Why Austin officials are worried about COVID-19 hospitalizations even though we're in 'good shape' now
Austin officials had their third press conference in six days on Monday to discuss concerning trends in COVID-19 caseloads and hospitalizations.
While current hospital capacity is in "good shape," Austin-Travis County Interim Health Authority Dr. Mark Escott said, he is concerned that that data points to a coming surge.
Although local jurisdictions are unable to enforce masking or interfere with the state's reopening plan, Austin Mayor Steve Adler and former Travis County Judge Sarah Eckhardt pleaded with residents to recommit to wearing masks and social distancing while in public to slow the spread of the virus, which they said is picking up speed.
The city also updated its local Stay Home-Work Safe order to "strongly encourage" businesses to operate at 25% capacity or less.
Austin Public Health also advanced the local threat level on Monday from stage 3 to stage 4, according to the five-stage system its staff developed with the COVID-19 Modeling Consortium at the University of Texas. At this stage, it recommends residents limit social interactions to groups of 10 or fewer and avoid unnecessary trips.
Below, we answer some questions about how we got here, why officials are worried and what the future holds.
Mayor Steve Adler, former Travis Co. Judge Sarah Eckhardt and Austin-Travis County Interim Health Authority Dr. Mar… https://t.co/MW6ZXzDmAx— Emma Freer (@Emma Freer)1592249751.0
Why were we upgraded to the next stage of COVID-19 risk?
The trigger for the upgrade was that the county hit a rolling 7-day average of at least 20 new hospital admissions daily on Sunday.
While Dr. Escott said at the press conference that there is currently plenty of hospital capacity in the five-county region, he added that an increase in daily hospitalizations indicates an alarming trend.
Why are local officials so focused on this rolling average of new hospital admissions?
With the help of the UT consortium, local health authorities and elected officials arrived at what they have called a trigger point. Once daily new hospital admissions exceed 20, on average, the region either needs to pull back on reopening or prepare for a surge.
"Epidemics don't grow in a gradual way," consortium director Dr. Lauren Ancel Meyers told Austonia last week. "What happens is they look really flat and then suddenly they bend upwards and they become very alarming very quickly."
We've heard about a coming surge for months. But right now there are 129 COVID-19 patients hospitalized and a regional capacity of 4,300 beds. This seems like plenty, even if caseloads are increasing, right?
The 4,300-bed total is the maximum capacity provided under APH's surge plan and includes interventions such as field hospitals. The number of staffed hospital beds in the region is lower: 3,356, according to the state department of health.
Most of these beds are currently occupied by non-COVID patients, such as those being treated for cancer, recovering from heart attacks and dealing with injuries. The current occupancy rate is 70%, Dr. Escott said at the press conference.
So the total number of available hospital beds is 842, per the state data. ICU capacity is 115 beds, and there are 389 ventilators available.
This may seem like a comfortable surplus; at 20 new hospitalizations a day, on average, it would take around 42 days to fill up those available beds, assuming no one was discharged. But local officials stressed that, as the virus spreads, it will do so at an exponential rate—not an incremental one.
"Our hospitals are in good shape right now," Dr. Escott said, urging residents in need of health care not to avoid or postpone seeking it. The concern is in three to five weeks, if this trends continues, he said.
You wrote about increased testing recently. Shouldn't we expect an increase in the number of confirmed cases to follow?
Earlier this month, APH expanded access to its free testing service to asymptomatic residents following mass protests against police brutality. Thousands of residents took advantage.
But local health authorities say there is other evidence—such as increased hospitalizations and a rising positive rate among those who are tested—that the virus is gaining speed.
Hospitalizations are "the most reliable, though slightly delayed, indicator of the changing rate of spread," according to a May 18 report by researchers at the COVID-19 Modeling Consortium at the University of Texas at Austin.
Dr. Escott also raised concern about the increasing rate of positive COVID-19 test results. During a press conference last week, he said the local positive rate had recently jumped from around 5% to 9.3%.
"Once we enter this trajectory, it's very difficult to get out," he said.
The county's COVID-19 dashboard charts hospitalization data. Recently, there has been an uptick.
(Travis County COVID-19 Public Dashboard)
What can local officials do to slow this surge?
