Austin sees slight decline in COVID numbers—but it's still too early to tell the impact of Thanksgiving gatherings
After weeks of warnings, advisories and even an emergency text alert from local health officials, Austin's COVID-19 caseload appears to be on a post-Thanksgiving decline.
However, as was the case with past holidays, it will likely take two weeks before the full impact of Thanksgiving gatherings is revealed in local data.
The average number of new confirmed cases reported each day in Travis County is 230, down from 300 a week ago, according to Austin Public Health data. The average number of new COVID-related hospital admissions reported each day in the Austin metro is also falling; it is now 32, down from 38 a week ago.
The COVID-19 Modeling Consortium at the University of Texas at Austin projects a declining number of hospital admissions, on average, in the coming weeks and reports a 4% decline in the number of cases reported in the metro over the last two weeks. The consortium's model uses hospitalization data as well as anonymized cell phone mobility data to make its projections.
Although not the same data source used by the consortium, Google publishes regular COVID-19 community mobility reports. The latest one for Travis County, published on Nov. 24, shows a mixed bag when it comes to residents' behavior in the lead-up to the Thanksgiving holiday. Trips to retail and recreation locations, parks, transit stations and workplaces were all down compared to the baseline. But trips to the grocery store, pharmacy and residences were up.
As with past holidays, such as Memorial Day and the Fourth of July, it's still too early to tell whether Thanksgiving gatherings will contribute to a spike in cases—or mark a turning point in Austin's current surge. Experts have said it typically takes two weeks between transmission and the time that cases are confirmed by test results.
Local health officials issued repeated warnings ahead of Thanksgiving, warning Austinites of the growing surge of new COVID cases and pointing to other jurisdictions, where hospital capacity has already been overwhelmed.
"We are not immune from a tragedy like El Paso's," Austin-Travis County Interim Health Authority Dr. Mark Escott said in a statement earlier this month. "And like El Paso, we could be facing a rapidly growing surge between Thanksgiving and Christmas with Stage 5 a few weeks away."
After a months-long hiatus, Austin's three hospital systems—Ascension Seton, Baylor Scott & White Health and St. David's HealthCare—recently began offering hospital capacity updates on a regular basis. As of the last update, which was provided on Wednesday, the metro's overall hospital occupancy rate is 74% and its ICUs are 82% occupied.
Just dropped my wife Clarissa off at the airport, on her way to El Paso, where they desperately need help from hosp… https://t.co/Kpkt2QIuKf— Clay Johnston (@Clay Johnston)1606704942.0
APH issued post-Thanksgiving guidelines on Friday, recommending that residents continue to avoid higher-risk activities, such as indoor gatherings with people outside of their households and travel.
For those who did gather over Thanksgiving, APH recommends getting tested on Monday or Tuesday and staying home for at least a week as a precaution, even if the test results are negative.
The department also recommended that area school districts temporarily return to remote learning for the week following Thanksgiving. Austin ISD heeded the advice; some campuses in the Del Valle, Manor and Round Rock school districts temporarily closed in recent weeks due to outbreaks. UT Austin students will not return to campus until the spring semester.
The COVID-19 Modeling Consortium estimated last week, in its latest update, that there was a 54% chance that at least one person would arrive with a COVID infection for a school or pod of 100 people in Travis County. The larger the school or pod size, the greater the chance of spread.
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