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Austin stays on cusp of Stage 2, but plateauing COVID-19 data reflect persistent virus threat

Heather Osbourne
Austin American-Statesman

Austin and Travis County over the past several weeks have remained on the cusp of entering loosened pandemic protocols, but health leaders said Tuesday that they cannot officially downgrade until the current plateauing of coronavirus cases ends. 

Austin Public Health on Tuesday for a second day in a row reported a seven-day community transmission rate average of 36.7, which health leaders use as one of the main indicators in determining the agency's risk-based guidelines. 

More:Number of Texans in hospital for COVID rises to 2,844; Austin area remains in Stage 3

Austin Public Health's guidelines range from Stage 1 to Stage 5, with the higher stages indicating the greatest risk to those who are medically vulnerable because of age or underlying health conditions. 

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

Austin and Travis County are currently in Stage 3 of the risk-based guidelines, which is when the community transmission rate average is between 10 and 49. 

Dr. Desmar Walkes, Austin-Travis County health authority, said the average stayed in the 50 to 60 range last week, which, if it had continued, could have indicated a move back to Stage 4, signifying a higher threat from the virus. 

More:Health leaders encourage testing, continued masking ahead of post-holiday COVID-19 spikes

However, it was Monday's and Tuesday's transmission average that made Walkes optimistic that the Austin area is closer to entering Stage 2 rather than losing progress by having to return to Stage 4. 

The state's community transmission rate was 33.3 Tuesday, which was also a decrease from last week. 

"We're hoping that this is something that we'll continue to see going forward," Walkes said, referring to the decreasing transmission rate.

However, Walkes on Tuesday — speaking to Austin and Travis County elected officials — explained that the decrease could be the result of state and city testing centers being closed for the Thanksgiving holiday. So Austin-area residents will have to wait and see if that rate will continue to improve or worsen as more people get tested for the virus. 

More:Every adult who's been vaccinated can get a COVID booster shot. Here's what you should know

"If this is indeed true," Walkes said, talking about the lowering of the transmission rate, "it truly is a testament to the effects of the community coming together and using masking to help prevent spread."

However, the national community transmission rate Tuesday was 151.8, which is considered a high threat for those most vulnerable to the disease. 

The Austin and Travis County COVID-19 positivity rate, which was 5.4, also was troublingly high. Anything above 5 qualifies the area as a COVID-19 hot spot.

After the summer surge in COVID-19 cases peaked in August, public health leaders moved the community from Stage 5 to Stage 3 from September to October, but the declining number of hospitalizations and coronavirus cases plateaued in November. 

Walkes attributed the plateau to cases of the coronavirus increasing in both the United States and abroad, with hospitalizations for illnesses linked to the disease also rising slightly. 

"If we can see those numbers continue to trend downward, then recommendations could be made for moving into a lower stage," Walkes said. "But at this point, particularly given our current notice of the new variant Omicron, we're being very cautious about moving our stages downward and relaxing those recommendations."

Omicron, a new variant that the World Health Organization has labeled a variant of concern, has not yet been confirmed to be in the United States.

Walkes on Tuesday said the closest cases of the Omicron variant were in Canada but added that it's likely the variant is already here and just not yet detected. 

Omicron was officially detected Nov. 25 in South Africa and now is confirmed in Britain, Germany, Israel, Australia and other countries, according to a report from USA Today. 

It's still unclear whether the Omicron variant will be as severe or even worse than the delta variant, which fueled the summer surge in Travis County. 

Travis County on Tuesday recorded 13 new hospital admissions for COVID-19. The rolling seven-day average of new daily hospital admissions, which also helps Austin Public Health determine guidelines for the most medically vulnerable members of the community, was 12.

The county's highest average for new daily admissions during this most recent surge was 84 on Aug. 11, when the community was in Stage 5, the highest threat level.

Austin Public Health was tracking 102 people in the hospital with COVID-19, compared with the pandemic record high of 653 patients tallied Aug. 25.

Only 47 people were in Austin-area ICUs for COVID-19. That number hit a pandemic record high of 237 on Aug. 22. The 26 patients on ventilators remained a significant improvement over the pandemic record high of 174 set Aug. 29.