AUSTIN (KXAN) — The top doctor for Austin-Travis County changed his predictions for the week of Thanksgiving after he said the latest COVID-19 models show the situation “doesn’t look quite as bleak” as initially expected for area hospitals.
Dr. Mark Escott, the interim health authority, said Wednesday the projections from the University of Texas now show there could be 200 to 300 hospital admissions by Thanksgiving compared to the 700 that they predicted earlier this week. He said this is “what we want to see” because there are fewer new hospital admissions reported this week, pointing out that 13 happened Tuesday.
However, Dr. Escott said during Wednesday’s virtual briefing with reporters that Travis County experienced a 110% increase in new coronavirus cases during the past two weeks. That trend remains concerning for him and other health experts.
Stephanie Hayden, the director of Austin Public Health, advised people that they can “make things turn around” by changing their behavior and maintaining preventative practices like wearing a mask, distancing from those they don’t live with and staying home if sick.
Travis County remains under Stage 3 guidelines for restrictions, though Dr. Escott hinted this week that that could be raised to Stage 4 if people are not careful about how they’re behaving during the upcoming Halloween weekend.
Dr. Escott said Halloween poses a “substantial amount of risk” if people choose to gather and celebrate. He, however, commended neighbors for changing their traditions during previous holidays this year, like the Fourth of July. This time he suggested that families get creative and do something other than trick-or-treating with their children.
For instance Dr. Escott and Stephanie Hayden showed off COVID-19 piñatas during the virtual briefing Wednesday.
“You can get your frustrations out by beating this piñata,” Hayden said during a moment of levity.
Janet Pichette, the chief epidemiologist for Austin Public Health, asked people who decide to attend parties or gather with friends on Halloween to be “personally aware” of preventative measures against COVID-19. She suggested that people follow what the World Health Organization calls the three Cs: avoid crowds, confined spaces and cover faces.
The health experts repeated that any gatherings should be done with social distancing as a top priority, especially if they involve people whom they don’t live with currently.
They are also concerned about how Halloween could affect the COVID-19 trends leading up to other holidays.
“Be as protective as we can this Halloween so that the forecast for Thanksgiving looks brighter,” Dr. Escott said.
Dr. Escott said the Austin area has not received any patients from El Paso despite that community’s hospitals reaching capacity and cases hitting record levels.
He, however, shared that local medical workers have been sent to the El Paso region as part of an effort to shore up resources and assist with the response.
When asked about how colder weather could affect transmission of COVID-19, the area’s public health experts advised anyone with potential symptoms associated with the disease to schedule a test. They reiterated that people can schedule a test right now through Austin Public Health’s website.
“You really want to rule out that you don’t have COVID-19,” Hayden said.
“If you have any symptoms,” Dr. Escott added, “you must assume you have COVID-19 until you can prove it’s not.”
The experts reminded people that they can call 311 to ask about the city’s isolation facility, which remains open, if they’re exposed to someone with COVID-19 or need to quarantine somewhere safely. Dr. Escott also said the Austin Convention Center can still serve as an alternate care site if hospitals exceed their surge capacity, though those facilities remain in good shape right now.
Dr. Escott said he hopes the area can avoid the possibility of another shutdown, and he commended businesses for maintaining practices to safely welcome back customers and keep their employees healthy.
However, he said “if the situation worsens,” then there is a chance that public health experts could recommend reducing occupancy at businesses and schools as well as possibly advising some schools to close.
While the current situation doesn’t necessitate taking those steps, Dr. Escott repeated that “it’s up to us” to help stop the spread of COVID-19 and change behavior.