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Gloria Vera-Bedolla's 24-year-old son started feeling sick on a Friday. He had a high fever, chest congestion, body aches and a bad cough. Four of his co-workers at a beer distributing company had tested positive for COVID-19.
On Saturday, Vera-Bedolla's daughter-in-law called her worried, and the two of them got to work looking for a test.
Five sites—including his doctor at Victory Medical and three CommUnity Care drive-thru locations—said they were either out of appointments or unable to provide results for up to 11 days.
"A person could've died by then," Vera-Bedolla told Austonia.
Finally, they found an open slot for a rapid test appointment at Austin Regional Clinic in Pflugerville—at 2 a.m. on a Monday. It cost $175, but the results were available in around 30 minutes.
Experiences like his are not uncommon in Austin as demand for COVID-19 testing soars and both local and national labs are overwhelmed. Vera-Bedolla's son (who was not available for an interview) is finally starting to feel better. But the run on tests continues.
As the COVID-19 surge worsens in Texas and dozens of other states, increased demand for testing has overwhelmed clinical labs, driving up turnaround times and thwarting efforts to contain the spread of the virus.
Austin Public Health announced a few weeks ago that it would restrict free testing to residents with symptoms or known exposure and encouraged residents with insurance to get tested at their doctor's office.
But private practices are facing the same constraints.
"To me, it's a scandal," Dr. James Marroquin told Austonia.
Dr. Marroquin works at Capital Medical Clinic, an internal medicine practice on West 38th Street. Up until about mid-June, the clinic was testing around 100 patients for COVID-19 each week, Clinic Administrator Rae Smith said.
But around the time APH recommended patients seek out tests at private providers, the clinic's lab, Clinical Pathology Laboratories, said it would no longer accept COVID-19 tests because of a backlog. So the clinic stopped offering tests except to very high-risk patients. The clinic has since started accepting tests again, but doctors remain concerned about another backlog.
Other labs are facing similar issues, including two of the country's largest: Quest Diagnostics and LabCorp.
"I would say it's a systems issue," Texas Academy of Family Physicians CEO Tom Banning told Austonia. "We didn't design our lab system to do mass COVID testing."
Notes on getting a covid test in Austin rn: - The free city-run testing site’s first available was July 17. - Usin… https://t.co/YbkNAw8T3v— Summer Anne Burton (@Summer Anne Burton)1594142989.0
Overwhelmed labs, which used to provide test results in three to five days, are now reporting wait times of a week or longer. This causes two main problems.
First, it stymies containment.
The main goal of testing is to help "box in" the spread of COVID-19 by alerting people who are infected of their status and prompting them to self-isolate and inform their contacts, Austin-Travis County Interim Health Authority Dr. Mark Escott explained last week.
"If we're getting results after the person is no longer infectious, that strategy no longer works," he said.
A patient may recover in the seven to 10 days it takes to receive a test result—and expose others in that period.
"At that stage, the test results are relatively useless for us," Dr. Escott said.
Second, it complicates health authorities' understanding of the virus.
Travis County reported 3,109 cases last week, 187 fewer than the week prior. But authorities say that could be because many tests are in limbo—conducted but not processed.
"We are missing thousands of results, so it's really difficult for us to tell if things are getting better or not," Dr. Escott said.
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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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