Austin has flattened the curve. Now what?

Screen Shot 2020-05-05 at 1.31.43 PM
The green line represents the rate at which confirmed COVID cases have increased each day. The yellow lines are the new cases each day. The red lines are the cumulative total.

The rise in the number of positive COVID cases in Travis County has slowed as a result of a sharp reduction in person-to-person contact, Mark Escott, interim head of Austin Public Health, told City Council this morning.

The rate at which new confirmed cases are doubling is now at about 20 days, even though testing has ramped up significantly in the last couple weeks. In more encouraging news, of the first 735 people who signed up for tests through APH’s online portal, only 16 tested positive (2.18%). Remember, that’s only a fraction of the tests being conducted countywide (many through private providers), but it’s a big drop from the 10% positive rate among those who had been tested up until last week.

We still don’t have the capacity to do widespread testing of those without symptoms, which would be ideal because it would allow us to get a sense of how many asymptomatic cases are floating around. Right now we’re still only testing those who report symptoms or those who have been in close contact with somebody who was infected.

“This is really reflecting of this community’s efforts to flatten the curve,” said Escott. “We need these efforts to continue. It’s critical that we continue to remind folks that this is not the result of luck.”

Those experiencing severe symptoms are disproportionately black and Hispanic. Latinos account for about 35% of Travis County’s population but 51% of local COVID hospitalizations. African Americans are about 8% of the population but 12% of hospitalizations.

Lots of constructions workers getting sick
Although the city and county stay-at-home orders initially restricted construction to projects deemed “essential,” Gov. Greg Abbott’s deemed all residential and commercial construction essential. Like me, CM Kathie Tovo said today that she had seen job sites that were not complying with social distancing guidelines and had heard constituents voice the same concerns.

Escott said among the infected there have been “a significant number of construction workers as well as families of construction workers.” It is “one of the dominant industries” among those infected, along with the grocery and health care sectors.

In other words: “The people getting sick right now tend to be the people who are working right now.”

Should we be optimistic? Ehh…
Where we go from here depends on how behavior changes in the coming weeks. We certainly are nowhere near the testing and contact tracing capacity to practically stamp out the disease, ala South Korea. The absolute best case scenario will be a steady, slow burn of hospitalizations and death until a vaccine arrives.

The slow burn will be possible only if people continue to interact at a far lower rate than usual. And frankly, I think it’s a good bet that person-to-person contact will continue to be far under normal levels. A national poll released today by the Washington Post shows that 63% of Americans are at least “somewhat” worried about getting ill and only 22% say they’d feel comfortable going to a restaurant at this point. There are sharp partisan divides, but even a majority of Republicans say they’re ready to dine out yet.

But there’s definitely going to be increased interaction. That’s for sure. And that is going to lead to an increase in transmission.

What is unclear to me is what the governor will do if hospitals around the state become overwhelmed in June or July. Will he reimpose restrictions or is he going to let us ride this out? Both outcomes seem plausible to me. The United States has failed to contain the virus and is now in the process of giving up the fight in the hopes that we will eventually achieve herd immunity.

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