Austin Public Health following CDC’s shortened isolation guidance for people with COVID-19; 1 in 3 Central Texas tests positive

Image of COVID-19 test kits
The guidance comes as some of Austin Public Health's indicators edge into Stage 5 risk thresholds. (Courtesy National Institutes of Health)

The guidance comes as some of Austin Public Health's indicators edge into Stage 5 risk thresholds. (Courtesy National Institutes of Health)

Editor's note: This story has been updated with new APH data on positive COVID-19 tests.

As cases surge in the Austin-Travis County area, Austin Public Health is following the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s updated guidance from Dec. 27 that shortens the isolation time for people who have tested positive for COVID-19.

Under the new guidance, people who test positive but are not experiencing symptoms after five days can stop isolating. That person should then wear a mask for five days. The previous guidance was for people with COVID-19 to isolate for 10 days.

“The change is motivated by science demonstrating that the majority of SARS-CoV-2 transmission occurs early in the course of illness, generally in the 1-2 days prior to onset of symptoms and the 2-3 days after,” the CDC news release read.

However, people with a fever should continue to isolate until the fever resolves, the news release added.

For those who have been exposed to the virus, the recommendations vary based on vaccination status.

“If you have been boosted/completed the primary series of Pfizer or Moderna in the last six months/completed the primary series of J&J in the last two months, you should wear a mask around others for 10 days and test on day 5 if possible. If you develop symptoms, get a test and begin isolating,” an APH official said in an email.

The official added that people who are due for a booster or are unvaccinated should isolate for five days after exposure and wear a mask around others for five days after that.

The new guidance comes amid a surge in cases in Austin with APH and its regional partners seeing 30% of tests come back positive between Dec. 27-30, according to a Jan. 4 APH news release. As of Jan. 4, the seven-day moving average for new COVID-19 hospital admissions is 66, which falls in the Stage 5 risk threshold.

Testing and vaccinating

To combat the virus, Dr. Desmar Walkes, the Austin-Travis County health authority, said that it is important to get vaccinated and get a booster shot when eligible. In December, APH saw a significant surge in booster shot demand, administering 14,370 booster shots.

APH moved the community into Stage 4 on Dec. 29, meaning vaccinated people should wear masks when gathering with people outside of their household, traveling, dining and shopping. Those who are partially vaccinated or unvaccinated should wear masks and avoid gathering with people outside of their household, according to the guidelines.

“We are working towards a community-driven effort to stop the spread of this virus, and if we work together to do that, we can accomplish it because we've done it before,” Walkes said.

Testing also increased significantly as APH administered almost 10,000 tests in December. Walkes said people can report take-home test results by calling 311.

During a Jan. 4 meeting, Council Members Vanessa Fuentes and Greg Casar raised questions about APH’s preparedness for testing during the holidays. APH interim Director Adrienne Sturrup said the problem lies with the rapid tests, but APH has sufficient PCR tests, which take longer to yield results, for the public.

“It's not that there's a lack of access to testing; it's a lack of access to same-day testing,” Sturrup said.

Walkes also said rapid tests are not as accurate as PCR tests. She recommended a person who was exposed to the virus and takes a rapid test also take another test 24 hours later to confirm the result.

Overall, Walkes said the omicron variant continues to drive the rise in cases with the variant accounting for 84.9% of COVID-19 cases.

“With regards to preparation, it is a situation that we find ourselves where it's very likely that if you are not wearing masks in public places when you’re around people you don’t live with that you may come in contact with someone who has omicron,” Walkes said.
By Benton Graham

Metro Reporter, Austin

Benton joined Community Impact Newspaper as a metro reporter covering transportation in Central Texas in June 2021. Benton's writing has appeared in Vox, The Austin Chronicle, Austonia and Reporting Texas. Originally from Minneapolis, Benton graduated from William & Mary and eventually moved to Austin in 2018.