The initiative came about as political leaders in Washington, D.C., and Texas were calling for COVID-19 restrictions to be lifted even as cases grew. Authorities in Austin wanted a better way to contain the virus.
Austin’s collaborative system alerts authorities to changing conditions, enabling them to quickly shift their COVID-19 response based on the needs of vulnerable areas. One major challenge to adopting this model elsewhere is that the necessary data isn’t always available from hospitals in a region, a problem the Austin consortium overcame.
The Austin initiative uses ZIP code-based data on poverty, unemployment, income and level of education to determine which locations were most vulnerable to COVID-19 surges. That information, combined with caseload data, helps officials categorize the risk of a big surge that could threaten hospital capacity in specific locations.
In addition to the mayor and the city’s Public Health Authority, participants include the CEOs of Ascension Seton, St. David’s HealthCare and Baylor Scott & White Health, as well as University of Texas at Austin Dell Medical School Dean Clay Johnston. The UT COVID-19 Modeling Consortium also includes researchers from the University of Texas and Northwestern University.
“The spirit was: This is our community that we have to save right now. We have to be working together,” Johnston said.
A federally led partnership that collected COVID-19 mortality data to project where cases would rise had a significant shortcoming, said Dr. Georges Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Association. Because deaths can lag behind cases for weeks, the numbers are never fully up to date.
Another reason for Austin’s success is clear and separate communications from political leaders, who make decisions about economic decisions, and the researchers running the project, who are responsible for informing the public about the state of the pandemic, Benjamin said.
“What they did was depoliticize the process,” Benjamin said. “That’s worth its weight in gold.”
The Austin model could be applied to other kinds of health emergencies, like natural disasters, and to track EMS capacity on an ongoing basis, Benjamin said.
The Texas Health Department is using the UT model to track cases and variants statewide but, to date, no other municipality has copied what Austin did. Harris County, where Houston is located, brought in Meyers and her team to investigate establishing a similar model there last year. But the discussions faltered amid a lack of political will and a surge in COVID-19 cases that demanded authorities’ attention. Likewise, talks with leaders in Dallas and El Paso also did not come to fruition.