Holiday Safety Tips Issued In Austin Amid Growing Coronavirus

Tony Cantu

AUSTIN, TX — Worried over a potential spike in cases of the coronavirus stemming from holiday gatherings, health district officials are reminding residents to take precautions as the year winds down.

In an advisory issued on Sunday, Austin Public Health officials said it is "more important than ever" that people avoid gathering outside their households this holiday season as illness case numbers continue to rise.

Officials cited data from the University of Texas COVID-19 Modeling Consortium projects showing a surpassing of Stage 5 primary key indicator of 50 new hospitalizations on the 7-day moving average by the end of December — meaning the hospital system will be stretched thin, and more residents will contract the virus.

COVID-19 dashboards

“We are concerned about the case numbers and hospitalizations rising ahead of the winter holidays,” Austin Public Health Director Stephanie Hayden said in a prepared statement. “We know people want to gather this year for the holidays, but it is important that we keep our loved ones safe by only gathering with those we already live with. We want everyone to be able to gather with their loved ones in years to come.”

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As of Sunday, there have been 45,492 confirmed cases of coronavirus since the onset of illness. As also shown on a statistical dashboard maintained by Austin Public Health, there have been 516 cumulative fatalities to date. There are 316 residents currently hospitalized for the illness, the dashboard shows, including 84 being treated at intensive care units and 47 placed on ventilators. There are 4,257 active cases of the respiratory illness across the county, as shown on the dashboard.

Screenshot of the Austin Public Health dashboard on Sunday, Dec. 20, 2020.

In issuing the Sunday warning, health officials are informed by past data showing illness spikes blamed on Halloween-related parties and gatherings. To minimize the spread of COVID-19 during the upcoming holidays and ensure residents have a safe and healthy holiday season, Austin Public Health officials were prompted to issue added guidance related to holiday gatherings.

Holiday Safety Guidance

Some of the safety measures that individuals can take center on avoidance of gatherings outside of their households, and only sending one household member on essential errands — such as going grocery shopping or retrieving medications at the pharmacy — instead of the whole household. Health officials also urge frequent handwashing, wearing protective face coverings and maintaining physical distancing from others outside the house with a minimum six-foot buffer.

"We have control over the virus in our community, Dr. Mark Escott, the interim Austin-Travis health authority, said in a prepared statement. "Unlike a weather forecast, the UT modeling can be changed by our behavior. We can change our pandemic forecast by avoiding gatherings, wearing masks, washing our hands, and social distancing.”

The advisory comes days after Austin Mayor Steve Adler revealed the region may be placed under the highest alert level warning of illness spread — the red-colored Stage 5 tier — amid bolstered rates of coronavirus. Days after Travis County surpassed the 500-mark in cumulative deaths blamed on the coronavirus, Adler said health officials are bracing for a potential surge of illness ahead of the holiday season that may prompt the move to a Stage 5 alert level with attendant rules of behavior designed to thwart further spread.

Symptoms and Care page

"At this rate, in just several days, this pandemic will be the third leading cause of death in our community," Austin Mayor Steve Adler said on Dec. 12. "We're entering the early stages of what looks like a considerable virus surge. Moving the region to red alert status would be triggered when the county exceeds 50 daily hospital admissions as a seven-day average, the mayor explained. "We're almost on top of that now," he said.

City officials telegraphed their concern on Friday, when the 7-day moving average of hospital admissions hit 50. "Unfortunately, the key indicators for risk stage changes, including the 7-day moving average of hospitalizations, number of patients in the ICU, ventilator use, positivity rate, and 7-day moving average of cases are all trending upward," officials wrote in an advisory.
"The next couple days of data from the key indicators dashboard and the projections from the UT Modeling Consortium will be critical as we consider moving stages, and we will be closely monitoring the trends."

Officials added: "Many of the key indicators have been trending poorly in the month of December and are cause for concern." To buttress the assessment, statistics from Friday were outlined:

  • 7-day moving average of new COVID-19 cases: 409 (75 percent increase since Dec. 1).

  • 7-day moving average of new COVID-19 hospitalizations: 50 (67 percent increase since Dec. 1).

  • 7-day moving average of hospital beds utilized for COVID-19 patients: 298 (37 percent increase since Dec. 1).

  • 7-day moving average of COVID-19 ICU inpatients: 90 (20 percent increase since Dec. 1).

"Throughout this pandemic, Austin-Travis County kept our COVID-19 numbers comparatively low not by accident or luck, but through community engagement and action," officials wrote. "Once again, the actions we take in the coming days and weeks can either move us in the right direction or in the direction of a deadly surge like those we have seen across Texas."

