Austin’s top doctor is 'at the verge' of recommending another county shutdown to curb coronavirus’s rapid spread

Austin-Travis County interim Health Authority Dr. Mark Escott (Courtesy Austin Public Health)
Austin-Travis County interim Health Authority Dr. Mark Escott (Courtesy Austin Public Health)

Austin-Travis County interim Health Authority Dr. Mark Escott (Courtesy Austin Public Health)

After keeping the virus mostly at bay during much of the spring, Austin and Travis County now face a potential second shutdown to curb coronavirus infections, which have risen rapidly in recent weeks.

As of June 29, Travis County has seen 8,461 confirmed coronavirus cases since the virus began spreading locally in March. New confirmed coronavirus infections have nearly quadrupled since June 1 in Travis County, increasing by 372%; new hospitalizations due to the virus have jumped 400% in the five-county Austin-Round Rock metro during the same time, according to data provided by Austin Public Health.

“If we cannot [come together as a community], we are not going to be successful,” Dr. Mark Escott, the Austin Travis County interim health authority, told Austin City Council June 29. “We are at the verge of having that recommendation come from to [Austin Mayor Steve Adler] and [Travis County Judge Sam Biscoe] that we might close things down again. Right now is the time to act. Right now is the time that we all must make decisions not just for us and our family but for this community.”

Lauren Meyers, an integrative biology professor at The University of Texas who has led the coronavirus modeling on which city officials have relied heavily, told City Council that projections show if behaviors do not change and the rolling seven-day average of daily new hospitalizations eclipses 70, lawmakers “probably should” enact a new shelter-in-place order or “do something to dramatically slow transmission.”

As of June 29, the rolling seven-day daily average of new hospitalizations stood at 52, according to Austin Public Health. Meyers said, according to her models, “we could get [to 70] within the next couple of weeks” if no behaviors change.

“If there is no choice except to let it spread like it is now or be in a full-flown stay-at-home [order], then we project we will have to go through several prolonged stay-home orders, the first of which will have to be enacted probably by mid-July,” Meyers told City Council. “The hope is really that we can put in place measures to slow transmission that really are effective before we get to the point where we really have to enact a much stricter measure.”

Meyers said if the city is under a full stay-at-home order in the fall, it would be “impossible” to open schools.

Referring to the current policies in place as a “yellow” stage and a full-fledged shutdown as a “red” stage, Meyers said a middle, "orange" stage, would help reduce the need for a full shutdown, a measure Escott would hurt everyone. Adler said the orange stage would involve requiring masks for everyone, social distancing and prohibiting big groups.

Meyers talked about the possibility of a 35-day, red-stage complete shutdown beginning in mid-July, followed by orange-stage restrictions through November. The city could then corral the virus, allowing a yellow stage during December and then three more orange stages alternating with more relaxed yellow stages into 2021—one in early January, another during February and a final one from mid-May to mid-June.

Meyers’ models expect the city to reach between 2,000 and 2,100 coronavirus deaths by September 2021. The death toll as of June 29 sat at 117.

The goal is to keep current coronavirus hospitalizations under 1,500, which health officials have said is the local health care system’s tipping point in becoming overwhelmed by the virus. Escott added the importance of seeing an unprecedentedly high flu vaccination rate in the fall, saying the hospital system could not handle a heavy flu season mixed with the coronavirus.

Escott said the city and county were in a “very dangerous” place heading into Fourth of July weekend. He urged everyone to stay home. Adler said as the city heads into the thick of summer, it will take a full community effort to avoid a disaster.

“This really is crunch time for the city,” Adler said. “This is where individual actions will add up to community actions over whether we’re going to keep businesses open and open schools in the fall. Where we sit now, it’s going to take everyone [without criminal enforcement] ... to do what is necessary to support and protect the community.”
By Christopher Neely
Christopher Neely is Community Impact's Austin City Hall reporter. A New Jersey native, Christopher moved to Austin in 2016 following two years of community reporting along the Jersey Shore. His bylines have appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Baltimore Su


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