Austin health authorities outline COVID-19 surge risks while eyeing possible shift to Stage 2

Photo of Austin's skyline
Austin-Travis County is nearing Stage 2 territory for pandemic risk. (Community Impact Newspaper staff)

Austin-Travis County is nearing Stage 2 territory for pandemic risk. (Community Impact Newspaper staff)

Local public health experts said they are encouraged by Austin's declining COVID-19 numbers but warned progress could be easily upended in the coming months if the community does not remain vigilant against the virus.

Austin-Travis County remains in Stage 3 of Austin Public Health's pandemic risk-based guidelines. However, as of Oct. 26, the Austin-area coronavirus hospitalizations are within the range for APH to consider a shift to Stage 2 with a seven-day moving average of 14.1 daily hospital admissions related to the coronavirus. The capital metropolitan area's hospitalizations first dipped below 15, the tentative threshold for Stage 2, on Oct. 22 and have oscillated in the days since.

APH has historically waited to see a persistent trend in staging data before announcing a shift while factoring in other considerations, including the testing positivity rate, the doubling time of new cases and intensive care unit capacity. Dr. Desmar Walkes, the Austin-Travis County health authority, said data projections from The University of Texas at Austin's COVID-19 Modeling Consortium points to the need to be cautious about a shift to Stage 2.

"Modeling shows ... that if we continue with the threshold for Stage 2, we may see two surges in the November-December time frame," Walkes said.

The potential for new surges, she said, is mainly as a result of reduced protective behaviors that would be predicted during Stage 2, including masking and social distancing—as has been the case in the United Kingdom and other European countries experiencing surges. Walkes said flu numbers could also be higher this season if the public's vigilance around masking is relaxed.

"It's important that we as a community go out and get our flu shots and do those measures that we do to prevent the spread of COVID-19, which is wearing a mask, social distancing and staying home when sick," she said.

During Stage 3, according to APH's current risk-based guidelines, fully vaccinated individuals are asked to mask up in most indoor settings, recommendations that would be relaxed in Stage 2. Unvaccinated people are asked to wear masks in most scenarios in both Stage 2 and Stage 3.
By Olivia Aldridge

Reporter, Central Austin

Olivia joined Community Impact Newspaper as a reporter in March 2019. She covers public health, business, development and Travis County government. A graduate of Presbyterian College in South Carolina, Olivia worked as a reporter and producer for South Carolina Public Radio before moving to Texas. Her work has appeared on NPR and in the New York Times.