Different holiday, same message from Austin Public Health — stay home, don’t gather

Coronavirus

AUSTIN (KXAN) — The message is the same for Christmas as it was for Thanksgiving from Austin Public Health officials — stay home and don’t gather with anyone outside your household.

“If there are activities where masking and distancing aren’t possible, we probably shouldn’t be doing them,” said Dr. Mark Escott, the APH interim health authority said during Monday’s update.

He said COVID-19 cases have increased 83% since the beginning of December, and the disease caused by the SARS-CoV-2 virus should surpass accidental death as Travis County’s third-leading cause of death this year. So far, 516 people have died from COVID-19 this year.

Last week, the Austin-Travis County area hit a seven-day rolling average of 50 new hospitalizations, a trigger point to potentially move the area to Stage 5 restrictions. Health officials didn’t officially make the move, saying they wanted to see a couple more days of data first.

Early Monday, the county’s dashboard shows the average went down slightly to 48, but Escott expects that number to jump back up to around 50, which would mean another wait-and-see period of a couple days to see if conditions worsen. If they do, Escott said the first suggestion they’d make to schools would be to scale back or eliminate extracurricular activities as a method of helping mitigate spread.

“That’s where we’ve been seeing spread,” Escott said. “Social distancing and masking aren’t practical there.”

He said if school districts didn’t scale them back, he suggested a “proactive testing program” be implemented in the activities. He continued to say if things get worse, they’d suggest a transition to virtual learning, starting at the high school level and moving down to lower grade levels.

“At all costs, we need to keep our elementary schools open for as long as we can,” he said.

What’s the status of vaccines?

Escott said there are roughly 80,000 healthcare workers in Travis County, and along with the first shipment of the Moderna vaccine expected this week, there will be about 34,000 doses of the COVID-19 vaccine by the end of the week.

“We’re all going to have to be patient when it comes to the rollout process,” Escott said.

82% of COVID-19 deaths are in people older than 60 years ago, and 94% of COVID-19 deaths are in people older than 50 years old, so Escott said that, following all the healthcare and frontline workers getting their vaccinations, those at high risk of severe complications of COVID-19 will get the vaccine.

Even as people get vaccinated, APH Director Stephanie Hayden said people are still going to have to wear masks, social distance and keep good hand hygiene practices.

“Everyone has to continue with these health practices,” she said.

If you have to travel, do these things

Health officials would prefer if people didn’t travel over the holidays, especially by airplane. But, they realize some people will anyway, so they offered some suggestions to help reduce the risk of either catching or unknowingly transmit COVID-19 before, during or after the holiday season.

If you have to get on a plane, wear two masks to help fortify the barrier between you and others. Wipe down the tray table with disinfectant wipes, and bring hand sanitizer and use it often.

“We’ve got to realize we’re in an unprecedented place, not only in Travis County, but also in Texas and across the United States,” Escott said. “In a time when we have vaccine available, and have the ability to protect people with 95% certainty, and probably close to 100% certainty from severe disease, it’s important we wait until we can get more vaccine out there before we choose to gather with people outside the household.”

APH Chief Epidemiologist Janet Pichette said that if people choose to travel, they should get a viral test 1-3 days before leaving. Upon arrival back home, she suggested a 7-day self-quarantine period and eliminate nonessential activities, and then take another test to make sure another traveler, COVID-19, didn’t hitch a ride.

Escott said traveling by car with members of the same household is the safer method if you’ve got to go anywhere.

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