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Austin Public Health officials are once again asking residents to vaccinate, booster and mask in public as the city faces its biggest COVID surge to date.

Austin-Travis County Health Authority Dr. Desmar Walkes said in a Monday morning press conference that the Omicron variant replicates 70 times faster than previous variants, leading to the “dramatically” increasing surge.

“Whenever you talk, cough, sneeze, sing, shout and you’re not masked, you’re able to spread this virus much more quickly to others, which is why masking is such an important part of what we’ve used in the previous surges,” Walkes said.

APH said the surge is resulting from the holiday season. The city is now reporting new hospitalizations are at a seven-day moving average of 113.9 cases with the community transmission rate at a high of 1,299 per 100,000 people as of Thursday. This time last year, Austin’s seven-day moving average was 93.7 cases.

According to APH Chief Epidemiologist Janet Pichette, the number of positive cases is likely much higher since they are only able to see the number of confirmed cases. Additionally, Pichette said testing sites are struggling to keep up with data entry as they process “thousands and thousands” of tests, of which 36% are coming back positive—the highest ever.

“Basically anyone you may encounter may have COVID and while they may have mild symptoms, they are still extremely infectious,” Pichette said. “You need to be very, very careful about who you encounter and make sure that you do everything to protect yourself and your family at this point.”

Due to the “unprecedented” surge, resources like isolation facilities are near exhaustion again as hospital systems are seeing record numbers of COVID cases. Staffing shortages continue to be an issue, resulting in lower care capacity, and existing staff members coming down with the virus lowers resources that much more.

In the meantime, APH officials are urging everyone over the age of 5 years old to get vaccinated, get a booster if it's been five months since your second dose and mask in all public spaces. Walkes said that even a 10% increase in mask usage would significantly reduce transmission in the community.

On Thursday, local officials announced new orders for businesses to follow that would encourage mask-wearing.

“We are seeing a trend of increased masking in our community,” Walkes said. “If that continues, if people continue to stay home when they’re ill so they’re not spreading the illness, we could possibly see this turn around in the near future, but it really depends on us.”


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