‘Massive’ COVID-19 transmission among 20-40 year olds has Austin health leaders worried


People walk down South Congress Ave. in Austin. December 30, 2020. (KXAN Photo/ Alyssa Goard).

AUSTIN (KXAN) — As COVID-19 hospitalizations and case numbers for the Austin area continue to escalate, local leaders are rushing to find ways to curb the spread. While it’s been well documented the coronavirus is more likely to be severe and deadly for people the older they are, Austin health officials are concerned young adults may be aiding the virus’ quick spread in the area.

City and county leaders have emphasized this week there is “widespread, uncontrolled community transmission of COVID-19” which is projected to overwhelm local intensive care capacity in January.

Austin-Travis County Interim Health Authority Dr. Mark Escott voiced these concerns in a Facebook live conversation with Travis County Judge Andy Brown. Pointing to a chart of weekly COVID-19 hospitalizations in the Austin Metropolitan Statistical Area, Escott noted for the past three weeks, Austin-area hospitals have consistently admitted 21 to 22 people whose ages are between 20 and 29.

“That tells us, because the risk of hospitalization is so low for this age group, there is a massive amount of transmission happening,” Escott said, adding the trend is mirrored for the 30-39 age group, which has seen between 17 and 24 hospitalizations over the past three weeks.

A chart from Austin Public Health detailing COVID-19 weekly hospitalizations by age group in the Austin Metropolitan Statistical Area. Chart presented by Interim Health Authority Dr. Mark Escott during a livestream with Travis County Judge Andy Brown on Dec. 29, 2020.

“It’s particularly important for those [20-29 and 30-39 age] groups to understand: you can be hospitalized even though you’re young, you can end up in critical care even though you’re young, you can die even though you’re young.”

-Interim Health Authority Dr. Mark Escott on Dec. 29

Escott said young people also play a role in how the virus is spreading to groups more at risk for severe symptoms. For example, he explained in the 80+ age group, COVID-19 hospitalization rates “continue to creep up,” which is concerning because that group is the most likely to need critical care and most likely to die of COVID-19.

People walk on South Congress Avenue. December 30, 2020. KXAN Photo/ Alyssa Goard.

Speaking of Austin-area residents in the 20-39 age group, Escott added, “we need to impact the transmission in those age groups in order to prevent better the transmission in the upper age groups, which tends to follow behind the transmissions in the younger age groups.”

In an email to KXAN Wednesday, a spokesperson for Austin Public Health explained the trends Escott described further.

“Following holidays, we have seen cases rise significantly in the 20-29 and 30-39 age groups initially, followed by rises in the older age groups in subsequent weeks,” the spokesperson wrote.

“Some may say that the younger age groups don’t need to be as careful, because they are less likely to have a severe illness or death. While they tend to have less severe illness, they are efficient spreaders of disease, so we worry about the impact of them on the overall spread of disease in the community.”

-Austin Public Health spokesperson

As of Tuesday night, the Austin Public Health dashboard with the demographics of all the COVID-19 cases in Austin-Travis County showed throughout the pandemic, the age bracket with the most cases is the 20-29 age group, making up 27% of all the cases throughout the pandemic in the region. COVID-19 cases from people between the ages of 20 and 39 make up 48% of all of the cases Austin-Travis County has seen this year.

The percentage of younger Austinites who make up the total number of deaths in Austin-Travis County during the pandemic is much smaller, with 1% of all deaths occurring in the 20-29 year old age group. Still, four people ages 20-29 and 10 people ages 30-39 have died of COVID-19 in Austin-Travis County since March.

‘A virtual funeral is heart break’

Also speaking on the livestream Tuesday with Escott was Dr. Shailaja Hayden, an Austin ICU physician and an assistant professor in the department of Internal Medicine at UT Austin’s Dell Medical School.

Building on Escott’s comments. Hayden said, “to the young people out there, your chances of surviving COVID-19 are really really good, but there is a chance you could have a hellish journey in the hospital before you recover that will change your life forever.”

Hayden shared the youngest patient she has personally lost to COVID-19 was 25 years old.

“That’s not something I ever want to see again,” she emphasized.

“So I would really put out a plea to the young people, that a virtual holiday celebration is kind of lame, but a virtual funeral is heartbreak,” Hayden urged. “Do what you can to not only protect yourself but your mom and somebody else’s mom out there in the community who may not be able to withstand this disease.”

‘We want everyone to take seriously’

Escott emphasized right now while Austin remains in the highest COVID-19 risk level and the threat to local ICUs is significant, residents young and old need to be doing their part to slow the spread of the virus.

He said people should:

  • Limit travel outside your home to only things which are essential
  • Get food through takeout or delivery rather than dining in
  • Do retail shopping through curbside pickup and delivery
  • Only send one member of the household to the grocery store, pick up groceries curbside, or have groceries delivered.
  • If you have to go outside of your home, wear your mask and distance from others at all times.

“We want everyone to take seriously the need to wash your hands, wear a mask, and watch your distance,” a spokesperson for APH told KXAN on Wednesday. “The vaccine is here in Austin, and we need people to hold off on gathering for a little longer so we can get our most vulnerable community members vaccinated and prevent needless hospitalizations and deaths. We are asking people to please avoid gathering this New Year’s weekend to keep themselves, their friends, their family and their community safe. It’s been a long road, but we need to hold out just a little longer.”

A screenshot of the Instagram story from Buford’s Backyard Beer Garden in Austin taken on May 25, 2020 and submitted in a report of lack of social distancing/over occupancy sent to Austin Code. (Photo obtained by KXAN through a records request)

Escott and other local leaders have urged community members not to gather or go out to celebrate New Year’s Eve, setting a curfew for in-person dining and bars over the holiday and the days following. The local orders from that curfew are now facing a legal challenge from Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton.

Throughout the pandemic, photos and videos of people gathering at parties and in Austin’s bars have made headlines. The Austin Fire Marshal’s Office shut down a fraternity party in West Campus. The Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission temporarily suspended alcohol permits of some Austin bars that weren’t following COVID-19 protocols. KXAN has recently reported the latest complaints to Austin Code about exceeding capacity and mask violations are dominated by bars and restaurants. A handful of Austin’s most well-known downtown bars have received COVID-19 related warnings from the city.

Escott said this week bars operating as restaurants through the state’s loophole on New Year’s Eve are his number one concern ahead of the holiday.

“We need them to close,” he said. “They’re putting public health at risk.”

APH COVID-19 cases throughout the pandemic

Data as reported on the evening of Dec. 30, 2020 by Austin Public Health’s COVID-19 dashboard

Age groupCases% of total cases
Less than 1 year old2671%
1-9 years old1,7073%
10-19 years old4,87519%
20-29 years old13,63527%
30-39 years old10,48621%
40-49 years old7,58615%
50-59 years old 5,69711%
60-69 years old3,2767%
70-79 years old1.5823%
80 years +1,0832%

APH COVID-19 deaths throughout the pandemic

Data as reported as of Dec. 26, 2020 by Austin Public Health’s COVID-19 dashboard

Age GroupDeaths% of total deaths
20-29 years old41%
30-39 years old102%
40-49 years old183%
50-59 years old6412%
60-69 years old12123%
70-79 years old13225%
80 years +18234%
A chart from Austin Public Health detailing COVID-19 weekly hospitalizations by age group in the Austin Metropolitan Statistical Area. Chart presented by Interim Health Authority Dr. Mark Escott during a livestream with Travis County Judge Andy Brown on Dec. 29, 2020

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