Austin officials urge masks, even for those vaccinated, indoors in public to avoid COVID surge
This story has been updated to clarify where and when local officials say Austin and Travis County residents should wear masks
Health leaders on Tuesday said all Austin-Travis County residents, including those vaccinated against thecoronavirus, should return to wearing masks indoors while at public spaces to avoid a surge in coronavirus cases as the delta variant continues to spread.
The Austin area could return to Stage 4 of Austin Public Health's risk-based guidelines as early as Thursday, said Austin-Travis County Health Authority Dr. Desmar Walkes during a public briefing Tuesday. If residents mask up again, Walkes said the area might avoid the likely surge in cases that would lead to stricter guidelines.
On Monday night, the Austin area reached the threshold to return to the stricter Stage 4 rules as the seven-day average for new daily coronavirus hospitalizations reached 30. Stage 4 rules are invoked when hospitalizations are between 30 and 49.
If new, daily hospitalizations stay between 30 and 49 for several days, the Austin area will enter Stage 4, Walkes said. Other factors also will come into play with this decision, such as intensive care unit capacity and hospital staffing levels.
"This is happening as a result of the delta variant in our community," Walkes said Tuesday, speaking about the highly contagious mutation spreading across Texas. "As I've said several times, masks stop spread. There is protection from the delta variant with vaccination."
Under Stage 4, Austin Public Health would recommend fully vaccinated people again wear masks while gathering in groups both indoors and outdoors and while shopping, dining or traveling. Unvaccinated or partially vaccinated residents should no longer gather in groups at all and only shop, dine and travel when its essential, the guidelines say.
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 coronavirus risk to the community, while offering guidelines to follow to avoid transmitting or contracting the disease.
In addition to the average number of new hospital admissions, Austin-area health leaders also keep a close eye on the seven-day average for new daily confirmed coronavirus cases. As of Monday night, the average was 159, compared to just 33 at the start of July.
Gov. Greg Abbott's latest pandemic orders stop Walkes from reinstating a mask mandate, which would require businesses to ensure all customers cover their faces. However, Walkes said Tuesday that she is recommending all business owners and places of worship require masks again.
While Abbott's orders stop schools and municipalities from having mask requirements, private establishments still have the legal power to require them.
"We don't want to get involved in a legal issue with the governor," Mayor Steve Adler said Tuesday. "But, if there was a way right now to order that all students had to wear masks in school, we would be doing that. At this point, it's up to individuals because we can't enforce our way to compliance.
"I hope that individuals make the decision to wear masks when they're indoors," he continued. "I hope businesses that can control their establishments adopt policies to have people in their businesses wear masks."
Travis County Commissioner Jeff Travillion echoed Adler's statements, adding that Austin-area residents should get vaccinated against the coronavirus if they haven't already.
"Regardless of what the governor says, and he'll have to make peace with his own maker, we still have a job to do," Travillion said. "We are responsible for getting as many shots out as we possibly can. So, let's redouble our efforts and not let our guard down. Now is not the time."
As of Monday night, 71.6% of Travis County residents 12 years and older have received at least one dose of the coronavirus vaccine. Of those, 61.9% are fully vaccinated.
Rochelle Walensky, director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, warned last week that nearly all COVID-19 hospital admissions and deaths across the nation are among those who have not been vaccinated, according to an Associated Press report Friday.
Walensky called the crisis "a pandemic of the unvaccinated," the report said.
Austin and Travis County have confirmed four cases of the delta variant among residents. But more cases are likely as the state was not widely testing for the delta variant as of Monday, according to local health officials.
Data from Britain suggest that the delta variant is 64% more transmissible and 80% more likely to cause infected individuals to be hospitalized, University of Texas researchers added to their newest pandemic report Monday.
Using these estimates and most recent data from infections within the state of Texas, UT researchers estimate that delta likely became the dominant variant in Texas by June 21 and, as of Friday, is expected to be causing about 87% of all infections in the state.
On Monday, the UT Austin COVID-19 Modeling Consortium, used by local health leaders to understand the likely outcomes of disease spread in the coming weeks, was updated with new pandemic projections.
UT's projections for Austin are now separated into three possible outcomes depending on whether or not residents adhere to Walkes' latest recommendations, including masking.
If residents continue not wearing masks (status quo):
- There would be an estimated 12,279 hospitalizations for COVID-19 from July 14 until Oct. 1.
- A 94% chance Austin would move into Stage 4 of Austin Public Health's risk-based guidelines, possibly by Thursday.
- An 87% chance of exceeding the maximum available ICU capacity, which is more than 200 staffed beds, by Aug. 21.
If Austin-area residents largely comply with face mask recommendations:
- There would be 1,078 hospitalizations for COVID-19 from July 14 until Oct. 1, which is 92% less than the status quo projection.
- The estimated risk of entering Stage 4 would be reduced to 37%.
- The estimated risk of surpassing ICU capacity would be reduced to 2%.
If compliance with mask recommendations reaches only 50%:
- There would be 4,355 COVID-19 hospitalizations, which is a 65% reduction compared to the status quo projection.
- The estimated risk of entering Stage 4 would be 82% by Sept. 27.
- The estimated risk of surpassing ICU capacity would be 53% by Sept. 27.
Walkes said there is still hope to flatten the curve and avoid Stage 4 if Austinites immediately begin wearing masks.
"We have the opportunity to stop the climb," Walkes said. "If we can continue with our vaccination program and with the use of masking, we can take the curve that is going up and change its trajectory."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.