Tuesday, Austin Public Health officials lowered the community’s COVID-19 risk-based guidelines from stage 5 to stage 4. The decision was made because hospitalizations, new COVID-19 cases, ICU and ventilator use have decreased over the past few weeks.
"What we are doing is working. We need to continue," said Austin-Travis County Interim Health Authority Dr. Mark Escott.
The change does ease some restrictions but Escott says this is not the time for Austinites to lift their guard. "We’re concerned about the impact of the super bowl over the past weekend. We’re concerned about Valentine's Day. We’re concerned about the new variants, and this means we have to continue those precautions." said Escott.
Stage 4 recommendations include the following:
- Higher-risk individuals (those over the age of 65 and those who have chronic medical conditions) should stay home, except for essential trips such as buying groceries or seeking medical care.
- Lower-risk individuals should avoid social gatherings, any gatherings greater than 10 people, and non-essential travel.
- Businesses and restaurants voluntarily operate at a reduced capacity of 25-50%.
- Schools voluntarily limit attendance at sporting events to players, coaches, and parents.
The risk-based guidelines do not have an effect on local orders and rules or regulations for businesses; they are guidelines for individual actions and behaviors based on levels of risk of exposure in the community. The risk level recommendations are different for those who are at higher risk for severe complications and death from COVID-19.
In the meantime, Austin Public Health Director Stephanie Hayden-Howard says there are more than 500,000 people registered and waiting to get vaccinated. She says the department is working to improve its registration site, and opened a call center with Travis County to help with the process on Monday. "They’re proactively calling individuals that are 80-years of age and older and so they’re also, we are going to really make sure we are targeting individuals that don’t have internet access." she said.
As for second doses, Hayden-Howard says APH will not be scheduling appointments until they have their hands on the vaccine. Late last month the CDC extended the window for a second shot from 28 to 42 days.
Hayden Howard says she understands "there are a lot of folks who are very concerned. There is a significant amount of anxiety," adding "If you received your first dose, we are committed to making sure you receive your second dose from us."
Austin Public Health is only releasing appointments on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Escott says the appointments are typically filled in about two hours. Those who have registered and eligible should be getting an email telling them the appointments will be released one day prior.
The TDEM operated infusion center and convention center field hospital currently have the capacity to treat more patients.
Austin-Travis County was moved to Stage 5 for the first time during the pandemic on Dec. 23, 2020. People gathering over the holidays played a significant role in the case surge, and consequently an increase in severe illness and death.