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(Charlie L. Harper III)

Local officials are asking Austinites to mask up—again—regardless of vaccination status.

Just days after local officials announced a shift to Stage 3, COVID hospitalizations and case numbers crossed the Stage 4 threshold for the first time since February, according to Austin Public Health's risk-based guidelines.

Health officials have not yet announced a formal shift to Stage 4, which they said is imminent, but they did ramp up their recommendations, including asking everyone to resume masking indoors.

"We're at the precipice of a new stage if that continues," Austin-Travis County Health Authority Dr. Desmar Walkes told city council members and county commissioners on Tuesday. "To stop the spread right now, everyone needs to wear a mask."

Despite these recommendations, local officials lack the ability to enforce such guidance after Texas Gov. Greg Abbott issued an executive order prohibiting mask mandates in May.

Walkes attributed the sharp uptick in new confirmed cases and related hospitalizations to the Delta variant, which is more contagious. She pointed to a larger percentage of young adults and children being hospitalized with COVID-19 in recent days as a particular concern, especially as families prepare for the upcoming school year.

APH encourages unvaccinated children to wear masks and is working to reach a vaccination rate of 70% by Labor Day, which Walkes said is important given the return to school.

In addition to masking, officials implored unvaccinated Austinites to make an appointment to get the COVID vaccine. Although breakthrough cases are possible among vaccinated individuals, the vaccine is extremely effective at preventing hospitalization and death. It also helps protect those individuals who are not yet eligible for a vaccine.

"It is our civic responsibility to be vaccinated," District 7 Council Member Leslie Pool said. "We must protect the medically vulnerable and the children under age 12 who are not able to be vaccinated."

This story has been updated to include details from the joint Austin City Council and Travis County Commissioners Court meeting on Tuesday morning as well as a press release sent out by APH on Tuesday afternoon.


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