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New COVID cases decline but more kids test positive, Austin's top health official says
(Austin Public Health)

After a brief plateau, the number of new confirmed COVID cases is declining again in Travis County.

Travis County is once again seeing a decline in the number of new confirmed COVID cases and related hospitalizations after a brief plateau, but more kids are testing positive and being hospitalized with the virus, the county's top health official said Tuesday.


Area hospitals are reporting increased capacity and adequate staffing after two months of operating in surge mode, and the positivity rate among COVID tests conducted by and reported to Austin Public Health is declining.

"Our hope is at this stage, we're pushing past that plateau," Austin-Travis County Interim Health Authority Dr. Mark Escott told county commissioners during their weekly meeting.

But despite the progress, Escott said, there has been an increasing portion of children ages 10-19 testing positive for and being hospitalized with COVID-19. The age group accounted for more than 5% of the positive test results reported Aug. 4-10.

Children ages 10-19 had the highest or second-highest rate of positivity in the county in recent weeks, Escott said.

In the last week, 2.7% of the metro's hospitalizations were among children ages 10-19, which he said was higher than what the metro area had been seeing. It also mirrors national trends, he said, which are attributed to a variety of things including less frequent testing of asymptomatic children.

Nonetheless, Escott said, children ages 10-19 with known exposure should be tested to prevent an additional spread.

"You have seen that across the country there's been a significant increase in the number of school-aged individuals who have contracted COVID-19," Escott said.

School guidance coming

APH will recommend, in guidance coming this week, that area schools resume in-person classes at 25% capacity for the first two to three weeks, an idea that Escott has floated before.

"We want to make sure that the schools can manage the disease spread and new processes with a small number of students before we take on any additional risk," Escott said. "Having said that, I think doing things in a slow and methodical way is going to prevent the surge we may see if we just pack students back into school in August or September."

Continued declines in the number of new cases and hospitalizations are critical if schools are to reopen safely on Sept. 8, Escott said, especially as Labor Day and the prospect of college football games threaten to increase community transmission in the short term.

Although Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton said in recent nonbinding guidance that local health officials don't have the authority to shut down schools due to COVID-19, Escott feels he is within his rights to give his professional opinion.

"From my perspective, I believe I have the legal authority to do that," Escott said.

Disinterest in testing

Escott also noted that interest in testing is declining.

In late July, Austin Public Health was conducting more than 6,000 tests a week. Over the last week or so, however, it has conducted fewer than 1,400 because of a lack of demand. As a result, the department is expanding its free service to some asymptomatic individuals.

Last week, Escott attributed the decline to fewer cases emerging, a side effect of the decline and plateau the area has seen recently.

But residents have also complained in recent weeks about free tests that take days or weeks to return results, along with long lines - either of which may account for part of the decline. APH has reported improvement in both of those areas.

On Tuesday, APH discouraged employers from requiring employees to provide proof of multiple negative test results as a condition of returning to work.

This places an "unnecessary financial burden on the employee," APH said.

Instead, individuals who have had COVID should stay home at least 10 days following the onset of symptoms before returning to work, according to CDC recommendations.

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