Dr. Mark Escott, interim Austin-Travis County health authority, told the Travis County Commissioners Court that the area runs the risk of falling into “pandemic fatigue” as school districts welcome more students back to classrooms and businesses expand in-store capacity for customers.
“We have to understand that pandemic fatigue is a risk and that people grow tired of these protective actions,” Escott said, referring to social distancing measures and mask mandates. “If we take away those actions, the second surge will come.”
A lapse in safety protocols could prove especially problematic as Texas enters its traditional flu season, Escott said. According to the Texas Department of State Health Services, heightened influenza activity typically occurs from October to May.
“If you have any symptoms [of COVID-19] ... we’re moving into cold and flu season. Even if you think it's one of those things, it's important you stay home,” Escott said.
The Austin-Round Rock metropolitan statistical area is experiencing one of its lowest waves of coronavirus cases, according to numbers provided by Escott. On Sept. 28, Austin Public Health reported four new coronavirus-related hospital admissions, which Escott said is “a new low we haven’t seen in quite some time.”
At the Sept. 29 Commissioners Court meeting, Escott unveiled a new data set to Travis County officials that outlines coronavirus cases that have been recorded in local school districts. Escott said these school districts submit positive coronavirus case data into APH’s system.
According to this data, one student and three staff have tested positive for COVID-19 in the week ending Sept. 26. Since Aug. 16, a total of 24 students have tested positive, and 21 staff have returned positive tests.
However, Escott reported that more than half of all “close contacts” with coronavirus cases in school that have occurred since August happened in the week ending Sept. 26. Close contacts are recorded as instances when a student or staff has been within 6 feet of a positive coronavirus case for 15 minutes or longer.
In the week ending Sept. 26, a total of 37 students had close contacts with positive COVID-19 cases. In all, 63 students have had close contact instances since Aug. 16.
“The primary transition we’re seeing in schools right now is student to student, and primarily that’s not happening inside the classroom but in extracurricular activities and social gatherings,” Escott said. “Where we’re seeing clusters is football programs, band programs [and] cheerleading programs. ... Those activities are not amenable to distancing and masking.”
Escott said his office has communicated with superintendents of local school districts that they recommend students engaged in these extracurricular activities wear masks and practice social distancing measures while at home to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.
“They are at higher risk,” Escott said.
Austin ISD, the largest independent school district in the Austin metropolitan statistical area by enrollment and employment, postponed the beginning of its school year to delay the date that students would be allowed to return to in-person learning. As it stands, students may begin to return to AISD classrooms beginning Oct. 5.
“We want to remind our young people to please engage in those protective behaviors, not only in the classroom, but also outside the classroom,” Escott said.