Austin Public Health announced today that Austin and Travis County have entered Stage 5 of the local COVID-19 Risk-Based Guidelines.
This is the second time the Austin area has officially entered Stage 5, the highest level of local pandemic safety recommendations; the first, during January’s dramatic surge, was a time when vaccination was only on the horizon, unlike today.
Still, despite vaccines now being widely available and free, Austin now finds itself in a dire situation, with Health Authority Dr. Desmar Walkes calling this latest surge “the fastest and most aggressive” one Austin has ever seen, as case counts and hospitalizations climb alongside the rise of the highly transmissible Delta variant.
Because of the elevated risk, the local health department has published revised Stage 5 recommendations. For high-risk vaccinated individuals, all indoor or outdoor private gatherings, with or without prevention measures such as social distancing, are strongly discouraged, and shopping should be takeaway or curbside. Nonessential travel is discouraged for high-risk people, who APH also recommends should dine outdoors with precautions like face masks. While under Stage 5, it’s strongly recommended that low-risk vaccinated people wear face masks when attending all indoor or outdoor private gatherings, traveling, and shopping. They should also dine outdoors while wearing a mask.
Additional protective methods are recommended for unvaccinated or partially vaccinated people. Under Stage 5, such individuals, regardless of risk level, are strongly discouraged from private gatherings of any kind, as well as traveling (both essential and nonessential). Dining and shopping should be curbside or takeaway.
The move comes as the seven-day moving average for COVID-19 hospitalizations in Austin continues to soar. As of Wednesday, Aug. 4, that average stood at 71 new admissions. Currently, 483 patients in local hospitals were admitted to treat COVID-19, with 167 people requiring treatment in intensive care units and 103 people on ventilators. For comparison, last Thursday, July 29, 109 patients were in local ICUs, meaning ICU admissions have increased 53% in one week.
An estimated 63.66% of Travis County’s vaccine-eligible population (ages 12 and older) is fully vaccinated as of Wednesday, Aug. 4, according to state data. Almost all people hospitalized for COVID-19 in Austin are not fully vaccinated. People hospitalized for COVID are experiencing severe disease, and there continues to be an impact on individuals under the age of 50, APH leaders have stressed. “ICU staff are seeing a younger population in our hospitals,” said Walkes. “Patients in the ICU are sicker and stay in the hospital longer than with prior surges, [which puts] more strain on hospital resources.”
Vaccines remain the most effective protection against COVID-19, even as Texas state leadership maintains its commitment to keep vaccination and face masks voluntary. Released last week, Gov. Greg Abbott’s latest executive order, GA-38, says state and local governmental entities are barred from requiring vaccinations and face masks. Furthermore, state agencies can’t require people to provide proof of vaccination for entrance or services. The same rule applies to any public or private entity that is “receiving or will receive public funds through any means, including grants, contracts, loans, or other disbursements of taxpayer money.” Abbott has also barred school districts from enforcing mask mandates, although Austin ISD announced today that it will require all students and staff to wear a face mask while riding on school buses.
Meanwhile, Austin health leaders are asking (but not mandating) local businesses to require all customers and employees to wear masks, as well as recommit to ensuring ample space for social distancing in their facilities and shifting to contactless and curbside services when possible.
“As to vaccinations, we’re asking that we urge our patrons and customers to be vaccinated, and businesses can make a business decision to require vaccinations of their patrons and members,” said Walkes. “We would support those that do so.”