Travis County health officials say bars, Thanksgiving gatherings have increased COVID-19 spread but hold off on Stage 5

Coronavirus graphic
Travis County continues to edge closer to Stage 5 coronavirus risk. (Courtesy Adobe Stock)

Travis County continues to edge closer to Stage 5 coronavirus risk. (Courtesy Adobe Stock)

Travis County’s top public health official warned Dec. 15 that COVID-19 transmission trends are rising at an alarming pace, threatening to restrict hospital capacity in the coming weeks.

In a presentation to the Travis County Commissioners Court, Dr. Mark Escott, interim Austin-Travis County health authority, said active coronavirus cases are up by 45% since Dec. 1, and hospitalizations and ICU admissions are up by 28% and 13%, respectively.

“This is bad. We’re moving in the wrong direction. I really don’t know how to make it any more clear that what we’re doing now as a community is not working,” Escott said.

With a seven-day moving average of 47 daily hospital admissions related to COVID-19 in the Austin area, Travis County is on the verge of reaching Stage 5 risk, which carries the highest level of recommended restrictions. At a Dec. 11 Commissioners Court meeting, Escott confirmed Stage 5 guidelines might include a curfew as well as heightened recommended restrictions for businesses and restaurants.

Austin Public Health leaders could recommend the shift to Stage 5 once the average number of daily admissions reaches 50, but Escott said they will likely hold off on changing the status until that figure hits 60.

“It is going to take all of us—this entire community—to scale back the risk,” he said.

In urging the community to take precautions, Escott specifically called out businesses using “loopholes” to circumvent opening restrictions. Specifically, he said more than 200 bars in Travis County have reopened under restaurant licenses while not fully observing restaurant restrictions, including spaced-out seating and masking.

Escott said the spike is also partly a result of Thanksgiving gatherings, and a repeat over Christmas or New Year's Day could risk moving Travis County into a scenario similar to what the El Paso area has experienced, where hospital capacity has been overwhelmed. According to the most recent numbers, as of Dec. 15, 1,220 El Pasoans have died from COVID-19 in the county of just over 836,000 residents.

"I want to be very clear that a surge like what’s seen in El Paso would mean another 1,500 Travis County residents dead in the next 60 days," Escott said.

Austin Mayor Steve Adler and Travis County Judge Andy Brown up these warnings later in the day with a letter to faith leaders in the city and county urging them to temporarily host services virtually, especially as holiday services begin.

“As faith organizations and families make plans to celebrate this special time of year, we are encouraging those that have digital capabilities to once again consider virtual worship services or to keep hosting virtual services," Brown said in the letter. "Where virtual services are not an option, we are asking faith leaders to make the necessary changes to their holiday services to allow for the enforcing of masking and social distancing guidelines.”

Escott’s concerned outlook did come alongside a shade of hope, as local medical facilities, including UT Health Austin and Dell Medical School, began administration of Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine to health care workers. Austin ISD officials have said teachers will be among the next phase of community members, alongside other essential workers, to be offered the vaccine as further shipments arrive.

Editor's note: This story was updated at 5:46 p.m. Dec. 15 to reflect new recommendations from the mayor of Austin and Travis County judge regarding faith services.
By Olivia Aldridge

Multi-Platform Journalist

Olivia hosts and produces Community Impact Newspaper's podcasts, The Austin Breakdown, The Houston Breakdown and The DFW Breakdown. She launched the podcasts after nearly three years as a reporter for the newspaper, covering public health, business, development and Travis County government for the Central Austin edition. Olivia worked as a reporter and producer for South Carolina Public Radio before moving to Texas.