(Emma Freer)

Local officials are pleading with residents to continue COVID-19 safety precautions as businesses reopen and more people return to work.


"We sense that the frog is being boiled slowly and folks are starting to lose the narrative of how serious the pandemic is," Travis County Judge Sarah Eckhardt said at a Commissioners Court meeting Tuesday morning.

Austin-Travis County Interim Health Authority Dr. Mark Escott continued to urge residents to make "good decisions"—such as social distancing, maintaining personal hygiene and wearing masks while in public—to avoid a second surge of COVID cases and another shutdown.

"To me, the least that we can do when we go out in public at this stage is put a covering on your face," Dr. Escott said at the same meeting. "That doesn't limit people's civil liberties at all. It's not infringing on them at all."

The time it takes for the COVID-19 caseload in Travis County to double has drawn out to 23 days, and Austin Public Health now has the capacity to test 2,000 people weekly at free drive-thru sites, which outpaces demand. In the last two weeks, the department has connected 1,766 people to free testing through its enrollment form. But challenges remain.

"We're not out of the woods," Dr. Escott said, citing clusters at more than a dozen area nursing homes and racial disparities that have emerged in the case data.

As of this week, 392 COVID-19 cases have been reported across 16 long-term care facilities, up 60 from last week. Of those, 38 people have died. "Once COVID-19 takes hold of a facility, it's very, very difficult to stop it," Dr. Escott told commissioners.

Initially, the state provided two strike force teams to Travis County, but it has since redeployed them to other areas of Texas where similar clusters have emerged. As a result, county commissioners have approved five contracts with area staffing agencies to deploy supplemental personnel—including nurses, cooks and certified medication aides—to affected facilities.

Austonia has asked the county to confirm how much it, in conjunction with the city, has spent for strike force staffing.

"We are taking on responsibilities of the state," Eckhardt said, adding that the state regulates such facilities.

In addition to nursing home clusters, another concern is the overrepresentation of Hispanic residents among COVID-19 hospitalizations. Despite making up about a third of the local population, they account for nearly two-thirds of those hospitalized.

Austin Public Health is developing outreach materials to inform residents about how they can minimize their risk and access free testing, with plans to air the messaging on Spanish-language media channels. The department, in conjunction with Dr. Escott, is also developing a color-coded warning system that will communicate the local threat level.

In the meantime, Commissioner Margaret Gomez said she is concerned that residents are letting down their guards and congregating for birthdays and other events.

"The fact that the word got out that we can now go to work has just messed everything up because they think it's safe," she said. "It's not a normal time. Not yet. And it won't be for a long, long time."

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Austin residents who have been participating in protests and other gatherings, or have been unable to socially distance during the pandemic, will be allowed to sign up for a free COVID-19 test starting Friday at the city's drive-thru testing site, according to a notice by Austin Public Health.

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(Roschetzky Photography/Shutterstock)

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