Officials Express Concern, Not Fear, as Austin Events Face Possible Spread of Coronavirus

Austin Public Health delivers update on Travis County preparedness

l-r: Councilmembers Alison Alter, Kathie Tovo, and Ann Kitchen; Austin Public Health Interim Director Dr. Mark Escott (at podium); Austin Mayor Steve Adler; Travis County Judge Sarah Eckhardt; City Manager Spencer Cronk; and interpreter at Wednesday’s press conference.

In addressing the Travis County Commissioners Court on Tuesday, March 3, interim Austin Health Authority Dr. Mark Escott began with a personal anecdote about going to vote that morning – then using hand sanitizer.

Adding some levity to what has become a tense topic across the nation and locally, Escott updated commissioners on Austin and Travis County's preparedness and response to the "novel coronavirus" that causes COVID-19. The virus has killed thousands in China, and recently, has caused the deaths of at least nine people, mostly elderly, in Washington state. Although there may come a day when Austinites will need to avoid congregating in public places due to COVID-19, Escott said, "Today is not that day."

Local preparations have been ramping up since at least Feb. 5, when Austin Public Health began monitoring travelers identified by the Centers for Disease Control who were deemed at risk of possible exposure to the virus. Until this week, none had shown symptoms or required testing for COVID-19. But on Tuesday, Escott announced that APH does have one or more persons "under investigation" – in other words, being tested for COVID-19. He declined to give additional details, but said APH should have results from the CDC in 24 to 48 hours, as the Chronicle went to press.

Up until now, local public health officials have emphasized that they don't foresee disruptions to March events including South by Southwest and Rodeo Austin due to the virus. They want the public to think of it as they would the flu, and to take basic precautions to avoid getting sick.

At another press briefing Wednesday at City Hall, Escott shared no additional news about those being tested for COVID-19 and emphasized they may not have the virus. He said APH, advised by a panel of outside experts, would likely recommend some types of precautions or measures short of cancelling mass gatherings, such as looking at ways to reduce density at events. He emphasized that organizers with SXSW have worked closely with APH and most recently agreed to screen employees and volunteers for fever. Escott said that if the conference and festivals were canceled, there was concern that people would come to the city anyway but would not have the "structure" provided by SXSW around hygiene and handwashing. He added that cancellation could have other health repercussions "downstream" for those who depend on the festival for income.

In a call Feb. 28, APH public information manager Jen Samp said she was not overly concerned about COVID-19. "We are more worried about the flu, which has killed 4 people in Travis County and we have not even hit the peak of flu season yet," Samp said. Even so, the department has stepped up efforts to distribute information, given that COVID-19 is so new. "We heightened our education and outreach even more, just because people don't know about this virus," Samp said. The department has been publicizing its hygiene and hand-washing campaign among city departments, businesses, schools, churches, and elsewhere in the community – which could help prevent both diseases. "Being able to have the same messaging as flu during a new virus like COVID-19 is the best way to have people to protect themselves from any kind of disease right now," Samp said.

But recent developments are fueling greater public concern. Late last week, the CDC updated and broadened its guidelines for who should be tested for the virus, to include patients with no known high-risk travel or contact histories under certain circumstances, even as the first case of apparent "community transmission" of COVID-19 was discovered in California. Within days, it became clear that an outbreak of the disease was in full swing in Kirkland, near Seattle, at a skilled nursing facility where most of those who have died were residents.

Closer to home, a traveler who had been ill with the virus and quarantined in San Antonio was recalled by the CDC and placed back under quarantine after being briefly released. A statement published the city of San Antonio included information attributed to the CDC which acknowledged that "the cycle of infection with COVID-19 is not yet well understood," and added that "this is an unfolding situation with many unknowns. CDC is making decisions on a case-by-case basis using the best available science at the time."

With so much uncertainty, many remain uneasy about what COVID-19 will mean for big events launching this month in Austin, despite reassurances by public health authorities.

Rob Golding is the CEO for Rodeo Austin, an event that attracted 300,000* visitors last year. "In simple terms, I'm concerned about it. I'm not scared. I am concerned that frankly we don't know where this is headed, how quickly and how extreme it might be," Golding said. The nonprofit already takes public health and public safety very seriously, he said, citing investments in on-site sanitation facilities and contracted teams of EMS and law enforcement that have been in place for years. As an added measure, the event will post additional signage on hygiene being recommended by Austin Public Health. Golding is also participating in daily briefings from city and county officials to stay on top of what is proving to be a rapidly evolving situation. "We are on very high alert and standby for anything else we may need to do if circumstances suggest that," Golding said.

Escott told commissioners Tuesday he was assembling an expert advisory panel, slated to meet that evening (March 3), to consider "the evidence and the science" around how to handle mass gatherings as well as what special measures might need to be taken to protect vulnerable populations. Fatalities in China and the events in Kirkland indicate that the risk of death jumps significantly from age 60 on. The advisory panel of more than a dozen individuals will be independent (no city employees will serve) and include experts on medicine and health policy as well as representatives from physician and hospital groups, the University of Texas System*, and more, said Matt Lara, a public information specialist for the city's Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Management. That office, along with APH, has been an integral part of the local planning and preparation efforts.

Other local entities responsible for large groups and gatherings, like UT-Austin, also report that they are vigilant in monitoring developments around the disease, but are not changing any plans as of yet. "We, along with many other units across campus, are continuing to monitor the outbreak and have been regularly meeting about it for quite some time. All future decisions will also be a collaborative effort utilizing the expertise of several departments and individuals, including University Health Services, our Campus Safety and Security office and many other units," said Shilpa Bakre, a communications strategist with UT, in an emailed statement.

Meanwhile, Austin ISD may be seeing spring break ahead as a double-edged sword. School is out for the week of March 16, which means a break from congregating kids. But the district is also warning families to be careful about their travel plans, and to check out CDC Traveler Health Notices before heading out of the country.

* Editor's note March 4 4:15pm: Typographical and editing errors regarding Rodeo Austin attendance and the membership of the APH advisory panel have been corrected since initial posting.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS POST

Travis County Commissioners Court, Mark Escott, novel coronavirus, COVID-19, Austin Public Health, Centers for Disease Control, South by Southwest, Rodeo Austin, Jen Samp, Rob Golding, University of Texas System, U.S. Department of Veteran Affai

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