Ryan Autullo @AutulloAASNancy Flores @latinoculture

Tuesday

May 19, 2020 at 4:46 PM
May 19, 2020 at 5:41 PM

Travis County has managed to stem the spread of new coronavirus cases in the area, but a Travis County health official said Tuesday that concerns remain about the disproportionate impact the virus is having on the Hispanic community as well as people living in nursing homes.

The mixed-bag findings were presented Tuesday morning to the Austin City Council and later in the day to Travis County commissioners. Citing a recent leveling off of new cases and hospitalizations, Austin-Travis County Interim Health Authority Dr. Mark Escott said: “We’ve flattened the curve.”

But any celebration would be premature, he said, noting that Dallas, Tarrant and El Paso counties have seen a recent spike in new cases after it appeared they had the virus controlled heading into May. It’s critical for those in Austin to continue to comply with stay-at-home orders limiting contact with non-family members, Escott said.

As of Monday, there had been more than 2,500 confirmed infections in Travis County since the coronavirus response began in mid March, with 79 leading to deaths.

Any optimism that came from Escott’s presentation was also blunted by reports Monday that Travis County had 78 new cases, the most in a single day since 82 on April 13. Both dates landed on a Monday when new infections have been relatively high after low numbers on the weekend when people are less likely to seek testing. But the overall trend lines have plateaued. Daily increases in new cases have hovered at or below 5% throughout May and hospitalizations in the five-county metropolitan area have steadied to about 90 patients on any given day.

The data presented by the public health authority showed some worrisome trends for the Hispanic community. In the first full week of May, Hispanics accounted for 66% of local hospitalizations related to the virus, up 22% from two weeks earlier. The numbers were slightly better last week when Hispanics had a 62% share of hospitalizations.

Hispanics make up 34% of Travis County’s population. They have about a 24% positive testing rate, which is higher than any other Austin population, according to CommUnityCare data.

“It will be our communities of color that bear the brunt of this pandemic and we need to be proactive and make sure that we put equitable systems in place and have an equitable planning process,” said Adrienne Sturrup, assistant director at Austin Public Health.

Ensuring there’s transportation available to bring residents to drive-thru COVID-19 testing sites and boosting targeted and culturally relevant outreach to minority communities are among the strategies needed to address racial inequities during the pandemic, according to Austin’s Equity Office.

Several City Council members floated the idea of creating a task force aimed at addressing the disparity.

The data released Tuesday comes amid a slow rebuild to normalcy locally and statewide. On Monday, as gyms in the state were cleared to reopen, Gov. Greg Abbott announced that beginning Friday, bars can return at 25% capacity and restaurants can increase to half capacity. Other forms of entertainment like bowling alleys, bingo halls and skating rinks also are set to reopen on Friday.

Additional data from the public health department showed 473 cases originated in nursing home facilities — 319 residents, 154 staff. Two unidentified facilities combined for more than 200 cases and 30 of the 46 resident deaths.

After Escott’s presentation, City Council members shifted focus to the allocation of $170.8 million in federal coronavirus relief funds.

Staff recommended that $18.6 million go to rental assistance and $23.5 million to businesses impacted by the pandemic. Another $98 million was recommended for various expenses related to emergency response.

It was expected that there would be a vote at Thursday’s meeting on how to distribute the funds, but Mayor Steve Adler indicated that time would instead be used for additional discussion.

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