Austin health authority says COVID-19 conditions are improving, but masks remain vital

Photo of Mark Escott in front of a mic
Austin-Travis County Health interim Authority Mark Escott says pandemic conditions are "moving in the right direction" as of April 27. (Jack Flagler/Community Impact Newspaper)

Austin-Travis County Health interim Authority Mark Escott says pandemic conditions are "moving in the right direction" as of April 27. (Jack Flagler/Community Impact Newspaper)

Officials from Austin Public Health said April 27 that coronavirus pandemic conditions in the Austin area are "moving in the right direction." Dr. Mark Escott, interim health authority for Austin and Travis County, told a joint session of Austin City Council and the Travis County Commissioners Court that the county's moving average for daily confirmed COVID-19 cases had been under 100 since April 22. Currently, the moving average of daily confirmed cases is 84.

"We're certainly pleased with a clear downward trend in terms of new cases," Escott said. "It looks like things are improving in terms of [hospital] admissions as well. We expect given the drop in cases as well as changes in positivity that this week will continue in a downward trend."

The Austin area's daily moving average for hospitalizations, a key factor in determining the community's stage of coronavirus-related risk, is currently 18.3. Escott said that on Sunday, April 25, local hospitals only reported seven daily admissions, the first occurrence of single-digit admissions since Oct. 5, prior to Travis County's most recent spike in cases.

If these trends continue, Escott said Austin and Travis County could be shifted down to Stage 2 risk status this week or next, a status that has not been attained since May 2020. Under Stage 2, residents would still be asked to continue using masks and social distancing, but would be given the green light to attend gatherings of up to 25 people. Under Stage 3, gatherings are limited to groups of 10. Currently, the threshold for Stage 2 is a moving average of 10 daily hospitalizations, but Escott said APH may move that threshold to 15 based on recent data.

As he has in the past, Escott emphasized the need for certain protective behaviors to persevere in order for the community's positive trends to continue. The Centers for Disease Control & Prevention released new guidance April 27 saying that fully vaccinated individuals were safe to engage in outdoor activities without masks, along with other loosened recommendations. Escott noted, however, that masks continue to be an important line of defense against the virus, particularly indoors, citing a new study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences which identified airborne transmission as the largest source of exposure to COVID-19.

In particular, Escott said he was concerned about activities among young adults in the 20-29 age group, which often has heightened public interactions and opportunities to transmit the virus.

"We know that those groups are less excited about getting vaccinated because they perceive the decreased risk of hospitalization and death," he said. "It's essential that they get vaccinated, because they will see an impact from COVID-19. We will continue to see hospitalizations, and we certainly have the potential to experience deaths in that age group."

Children under the age of 16 are still unable to receive coronavirus vaccines, making them another group of concern: among high school students, the COVID-19 positivity rate was 8.1% in the past week, compared to 3.9% in the general Austin-Travis County population. Transmissions for that age group continue to be mostly isolated to extracurricular activities where masking and distancing are not observed, Escott said. With that in mind, Austin Public Health will release health guidance for graduation ceremonies and summer camps this week.
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.