In response to COVID-19 infections and hospitalizations continuing to surge to pre-vaccine levels, Austin Public Health raised the area’s risk-based guidance to Stage 5, its highest level, stressing the importance of individual responsibility in halting the spike of infection and severe illness caused by the COVID-19 Delta variant.
“The virus is adapting to survive and so must we,” said Dr. Desmar Walkes, Austin-Travis County Health Authority. “We are seeing an incredibly low number of staffed intensive care unit beds and increased strain on hospital staff due to the Delta virus and its infection of unvaccinated individuals. We have vaccines that are safe and effective in protecting people who are fully vaccinated from severe illness and death. Each of us has the responsibility to keep our community safe. Please get vaccinated and wear a mask.”
On July 30, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention released new information indicating the COVID-19 Delta variant has a transmission rate closer to chickenpox, meaning that indoors it can spread with ease. This comes the week of July 25; the same week that saw hospitalizations increase almost 50%, pushing area staffs and facilities to their limits.
Rapidly accelerating demand for hospital care needed for unvaccinated people who are seriously sick due to Covid-19 has filled Intensive Care Units. Exhausted healthcare staff in our ambulances, hospitals, and ICUs provide the same high quality care to those who are seriously ill from COVID-19 as well as other illnesses and injuries.
“We are all in this together. If you are not vaccinated, not wearing a mask, not socially distancing, and not washing your hands regularly, you are increasing chances of infecting other people,” continued Dr. Walkes. “If you have been vaccinated, you are not 100% invincible. You may not feel sick yourself, but you can still transmit the virus to those around you. We need everyone to wear a mask and follow the guidance.”
In making the decision to move to Stage 5 of the Risk-Based Guidelines, APH, Travis County and local hospital partners monitor several key indicators including the 7-day moving average of new hospital admissions, positivity rate, the doubling time of new cases, and current ICU and ventilator patients. Since the beginning of the latest surge around July 4, these indicators have surged:
- The 7-day moving average for new admissions increased over 600% from 9 on July 4 to 67 on Aug. 4.
- The 7-day moving average for new cases increased over 10 times, from 38 on July 1 to 402 on Aug. 4.
- COVID patients in local ICUs have increased 570% from 24 on July 4 to 161 on Aug. 4.
- COVID patients on ventilators has increased from a total of 8 on July 4 to 100 on Aug. 4.
The key points of Stage 5 recommendations include the following:
Fully vaccinated individuals should:
- Wear a mask.
- If you are high-risk with underlying conditions, avoid large gatherings where masks are not required.
- Help us get the rest of the population vaccinated by talking with your loved ones.
Partially or unvaccinated individuals should:
- Get fully vaccinated.
- Stay home and avoid gatherings, travel, and choose curbside and delivery options.
- If you must go out, wear a mask when conducting essential activities. Choose establishments that are protecting their customers and staff with mask wearing, social distancing and measures to stop the spread of COVID-19
Full recommendations and to see the new Risk-Based Guidelines charts regarding actions for vaccinated and unvaccinated/partially vaccinated individuals please visit the City of Austin COVID-19 website.
Delta Variant Changing Recommendations
The Delta variant of COVID-19 differs from the original virus in that is highly contagious and easily transmitted through the air. While the original virus generally impacted those over 65 years of age, its Delta variant infects younger people and those who have considered themselves immune to reinfection because they have already had the virus. Over 33% of recent area hospitalizations were under 50 years of age.
While the Delta variant is a mutated strain of COVID-19, it is important to note that identification of specific variants is useful for public health surveillance and not for individual treatment. Individuals who test positive for COVID-19, regardless of the variant, should continue to follow the same recommendations for quarantine and treatment by the CDC.
With school starting in less than two weeks, school-age children are of particular concern. Young people 12 years and older are eligible for vaccination and can still be vaccinated prior to starting in-person classes. However, it takes 14 days after two doses, or the single dose of Johnson and Johnson, to receive full protection. All children and teens are strongly encouraged to wear a mask, especially when participating in extracurricular activities.
Austin Independent School District has published their COVID-19 protocols for the upcoming school year with the recommendations on how to keep students safe as they return to school.
“We can’t do this alone – we need the support our community to help with this latest surge. Wear your mask, wash your hands, and honor social distancing to keep those you love safe,” said Interim Public Health Director Adrienne Sturrup. “The COVID-19 Delta strain has significantly changed how our communities are impacted, so our efforts to educate, vaccinate, and protect will continue to make sure everyone has the resources they need to keep their family and friends safe.”
Community Outreach Efforts
In July alone, APH administered 3,282 vaccinations, and hosted 55 vaccine education events. In response to requests from the community, a special education team hosted four unique events in July and plan to host an additional five in August. Testing sites, which were reopened to manage the surge, administered 1,700 tests during the last week of July.
Additionally, APH has established a Research & Education Program offering education events for communities and businesses that can be requested online.
“Although we’re back in stage 5 again, this time is different,” said Travis County Judge Andy Brown. “Our ICUs are filled with younger and otherwise healthy people. We have vaccines that are effective and keep people out of the ICUs and off ventilators. We can beat this virus together by getting vaccinated and wearing our masks.”
COVID-19 vaccinations continue to prove effective in protecting those who have completed the required series of shots for Moderna and Pfizer, and the one-shot Johnson and Johnson vaccines. However, with only 63% of residents fully vaccinated, our community continues to be vulnerable to new variants of the disease, especially the highly transmissible Delta variant.
“Delta is a meaner and much more aggressive virus,” said Austin Mayor Steve Adler. “As the virus adapts, we must adapt our behavior to beat it. These new guidelines reinforce masking regardless of vaccination status to reduce the spread. If you are not vaccinated, get the shot — stay at home until you do. Support businesses that encourage vaccinations and masks.”
It is easier than ever before to get a vaccine or test. COVID-19 vaccinations and tests are free and require neither identification nor insurance. In many cases, residents can walk up without an appointment. Residents can locate providers in their area using Vaccines.gov or texting their zip code to 438829 (822862 in Spanish) to find a nearby clinic. Residents can also call 3-1-1 (512-974-2000) for more information regarding COVID-19 testing and vaccinations. Additionally, Capital Metro is also providing free transportation to vaccination sites through their VaccineAccess program.
For additional business guidance, visit www.ATXrecovers.com for recommendations to help prioritize the well-being of employees and customers.
For COVID-19 updates, testing, and vaccination information visit www.AustinTexas.gov/COVID19.