Austin Public Health Wants More Time – And More COVID-19 Testing – As State Reopens

Jennifer Stayton | KUT

Gov. Greg Abbott announced Monday that some Texas businesses like restaurants can reopen with limited capacity Friday. Austin Public Health had been thinking about making a similar move – just not so fast.

Austin Public Health Director Stephanie Hayden said Abbott's announcement "pretty much will end the orders that we have in place" for Austin during the coronavirus pandemic. Is this her ideal scenario for reopening?

"Over the last few weeks, we were looking at similar plans [to Abbott’s]," she said. "But we were really hoping to have a later implementation, closer [to] June."

But the governor's order won't change everything about how Austin begins to reopen. Hayden said the local public health authority has the final word on some things, like its nursing home order from March.

Hayden acknolwedged that whatever the timetable is for reopening, the local testing capacity is inadequate. It has remained steady at about 2,000 tests per week during the pandemic.

"Our goal is that we really want to be able to across our community be up to 2,000 tests a day," she said, though she could not pinpoint when that will happen.

Listen to the interview below and read the transcript to hear more from Hayden about reopening and testing, as well as some promising news about expanding the capacity for contact tracing. She also explains why grocery store workers were left out of the group of essential workers prioritized for testing via the online testing assessment.

This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:

Austin Public Health Director Stephanie Hayden: Over the last few weeks, we were looking at similar plans [to Gov. Greg Abbott’s], but we were really hoping to have a later implementation, closer June. We started looking at our restaurants and our businesses as well, and we felt that giving the additional time would allow us to increase our efforts in our community with our partners.

KUT: What is the relationship between a decision like this from the governor and what local authorities may want? Can you all make a decision or issue an order that differs from the governor?  

Hayden: The governor is looking at the state of Texas and we are looking at Travis County, and so with our health authority orders – the governor's orders pretty much will end the orders that we have in place with the exception of specific health authority orders for facilities that we have in place. We will continue to work with entities and provide that technical assistance to them as they are reaching out to our offices for that technical assistance and giving them as much support as we can during this transition.

KUT: When you said local health orders for certain entities, does that mean that Austin Public Health could say something about specific kinds of businesses in Austin that might differ from the governor's order?  

Hayden: The example I will give you is the orders that we have with the nursing homes. Those orders will remain, and we will continue to work collaboratively with the nursing homes and provide that additional support to them. Within the orders, there is a strong emphasis on folks that are older in our population, at least 60 or older that may have co-existing illnesses. We want to make sure to really, really be supportive of that population, really emphasize it's important for them to stay home if they don't have to be out in the public.  

KUT: We heard Austin Mayor Steve Adler tell the Austin City Council yesterday that he and Travis County Judge Sarah Eckhardt were thinking about our local stay-at-home orders and possibly extending those. Is that something that localities can do? You were mentioning there are specific things like the nursing home operations where that could come into play. Can localities do that for any other operation that they might choose?  

Hayden:  If we have a concern about the health and safety of any operation, we can definitely do that. Typically, the department will reach out to the Department of State Health Services and consult with them if we're seeing any challenges at the local level.  

KUT: We hear, in conjunction with some businesses starting to reopen, that testing and contact tracing are important to keep track of the spread, especially if people start going out and about a little more. Do Austin and the state have that capacity right now to track what may happen after some businesses slowly start to reopen?

Hayden: Our epidemiologists conduct contact tracing for every positive COVID-19 case in Austin and Travis County. We are continuing to expand our efforts, especially with testing, as we continue to ramp up our system. But in addition to that, we have a contact tracing system that we are going to deploy toward the end of this week.

We've added some additional personnel to that area. We have folks that are working on that seven days a week. We are collaborating with UT-Dell Medical School, and they are doing contact tracing for us. And then also CommUnityCare is doing contact tracing for us, as well for their patients. In addition, the state has begun conversations across the state talking with us about a statewide system.  

KUT: Austin has had roughly the same testing capacity – about 2,000 tests per week – during the pandemic so far. Any sense of when that local capacity might increase to more than 2,000 a week?

Hayden: With the initial rollout of our public testing enrollment form last week, the site has the ability to test 2,000 people – just Austin Public Health. We know that we have partnerships across the county where testing is being done by some of our other partners. We are really refining our point of testing site. Our goal is that we really want to be able to, across our community, be up to 2,000 tests a day. That is the ultimate goal between us and our partners to be able to test that many people a day.

KUT: Any sense of how close we are to hitting that mark of 2,000 a day rather than 2,000 a week?  

Hayden: I will say we still have some work to do as we are ensuring that our partners have what they need to be able to provide the testing, as well as just working more collaboratively with them. We still have work to do.

KUT: Somebody pointed out to us that grocery store employees aren't in the group given priority testing – health care workers are, city employees, day care workers and other essential workers – but not grocery store workers. Any sense about why that group that is out there working is not included in those who get priority access for testing?

Hayden: The public testing enrollment form is being released in phases. We wanted to initially get it out there, determine if there were any improvements we need to make. For example, right now there's only an English and a Spanish option for languages. As a part of our next phase, we want to add additional language options, as well as adding additional categories of essential workers. We understand that was an area that we did not spell out, but in our next phase we're definitely going to make some changes and add that.

Got a tip? Email Jennifer Stayton at jstayton@kut.org. Follow her on Twitter @jenstayton

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About the Author: Jennifer Stayton | KUT

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