Travis County moves to Stage 5 under COVID-19 risk guidelines as hospitalization numbers continue climbing

Travis County health officials announced Dec. 23 a move to Stage 5 under Austin Public Health's COVID-19 risk guidelines. (Jack Flagler/Community Impact Newspaper)
Travis County health officials announced Dec. 23 a move to Stage 5 under Austin Public Health's COVID-19 risk guidelines. (Jack Flagler/Community Impact Newspaper)

Travis County health officials announced Dec. 23 a move to Stage 5 under Austin Public Health's COVID-19 risk guidelines. (Jack Flagler/Community Impact Newspaper)

As the number of individuals hospitalized with COVID-19 continues to spike, Austin Public Health officials moved the community into Stage 5, its highest stage of COVID-19 risk, Dec. 23.

Under the Stage 5 guidelines, all individuals should avoid gatherings outside of the household and avoid dining or shopping except as essential. Businesses should also scale back only to contactless options, such as curbside or delivery service for restaurants.

Since the beginning of December, the seven-day moving average of new COVID-19 hospitalizations spiked from 81.33%, from 30 to 54.4. As of Dec. 23, the positivity rate in the area was 9.9%, three times the target for the community.

As of Dec. 18, according to a joint statement from Ascension Seton, Baylor Scott & White and St. David's HealthCare, the Austin area's staffed hospital beds were 82% occupied and its Intensive Care Unit beds were 80% occupied.

"If you wait to pull the alarm until the hospitals are already full, that surge will continue until the hospitals and the morgues are overwhelmed, and we simply cannot afford that in Austin and Travis County," Austin-Travis County Interim Health Authority Mark Escott said.

Previously, Escott had said a curfew for certain businesses could be part of the move to Stage 5. However, APH officials are not yet recommending a curfew as of Dec. 23 and said they will continue to monitor numbers over the next few days and weeks.


"We'll need to see some changes relatively quickly. We have a significant concern about New Year's [Eve] and the gatherings that normally happen during that time period," Escott said.

Stage 5 recommendations also include stopping extracurricular activities at schools where masking and distancing are not possible. Escott said he recognizes some activities, such as high school football playoffs, present challenges to suspend completely, so he is asking school districts to limit activities as much as possible.

Escott also said he has warned local superintendents that if COVID-19 numbers continue trending in the wrong direction into January, he will recommend virtual education only following the break. Those recommendations may not be uniform for all grade levels, he said.

"We will try to preserve elementary education as much as we can. Those are the students that most benefit from in-person [instruction]," Escott said.

Some districts, including Austin ISD, went all-virtual for a week following the Thanksgiving holiday break in order to prevent spread after some families had traveled.

In addition to groups gathering together for the holidays, Escott said bars operating as restaurants and not enforcing social distancing or mask requirements remain a cause for concern. On Dec. 22, he presented a list to county commissioners of 27 bars that have been fined for violating the state's COVID-19 guidelines, including some that have received multiple fines.

Under state and local COVID-19 guidelines, businesses that do not comply with government safety orders are subject to a misdemeanor charge and a fine of up to $1,000.

"Unfortunately we have many bars that have not behaved well and are contributing to these cases. So if we could close one thing, that thing would be bars," Escott told commissioners Dec. 23.

As the spread of the virus worsens locally, healthcare workers are in the process of receiving the vaccine in order to stay on the front lines of fighting the outbreak. The state has sent two shipments of vaccines to pharmacies, clinics and hospitals across the state.

Austin facilities have received 42,000 doses of the vaccine since Dec. 14 for health care workers and nursing home residents.

