UT researchers: When Travis County could reach CDC’s ‘high’ COVID-19 stage

AUSTIN (KXAN) — After weeks of low numbers of COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations, those metrics are on the rise again in Austin-Travis County.

On Thursday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention raised the COVID-19 risk level in Travis and Hays counties to “medium.” The risk levels are low, medium and high and are determined based on three factors: the number of new cases in the last seven days, new hospital admissions in the last seven days and the percentage of hospital beds. staffed hospitals used by COVID-19. the patients.

KXAN’s Grace Reader spoke with UT Austin COVID-19 Modeling Consortium Postdoctoral Fellow Anass Bouchnita about what we can expect locally moving forward. The following transcript has been edited for length.

Reader: We’ve had this nice summer lull where people are starting to get back to a normal routine. As far as the data currently shows, where are we with these COVID numbers?

Bouchnita: We have seen a few months where the numbers were very low, but in the last two weeks the number of cases and hospital admissions is starting to rise again. Here in Austin, it looks like the numbers are continuing to rise and will likely continue to rise for a few weeks or months.

Reader: Last year, at the end of the summer, we also had a small peak, but it came later. Where are we compared?

Bouchnita: There are several factors: at the moment, different sub-variants of omicron are competing against each other, and we have new, more aggressive variants, BA.4 and BA.5, which are starting to gain traction. We expect the transmissibility of the virus as a whole to increase as these variants can evade prior immunity, but this is not the only factor. We have school closures and that is good news because school closures will also help reduce communicability and transmission in the community.

Reader: It also looks like the FDA might finally be giving children under five the green flag to get vaccinated. What role will this play?

Bouchnita: I think it’s very beneficial because the more immunity we have in the population, the less chance there is of the virus spreading. I think it will have a very positive impact with the authorization of the second boosters. We hope these two will increase immunity and I think the timing of these decisions is very important because we need more immunity to contain this new surge.

Reader: Talk a bit about this waning immunity.

Bouchnita: It’s been four or five months since the first omicron wave, where we had so many infections, and so we expect many people to lose their immunity at a rapid rate. Right now, where we have growing BA.4 and BA.5, and where we also have waning immunity, I think it’s the best time to be up to date with vaccinations. I think it’s very important that people are stimulated, and of course we mustn’t forget the other arsenal that we have.

Reader: What are y’all patterns showing up for the next few weeks and months? What can people expect going forward?

Bouchnita: To be honest, we are still working on this particular issue and plan to release a report in the next few weeks, but for now what we can say is that it really depends on each location. We still have some uncertainties regarding the properties of the new variants, BA.4 and BA.5.

In the event that these two variants can escape prior immunity, we expect the numbers to continue to rise until the fall and we will have a very significant wave, but it will not be as sharp as the first omicron wave. On the other hand, if there is good cross-protection between BA.4, BA.5 and prior immunity, we will still have the increase in cases that will be driven by the decline in immunity, but that will come very slowly and will allow time to anticipate and prepare.

Reader: As we, as the City of Austin, have moved through these low, medium, and high CDC levels, do you all have any indication of when we will move from this medium level to this high level?

Bouchnita: I can’t give you definitive numbers or precise predictions because, as I said, it really depends on those uncertainties that we have right now, but we expect that won’t be very soon. We think it will take time and this wave will be more gradual due to the level of immunity we have. It will also depend on people’s behavior and the number of boosters administered in the coming weeks.

Reader: What do we know about BA.4 and BA.5? And what specifically are you trying to figure out that you don’t know right now?

Bouchnita: We have clinical studies showing that BA.4 and BA.5 can evade immunity and therefore people who have been infected with certain omicron subvariants will have a significant chance of being re-infected with BA.4 and BA.5. We know that they are more transmissible because they naturally gain ground on BA.12 and BA.2 and BA.1, but we do not know by how much.

The other factor is the pathogenicity of this variant. Some reports therefore suggest that these variants may be more severe than the previous subvariant. We believe this may be a determining factor in the increase in hospitalizations and mortality.

Reader: What do people need to do to move forward?

Bouchnita: We know what works against COVID. We know that boosters work very well against all omicron variants and subvariants. And if they can’t, we know now is a good time to start wearing face masks again and get back to physical distancing.

Reader: Is there anything else you would like to say, add, think people should know right now?

Bouchnita: I want to enjoy the summer myself, but I think it’s very important to think about vulnerable people who may be in serious danger if they catch COVID. I think it’s very important to get boosted, to get vaccinated, to respect physical distance, to get tested and to wear face masks.

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