AUSTIN, TX — Health district officials elevated the health alert level to the highest, red-colored tier for Travis County on Wednesday following recent spikes in cases and hospitalizations of the coronavirus — the first time the action has been taken since the beginning of the pandemic.
The move was telegraphed during a previous weekly update staged by health district officials who cited various coronavirus-related metrics in suggesting the alert level might be raised. Health officials made it official on Wednesday, announcing the move to Stage 5 during a follow-up news conference with the media.
“This is a critical moment for the community,” said Dr. Mark Escott, the interim Austin-Travis county health authority. “We must decrease the spread of the virus in the community now. We cannot allow another increase in cases and hospitalizations following the upcoming holidays. Our hospitals will become overwhelmed and people will needlessly die.”
The region previously was in the penultimate orange-colored alert tier. The highest of a five-tiered scale, Stage 5 triggers new restrictions on businesses and gatherings. Moreover, residents are urged to stay home and not gather with anyone outside their immediate households.
Stage 5 includes the recommendations for Stage 4 and urges individuals to avoid all gatherings outside the household and avoid dining and shopping except as essential. Businesses are recommended to only operate through contactless options such as curbside and delivery.
Under the Stage 4 level, recommendations for Stage 3 are included as health officials advise individuals to avoid non-essential travel. Businesses are recommended to operate up to 25 percent to 50 percent capacity.
A key Stage 5 provision is a limit on gatherings to no more than 10 people. Residents 65 or older and those with underlying conditions are encouraged to avoid gatherings of more than two people under Stage 5. Such provisions are guidelines that are strongly recommended but not legally enforceable given superseding gubernatorial orders.
The move to Stage 5 comes after Austin-Travis County reported 672 new coronavirus cases on Tuesday — the highest single-day rise since July 9. According to a statistical dashboard maintained by Austin Public Health, 70 people in the region were hospitalized for the coronavirus. The uptick pushes the seven-day average of new hospital admissions to 54 — four higher in the metric that serves as a barometer of illness spread. Other key indicators prompted the elevated risk alert include the number of patients being treated at intensive care units and others placed on ventilators.
Hospitalizations have been going up since Thanksgiving in a trend health officials blame on holiday gatherings. Health officials have expressed concern over another potential surge in cases should residents not adhere to safeguards in attending parties or other gatherings for the upcoming holiday season.
“The public needs to do all they can to reduce their contact with people outside their homes,” said Austin Public Health Director Stephanie Hayden. “We have done an incredible job of keeping this virus in check in our community, and we need everyone to step up and do it again.”
Hayden said the trend can be reversed with enough community adherence to Stage 5 guidelines:
“We have flattened the curve before. The difference now is that we see a glimpse of the finish line with a vaccine in the community. Any serious illness or death from this moment on would be a tragedy.”
Austin-Travis County leaders remind the public to continue to be vigilant and practice good hygiene, physical and social distancing, and wear protective face coverings to prevent the disease from spreading and help keep each other safe. In addition to avoiding gatherings outside one’s household, health officials urge residents to study the agency’s Holiday Safety guide.
City closures, changes prompted by Stage 5
Some city services will be altered as a result of the elevation to Stage 5, officials said.
Austin Resource Recovery regular curbside services will not change. However, the Recycle & Reuse Drop-off Center will be closed to the public, beginning Thursday. Residents can request a contactless home pickup of household hazardous waste at austintexas.gov/dropoff. Items for reuse or recycling cannot be picked up at this time.
Additionally, the Austin Animal Center will close to the public beginning on Thursday. Following Christmas Day on Friday, adoptions will be done virtually and fosters, adopters and rescues will pickup curbside. The facility will not take any non-emergency owner surrenders and finders of stray animals will need to make an intake request by calling Austin 311.
Changes to services and facility openings for Austin Parks and Recreation Department can be seen in the city’s COVID-19 Information portal. Information about City of Austin holiday closures can be viewed here.
The city’s transit system, Cap Metro advised residents to limit travel if possible given the heightened alert level. “With the announcement that Austin and Travis County have moved into Stage 5 of our response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Capital Metro is encouraging everyone to limit their travel to essential trips only,” officials wrote in an advisory.
“Please stay home if you can and reserve space on our transit vehicles for those working essential jobs or making other essential trips,” transit officials continued. “As always, you’re required to wear a face covering at our facilities and on our vehicles, and please stay home if you’re experiencing any COVID-19 symptoms.”
The Pflugerville Library also altered its services as a result of the risk elevation. Curbside service now is on hold until further notice effective Saturday, officials said. TexShare and interlibrary loans also are on hold until further notice, according to libary officials. Item returns are still accepted on Tuesday-Saturday from 10 a.m.-6 p.m., and all materials will now be quarantined for 14 days, officials added.
Due to increased need, library officials said, Curbside Care Kits will continue to be available Tuesday-Saturday from 10 a.m.-6 p.m. on a table in front of the library. Care Kit donations are not accepted at this time. Guests cannot place new online reserves at this time. Due dates for items checked out from Dec. 1 to today will be extended to Jan. 15, 2021, at which point library officials will reassess their protocol. Virtual programming, temporary library cards, online renewal of library cards, and digital resources will continue to be available, but officials said program kits for virtual programs will not be distributed at this time.
For more information on the availability of the City of Pflugerville’s facilities and services, please visit pflugervilletx.gov/reopen. Those with further questions or concerns are urged to contact the library at [email protected] or (512) 990-6375.
This article originally appeared on the Austin Patch