Travis County official confirms community spread of COVID-19 in county

Neha Madhira

Editor’s note: This story is part of The Daily Texan’s coverage of how coronavirus concerns are affecting UT-Austin. Read the rest of our coverage here.

The Austin-Travis County Health Authority confirmed there is evidence of community spread of the coronavirus in Travis County at a press conference Friday.

Mark Escott, the interim health authority for Austin-Travis County, said his team is hopeful that community testing sites can be launched as early as Saturday, March 21.

“I want to be very clear: This will not mean we will have the capacity to test everybody who wants to get tested at this stage,” Escott said. “We still have to prioritize those at higher risk, those who are hospitalized, our healthcare workers and our first responders to ensure that they have the access because it is important for our public health and infrastructure.”

Escott said the City of Austin and Travis County are working very closely with their health care systems and the Dell Medical School to model how other communities have handled the coronavirus in order to better manage the county’s hospital capacity.

He said the decision has not yet been made to implement a shelter-in-place order for the city or county.

“If we see any stress on our health care capacity to manage illness, then we will make a decision at that stage,” Escott said. “It’s important for us to understand that right now we are in a critical stage in this evolving pandemic as it strikes the city of Austin and Travis County.”

Escott said three factors must be kept in mind when it comes to the virus.

“This disease is not an equal opportunity killer,” Escott said. “For young people, we expect a vast majority of them will have a mild illness. The big risk is sharing it with older people or those who are at risk. That’s why it is critical that we heed the warnings and we check ourselves, that’s number two. And finally, if we’re sick, it’s not appropriate for this to rush to the emergency room or to an urgent care. We’re asking that we reserve those resources for other things in the community.”

As the number of cases grow, Escott said it is going to be impossible to identify and contact every person who may have been exposed to the virus, which is why city and county officials have given a community spread warning.

“We’re asking young people to stay home when you’re sick, stay home if you have even a cough because that could be an early indication of disease,” Escott said. “Our community has come together, and we are strong. It’s important that we harness that strength, that togetherness, that community attitude to get through this.”