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Labor Day weekend is not the time to crowd bars or gather with family, Travis County health authority says

As COVID-19 seems to be on the decline in the Austin area, eyes are turning to school openings and the Labor Day weekend.

AUSTIN, Texas — Ahead of the Labor Day weekend and as schools are reopening, Austin Public Health provided its weekly Q&A session to answer questions related to COVID-19 on Friday.

Director of Austin Public Health Stephanie Hayden started the session asking everyone to do their part in preventing the spread of the virus. She suggested individuals to become social media influencers, sharing what you're doing to stay safe along with your preventative measures and asking your friends and family to join in.

She also said that the City of Austin will be providing drive-up COVID-19 on Saturday to anyone who would like to be tested. More information on testing can be found here.

Hayden reported that although local leaders were provided a large donation of personal protective equipment (PPE), more donations are requested.

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Ahead of the holiday weekend, Interim Public Health Authority Dr. Mark Escott said "we've got to stay the course."

He said over the summer, it only took three weeks for Austin to reach its biggest peak in infection. And with schools reopening and Labor Day weekend on the horizon, it's important to do our part.

Within a few weeks of the Memorial Day holiday, the area saw a surge in cases and hospitalizations due to social gatherings and re-opened businesses. It took the community nearly two months to see a good decline in the seven-day moving average of new cases and hospital admissions.

As of Sept. 3, at 72, the current seven-day moving average of new cases in Austin-Travis County is at its lowest count since early June.

“Labor Day weekend is not the time to crowd bars, to have barbecues and to gather with family,” said Dr. Escott.  “Now is the time to stay the course because if we change our behaviors, three weeks from now we could be back where we were in June and July with increased cases and uncontrollable spread.”

He suggested sending kids to school with the right supplies, such as a backpack with two or three face masks, hand sanitizer and disinfecting wipes. Dr. Escott said it's also important to screen kids before sending them to school. If they are showing any symptoms, they should stay home.

Dr. Escott also stressed the importance of getting a flu shot. With coronavirus patients already taking up hospital space, the threat of overcrowding hospitals remains a concern.

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The chief epidemiologist for APH, Janet Pichette, chimed in to highlight the importance of quarantining for two weeks if a person has come into contact with someone who was confirmed positive. She said that even if you test negative, it's important to quarantine for a minimum of 10 days and, after that, remain fever free for 24 hours and have a resolution of symptoms before leaving the home.

She also reported that as APH and their partners at UT Dell Medical school conduct contact tracing calls, they will never request financial information, so be wary of possible scammers. If you feel like you may have been contacted by a scammer, dial 311 or call the health department at 512-972-5560.

The Q&A portion is transcribed below:

Are you worried about the possibility of bars reopening and restaurants allowing more people in, especially since more bars are already obtaining their food and beverage licenses have already opened their doors back up?

I'll start out by saying, last time bars opened, it was a disaster and we quickly saw cases spike. 

Bars are just not the right environment to prevent COVID-19 spread here. You're generally talking about individuals who are face to face, intoxicated for a long period of time. And that's going to be hard to fix. We are concerned about bars opening. We're concerned about places that used to be bars that are now called restaurants that are still operating as bars. So we have to be very careful with that. Our teams are out and doing inspections to ensure folks are in compliance. And we will continue to do that. And we will properly address any situation that is not remedied quickly to ensure that these facilities are not posing an unnecessary risk to our community. 

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The other information I'd like to add is that education is our number one priority. And so, for us, in order to safely return our young people to school and allow them to remain in school, we have to be very, very intentional. 

And so we will have our staff to be out enforcing, definitely requiring and educating individuals about what the orders are and also providing warning and moving on toward enforcement, because we have to make sure that everyone is doing their part to keep the health and safety of this community. Number one. 

And I would just like to add that I do have concerns about bars reopening because I do feel people let their guard down in those types of situations and when things began reopening. You know, in the July timeframe, we did see some bars implicated and being related to cases that were starting to pop up. But, you know ... it's so important for people to take personal responsibility when they go into those types of settings and wear their masks and socially distance and limit their transmission, because it could be a life-or-death situation in the long run. And if they get exposed at the bar, they could bring it home and affect somebody at home that's vulnerable. 

Regardless of the potential for a viable vaccine to arrive this fall, how are you guys planning and preparing for distribution? 