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott has prevented municipalities from instituting stay-home orders in conflict with the state's rules or mandating public masking. As a result, city and county governments are legally only able to make recommendations for how residents might respond.
To this end, the city of Austin amended its Stay Home-Work Safe order to strongly encourage—"because we can't mandate it," Adler said Monday—that reopened businesses operate at a minimal indoor capacity and provide services remotely, as much as possible, such as through curbside delivery.
And local officials have repeatedly stressed the need for residents to adapt their behavior—wearing masks and social distancing, chief among them—voluntarily.
"The best that we can provide as government officials is the best information," former Eckhardt said at the Monday press conference, "so that we can all make the best individual choices."
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As Austin navigates its homelessness crisis, city voters will decide starting Monday whether to reinstate a ban on sitting, lying and camping in certain areas of the city. Proposition B has drawn impassioned support and opposition and is perhaps the most contentious item on the May 1 ballot.
Austonia received editorials from both sides of the debate. Arguing in favor of Prop B is Cleo Petricek, a Democrat and co-founder, along with Travis County GOP Chairperson Matt Mackowiak, of the Save Austin Now political action committee, which has led the charge to reinstate the camping ban. Opponent Emily Seales is a licensed clinical social worker and advocate with over 20 years of experience working and volunteering in homeless services in Austin and around the country. She is currently on staff at the Sunrise Homeless Navigation Center and is board co-chair of Open Door.
Editor's note: These submissions are the unedited views of their authors. Claims made have not been fact-checked to give the proponent and opponent a chance to speak their minds freely.
Homeless residents have also set up tents along Cesar Chavez Street near Buford Tower, which recently caught fire after a blaze spread from the camp. (Emma Freer)
Pro: Voting yes on Prop B sends a message to council that voters' voices and real solutions are paramount
In June 2019, the Austin City Council rescinded regulations on camping in public spaces. They did so without any serious public discussion and in fact appeared to actively avoid serious scrutiny. The resulting chaos is clear for all to see. Parks and playgrounds impacted by illicit behavior, lewd activities in public, trash strewn in waterways and public spaces, and most critically, assaults on the public and on other homeless individuals.
It is obvious that the homeless are not helped by this misadventure. Vulnerable women and youth in these camps are abused, mentally ill individuals are not served and there is no incentive for substance abusers to seek help.
Proponents of this mess have put forward no credible plan for any short term housing that restores safety—instead they talk about abstract housing concepts that even they acknowledge will take years to develop. This is the mark of narrowly focused activism, not what citizens should expect from elected leaders who promise to serve their communities. At every turn, the proponents of this chaos have demonstrated that they are not capable of fully considering the needs of diverse communities and proposing workable solutions. Instead they simply double down on trying to tell Austin that anything other than their chaos is heartless and inhumane. This is intellectually lazy, and Austin should demand better.
The chaos created by the City Council has resulted in a public outcry culminating in the citizens demanding to be heard by direct ballot. This demand is across the political and economic spectrum. As a co-founder of the Save Austin Now PAC and a lifelong Democrat, I have seen the diversity of people raising their voices in concern for our city.
It's time we turn this situation around and vote yes on Prop B. It sends a clear message to the council that the citizens of Austin must be heard as we work toward real solutions. There are successful models to learn from and some in our own state. But it all starts with voting yes on Prop B starting April 19.
A homeless residents sleeps in the middle of a bike scavenging operation based at a camp under the South Austin overpass. (Jordan Vonderhaar)
Con: Prop B blames homeless individuals rather than providing solutions to societal problems
Austin's homeless population needs help, but Prop B doesn't do anything to solve our city's problems. It simply tells people who are experiencing homelessness that they cannot exist, visibly, in public space. I, too, am worried about the encampments. They are evidence that our strategies to help people return to housing aren't sufficient. But telling people "You can't stay here" without giving them alternatives isn't a solution.
The reason so many people are experiencing homelessness is that it takes a long time to get into housing, even when you do everything right. Shelters are at capacity, we lack deeply affordable housing, landlords can refuse housing vouchers, and housing programs are full.
