(Pexels)

Travis County is now in Stage 4 according to Austin Public Health's risk-based guidelines, and local officials have asked businesses to limit their capacity to at least 50% in an attempt to avoid the "catastrophic surge" seen in other Texas jurisdictions.

"None of us want to close businesses. None of us want to close schools," Austin-Travis County Interim Health Authority Dr. Mark Escott said during a press conference on Thursday. "That is an absolute last resort for us."


Texas Gov. Greg Abbott ruled out "any more lockdowns" last week, according to the Texas Tribune, prompting some pushback from local officials in the most affected areas.

Since Nov. 1, Travis County has reported a 130% increase in the average number of new COVID cases reported each day. Meanwhile, the average number of new COVID-related hospitalizations each day has nearly doubled.

With no change in the current transmission rate, the Austin metro could see demand for ICU beds more than triple its current capacity by March, according to updated projections from the COVID-19 Modeling Consortium at the University of Texas Austin.

Although the Austin area is faring better relative to other Texas metros, including El Paso and Dallas, local health officials are concerned that Thanksgiving gatherings will further accelerate transmission.

"It's effectively Labor Day and Memorial Day and Independence Day combined into one big event," Escott said, noting that Thanksgiving poses "the most significant risk" seen since the pandemic began.

At Stage 4, Austin Public Health recommends residents to avoid any non-essential travel and businesses operate at 25% to 50% capacity. Higher-risk individuals, including those over 65 or who have preexisting conditions, are also encouraged to avoid gatherings of more than two people.

"If we don't take the steps to change now … we could be in Stage 5 territory in just a few weeks," Escott said.

Stage 5 recommendations include avoiding all gatherings outside of one's household and any non-essential trips.

The threshold for Stage 4 has changed since Travis County was last at this risk level in August.

Previously, it was an average of 40 new COVID-related hospital admissions each day. However, given concerns about ICU staffing levels at area hospitals, local health officials have lowered it to 30. The threshold for Stage 5 has also changed, from 70 to 50.

Austin area hospitals have also taken in at least 13 patients from other jurisdictions that have already exceeded their local capacity.

Austin Mayor Steve Adler pointed out that the last time the region was in Stage 4 and approaching Stage 5, residents successfully flattened the curve.

"We have control over our future," he said. "We've done this before, now let's do it again. The vaccine is close. We're almost there."

This time around, however, a major holiday threatens to accelerate the spread of COVID—and pandemic fatigue may be testing people's adherence to protective measures.

This Thanksgiving, Austinites should avoid gathering with people outside of their household, Escott said. For those who choose to do so against expert advice, he stressed the need to wear masks and maintain social distancing.

Escott also cautioned those who are getting tested this week from being lulled into a false sense of security.

"A negative test this week does not provide you any effective protection for next week," he said.

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