Expecting increase in COVID-19, Austin health leaders ask protesters to get screened


Austin (KXAN) — For the past five days, thousands of people gathered in the streets of Austin to protest the deaths of George Floyd in Minneapolis and Michael Ramos in Austin. Health leaders in Austin said on a press call Wednesday that they do expect to see an increase in COVID-19 cases in Austin-Travis County related to the demonstrations and are asking those who protested to get screened to see if they need a COVID-19 test.

“I was pleased to see many people participating in peaceful protests were wearing masks and that should help to mitigate that risk,” said Austin Interim Health Authority Dr. Mark Escott on the press call of the recent demonstrations in Austin. “But social distancing was impossible in many of those locations.”

Austin Public Health Director Stephanie Hayden said, “we are encouraging individuals that may have participated in the protests, please go to our website and take the assessment and sign up for a test.”

In April, APH launched a free tool on its website which allows anyone in Austin-Travis County to get screened for COVID-19 for free without the referral of a doctor.

KXAN reporter Alyssa Goard took the city’s screening questionnaire for COVID-19 testing and was told that she did not need to get tested for COVID-19 based on her symptoms and risk factors. Screenshot City of Austin Web form.

The screening questionnaire asks people about their symptoms, travel, and contact with others to determine whether they need a test. If a person is found to need a COVID-19 test, they will be able to schedule an appointment at the APH testing site to be tested for free. APH states on the questionnaire that the information people share there is “private and confidential by law” and will be sent to a testing lab, then used to share the results with the patient. The department also says that people who go through with this testing or the screening will not be asked about their immigration status.

“We would like to be proactive in this space and get you to come in and take our test,” Hayden said, noting that anyone who has challenges with the online form or with getting tested can call 311 for help.

Demonstrators walk down 2nd Street at a protest in Austin on May 31, 2020. (KXAN Photo/ Alyssa Goard).

Escott noted that health leaders are expecting an increase in cases related to protests because “when it comes down to it, disease is transmitted by person to person interactions.”

But he also noted that the protests aren’t the only factor health leaders are monitoring which could lead to a potential surge in cases. He mentioned that the health department is also concerned about seeing an uptick in cases related to the continued reopening of businesses in the state.

“It’s important that we watch for that,” he said while also mentioning, “our hospital capacity is certainly in a good situation right now so we can handle additional capacity.”

How protesters can curb their risk

KXAN asked Austin Public Health what people going to protests can do to curb their risk of contracting or spreading the novel coronavirus. A city spokesperson replied saying people should wear face coverings in public, practice social distancing when possible, wash their hands, avoid touching their face, and stay home when they are sick.

However, the city also noted that any large crowd setting where people can’t “maintain proper distance apart” presents a risk for spreading or contracting the virus. Additionally, the spokesperson noted that older adults and people who have underlying medical conditions are at higher risk for developing more serious medical complications from COVID-19 illness.

At the press conference Wednesday, Austin Public Health Chief Epidemiologist Janet Pichette said that Austin-Travis County is seeing an increase in the number of new reported COVID-19 cases as well as the number of COVID-19 hospitalizations. Pichette says the symptom onsets of these cases coincide with both the reopening of businesses in Texas as well as Mother’s Day and Memorial Day.

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