As a case study, I want to tell you about "Bill," whom I met two years ago. Bill was a veteran, father, former truck driver and person of faith. He was also homeless and unsheltered. Bill had recently suffered a series of strokes and was desperate for both disability income and housing.
Bill and I worked together every single week for 17 months. He eventually was awarded disability and moved into his own apartment.
Bill's situation is typical of hundreds of people who are stymied by our complicated processes and lack of housing. Prop B would not add resources for people like Bill. Read the ballot language. Because Prop B bans "camping," people would have to move around constantly to avoid being cited. All that moving around takes time and energy. People like Bill would have a harder time keeping their appointments with case managers. Unpaid fines from citations build a criminal record—and landlords can choose not to rent to someone with a record. So punishing people for not having housing makes it even harder to get housing. Prop B hurts, not helps.
In this election, Austinites have a choice to criminalize people like Bill or to work toward solutions. Prop B places the blame on individuals rather than recognizing homelessness as a failure of society.Prop B is an inhumane and wrong response. Oppose Prop B, and let's focus on solutions. Learn more here.
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Austin FC's opening match at LAFC has already gotten plenty of buzz, and not just because the team will be playing its first-ever match. The opener will also see two famous fans pitted against each other: Will Ferrell and Matthew McConaughey.
Since he joined the club as a part-time owner in 2019, McConaughey hasn't been quiet about going Verde. The Austin icon has been a hypeman for the team on the Jimmy Kimmel show, spoken with MLS Commissioner Don Garber at SXSW and is vocal about the club on Twitter.
On Tuesday, McConaughey talked all things Austin FC from what appeared to be an Airstream.
"We've been talking about this," McConaughey said. "We've been building this brick by brick. We understand it's Verde, it's listos, but now it's live."
"I just got some chills saying that," McConaughey added.
This weekend will put the club to the test for the first time against LAFC, which also happens to be part-owned by a big Hollywood name. Comedian and actor Will Ferrell will be on the other side of the pitch come Saturday, and he's ready to start a rivalry.
After talking to McConaughey about both teams, Ferrell told Spectrum News he's excited to watch his team play the so-called "Austin Cacti" this season.
"I can only hope for a rivalry," Ferrell said. "I think Austin is going to be a fantastic market for a brand new soccer team, and I can't wait to be there when LAFC plays the 'Austin Cactuses.'"
Talked to Will Ferrell about his connection w/ @McConaughey as @MLS owners. He welcomes a @LAFC rivalry w/ @AustinFC and has his own nickname for the team. 🌵⚽️ @SpecNewsATX #DownhillMovie pic.twitter.com/yTPfTzVchM
— Victor Diaz (@VictorOchoDiaz) February 14, 2020
Now with five days to go, McConaughey said that he and Ferrell had been having a "war with words" over the match and are planning on placing bets before game time.
It's not the first time the two have found themselves on opposing sides of a sport. Back in 2018, Ferrell made his way to Austin to see USC football duke it out with the Longhorns (psst,—UT won.)
McConaughey and Austin FC are hoping to see yet another loss for Ferrell as they head to their first game on Saturday, but the match will be quite the challenge.
The MLS set the opening schedule for more than fame; the newly-formed Austin FC has been one of the most talked-about teams this preseason, and LAFC is projected at No. 2 in the league's power rankings. Austin FC currently sits at No. 21.
Head Coach Josh Wolff has said LAFC has one of the best offenses in the league.
"LAFC has one of the best attacking teams in the league," Wolff said. "They will punish you. They've never been shy of putting up goals, and again, I expect them to be one of the best teams in the league this year."
The club has lived up to Wolff's words: in just their second season of existence, LAFC took first in the Western Conference and were Supporters' Shield winners in 2019.
Austin FC will need to hold off LAFC captain Carlos Vela, a versatile winger/attacking midfielder who won the Most Valuable Player title in 2019, as well as high-scoring forward Diego Rossi.
Meanwhile, LAFC will face challenges in DP Cecilio Dominguez and midfielder Alex Ring, the former NYCFC "ringleader" who has worn the captain's armband already for his newest team. Forward Rodney Redes may or not be playing Saturday due to a "ding" on his knee, but if he does, he'll be a force to be reckoned with as well.
