Austin Public Health is expanding its free testing service to residents without symptoms due to a drop in demand as cases plateau.
"As a result, we are going to lower the threshold for testing which will allow some asymptomatic testing to occur again," Austin-Travis County Interim Health Authority Dr. Mark Escott said Wednesday.
APH is also considering offering rapid antigen testing. Unlike the genetic tests APH already offers, which detect active infections but can take days to return results, antigen tests identify those infections in 15 minutes.
Some private sites, including Remedy and Total Men's Primary Care locations, already offer rapid antigen testing. Escott said the decline in demand for testing at APH's sites could be because more residents are seeking them out.
"If we can increase our availability of rapid testing, it allows us to differentiate those positive cases sooner and allows us to do those case investigations sooner," Escott said. "It really would be more effective at the 'boxing-it-in' strategy, particularly as we see case numbers decline."
APH is working with its testing contractors to see if they have the equipment and capacity necessary to provide rapid testing to city residents.
APH officials emphasized that while residents are staying vigilant when it comes to masking and socially distancing in public, they must use similar caution at home, such as by avoiding family gatherings, in order to push past the current plateau and avoid any future bounce.
"We are seeing more cases that are connected to individuals having parties with family and friends," APH Director Stephanie Hayden said. "Please make good decisions so you don't cause an increase in COVID-19 cases."
What does this mean for schools?
The decision on when to reopen schools for in-person class is affected by whether Austinites heed this advice, Escott said. Otherwise, schools could face a second round of closures shortly after they welcome students back.
Area school districts are going mostly or entirely virtual through early September, although the Austin ISD board of trustees is meeting on Thursday to vote on whether to delay the first official day of school to Sept. 8 and, potentially, delay most in-person instruction for up to eight weeks after that.
"We don't want to be in a situation where we're turning schools on and turning them off in a repetitive cycle for the next six months or a year," Escott said. "Certainly if we are in a Stage 2 by Sept. 8, it will put us in a much better situation to reopen schools and keep them open."
Escott said he is concerned about high school and college sports, specifically the University of Texas-Austin, which is expected to host football games with 25% of the stadium's 100,000 person capacity.
"If we have a football game on Sept. 5 with 25,000 people, then by Sept. 19, we're going to be closing schools again, and kids are going to be learning virtually," Escott said.
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