Coronavirus restrictions in Austin and Travis County might be eased this weekend as the number of hospital patients with the virus continues to decline, according to the area’s top health official.
Dr. Mark Escott, interim Austin-Travis County health authority, in his weekly public briefing on the pandemic Friday, said the proportion of hospitalizations for the coronavirus might for the seventh day Saturday stay at or below 15%.
That means businesses would no longer have to operate at 50% capacity and could expand back to 75% under state law. Doctors’ offices could also go back to offering elective procedures, he said.
Gov. Greg Abbott in an executive order last year said that if more than 15% of total hospitalizations in a particular area for seven consecutive dayswere made up of coronavirus patients, the state would require businesses to scale back customer capacity and doctors’ offices to limit some procedures.
Austin and Travis County saw a surge in coronavirus cases in late December, which led the state to put those restrictions in place right after the New Year’s holiday. The restrictions end when the area for seven more days stays at or below 15%, the orders say.
Health leaders had tried to prevent the surge by recommending Austin Public Health’s Stage 5 coronavirus restrictions, which asked businesses to only operate at 25% capacity. However, state law prevented local officials from requiring businesses to do so.
“That’s great for our community,” Escott said about the possible changes coming Saturday. “But, we continue to need that vigilance in terms of protecting ourselves and to do the masking and distancing.”
As the surge recedes in Travis County, Escott said his focus will remain on vaccinating residents while the state continues to allocates doses for the area.
Escott said it likely would be months before all of those who currently qualify for a vaccination in Austin and Travis County get one, especially if the state moves forward with its plan to allow essential workers to start getting vaccinated.
Austin Public Health officials said if essential workers are allowed to be vaccinated with those older than 65, they would likely put essential workers who are older than 65 at the front of the line.
Escott said he is hopeful that the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, which health officials say is easier to store and only requires one dose to be fully inoculated, will receive emergency approval soon and help speed along the vaccination process.
Austin Public Health officials on Friday said they plan to open a third vaccination site in northern Travis County to help make the vaccine more accessible across the entire Austin area. But the site will not accept walk-ins, Austin Public Health Director Stephanie Hayden-Howard said.
Residents can go to Austin Public Health’s pre-registration website to sign up for a vaccination. Health officials will then call or message those who qualify and schedule an appointment for them once vaccine becomes available.
Austin Public Health officials on Friday asked residents to stop frequently checking the site for appointments, saying someone will contact them to schedule one.
Heath officials on Saturday will work to administer the last of the 12,000 doses Austin Public Health received from the state Monday. In addition to the first doses it received, Austin Public Health also administered some second doses of the vaccine to health care workers and nursing home staff and residents.
Austin Public Health should receive another 12,000 doses of the vaccine next week before the state starts sending larger shipments of second doses for some of the 28,717 residents already vaccinated through the city, according to Escott.
Those patients will be contacted by either email, text message or phone call three to five days before they are due for a second dose, Hayden-Howard said Friday.