AUSTIN (KXAN) — With the area on the cusp of reaching Stage 5 risk levels, health officials are warning people if things don’t turn around, cases could rise to levels like those seen in other parts of the state like El Paso.

During an Austin Public Health briefing Wednesday, Dr. Mark Escott said while a curfew is possible if the area hits Stage 5, it probably wouldn’t be a citywide curfew. It would be “focused,” he said, saying trouble spots like bars operating as restaurants would be subject to it.

“Our goal would be to look at starting the curfew around 10 or 10:30 so that if folks want to go to a restaurant with their family, people within their household, they can do that before that period of time,” Escott said.

He also stressed people need to change holiday traditions to make them more socially distant in order to slow the spread of COVID-19.

“We have the real possibility of having a miserable Christmas, and a miserable new year if we allow this kind of transmission to continue,” he said, “and it doesn’t stop by magic.”

“This is about as worse of a situation as you can get in terms of leading up to Christmas and new years where we know those social activities traditionally happen. We must alter our holiday celebrations,” he said.

While Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine is in Austin, it’s not publicly available, and it won’t be for a few months into 2021. Moderna’s vaccine is in the process of gaining emergency authorization, so it will be available soon. Escott said as we have the vaccine on the horizon, the summer of 2021 looks “encouraging,” but the area can’t the surge now get out of control.

“We’re worried we’re about 2-3 weeks away from an El Paso-like situation,” Escott said.

Since the beginning of December, the seven-day rolling average of new hospitalization increased from 30, which is right at the Stage 3-4 cutline, to 47 on Dec. 13. Data shows since then, the average hit a small plateau. The positivity rate of COVID-19 tests hit 9% with data from the week ending Dec. 12, the county’s COVID-19 dashboard shows.

“Our positivity rate is extremely high, and we need to turn the curve and flatten this COVID positivity,” APH Director Stephanie Hayden said.

APH suggests virtual worships

Health officials are suggesting all religious worships and celebration go to a virtual setting because of the nature of them. People are gathered together in close proximity for longer than 15 minutes at a time, and other religious practices can also contribute to spread, Escott said.

“I’ve been going to church virtually since the beginning of the pandemic, and it’s not the same,” Escott said. “It’s not the same. It’s not the same celebrating with your faith community, but we have to realize that our situation isn’t the same like it was a year ago.”

Escott said he “strongly urges” those who are at high risk, anyone over the age of 65 or have underlying health conditions, to stay home and worship virtually.

Hayden also said she has been attending church virtually and can relate to how difficult it is.

“We’re asking everyone to come aboard and do their part,” she said. “We’ve got to flatten this curve.”

Extracurricular activities could stop at Stage 5

Escott said, by and large, the spread of COVID-19 at school is through extracurricular activities, not in the classroom. He said if the move is made to Stage 5, activities like athletics could be put on hold.

“Schools are safe,” Escott said, “but as community risk increases, as the positivity rate increases, the risk of transmission in schools will increase as well.”

He said if cases keep rising, health experts will make a recommendation to either cancel all extracurricular activities, or scale them back dramatically.

He also said they could start to close schools to in-person class, starting at the high school level and working its way down. There’s also a possibility that schools could go virtual for school districts for a week or two after Christmas break.

“These are all possibilities we need to consider,” he said. “I don’t anticipate at this stage we make a blanket recommendation to close schools, but there are some key opportunities we may need to take advantage of.”