"This may be our last hard time now that the vaccine is coming and beginning to be distributed," Mayor Steve Adler said. "We need people to hold on just a little bit longer."
By Jack Flagler
Jack is the editor of Community Impact Newspaper's Central Austin and Southwest Austin editions. He began his career as a sports reporter in Massachusetts and North Carolina before moving to Austin in 2018. He grew up in Maine and graduated from Boston University, but prefers tacos al pastor to lobster rolls. You can get in touch at jflagler@communityimpact.com


MOST RECENT

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s Vaccines and Related Biological Products Advisory Committee recommended Johnson & Johnson’s one-shot vaccine for emergency authorization use Feb. 26. (Courtesy Adobe Stock)
Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine recommended for emergency authorization use by FDA

This is the third COVID-19 vaccine that has been approved for emergency authorization use after those produced by pharmaceutical company Pfizer and biotechnology company Moderna.

Josh Frank, owner of Blue Starlite Mini Urban Drive-in for more than a decade, holds up a Blue Starlite-branded mask. (Photo by Olivia Aldridge/Community Impact Newspaper)
Long-time Austin theater Blue-Starlite Mini Urban Drive-In takes on new life in pandemic

Drive-in theater Blue Starlite found itself in a unique position in 2020: After more than 10 years as a small business “just getting by,” demand for drive-in movies exploded, owner Josh Frank said.

The University of Texas Radio-Television-Film department will be offering virtual camps this summer. (Courtesy The University of Texas)
2021 Central Austin summer camp guide: 44 options including virtual and in-person offerings

Our list of camps happening in Austin this summer includes options focusing on academics, arts, sports and language.

Samsung's proposed $17 billion chip-making plant would dwarf other recent megaprojects that sought tax incentives in the region.
Samsung’s request to pay no property tax on $17 billion plant tests Austin’s incentive policy

Samsung is asking for 100% property tax reimbursement over 25 years, which would mark the most aggressive corporate tax break in Austin history.

A new Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine could help expand vaccination availability in Travis County, according to local health officials. (Courtesy Pexels)
Johnson & Johnson vaccine could mean additional supply, easier distribution rollout in Travis County

If approved, the Johnson & Johnson vaccine will be a valuable weapon against the ongoing pandemic, according to local health officials.

Austin ISD students will begin the 2021-22 school year Tuesday, Aug. 17. (Nicholas Cicale/Community Impact Newspaper)
Take a look at Austin ISD’s newly approved calendar for the 2021-22 school year

Austin ISD trustees have approved the academic calendar for the upcoming 2021-22 school year.

Snow covers I-45 in Houston during a winter storm that hit Texas the night of Feb. 14. (Shawn Arrajj/Community Impact Newspaper)
Legislators probe energy officials over power failures, lack of preparation heading into winter storm

The Texas Legislature held hearings Feb. 25 with energy companies including Oncor Electric Delivery and the Electric Reliability Council of Texas in response to last week’s historic winter storm, which left millions of Texans without electricity for days.

Austin ISD students are scheduled to return to classrooms March 1 for the first time since Winter Storm Uri. (Courtesy Adobe Stock)
Winter storm damage could prevent 10 Austin ISD campuses from reopening next week

Austin ISD students are scheduled to return to classrooms March 1 for the first time since Winter Storm Uri.

A tree's branches fell on a car in North Austin in the midst of Winter Storm Uri in February. With downed tree limbs and burst water lines causing property damage across Austin, the city has directed additional funds into programs to help some homeowners with emergency home repairs. (Iain Oldman/Community Impact Newspaper)
Still in crisis mode, Austin City Council initiates recovery following winter storm

With 200 to 400 apartment and condo complexes in Austin still without water, City Council is aiming to direct aid and relieve some of the financial burden felt by residents following the devastating winter storms.

Photo of a knife cutting through brisket
La Barbecue heads to new home on East Cesar Chavez Street

The popular barbecue joint will move to its new location in May.

Jo's Coffee opened a North Austin location in January. (Courtesy Chad Wadsworth)
Jo's Coffee opens in Central Austin; new restaurant coming to Georgetown Square and more Central Texas news

Read the latest business and community news from the Central Texas area.