So I'll just add that we're doing a number of things related to planning for vaccine distribution. You know, we're using our current flu clinics and looking at a wide variety of different approaches to get the vaccine out into the community. We still haven't heard from CDC how much will get will be the priority categories. We have kind of an idea that it will be they will prioritize based on critical health care infrastructure and critical infrastructure and those priority populations that need it. But we definitely have been doing a lot of planning to make sure that we are able to push the vaccine out in traditional ways through mass clinic settings or even through drive-thru settings, if possible. We're planning on using our flu clinics this year as a test to see if a drive-thru clinic is a good, viable option. It has been in the past for us, as far as getting a vaccination or vaccinating people in a very quick and efficient process. So we're hoping to test that in the near future. But there's been a lot of planning efforts that have been doing that that have been going on related to. 

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I agree with Jan, and the other thing that we have always used, as we always use partners with our immunization program, we use our vaccines for children partners. And so in this space, we typically are able to work with other partners in the public and the private sector to be able to assist us in this process. We have the ability to set up what are called point-of-distribution sites, and we're able to provide vaccines through that ability as well. So we are definitely prepared, using lessons learned from H1N1 when we did provide those vaccines in 2009. And so we are very prepared. 

What more can you tell us about the clusters we're seeing? In particular, what more do we know about the cluster in the football strength and conditioning program? Are more students testing positive? 

We have seen clusters associated with strength and conditioning programs at a high school level. Those investigations are ongoing but it does seem that those activities have been associated with some spread of disease. We have seen clusters at the University of Texas and we certainly expect that, as schools reopen, we're going to see some additional clusters. You know, again, we've really focused on this concept of opening in phases so that we can take gradual risk so that when we open, we've recommended opening at 25% to allow us some flexibility, to allow us to assess whether or not the practices that we recommended and that the schools have implemented are going to be successful or not and identify opportunities to improve those recommendations before we start adding additional students into the mix. 

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We can only write so many policies. Ultimately, it takes individual responsibility to adhere to those principles. The social distancing, the masking, the hand hygiene and the staying home when you're sick. We can't enforce that for 1.2 million people, but we do need 1.2 million people to understand the importance of those things and the fact that it is a very small sacrifice to keep this city and this county safe. 

This virus is not going away and the vaccine is months away, perhaps six to nine months away. So we have to continue the vigilance. We have to make these things part of our regular routine. And if we do that and we can avoid the surges that we've seen before and we can continue to keep schools open, we can open restaurants and businesses further and do that safely. 

And I'll just add that, you know, we've done quite a few things here at Austin Public Health to make sure that we're prepared to address some of these clusters. During long-term care facility and nursing home issues, we have stood up a team to look specifically at responding to nursing home clusters. And we're using that same model to address school-related clusters that are occurring. 

And so we have had that team working, developing guidance and standing ready to respond should things start increasing. We're also looking at working on developing clusters that will focus on higher education and working. We currently work very closely in partnership with UT to address any kind of clusters they may be seeing on their campus, and we'll continue to do that as the school year progresses. 

How will the City enforce large crowd gathering restrictions and other social distancing guidelines for this Labor Day weekend? And since we had a Memorial Day surge, are we expecting another surge to come? 

We are definitely depending on the community to be leaders in this space. Our hope is, is that individuals who make the decision not to go out, not to have parties, whether they are having them at home, are in public spaces, we are working with them. They will see more enforcement out. There will be park police, Austin Police Department, as well as our environmental health sanatoriums. So we will have more people out. There will be visuals and they will be providing warnings as well as moving us into enforcement. And so we will see that over the entire weekend. And our goal is, is that if everyone continues to do what we are, what I've called everyone to do, our call of action, our courage to be an influencer, our hope is that we will be able to maintain and not have a spread of COVID-19. 

What we're not saying is, we're not saying you have to lock yourself in your house and do nothing over this weekend. We're saying be reasonable about it. We're saying if you have a barbecue, have it for the people in your house. 

You go outside, exercise, get some sunshine. That's all fine. Just don't have your neighbors over and your extended family over because that's where we see danger. And, again, we've seen families devastated across this country over and over again by these big gatherings around holidays or celebrations. 

The virus isn't gone. It's still here. It doesn't mean we have to live in fear, but we have to live in the knowledge of what we can do as individuals to prevent its spread and protect our families from potential tragedies. So just be smart this weekend, but enjoy, get outside, do something with your family, but do what you can also to help us mitigate the spread. 

