AUSTIN (KXAN) — New geographic data shows the Austin neighborhoods where people who get COVID-19 are more likely to develop the most serious infections.

Researchers at the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston mapped out the areas most at-risk for patients needing hospitalization, critical care and ventilators. The maps are based on the prevalence of several underlying risk factors from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Those include:

  • heart disease
  • stroke
  • chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)
  • current asthma
  • diabetes
  • kidney disease
  • obesity

“There are special circumstances that lead to hospitalizations for people with COVID-19 infection,” Dr. Stephen Linder explained.

Map and data from Mapping the Areas at Highest Risk of Severe COVID19 in Dallas, Austin and San Antonio study from UTHealth School of Public Health, Institute for Health Policy

Linder and his team analyzed national health data to pinpoint census tracts with the highest prevalence of these risk factors for severe COVID-19 disease.

The neighborhoods in the red zones on the map have the highest prevalence.

The map also shows the areas of the city with the highest concentration of residents living in poverty. The data shows the areas with the highest risk of severe disease and the highest financial need often overlap.

These areas are primarily in East Austin, east of I-35 and north of Highway 71, and in North Austin, north of Highway 290 and east of the MoPac Expressway.

“Once they’re mapped out, then we can target our resources better,” Linder said. “We can target our efforts at the populations most likely to place demand on the hospital care system.”

KXAN Investigators worked to obtain this data and build the interactive map below in partnership with NBC 5 Investigates out of Dallas. Check out their full investigation here.

App users, tap here to explore the interactive map.

Linder hopes their research could help local officials prioritize their response, by potentially predicting where the highest need would be for critical care and ventilator support.

“We could then think not only about outreach to those people who have chronic disease in higher numbers, but also begin worrying about reallocating hospital beds and available hospital resources to those areas of the city,” Linder said.

Wednesday morning, Mayor Steve Adler told KXAN the city was “most closely watching” East Austin for any areas of concern.

“If we have parts of our community that are afraid go to hospitals because they’re afraid they might be deported or leave the country,” Adler said. “If we have families that are living together in a close space, that’s of concern.”

He also mentioned concerns for construction workers and other essential workers still on-the-job.

The city told KXAN in a statement: “As part of the coordinated public health response to COVID-19, the Austin-Travis County Emergency Operations Center has established a social services branch that focuses on efforts including homelessness, food access and behavioral health, among others. The City of Austin Equity Office will guide planning and implementing response and recovery activities that address disparities to ensure that disparities are not inadvertently created or exacerbated.”

The statement continues, “Austin-Travis County Emergency Response works with local partners and healthcare providers such as Central Health and CommUnity Care for both education about COVID-19, and to ensure that people who are uninsured have access to testing and care.”

How does this affect communities?

Linder said they hope the research goes beyond hospital preparedness, but helps nonprofit support agencies plan as well, “to make sure people are taking care of themselves.”

Data-driven advocacy group MEASURE said they’ve been focused on these areas for weeks, and the results of this study are in line with what they are seeing.

“The type of food options in those communities, that factors into their health. Access to safe green spaces to take a break, for mental health,” MEASURE’s Chief Evidence Officer Paulette Blanc said. “These communities tend to have less resources, even financially, and within families who have lower incomes.”

She said the pandemic will affect communities of color and lower socioeconomic status disproportionately.

“There are different needs in these communities,” Blanc said. “Transportation. If you have a safe space to stay during the crisis, if you need to self quarantine. If you even have an extra bedroom where you can isolate yourself.”

She said they appreciate quantitative data, but they are looking for a more qualitative approach to solutions. They are sending out a survey to the community on Thursday, so Austin residents can give feedback.

“The really important thing is to have their voices heard when we are thinking about approaches and solutions to this,” she said. “See how it’s impacting them and their families.”

What does this say about confirmed cases?

To be clear, their research does not map areas where the highest number of cases have already been confirmed. The city of Austin is tracking those numbers here, with the highest number of confirmed cases in Central Austin, in the 78705 zip code.

Most of the 78705 cases “were related to the Cabo trip,” Austin Public Health Medical Director Dr. Mark Escott said Tuesday.

As of Wednesday afternoon, the five Austin/Travis County zip codes with the most COVID-19 cases are 78705, 78748, 78704, 78660 and 78744. The city notes that some zip codes may cross boundary lines.

The zip codes show where people who tested positive for COVID-19 live, not where they contracted the virus. While these zip codes may have the highest number of cases, according to the UT research, different areas could see the most severe cases.

The “red zones” in the UT research also do not indicate that all residents in the area are more at-risk of being diagnosed with COVID-19.

“They’re more likely to require hospitalization and support from the health care system in order to get through the period of infection and get on the other side of it into recovery,” Linder said. “So, they’re at much higher risk, not only with respect to needing hospital care, but potentially ending up in the ICU on a ventilator, and we want to avoid that at all costs.”

Read the full study here: