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 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.


MOST RECENT

Dr. Anthony Fauci gave remarks while accepting the Ken Shine Prize in Health Leadership from Dell Medical School. (Screenshot via The University of Texas)
Dr. Anthony Fauci praises UT researcher’s role in vaccine development

Dr. Anthony Fauci's remarks came while accepting the Ken Shine Prize in Health Leadership from Dell Medical School.

Photo of Judge Andy Brown at a press conference
Travis County health leaders say Regional COVID-19 Therapeutic Infusion Center will help unburden hospitals

In its first week, the center offered 120 coronavirus patients an antiviral antibody treatment.

PHoto of a vaccine being administered
Austin Public Health discusses vaccination priorities, registration protocol as regional hub

Local health leaders discouraged people from walking up to vaccine sites without an appointment.

Austin Mayor Steve Adler will still reach his term limit in 2022 if voters approve changes to the election cycle. (Jack Flagler/Community Impact Newspaper)
Potential strong-mayor system in Austin would be 'weakest of any big city in the country,' supporters say

Exactly what kind of a strong-mayor system would Austin have if it was approved by voters? Among the weakest in the country, supporters said.

Texas Comptroller of Public Accounts Glenn Hegar shared a new revenue estimate for the 2022-23 biennium Jan. 11. (Courtesy Texas Comptroller of Public Accounts)
Comptroller projects drop in state revenue, potential for economic uptick for next biennium

Despite the slight reduction in expected revenue for the state's 2022-23 budget, recovery could be on the horizon.

After seeing a 5,000-student decline in enrollment this year, Austin ISD could see its funding cut by the TEA this spring. (Nicholas Cicale/Community Impact Newspaper)
Educators in Austin ask TEA to close funding gaps, allow more flexibility to keep students home

After seeing a 5,000-student decline in enrollment this year, Austin ISD could see its funding cut by the TEA this spring.

Photo of the Austin Convention Center
Austin Convention Center opens as field hospital as COVID-19 hospitalizations reach new high

601 coronavirus patients are currently hospitalized in Travis County.

Work on a $743 million toll project along US 183 in East Austin is set to finish in February, while construction will start on separate projects along the northern stretch of the highway later in 2021. (Courtesy Google Maps)
2021 transportation news to follow in Austin: 183 South finishing soon; 183 North expansion set to award contractor and more

Mike Heiligenstein, the executive director of the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority, is stepping down at a busy time for Austin transportation as the Mobility Authority enters 2021 with a number of road projects in various stages of development.

Amazon will invest at least $250 million into the Pflugerville facility during its minimum 10-year lease agreement, according to an economic development performance agreement between the PCDC and Amazon. (Kelsey Thompson/Community Impact Newspaper)
Amazon sets up shop in Central Texas; Milano Pizza coming to Cedar Park and more local news

Read the latest business and community news from Central Texas.

Photo of Moderna vaccine
UPDATE: Austin Public Health open vaccine preregistration portal Jan. 13

Most of the organization's current 12,000-dose shipment will go to people over age 65.

Superintendent Stephanie Elizalde encouraging parents to keep their children home for virtual learning through Jan. 15. (Courtesy Austin ISD)
Austin ISD asks families to choose remote learning if possible through Jan. 15

Although the district is encouraging students to be remote, schools will continue to be open.