spiked to the elevated risk level.

The seven-day moving average of new hospital admissions — which has decreased almost 33 percent, peaking at 641.9 on August 27 and down to 440 on September 27 — is one of several key indicators Austin Public Health, Travis County, and local hospital partners monitor when weighing risk-based guidelines.

They also include the positivity rate, the doubling time of new cases, and current ICU and ventilator patients. Though the number of new COVID-19 cases has decreased, Walkes and other health leaders warn that patients suffering from the Delta variant often experience longer hospital and ICU stays, which continues to contribute to area hospitals being overwhelmed.

The positivity rate, meaning the number of people testing positive out of the total number of people tested in a given week, has dropped 44 percent to 8.3 percent from 14.8 percent during a peak in early August. Additionally, the number of COVID-19 patients in local ICUs has decreased nearly 21 percent from 230.6 patients on August 27 to 181.1 patients on September 27, according to APH.

The city and county recommendations during Stage 4 include the following:

  • Fully vaccinated individuals should wear a mask when participating in indoor gatherings, traveling, and dining or shopping, and should wear a mask for outdoor gatherings if they are unable to socially distance (for instance, when crammed with hundreds of other fans at the front of the stages at ACL Fest). 
  • Partially or unvaccinated individuals should avoid private gatherings, travel, dining, and shopping unless it’s essential, and should wear a mask when conducting essential activities.

Health authorities also note that getting the COVID-19 vaccination continues to be the most effective way for individuals to protect themselves.

“While vaccination is a personal decision, those decisions have a direct impact on the health of our community and the hospital system we share with surrounding counties, as well as those who are too young to get vaccinated,” says Adrienne Sturrup, interim Austin Public Health director. “We cannot afford to take our foot off the gas if we are going to crush this virus and avoid additional surges. As we move into the fall after an exhausting end of the summer, we need everyone to get vaccinated — for both COVID-19 and the flu — [and] get tested if they have symptoms, and stay home if they are sick.”    

As of Monday, September 27, Travis County has vaccinated 70.67 percent of those who are eligible to receive the COVID-19 vaccine, which establishes the Austin area as one of Texas’ top vaccinated metropolitan counties, with the area claiming a more than 8 percent higher vaccination rate than Texas’ overall rate of 61.33 percent, according to the Texas Department of State Health Services.

COVID-19 vaccinations continue to be free and require neither identification nor health insurance. Residents can locate providers in their area using Vaccines.gov or they can text their ZIP code to 438829 (822862 in Spanish) to find a nearby clinic. 

For COVID-19 information, vaccine and booster shot info, and to get updates, visit AustinTexas.gov/COVID19.