And I'll just add, you know, and I've said this on multiple occasions, that we are in the same spot we were in 2009 with H1N1, where we were on a downward downward slope of the first wave of the epidemic. And following school starting, we had a second wave that exceeded our wave in the first wave. So we had twice as many cases. I just don't want to see us get to that point again. I mean, again, I remain optimistic. In the end, as both Director Hayden and Dr. Escott are saying, individual responsibility is going to be key here. You need to if you have to go out, make sure you're doing all those things that you need to be doing to protect yourself and your loved ones at home, because people will die if you don't do those types of prevention activities.

We stand ready. Here at Austin Public Health, there's a strong workforce here at the health department who have been working very, very hard since January trying to keep this under control. And we're at a good spot right now. We want to keep it there. And it's going to require individuals to do that to protect the rest of the community. 

As you monitor potential clusters of schools in Travis County, is there a certain size of cluster in mind that would trigger schools to be closed? 

I think it will vary. You know, I mean, we look at a cluster as being three cases, three positive cases or more, that, you know, we recognize that when we're in school situations, there may be classrooms affected. There may be grade levels affected. So we'll be looking at a variety of factors, including the percentage of absentees in a school and those types of things. 

But we'll be working very closely with the school districts and the private schools to make sure that we're following up in a vigilant fashion should something occur. 

Many of our school districts have gone back to school and though many are doing remote learning, could you provide an update on how it's going? Are you all aware of the clusters? 

Yes, we are aware of clusters that are occurring at the University of Texas, for example, again. We are working in very close partnership with them to make sure that we're able to intervene and identify where these clusters are. Make sure that people are quarantining or isolating and they're not spreading it and spreading concerns to other parts of the community. And that's my reason, in the beginning, to talk about making sure people quarantine for the 14 day period and to isolate if they're sick for the 10-day period and make sure that they are not exposing people unnecessarily. 

Let me also add, you know, we look at the numbers for this week and in the year, as Texas has done a great job of ensuring they're proactive testing. So they're testing people who are asymptomatic and catching cases that we may not otherwise know about because they don't have symptoms. So they've done a great job of that. They've got a dashboard to track those cases. 

But we'll only look at the UT-associated cases. In our total cases, the cases account for 23% of all the cases that we experience in Travis County over the past seven days. And that means that we have to continue to reiterate the importance to our young people about their need to protect themselves so that they can protect the community. 

We can expect again, as are our primary and secondary schools, open, we're going to see additional cases in those places as well. So this is a message that needs to be heard by all of those in an educational settings: We need you to be part of the solution. We need you to take leadership that's at the university level, that's at the high school level, at the middle school level. There are leaders in all of those settings: student councils, student bodies, student government. We need you all. We need you to be the leaders to advocate for doing the right thing.

There is pressure among young people to throw away the mask, to burn the masks and to be free again. I want to be there. I think everybody on this call wants to be there. But we are not there yet. So we have to continue the vigilance. We've got to continue that until we have an effective vaccine which is widely available to the public, and that's a long way away, still, but will come and we will be past this, but we have to be patient until that day comes. 

Now let's talk about UT football weekend coming next weekend. Do you have any advice and messages to the people that will be attending that so we can avoid another spike? 

I do appreciate the University of Texas in the dialog we've had over many months in those conversations. Yet, you know, we talked about the fact that 50% was way too many. And 25% was probably too many as well. But we also talked about the areas of the highest risk, and that involves tailgating and gathering before the games because those are going to be person-to-person, much harder to control and monitor. So they cut those out. They cut the stadium capacity from 50% to 25%. They've been very thoughtful about masking and in the lines and how they're going to work concessions and so forth. But it still represents 25,000 people come together in one space in the middle of the biggest pandemic we've seen in 100 years. 

So we need to be cautious now. My advice is, as you should think twice before you go to a gathering of that size. If you are vulnerable. If you are an individual who has an underlying health condition, if you are over the age of 65, if you are from a community of color that has a higher risk of hospitalization and deaths, you probably shouldn't go. If you live in a household with anybody who I just described, you probably shouldn't go. 

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If you choose to go, please be very, very careful. Please wear your mask, please social distance, please pay close attention to your personal hygiene. Again, if we take too many risks right now, it will be a few weeks before we're back in a crisis situation. And I just don't want to see that again for our community. 

