Austin Public Health announced Wednesday morning that Austin and Travis County have returned to Stage 4 of the local COVID-19 Risk-Based Guidelines. The last time Austin was in Stage 4 was during this summer’s surge driven by the Delta variant and transmission largely among unvaccinated individuals.
Under Stage 4, health officials recommend fully vaccinated and/or boosted individuals wear face masks when gathering with people outside of their household, in addition to masking up while traveling, dining, and shopping. Fully vaccinated people should also get their booster shot once eligible at least six months after their second dose. Those who still need their booster doses, in addition to partially or unvaccinated people – who are strongly urged to get fully vaccinated as soon as possible – should avoid all gatherings and only travel and shop if essential. They should choose takeaway or curbside options for dining, too.
Austin’s move to Stage 4 comes amid spikes in the local community transmission rate (CTR), seven-day average for hospitalizations, and test positivity rate – all key metrics that inform staging levels. As of Dec. 28, 15.7% of people – nearly one in five – getting tested for COVID-19 are testing positive, while Austin’s CTR is currently a staggering 404.96, which is considered “high” under the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention four-tiered system for measuring community transmission. Per CDC guidelines, the CTR helps track how much COVID-19 is spreading, as well as how likely people are to be exposed to it; it’s determined by total new cases and percent positivity. As of Dec. 28, Texas’ CTR stood at 319.7.
“One of the greatest traits of Austin-Travis County is how we have consistently been one of the leaders in the state when it comes to lower Community Transmission Rates. Our people have continually stepped up for the greater good and been the example of how to navigate the COVID-19 surges with masking, social distancing, and vaccinations,” said Health Authority Dr. Desmar Walkes in a written statement. “However, as our vigilance begins to wane, our community is falling behind. We can’t afford to be lax in our prevention efforts.”
Last week – less than a month after the first cases of the omicron COVID-19 variant were detected locally – Austin Public Health revised down the seven-day hospitalizations average for Stage 4 to 24 admissions. Previously, the threshold was 29. The rise in COVID-19 hospitalizations and CTR pose a potential risk for emergency care for COVID and non-COVID patients as hospitals fill up, said Mayor Steve Adler. “We must act now to protect both.”
Vaccines and boosters continue to offer the best protection against the novel coronavirus and its variants. As of Dec. 29, 30% of Austin’s vaccine-eligible population (ages 5 & older) are not fully vaccinated, and only 23% have received their booster doses. This leaves Austin vulnerable to COVID-19, stressed health officials – especially so as people plan to celebrate New Year’s Eve this weekend and students plan to return from winter break in the coming weeks. Children are urged to wear face masks for in-person learning and to get vaccinated if eligible.
“The omicron variant is moving fast through our community and we must do what is necessary to help slow community transmission,” said Travis County Judge Andy Brown. “As we get closer to the New Year celebration, I encourage everyone to follow the Stage 4 guidelines and mask up when recommended. These small preventive measures will go a long way when it comes to keeping our entire community safe.”
As a reminder, COVID-19 vaccinations are free and require neither identification nor insurance. Locate a vaccine provider online by visiting vaccines.gov (vacunas.gov in Spanish), or text your Zip Code to 438829 (822862 in Spanish) to find a nearby clinic. APH testing sites and vaccine clinics will be closed for New Year’s from Fri.-Sun., Dec. 31-Jan. 2. The following testing sites are scheduled to operate:
George Morales Dove Springs Recreation Center (Walk-In)
5801 Ainez Dr.
Tue.-Sat., Jan. 4-7: 8am-2pm
Travis County Exposition Center (Drive-Through)
7311 Decker Ln.
Mon.-Fri., Jan. 3-7: 8am-2pm