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Even as COVID cases decline, unvaccinated should be masked as long as virus active, health chief warns

Heather Osbourne
Austin American-Statesman

As coronavirus cases continue to dwindle to nearly pre-surge levels in the Austin area, Travis County's health chief said this week that it will never be safe enough for unvaccinated people to unmask in public while the virus remains a threat.

Dr. Desmar Walkes, Austin-Travis County health authority, explained her reasoning about recommending masks indefinitely for the unvaccinated public while discussing a possible shift to a safer stage of the pandemic in the coming days.

"Vaccines protect people from going to the hospital and dying from severe COVID-19," Walkes told the American-Statesman. "As new mutations develop, they spread more easily and cause more severe disease, so it is important to protect ourselves and our loved ones from getting COVID-19."

More:Austin area crosses Stage 2 COVID-19 threshold; Austin Public Health urges mask, vaccine vigilance

Registered nurse Lucy Zastenchik administers the second dose of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine to a man at an Austin Public Health vaccine clinic at the Delco Activity Center on Oct. 21. About 82% of Travis County residents 12 and older have received at least one vaccine dose, according to state data.

On Tuesday, Austin Public Health reported that only eight people were newly admitted to the hospital for COVID-19. That's the fewest admitted since July 4, when the number was 5. Tuesday's average pushed the local rolling seven-day average of new daily hospital admissions for the coronavirus to 14.

Austin Public Health's guidelines, which reflect the threat posed by the virus to those at highest risk of severe symptoms or death, range from the safest Stage 1 to Stage 5, when community spread is at its worst.

We are currently in Stage 3, but Stage 2 can be triggered when the rolling seven-day average stays between 5 and 14.

The highest average for new daily COVID-19 hospital admissions during this most recent surge in coronavirus cases was 84 on Aug. 11, when Travis County was in Stage 5.

The average stayed below 50 long enough last month for Austin Public Health to move the region to Stage 4 on Sept. 28. It then stayed below 30 long enough for health leaders to feel confident downgrading again to Stage 3 on Oct. 12. 

Once numbers stay below 15, Stage 2 guidelines say it's safe enough for all fully vaccinated people, even those at high risk, to unmask in all public spaces. The only time they would need to wear a mask is when traveling, according to the guidelines. 

All unvaccinated people would need to wear a mask when shopping, dining out, traveling and gathering both indoors and outdoors, the guidelines say. 

More:Texas records 4,077 hospitalized for COVID; Austin area tracking 138 inpatients with coronavirus

Austin Public Health's recommendations will stay the same for Stage 1, when the average of daily hospitalizations stays between zero and four.

Walkes this week explained that the pandemic will be considered over in Austin and Travis County when no cases of the coronavirus are reported for 28 consecutive days. 

Nurse Lola Ogundare prepares Moderna COVID-19 vaccines at an Austin Public Health vaccine clinic at the Delco Activity Center on Oct. 21.

One method that will help reach that goal is by federal authorities approving low doses of the coronavirus vaccine for children ages 5 to 11.  

Providers last week were given the go-ahead to begin putting in their initial requests for those vaccines as the nation waits for the 28 million children in that age group to become eligible. 

Texas is in line to receive more than a million doses of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine for children ages 5 to 11 once approved.

Federal authorities over the next two weeks are expected to decide whether recent research showing the vaccine is 90% effective is convincing enough to justify vaccines for children ages 5 through 11. The Food and Drug Administration on Tuesday backed those vaccinations for children, but the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are still weighing the issue.

"The caveat is that COVID-19 remains an unpredictable and deadly virus," Walkes said. "As long as a large number of our residents remain unvaccinated, it will continue to be a threat." 

As of Tuesday, about 82% of Travis County residents 12 and older have received at least one dose of a coronavirus vaccine. About 73% of Travis County residents 12 and older are fully vaccinated. 

Austin Public Health Tuesday was tracking 138 people in the hospital with COVID-19, which was only about one-fifth of the pandemic record total of 653 patients on Aug. 25.

Only 55 people were in Austin-area intensive care units for COVID-19. That number hit a pandemic record high of 237 about nine weeks ago on Aug. 22. The 32 coronavirus patients on ventilators remained a significant improvement over the pandemic record high of 174 set about two months ago on Aug. 29.

The local positivity rate for COVID-19 tests on Tuesday dipped to 3.4%. Anything above 5% is considered too high and qualifies the area as a COVID-19 hot spot.

Corpus Christi Caller-Times reporter John Moritz contributed to this article.