AUSTIN (KXAN) — In a release Friday morning, health leaders announced the 900th COVID-19 death in Austin-Travis County and highlighted the growing number of people in area hospitals, most of which are unvaccinated. State data shows that only 13 ICU beds are available in the Austin area right now.

Dr. Jan Patterson, an infectious disease specialist with the University of Texas San Antonio, and a member of the Texas Medical Association’s COVID-19 task force, says the fight against COVID-19 has drastically changed because of the delta variant.

“It’s really much more contagious than the common cold, we think it’s much more contagious than flu now,” Dr. Patterson said. She added that while you would typically spread the flu to two or three people, the delta variant is being spread at a rate of eight or nine.

Maureen Johnson-León, a data equity specialist with the UT COVID-19 Modeling Consortium, says estimates show the delta variant is 60% more transmissible than the original strain of the virus.

“It really means that responding to it has to happen also more quickly,” Johnson-León said.

Drastic changes needed to avoid Stage 5

While the Austin-Travis County area is currently in Stage 4 risk-based guidelines, APH also said in its release that we “could move to Stage 5 as hospitalizations continue to rise.”

Mayor Steve Adler echoed that sentiment Friday, saying we appear to be on the path to that most restrictive tier. Though the COVID-19 risk-based model only addresses personal behavior, the mayor went a step further and encouraged businesses to take responsibility as well.

“I think it would be great if people that are running large venues asked people to wear masks. I think it would be great if businesses said, to protect my employees, I’m going to be wanting people coming into my stores, or my shops, to be putting on a mask,” Mayor Adler said. “They have the ability to do that under law without any questions and they should go ahead and do that.”

Johnson-León with the UT COVID-19 Modeling Consortium told KXAN they’re working closely with the City of Austin to try to avoid a shift to Stage 5. She stressed that to do it, behaviors need to change quickly.

The risk-based guidelines are what Dr. Desmar Walkes, the local health authority, has previously said are a personal “call to action.” Because of an executive order signed by Gov. Greg Abbott, local governments cannot mandate masks or vaccinations, among other restrictions.

The governor said the executive order provides uniformity across Texas, and allows people “the individual right and responsibility to decide for themselves and their children whether they will wear masks, open their businesses, and engage in leisure activities.”

Mayor Adler expressed frustration with the executive order Friday. When asked if any court battles were on the horizon, the mayor said no decisions have been made yet but that the City, County and local health authority are taking a look at ways to “keep the community as safe as we possibly can.”

Behavior recommendations

Aside from the recommended guidelines set out by Austin-Travis County, Dr. Patterson says people who are immunocompromised need to be extra cautious.

She recommended reconsidering trips and going back to work in-person, but added: “If you’re going back to a setting where people are vaccinated and people are wearing masks when they’re in meetings and in groups, that’s a pretty safe environment, but you have to be careful that that’s what you’re stepping into.”

She said for vaccinated people who are not immunocompromised, wear your mask to travel, to work and in public indoor settings.

Cold and flu season making a summer appearance

While cold and flu season is typically in colder months, Dr. Patterson says alongside the delta variant, they have seen a surge in flu cases this summer, along with other respiratory illnesses.

“The interesting thing as that as the masks have come off we’ve seen more respiratory viruses,” she said. “We’re seeing the same amount of respiratory viruses that we see during the winter season for instance.”

Dr. Patterson says when we relaxed COVID-19 precautions, she believes it allowed other respiratory viruses to roar back as well.

Protections against the delta variant, and against COVID-19, also protect against the flu. Those best practices being things like good hygiene, staying home when you’re sick and social distancing.