Austin (KXAN) — As the Austin area experienced a recent spike in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations, Austin leaders are awaiting data to know whether to recommend a 35-day shut down for the region to curb the spread of the virus.

At Travis County Commissioners Court Tuesday, Austin-Travis County Interim Health Authority Dr. Mark Escott said that health leaders are still waiting on data to decide whether or not to recommend that 35-day shut-down.

Meanwhile, around 2,000 people in Austin are in isolation waiting for their results. Dr. Escott said on Wednesday the turnaround for those results can be anywhere from seven to 10 days at this point if tests are sent to some national labs.

Dr. Escott added he wants to avoid two things: hospitals becoming overcrowded and having to recommend another shutdown to the governor.

“We’re in a very dangerous situation in the state of Texas,” he said. “We simply must be careful because we are at the verge of a real crisis in Texas. Now’s the time to act…by staying home.” 

On Tuesday, Escott noted that while it appears the Austin MSA will be seeing numbers of more than 70 new hospital admissions on the 7-day moving average (a level that would move the region to the “red” zone of the risk assessment chart), health leaders still have to clarify some data.

The modeling team from UT will be sharing new projections with Austin Public Health on Wednesday, Escott said.

Plus, Escott noted, it appears the Austin area may be seeing a decreased number of new COVID-19 cases and if that trend continues over the next few days, he said the answer to questions about a 35-day shutdown could be “not yet.”

“I think that going out into the community that people are being more protective, with the governor’s order regarding masking I am hopeful that we will see further flattening of the curve,” he told county commissioners. “I don’t think any of us, including the mayor and city council, want us to close things down if we can find that sweet spot where we can decrease transmission enough while keeping things open.”

Austin’s Interim Health Authority Dr. Mark Escott

While Travis County has seen a decline in COVID-19 cases in recent days, Escott says Austin Public Health is still seeing a significant lag in getting test results returned so he doesn’t want the community to interpret the recent decline of cases “as a definite shift.”

Escott also noted that recent COVID-19 hospitalization data in Austin needs to be updated because Austin Public Health realized some patients who were found to have COVID-19 after they’d been admitted to the hospital were not being entered in the hospitalization totals.

“So we are refining that a little bit, we are looking at it a bit closer to make sure that the numbers are accurate,” Escott said of the hospitalization data. “But the data that we have in hand now suggests that we are over the 70 for [COVID-19 hospital] admissions on that 7 day moving average.”

Over the weekend, Austin Mayor Steve Adler began floating the idea of a 35-day shutdown. He explained to KXAN that a shutdown would be a last resort measure, but “something we should be talking about” as part of the local contingency planning.

In an interview with KXAN Tuesday, Adler said, “we are not at the point of shutting down now, we are concerned about the increase of hospitalizations so we need to learn this week what the rate of increase is to see if we need to take action right now or if we have a little bit more time to decide to take action.”

What the models show

Adler’s suggestion that the shut-down last 35 days comes from modeling from UT Austin’s COVID-19 Modeling Consortium presented to local leaders last week.

Dr. Lauren Ancel Meyers at UT has been modeling COVID-19 projections since the start of the pandemic, with data from her lab being shared with local, state, and national leaders. Her team’s modeling showed that a 35-day stay-home order in Austin would result in a significant decline in the number of COVID-19 hospital admissions by August or September.

Projections from the UT COVID-19 Modeling Consortium presented to Austin City Council on June 29. This graph shows projections of COVID-19 hospitalizations if a 35-day stay-home order were enacted in Austin.

The UT modeling team showed different scenarios which the city could implement to avoid reaching and exceeding hospital capacity.

One scenario showed if everyone starts wearing masks and significantly reduces interaction with other people (bringing the community into an “orange stage,” we could see hospitalizations start to decrease closer to October, and we could avoid returning to that full lockdown mode we saw in April.

But a catch would be that the Austin area would need to remain in that very cautious mode all throughout this year, in order to not exceed our hospital capacity.

Another option showed going into the stay-home mode for 35 days soon and then lifting the restrictions slowly, just in time for back to school.

Researchers emphasized models can change depending on how quickly people start acting more cautiously and how effectively people reduce interaction to ultimately reduce transmission.

Projections from the UT COVID-19 Modeling Consortium presented to Austin City Council on June 29. This graph shows projections of COVID-19 hospitalizations without a 35-day stay-home order and with the community going into “orange stage” of 7-day average of hospital admissions thresholds.
Projections from the UT COVID-19 Modeling Consortium presented to Austin City Council on June 29. This graph shows projections of COVID-19 hospitalizations without a 35-day stay-home order and without going into “orange stage” of 7-day average of hospital admissions thresholds.

What would a shutdown look like?

