Help for understaffed nursing homes, new COVID-19 screening tool coming to Austin, Travis County

AUSTIN (KXAN) — Austin and Travis County hope to soon have more accessible COVID-19 screening and help for “chronically understaffed” nursing homes in the area, according to an update from health officials during the Austin City Council’s work session Tuesday to discuss the city’s response to COVID-19.

COVID-19 Cases in Travis County

As of Tuesday afternoon, Travis County has had 1,225 people test positive for COVID-19. Of those, 293 are considered recovered, according to Austin Public Health Director Stephanie Hayden.

Hayden says APH staff is working seven days a week to follow up with those who tested positive, and that the department has added people who speak Spanish to that team to better facilitate the check-ins. The epidemiology staff, meanwhile, is doing contact tracing on all positive cases to figure out and notify who those people may have come in contact with. CommUnity Care is also providing testing 5 days a week in the Eastern Crescent, as KXAN reported last week.

Austin-Travis County COVID-19 numbers presented by Austin Public Health to the work session of the Austin City Council on April 21, 2020.

New COVID-19 screening tool

Austin is working to roll out a new tool that people can use to sign up for COVID-19 screenings without having to get a referral from a doctor. The city told KXAN on Tuesday that it is hoping to have this tool online and more details available about it this week.

The tool will be faster than the current system, which requires APH to wait for results to be faxed over. The new tool will automatically notify APH and the patient of the test results, according to Austin Interim Health Authority Dr. Mark Escott.

The tool will let people enter their symptoms, and it will schedule them at a testing site. Currently the only site it works with is APH’s drive-through location, but the city hopes to add more sites to its system.

Reopening Austin and Travis County

Earlier on in the pandemic, Escott said most of Austin-Travis County cases were in the 20-40 age group, but now they’re showing up more in the 40-59 age group. In comparison, Austin has had relatively low COVID-19 cases in those older than 70, “which is a good thing,” Escott said.

However, this past week Austin saw an increasing number of cases compared to previous weeks.

Data of Austin-Travis County COVID-19 cases added each week. Graphic presented by Austin Public Health to a work session of Austin City Council on April 21, 2020.

Escott says people shouldn’t see reopening measures, like those Gov. Abbott has outlined, as a sign that Texas is over the COVID-19 peak.

“If we don’t do it right, if we don’t do it in a measured way, we are going to be back in a shelter in place situation,” Escott said.

Austin-Travis County COVID-19 cases as of April 20 (Austin-Travis County)

At 6.6%, Escott said Travis County has a high rate of testing per capita compared to other Texas metro areas. Between 10% and 12% of those who are tested are positive, so far.

He believes it’s still too early to tell how close Austin-Travis County may be to a COVID-19 peak, but hoped to have more clarity by the end of the week.

“We as a community will determine when that peak happens and when another peak happens in the future,” Escott said, citing the need for continued social distancing and use of healthy habits such as wearing face coverings. “If we don’t continue to do that, we are going to back at “stay-at-home, work safe” (orders),” Escott said.

He added that public vigilance and cautionary measures to protect against COVID-19 in Austin Travis County will probably have to last for an entire year.

Austin Mayor Steve Adler says as of now, the city will not challenge Gov. Greg Abbott’s pre-emption on stay-home-related orders “because the three things he’s done make sense to us.” However, as Abbott adds order and direction, Adler says the city will continue to reassess Austin’s response. Austin’s Stay Home, Work Safe order is still set to be in place through May 8.

Governor Greg Abbott said Tuesday that Texas’ current stay-at-home order expires April 30 and he plans to issue a new order on April 27, he didn’t say whether or not the new order would pre-empt local ordinances which extend past that point such as Dallas County’s safe-at-home order which has just been extended through May 15.

Nursing homes ‘chronically understaffed’

In Travis County, 96 nursing home residents have tested positive for COVID-19 and about 67 staff members have been infected, according to Dr. Escott. A total of 15 residents have died in those facilities.

On Monday, Austin Public Health issued a new order for nursing homes and assisted living facilities. Part of that entails restricting facilities from taking more patients if two or more people have tested positive.

APH is also asking the state for help to deploy “strike teams” to homes that need staff to help cope with outbreaks, Escott said. Many of these homes are “chronically understaffed,” he added, and COVID-19 has shifted that balance even more.

While they wait for the state’s response, Austin and Travis County are hoping to contract more people locally to help in nursing homes.

COVID-19 and the homeless

The Salvation Army temporarily closed its downtown shelter to better prepare it to reduce the spread of COVID-19, and hopes to reopen soon. APH is working with the Salvation Army to make sure everyone who will stay at the reopened shelter has gone through at 14-day isolation period to make sure they do not have any COVID-19 symptoms.

Currently, there are five recreation centers available where people can shower, and APH is working to get more mobile showers across the city.

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