Austin Public Health on Tuesday moved the community to Stage 3 of the agency’s risk-based COVID-19 guidelines, allowing many Travis County residents to safely unmask while shopping and dining indoors.
But Austin-Travis County Health Authority Dr. Desmar Walkes, who announced the positive change during a joint Austin City Council and Travis County Commissioners Court meeting Tuesday, still urged the public to be cautious while moving forward into the fall and winter seasons.
“Now is not the time to let our guard down,” Walkes said in a statement. “While our numbers are dramatically better than they were at the peak of this surge, we need to remain committed with the widespread, highly transmissible delta variant.”
Health experts have blamed the most recent surge in coronavirus cases on the potent combination of the delta variant and a significant population of unvaccinated residents. But now hospitals are girding against a much older threat: flu season.
“Flu season is just beginning, and it will not take much to trigger another surge of cases and overburden our hospital systems again. Get vaccinated. Get tested. And, stay home if you are sick,” Walkes said.
Austin Public Health’s risk-based guidelines range from Stage 1 up to Stage 5, with Stage 5 indicating the highest threat level for community spread of the coronavirus. Each stage is partly determined using the rolling weekly average of new daily hospital admissions for COVID-19.
On Tuesday, the county recorded 19 new hospital admissions for COVID-19, which brought the weekly average to 20.
Stage 3 territory is when the rolling average stays between 15 and 30, according to Austin Public Health.
Under Stage 3 guidelines, health leaders say it is now safe enough for anyone fully vaccinated to shop and dine indoors and gather outdoors without wearing a mask if social distancing can occur. Even those who are at high risk for severe symptoms of COVID-19 but are fully vaccinated could safely shop indoors and gather outdoors without a face covering if they can socially distance while doing so.
For unvaccinated people, Stage 3 would allow them to safely shop, dine, travel and gather with others both indoors and outdoors if masked. Those at high risk and unvaccinated should gather, travel, shop and dine only if essential and while masked.
In July, Walkes, pointing to the highly contagious delta variant as the driver of a new summer surge, implored residents regardless of vaccination status to wear masks in public as cases started increasing. Austin and Travis County moved into Stage 5 of the agency’s risk-based guidelines in early August after the area began to see a steady increase in COVID-19 hospitalizations.
At the start of September, hospitals reported zero remaining intensive care unit beds for an 11-county trauma service area with 2.3 million people, including those living in the Austin metro area.
Walkes at the time said some patients who needed critical care were being treated outside the trauma service area, while others had to be transferred several counties away to find an empty bed and be treated for serious medical needs such as car wreck injuries, heart attacks and strokes, as well as the coronavirus.
Austin has come a long way since the summer, with Austin Public Health on Tuesday tracking only 206 people in the hospital with COVID-19, an improvement over the pandemic record high of 653 patients set Aug. 25.
As many as 89 people on Tuesday were in Austin-area ICUs for COVID-19. That number hit a pandemic record high of 237 on Aug. 22. The 63 patients on ventilators remained a significant improvement over the pandemic record high of 174 set Aug. 29.
Travis County vaccination rates also continue to improve. As of Tuesday, 81.57% of county residents 12 and older have received at least one dose of vaccine. About 71.73% of county residents 12 and older are fully vaccinated.
Read More: Austin area moves to Stage 3 safety guidelines as COVID cases decline