Omicron Rising in Austin

Amidst latest surge, one in three Austinites getting tested is positive for COVID

Cars line up for a pop-up COVID-19 testing site in South Austin on Dec. 23 (Photo by Jana Birchum)

Less than one week after Austin returned to Stage 4 of the local COVID-19 Risk-Based Guidelines, the local state of COVID has once again reached alarming levels. As the Chronicle went to press on Jan.5, health officials had not declared Austin in Stage 5 – the strictest level of risk precautions – though metrics had already entered Stage 5 territory.

The highly transmissible Omicron variant is the main driver behind Austin's current surge, said Health Authority Dr. Desmar Walkes during a joint briefing before Austin City Council and the Travis County Commissioners Court earlier this week. Currently, Omicron accounts for more than 80% of Austin's COVID cases, she said. Austin's upward trajectory in COVID cases and hospitalizations because of Omicron follows similar spikes already seen statewide and across the United States, the latter of which broke the global daily record for new cases with 1.08 million cases reported by the Johns Hopkins University Coronavirus Resource Center on Monday.

Besides vaccination and booster shots, Austin Public Health is urging residents – regardless of vaccination status – to recommit to masking while around those outside their household, especially while indoors.

As of Wed., Jan. 5, the local seven-day moving average for COVID-19 hospitalizations stood at 74 – a 164% jump from the same average this time last week. Prior to the arrival of Omicron in Austin and Travis County, around 60-70% of patients hospitalized for COVID reported being unvaccinated. That number has since dropped to 50%. However, Walkes said, the number of hospitalizations includes both those who are admitted for COVID-related reasons and also people who are admitted for other reasons but happen to test positive for the novel coronavirus.

"This has been going on throughout the pandemic but we're seeing – anecdotally – that there are more people that are in that second category," said Walkes. There's been a slight increase in the number of people hospitalized with COVID who are vaccinated, too. Between Dec. 27 and Jan. 2, 20% of 375 patients hospitalized with COVID reported being fully vaccinated with an additional dose. Still, vaccines continue to offer the best protection against severe disease and hospitalization, stress local health experts, with boosters improving that protection.

Austin's community transmission rate – the seven-day case rate per 100,000 people – also remains high, increasing between Dec. 30 and Jan. 4 from 405 to 436, which is still considered "high" by Centers for Disease Control and Prevention standards. Just last week, Austin's CTR was outpacing Texas' rate, but as of Jan. 4, the state's CTR stood at an alarming 789. Concerning too is Austin's positivity rate, which is now 29.3%, meaning almost one in three people getting tested for COVID are positive.

"At this point, we have to avert a community-imposed shutdown. There's no plan for mandating anything at this point," said Walkes. "We are working towards a community-driven effort to stop the spread of this virus. And if we work together to do that, we can accomplish it because we've done it before."

Besides vaccination and booster shots, Austin Public Health is urging residents – regardless of vaccination status – to recommit to masking while around those outside their household, especially while indoors. Under Stage 4, fully vaccinated people who have yet to receive their booster shot are recommended to behave under the same guidelines as those who are partially vaccinated or unvaccinated. That means avoiding travel and only shopping and dining if essential. They should also opt for curbside or takeaway options. The community, stressed Walkes, needs to "move from the Stage 2 behavior that we find ourselves in right now [which] has led us to this Stage 5 level of cases."

Meanwhile, testing – both PCR tests and at-home rapid antigen testing – remains in high demand. Last week, Travis County offered free at-home test kits to the community by appointment; the kits ran out within hours. Currently, APH is operating PCR testing sites at the Southeast Library Branch and the Travis County Expo Center, with the addition of a third testing site at Pfluger Hall coming online this week. Adrienne Sturrup, interim director of APH, said there are plans to expand testing options. "We have priced out between the city and the county of what it would cost for us to purchase kits directly from a vendor and we're working that through. We have been working diligently with our corporate purchasing to have a testing contract for turnkey PCR testing to expand the capacity that's in a recurrent community."

If Austin and Travis County residents test positive for COVID through an at-home test, they are encouraged by local health officials to report their results by calling 311.

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COVID-19, Austin Public Health, COVID-19 Risk-Based Guidelines, Stage 4, Stage 5, Desmar Walkes, City Council, Travis County Comissioners Court, COVID-19 hospitalizations, COVID-19 community transmission rate, COVID-19 vaccines, COVID-19 booster, Adrienne Sturrup

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