Events could be ‘near normal’ by the fall; spring breakers should quarantine and get tested, APH says


AUSTIN (KXAN) — Those who traveled for spring break are asked to quarantine next week and take a COVID-19 test at the end of that period, health officials said Friday.

With the downward trend of hospitalizations and active cases in Austin-Travis County, Austin Public Health would like to make sure it stays that way and advised anybody who went on vacations where “masking and social distancing weren’t adhered to,” they should quarantine and test.

“We’re still in Stage 3, but we’re concerned with spring break,” Dr. Mark Escott, APH interim health authority said.

He doesn’t want the progress the community has made to be undone, and he said the main reason Austin and Travis County has done so well driving down cases is people and businesses still insisting on wearing masks and social distancing.

“We’re pleased that we still have our mask mandate in place and pleased to see so many businesses are enforcing it,” he said. “We’re hopeful that’s going to continue to place Austin and Travis County ahead of other Texas cities and most other US cities in terms of disease spread and death.”

The latest data shows the rolling average of new hospitalizations is 22, with 26 new admissions reported Thursday. The average was down to 19 on Tuesday, the lowest it has been since early November 2020, and that’s something Escott said officials will keep monitoring.

Approximately 11% of Travis County residents are fully-vaccinated, and about 25% have at least one shot, Escott said. He said he’s particularly pleased that more than 50% of the county’s 65-and-older population are protected against COVID-19.

When will the Johnson & Johnson vaccine be available through APH?

APH Director Stephanie Howard-Hayden said the agency requested 12,000 Johnson & Johnson vaccine doses, the only vaccine currently available that can be done with just one shot, but they haven’t received them from the Texas Department of State Health Services.

“When we do, we’ll quickly deploy them into the community,” she said.

Escott said it’s his understanding the distribution of the one-shot vaccine will go up significantly in April. He said once the shot is administered, there’s about a two-week build for protection.

“It’s really a game changer in terms of our ability to vax people quickly and reach herd immunity in short order,” he said.

In general, Escott said, as more vaccine doses become available regardless of who produces them, the strategy to get people vaccinated has to change. He said with a limited number of vaccines, large vaccination sites like one APH is piloting at Toney Burger Center this weekend work great. However, when the supply increases, he said more private providers will take the lead in getting people immunized.

“As supply chain improves, we know that successful public health vaccination strategies involve public and private partnership,” he said. “If you look back to H1N1, the vast majority of vaccines were administered by the private sector. They need to be close and convenient to people. They need to be close to where they live and work, so the strategy isn’t just city and county resources, it’s using the 350 other providers who can give vaccine in our community.”

Hayden-Howard said APH is working with partners in the community to make sure seniors and people with disabilities get vaccinated, and she said she spoke with the first two people who will receive the vaccine as part of a partnership with Meals on Wheels Central Texas on March 22.

“It was a really good experience for me to meet them, but also to have an idea on the route they’ll take and meet people who’ll take the vaccine,” she said. She volunteered with the nonprofit on March 12 and joined a delivery route, she said.

Website glitches continue

People have been frustrated with how the COVID-19 vaccination registration site has worked, or rather, not worked. APH knows that, and leaders said they’re trying to get things set up to where glitches and demand issues are few and far between.

“Our goal is to make our system as user-friendly as we can,” Hayden-Howard said.

Escott said he was pleased to see the American Rescue Act, signed into law March 11 by President Joe Biden, invested in public health infrastructure — specifically information technology. That should help provide funding in order to help alleviate future issues.

“It’s one of the challenges we’ve been talking about for a year now is the lack of investment in infrastructure, particularly in IT infrastructure,” he said.

On Thursday, 4,600 appointments were filled in APH’s registration portal. That came after glitches caused APH to shut down the site, and frustrated people even more than they already are.

Hayden-Howard said they couldn’t see who was in the queue to get appointments Monday since the third-party who runs it doesn’t store that information, but she said some people reached out to APH and they were able to be part of Thursday’s scheduling.

When will things get back to normal?

Escott said the fall looks “very promising,” in terms of when people can start to get back to holding events before the pandemic hit. He said unless variants of the coronavirus that caused COVID-19 impact vaccine efficacy more than they think they will, September should be around the time we turn the corner.

“Right now, it looks very promising for the fall,” he said. “Spring and early summer are a little more concerning, but as we go through the summer, that risk will further dissipate and we can expect for things to start to look more normal, or near normal.”

People may question whether that provides some hope for the Austin City Limits Festival to be held in person. The event posted in February that it plans to return to Zilker Park this October.

Escott said in about six weeks, there should be enough vaccine doses for every adult in the country, going off the Biden administration’s promise to have them out by May. He said he knows people are anxious to get vaccinated and get back to life as everyone knew it before the pandemic, but he also said people need to be patient.

He said people still need to wear masks, watch their distance and frequently wash hands until then.

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