Austin’s mayor explained to KXAN’s Jennifer Sanders in an interview Sunday that if Austin went into a 35-day shutdown, he envisions that including a return to “a more limited economy.”

In multiple TV interviews, including with CNN and with WFAA in Dallas, Adler floated this idea as well.

Compared to the last time nonessential businesses were closed in Austin back in late March, Adler said the community would know when this shutdown would start and when it would end.

“We would use that 35 days to tamp down the virus so we could do a much better job of contact tracing and testing,” Adler told KXAN. “When we came out of it, we would have 35 days to get mentally prepared for the fact that we would be opening up the economy differently than we opened it up in May and June, differently than we ran it in January or February.”

“The lesson we learned in May and June is that we cannot open this economy in the way we opened it before,” Adler said.

“We can do that until we have a vaccine. I am hoping hat people get used to wearing masks because we are going to be wearing masks for months. And we’re going to wear them, I hope, until we have a vaccine. So people are going to have to start getting used to making peace with pretty significant changes.”

Adler explained that the question of whether or not to enact a shut down revolves around whether that would help in keeping hospitals and intensive care unites from being overwhelmed. Separately, Adler said that people have been asking him if the Austin area is able to avoid having hospitals be overwhelmed, would that increase the chances of being able to open schools in Austin in the fall.

“I don’t know the answer to that question and I think we’re going to be discussing that question on Thursday,” Adler said, referring to a specially called city council meeting scheduled for Thursday to discuss COVID-19 related matters.

On June 24, Escott warned local leaders that if the community does not make significant changes to reverse the recent spike in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations, that he would “going to have to make a recommendation to the mayor and the [Travis County] Judge that we shut down. And I don’t want to do that.”

He warned city leaders that if the trends don’t change by July, that Austin would exceed hosptial capacity.

On July 7 before the county commissioners, Escott said he still believes there is more community members can to avoid exceeding hospital capacity.

“I think we can do that as a community, I think if we are all engaged in the health of our neighbors if we’re all willing to wear masks and social distance and practice that social hygiene, I don’t think we must shut down, I think that’s a last resort,” he said.

“If we face a danger in the next couple of weeks of overwhelming the ICU’s or the hospitals, I will have to make that recommendation, but my hope is that we are flattening the curve enough that we can avoid that,” Escott told the commissioners.

Do local leaders have the power to enact a shutdown?

It’s unclear if other local leaders would support a 35-day shutdown, it also unclear if or whether Texas Governor Greg Abbott would grant Adler or other municipalities the authority to do so.

In an interview yesterday with KFDM, Abbott did not seem inclined to offer local leaders more control to enact a shutdown.

 “If you look at the county judges or mayors who are asking for more authority to take action or to really shut things down completely back into lockdown mode that would really force Texans into poverty, I found one thing to be consistent: All of those local officials who are asking Texas to shut back down–they’ve absolutely refused to enforce the current executive orders that are already in place. What they need to show is action, not absenteeism. They need to show up, enforce the law as it is, before they’re given any further authority

Texas Governor Greg Abbott in an interview July 6 with KFDM

Austin Mayor Steve Adler told KXAN Tuesday that he disagrees with claims from the governor that officials in Austin are refusing to enforce current executive orders.

“We’re doing, I think, right now everything we could be doing to encourage our community, to encourage the right behaviors we are doing everything we can to actually achieve that measure of compliance,” Adler said. He added that he thought it would be better if the governor’s order which restricted gathering of people “didn’t have so many exceptions for large groups.”

On July 2, Abbott issued an order which requires Texans to wear face coverings in public settings, with some exceptions.

This issue is yet another development in the back and forth over how much authority local governments in Texas should have to call for measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

On April 24, Austin and Travis County issued orders requiring the public to stay home and asking all businesses except those deemed “essential” to stop on-site operations. In early April, Austin and Travis County issued orders which required people to wear face coverings in public. However, Abbott later said that his statewide orders rendered these local orders unenforceable.

In mid-June, cities and counties learned that while they do not have the authority to require face coverings, the governor’s orders do allow them to require businesses to require employees and patrons to wear face coverings. One by one, Texas cities and counties began adopting new orders to set up these requirements for businesses.

On June 29, Travis County Judge Sam Biscoe penned a letter to Abbott asking the governor for the authority to do a number of things which local governments were allowed to do earlier on in the pandemic, including implement new stay-home orders.

At this point cities and counties in Texas do not appear to have the legal authority to enact stay home orders. As Adler explained in an interview with CNN over the weekend, “the conventional wisdom is that we cannot and that the governor’s orders control.”

“So cities are getting together and we are lobbying our governor,” Adler explained.

He clarified in a later interview with KXAN that he is working with other cities to ask the governor for the same type of local control municipalities had back in March and April in Texas.

But Adler noted, “those conversations have really taken a back seat to focusing on trying to change behaviors right now.”