With the prospect of throngs from across the globe gathering in person for the South by Southwest festivals for the first time since 2019, local health leaders are urging attendees to play it safe as Austin hopes to soon reach pandemic record lows in COVID-19 hospitalizations and cases.

Austin Public Health on Friday reported a rolling seven-day average of 12 new daily hospital admissions, a number that helps Austin Public Health determine its risk-based guidelines. This average was a slight increase from 10 recorded earlier this week.

Austin Public Health’s guidelines range from Stage 1, when the community is at the lowest risk of catching the virus, to Stage 5, when residents are most at risk. The lowest average Austin has reached since the pandemic hit Central Texas is 7, back in June 2021.

The Austin area is currently in Stage 2 of the guidelines, which is when the average stays between 5 and 14.

In an interview with the American-Statesman last week, Dr. Desmar Walkes, Austin-Travis County health authority, said if SXSW attendees heed her advice and wear masks in public when enjoying such speakers as Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla and artists like Lizzo and Dolly Parton, the area in the coming weeks could reach a new low in coronavirus cases and hospitalizations.

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Until two weeks ago, the community had been in Stage 5 of the guidelines since Jan. 6 after the omicron variant of the coronavirus fueled a record-breaking surge in cases and hospitalizations at the end of last year.

The peak of the surge occurred in mid-January, when as many as 1 in 3 COVID-19 tests taken by Austin Public Health were positive.

But by February, the omicron surge began a steady decline in transmission rates and hospitalizations, leading public health officials to move the Austin area to Stage 4 on Feb. 24. Within a week, Walkes shifted the area to Stage 3. Then Stage 2 was announced last Friday.

The last time the Austin area was in Stage 2 was in the summer of 2021. But the community did not reach the coveted Stage 1 because of the arrival of delta variant, which caused a surge in cases that overwhelmed hospitals starting in August.

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“I’m hopeful,” Walkes said about the possibility of entering Stage 1 this year. “It really all depends on what the community does with regards to taking those precautions that we need to decrease spread. We’ll just see what happens.”

South by Southwest keynote attendees prepare for Busy Philipps, actor, and Alexis McGill Johnson, president and CEO of Planned Parenthood, to take the stage, Friday March 11, 2022 at the Austin Convention Center.

South by Southwest keynote attendees prepare for Busy Philipps, actor, and Alexis McGill Johnson, president and CEO of Planned Parenthood, to take the stage, Friday March 11, 2022 at the Austin Convention Center.

Austin Public Health on Friday, on the eve of SXSW’s opening weekend, was tracking 89 people in the hospital with COVID-19, down from 99 on Thursday, which was the first time the Austin area had fewer than 100 hospitalizations for COVID since Dec. 4, 2021, when the patient count was 97.

Of those hospitalized, 29 patients were in Austin-area intensive care units. That number hit a pandemic record of 237 on Aug. 22 during the delta surge. The 14 patients on ventilators remained low compared with the pandemic record of 174 set on Aug. 29.

Austin Public Health and Travis County health officials reported a total of 1,444 total deaths from virus since the start of the pandemic.

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According to state data, Travis County vaccination rates continue to improve. As of Thursday, 83.98% of Travis County residents 5 and older have received at least one dose of vaccine. About 72.56% of county residents 5 and older are fully vaccinated.

This article originally appeared on Austin American-Statesman: Austin health leaders: SXSW masking could be key to record COVID lows