photo by Quest Diagnostics

The enrollment form will help Austin Public Health focus limited resources and track where cases are clustering. (Quest Diagnostics)

Austin Public Health will debut an enrollment form next week that will screen residents for COVID-19 testing, allowing them to bypass an appointment with a physician to get the necessary referral to a testing site. Physicians will still be able to refer patients to testing outside of the city's new system.

Austin-Travis County Interim Health Authority Dr. Mark Escott said during a virtual press conference earlier today that the form will make testing access more equitable across the city and also allow APH to better track test capacity, interest and results.

"We do expect a significant increase in those who sign up for testing because we're decreasing that barrier," Dr. Escott said.

The enrollment form will help APH focus its limited resources—such as test kits and personal protective equipment—and track where cases are clustering. While improved surveillance was touted as a benefit of this new system, Dr. Escott said the information collected from patients is confidential.

"We want people to be comfortable in sharing that information and signing up for testing," he said.

With more laboratories processing test kits and the rollout of rapid testing—expected to ramp up in the coming months—the new form system should increase access to tests and improve turnaround times, Dr. Escott said, adding that some people wait as long as 14 days to receive test results.

"It'll provide us better information—quicker information—which allows us to respond and isolate people quicker," he said.

The city's effort to flatten the curve appears to be working, Dr. Escott said. Yesterday, the number of cases in Travis County surpassed 1,000, but the doubling rate—or the amount of time it takes for the caseload to double—has slowed significantly, from two days last month to 10 days currently.

Area hospitals still have plenty of capacity to treat patients with COVID-19, Dr. Escott said.

As of last night, 79 people were hospitalized with COVID-19 in the five-county area, which includes Travis, Williamson, Bastrop, Caldwell and Hays. Of those, 39 patients are in intensive care and 30 are hooked up to ventilators.

Researchers at the University of Texas-Austin who have worked on modeling the spread of COVID-19 estimate that, in this five-county area, the total daily hospital capacity is 3,239 beds and the total daily ventilator capacity is 675 machines.

Dr. Escott indicated that this new system could help prepare for the reopening of local businesses.

"As we open the window to the economy again it's important for us to be able to continue to track folks effectively, to make sure that we're reaching out to them often to check on their status and that we know who they've had contact with," he said during the press conference. "This system … really helps cover all those bases to ensure that we do reopen the economy, gently, progressively, [and that] we do that safely."

On Monday, local elected officials extended the "Stay Home-Work Safe" orders through May 8.

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