More than four years after the COVID-19 pandemic began, Austin Public Health ended its close reporting on local cases but will keep up with high-level monitoring and pandemic preparedness efforts.

The setup

APH began winding down its COVID-19 case dashboard in the wake of new federal and state actions related to the disease.

In March, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention revised its guidance for dealing with respiratory illnesses, including COVID-19, the flu and RSV. The update included a reduced amount of time for recommended isolation after COVID-19 symptoms improve as well as general prevention strategies, in part given greater immunity to and treatment for the disease.

Around the same time, the Texas Department of State Health Services cut COVID-19 from the list of conditions that doctors, clinics, hospitals and labs are required to report to public health authorities—meaning APH was no longer receiving all individual case reports in the area.

That, combined with a growing number of COVID-19 tests being completed at home and not officially logged, meant APH’s case records were no longer accurate and led to the reporting change in April.

Current situation

Dr. Desmar Walkes, Austin/Travis County medical director and health authority, said the agency is now in more of a “flu surveillance posture” for keeping an eye on COVID-19.

“What we have now is a scenario where we’re looking at the data that we do have that’s reliable, and we’re looking at the changes and trends over time to guide our public health decision-making,” she said.

When APH’s case reporting ended in early April, more than 360,000 COVID-19 cases had been reported in Austin and Travis County, and nearly 2,000 people had died from the disease.
APH is not completely ending COVID-19 tracking, however. Walkes said officials will continue to watch more accurate data, such as hospitalization and death counts; keep up with wastewater surveillance, a new monitoring method adopted in the pandemic; and observe overall respiratory illness numbers logged with DSHS.

Additionally, COVID-19 outbreaks that are more likely in places such as schools or nursing homes must still be reported and could prompt more of a response. Walkes also said the agency will adjust its strategy if new variants prove to be more transmissible or vaccine-resistant, whether in Central Texas or globally.

“We have continuous monitoring still for COVID[-19]. And we will continue to do so until we’ve gotten to a place where it’s as common as the flu, and we’re not concerned about variants and those kinds of things,” she said. “In the short term, I see us continuing for quite some time to be monitoring variants. ... Public health’s working in the background all the time.”

What else?

The shifting approach to COVID-19 comes as broader local pandemic preparedness efforts are ongoing.

Building on its recent relationship with The University of Texas COVID-19 Modeling Consortium, scientists and public health officials will continue to examine how different variables, such as vaccination and immunity rates, hospital capacity, and other factors might affect future disease outbreaks.

“It’s been really helpful, and going forward we intend to continue to look at asking those questions, looking at developing tools that we and other public health departments will be able to use in areas where they may not have access to a modeling group as we’re fortunate enough to have and better prepare us for the next pandemic,” Walkes said.

That work will be boosted with a $1.24 million CDC grant, accepted by APH this spring, supporting a national network for outbreak response and forecasting. The funding is tied to UT’s pandemic preparedness center, and will help with disease analysis and modeling.

Walkes said the work around Austin is part of an international group of public health agencies, researchers and experts in fields from engineering to economics.

“In an emergency such as what we just lived through, the impacts are not just about the virus and the impact on the human body. There are also impacts that occur to communities, businesses, the economic well-being of the community, etcetera,” she said. “Our group is a trans-disciplinary group, and we’re all working together to try and make sure that we can be prepared for the next pandemic.”