4 delta variant cases confirmed; Austin reverts back to Stage 3 COVID guidelines as cases rise
Travis County on Thursday slid back into the less safe Stage 3 of Austin Public Health's risk-based guidelines after four cases of the delta variant, a highly contagious mutation of the coronavirus, were confirmed in the Austin area this week, according to the Austin-Travis County health authority.
Earlier this month, the community was on the verge entering the safest level, Stage 1, as the seven-day average for new daily hospital admissions for COVID-19 sank as low as seven on July 2. But on Thursday that average climbed to 22, a number not seen since mid-April.
Austin Public Health officials use the average for new hospital admissions to determine what stage of their risk-based guidelines is appropriate. They also use the daily average for new cases, which was up to 94 as of Thursday. At the start of the month, the new case average had been 34.
"This has to stop and we know how to make that happen," said Dr. Desmar Walkes, the Austin area's top public health official, explaining that vaccinations remain the most potent weapon against rising hospitalizations and infections amid the presence of the delta variant.
In Houston, Harris County health officials are monitoring the emergence of a "delta-plus" variant, but neither the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention nor the World Health Organization have determined it to be a variant of concern.
Walkes announced the unraveling of the pandemic progress alongside Austin Mayor Steve Adler, Travis County Judge Andy Brown and interim Austin Public Health Director Adrienne Sturrup.
"We cannot pretend we are done with a virus that is not done with us," Adler added. "Almost everyone in our hospitals right now, in our ICUs right now, are people who have not been vaccinated."
Walkes said hospital intensive care units' capacity as of Thursday morning was strained because of a shortage of staff, more patients coming in for other respiratory illnesses, more sickness because of travel and, of course, increased coronavirus cases likely linked to the delta variant.
Data published Thursday showed that 152 people were in the hospital, 49 were in an ICU and 23 were on ventilators because of illnesses linked to COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, in the Austin area.
Walkes on Thursday said health officials are also seeing an increase in pediatric cases of COVID-19, though she did not specify how many of the most recent cases are among children.
Under Stage 3, the biggest changes would be for anyone at high risk of experiencing severe disease or death from the coronavirus, such as those who are elderly or have chronic health problems. They should wear masks in public and avoid large crowds and leisure travel, especially if they are unvaccinated.
For Travis County residents who are fully vaccinated, health officials will continue to leave the choice of wearing masks to their discretion, unless businesses in the area begin requiring them again.
Austin Public Health's guidelines — ranging from the lowest threat of coronavirus spread at Stage 1 to the highest at Stage 5 — have been used for about a year to help residents understand the level of COVID-19 risk to the community, while offering rules they should follow to avoid transmitting the disease.
The region began the pandemic last year in Stage 3 and reached Stage 5 at the end of last year. The city dropped to Stage 2 a few months ago, but has never reached Stage 1. Stage 1 is considered to be when the community reaches herd immunity, or when so many are immune through vaccination or previous illness that it would be difficult for the virus to spread further.
Among Austin and Travis County residents 12 years old or older, at least 70.7% have received at least one dose of the coronavirus vaccine, and about 61.7% are fully vaccinated, according to state data Thursday.
"The best thing to do still is to get vaccinated," Brown said Thursday. "That's the way to keep our community safe. That's the way to protect against the delta variant and whatever other variants are coming out there. So, if you haven't gotten vaccinated yet, it's not too late to do so."
HOW TO GET VACCINATED
Austin Public Health and Travis County are working with community groups to provide pop-up COVID-19 vaccination clinics available to all eligible individuals without registration or appointments.
• Southeast Library, 2-8 p.m., 5803 Nuckols Crossing Road, Austin. Vaccine: Moderna (18+ years only)
• Little Walnut Creek Library, 2-6 p.m., 835 W. Rundberg Lane, Austin. Vaccine: Moderna (18+ years only)
• El Rancho Supermercado - Research, 5:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m., 8752 Research Blvd., Austin. Vaccine: Pfizer (12 years and up), Johnson and Johnson (18+ years only)
• El Rancho Supermercado - Berkman, 5:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m., 6800 Berkman Drive, Austin. Vaccine: Pfizer (12 years and up), Johnson & Johnson (18+ years only)
COVID-19 vaccinations are free and require neither identification nor insurance. Residents can locate providers in their area using Vaccines.gov or they can text their zip code to 438829 (822862 in Spanish) to find a nearby clinic.
For additional COVID-19 information and updates, visit AustinTexas.gov/COVID19.