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Austin city and public health officials on Thursday raised the city’s coronavirus risk-based guidelines for the first time since the winter surge, urging unvaccinated people to avoid non-essential travel and take other precautions after seeing a dramatic increase in new COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations in recent days.
Officials placed at least part of the blame on the dangerous and highly transmissible Delta variant of the virus, which has contributed to similar spikes in more populous areas across Texas recently.
“We cannot pretend that we are done with a virus that is not done with us,” Austin Mayor Steve Adler said during a Thursday news conference.
But the city’s move to Stage 3 guidelines has no weight of law behind it because Gov. Greg Abbott banned pandemic mandates in May. It also only applies to the city’s unvaccinated population; the guidelines recommend that vaccinated people only need to take precautions while traveling.
The move marks the first time a major Texas city has reinstated increased health protocols since dropping mask mandates, dialing back business restrictions and allowing large events to resume in the spring and summer as COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations plummeted.
Stage 3 guidelines mean unvaccinated or partially-vaccinated residents should avoid gatherings, travel, shopping and dining out altogether unless it’s essential, and mask up when they leave their homes. Officials say they are weighing further precautionary recommendations in case these measures don’t reduce the numbers.
The city went to Stage 5, the highest level of restrictions, in December — just before the deadliest surge of the pandemic thus far. By mid-March, the city had dropped back to Stage 2 for the first time during the pandemic.
Among the alarming trends cited by Austin and Travis County health officials on Thursday: The average number of daily new cases has tripled, COVID-19-related hospital admissions are on the rise, cases of COVID-19 in children are rising, and 20% of the more than 100 people with COVID-19 in area hospitals are on ventilators, while 41 are in the ICU.
Almost all of the hospitalized patients are unvaccinated, said Dr. Desmar Walkes, Austin-Travis County Health Authority.
“This has to stop, and we know how to make that happen,” Walkes said. “We are hoping that this self-correction that we’re doing with the change to the stage three status will help bring us back to a place where our cases are again declining.”
At least 60% of Austin residents are fully vaccinated, and Travis County, where Austin is located, has the third highest vaccination rate among the state’s urban counties, which are also beginning to report increasing cases and hospitalizations.
Austin’s announcement comes as life has been returning to pre-pandemic normalcy across Texas in recent weeks and months. As recently as this week, Austin’s Palmer Events Center announced it would resume its events, which in the past have included conventions and weekend events that draw tens of thousands of people.
Texas recently ended its pandemic assistance program for unemployed people, and school districts are no longer allowed to mandate masks under most circumstances.