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(Pexels)

Local health officials repeated their request that Austinites not gather this Thanksgiving and recommended that Travis County schools return to virtual learning in the week after the holiday in an attempt to mitigate the spread of COVID-19.


"The safest thing that we can do right now is not gather indoors in groups with people who we don't live with," Austin-Travis County Deputy Medical Director Dr. Jason Pickett said on Tuesday.

Austin Public Health announced it will send an emergency alert to residents who have registered with the Warn Central Texas emergency notification system on Tuesday afternoon, asking them not to gather outside their households on Thursday.

For those who are planning on ignoring this advice, there are certain modifications that will help reduce the risk of COVID-19. Pickett recommended staggering visits to avoid large groups, gathering outdoors instead of indoors and wearing masks.

"We understand … there are people who are going to (gather) no matter what we say," he said. "I want to have those folks consider ways that they can reduce the risk."

In another effort to slow spread, APH recommended area schools delay a return to in-person learning "so that anticipated increase in infection that we will see in association with Thanksgiving has time to declare itself … before we start getting people together in larger groups," Pickett said. Some school districts, such as Austin ISD, have already floated the idea.

Although COVID-19 does not appear to be spreading in the classroom environment, where masking and social distancing are observed, local cases have been traced to extracurricular activities, such as sports, and carpooling.

The number of cases reported at area school districts increased slightly last week, up to 87 from 82 the week before.

(Austin Public Health)

Overall, local trend lines continue to point to a worsening surge.

Travis County is reporting an average of 284 new confirmed cases each day, up from 198—or 43%—a week ago. Hospitalizations are also on the rise, with an average of 35 new COVID-related admissions each day, up from 30 a week ago.

Local health officials are concerned about hospital capacity, despite what they describe as an adequate supply of beds and other equipment, such as ventilators.

"Our weight limiting factor is staff," Pickett said. "As other (jurisdictions) in the state are surging right now, our ability to increase the number of staff available for the intensive care units is not what it was."

As a result, officials announced last week that Travis County is now at Stage 4, according to APH's risk-based guidelines. At this level, the department recommends residents avoid non-essential travel and, for those at high-risk, gatherings of more than two people.

In more positive news, APH data shows that this year's flu season is "tracking well below" that of the last three years, Pickett said, a change he attributed to preventative COVID measures.

Despite a significant increase in demand for COVID testing ahead of the holiday, APH is also reporting relatively fast turnaround times for results—around 24 to 48 hours, Pickett said.

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