City, festival officials share coronavirus plan as preparations ramp up ahead of globally attended SXSW

Rendering of COVID-19
COVID-19, commonly referred to as novel coronavirus, has been confirmed in 59 individuals in the U.S. (Rendering courtesy U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)

COVID-19, commonly referred to as novel coronavirus, has been confirmed in 59 individuals in the U.S. (Rendering courtesy U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)

Two weeks before South by Southwest Conference & Festivals opens its doors to the world, the city of Austin released its plan to prevent and contain any cases of novel coronavirus.

The city’s five-phase plan outlines guidelines for the Austin Public Health Epidemiology and Public Health Preparedness Division for preparation ahead of any cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus that has been spreading recent months. The plan further details policies to handle suspected and confirmed cases of coronavirus and how to handle cases spread from person to person in the community.

“This is not the first epidemic [APH] has faced,” said Matt Lara, public information specialist for the city of Austin’s Homeland Security and Emergency Department. “They’re constantly working on these policies ... to make sure when something like this does happen, everyone is prepared.”

APH has worked in coordination with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Texas Department of State Health Services to construct its coronavirus plan since January, according to Feb. 28 agency news release.

“We have a very good relationship with [DSHS]. They are giving us constant updates,” Lara said.

The city’s Feb. 28 news release states APH is currently in Phase 1 of its coronavirus plan. APH officials are receiving flight manifests of travelers who may have been to China in the past two weeks, according to the news release.

“That number is getting much smaller as people are coming back from China,” Lara said.

Officials are monitoring those individuals who have come in from China and are providing each of those individuals with control orders that restrict their movements in the community and interaction with other individuals. The city states in its news release that it is staying in daily contact with those under monitoring.

Phase 2 of the plan is initiated if one of the travelers undergoes testing for coronavirus, and Phase 3 is activated if a monitored individual tests positive for the virus.

“That would ramp up operations a little bit,” Lara said. “There is an operational plan in place for if someone even shows symptoms [of coronavirus.]”

SXSW marches on

Preventative measures for battling coronavirus in Austin come as SXSW expects to draw thousands of international visitors to the city in March.

According to its annual reports, 26% of all SXSW attendees in 2019 came from countries outside of the U.S. More than 230,000 people attended SXSW festival programming last year, the report shows.

China, where the global coronavirus outbreak originated, and South Korea, where the World Health Organization has confirmed more than 2,300 cases of the virus, were both within the top 20 of countries that sent attendees to SXSW last year, according to the annual reports.

Attendees came from 106 nations across the world last year, more than half the total number of countries in the world.

SXSW on Feb. 28 announced on its website the festival will proceed as planned.

“Safety is a top priority for SXSW, and we work closely with local, state, and federal agencies year-round to plan for a safe event. We are increasing our efforts to prevent the spread of disease per Austin Public Health’s recommendations. We will continue to monitor the situation closely and will provide updates as necessary,” a SXSW spokesperson told Community Impact Newspaper in an email.

Festival organizers are in daily contact with city health officials ahead of the event, Lara said.

The WHO estimates the coronavirus has an incubation period, or the time between catching the virus and beginning to have symptoms of the disease, of one to 14 days. SXSW programming is scheduled to run March 13-22, meaning an individual could catch coronavirus and begin showing symptoms during the festival.

“APH has an epidemiology response plan which has decades of experience evaluating and investigating disease outbreak. These experts perform a thorough investigation and will assess risk to people who will be exposed and provide recommendations,” said Jen Samp, APH public information officer, in an email to Community Impact Newspaper.

State efforts

On Feb. 28, county judges from the six largest counties in Texas—Bexar, El Paso, Travis, Dallas, Harris and Tarrant—all signed a letter outlining state and regional efforts to prevent an outbreak of coronavirus.

“We want to reassure the public that their county governments are working closely with the local municipalities and other community stakeholders within our geographical boundaries and regions to prevent the spread of respiratory viruses such as the flu and COVID-19. As the providers of public health throughout our counties, our local health officials are closely monitoring the evolving situation. We are coordinating with the DSDS, CDC and local and regional public health and healthcare agencies,” the letter read.

Samp said the DSHS is providing laboratory assistance and assisting in planning and preparation alongside health departments across Texas. Lara added that daily phone calls are held by the DSHS to update public health departments about the coronavirus.

The first case of coronavirus in Texas was confirmed Feb. 13 by the CDC. There are currently 59 confirmed cases of coronavirus in the U.S., according to the WHO. The majority of those cases came from citizens who were on a British-registered cruise ship with other individuals infected with the virus.

Currently, APH is asking the public to follow similar rules to prevent the spread of the flu in order to get ahead of any coronavirus outbreaks.

