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New COVID-19 cases and hospital admissions continue to rise in Austin, but local health officials provided two reasons to be optimistic.

ICU occupancy across the Austin metro is down significantly compared to the surge that occurred in June and July, which they attributed to improved treatment options. Travis County is also doing better than any other large county in Texas when it comes to mitigating disease spread.

"There is not something magical about Travis County," Austin-Travis County Interim Health Authority Dr. Mark Escott said on Tuesday. "We don't have a force field around us."

Instead, he said Austinites' commitment to protective measures—masking, social distancing and hand-washing—has helped inoculate our region from the catastrophic surge seen in El Paso and other Texas jurisdictions.

A positive sign

Travis County is reporting, on average, 301 new confirmed COVID cases each day, up from 232 a week ago. Similarly, the five-county Austin metro is seeing 35 new COVID-related hospital admissions each day, on average, compared to 32 last week.

It will likely take another week to ascertain the full impact of Thanksgiving gatherings, Escott said, and to determine whether the current trend lines will flatten out or continue to rise.

In comparing the current surge to the one that occurred in June and July—which was about twice as severe at its peak—there is a key difference. Although hospitalizations are on the rise, ICU capacity is about 50% greater than it was at this stage during the summer surge.

This change is due to improved clinical outcomes, Escott said.

Doctors are better able to manage COVID patients outside of the ICU setting and have more treatment options—including convalescent plasma, monoclonal antibodies and antiviral drugs such as remdesivir—in their arsenal.

"That's great," Escott said, adding that ICU capacity is the "weight-limiting step" because of limited personnel at area hospitals.

The Austin metro's three hospital systems—Ascension Seton, Baylor Scott & White Health and St. David's HealthCare—reported a combined ICU occupancy rate of 87% on Friday.

Escott said this shouldn't give rise to alarm as hospital ICUs typically operate with an occupancy rate between 80% and 95%. Additionally, the hospital systems' leadership have said they are not concerned about capacity at this time.

"That doesn't mean that we shouldn't be careful," Escott said. "But our hospitals are in good shape locally."

Other jurisdictions

Compared to other large Texas counties, Travis County has reported the fewest active cases and cumulative deaths per capita over the course of the pandemic.

El Paso County is reporting more than 103 confirmed cases per 1,000 people, Dallas County nearly 50 confirmed cases and Harris County nearly 40, according to data compiled by the Texas Department of State Health Services.

Travis County is reporting just over 31 confirmed cases per 1,000 people.

Escott estimated that, by avoiding the surge seen in El Paso and Lubbock counties, the Austin area has prevented more than 1,500 deaths.

To maintain this, he and other local health officials stressed the importance of adhering to local pandemic recommendations.

The Austin area is currently at Stage 4, according to Austin Public Health's risk-based guidelines. At this stage, local health officials recommend that individuals at high risk or who live in households with people who are avoid gatherings as well as non-essential activities, such as dining out and shopping.

For everyone else, Escott emphasized that the real risk lies in gathering with people outside of your household without masks. Activities that allow for masking or limit interaction to those in one's pod are considered less dangerous at this stage.

"It is safe for people to go to a restaurant and have a meal with their family members and take their masks off while they're eating," he said.


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