Austin to remain in Stage 4, health leader still concerned about likelihood of fans at football games


AUSTIN (KXAN) — While the seven-day rolling average of hospital admissions have dropped below 40, which puts the area into Stage 3 on the Austin Public Health risk-based guidelines chart, health officials have opted to keep it at Stage 4.

During APH’s weekly COVID-19 question-and-answer videoconference with media members, Interim Health Authority Dr. Mark Escott said ICUs are still at capacity and on surge protocols, and that’s one thing that has to go down in order for health officials to adjust staging.

“The staging we’ve created is designed to ensure we don’t exceed hospital capacity, but the ICUs are full,” Dr. Escott said. “They are still under surge plans. Until we’re in a better place in terms of ICU capacity, we need to stay at Stage 4.”

Dr. Escott said they have regular communication with healthcare executives, and he says simply the ICUs need to be out of surge protocols and people need to be able to get elective surgeries before the consideration of staging decrease.

The downturn in hospital admissions puts the area in a better position for when schools open in September. He said the area needs to decrease the transmission of COVID-19 as much as possible so the area can open schools Sept. 8 — and keep them open.

“We’ve got a lot of work to do, and I’m proud of Austin, Travis County and Central Texas, who have been very effective at getting the lid back on this,” Dr. Escott said.

He said he’d prefer the area get to Stage 2 of risk for schools to open, which is average hospital admissions of less than 10 for a seven-day period.

APH updated risk-based guidelines chart as of June 26, 2020 (APH)

Concerns about fans at football games

Escott again mentioned that he’s not confident college football could take place with fans in the stands, and even as University of Texas at Austin administration moves the capacity level at DKR-Texas Memorial Stadium from 50% to 25%, he says that’s still a lot of people cheering and walking by one another to get to their seats.

“I love college football, I watch it every weekend and it’s part of what I do every fall,” Dr. Escott said. “But people don’t just teleport into their seats. They tailgate beforehand, so they gather, they queue in order to get in, so they gather … yes, football stadiums are outdoors, which may help mitigate the risk, but there needs to be a lot of engineering controls built so we can do that safely.”

He says if there’s going to be football at all, people need to focus on ensuring two teams can even take the field, with no fans.

APH Director Stephanie Hayden that the area needs to “move slow to move fast,” about reopening.

“We know we’ve seen successes, but it’s not time for us to let our guards down,” Hayden said. “We need to stay the path we are on and not make changes. If we make hasty changes, they we could get overloaded with cases in our community.”

Faster testing could be coming

Earlier this week, Dr. Escott told Travis County commissioners that APH is looking into introducing antigen rapid tests for COVID-19 at its sites. The tests have been used by privately-operated sites throughout the pandemic and can offer a result in about 15 minutes. Dr. Escott did say, however, they are somewhat less reliable than the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests APH is currently using.

Dr. Escott revisited that, and said he is pleased that local labs have been getting results back quicker.

PCR tests have to be sent to a lab for processing, and because labs are backed up due to the surge in tests, results have taken days — sometimes weeks — to return. Dr. Escott said APH’s results are coming back in about three days, an improvement from what it was earlier.

If tests are sent to a national lab, results turnarounds vary between 7-10 days.

“Ultimately, we want to have results of those tests in 24 hours,” Dr. Escott said. “But the antigen tests might be good enough.”

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