Latinos account for three-fourths of all COVID-19-related hospitalizations in the area – a “substantial” increase in the last week, according to health officials.

At a briefing Tuesday morning, Austin Public Health interim Medical Authority Dr. Mark Escott told Travis County commissioners new COVID-19 hospitalizations are following the rates of positive tests among Latino patients at drive-thru testing sites.

“This certainly indicates what we’ve been seeing in the testing rates – that the outbreak is concentrated around our Latinx community,” Escott said.

New numbers from last week show Latino patients account for 76% of hospitalizations, while Latinos comprise 34% of the Austin area’s population. White Austinites, who make up roughly half the population, accounted for 16% of hospitalizations. Black Austinites accounted for 6% of hospitalized patients, and patients identifying as an “other” demographic accounted for 2%, all told.

Data from Central Health’s test sites show Latinos were more than three times as likely to test positive for COVID-19 than others within the last month.

Austin Public Health has been targeting the Latino community to raise awareness of the risks associated with COVID-19 though public service announcements and Spanish-language mailers, Escott said. The City of Austin voted last week to put together a task force to address Latino diagnoses and hospitalizations.

Health officials have feared the prospect of the disparity for weeks, as many folks in the Latino community may be essential workers in industries like construction or likely to live in multi-generational homes.

Precinct 1 Commissioner Jeff Travillion questioned whether Austin Public Health could organize a campaign to boost testing and contact tracing in the construction industry to combat a possible spread, like APH has done in nursing homes and long-term care facilities.

Escott suggested that could prove difficult.

“Construction’s a bit more challenging … because individual construction workers … may be dedicated to a particular site or they may work at multiple … sites,” he said. “So capturing that population in a facility-based testing or site-based testing is much more challenging than it is in a nursing home-type facility.”

Escott added that public health officials must also consider operational sustainability going forward. It’s likely, he said, that health officials will continue testing and contact tracing at individual hotspots, rather than do costly, industry-wide testing-and-tracing efforts like at nursing homes.

Escott’s briefing came as the county faces a possible second wave of COVID-19 cases.

Travis County saw its largest, single-day increase in positive cases yet on Monday, and Escott said he expects the hospitalization to jump in tandem – though, there is a roughly 10-day lag, he said.

On top of that, Escott said crowds at bars and restaurants over the weekend personally gave him pause and he fears that Austinites aren’t fully grasping the gravity of the situation as the city and state reopen. If it’s not careful, he said, Austin could become a victim of its own success at preventing the spread of COVID-19.

“Part of the challenge that we’re seeing is we’re seeing what happens when we’re successful at prevention – because it’s not real yet to the community,” he said. “[Some Austinites] don’t know people by name who have been hospitalized with COVID-19, or who have died. I know all the names. My staff know all the names. They’ve talked to those individuals before they’ve died. They’ve talked to their family members because they’ve been exposed. It’s real to us.”

Got a tip? Email Andrew Weber at aweber@kut.org. Follow him on Twitter @England_Weber.

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