More than 500 people have qualified for free coronavirus testing through Travis County’s public enrollment program

Local health authorities have said that ramping up testing is a crucial element to reopening society. (Christopher Neely/Community Impact Newspaper)
Local health authorities have said that ramping up testing is a crucial element to reopening society. (Christopher Neely/Community Impact Newspaper)

Local health authorities have said that ramping up testing is a crucial element to reopening society. (Christopher Neely/Community Impact Newspaper)

Experts have said the timeline on opening society back up from the coronavirus shutdown will depend on a community’s testing capacity, and in Travis County, testing has ramped up due to the local public health system’s new testing enrollment program, which authorities said has qualified 538 people to receive a free coronavirus test.

As of April 13, Travis County had administered 8,386 coronavirus tests. The new public enrollment program alone aims to issue 2,000 tests per week.

Testing capacity is a central factor in when a community can reopen, said Dr. Mark Escott, Austin-Travis County Interim Health Authority, and although the boost through the enrollment program is significant, more needs to be done.

“I’m pleased that we’ve been able to continually increase our testing here, but according to some recommendations, we would need to run close to 2,000 tests a day to reach the goal that they suggested,” Escott said in a statement. “We’ve still got a long way to go.”

Escott said the rate of positive coronavirus tests is also a crucial factor to consider in reopening communities.


All nonessential activity in Travis County, from dine-in service at restaurants to business offices, has been shut down since March 25.

“When we look at cities like Houston and Dallas, the rate of positivity is on the range of 18% of the tests are positive,” Escott said in a statement. “Ours is hovering between 10%-12%. That lower rate of positivity generally indicates a better rate of testing, so we'll continue to track that with a goal to reach a rate of 5%-6% positive.”

The Texas government has already begun plans to reopen the state from the coronavirus shutdown. Gov. Greg Abbott allowed retail shops to offer curbside services beginning April 24. On April 27, Abbott announced that the statewide shelter-in-place order would expire April 30 and that starting May 1, businesses such as restaurants, movie theaters and malls could begin operating again, allowing only 25% capacity in their facilities.

In his announcement, Abbott said he would beef up the state’s capacity to run testing and contract tracing, which works to find and isolate anyone who came in contact with an infected person. Austin has also strengthened its local contract tracing team. According to a press release, Austin Public Health is adding more than 100 people to the tracing squad.

Austin Public Health is also working with UT Dell Medical to build an antibody testing system, which, if accurate, will be able to tell whether someone has already had the virus and has developed antibodies to the coronavirus. Although the Food and Drug Administration has approved a few of these tests, questions still remain over the reliability of the results.

“The important thing to keep in mind about many of these tests is that they may not be able to accurately tell you if you were truly exposed to COVID-19 or some other coronavirus,” Escott said. “It’s also important to note that having a positive antibody test does not mean that you are immune or that you are not currently infectious.”

Anyone who fears they may have been infected with the coronavirus can visit Austin Public Health's enrollment page to see if they qualify for a free, drive-thru test.
By Christopher Neely
Christopher Neely is Community Impact's Austin City Hall reporter. A New Jersey native, Christopher moved to Austin in 2016 following years of community reporting along the Jersey Shore. His bylines have appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Baltimore Sun, USA Today and several other local outlets along the east coast.


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