The rate of new coronavirus infections and hospitalizations in Austin has recently plateaued or even trended downward, but it’s still too soon relax local orders intended to slow the spread of the virus, health officials say, especially with the school year approaching.
The decline in data that began this week marks the first time since early June that local health officials did not see substantial spikes in cases. From June 9 through July 8, the number of new hospitalizations in Travis County exploded: The seven-day average rose from 11.3 to 75.1. From July 9, the average leveled off to around 70, where it stayed for 10 days. Earlier this week, the number fell to 65.3, then to 63.4.
Despite the apparent good news, interim Austin-Travis County Health Authority Dr. Mark Escott said continued vigilance and adherence to social distancing and face covering orders remain critical to keep the community safe and avoid another surge in cases when kids return to school, more sectors of the city reopen and businesses increase capacity.
“Now’s not the time to dance. Now’s the time to remain cautious,” Escott said. “We’re certainly pleased that the numbers aren’t going up, but they haven’t gone down very much yet, and we don’t want the message to be, ’Now it’s time to celebrate and go out and be among friends.’ It’s not that time yet.”
Health officials are cautiously optimistic and will monitor case numbers in the coming days to see if they will continue to fall or tick up again after the Fourth of July holiday, which is now a little more than one 14-day incubation period behind us, Austin Public Health Chief Epidemiologist Janet Pichette said.
“Following Memorial Day and other large events like that, we saw the opposite trend occur. I’m hoping that the governor’s orders and our orders within the city of Austin for mask use (and) closing our parks may have had a positive impact on our community, and I’m hoping that’s the case,” Pichette said.
Escott said if Austin comes out of the next week without seeing a new bounce in cases, the community will have avoided a significant outbreak during the holiday weekend.
Local health officials and school district leaders now must prepare to reopen schools in the safest way possible or risk another outbreak, Escott said.
Pichette warned of a similar situation during the H1N1 flu outbreak in 2009 that saw a first wave in the spring and summer months, then a second, larger wave when school went back into session.
“We don’t want to see history repeat itself from that perspective,” she said.
Escott said he and other health officials agree that kids need to be in school, but the city, county and state can’t afford to approach the fall semester without adequate planning.
Because the coronavirus remains a largely unknown virus, scientists still don’t know much about how it can affect young children, and how effective they are as transmitters of the disease, Escott said.
“We can’t allow schools to undergo the same process that happened with businesses, where we opened them up without plans and we sort of developed the plans along the way,” he said. “I think if we do that, if we move too quickly. We’re going to be in a situation where we’re going to have multiple school outbreaks. And the schools will be closed again.”