Health leaders encourage testing, continued masking ahead of post-holiday COVID-19 spikes
The next two weeks will determine whether Austinites gathered safely enough during Thanksgiving to avoid a resurgence in COVID-19 cases, with health leaders urging anyone symptomatic after the holiday to get tested and stay home if infected.
Janet Pichette, Austin Public Health's chief epidemiologist who has been analyzing coronavirus data ahead of Thanksgiving, warned Tuesday that Travis County had a 33% increase in positive coronavirus cases compared with the previous week.
Concerned about the increase and what it could mean going further into the holiday season, Austin Public Health leaders asked residents to consider gathering outdoors whenever possible during Thanksgiving.
For those forced indoors because of weather conditions, Pichette said an alternative was to open windows and wear masks.
"As we go into the holiday season in December as well, we need to do all of those things that we've been saying for two years now," Pichette said, alluding to mask wearing, social distancing, hand washing and staying home when sick.
Austin Public Health on Tuesday made some changes to its risk-based guidelines, recommending that anyone at high-risk for severe disease regardless of vaccination status go back to wearing masks whenever dining, gathering or shopping indoors.
From Stage 1 to Stage 4, the recommendations for high-risk people are the same: mask up whenever in public.
However, in the most severe level of virus threat, Stage 5, those most vulnerable to the disease should not gather, shop indoors or travel unless essential.
Thanksgiving and Christmas gatherings in 2020 sparked a deadly surge in COVID-19 cases, which culminated in early January with Austin seeing more than 600 patients hospitalized for the disease at once.
Once vaccinations became more widely available in February and March, cases declined enough to loosen social distancing recommendations in Austin.
Dr. Desmar Walkes, Austin-Travis County health authority, said health officials like herself hope for a healthier holiday season this year, but the continued presence of the highly contagious delta variant of the virus, paired with decreasing immunity after six months for those fully vaccinated, puts the community more at risk.
The national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Nov. 19 authorized Moderna and Pfizer booster shots for anyone 18 and older.
The booster, which should be taken six months after a person receives their last shot of the COVID-19 vaccine, is designed to restore a level of immunity that would better prevent infection.
Boosters for those who received the Johnson & Johnson vaccine should still be taken six months after receiving the first dose, according to health leaders.
During Thanksgiving last year, Austin reported about 480 deaths because of illnesses linked to the coronavirus.
With two surges behind us this year — the first surge in winter sparked by the year-end holidays and the delta-triggered summer surge — the area as of Tuesday had reported 1,184 deaths because of the disease.
"That's an additional 701 deaths in a one-year period," Pichette said. "We are doing all we can to encourage you to be responsible and make sure you have a safe holiday season."
On Wednesday, that pandemic death toll rose by one more to 1,185.
"We want to make sure that if you do plan to celebrate, that people are vaccinated," she continued. "If they're not, make sure they are wearing their masks and protecting loved ones."
In addition to watching for symptoms of the coronavirus in the days after Thanksgiving, it will be more crucial for anyone 5 years and older who have yet to receive a coronavirus vaccine to get one, Pichette said.
She said Austin Public Health will be making vaccinations available for anyone needing booster shots.
"We want to make it through the holiday," Pichette said. "The best form of giving is to get your booster and get vaccinated."