On cusp of new year, omicron prompts Austin to adopt stricter Stage 4 pandemic guidelines
Days ahead of the new year and its planned celebrations, Austin Public Health announced it was shifting back to the stricter Stage 4 guidelines to protect the community against COVID-19.
Austin Public Health said the move was triggered by the increasing threat of the omicron variant of the coronavirus, a highly transmissible strain of the virus currently sweeping the nation.
Dr. Desmar Walkes, Austin-Travis County health authority, said that while the omicron variant is sparking yet another surge in the city, she's encouraged by the way residents have always stepped up to wear masks, keep social distance and vaccinate when pandemic trends turn grim.
This week, Walkes is again asking the community to tread carefully ahead of New Year's Eve.
“One of the greatest traits of Austin-Travis County is how we have consistently been one of the leaders in the state when it comes to lower community transmission rates," Walkes said in a statement Wednesday.
Walkes warned that as "our vigilance begins to wane, our community is falling behind."
"We can't afford to be lax in our prevention efforts and I'm confident that Austin-Travis County will once again lead the way," she continued.
What does it mean to be in Stage 4?
Austin Public Health's Stage 4 risk-based guidelines come with a set of recommendations for both the vaccinated and unvaccinated public.
From Stage 1, when the community is safest against COVID-19, to the most severe threat level of Stage 5, each comes with varying levels of best practices based on how serious the virus transmission is at the time.
The last time Austin and Travis County reached Stage 5 was in early August after the highly contagious delta variant caused a deadly surge of COVID-19 cases in the community.
However, increased vaccination efforts and mask-wearing slowly helped bring the Austin area back to Stage 3 on Oct. 12.
Under Stage 4, Walkes said fully vaccinated people should wear masks when gathering with people outside of their household, traveling, dining and shopping. Those who have not yet received a booster should also get one once eligible.
Partially vaccinated or unvaccinated people should also wear masks, avoid gatherings with people outside of their household, travel and shop only if essential, and choose take-out options for dining. Vaccines are highly encouraged for those who have yet to receive one, according to Walkes.
One key indicator that Austin and Travis County use to help determine the risk of infection for those most vulnerable to the virus is the community transmission rate. That number on Wednesday was 405, a dramatic rise from 173.5 last week.
Another key indicator, the average number of new hospital admissions over seven days, was 43 — an increase from 36 the previous day. Both key indicators were well within their thresholds for Stage 4.
Walkes first warned of the worsening pandemic conditions during an interview with the American-Statesman on Monday, saying Austin has reached the start of another coronavirus surge.
How omicron changes guidelines
Omicron, unlike other COVID-19 variants that show symptoms about a week or two after infection, takes just two to three days from exposure to start causing symptoms, Walkes explained.
As a result, those infected during Christmas should start showing signs of infection, along with a positive COVID-19 test, this week.
To dodge another round of the devastating effects delta caused over the summer, Walkes is urging all residents, regardless of vaccination status, to skip New Year's Eve gatherings so more people don't get sick.
"I would recommend that people limit their social interactions and social contact and, if they absolutely have to go and gather, that they (have tested) negative," Walkes said, again encouraging everyone in Austin to wear masks in public.
Citing "COVID cases amongst artists on the bill as well as the extremely sharp rise in COVID cases in the Austin community," ACL Live has already canceled a planned New Year's Eve show that was to feature Spoon, the John Doe Folk Trio and Sweet Spirit.
ACL Live appears to be allowing artists to make the call on protocols and cancellations. Spoon had planned to require vaccination cards or a negative COVID-19 test within 48 hours of the concert. By contrast, Wednesday's ACL Live show with Austin musician Charley Crockett went on as scheduled, with COVID-19 protocols limited to a recommendation of wearing masks.
Reaction from Austin businesses and business groups regarding the New Year's Eve warnings was muted Wednesday, with little public comment on the move to Stage 4 of the pandemic guidelines
"No matter the circumstances, Austin local businesses will continue to do what they’ve been doing the last two years — providing the best service possible for their customers," said April Ritzenthaler, executive director of the Austin Independent Business Alliance, which represents about 1,100 local companies.
"As individuals we can continue to be good neighbors by following the Austin Public Health masking guidelines when we visit, ordering take-out or online for products and buying gift certificates for services or later visits," she said.
Michael Girard, owner of the Speakeasy nightclub in downtown Austin, said he trusts customers to take precautions to protect themselves.
"We cater to adults. We trust, especially at this point of the pandemic, that they are able to make their own informed decisions regarding their well-being," Girard said.
"There are no more government handouts. Speakeasy is spending over $25,000 on entertainment that will directly support local Austin entertainers," he said. "Our staff will rely on New Year's Eve to pay their rent and other bills. The revenue from New Year's Eve can be up to 10% of an establishment's annual revenue. This night alone can decide whether a business survives or goes out of business."
Travis County Judge Andy Brown backed Austin Public Health in its decision to shift stages Wednesday, encouraging residents to follow the guidelines and wear masks.
“The omicron variant is moving fast through our community, and we must do what is necessary to help slow community transmission,” Brown said. "These small preventive measures will go a long way when it comes to keeping our entire community safe.”
Statesman staff writers Peter Blackstock, Lori Hawkins and Shonda Novak contributed to this report.