AUSTIN (KXAN) — As COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations continue to climb in Austin-Travis County, health leaders officially moved the area to Stage 4 guidelines. It also updated its guidance to include what those with and without booster shots should do.
For people who are fully vaccinated and boosted, Stage 4 guidelines recommend masking in all situations, even when gathering outdoors. For people who are not fully vaccinated or boosted, it recommends eliminating travel and only dining or shopping through takeout or curbside service.
The move to Stage 4 comes after the area saw an uptick in community transmission rate, hospitalizations and county positivity rate, the metrics used to inform the risk-based guidelines. It also comes after holidays gatherings and before New Year’s Eve celebrations.
Austin-Travis County’s community transmission rate is currently 404.96, compared to 319.7 in the entire state, health leaders said in a release. These numbers are calculated based on total new cases in the past 7 days per 100,000 people.
The Ascension Texas, Baylor Scott & White and St. David’s hospital systems in the Austin area said in a joint statement they have seen an increase in the number of COVID-19 patients needing to be hospitalized. A spokesperson for the hospital systems said the increase in cases is putting more stress on staffing.
If patients overwhelm hospitals, the spokesperson said each hospital has a “surge plan” where all available patient care space is utilized, and even further, they’ve worked with Austin Public Health to develop an alternate care site that is ready to open, if need be.
When asked last week about the New Year’s Eve fireworks hosted by the City of Austin, Dr. Desmar Walkes, the local health authority, said they will go as planned, but they expect people not to gather to watch the show.
“That is to be viewed from afar, there are no plans for gathering, there are no vendors, no bands,” Walkes said. “We are expecting people to view it from their vehicles or in the downtown area people may be able to look at it through their windows.”
Testing sites around Austin-Travis County have seen lines that, in some cases, are hundreds of cars long after health leaders asked people to test before and after holiday travel and gatherings. Testing professionals told KXAN the positivity rate and case numbers in Austin are likely higher than recorded because of the popularity of at-home tests right now.
People who have tested positive for COVID-19 described their symptoms to KXAN as being similar to that of having allergies, others said they ran a fever and experienced difficulties breathing.
“If you have any symptoms at all do not write it off,” Ana Lopez, a central Texas woman who is vaccinated, got her booster shot and tested positive for COVID-19 last week, said. “We’re not out of the woods so please just use some discretion.”
The CDC is reporting roughly 90% of cases in the six-state region Texas is in are omicron. While testing you would do at a pharmacy or a drive-thru site do not tell you which variant you have, and only tells you whether you have COVID-19 or not, Austin Public Health says they’re working with state and national partners to sequence test local cases.
They said it’s safe to assume there is rapid community transmission of the omicron variant in Central Texas right now.
“One of the greatest traits of Austin-Travis County is how we have consistently been one of the leaders in the state when it comes to lower Community Transmission Rates. Our people have continually stepped up for the greater good and been the example of how to navigate the COVID-19 surges with masking, social distancing, and vaccinations,” Walkes said. “However, as our vigilance begins to wane, our community is falling behind. We can’t afford to be lax in our prevention efforts and I’m confident that Austin-Travis County will once again lead the way.”
If you are experiencing symptoms of COVID-19, or are exposed to the virus, here is a list of places to get a COVID-19 test in Austin.