Central Texas health officials give stark warning ahead of Labor Day


AUSTIN (KXAN) — Six months ago Friday, the first positive case of COVID-19 was confirmed in Texas, just southwest of Houston in Fort Bend County.

Now, as Labor Day weekend approaches and schools start to resume in-person learning, health officials in Austin and Travis County warn if we don’t keep our guard up, we could be enduring this pandemic for many more months to come.

“If we go too far, if we take too much risk right now, when we’re about to start the opening of schools, we’re going to pay for it in two to three weeks,” said Dr. Mark Escott, Austin-Travis County interim health authority.

Those statistics are reminiscent of the weeks following Memorial Day and July 4th, when cases surged almost 50%.

Before Memorial Day on May 21, there were 945 new cases reported in Texas. About two weeks later on June 3, 1,703 new cases were reported. Before the Fourth of July, on July 1, the state recorded 8,076 new cases. Two weeks later, on July 15, that number was at 10,791—the highest daily jump in new cases.

Those spikes in cases overwhelmed hospital workers across Central Texas.

“We would see room after room with patients laying in their hospital beds, on their stomachs, on ventilators, without any visitors,” said Dr. John Abikhaled, Travis County Medical Society president.

Dr. Abikhaled walked through overwhelmed hospitals during the peak of the virus. He warns if people don’t practice COVID-19 safety protocols, have large gatherings, don’t social distance or wear masks during Labor Day, there could be another spike.

“A lot of people have the virus, actually more have the virus than before Memorial Day, so the risk is as much, if not more, that another outbreak could occur,” said Dr. Abikhaled.

It took nearly two months to see a substantial decline in the seven-day moving average of new cases and hospital admissions in Austin and Travis County after the spike following Memorial Day and the Fourth of July. As of Sept. 3, the current seven-day moving average of new cases in Austin and Travis County is 72, a daily case count as low as we have seen since early June.

This time around the risk is even higher. Schools are re-opening, which reminds health officials of what happened in 2009 during H1N1.

“We were on a downward slope of the first wave of that epidemic and following school starting, we had a second wave exceeding the first wave, and we had twice as many cases,” said Janet Pichette, Austin-Travis County’s Chief Epidemiologist.

The current positivity rate for Austin-Travis County is 6.2%. Austin Public Health has indicated the positivity rate should be below 5% across all racial and ethnic groups in Austin-Travis County to continue the process of reopening businesses. 

“Everyone must follow all of the preventative actions we’ve done thus far. Be the example that you want others to see,” APH Director Stephanie Hayden said. “Our hope is that this call to action will make everyone think about what they can do as an individual to make our community a safer place. We want to ensure that we have a safe environment when our students go back to school so that we can provide our children with the education they need in a healthy and safe way.” 

Watch KXAN at 10 p.m. to see why health officials tell Jennifer Sanders the risk of uncontrollable spread is greater this time around.

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