Austin-Travis County steps back to Stage 4 of COVID-19 risk-based guidelines

COVID-19 News ,
Health officials said that if we do not take the steps to mitigate the risk of spread, Austin could move to Stage 5 in just a few weeks.

KVUE News — In his weekly briefing on Thursday, Interim Public Health Authority Dr. Mark Escott announced that Austin-Travis County is now taking a step backward in its risk-based guidelines for COVID-19, moving from Stage 3 to Stage 4.

This comes as the state of Texas is seeing a recent surge in cases, notably in the city of El Paso.

"The challenge is that a surge like this in Austin will require us to have more than 600 ICU beds and more than 2,400 hospital beds just to care for the people in our jurisdiction," said Dr. Escott. "We don't have that many beds."

In Stage 4:

  • Higher-risk individuals (those over the age of 65 and those who have chronic medical conditions) should stay home, except for essential trips such as buying groceries or seeking medical care.
  • Lower-risk individuals should avoid social gatherings, any gatherings greater than 10 people, and non-essential travel.
  • Recommend businesses and restaurants voluntarily reduce capacity to 25-50%.
  • Recommend schools limit attendance at sporting events to players, coaches, and parents.
Credit: KVUE

The original threshold for transitioning to Stage 4 was set at 40 (7-day average of hospital admissions), based on ICU beds around 300 to 400. Using data from the University of Texas COVID-19 Modeling Consortium, Austin Public Health later determined that 200 was about all it could manage due to staffing issues. 

"When we see a surge like this happening around the state, staffing resources are severely diminished," said Dr. Escott. "Because of this, we have had to transition the thresholds for Stage 4 and Stage 5."

RELATED: Austin Public Health shares COVID-19 safety guidelines for holiday season

The Stage 4 transition has now been set at 30 and Stage 5 at 50. 

Dr. Escott said the decision to transition a step back was based on data such as that new cases were up to 300 Wednesday for the first time since the middle of August, and the increasing positivity rate, which is now close to 7%.

"This is at a time where we must also consider the fact that we're at a stage that we can still do something about it," said Dr. Escott. "We can still affect the increase that we're seeing and prevent a surge from happening – a catastrophic surge that is being seen in El Paso and in Lubbock."

Dr. Escott said that if locals reduce their activity and exposure by 50% from where it is on Thursday, Travis County can flatten the curve as it has done in the past. 

"If we achieve even greater goals of 75% reduction, we can really flatten the curve very quickly and keep it flat until we get a vaccine, which is within reach right now," he said. 

Credit: Austin Public Health

Following the Thanksgiving holiday, Dr. Escott said there will be a significant increase in the risk regarding hospital admissions.

"Because Thanksgiving is a time where we all get together. Thanksgiving is a time where, for COVID-19, where we are going to be the most vulnerable," said Dr. Escott. "It's effectively – Labor Day and Memorial Day and Independence Day all combined into one big event that, unfortunately, due to the nature of the transmission of this disease, poses the most significant risk that we've seen throughout this pandemic."

Escott urged everyone over the age of 65 or at high risk to simply stay home, not just for the holidays but also for day-to-day tasks and, instead, send someone out who is lower risk. And for those who are at lower risk, Escott said that if you must go out, to wear a mask and social distance at all times when interacting with others.