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Austin health leaders prep for potential holiday COVID surge, urging public to be cautious

Heather Osbourne
Austin American-Statesman

Austin-area health leaders don't plan to ease pandemic guidelines this week, but instead are warning of a potential resurgence of coronavirus cases if residents aren't careful during the upcoming holidays. 

Austin Public Health's latest coronavirus data Wednesday shows a continued plateauing of case numbers after a steady decline in recent weeks.  

Dr. Desmar Walkes, Austin-Travis County health authority, said that University of Texas researchers -⁠— who for more than a year have worked to forecast coronavirus transmission ⁠— are encouraging health leaders to keep the Austin area in Stage 3 for now.

Austin Public Health's COVID-19 guidelines, based on the level of risk to the most medically vulnerable among us, range from Stage 1 to the most severe Stage 5, each coming with their own unique recommendations to help protect against the disease.

More:Latest COVID-19 data for Austin area offer mixed signs of progress against pandemic

Those researchers projected that if Walkes moved the community back into Stage 2 of Austin Public Health's risk-based guidelines, the area could possibly enter into another surge by the end of the month and into December. 

In response to those projections, Walkes chose to ignore the rolling weekly average of new daily hospitalizations, which had been a key indicator to determine the risk level of virus spread in the community. The average was 14 on Wednesday and has been within the threshold for Stage 2 for the past two weeks.

Instead, Walkes adopted another key indicator that the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention uses to assess the threat level: the weekly transmission rate, which tracks new cases per 100,000 people over seven days.

On Wednesday, the rate was 49.5. The new threshold for Stage 3 under the transmission rate is when the average stays between 10 and 49. 

Walkes said she will now consider both the transmission rate and the rolling weekly average of new daily hospitalizations when determining the guidelines. 

"The thought was that that would help in keeping the public more aware of masking and so on by keeping our staging at a higher level," Walkes explained. 

Walkes said she plans to keep a close eye on the transmission rate for any early signs of a possible rise in cases as the holidays approach. 

Health leaders urge booster shots

Austin Public Health leaders also worry about the likelihood of a holiday surge because of potential wearing off of vaccination immunity. 

Walkes on Tuesday said studies show that immunity from vaccinations begin to decrease after six months. She is encouraging anyone who currently qualifies for a booster shot to get one.

Travis County as of Tuesday had provided more than 1.7 million doses of the coronavirus vaccine, according to Austin Public Health. 

More:Fact-check: Are booster shots proof that the COVID-19 vaccine doesn't work?

Of those vaccinated, Walkes said just 9,193 people experienced breakthrough infections. Those breakthrough cases led to 94 hospitalizations and 46 deaths. 

"The vaccines that we have are effective at protecting us from severe COVID disease," Walkes said, adding that all of the vaccinated individuals who died also had other diseases or critical medical conditions. 

A study released by the Texas Department of State Health Services this week showed that in September, Texans not vaccinated against COVID-19 were about 20 times more likely to die and 13 times more likely to test positive for the virus, compared with people who were fully vaccinated.

The study, which matched electronic lab reports and death certificates to state immunization records, is the state’s first statistical analysis of the real-world effect of vaccinations against the coronavirus in Texas.

More:Should I get a COVID-19 booster? Here's who qualifies under new FDA guidelines

The vaccinations were especially helpful for younger people, the study showed.

The risk of death from illnesses linked to COVID-19 was 48 times higher in unvaccinated people in their 30s and 63 times higher for people in their 40s, compared with vaccinated residents in the same age groups, according to the data. 

Fewer than 10 COVID-19 deaths occurred among fully vaccinated people ages 18 to 29, compared with 339 deaths among unvaccinated people in the same age range. 

COVID vaccines for children expected to help holiday surge    

One positive change that might help the Austin area avoid a holiday surge is the approval of vaccinations for children between the ages of 5 and 11, according to health leaders. 

Across the nation, 1.9 million children in that age group were infected with COVID-19 since the start of the pandemic. Of those, 94 children died, with one of those deaths being in Travis County. 

U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy on Tuesday urged parents to understand that "COVID is not harmless in our children" after Austin celebrity Matthew McConaughey said he wouldn't mandate vaccines for youngsters, according to a CNN report. 

McConaughey, the Oscar-winning actor and part-time UT instructor who has openly mulled over running for governor, said his own kids are not vaccinated. 

More:Worried about child's future fertility and COVID-19 vaccine? Know the truth about the risks

Murthy explained that many kids have died from COVID-19, and that vaccines for children between the ages of 5 through 11 are "more than 90% effective in protecting our kids from symptomatic infection." 

He called the vaccines "remarkably safe" for children. 

Walkes, who has pointed to similar data as Murthy, explained that children not only suffer from their own infections, but also when adults get sick.

So far, 150,000 children have lost a primary caregiver to COVID-19 since the start of the pandemic, according to Walkes. 

"The impact of COVID-19 has far-reaching effects," Walkes said, urging anyone who has not yet been vaccinated to get inoculated before gathering with loved ones. 

Latest coronavirus data 

Travis County on Wednesday recorded 14 new hospital admissions for COVID-19. The rolling seven-day average of new daily hospital admissions was also 14.

On Wednesday, Austin Public Health was tracking 116 people in the hospital with COVID-19, compared with the pandemic record high of 653 patients tallied on Aug. 25.

Only 65 people were in Austin-area intensive care units for COVID-19. That number hit a pandemic record high of 237 on Aug. 22. The 35 coronavirus patients on ventilators remained a significant improvement over the pandemic record high of 174 set on Aug. 29.

State health officials on Wednesday recorded 2,769 people in the hospital for COVID-19 statewide, or less than a fifth of the summer peak total of 13,932 on Aug. 26.

More:Ready to holiday? Before you gather with family and friends, think about COVID-19 safety