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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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Tesla CEO Elon Musk announced a record-setting second quarter during an earnings call broadcasted from the Giga Texas construction site in Southeast Travis County on Monday.
The electric carmaker reported more than $1 billion in quarterly net income and the production of more than 200,000 vehicles for the first time despite challenges such as a global semiconductor shortage.
"It … seems that public sentiment towards electric vehicles is at an inflection point, and at this point, I think, almost everyone agrees electric vehicles are the only way forward," Musk said.
Exterior shots taken just a while ago of Giga Texas (while @elonmusk is reportedly at the Gigafactory!) during today's earnings call!
Hope @peterdog15 got to catch the technoking in his video! #fastestinhistory #Tesla pic.twitter.com/WqeDlb5wU3
— Austin Tesla Club (@AustinTeslaClub) July 26, 2021
Despite rising consumer demand and adequate factory capacity, Tesla faces what Musk described as a "quite serious" global semiconductor shortage, which will determine the company's growth rate for the rest of the year.
With increased revenue and production, Tesla is investing in new factories, Chief Financial Officer Zachary Kirkhorn said. These include Giga Texas, the $1.1 billion manufacturing plant that broke ground last summer and is slated to open later this year.
The Giga Texas factory in Southeast Travis County has rapidly increased in size since ground broke last August. (Tesla)
Musk commended the construction team for "incredible progress," transforming what was basically a vacant site into "a mostly complete large factory a year later."
I was at Giga Texas yesterday. Team is making excellent progress. Building will be almost a mile long when complete.
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) July 25, 2021
Giga Texas will produce the highly anticipated Cybertruck, along with other models, but Musk said scaling its production will be difficult, especially given the supply chain delays caused by the pandemic. "It's going to move as fast as the slowest of its up to 10,000 unique parts," he said.
In other news, Musk said Monday's earnings call would likely be his last regular appearance, only jumping on future quarterly calls when big announcements warrant it.
Tesla Solar recently made news when it announced plans to build the nation's most sustainable residential community in Southeast Austin earlier this month. The newly built homes will feature Tesla solar roof tiles and Powerwall battery storage as well as electric vehicle charging stations.
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The city of Austin released a shortlist of seven candidates for the police chief position left vacant when Brian Manley retired in March.
City Manager Spencer Cronk hopes to announce an appointment by the end of August, which will require City Council approval.
The finalists, chosen from a field of 46 applicants, include:
- APD Interim Chief Joseph Chacon, who previously served as an assistant chief in the department for almost five years
- Anne Kirkpatrick, former police chief in Oakland, California, who was fired last year after a federal monitor criticized her handling of a fatal 2018 police shooting of a homeless man
- Dallas Police Department Assistant Chief Avery L. Moore, who is a 30-year veteran of the department
- Atlanta Police Department Deputy Chief Celeste Murphy, who manages the department's community services division
- Dekalb County Police Chief Mirtha V. Ramos, who previously served as division chief in the Miami-Dade Police Department
- Wichita Police Department Chief Gordon Ramsay, who is a former president of the Minnesota Police Chief's Association as well as one of the first police chiefs of a major U.S. City to call George Floyd's death a murder, as reported by the Wichita Eagle
- Los Angeles Police Department Deputy Chief Emada E. Tingirides, who is also commanding officer of the department's newly formed Community Safety Partnership Bureau, which serves L.A.'s underserved communities
City staff will interview the finalists in the coming weeks, with several community input opportunities to come, according to a Monday press release.
The city conducted a public survey in March and hosted community input meetings in April to learn more about what residents are looking for in their next police chief, which helped shape the selection criteria for the position.
"They want to see the Chief be reform-minded and transparent and have a track record of fostering community involvement and accountability," Cronk said in the release. "The candidates selected show these characteristics in various ways."
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Days after Austin began once again recommending masks in public spaces, Austin ISD announced Monday that kindergarten through sixth-grade classes will have virtual options this fall.
The district will discuss the move in a special board meeting Monday evening starting at 5 p.m., while full details will be released Friday.
Teachers will not have to fret about the new option—no educators will have to juggle both virtual and in-person learning. Instead, certain teachers will specialize in virtual education, according to a press release.
The news comes after a recent spike in COVID cases in Travis County and across the nation. Children typically suffer fewer symptoms of COVID when contracted, but they are now catching the virus more often than their older counterparts without a vaccine available to them and as the more contagious Delta variant is quickly being spread.
While local health officials are recommending everyone wear masks, public school districts are unable to mandate masks due to an executive order issued by Gov. Greg Abbott in May.
Parents have expressed concern about classrooms with masks unenforceable and children under the age of 12 ineligible for a vaccine. Some have even said they would look for alternative schooling if AISD did not offer a virtual option for students.
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