Austin-Travis County’s top health chief said he plans to recommend that local leaders move the area into the highest level of pandemic restrictions this week if coronavirus cases and hospitalizations continue to surge over the next few days.
Dr. Mark Escott, interim Austin-Travis County health authority, said even though the seven-day moving average for new hospitalizations reached 50 on Monday night, he wasn’t ready to move the community into Stage 5 of Austin Public Health’s risk-based guidelines. On Tuesday night, the seven-day average reached 54.
Escott previously said Stage 5 would be warranted when the new hospitalization average reached 50. However, on Tuesday the health chief said he plans to closely monitor coronavirus cases and hospitalizations over the next few days and possibly begin the new restrictions by Christmas if trends do not improve quickly.
“I want to be very clear, we do not see disease transmission happening efficiently when people are masked and distanced,” Escott said. “It’s just not happening. The cases we are seeing, the growth we are seeing, are in circumstances where people are not masked and not distanced.”
Escott said he believes if all people were to wear masks, socially distance and avoid social gatherings, coronavirus cases in Austin-Travis County would be back under control.
Austin-Travis County officials on Tuesday night reported 4,602 active cases, an all-time high during the pandemic. Three more deaths brought the county’s COVID-19 death toll to 525.
If cases do not improve, health officials under Stage 5 would urge restaurants and businesses to return to delivery and takeout only and call for the elimination of extracurricular school activities.
Residents would also be asked to avoid all non-essential gatherings.
Escott said of particular concern this week is coronavirus spread among school children and at Austin-area bars.
As of Tuesday, a total of 211 coronavirus cases involved Austin-area schools. Of those cases, 93 involved students, according to Escott.
As a result of those cases, 1,190 students and 267 staff were instructed to quarantine following exposure.
In response, Austin school district Superintendent Stephanie S. Elizalde this week told parents via email that campuses may transition to 100% remote learning or stop all remote and on-campus instruction completely the week of Jan. 4 — when classes are set to resume — if the coronavirus surge worsens.
However, Escott said such drastic measures do not need to be taken if residents follow coronavirus guidelines. The health chief said much of the school spread is stemming from basketball games and other sports.
If necessary, Escott said he would suggest elementary schools stay in-person while middle and high schools go virtual.
“Our biggest threat at schools is extracurricular activities,” Escott said. “This is why we’ve given advice to superintendents from Travis County that we’ve got to start scaling back risk now on extracurricular activities.”
Escott said if Austin-Travis County moves into Stage 5, extracurricular activities that do not allow for masking and social distancing should be stopped.
On Tuesday, Escott also released a list of more than 20 area bars that received citations for breaking pandemic rules.
Escott said those bars, in addition to many other businesses in Travis County, allowed customers into their establishments without requiring them to socially distance or wear a mask.
The health chief said he planned to post the names of the businesses on the Travis County website so residents can consult the list when deciding where or where not to dine.
On Tuesday, Escott told Travis County commissioners that he planned to also impose a curfew under Stage 5 as a last resort if cases continue to worsen in the coming weeks.
“This curfew discussion is ongoing,” Escott said. “The challenge is local governments are somewhat limited in the options for curfew. I really do want that to be a last resort.”
Last week, El Paso County officials ordered two separate curfews that will take place around Christmas and New Years Day.
Under those curfews in El Paso, all restaurant dine-in services, including outdoor dining, have to close between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m., according to local officials. However, residents can still order takeout or pick up food at drive-thru windows.
El Paso issued similar curfews in October and November, which health officials said helped to decrease the spread in cases. Anyone who violated the curfew received a $500 fine.
However, it’s still unclear what Austin and Travis County curfews might entail and how local leaders plan to enforce them.
In the five-county Austin metropolitan area, hospitals reported 70 new admissions of patients with COVID-19 on Tuesday night.
Of the 349 people who were in Austin-area hospitals on Tuesday with the coronavirus, 90 were in intensive care and 52 were on ventilators, officials said.
In addition to hospitalizations, 672 more people in the area recently tested positive for the coronavirus, bringing the area’s total case count during the pandemic to 46,701.