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Without rapid behavior change, city heads for stage 5 shutdown

Tuesday, June 30, 2020 by Ryan Thornton

After a record number of Covid-19 cases reported over the weekend, the city is urging residents to comply with requirements for social distancing, personal hygiene and wearing masks over the July 4 weekend in an effort to avoid pushing the region into stage 5 (red) of virus spread and requiring a prolonged citywide shutdown.

“The hope is that we can put in place measures to slow transmission that are effective before we get to the point where we have to enact a stricter measure,” said Lauren Ancel Meyers, leader of the Covid-19 Modeling Consortium and professor at the University of Texas.

The city has been under a stage 4 (orange) alert for the past two weeks, but the growing surge in both cases and hospitalizations could push the city to the next stage, threatening the area’s total hospital bed and health care personnel capacity as soon as mid-July.

The seven-day moving average hospitalization rate has multiplied by five since June 1 under Gov. Greg Abbott’s containment approach, resulting in an average of 53.4 new admissions as of Monday compared to the average of 10.4 on June 1. With records of 728 cases reported between Friday and Saturday, 636 on Sunday and 508 new cases Monday, Austin Public Health interim Medical Director Dr. Mark Escott said Austin is in a “very, very dangerous spot right now,” quickly approaching the stage 5 threshold of an average of 70 daily hospital admissions.

In order to open up schools in the fall and avoid overwhelming the city’s health care facilities, Meyers said there needs to be immediate mass compliance with current stage 4 guidelines, which includes avoiding social gatherings of more than 10 people, consistently wearing masks when conducting essential business and regularly washing hands. Failing that, Meyers said a 35-day stage 5 shutdown followed by several months of stage 4 guidelines is likely in order to contain the spread.

“We’ve seen two models that let us open up schools in the fall and both of them require us to be able to do orange really well, which is everybody masks, everybody socially distances,” Mayor Steve Adler said. “One scenario has us doing it right now … or we can’t do it right away and we have to psych ourselves up to actually have the discipline … in which case we have to do a red shutdown.”

Red alert guidelines include avoiding social gatherings of all sizes outside the home as well as all dining and shopping except for essential purposes.

With Abbott now allowing the city to require masks and deciding to close bars across the state, Escott said there is reason to believe the state would now be supportive of stricter measures if cases and hospitalizations continue to rise in Austin and other major cities.

Escott assured City Council that there should be enough hospital bed capacity for at least another two or three weeks even under current trends, but that the total number of beds won’t be the primary issue as cases keep rising.

“It’s the people who provide care for those beds that is going to be the issue, because those people have to come from somewhere,” Escott said. “So we are going to be relying on nurses, physicians, others who can be flexed into the hospitals or into the alternate care sites if we have to use them. That may mean military personnel need to be requested to help staff hospitals.”

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