AUSTIN (KXAN) — Tuesday, Austin Public Health Interim Health Authority Dr. Mark Escott told Travis County Commissioners that Austin area schools should not start until Sept. 8 unless they can offer online-only classes.
Escott said he spoke with the superintendents of Travis County districts before deciding to recommend delaying or going completely online for the start of school.
Update: as of Tuesday evening, Escott issued a Health Authority order requiring public and private schools in Austin-Travis County to delay the re-opening of on-campus instruction until after Sept. 7.
Escott said opening up in-person instruction before a vaccine becomes available and before schools are able to put in place more protective measures would put Travis County’s 192,000 students in jeopardy — especially those between the ages of 10 to 19 years old.
“Somewhere in the neighborhood of 70% of students could be infected over the course of this disease,” Escott said, “which in that .03% to 1.02%, for Travis County, would equate to between 40 and 1,370 deaths in that age group.”
An Austin Public Health spokesperson later clarified that Escott used specific fatality rates that came from a summary of cases reported by the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention.
Why look at data from China to draw conclusions about the pandemic in Austin? A city spokesperson explained that as Austin-Travis County has not seen any reported COVID-19 deaths for individuals under the age of 19, “so we have had to go with data that we get from other areas that have been harder hit — places like China.”
The data from China comes from March 21 and takes into account 72,314 cases. The data showed that 1% of the cases there were in children nine years old or younger, another 1% of the cases were in people between the ages of 10 and 19. For the 10-19 age group, the percent of people who died from the disease was 0.18%, but with a confidence interval of 95%, that means the fatality rate could range between 0.03 and 1.02%.
In the data from China, there was one death in individuals between the ages of 10 and 19.
“So when the numbers are relatively small there’s a lot of uncertainty about what that actual number would be,” Escott said. He added that health leaders expect that without a vaccine, the disease will infect 70% of people over the course of the pandemic.
If that percentage is applied to the number of students in Travis County, that would come out to around 133,000. Of the number of students assumed to contract the virus, the case fatality rate of 0.03% to 1.02% would come out to 40 -1,357 students.
While Austin-Travis County has not seen any COVID-19 deaths in people under the age of 19 yet, Escott told commissioners he believes the region has seen relatively low rates of transmission among school-age children because they have not been attending school in person over the past few months.
“I think that we can expect transmission rates in schools to be reflective, if not higher than, in the rest of the community because of the nature of schools and the interactions in that age group,” Escott said.
Escott said the situation could be worse for teachers and staff.
“Obviously when we move on to faculty and staff, that risk is much higher. Somewhere in the neighborhood of 2 to 10 times higher in terms of rates of death,” Escott said.
“Again these are sobering numbers and we have to be very very careful when we hear people talking about the percentage of people who do OK with this. Because there’s a number behind the other side of that, behind the people who die, behind the people who are hospitalized.”
Escott told commissioners the September 8 date was selected to give health leaders “buffer time” to work with superintendents on a plan.
Escott also said schools should consider a “default position of virtual instruction” for the entire fall semester so that districts don’t have to go through the process of opening then closing then opening back up again.
Escott also told the county commissioners that the recommendations from the Texas Education Agency, along with the Centers for Disease Control should be refined to “better establish expectations for school systems.”
Escott said he would be meeting with the City of Austin attorney and the Travis County attorney Tuesday to discuss these recommendations further. The recommendations Escott made are for K-12 schools only, a city spokesperson explained that higher education systems are under Texas Governor Greg Abbott’s direction.