‘It’s not time to take off our masks,’ Austin Public Health says as COVID-19 vaccination at just 6 percent

Coronavirus

AUSTIN (KXAN) — With only about 6% of the county’s population aged 18 and over being vaccinated, health officials say the idea of the mask mandate being lifted doesn’t sit well with them and it shouldn’t end anytime soon.

During a press conference Thursday in Corpus Christi, Gov. Greg Abbott suggested that all statewide orders, including the mask mandate that has been in place since July, could be lifted “very soon.” While he didn’t give a specific time frame, Austin-Travis County Alternate Health Authority Dr. Jason Pickett said Friday the state isn’t ready for it to be removed yet.

“I’m very much looking forward to the day I don’t have to wear a mask when I’m out in public or into a store, but I don’t think we are there yet,” Pickett said. “We are nowhere near herd immunity, not from vaccination or natural infection, and despite the heroic and tireless efforts of our vaccination task force, we have a lot of people still to vaccinate before we have protection from the virus that way.

Pickett said there is a lot of evidence that wearing a mask decreases the spread of COVID-19 and that wearing one is “the right thing to do not only for you but for your neighbors.”

“Wearing a mask is a very simple, extremely inexpensive, effectively harmless thing to do to help stop the spread of infection,” Pickett said. “It works. We’re not ready to take our masks off yet.”

How did the winter storms affect the spread of COVID-19?

No one knows yet, and they probably won’t know at least for another week, Austin Public Health Chief Epidemiologist Janet Pichette said.

“There were people who were sheltering together to flee homes that lacked heat or power or water, but at the same time the weather and the horrific road conditions did limit people’s movement broadly through the community and kept them from going to work and being around more strangers,” said Dr. Jason Pickett, Austin-Travis County Alternate Health Authority.

Courtney Perkins lost power at her East Sixth Street apartment on Monday, Feb. 15.

“It was crazy over here,” she said. “We were charging our phones in the car, which uses gas, and then gas stations were running out of gas.”

After about two days without water, she and her boyfriend went to a friend’s hotel room to shower.

“I think that people kind of put COVID on the back burner, and they were like well, like me, finding food or water or safe place to sleep that’s not so freezing is more important,” Perkins said.

She wasn’t worried about getting COVID-19, either but is still monitoring her symptoms now, just in case.

“We haven’t seen an uptick yet, but we’re still playing catchup,” Pichette said. “If anyone thinks they could have been exposed or if they know about one, we suggest they quarantine from other people and seek testing.”

Pichette said they could see an uptick in cases next week as they catch up on data entry, and then once testing resumes at its normal rate with the aftermath of the winter storms mostly behind us.

Updates to APH’s registration website

APH Director Stephanie Howard-Hayden said they are “continually providing updates,” and heavily rely on the public to let them know if they have problems accessing the site.

She said they release appointments on Tuesday and Thursday only. On Thursday, there were 5,700 appointment slots available, and 10,000 people were trying to get those.

“We continue to see that there’s more demand than we have supply,” Hayden-Howard said. “We’re asking folks to be patient with us.”

Hayden-Howard said the queueing ability just added to the site has been working well.

There are still reports of people in Phase 1B experiencing issues with the website. Whether they are having appointments canceled or missing confirmation emails, Hayden-Howard said there are multiple groups working on the site and trying to bring it up to speed.

“The team is always doing improvement to the system,” Hayden-Howard said. “We are seeing things run so much better, but with any system, it’s not going to be perfect.”

Vaccination site at COTA

Right now, the drive-thru vaccination site at the Circuit of the Americas race track is a closed point of distribution for clients of CommUnity Care. The clinic group provides healthcare for people without health insurance.

Hayden-Howard said it’s “very exciting” the site is operating and she hopes it expands soon.

“CommUnity Care serves as the safety net,” Hayden-Howard said. “As we continue to well in that effort, the plan is to do more of those.”

Hayden-Howard said Travis County Judge Andy Brown is one of the leaders of the project, and multiple counties with CommUnity Care clients are being vaccinated there.

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