AUSTIN (KXAN) — The City of Austin and Travis County are now in Stage 3 of its risk-based guidelines to stop the spread of COVID-19.

The move is due to lower positivity rates and cases, Austin-Travis County Interim Health Authority Dr. Mark Escott said on Tuesday.

“We are moving to Stage 3 because our key indicators are trending in the right direction,” said Escott.

This doesn’t mean that residents should relax precautionary measures, however. Escott, Austin’s interim top doctor, still recommends keeping practices like rigorous hand-washing, mask-wearing and social distancing in place.

“As much as possible, though, we would like individuals to continue to act as if we are still in Stage 4 so that we can be in a better place as school starts,” said Escott.

APH updated risk-based guidelines chart as of August 10, 2020 (APH)

Stage 3 includes the following guidelines:

  • Higher-risk individuals (those over age 65 and/or those with chronic medical conditions) should avoid non-essential travel, dining and shopping
  • Everyone — including those not at high risk — should avoid social gatherings and any gatherings with more than 10 people

“Our key indicators are all showing that we as a community are reducing our COVID-19 numbers, but we need to remain focused on improving the health outcomes for communities of color, who continue to be disproportionately impacted by the virus,” said Stephanie Hayden, APH Director.

Positivity rate is a key factor in determining risk stages, Austin Public Health explains. The rate is calculated using the number of positive cases divided by the number of overall tests being administered.

“Our goal is to have a positivity rate below 5% by September 8, when most Austin-Travis County students start their school year,” said Dr. Escott. “In addition to an overall positivity rate below 5%, every individual race and ethnic group in Austin should have a positivity rate below 5%.”

On August 4, Escott announced the city of Austin and Travis County would remain in Stage 4, despite an aggressive decline in cases since mid-July.

Austin-Travis County first entered Stage 4 in June, when the area’s seven-day moving average for hospitalizations in Austin reached 20.

Dealing with the backlog

Earlier this month, the Department of State Health Services said it was working to address coding errors that had led to backlogs of testing data.

Escott addressed this issue to Travis County commissioners Tuesday.

To avoid misrepresentation of the numbers in Austin and Travis County, Escott said staff analyzed how many cases are more than 14 days old. These cases are no longer considered ‘active’ and pinpointing them gives a better idea of what the trend actually is.

“What they found is over the past several weeks, 40 to 50% of those new cases due to this backlog are no longer active cases,” Escott said. “So what this tells us is that our actual new cases or cases that are still active are going down, rather than plateauing.”

Escott said the seven-day moving average for new hospital admissions has decreased since the end of July.

“This is reassuring news, and I think further evidence that the epidemic has been declining in Travis County,” he said.

Ventilator use is also on the decline, Escott said. He reported healthcare executives said hospitals are doing well and that there’s enough space available.

“The hospitals are in great shape. There are plenty of hospital beds, ICU beds, ventilators available now,” he said.

He encouraged people that have been putting of elective surgeries, physicals and immunizations to get them done now.

Escott also reported that Hispanic, Latino and Black communities continue to be over-represented in the COVID-19 numbers compared to their representation in Travis County.

“I just cannot emphasize enough the disproportionate impact that COVID-19 has had and continues to have on our communities of color,” Escott said.

He said continued outreach and advocacy is needed and that the county needs to address the underlying issues of lack of access to healthcare for these communities.