As health care workers roll up sleeves for vaccine, Travis County authorities eye curfew to curb rising COVID-19 transmission

Photo off a vaccine needle
While Travis County health care workers get the first doses of a COVID-19 vaccine, local authorities are concerned about rising transmission rates. (Courtesy Adobe Stock)

While Travis County health care workers get the first doses of a COVID-19 vaccine, local authorities are concerned about rising transmission rates. (Courtesy Adobe Stock)

While the rollout of Pfizer's COVID-19 vaccine to high-priority health care workers has given Travis County a reason to be optimistic, local leaders are concerned about rising coronavirus transmission rates in the Austin area. As COVID-19 risk indicators inch closer toward the threshold to Stage 5, Dr. Mark Escott, Austin-Travis County interim health authority, said a curfew could be useful in flattening the curve.

Such a curfew would be a first for Austin and Travis County. Escott said it would serve to place restrictions on risky behaviors such as unmasked attendance at bars and clubs by applying a 10 or 10:30 p.m. curfew to certain types of businesses.

"We're seeing disease spread worsen despite the protections we have in place, which necessitates us thinking about how else we can limit risk," Escott said at a Dec. 16 news conference. "In particular, we're concerned about bars that are now operating as restaurants but still functioning as bars that are about able to do that through a loophole in the current guidance."

Bars are technically still required to be closed in Travis County, although Gov. Greg Abbott gave his blessing to local governments to choose whether to reopen them in October. However, some local bars have reopened as restaurants. The "loophole" Escott referred to is the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission's ruling that establishments that receive less than 51% of their revenue from the alcohol sales can open for dine-in services. However, Escott said that many of these establishments are still operating as bars and are not meeting the health and safety standards required of restaurants.

Escott did not give a date or exact threshold that would trigger a curfew.

Meanwhile, Escott and other leaders from Austin Public Health praised the vaccine distribution efforts of local hospitals. According to Cassandra De Leon, the APH interim assistant director for disease prevention and health promotion, participating hospitals have reported high participation in vaccination efforts among staff, although no data is available yet to indicate how many staff members may have refused doses.

"The providers that we've talked with that have received the vaccine for this week's distribution indicate that when that vaccine notification came in, they were able to fill all the slots available for that vaccine," DeLeon said. "In fact, they identify that there isn't even enough vaccine at this point to to meet the needs that they currently have."

More shipments of the vaccine will be coming soon, including some by different manufacturers, including Moderna, when and if the Food and Drug Administration and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention authorize them for emergency use. An FDA panel is set to review the Moderna vaccine Dec. 17.

This week, Travis County hospitals had 13,650 doses to offer to health care workers; according to Escott, a doctor of emergency medicine, he declined a dose himself to offer it to someone with more direct exposure to the virus.

"I work more occasionally directly with patients, so I'll wait until my EMS teams get it," he said. "But I personally don't know anybody in the health care field, none of my colleagues, who are going to wait. They want it as soon as they can."

Austin and Travis County also extended orders requiring face coverings, social distancing, limited gatherings and other safety measures through Feb. 16; those orders were initially set to expire Dec. 15.
By Olivia Aldridge
Olivia is the reporter for Community Impact's Central Austin edition. A graduate of Presbyterian College in upstate South Carolina, Olivia was a reporter and producer at South Carolina Public Radio before joining Community Impact in Austin.


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