100% Austin news, info, and entertainment, straight to your inbox at 6 a.m. every morning.
In five minutes, you're fully informed and ready to start another great day in our city.
Returning Austin from pandemic lockdown to some measure of normalcy will require improved contact tracing, the practice of identifying and isolating anyone infected with COVID-19.
But with an insufficient supply of testing kits and a limited amount of manpower, this is easier said than done. Tech giants like Apple and Google have announced their own solutions—all of which seem weeks or months away from availability—that come with concerns about security and the use of personal data.
Austin won't have to wait long. City officials recently rolled out a new set of digital tools focused on making this process more efficient.
Austin residents who suspect they might be infected with COVID-19 can now download a mobile app or visit a dedicated website to determine if testing is necessary after answering a series of questions, the city of Austin announced last week. The system is part of a comprehensive platform built by Plano-based technology firm NTT Data, a Fortune 50 company.
"The reality is, this happened very quickly. We really went from concept to implementation in less than three weeks," said Chris Merdon, NTT Data's senior vice president of public sector. The software was built using Salesforce's PaaS [platform as a service], marking the first time the company has used it for COVID-19 contact tracing.
"The advantage of Salesforce is that it's able to scale quickly," Merdon said, making it easier to expand the city's contact tracing initiatives as necessary.
Prior to the platform being implemented, a physician would screen patients to decide if testing was needed. Then, further coordination was required to determine when and where to send people to testing sites—not to mention contacting those infected or potentially exposed. But now most of those steps have been automated, allowing city officials to focus their efforts elsewhere.
"If a recommendation to get tested is made, you are provided with a QR code and directed to the nearest of five testing centers located throughout Austin," he explained, adding that the platform is able to schedule appointments every 15 minutes. After being tested, people are automatically sent an email notifying them when results are available through the contact tracing website. Those who test positive will also receive instructions on what to do next, and will be prompted to fill out a survey to help identify who they may have come into contact with in the past few days or weeks.
In addition to speeding up the screening process, the new platform will allow officials to more easily find infection hotspots and better distribute limited resources like test kits or personal protective equipment where needed. Austin Public Health officials anticipate initially testing up to 2,000 people per week. That figure is expected to grow as the supply of test kits, and the number of labs processing results, increase. But the city wouldn't be able to ramp up without the new contact tracing platform.
Security and privacy concerns
Much of the discussion about contact tracing technology has centered around the partnership announced April 10 between Google and Apple to produce a comprehensive solution that regional health organizations can connect to their own efforts. This has caused concerns about security and privacy of personal data, despite claims by both companies that such data would not be harvested or used outside of the COVID-19 contact tracing efforts.
Merdon said that protecting personal information was at the top of the list of priorities for the city and for NTT Data. The city's platform is fully encrypted and HIPAA compliant, with data stored on a FedRAMP-certified data center at Salesforce. He said the overall approach to the city's platform is also completely different from what Google and Apple are building.
"We are partnering with government to jointly develop the [platform], while the data itself will actually be owned by the government," he said. "The Google/Apple model is a little bit different because they are developing the application themselves without a government partner. They're retaining ownership of the data and then making it available to government partners."
The Google-Apple approach to contact tracing involves using Bluetooth technology from smartphones to track when people may have encountered one another. But participation requires downloading an app and opting in, to some degree.
Justin Harvey, CEO and founder of Austin-based Spatial Cinematic, said that the data being collected by Google-Apple's platform doesn't include locations, only contacts. Since each smartphone has a unique identifier, what's happening is that the platform will log when your smartphone comes within a specific distance of another smartphone. People typically carry their mobile devices everywhere, so this could provide a more accurate and comprehensive way to track and identify those exposed to the virus. Collected data is stored on a smartphone rather than a central database.
"The only data that's leaving the device is data from someone who has self-reported as positive," Harvey said.
- Plasma from Austin COVID-19 survivors may be used to treat ICU ... ›
- Coronavirus cases migrate south and east as predicted, but ... ›
- Coronavirus testing rates in Austin mean 'the only thing you know is ... ›
- Fabric face coverings will be 'longstanding requirement' in Austin ... ›
- Austin ER visits plummet over coronavirus concerns - austonia ›
- Questions about COVID antibody protection put herd immunity theory at risk - austonia ›
- FDA OKs at-home COVID test kit from Austin-based Everlywell - austonia ›
- City, county to share names, addresses, demographics for positive COVID-19 tests in contract tracing effort - austonia ›
- Why contact tracing doesn't work in Austin - austonia ›
- Google delays returning to Austin offices as COVID-19 spikes - austonia ›
- Google engineers struggle to be productive working-from-home - austonia ›
- Texas joins Trump administration's lawsuit against Google - austonia ›
- The CEO of Dropbox is planning a move to Austin - austonia ›
After reaching Stage 4 last week of Austin Public Health's risk-based guidelines, Austin-Travis County is now at the Stage 5 threshold with a seven-day average of 50 hospitalizations and dwindling ICU capacity.