“If you are ill, stay home. Wash your hands frequently. Have a bottle of an alcohol-based hand sanitizer in your car and use it. Stay away from persons who are coughing and sneezing. Avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth with unwashed hands,” Samp wrote in an email.

Further, Samp advises Austin residents that may be hosting international travelers at their house for SXSW to perform routine cleaning before and after the guests arrive, and to provide a container of disinfectant wipes for visitors.

APH has further guidelines for preventing the spread of the virus on its website.
By Iain Oldman
Iain Oldman joined Community Impact Newspaper in 2017 after spending two years in Pittsburgh, Pa., where he covered Pittsburgh City Council. His byline has appeared in PublicSource, WESA-FM and Scranton-Times Tribune. Iain worked as the reporter for Community Impact Newspaper's flagship Round Rock/Pflugerville/Hutto edition and is now working as the editor for the Northwest Austin edition.


Project Connect, Capital Metro's public transportation expansion plan, would include three light-rail lines running through the city and underground train stations downtown. (Amy Denney/Community Impact Newspaper)
Is now the right time to rethink transit in Austin? Local leaders respond to community questions about Project Connect

Austin City Council and the Capital Metro board of directors will decide June 10 on whether to adopt Project Connect—the plan to revamp public transportation in the area.

The flute section of the Rouse High School marching band from Leander performs in this 2017 file photo. (Courtesy Leander ISD)
Texas schools may begin hosting sports workouts, band practices June 8

The University Interscholastic League released guidelines for allowing sports workouts and marching bands to practice.

Virginia Waldrop watches her UT Dell Medical School graduation ceremony from her laptop on May 21. (Christopher Neely/Community Impact)
From academic to pandemic: UT Dell Medical School's inaugural class graduates into historic moment

The Dell Medical School at the University of Texas at Austin graduated its first class May 21.

May 25 specifically saw 86 new coronavirus cases, the single largest one-day jump in the county during the pandemic. (Graphic by Community Impact Newspaper)
172 new COVID-19 cases in Travis County, two new deaths over Memorial Day weekend

May 25 specifically saw 86 new coronavirus cases, the single largest one-day jump in the county during the pandemic.

Iconic Austin Brands, which operates stores such as Toy Joy, is offering shoppers who donate to the Austin Fun   Learning program a 15% discount. (Courtesy Iconic Austin Brands)
Community updates: Iconic Austin Brands offering discount for items donated to Austin children, Nixta Taqueria joins pop-up grocery project and more

The YMCA of Austin is launching an employee relief fund, and eight women-owned Austin businesses received $10,000 grants to help them survive through the pandemic.

Renderings show plans for a transit station as part of Capital Metro's Project Connect. (Rendering courtesy Capital Metro)
Changes to Project Connect plan add $60 million to local cost estimate

Capital Metro Board Chair Wade Cooper called the upcoming June 10 meeting to finalize the technical aspects of the plan "one of the most consequential votes this board has taken in its history."

A new partnership between Capital Metro and Austin B-Cycle could rebrand the bikeshare service as Metro Bike and allow residents to purchase passes to use public transit and the bicycles together. (Courtesy Austin B-Cycle)
Capital Metro staff present plan to bring Austin B-Cycle underneath public transit agency’s umbrella

If the city of Austin and Capital Metro come to an agreement, users could buy a one-day pass to use both public transit and the city-owned bicycles

Members of the Dawoodi Bohra community have sewn more than 100 masks for essential workers and have donated them to The Mask Brigade of Williamson County. (Courtesy Mubaraka Malbari)
Austin Islamic community Dawoodi Bohra provides financial assistance, face masks during pandemic

The Dawoodi Bohra community of Austin has worked to provide financial assistance and offered support to first responders and essential personnel during the health crisis.

LIST: What is open, closed in Texas and how businesses can operate

Texas openings are staggered with different opening dates and operating limits.

New Braunfels is the third-fastest-growing city in the U.S. from 2010-19, according to the latest census numbers. (Community Impact staff)
These 5 Central Texas cities are among the fastest-growing in the U.S.

Four of the five cities represent notable growth in Williamson County.

Lost Creek Limited District will begin charging a fee to enter at its entrance to the Barton Creek greenbelt. (Amy Rae Dadamo/Community Impact Newspaper)
Lost Creek board explains decision to charge fee for access to its entrance at Barton Creek greenbelt

Following a May 13 meeting during which Lost Creek Limited District officials voted unanimously to begin charging nonresidents to access the greenbelt from the Barton Creek low water crossing entrance point, board members have put out information further explaining their decision.

High 5 locations in Austin and Lakeway will open slightly later than was originally planned. (Courtesy High 5 Entertainment, LLC)
High 5 locations in Lakeway, Austin delay opening to June 1

High 5 Family Entertainment Center locations in Austin and Lakeway will reopen to guests slightly later than initially planned.