AUSTIN (KXAN) — Tuesday morning, hours before Texas Gov. Greg Abbott announced the statewide mask mandate would be lifted starting March 10, Austin’s top doctor said it is too early to remove the mask requirement.

Austin-Travis County Interim Health Authority Dr. Mark Escott told Austin City Council and Travis County Commissioners Tuesday while COVID-19 numbers have declined statewide, removing protections like mask requirements right now could result in a reversal of progress.

“I think right now we have to stay the course,” Escott said. “We’ve vaccinated maybe 10% of our population.”

Texas Department of State Health Services data indicates about 12% of Texans have received at least one vaccine dose. Meanwhile, only 6.2% of Texans are fully vaccinated.

“We’re not anywhere near close to herd immunity,” Escott continued. “And the danger that we face by releasing [or] reducing those restrictions — particularly the mask mandate, which really has been the most effective public policy decision the governor has ever made — surely has the potential to initiate a surge at the moment when we have the potential to drive the [COVD-19 numbers into the ground.”

Escott’s comments came after Abbott suggested last week all statewide orders, including the mask mandate that has been in place since July, could be lifted “very soon.”

Escott said May or June would be a more suitable timeframe for relaxing mask requirements — as it would be after hundreds of thousands of Texans would be vaccinated in March and April.

“My hope is that the mask mandate will continue at least through the end of April to allow us to ride this curve down,” Escott said.

He noted COVID-19 hospital admission rates in the Austin area are down 57% since Feb. 1, and local officials will soon decide whether to downgrade to Stage 3 of the Risk-Based Guidelines.

COVID-19 Risk-Based Guidelines provided by Austin Public Health
COVID-19 Risk-Based Guidelines (Courtesy of Austin Public Health)

Escott said while Austin’s COVID-19 numbers are headed in the right direction now, he’s concerned because of instances in other regions where protections were relaxed too soon, which sparked a COVID-19 surge.

“Now is too soon to return to normal,” he said. “Now is too soon to take away masking. “

Escott followed up with this statement after Abbott’s announcement: “Despite the impending removal of the state mask mandate, we must continue our vigilance with masking, distancing and hand washing. These remain critical in our ongoing fight against COVID-19.”