A COVID-Cautious Christmas

Officials urge vigilance as more health workers receive vaccine

Last week Ascension Seton administered its first COVID-19 vaccines to frontline health care workers at four Austin-area hospitals (Courtesy of Ascension Seton)

As COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations continue to rise locally, Austin Public Health leaders are urging residents to avoid gathering outside of their households this holiday season. Health officials continue to cite the outsized impact of Thanksgiving gatherings on the spread of disease in Central Texas. As of Dec. 21, cases are up 86% since the beginning of the month, according to Interim Health Authority Dr. Mark Escott. While Austin's positivity rate has fluctuated little over the last two weeks – hovering just under 9% – the seven-day moving average for COVID hospitalizations crept up to just above 50 in the data reported Monday, Dec. 22, which is now the threshold of Stage 5 of APH's revised Risk-Based Guidelines. APH officials will continue using that as their primary indicator as they weigh Austin's risk stage. Should they announce a move into Stage 5, officials have floated the possibility of a curfew as well as asking schools to eliminate or scale back extracurricular activities where social distancing and mask-wearing may not be feasible.

Officials urge vigilance as more health workers receive vaccine

In the meantime, they're once again asking Austinites to limit nonessential travel, wear face masks, and designate one person per household to run errands. "Regardless of if we're in Stage 5 or Stage 4 this Christmas week, it's important to know that we still have to decrease our risk – decrease our personal risks, decrease the risk of our household, and decrease the risk for our community," said Escott in a Dec. 21 press conference.

Vigilance remains imperative as Austin-Travis County area providers continue to receive more COVID-19 vaccines from both Pfizer and Moderna. Last week eight Travis County providers received 13,650 initial doses of the Pfizer vaccine; this week, following the U.S. Food and Drug Admini­stra­tion's emergency use authorization of the Moderna vaccine on Dec. 18, the Austin area is set to receive 25,425 doses of the two vaccines, according to Cassandra DeLeon, interim APH assistant director.

Last week some EMTs and paramedics with Austin-Travis County Emergency Med­ical Services (including Escott, who remains EMS's medical director), the Austin Fire Department, and various Travis County fire departments began receiving vaccines sooner than expected, thanks to UT-Austin's vaccination operation. Still, these 39,075 doses aren't enough to cover all of Austin's health care workers, of whom Escott estimates there are around 80,000. Nor will that number of vaccines have a substantial impact on the rise in cases and hospitalizations. "What it has the potential to do is help us on the staffing side," Escott explained. "As we have hospital staff, our paramedics, and first responders increasingly immunized against COVID-19, our hope is that we're going to see less impact in terms of absenteeism associated with COVID-19."

Local health officials have yet to specify what vaccine rollout would look like for the next round, but have cited higher-risk populations, like adults ages 50 and older, as a primary concern; 94% of those who have died from COVID-19 complications locally were over the age of 50, and 82% were 60 and above. This week, COVID-19 will become the third leading cause of death in Travis County, said Escott.

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Austin Public Health, Mark Escott, Risk-Based Guidelines, Pfizer vaccine, Moderna vaccine, Cassandra DeLeon, COVID-19

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