The Austin region currently is under the penultimate, orange-colored Stage 4 of the health district's COVID-19 Risk-Based Guidelines. Moving the region under the highest Stage 5 level would yield broader restrictions to blunt the spread of illness. Officials describe scenarios under each alert level:

  • Stage 4: Includes the recommendations for Stage 3 and advises individuals to avoid non-essential travel. Businesses are recommended to operate up to 25 percent to 50 percent capacity.

  • Stage 5: Includes the recommendations for Stage 4 and urges individuals to avoid all gatherings outside the household and avoid dining and shopping except as essential. Businesses are recommended to only operate through contactless options such as curbside and delivery.

Additional protective measures are recommended for people at higher risk, namely those aged over 65 or people with diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, lung disease, kidney disease, obesity or those who are otherwise immunocompromised, according to the guidelines.

For example, higher-risk individuals are urged to avoid dining and shopping except with precautions, and avoid gatherings of more than 25 people — even at the lowest Stage 1 level. As the stages progress from 1 through 4, higher-risk individuals are advised to limit the size of their gatherings, and their dining and shopping, to a greater extent than lower-risk individuals, according to the guidelines. However, by Stage 5, all individuals are advised to limit their activities and exposure to the same degree, whatever the condition of their health, health officials advise.

Faith Leaders Encourage COVID-19 Safety and Unity

Despite the governor's past order calling for unfettered access to worship services amid the pandemic, faith leaders across the city have offered something of a special dispensation enabling the faithful to attend services remotely. Such advice from religious leaders was issued despite a letter by Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton in May sent to three counties, including Travis, and the mayors of Austin and San Antonio categorizing some requirements in their local public health orders designed to blunt the spread of illness as "unlawful" and potentially running afoul of religious liberties.

Despite such politically driven advisories, faith leaders across Austin recorded an interfaith message of unity during COVID-19 that can be seen by clicking here. The advice urges the faithful to consider the dangers posed by attenging large gatherings, including those seen during worship services.

Coronavirus testing sites in the Austin area

Austin Public Health operates several COVID-19 testing sites throughout Austin. You can sign-up for a test through the Public Testing Enrollment Form or through the Nursing Hotline (512-972-5560). When calling the Hotline press 1 for English, 2 for Spanish, 3 for Vietnamese and other languages. Hotline hours are Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. and Saturday from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. For more information, visit the city's COVID-19 Information portal.

Additionally, the Texas Department of Emergency Management has partnered with Austin Public Health and the City of Pflugerville to operate a Downtown Pflugerville COVID-19 testing site at 103 N. Railroad Ave., operating Monday, Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays from 7 a.m. to 1 p.m. and Tuesdays and Thursdays from 1 p.m. to 6 p.m. Those with questions about this site, including test results, should contact the onsite testing team at 1-833-213-0643.

The Pflugerville site will be open on Christmas Eve and closed on Christmas Day, open on New Year's Eve and closed on New Year's Day. What you need to know before visiting the site:

  • This site has a capacity to test 300 people per day and is a walk-up testing site with no preregistration.

  • Testing is free, and you do not have to be a Pflugerville resident to receive a test.

  • The COVID-19 test utilized at the site is a PCR test with a cheek swab.

  • The entrance for the testing site is on FM 1825/E. Pecan Street near El Rincon, and exit is to Railroad Avenue. Click here for a map showing how to access the site.

Austin-Area Coronavirus Testing Sites Map

This is a map showing the location of each coronavirus testing site across the Austin area.

Moreover, Austin Public Health and CommUnityCare operate testing options for those who do not have insurance or a primary care physician. Those who do should contact their doctor’s office or insurer for private assessment and testing options. Testing is available at private sites around Austin, including through hospitals, at pharmacies, or at urgent care centers.

Drive Up Testing Sites & Info (Greater Austin Area) 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.

All Eastern Travis County Sites below are open from 8:30 a.m. - 4:30 p.m.

  • Monday, Wednesday, Friday: Hornsby Bend Health Center, 14312 Hunters Bend Road, Austin, TX 78725

    • This site requires you to call ahead for an arrival time. Please call 512-978-8881.

  • Monday, Friday: Turner Roberts Recreation Center, 7201 Colony Loop Dr., Austin, TX 78724 (at Gym) Wednesday – Manor Senior High, 14832 FM 973, Manor, TX 78653

Things to Know

For more information, call the COVID-19 hotline at 512-978-8775. No appointment or doctor referral is needed. Testing is done in your vehicle or walk ups are also accepted. Testing is free if uninsured, and will be billed to insurers directly for those with coverage.

For more information, visit the city's COVID-19 Information portal.

This article originally appeared on the Austin Patch