The Austin Chronicle

Austin Identifies Area's First COVID-19 Cases

By Austin Sanders and Margaret Nicklas, March 13, 2020, 8:30am, Newsdesk

Austin Interim Health Authority Dr. Mark Escott announced today, March 13, that COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, has come to Travis County.

Two people presumed to have contracted the virus are currently in the Austin area; a man in his 60s who has been hospitalized, and a woman in her 30s who is self-quarantining at home. Austin health officials are awaiting testing from the Centers for Disease Control to determine if they are confirmed cases; they expect those results to return in a few days.

The cases are, at this time, believed to not be a result of community spread – meaning, the two people likely interacted with someone in another community who has the virus. The man was transported here from a rural hospital elsewhere in the state. Escott declined to say what area that man had come from or what hospital he was currently in. Later, St. David's HealthCare announced the man was in critical condition at St. David's Medical Center in Central Austin.

The woman is "epidemiologically linked" to a case in Montgomery County, north of Houston; Escott said officials there notified him that she was a person under investigation, leading to the follow-up, monitoring and testing locally. At this point, said Austin Public Health Chief Epidemiologist Janet Pichette, her staff will do “contact tracing” to identify and follow up with individuals with whom the woman has been in contact. The woman is isolated with other people in the household; they are not currently showing symptoms.

“This is concerning but not surprising and we have been prepared for the arrival of COVID-19 in our area,” Escott said in a press statement. “It is critical that the community continue to heed our recommendations and take personal hygiene seriously. This will be the key to ensuring that this virus doesn’t spread.” Reiterating that younger, healthier people are less likely to experience severe symptoms, he encouraged people to be responsible about seeking medical attention: “We have to avoid overtaxing our health care system with folks flooding hospitals and ERs who don’t need to be there,” he said,

At a City Hall press conference, outgoing Travis County Judge Sarah Eckhardt noted that the confirmed cases elevate the efforts of local health officials to Phase 3 in a five-phase crisis response. “In Phase 3 we design plans and in phase 4 we implement them,” Eckhardt said, but did not provide details on what those plans could be. Escott also said he continues to work on public orders – like those issued on Wednesday that require restrictions on visitors to nursing homes – and expected to release more in the coming days.

Escott said it was important to understand the level of risk generally in the community and the risks for each person individually. “If you’re over the age of 65, if you have significant health conditions, you need to be less tolerant of going out into crowded settings [such as] restaurants, bars and other venues where you might have a chance of contacting a sick person. If you’re young and healthy, there should be less of a concern.”

Though not required to do so by Austin Public Health, Austin ISD responded to the news by closing down schools and district operations Friday, the day before spring break was set to begin. The district has not announced a decision on extending spring break — a measure that Texas universities and K-12 systems around the state have taken in recent days. In an email to parents and staff, a district spokesperson wrote that they would continue to monitor the situation and “provide additional operational updates as necessary.”

The University of Texas at Austin also announced that it wound be cancelling classes and closing down campus operations on Friday. “Essential personnel” should continue to work, UT officials said, to help with response to the virus. Austin Community College and St. Edward's University have also cancelled classes.

Yesterday, March 12, Rodeo Austin and Luck Reunion announced that they would be cancelling their planned events as well.

The order issued by Escott on Wednesday requires that some 300 area nursing homes, assisted living and other long-term care facilities implement new procedures to protect their elderly and vulnerable populations. The elderly, especially those over 70, and people who have underlying health conditions, face the highest risk of severe illness and death from COVID-19. There are approximately 80,000 people over age 70 in this community, Escott said.

Based on the new mandate, facilities must be secure and must screen all visitors, volunteers, employees and new residents or patients for unexplained fever at 100.4◦F or above. Facilities will not be allowed to admit anyone with such a fever that is not attributable to other illness. Law enforcement would be brought in if necessary to gain compliance, Escott said.

This is a developing story.

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