AUSTIN (KXAN) — Students and teachers who are fully vaccinated in the Austin area will likely not have to wear masks inside buildings next school year, according to the local health authority.
Dr. Desmar Walkes, the health authority for Austin-Travis County, said she will soon share guidelines for school districts that are expected to fall in line with what the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) announced Friday about mask wearing inside school buildings.
“We are aligning ourselves with CDC guidelines, so we’ll be following that closely and making our recommendations accordingly,” Dr. Walkes said.
During an interview with KXAN Friday, Dr. Walkes said she is currently working on what those guidelines will include for local schools, and she plans to release them “well in advance of the school year.”
The relaxed federal guidelines come amid a national vaccination campaign in which children as young as 12 are eligible to get shots, as well as a general decline in COVID-19 hospitalizations and deaths. Meanwhile, school districts in Central Texas are making a push to get students older than 12 vaccinated in the weeks before school starts.
Austin Public Health (APH) changed its approach to more targeted, community-based initiatives to make it easier to get people vaccinated for COVID-19. The department created a program where businesses, community groups and other organizations could request pop-up vaccination clinics. APH reported that its mobile vaccine program provided shots at more than 115 sites so far, which included restaurants and homeless camps. The department recently received 28 more requests for similar clinics since launching an online form.
This week Travis County announced it’s the first in the area to reach the milestone of getting 70% of eligible residents vaccinated with at least one dose.
Travis County has yet to confirm any COVID-19 cases caused by the more-contagious delta variant, which is now the dominant strain in the U.S. However, Williamson County already reported several cases, so Dr. Walkes said people should assume it’s now circulating locally due to the proximity.
“We have delta variant here that’s not been recognized, because people have not been tested for that as yet,” she said. “There are limited places where that is happening at this point, so we go on that assumption and prepare accordingly.”
If vaccinated people contract COVID-19 caused by this variant, Dr. Walkes said they’re likely to suffer symptoms similar to a common cold, like a runny nose or a scratchy throat. However, she said symptoms may show up more severe in someone who’s unvaccinated or has a compromised immune system — posing a higher risk to their health and safety.
“It can go from one extreme to the next in those that are unvaccinated, which is why they should be considering and going for vaccinations,” she said.
Dr. Walkes revealed some troubling information about recent hospitalizations that may motivate some to consider getting the COVID-19 vaccine. She said nearly all — more than 90% — of the people recently admitted to local hospitals with the disease were unvaccinated.
According to numbers posted Friday afternoon on the city’s COVID-19 dashboard, 89 people are currently hospitalized battling COVID-19, while 36 are in intensive care and 16 others require a ventilator to help them breathe.
“Go and get vaccinated,” Dr. Walkes said simply. “Go and get vaccinated. Get the shots. Protect yourself and your family. In the meantime, if you’re unvaccinated or not fully vaccinated, read the room. Wear a mask if you’re somewhere where you think there are people who are unvaccinated, and you yourself want to have an extra layer of protection.”
News became public in May Dr. Walkes would become the new local health authority after serving in the same role in neighboring Bastrop County. Her predecessor, Dr. Mark Escott, served on an interim basis throughout the worst peaks of the pandemic. He now works as Austin’s chief medical officer.