It is going to be so important for us. It just goes back to individual responsibility. As Dr. Escott stated earlier, you know, we've done orders, we've encouraged individuals. These are the policies and procedures. But it goes back to that individual level. And our hope is that whether an individual decides that they will attend the game or not, that they will do everything that they've learned thus far.

Make sure to keep, you know, the face coverings on, social discipline, social distancing. You know, take hand sanitizer with you. And, you know, there's so many creative ways now. I will tell you, as a community, we are always concerned because when you put that many people in a setting, you know, we can expect that there will be some spread of COVID-19. And so for us, we have to be extra careful. Our partners at UT Dell Medical School, as well as our staff, will be prepared to respond to any of the aftereffects of that event. But we would rather keep us all safe and make sure education continues to be number one for us. We want to make sure that, you know, the students that must be on campus are safe. We want to make sure the students are able to attend classes. We want to move to the next level of having folks to be present in the schools. So for that to happen, we always have to do everything we can do to be safe. 

What impact has the return of university students had on our community? What do you think about the isolation plans for students? 

We work with the University of Texas, as well as other colleges and universities, on their plans. They were able to walk through what they put together and we were able to provide some technical assistance and provide some edits to them. It is really important that we see this as a collaborative process. We know that we're going to need to start to open things up small. And so that collaborative process has allowed us to really put some strong plans in place as far as with reopening. And so the other thing that we always share is that there will be individual cases. You will start to see the number in the positive cases at your school or facility. You will see that. Well, what is your plan? How were you going to ensure to mitigate the spread of disease? 

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As Director Hayden said, we've been working with these institutions for many months now and we've been very impressed with these reopening plans. Many of these institutions, you know, that includes Austin Community College, just doing a great job of putting together a plan for their campus. They've instituted an app, a smartphone app, that students and faculty and staff screen themselves daily as a reminder to ensure that if they have any symptoms, they need to stay home. So I think this community is working through this again. When we talked early on, we talked about choosing fear or choosing strength. I think we have evidence that people are continuing to choose strength, identify how we get through this, how we have a life which is more normal, but in a safer way. And I'm awfully proud of our colleges and our universities and our primary and secondary schools who are doing a great job to talk out those problems and finding effective solutions to move forward. 

Do you have anything you would like to say in closing? 

Yes. Just a reminder, I am really, really asking everyone to have courage. Remember the call to action and make a choice to stay home. Have new traditions. Use technology and talk on the telephone. You know, that's still a good thing. 

Now, I know a lot of people may not want to talk on the phone, but telephone is a good way to keep in touch. But we just want to see how individuals are willing to lead in this space. The other thing is, it's just a reminder about our testing locations. We will be providing testing tomorrow. So if anyone would like to be tested, please head over to our website or call into our 311 and schedule that if you would like a test and you don't have access to technology. 

Our PPE pushed, whereas we are really, really pushing for that. We'll continue to provide that for our community. 

And lastly, flu season is here. We are encouraging you to make that visit to your physician or we have private sector pharmacies that are providing flu. So please get your flu shot as soon as possible because we will have as many people to receive their flu shot in our community somewhere. 

I just wanted to add that, again, I really stress to the public and our community to really use the prevention measures we know are tried and true to protect and stop transmission of disease, whether it's the transmission of flu, COVID-19, gastrointestinal illness, all these things that we do. 

If you're sick, stay at home. If you have symptoms, stay at home and isolate yourself from people who are well and do it for the proper amount of time that's outlined by CDC and state and local guidance. You know, make sure that you're using your masks if you have to go out and pick up your barbecue items. Make sure you're using hand sanitizer and limit your time where you may be exposed to other people who may have the disease. 

So, again, I would just stress the importance of making sure you are following prevention measures that we know are known to reduce the transmission of illness. 

The bar closed by saying school's about to start for many kids across Travis County. Make sure your child's ready. Make sure they have their masks, hand sanitizer, if they're the appropriate age, and make sure they know how to use those things, make sure they're comfortable with them, make sure they can wear a mask for more than five minutes at a time before they head out the door on Tuesday. 

This is what we can do as a community to ensure that when kids go back to school, they can stay back to school and we can keep the schools open. We can protect the children and we can protect one of the greatest resources in our community, which is our educators, our teachers and our school staff. If we can do that together, then we will get through this semester. We will continue to be able to add more children into the classroom setting. It will do that at the same time as we decrease the spread of disease. 

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