'Work to do': Area won't get to Stage 2 in April, transmission may be increasing in Travis County

AUSTIN (KXAN) — The hope of making it down to Stage 2 of COVID-19 risk levels by mid-April is dwindling, and now it appears the area could reach that stage after the first week of May, health officials said Friday.

While data shows the spread of COVID-19 infection is trending downward, it’s doing so at a slower pace than previously modeled by the University of Texas at Austin, Austin Public Health Interim Health Authority Dr. Mark Escott said.

Escott reiterated what he said on Tuesday when he updated local leaders at the joint session with the Austin City Council and Travis County Commissioners Court. He said he’ll keep an eye on data points like the rolling average of new hospitalizations and active cases, both of which have hit a bit of a plateau lately[2]. The current rolling average of new hospitalizations is 20, a small uptick from what it was April 1 at 16 but firmly inside Stage 3 risk levels.

“We’ve got more work to do,” Escott said. “We’re seeing plateauing of projections, and as of today, enter to Stage 2 is off the projections through the first week of May. We need to make everyone has access to vaccines.”

The models by UT, Escott said, show there’s an increasing chance transmission is on the upswing as evidenced by the plateaus. That means people in the area need to keep wearing a mask, social distance and practice good hygiene.

APH will open up vaccine appointments to all adults 18 and older on Monday, and while Escott said that’s a great thing, some people question whether the APH website can handle another surge of people try to sign up for appointments that fill quickly.

“We monitor how quickly the appointments are filled, we’ve done that the entire time,” APH Director Stephanie Hayden-Howard said. “We’ve had conversations with providers across Travis County, and also in neighboring counties, and they’re receiving vaccines. With that knowledge, we decided to make that change.”

Escott added that it’s important that frontline workers, like restaurant and bar workers along with construction workers, have access to a vaccine.

“Those individuals are at highest risk to transmit disease and to be exposed because of the nature of their work,” he said. “We need to make sure we get to those workers more efficiently.”

When will kids be able to get a vaccine?

APH Assistant Director Cassandra DeLeon said, like everyone, APH is watching the clinical trials that vaccine manufacturers are currently doing on use for children, and the agency will be a provider for the vaccines once they become approved.

“Once it comes online for children, we will work to continue to ensure that those that are eligible will have access,” DeLeon said.

Escott said it’s “a mistake” for schools to start to remove protections, like masking. Janet Pichette, APH’s chief epidemiologist, said more clusters are happening in schools, and most of them are related to athletics.

Escott said schools need to “maintain vigilance” until a vaccine is available for kids.

“The risk for children is not going to go away,” he said. “The population of teenagers and children are almost completely unvaccinated. As community risk goes down, as adults are vaccinated and we start to relax things at some stage in terms of that population, we have to maintain the vigilance for our children.”

He said Israel had that scenario happen. That country has 60% of its adult population vaccinated, then it saw a surge in cases among young people. He said he doesn’t want that to happen here.

Escott said in the next month or two, the expectation is a vaccine should be approved for kids aged 12-16, which will fill the gap of middle and high school students. He hopes school districts have a plan to encourage student-athletes to get the vaccine and increase access to it to make it easier for them to get it. That’s the population in school-aged children who are spreading infection the most.

On Tuesday, Escott mentioned that school districts could start to plan for graduations at the end of May. He said the trends are there and that if masking, social distancing and avoiding large gatherings are continued, “things are looking pretty good,” he said.

“If we continue these protections and ride the trend down while we ramp up vaccinations, things could look very good for graduations at the end of May,” he said.

Big declines in length of hospital stays, deaths

Escott said there have been “significant improvements” on a couple of different fronts — one of them being a decrease in the length of hospital stays of 95% of COVID-19 patients. He said there’s a 40% reduction in length of stays across age groups, ranging from 25-26 days prior to March of this year to 15-16 days afterward.

He also said there has been a big reduction of deaths in COVID-19 patients. In patients aged 65 and older, there’s a 63% decrease in deaths prior to March and a 44% decrease in patients aged 50-64. Escott said vaccines, antibody therapy and other factors have helped contribute to the decreases.

“This is part of what we expected to see,” he said, “that those therapeutics and the significant introduction of vaccines in our community, that it was going to impact the severity, in particularly the mortality, associated with COVID-19.”

Billy Gates

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