Austin Public Health announced an official shift to the highest level of community risk-based guidance Aug. 5, saying a rapid surge in coronavirus cases in the past month has put hospital intensive care units under strain.
"We have been through these surges before, but this surge is by far the fastest and most aggressive that we've seen. Almost all of our hospitalizations are due to unvaccinated patients developing severe illness," said Dr. Desmar Walkes, Austin-Travis County health authority, at a news conference.
Travis County reached the threshold for Stage 5 at the end of July with a seven-day moving average of 50 daily hospital admissions. That number had increased to 67 as of Aug. 4, with an overall weekly positivity rate of 14.5%.
In the Austin metropolitan area, 483 individuals are currently hospitalized, with 167 in the ICU. Staffing shortages are making ICU space extremely limited, APH representatives said. As of July 30, the number of staffed ICU beds in the 11-county service area including Travis County was fluctuating around 16. Walkes said the "long road of response" had taken a toll on some health care workers, causing many to take leave or retire.
"We are putting a call out to our medical society members who are retirees and asking them to step up to help," she said. "I'm confident we as a community will get through this, but it's really important that our community does its part to be vaccinated, to wear a mask and to take measures that will decrease the number of cases that are happening each day."
APH released updated guidelines for both vaccinated and unvaccinated community members, all of whom are asked to wear masks both indoors and outdoors when gathering outside the household, shopping or dining. Unvaccinated individuals were further recommended to stay home except for essential activities and to refrain from travel. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, both vaccinated and unvaccinated people can spread the contagious delta variant, currently the dominant strain of COVID-19 in the United States. However, breakthrough cases among vaccinated people remain relatively rare, and very few of those cases are severe.
Business owners are also now urged—but not mandated—to require masks on their premises, and to consider switching to contactless carryout services.
"[We] know that many businesses are just getting back on their feet, and we want to keep our business community open and thriving," Walkes said. "We are asking that our business leaders require masks of their employees and customers and take action to ensure safe distancing and spacing."