Austin FC's inaugural match will be nationally broadcast on FOX and FOX Deportes and will be featured on Alt 97.5 FM.
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Whether you're in dire need of some deliciously priced food or your favorite cocktails with a twist, Austin restaurants are here to make the best of happy hour.
Here are 9 happy hours around town worth trying.
Licha's Cantina, 1306 E. 6th St.
If you find yourself at Licha's Cantina from Tuesdays to Fridays, we completely understand. The killer happy hour from 4 to 6 p.m. is filled with great deals on cocktails, beers and delicious Mexico City-inspired soul food. For drinks, Licha's Cantina offers $6 cocktails such as margaritas, palomas and vampiros as well as deals on Corona and buckets of beer. For a snack, you can enjoy $6 sopecitos, huaraches and quesadillas and $5 exquisite and camote.
Black Sheep Lodge, 2108 S. Lamar Blvd
If you're looking for a reason to enjoy happy hour deals everyday of the week, Black Sheep Lodge has you covered. With different drink specials every day, the bar and grill offers over 120 different beers and cocktails. From Monday to Sunday, you can enjoy $3 Texas pints and liquors, $2 off tequila shots and drinks, $1 12-ounce cans of white trash cans (Lone Star, PBR Tallboys Schlitz, Pearl and more) and so much more. You can check out the full list of specials here.
Parkside, 301 E. 6th St.
A downtown favorite, Parkside has a weekday happy hour from 5 to 6 p.m. that will knock you out of the park. On Mondays, specialty martinis are half off, and from Tuesday to Saturday, you can get half off beer, cocktails and food including fries and oysters from the bar menu. Plus, you can get half off oyster platters and sparkling wine every Wednesday night.
Olive & June, 3411 Glenview Ave.
As part of Chef Shawn Cirkiel's Parkside Projects Restaurant and Hospitality Group, Olive & June is another great choice for getting a great deal during happy hour. From 5 to 6 p.m., you can get half off beer and cocktails plus snack on delicious antipasti options.
Café No Sé, 1603 S. Congress Ave
Rosé lovers will be happy to know there is a place in town where you can get 25% off all bottles and great reverse happy hour specials. Café No Sé offers a reverse happy hour everyday from 6 to 8 p.m. with $2 off beer, wine and menu cocktails, plus a speciality treat of 25% off bottles of rose everyday. That's seven days a week to enjoy great deals on wine and get the most out of happy hour time.
Uchiko, 4200 N. Lamar Blvd.
Uchiko, the upscale sushi restaurant connected with the beloved Uchi, has a sake social everyday from 4 to 6 p.m. that might be one of the best deals in town. Award-winning chef Tyson Cole's blended knowledge on Japanese food and creativity in dishes is worth a visit any day of the week, but sake social is a happy hour not worth missing. You can find the menu for the sake social at Uchiko here.
P6, 111 E. Cesar Chavez St.
At the LINE austin, you will find a rooftop lounge with great happy hour specials, tasty cocktails and a great view. P6, located at the way top of the hotel, has a list of specialty curated Mediterranean small plates such as artisanal cheeses, whipped feta roasted tomato dip and more as well as seasonal cocktails that will make your visit worth it. Happy hour is Monday through Thursday from 4 to 5 p.m. You can find the menu for happy hour at P6 here.
Clark's Oyster Bar, 1200 W. 6th St.
Clark's Oyster Bar has a happy hour that will cheer up any Austinite, and on any day. From 3 to 5 p.m., any day of the week, you can find yourself ordering an unhealthy amount of oysters as they are 50 cents off. On weekdays, the happy hour includes half off burgers, $5 martinis, oyster shooters and draft beer. On weekends, Clark's has half off bottles of wine and $5 oyster shooters.
The Peached Tortilla, 5520 Burnet Road #100
From 5 to 7 p.m daily, The Peached Tortilla offers a happy hour with delicious bites and great cocktails. The happy hour includes $5 beers, $6 wine and cocktails, $4 tacos, $5 snacks such as shishito peppers and crispy fries and a $9 burger with peached sauce, american cheese, miso caramelized onions, japanese pickles and lettuce. You can find the menu for happy hour at Peached Tortilla here.
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