Winter surge looks likely, Austin-Travis County health leaders issue warning


AUSTIN (KXAN) — As a growing number of Americans learn they’ve contracted the omicron variant, Austin-Travis County health leaders are issuing warnings ahead of the holidays.

“We know the ‘s’ word is in our future… surge,” Adrienne Sturrup, interim director for Austin Public Health said in a media Q&A Friday.

That’s something leaders at the University of Texas COVID-19 Modeling Consortium have echoed recently, saying a winter surge looks likely in Austin-Travis County based on national trends and early indicators.

“In the U.S. right now we’re in the midst of a winter surge, the early kind of component of that, and if we look back to last year what we saw in Austin is that the winter surge that started in other regions wound up coming here as well,” Dr. Spencer Fox, the associate director of the consortium, told KXAN last week.

It’s not just national data health leaders are worried about, but international case numbers too. Experts say the variant may be spreading quickly even in areas that have high vaccination rates.

“This virus has spread exponentially in South Africa, it’s doing the same in the UK, and it’s likely to do the same thing locally,” Dr. Desmar Walkes, the Austin-Travis County health authority said.

If you plan to spend time with family and friends this holiday season, here’s what health leaders say you need to be considering:

Take precautions while traveling

“What’s the best thing that you can do? Test before you leave and test when you come back,” Sturrup said. The CDC recently updated guidelines to recommend testing before and after travel, especially as the omicron variant starts to spread across the United States.

Local health leaders say most of the spread they saw over the Thanksgiving holiday was people traveling to places with higher transmission rates than Austin.

“While I think most people were very careful, the biggest trend as far as cases go have been associated with increased travel,” said Janet Pichette, chief epidemiologist for APH.

Get vaccinated and get your booster

APH says over the past couple of weeks they’ve seen a huge uptick in people getting their booster shots at local clinics, which has forced them to beef up operations and staff at local clinics. They reported 75% to 90% of shots being given right now are booster doses.

Health leaders said getting your booster shot now, before the holidays, is critical. Walkes said early indications show our current vaccines will protect against the omicron variant.

Federal officials signed off on booster shots for older teens this week.

Mask up

Even with that booster shot, APH is asking people to wear a mask as an “extra layer of protection” when you’re out and about with people you don’t know and as you gather with people outside of your immediate bubble over the holidays.

“Our community transmission has been on the rise,” Walkes said. “We are seeing a substantial rate of transmission at this point.”

The first case of omicron was reported in Texas just over a week ago in Harris County. Health leaders in Houston have also said they sequence tested wastewater for omicron and found it in eight of their treatment plants.

A case of omicron has not been detected in Austin-Travis County yet, but health officials say it’s safe to assume the variant is already here.

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