AUSTIN (KXAN) — After more than a week of protests in Austin, the city’s public health department hasn’t seen any cases of COVID-19 connected to the demonstrations.
However, Interim Austin-Travis County Health Authority Dr. Mark Escott cautioned that this doesn’t mean transmission isn’t happening. Instead, he said enough time hasn’t passed for protesters to develop symptoms, get tested, and receive their results.
“We do expect that if we were to see cases associated with protests or other large gatherings that happened in the last week or two, that that will start rolling out this week into next week before we see any substantial cases related to that,” Escott said.
Escott attributes the recent spike in cases to the reopening of Texas, along with what he described as more “risk-taking behavior,” meaning fewer people wearing masks, socially distancing and practicing good hygiene.
Monday set a new record in for Travis County cases with 118, only to be topped the following day when the health department reported 161 new cases.
Typically, the labs that test coronavirus results slow down over the weekend, so fewer cases are reported on Saturday and Sunday, Escott said. There is then often a spike on Monday as results get processed from over the weekend, before the numbers on Tuesday go back down.
That was not the case this past weekend.
“This is a concerning trend, so we’re going to be paying very close attention to what happens to those case volumes this week,” Escott said.
Impact on Nursing Homes
After an initial surge in the number of cases at nursing home, Austin Public Health has only seen around two dozen cases in the last week weeks, according to Escott.
The department has focused on testing asymptomatic caretakers, in addition to symptomatic residents and caretakers.
In addition, Escott said nursing homes have gotten much better about using proper personal protective equipment.
“The evidence seems very clear that once an outbreak has taken hold of a facility, it’s very hard to stop,” Escott said. “That means we have to be aggressive when it comes to screening.”
Impact on Minority Communities
With the coronavirus disproportionately impacting minority communities in Austin, Escott said government needs to focus first on offering better primary care to these communities.
The city is also working to meet with community leaders to learn how to better identify barriers keeping them from low-risk behaviors, and help remove them.
“We must address the social deterrence of health that are leading to the disproportionate impact that leads to high hospitalizations and death in communities of color,” Escott said. “This shouldn’t be a surprise to anybody that this is affecting these communities more than others.”
The number of people per household is also a key factor in the spread of the virus, with the higher the number, the higher rate of spread.
He also said larger households are disproportionally low-income, which lowers their chances of getting access to essential services.
Austin Public Health currently has 38 people working on coronavirus case investigations, however the department is hoping to add about 10 people each week.
APH Chief Epidemiologist Janet Pichette said the city is in the process of hiring more contact tracers. Those employees will work remotely once their training is finished.
The health department also hopes to break down the number of people who tested positive who were symptomatic, and those who were asymptomatic.
That information should be available on the city’s coronavirus dashboard in the next week or two.
Currently, an overwhelming number of positive test results are from people who showed symptoms.
“The vast majority are symptomatic individuals who had some concern about exposure, or they know somebody in their household whose had exposure,” Pichette said.
APH is urging people to continue to take precautions, and said we’re not out of the woods yet.
“It’s still a risk for us, we still have people hospitalized, we still have people dying,” Escott said. “That doesn’t mean people need to live in fear, but what we do need to do is take this seriously and use those simple precautions that we’ve been talking about for months now.”