AUSTIN (KXAN) — Dr. Mark Escott, the Austin Public Health interim health authority, said Austin-Travis County is now in the Stage 4 level of COVID-19 risk due to a lack of medical workers available to staff intensive care units, along with rising cases and positivity rates. He also implored businesses to reduce their capacities.

He said that after meeting with other officials, it was decided the threshold to move to Stage 4 be lowered from a seven-day rolling average of new hospitalizations from 40 to 30 to avoid a surge like the one in El Paso. The area is currently at a rolling average of 32 new hospitalizations.

Dr. Escott said 300 new cases were reported Wednesday, and that’s the highest since the middle of August. The positivity rate is approaching 7%.

“We can still do something about it,” Dr. Escott said. “We can still affect the increase we’re seeing. Through our actions, through our call to vigilance, which has been renewed, we can cut that down.”

Updated COVID-19 risk chart courtesy of Austin Public Health

Using projections by the University of Texas at Austin modeling consortium, Dr. Escott said it’s possible the area would need around 400 ICU beds to handle a potential surge by February. Right now, there’s enough staff here to handle 200 ICU beds since medical workers have been dispatched to high-surge areas like El Paso, Lubbock and Fort Worth.

“If we reduce activity and exposure by 50% from where it is today, we can flatten the curve again, as we’ve done in the past in Travis County and the city of Austin,” he said. “If we achieve even greater goals of 75% reduction, we can flatten it quickly and keep it there until we have a vaccine, which is in reach right now.”

Plea to reduce occupancy

Dr. Escott asked businesses in Austin-Travis County to move down to 25% to 50% occupancy. He said the best way to keep businesses open is to reduce capacity. A move to Stage 5 is something Dr. Escott doesn’t want, and he made that clear.

“We must do all that we can to prevent that from happening. We have to renew the call to action,” he said. “This will help us mitigate the spread. I know this has been a hard time for businesses, but we want to keep them open.”

He said if spread continues at its current pace, the area could be at Stage 5 “in just a few weeks.”

‘Are you letting you guard down?’

APH Director Stephanie Hayden said the agency has put together a vaccine distribution task force (for when the time comes), is part of Operation Warp Speed, and is putting together a plan. She understands people have made many sacrifices and are experiencing fatigue, but she says people have to take an inventory of their behavior.

“It’s a call for action for us to move forward and look at our behavior,” she said. “Take some personal time to reflect about the behavior you’ve had. What have you stopped doing recently? Are you making essential trips that you weren’t making before? Are you letting your guard down?”

Officials are pleading to people to stay home for the holidays, especially Thanksgiving, as the period of 7-10 days after Thanksgiving could pose a very high risk of COVID-19 spread if people continue to move about at current rates.

Travis County Judge Andy Brown said not to “sacrifice future holidays with your families by ignoring the warnings you’re hearing from health professionals.”

“If everyone does their part, I’m confident that we can prevent a crisis here in Travis County, but it means our holiday season will be very different than seasons in the past.”

‘Misbehavior at bars’

Gov. Greg Abbot said earlier this week that he will not order any more lockdowns in Texas. Escott said the city can further enforce existing orders, though, to help flatten the curve.

Escott said public health officials have noticed “misbehavior” and crowds outside bars that have converted to restaurants under relaxed rules from the state.

“I think it’s important that the bar industry work hard to sort out how to do this better,” Escott said. “We know the nature of a bar is people are drinking alcohol, people are often face-to-face, and those two things combined for this pandemic create a scenario that is very dangerous.”

The president of the Texas Bar and Nightclub Alliance says shifting to stage four COVID-19 guidelines in Austin won’t affect members’ operations.

“Adler has no authority under the restaurant rules to be any stricter than what the governor’s action,” said TBNA President Michael Klein. “The current government action, GA 32, which you know involves all businesses around the state of Texas and all different segments of the economy. You know, he can say, as a recommendation, whatever he wants. But the business owner, it is up to them to follow what the state action guidelines are.”

Klein says most members have made changes to operate as restaurants.

According to data provided by Austin 3-1-1, nine citations have been issued by the Austin Fire Department for coronavirus service calls since Nov. 1. No other responding agency issued any citations over that time, though City of Austin departments tasked with responding received 420 requests.