Clusters of COVID-19 cases appearing around people still going into work, Austin Health Authority says


AUSTIN (KXAN) — Health officials are seeing clusters of COVID-19 cases around employees who are still going to work.

That’s what Austin-Travis County Interim Health Authority Dr. Mark Escott explained at an City Council work session on Tuesday.

Austin City Council Member Jimmy Flannigan asked Dr. Escott about local numbers, referencing the latest update that of the 1,816 confirmed COVID-19 cases in Travis County and the recent numbers showing 335 cases came from clusters tied to nursing homes.

“That’s 20 percent-ish of all cases,” Flannigan said of the nursing home clusters. “Are there other pockets of positive cases that help add up to the 1,800 that I’m seeing on the dashboard?”

“We seem to see clusters around people who are working right now,” Escott replied. “That includes health care workers, that includes construction workers, that includes people working in grocery stores.”

Escott explained that his team gets this data by merging information from local hospitals with records generated at Austin Public Health. He added that the department could include more information about the occupations of people who test positive in future briefings.

“We are working to do some targeted testing at construction sites as well because we know it’s a hot spot right now,” Escott said, adding that it may be possible to focus more COVID-19 testing in the future on industries which seem to be heavily impacted.

In the backdrop of this conversation between local leaders is the reality that Texas is simultaneously beginning the process of allowing more businesses to reopen.

“This was a critical element of the discussion with the Austin Chamber as more businesses look to open, we’ve got to be very clear that we have to not only protect the workforce through requirements of workers and customers,” Escott said. “But we have to make sure that they know what to do if they develop symptoms, that they know how to connect in to get the public free testing, they know how to connect to the health care, and they have the capability of being responsible.”

Escott believes it will be important for businesses to make clear to their employees that they are able to call in sick from work and be paid for their time off so that people who are ill don’t feel the need to work.

Flannigan added, “that I think really does fall on the business owners as they make their decisions about how they’re going to survive and what programs we can create to ensure that that they do survive.”

Council Member Greg Casar noted that he has heard from constituents working in retail and are concerned about whether they or their family members have underlying health conditions which might put them at greater risk. Casar asked for more information in the future to share with workers about what to do if they have underlying conditions, how to qualify for unemployment, and how to handle conversations with their employer if they don’t feel comfortable going to work.

Escott told the council members, “our success is going to be partly dependent upon our ability to cocoon those at risk and that means that those folks at risk need to continue to telecommute,  to continue to protect themselves.”

“Our local and state federal government needs to find creative ways to support that effort,” Escott said.  

Risk at construction sites

Escott said that of the people in Austin-Travis County who have tested positive for the virus, “we have seen a significant number of construction workers and family members of construction workers who are in that group right now.”

Of the professions seeing clusters of COVID-19 cases, Escott said, construction “seems to be one of the dominant industries.”

KXAN has reported on how challenging it can be to trace COVID-19 cases back to certain construction sites, especially given that many workers may move between sites to do their jobs. Earlier on in the pandemic, businesses expressed confusion and concern locally about what construction would be allowed in the Austin area,

After Governor Abbott issued an executive order on March 31, the City of Austin announced that all construction work allowed by the Governor’s order would be permitted and that the city’s order would no longer prohibit commercial or residential construction.

Pandemic modeling from UT Austin projects that having construction workers go back to work will impact how the pandemic spreads generally to the rest of the population in the Austin area. In the “most extreme scenario” in the UT modeling where 100% of the construction workforce goes back to work and they all go back to work at sites with high risk, the models project that there would be around 30,000 total COVID-19 hospitalizations in the Austin area — more than the local healthcare system could support.

Spread of local COVID-19 cases

Dr. Escott added that when it comes to the spread of the virus, “that risk is going to increase the more people who are working.”

“At the heart of risk is that person-to-person interaction, the more person to person interactions you have, particularly in an unprotected fashion, particularly within six feet of one another, the higher the risk of getting this illness is going to be,” Escott said.

Dr. Escott explained at the work session “the jury’s still out” on whether people who have contracted the coronavirus can get infected with it again or how long immunity lasts.

“I think most experts believe that that there is at least partial and temporary immunity but that is an issue that we’ll continue to track,” Escott said.

Escott added that other areas of the country have seen a small percentage of people re-testing positive for COVID-19 after being tested the first time. He said that in Austin, “I think we can expect for some reinfections to happen.”

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