Austin Public Health medical director: At least one being tested for coronavirus; risk remains low ahead of SXSW

A photo of the Travis County Commissioners Court and representatives from the Health & Human Services Department.
The Travis County Commissioners Court heard an update from Travis County Health & Human Services representatives March 3. (Emma Freer/Community Impact Newspaper)

The Travis County Commissioners Court heard an update from Travis County Health & Human Services representatives March 3. (Emma Freer/Community Impact Newspaper)

The medical director for Austin Public Health told county commissioners March 3 that the risk of contracting novel coronavirus is currently low for Travis County residents.

Mark Escott is the interim medical director and health authority for Austin Public Health and the Emergency Management System medical director for both the city and the county. He told commissioners March 3 this risk assessment holds true for mass gatherings such as the upcoming South by Southwest Conference & Festivals.

“There is not strong evidence that cancelling mass gatherings breaks the chain of transmission,” Escott said.

He emphasized that “close, personal contact over long periods of time” with infected individuals carries the greatest risk of transmission.

While there are no instances of person-to-person spread of novel coronavirus in Travis County, Escott said that “one or more” individuals have been hospitalized or quarantined while being monitored and tested for the virus.

According to APH officials, the city has a five-phase plan to prepare for any cases of the novel coronavirus.

APH has moved into its second phase in that plan because of the confirmed test or tests, said APH Public Information and Marketing Manager Jen Samp.

"If we stop testing or if we don’t need to test, we’ll go back to Phase 1," Samp said. "It is very fluid on which phase we’re going to be in."

The test or tests came after new coronavirus testing guidelines from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Samp told Community Impact Newspaper. Under the new guidelines, individuals may be tested for coronavirus if they exhibit fever or symptoms of lower respiratory illness in combination with a history of travel from a handful of affected countries, or if the individual has had close contact with a confirmed coronavirus patient within 14 days of onset, according to CDC documents. Patients may be additionally tested even if no source or exposure has been identified, CDC documents outline.

"You're going to start seeing more individuals tested," Samp said.

APH yesterday afternoon sent its samples to Atlanta to be tested by the CDC, according to Samp. The local agency "usually" gets results back in 24-48 hours, Samp said.

Escott told commissioners the public would be alerted if an active case of the virus is confirmed.

In addition, APH announced the formation of an expert advisory panel to evaluate the risks of novel coronavirus in Travis County—particularly the risks involved with mass gatherings and community hubs for vulnerable populations, such as nursing homes.

Escott said the advisory panel—which includes experts on infectious diseases, pediatrics, emergency medicine, internal medicine, primary care and public health—would convene tonight. For the time being, he emphasized that the community should feel safe to move forward with daily activities, including primary voting, following the news that a number of Travis County poll workers had not arrived at their posts the morning of election day.

“We have no evidence of community spread. We should not be afraid to go to our polling places to do our duty today,” Escott said.

Williamson County officials also addressed public concern regarding novel coronavirus at their March 3 County Commissioners meeting, where they, too, addressed safety measures health officials were taking and urged the public to maintain common disease-prevention habits, such as washing hands and covering the mouth and nose when coughing and sneezing, as fears over the virus persist.

This article has been updated as of 3:46 p.m., March 3.
By Olivia Aldridge
Olivia is the reporter for Community Impact's Southwest Austin edition. She graduated from Presbyterian College with a bachelor's degree in English and creative writing in 2017. Olivia was a reporter and producer at South Carolina Public Radio in Columbia, South Carolina before joining Community Impact in Austin.
By Iain Oldman
Iain Oldman joined Community Impact Newspaper in 2017 after spending two years in Pittsburgh, Pa., where he covered Pittsburgh City Council. His byline has appeared in PublicSource, WESA-FM and Scranton-Times Tribune. Iain worked as the reporter for Community Impact Newspaper's flagship Round Rock/Pflugerville/Hutto edition and is now working as the editor for the Northwest Austin edition.


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