While unenforceable under Gov. Greg's Abbott order against local mandates, vaccinated individuals are asked to choose drive-through and curbside options, outdoor activities, social interactions with limited group sizes, as well as social distance and wearing masks indoors. Partially or unvaccinated individuals are asked to avoid gatherings, travel, dining and shopping, choose curbside and delivery options, as well as wear a mask on essential trips.
Flashing back to early-pandemic times, hospitals are at critical capacity—the 11 county Trauma Service Region of 2.3 million people is fluctuating at 16 staffed beds, according to APH.
In a statement on behalf of Ascension Seton, Baylor Scott & White Health and St. David's Healthcare, a spokesperson said that hospitals are asking residents to "help us and each other" by getting vaccinated and continuing to utilize safety practices to slow the spread of the virus.
According to the statement, a "longstanding" nurse staffing challenge combined with the recent COVID-19 spike is putting "extraordinary pressure" on hospital systems.
Along with the unmitigated spread of the virus in unvaccinated, the more contagious Delta variant is also to blame for the spike in cases. The seven-day moving average of COVID hospitalizations in the Austin area reached the Stage 5 threshold of 50 on Friday, triggering local health officials to ask residents to take action.
Local hospitals have a "surge plan" that includes utilization of "all available patient care space and employees within our hospitals and in other settings" that will go into effect when capacity is hit, according to the statement.
The hospitals are working on sourcing supplemental staff and emphasized that emergency care will still be available but it may involve patient transfers "in order to provide the most appropriate care."
Healthcare systems have hit this threshold previously during the pandemic: the city held an alternate care site at the Austin Convention Center from January to March of this year.
"Our responsibility during this pandemic continues to be balancing our readiness to care for patients with COVID-19, while making sure patients who depend on our hospitals receive needed and timely care," the statement said. "We do not want to see necessary non-COVID care delayed as it was during the early stages of the pandemic."
This story has been updated to after publication to include that Austin has reached the Stage 5 threshold.
- Everything you need to know about breakthrough cases in Austin ... ›
- Vaccine demand follows Austin ZIP codes with most COVID cases ›
- Delta variant, unvaccinated fuel rise of Austin COVID cases - austonia ›
- Austin bars, restaurants respond to Abbott's reopening order - austonia ›
- 1 1/12 oz sweet pepper-infused Tito's Handmade Vodka
- 3 oz soda water
- 1 oz grapefruit juice
- 1/2 oz lime juice
- 1/4 oz simple syrup
Austin legend Willie Nelson will perform at the Texas Capitol today, his first large performance since the pandemic began, closing out a four-day long march across Central Texas to build support for federal voting protections.
Organized by The Poor People's Campaign, the march began in Georgetown on Wednesday and will end with a 10 a.m. rally at the Capitol featuring appearances from former U.S. Congressman Beto O'Rourke and Rev. Dr. William Barber.
Willie Nelson (with Charlie Sexton & friends) will play a free concert at the Poor People's Campaign march for democracy & justice in Austin this Saturday! https://t.co/zZSA0BpbWA
Sign up to join us and see Willie at 10am Saturday: https://t.co/KrDPIFIvST
— Beto O'Rourke (@BetoORourke) July 29, 2021
The rally calls on Congress to "stop attacks on democracy" by ending the filibuster, pass all provisions of the For the People Act, restore the 1965 Voting Rights Act, raise the federal minimum wage to $15 per hour and pass permanent protections for all 11 million undocumented immigrants.
Nelson denounced election law proposals gaining traction in red states, such as Senate Bill 1 and House Bill 3 in Texas, which 55 House Democrats foiled by fleeing to Washington, D.C., on July 12.
The bills would require additional ID verifications for mail-in ballots, allow partisan poll watchers "free movement" and prohibit elections officials from sending absentee ballot applications to voters who didn't request one.
"Laws making it more difficult for people to vote are unAmerican and are intended to punish people of color, the elderly and disabled," Nelson said. "If you can't win by playing the rules, then it's you and your platform–not everyone else's ability to vote."
The march is in the spirit of the Selma to Montgomery March of 1965, led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., which protested the blocking of Black Americans' right to vote by Jim Crow laws.