Austin Public Health held a press conference to address the COVID-19 spike in the Austin and the Travis County area. Stephanie Hayden, Dr. Mark Escott, Janet Pichette, and Cassandra DeLeon discussed the current COVID-19 situation due to recent unprecedented hospitalizations and ICU admissions. A video of the press conference can be found here.


This report is intended to give you an overview and highlight of the discussions on the various topics taken up. It is not a verbatim transcript of the discussions but is based upon what was audible or understandable to the observer and the desire to get details out as quickly as possible with few errors or omissions.


Stephanie Hayden, Austin Public Health

  • Are in an unprecedented surge; are very concerned because our numbers are at an all-time high
  • Best thing people can do is to stay at home; there is not enough vaccine to provide to the community
  • Even if people get the vaccine, we need to continue to follow the guidelines that have been in place


Dr. Mark Escott, Austin/Travis County Public Health Authority

  • Are a record number of hospitalizations per day and active cases; were 115 new COVID-19 hospitalizations on Tuesday; ICU utilization, ventilator use, hospitalizations have dramatically increased
  • Surges are happening statewide; 15 jurisdictions now qualify as a TSA, meaning they will need to scale back certain operations due to their 15% and above positivity rate for 7 days
  • Houston, Belton and Killeen were added to the TSA group on Tuesday to that list and this week, the Valley will transition
  • This weekend/next ween Austin/Travis County will be added to the TSA list


Janet Pichette, Austin Public Health

  • Most of this surge has been a result of holiday activities such as church services, travel, and family get-togethers
  • Encourages those who traveled during the holidays self-quarantine for at least 7 days


Cassandra DeLeon, Austin Public Health

  • Are encouraged that the vaccine is in the community; are working on a plan to maximize the upcoming vaccine allocation among individuals
  • Have to do everything we can to control the surge


Q: Can you provide any plans to open the alternative care site in the convention center?

  • Escott – Discussing the activation of opening that care site; this week or next ween will start that activation process
  • Escott – Modeling shows we may run out of ICU beds next week; will have to stretch resources to meet the needs of the community
  • Escott – Cannot β€œout-vaccine ourselves from this virus” and from the surge; have to focus on protective actions that have been in place


Q: Some communities have received enough vaccine to set up registration portals and walk in clinics?

  • Some have received small amounts of doses and some have received larger allocations
  • Would like all to have at least 10,000 allocations at each site before those are set up


Q: Have been reports of a small amount of ineligible people receiving vaccines in Travis County?

What is being done to ensure 1A and 1B qualifiers are getting the virus?

  • Escott – Some providers are trying to avoid waste; has to be thawed out and our priority is to not waste vaccine
  • Escott – The vast majority who are getting the vaccine are in groups 1A and 1B
  • Hayden – Reiterates preventative measures are important


Q: Have received numerous reports for those eligible over 65 are having issues getting the vaccine? Are there plans to have more local information out there to get information out there?

  • DSHS is setting up a dashboard and ideally, Austin will be able to set up the same
  • They will be able to see providers and determine the appropriate place to get the vaccine
  • DeLeon – This area only have received enough vaccine to focus on the 1A population
  • DeLeon – Aim to expand to 1B in the coming weeks


Q: Modeling has continuously changed on when ICU capacity will fill up, and keeps pushing date off, why?

  • Escott – Modeling is based on projections from now, and is not perfect
  • Escott – Need to change the shape of that curve, are in a similar place in June/July
  • Escott – In the summer, we were able to flatten the curve by people choosing to follow guidelines
  • Pichette – We know the non-pharmaceutical preventative measures work; usually the second wave is greater than the first


Q: When do you expect travel or gatherings over the holidays and New Years to show up in the COVID-19 numbers?

  • Pichette – Are showing up now; case investigators are showing new positives are almost all linked to gatherings over the holidays
  • Escott – Expect impact of the holidays to show up a week or two after them; asks those who were at a social gathering to stay home and get tested


Q: An official has suggested about 70% of primary school children may be asymptomatic but also less likely to pass it on; what do you think about this in AISD?

  • Escott – Cannot track as
  • Escott – Positivity rate for elementary students is lower than middle and high school
  • Escott – This week, positivity rate may be over 25%, worried about more students are choosing to go in-person
  • Escott – Have not seen evidence of the new variant, but it is worrying; positivity rate is extremely high going in to this school year
  • Escott – If you can choose virtual education, choose it now


Q: What determines how much vaccine goes to what area?

  • Escott – The state determines that and there is also a federal route


Q: Dr. Escott has said that the new variant may spread more easily in children?

  • Escott – Did not say it spread more easily specifically in children, but it spreads more easily
  • Escott – Issue is the amount of students who are going to school in-person
  • Escott – Issue of risk is from extracurricular activities in which no masks are worn due to the nature of the activity, those should be suspended immediately
  • Escott – Cafeterias that we still functioning is also an issue
  • Escott – Have seen clusters associated with shared transportation including carpooling and busing


Q: How are health officials going to educate about vaccinations including those who are non-English speakers?

