AUSTIN (KXAN) — Austin health leaders officially announced Friday they’re moving to Stage 4 risk-based guidelines in response to a recent spike in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations, largely fueled by the increased presence of the delta variant. This will be the first time since February that our area has been in a stage that restrictive.
It begs the question: Can Austin-Travis County really enforce those guidelines? The answer, plainly, is no. Health leaders described the guidance as a personal “call to action.”
“We’re asking that everybody take heed of where we are and work together to bring the case numbers down to help us get through this,” Dr. Desmar Walkes, Austin-Travis County Health Authority, said Friday.
The COVID-19 risk-based guidelines specifically address mask-wearing based on vaccination status. Stage five is the most restrictive stage, which recommends unvaccinated people leave home only for essential outings.
The call for personal responsibility Friday also came with a number of questions about what health experts recommend when it comes to businesses, school districts and large event venues. The guidelines do not change local rules or regulations for any of those entities.
“We’ve not made any changes to capacities, we’re making this play to individual citizens,” Dr. Walkes said.
The Health Authority stopped just short of asking businesses to require masks, but did say businesses have overall been a strong partner in helping keep people in our area safe during the pandemic.
Dr. Meena Iyer, the Chief Medical Officer for Dell Children’s Medical Center, said children in hospitals with the delta variant are overall sicker than kids doctors were seeing this time last year. She suggested students and all school staff wear masks when the school year starts less than a month from now.
But what if I’m vaccinated?
The shift to Stage 4 restrictions means some vaccinated people, who previously have not been encouraged to wear their mask unless traveling or required by federal law, are digging through their closets to find their face coverings again.
“This is a delta variant issue, in that this is a much more easily transmitted virus,” Dr. Walkes said.
Dr. Walkes says they’re worried about vaccinated residents carrying the delta variant to unvaccinated people. The Health Authority has previously reported that roughly a quarter of people with breakthrough cases don’t experience symptoms, and they fear many others aren’t getting tested at all.
One of the Travis County residents who has gotten COVID-19 after being vaccinated is Dr. Bob Hunnicutt, a retired physician.
He says he, and members of his family, all got the virus after being fully vaccinated. Still, he urged his neighbors Friday to get vaccinated and says his illness would have been much worse had he not been.
“I am thankful that I had that vaccine,” he said.