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Austin returns to Stage 5 of COVID guidelines. What will change for you?

Heather Osbourne
Austin American-Statesman

After only 99 days, Austin Public Health on Thursday announced it was officially shifting back into Stage 5 and recommending the agency's strictest guidelines to better protect the community from COVID-19. 

Dr. Desmar Walkes, Austin-Travis County health authority, on Thursday said the return to Stage 5 was triggered by the recent surge in COVID-19 cases fueled by the highly contagious omicron variant of the coronavirus. 

Austin Public Health could no longer avoid going back to Stage 5 after the agency Wednesday evening reported another increase in the seven-day average of new daily hospital admissions.

The average, which health leaders use as a key indicator to gauge community transmission risk, was 82 on Thursday — an increase from 74 the day before and just shy of the peak average during the summer, when it was 84 on Aug. 11. 

Another key indicator — the community transmission rate, which tracks new cases per 100,000 people over seven days — was 1,066.8 on Thursday, a staggering increase from 436 on Wednesday. That's also higher than the state's transmission rate of 922.7

"If we don't do something, our way of life is in danger," Walkes said Thursday, adding that omicron is draining medical staffing throughout Austin. "Without action, our communities stand to lose more than we have already."

Walkes warned, "There will come a point when schools and businesses and community centers won't be able to open their doors if we don't do something." 

What changes under Stage 5? 

Austin Public Health's risk-based guidelines range from Stage 1, when community spread of the coronavirus is minimal, to Stage 5, when community spread is rampant and the threat of the virus is at its worst.

The last time Austin and Travis County moved into Stage 5 was in early August last year after the delta variant caused a massive surge in COVID-19 cases.

Increased vaccinations and mask-wearing slowly helped bring the Austin area back to Stage 4 on Sept. 28, and to Stage 3 on Oct. 12. 

Under Stage 5, if you're not fully protected with both initial vaccines and a booster shot, you should:

  • Avoid indoor and outdoor gatherings.
  • Avoid all travel.
  • Only participate in takeaway and curbside dining.
  • Only participate in curbside shopping.

If you're fully vaccinated and boosted but at low-risk for severe symptoms you should: 

  • Wear a mask for all indoor and outdoor gatherings.
  • Wear a mask when traveling.
  • Wear a mask when dining outdoors. Also, only dine indoors, wearing a mask, at places that require vaccinations and masks.
  • Wear a mask when shopping.

If you're fully vaccinated and boosted but at high-risk for severe symptoms you should: 

  • Avoid all indoor and outdoor gatherings.
  • Avoid all nonessential travel.
  • Wear a mask when dining outdoors. Dine indoors, wearing a mask, only at places that require vaccinations and masks.
  • Avoid all shopping, apart from takeaway and curbside.

Events continue despite Stage 5 

Despite the Austin area being under more pressure to take stricter precautions in public, community events that residents are planning to attend in the coming weeks will likely continue.

Walkes, who was joined Thursday in announcing the return to Stage 5 by Austin Mayor Steve Adler and Travis County Judge Andy Brown, said she had no plans to encourage cancellations of any events under Stage 5 but will work to ensure they are conducted safely.

Registered nurse Yolanda Harper works at a free COVID-19 testing site organized by Nomi Health at the Toney Burger Activity Center on Thursday, the same day public health officials urged stricter Stage 5 guidelines to protect the community against the coronavirus

Similar to how Austin City Limits Music Festival was planned in the fall, Walkes said she will push for events to require mask-wearing, social distancing and a negative COVID-19 test before entry.

"It's now more important than ever for everyone to mask everywhere," Adler said. "It is our best chance to keep our hospitals staffed and our businesses open with healthy employees." 

While omicron patients appear to be suffering from milder symptoms than those caused by the delta variant over the summer, Austin Public Health said more people are still getting sick under this variant.

Locally, 1,320 new COVID-19 cases were reported Thursday, compared with 1,260 on Sept. 7 at the peak of the delta surge.

It's very likely that the Austin area is surpassing delta infections, according to Walkes, because more rapid tests are available now than during the summer. But at-home rapid tests are not submitted to Austin Public Health as an official infection count, she said. 

Troubling numbers persist

Hospitalizations so far remain lower than during the summer's delta surge, but that could change.

Statewide, health officials Thursday recorded 8,740 people in the hospital for COVID-19, an increase of more than 3,200 patients over the past week.

Austin Public Health was tracking 404 people in local hospitals with COVID-19 on Thursday, an increase from 385 the previous day. The pandemic record was 653 patients on Aug. 25.

On Thursday, 92 people were in Austin-area intensive care units for COVID-19, compared with the pandemic record of 237 on Aug. 22. The 29 patients on ventilators remained far fewer than the pandemic record of 174 set Aug. 29.

Walkes said about 30% to 40% of people who are admitted to the hospital for other illnesses also are testing positive for COVID-19. 

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However, that doesn't mean omicron poses no danger.

"Every time this virus infects somebody, we're giving it a chance to mutate and change its characteristics and become more dangerous," Walkes said. "It's important that we protect ourselves. It's important that we get vaccinated, and it's important that we mask so we can stop the spread of this virus in our community." 

It's still unclear how long the Austin area will be in Stage 5, but Adler said Thursday the length of the surge will likely be in the hands of the community and how safely people behave moving forward. 

Vehicles line up Thursday at a COVID-19 testing site on South Lamar Boulevard.

"Among those of us who have not been acting as though we are in Stage 5 and have been taking measures that we'd normally do in Stage 1 or Stage 2, I'm reaching out particularly and asking that you take heed to the Stage 5 guidance," Walkes added. 

"I know everyone is tired," she said. "If we adhere to the Stage 5 guidelines, there is hope to keep our schools, our child care centers and our businesses open."