  • Hayden – Have ensured education materials will be distributed in multiple languages
  • Hayden – Have a grant process working with non-profits to do grassroots work to educate the community
  • DeLeon – Want to ensure that people know you do not have to be a citizen to get a vaccine; will be available for any group designated for that phase of the vaccine


Q: Does APH have any recommendations beyond its stage 5 guidelines? Is there a stage 6?

  • Escott – Cannot go past 5, will not be adding a stage 6
  • Escott – Encourages the state to reassess their plan, rollback to 50% occupancy is not working
  • Escott – Need to re-assess and replan because we have record hospitalizations across the state
  • Escott – Need stronger policies in place in order to lower the risk of infection


Q: Have seen people posting signs about vaccine shortages; do you know if this is a state or county issue?

  • Escott – Are about a year past identifying the virus, and the vaccine has been allocated by the millions
  • Escott – Will take time to get that vaccine out, but is not there in the volume yet; state is getting out the vaccine as quickly as they get it
  • DeLeon – Week 3, county only received 42,000 allocations which is not enough to cover health care staff
  • DeLeon – Will be looking forward to further vaccinations; in the meantime need to practice other preventative measures


Q: How concerned are you about the upcoming legislative session about creating a spike? Do you

  • Escott – Before Christmas, we recommended they should be vaccinated in their jurisdiction before session starts
  • Escott – Will be the largest gathering since the pandemic started in the state
  • Escott – Restrictions are in place, but need the vaccine as another layer of protection
  • Escott – Need to prevent spread within the legislative session and prevent spread that would occur from there
  • Pichette – Will be a large gathering and transmission will be very likely to occur
  • Hayden – If the legislators get the vaccine, everyone still should continue to wear their mask and follow protocols


Q: When do you expect to see the impact of New Year’s celebrations

  • Pichette – Within the next week; are already seeing the impact from Christmas/the holidays
  • Pichette – Data suggests we see the results of holidays in about 5 to 6 days
  • Escott – Will be a spike and increase in hospitalizations; will compound


Q: After Christmas, positivity rate went from 15.5% to 17.8% in one day. Are you concerned about the positivity rate between children escalating?

  • Escott – First two days of January, positivity rate was 19%
  • Escott – Important to limit the risk as much as possible, including the risk in rules


Q: Is in person learning not safe? What is the disconnect

  • Escott – The disconnect is that school districts will not be funded if they do not provide in-person learning
  • Escott – Recommend, if you can virtually educate your students, then you should
  • Escott – If more parents choose the virtual option, will help decrease the risk within schools


Q: How is the county guaranteeing POC are getting access to the vaccine since allocations are usually in white areas?

  • Hayden – Ensure we cover the β€œEastern crescent;” aim to be flexible and ensure people have access
  • Hayden – Have been able to provide at-home testing and other alternatives to going in-person to a clinic; those modifications have worked well for POC
  • DeLeon – DSHS map shows vaccine sites are going towards traditional clinics
  • DeLeon – Have plans in place to mobilize and share vaccine to places that have transportation issues getting to traditional clinics


Q: Are supposed to have a mobile infusion center in Austin; what are the FDA guidelines?

  • Escott – Are a number of individuals who quality; have a screening process
  • Escott – Focusing on getting the treatment to low income and communities of color
  • Escott – Facility should be staffed today and rolled out this week; aims


Q: Did the actions Austin put in place on New Year’s Eve help curb the positivity rate?

  • Escott – Will see in the upcoming week
  • Escott – Many did not follow the guidelines and stayed open, or people were just gathered outside of the business


Q: What is the new appointment system to get the vaccine going to be like?

  • Hayden – Areas who have set up the system have vaccines that are on the way; will have a system in which individuals can make appointments online
  • Hayden – Similar to other systems we have used, people can also call to make appointments
  • Hayden – Will be operating by-appointment only moving forward


Q: How are health officials going to get vaccines to the homeless community?

  • Hayden – Established a partnership between Austin Community of Care and Dell Medical School to get tests out to the community
  • Hayden – Will replicate past efforts to go out into the community to get the vaccines to them when we have vaccine available


Q: What is APHs reaction to not getting any vaccines in previous allotments?

  • Hayden – Were included in the week four allocation for patients in our refugee clinics and shots for tots clinic


Closing Remarks

  • Hayden – Need to remind people we are in a surge; hospitalization rates and positive rates continuously increase
  • Hayden – Even if you have received a vaccine, still need to wear a mask and socially distance
  • Escott – Cannot solely rely on vaccines; people need to stay home and work/learn virtually
  • Escott – Hospitals are getting close to running out of beds; seeing evidence of the stress on hospitals already
  • Pichette – Will be critically important for individuals to protect people they interact with by following the guidelines that have been in place for months
  • Pichette – In a surge, need to limit even trips to the store and have a designated errand-runner
  • DeLeon – Working with healthcare system to get more vaccine; knew it would be a slow start in terms of the amount of vaccine allocated
  • DeLeon – Need to have the product available in order to get the vaccine out to the community