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Austin health officials updating City's COVID-19 staging thresholds

Austin Public Health uses the 7-day average of hospital admissions as a metric for COVID-19 staging. APH updated the threshold between Stage 3 and Stage 4.

AUSTIN, Texas — Austin Public Health (APH) officials have updated its staging thresholds for COVID-19 risk-based guidelines after learning more about the COVID-19 omicron variant.

APH uses the 7-day moving average of hospital admissions to determine what COVID-19 risk-based guidelines the community should follow. Previously, Stage 3's threshold was 15 to 29. Now, with more information coming out about the transmissibility of the omicron variant, the upper-end of the Stage 3 threshold was dropped to 24. 

During as press conference on Dec. 21, APH leaders said this change was due to the threat of the omicron variant. Omicron has proven to be much more contagious and has been confirmed in at least three people in Travis County as of this press conference. None of these three people had travelled, which tells leaders that there is community transmission of omicron. 

WATCH: COVID-19 in Austin: Health officials discuss staging threshold updates

Health leaders said we still do not know how severe the symptoms of omicron are. APH leaders said that in South Africa, symptoms showed to be less severe than other variants, but in the United Kingdom, the severity of symptoms was equal to that of the delta variant. 

Dr. Desmar Walkes with the Austin-Travis County Health Authority said even if the symptoms are less severe, it is more contagious. This means that more people will get infected, which will in turn lead to more infections, hospitalizations and deaths. 

"We could have so many cases occur in such a short period of time and so many people having mild illness and just enough people who are at risk for severe illness, getting sick all at once, that we will overwhelm our hospitals," said Dr. Walkes. "And that is what we want to stop."

Leaders said the goal of lowering the threshold for Stage 4 guidelines is to keep our hospitals from being overwhelmed. We have seen cases rise, and health leaders say usually a rise in hospitalizations will follow. 

"We are continuing to act as though we are in Stage 2, and if this continues, our ICU beds will fill up and overflow by hundreds by the time the new year arrives," said Dr. Walkes. "We are on the brink of Stage 4 and we need to act as such."

APH leaders say they do not plan to put any mandates or restrictions in place, but are asking people in the community to do their part. They ask you to be vigilant about mask wearing while indoors, even if you’re vaccinated, and say it is a good idea to get tested for COVID-19 before and after holiday gatherings.

Here is a full breakdown of APH's staging thresholds for hospitalizations in its Risk-Based Guidelines

  • Stage 1 – 0-4
  • Stage 2 – 5-14
  • Stage 3 – 15-24 (Previously 15-29)
  • Stage 4 – 25-50
  • Stage 5 - 50<

As of Dec. 20, Austin is in Stage 3 with a 7-day average of 15 for COVID-19 hospitalizations. 

Here's an interactive look at the numbers:

Here are the guidelines health officials advise for Stage 3: 

  • Fully vaccinated low-risk individuals should wear masks indoors in gatherings with people outside your household and while traveling.
  • Fully vaccinated high-risk individuals should wear masks indoors in gatherings with people outside your household, while traveling, while dining, and while shopping.
  • Partially vaccinated or unvaccinated low-risk individuals should wear masks in all situations and get fully vaccinated.
  • Partially vaccinated or unvaccinated high-risk individuals should avoid activities unless essential and get fully vaccinated.
Credit: Austin Public Health
Courtesy: Austin Public Health

The update comes as the COVID-19 Modeling Consortium at the University of Texas at Austin released a report on Thursday, Dec. 16, detailing the emergence of omicron in the U.S. APH officials said that one model shows hospitals could face record numbers of cases, hospitalizations and deaths – surpassing all previous peaks – if substantive behavioral changes aren’t made to reduce the spread of the virus. 

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