Impact of Thanksgiving gatherings already seen in Austin-Travis County — officials deliver Christmas warning

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AUSTIN (KXAN) — While the prospect of the Austin-Travis County area having COVID-19 vaccinations in the near future is looking good, Austin Public Health officials still warn: residents can’t let getting together for Christmas be more important than being safe.

Interim Health Authority Dr. Mark Escott, APH Director Stephanie Hayden, APH Chief Epidemiologist Janet Pichette and APH Interim Assistant Director Cassandra DeLeon gave the latest area updates on Wednesday morning.

COVID-19 in Austin-Travis County right now

Earlier in the week, APH released new guidance on how long people who think they’ve been exposed to COVID-19 should quarantine. It falls in line with Centers of Disease Control recommendations and describes scenarios were people should quarantine for 7, 10 or 14 days.

APH new quarantine guidelines. Chart provided by APH

Data from the Austin-Travis County COVID-19 dashboard showed a drop in the seven-day rolling average of new hospitalizations from late November to Dec. 1, but since the beginning of the month, the average has increased from 30 to 35.

Currently, 229 people are hospitalized with COVID-19 in the area with 77 in intensive care units and 45 on ventilators. The positivity rate in the area is 6.7% and was calculated at the end of last week.

Escott explained that the numbers of ICU beds are currently enough.

Vaccines

Dr. Escott says he’s reviewed the 53-page FDA submission for the Pfizer vaccine, which has recently been administered for the first time in the U.K, and trusts it.

“I’m extremely impressed with the efficacy and the safety of this vaccine,” Escott says. “Overall, the efficacy, the effectiveness of the vaccine: 94.6%. Ninety-five percent for individuals between the ages of 16 and 55.”

While there have been some reported side effects after the second shot, Escott says, data shows them to be relatively mild. These common side effects include chills, muscle aches and site pain.

Impact on those with severe diseases were also minimal, with only one person out of the entire group experiencing a reaction that did not require hospitalization.

Emergency approval for the vaccine by the FDA is likely to come on Thursday, he adds. While officials are excited at immenent availability, they want to also emphasized they are aware there won’t be enough for everyone — priority will be high-risk individuals.

Holiday gatherings

Ahead of Christmas, APH officials warn: let Thanksgiving be a lesson of how much worse holiday gatherings can make the situation.

“We are definitely seeing the direct impact of Thanksgiving holidays on our case numbers,” Pichette says. “We’re hearing story after story after story about families who gathered during Thanksgiving holidays. They allowed people who lived outside of their immediate home — even if they were family members, they didn’t live in their home — and now multiple people are becoming ill.”

Mayor Steve Adler’s controversial Mexico trip

During the meeting, Escott was asked whether or not he thought Austin Mayor Steve Adler’s choice to take a trip to Mexico in November — as he urged residents to stay home — was appropriate.

Escott says that at that time, there were “no specific discussions regarding trips.”

“I’ll say generally speaking, our guidance at that time, at Stage 3 of risk, did not include avoiding travel for those who are in the lower-risk category,” Escott says. “Had the mayor asked me, I would have said that under our guidance, it’s okay if the people who are traveling fall into the lower risk category.”

Escott also pointed out that things have changed since Adler’s early November trip, as Austin-Travis County is currently in Stage 4.

“So from a public health standpoint, it was not inconsistent with the guidance at that time,” he adds.

‘The moral thing to do’

APH officials also explained they’re seeing a trend of people not being forthcoming with information about possible exposure — especially as it relates to themselves. Pichette and Escott urged residents to notify APH if they’ve possibly exposed others and/or to notify them on their own.

“We really need people to cooperate and provide information so we can manage this disease… we need the public’s support in case investigations and contact tracing,” says Escott. “But if people still refuse to provide that information, it’s essential that they themselves contact individuals that they encountered and tell them that they’ve been exposed. It’s the right thing to do. It’s the moral thing to do and we’ve got to work together as a community to control the outbreak.”

Flu shots

As it’s currently National Influenza Week, the health officials are reminding residents to get flu shots — which are especially important this year.

Residents can visit austintexas.gov/flu for information on getting vaccinated, whether they are uninsured, insured or under-insured.

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