AUSTIN (KXAN) — Austin-Travis County is still in Stage 3 COVID-19 risk-based guidelines as of Thursday but, as some of you have pointed out to KXAN’s ReportIt, we’ve been in the threshold for Stage 2 guidelines for 10 days now. Why hasn’t the local health authority made the shift? It’s a question we at KXAN have been asking Austin Public Health (APH).

While APH has said many metrics go into their decision, it’s the 7-day rolling average of new hospital admissions that has been used as a threshold marker for risk-based stages for months. On APH’s key metrics for staging dashboard, Stage 5 and 4 is a rolling average of 50-90 new admissions, Stage 3 is 15-29, Stage 2 is 5-14 and Stage 1 is less than five.

Austin-Travis County has seen a 7-day rolling average of hospital admissions at 14 and below for a consecutive 10 days, which falls into the threshold of Stage 2 guidelines as it’s laid out by APH right now.

With the system in place right now, people who are fully vaccinated against COVID-19 would be able to ditch their masks in private indoor settings when the health authority officially moves the area to Stage 2.

APH COVID-19 risk-based guidance (courtesy APH)

The rules are different for people who are partially or not fully vaccinated. People in that category are asked to wear a mask during all outings from home.

What gives?

A conversation with the University of Texas COVID-19 Modeling Consortium Wednesday gave us a potential clue as to why that step down to Stage 2 hasn’t happened yet.

During an interview about the impact of pediatric vaccines on herd immunity, Dr. Spencer Fox, the associate director of the consortium, said they’ve been working with the City of Austin to reevaluate the risk-based stage system and “the alert system overall.”

The concern, according to Fox, is that we haven’t hit an immunity level that would stop another spike from happening. Austin-Travis County saw an increase in cases starting this time last year, that spike was our most dramatic, in terms of case numbers, and lasted through the end of January.

“I think what we’ve seen is that there’s significant immunity in our population however, there’s not enough immunity to prevent a large pandemic surge and so that’s our concern right now,” Fox said.

After learning from the UT COVID-19 Modeling Consortium that the risk-based guidelines might be shifting, KXAN reached out to APH to confirm, give a timeline and explain why the changes are being made. KXAN has not heard back on that specific inquiry yet but APH did send a media-wide release Thursday afternoon indicating officials will keep the area in Stage 3 because of Community Transmission Rate.

That was discussed in Friday’s media Q&A. You can read the updates from APH in our updated article here.

During a previous inquiry from KXAN about why APH hadn’t moved the area to Stage 2, regardless of being within the threshold, a spokesperson for APH responded with a statement that said:

Health experts look at more than just hospitalizations in order to change stages. They also look at the community transmission rate which is still high. New information learned from this most recent surge with the Delta variant shows that hospitalizations are more severe; there are still people in the hospital from when the surge began. Other factors that go into consideration include developments within the state, nation, and world; we are monitoring the surge in the UK. It is a small world and we are in this together.

The United Kingdom has seen an offshoot of the delta variant and an increased number of cases as a result, the U.K. Health Security Agency reported late last month.

Key indicators going down

While cases in the U.K. have gone up, case numbers in Austin-Travis County have been declining over the past month as we experience the tail-end of a spike caused largely by the delta variant.

“Our models just in the short-term are suggesting that we’re in a bit of a plateau to slightly decreasing phase and so we’re expecting to see case counts and hospitalizations continue to remain at kind of the low level they’re at or continue falling a little bit,” Fox said.

Another positive, when it comes to our case numbers and hospitalizations, is the announcement earlier this week that kids will have the ability to be vaccinated for COVID-19 by way of a federally approved child-sized Pfizer vaccine.

Projections from the COVID-19 Scenario Modeling Hub, which taps into a collection of outside modeling groups to project future trends during the pandemic, show childhood vaccinations will help curb additional large spikes even if a new variant emerges.

“Overall what their results suggest is that it’s likely that childhood vaccinations will help prevent a major surge,” Fox said.

Austin Public Health is expected to host a media Q&A Friday, Nov. 5 on why the area is staying in Stage 3. You can read the latest on what they said in KXAN’s update of this story.