After raising concerns of a second surge last month, local health officials reported that the spread of COVID-19 in Austin is relatively flat—for now.
"Last week we were in about the same position we're in this week," Austin-Travis County Interim Health Authority Dr. Mark Escott said on Monday.
The seven-day moving average number of daily new COVID cases reported in Travis County is around 96, as of Sunday evening, and has remained steady since mid-October.
The seven-day moving average number of daily new hospital admissions reported in the Austin metro is 17.4, down from 22.6 on Oct. 17, which was the highest it had been since late August.
"We saw a substantial increase for a while," Escott said. "That has dropped back down, and now we're holding steady."
Researchers at the COVID-19 Modeling Consortium at the University of Texas at Austin estimate there is a 45% chance the pandemic is growing locally.
Although the projections have improved significantly from last week, when researchers projected as many as 700 hospital beds would be needed for COVID patients by Thanksgiving, the model still suggests a slight surge in COVID hospitalizations later this month, with around 150 new daily admissions by Nov. 30.
(COVID-19 Modeling Consortium at the University of Texas at Austin)
Escott attributed the drop to continued vigilance among Austines and encouraged residents to keep up with protective behaviors, such as masking, social distancing and hand washing.
This trend bears out in campus environments, such as at the University of Texas at Austin.
"Like the number of cases in Austin, the numbers on campus are almost unchanged," according to a Faculty Council update on Monday.
However, given the worsening projections outside of Austin and the ongoing wait for a vaccine, the council announced that the university will not increase density on campus and in the classroom until fall 2021, at the earliest.
Fall 2021 is the earliest @UTAustin will increase density on campus and in the classroom given the current progress… https://t.co/hgyI1uCzJt— Andrew Zhang (@Andrew Zhang)1604339976.0
Bars stay closed
Escott also responded to a query from Travis County Commissioner Gerald Daugherty about the prospect of reopening bars, amid the rosier forecast.
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott announced last month that bars could reopen at 50% capacity in counties that choose to opt in and where COVID patients account for no more than 15% of hospitalizations.
Travis County Judge Sam Biscoe chose to keep bars closed for at least two weeks, given the COVID trends at the time and the increasing number of Austin students returning to schools. On Tuesday, he announced a two-week extension.
Escott is hopeful this may change, if current trends continue, but pointed to cautionary tales in other jurisdictions, such as El Paso, where hospitals are at capacity, and in European countries, such as France and the U.K., which recently reentered lockdown due to rising case numbers.
"It is important that we … learn what has happened in other cities across our state and in other countries," he told Daugherty. "And the lesson learned is that when things start to look better, then we want to celebrate, and we want to change and open things up aggressively."
If bars are allowed to reopen in Travis County, then they will be required to make modifications to ensure the safety of their staff and customers, Escott added.
"We don't want the reopenings to be short-lived," he said.
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More vaccines could be headed to Austin as FDA greenlights single-shot Johnson & Johnson COVID vaccine
This story was updated Monday to include that the vaccine received official approval by the FDA this weekend.
The Food and Drug Administration approved the single-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine that is to be shipped out this month, increasing the number of vaccines available.
In a virtual meeting on Friday, the FDA Vaccines and Related Biological Products Advisory Committee unanimously approved of the U.S.'s third available COVID-19 vaccine, which was officially approved on Saturday. Federal officials say 4 million doses will go out nationally this week, with an expected 20 million doses to be available by the end of March. The Texas Department of State Health Services has said it expects to receive about 200,000 doses, but has not released a timeline of when doses will be shipped and available.
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