Austin

Public health officials in Austin and Travis County are now encouraging vaccinated people to wear masks both indoors and outdoors, and for those unvaccinated to stay at home except for essential needs — the first major city in Texas to take such a step.

This comes as the highly contagious delta variant continues to spread across the state, pushing the county’s seven-day average of new hospitalizations to 35 — the threshold for Stage 4 of the area’s COVID-19 risk-based guidelines.

County officials made the announcement in a virtual news conference Friday morning. Under Stage 4, officials want residents — vaccinated and unvaccinated — to wear masks at all times in public, and for unvaccinated people to only leave their homes for essential trips.

"I know this transition back to Stage 4 may be difficult, but we must follow our local health authority's recommendations to once again flatten the curve and to ensure we continue to protect ourselves and our most vulnerable," Travis County Judge Andy Brown said in a press release.

The city can’t enforce the restrictions, however, because Gov. Greg Abbott banned all local pandemic-related mandates in May. The recommendations differ from those of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which says it safe for people who are fully vaccinated to “resume activities that you did before the pandemic without wearing a mask or physically distancing.”

Just eight days ago, city and county officials raised protocols to Stage 3, urging unvaccinated people to avoid nonessential travel and wear masks when they leave their homes.

The announcement comes as the seven-day average of virus hospitalizations in Travis jumped from 63 people on July 4 to 202 on Friday, marking a 203% increase. Of those hospitalizations, 82 are in intensive care units, marking a 242% increase from July 4 when 24 people were in ICUs.

The last time the county was in Stage 4 was March 12, after the winter peak of COVID-19 cases and early in the state’s vaccination effort. On that day, the state trauma service region that includes Travis and 10 surrounding counties reported that 248 patients with COVID-19 were hospitalized. The number dropped to its lowest point — 190 hospitalizations — on March 29 and has since risen to 244 hospitalized COVID-19 patients as of Friday.

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