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Austin-Travis County Interim Health Authority Dr. Mark Escott said during a virtual press conference earlier today that the form will make testing access more equitable across the city and also allow APH to better track test capacity, interest and results.
"We do expect a significant increase in those who sign up for testing because we're decreasing that barrier," Dr. Escott said.
The enrollment form will help APH focus its limited resources—such as test kits and personal protective equipment—and track where cases are clustering. While improved surveillance was touted as a benefit of this new system, Dr. Escott said the information collected from patients is confidential.
"We want people to be comfortable in sharing that information and signing up for testing," he said.
With more laboratories processing test kits and the rollout of rapid testing—expected to ramp up in the coming months—the new form system should increase access to tests and improve turnaround times, Dr. Escott said, adding that some people wait as long as 14 days to receive test results.
"It'll provide us better information—quicker information—which allows us to respond and isolate people quicker," he said.
The city's effort to flatten the curve appears to be working, Dr. Escott said. Yesterday, the number of cases in Travis County surpassed 1,000, but the doubling rate—or the amount of time it takes for the caseload to double—has slowed significantly, from two days last month to 10 days currently.
Area hospitals still have plenty of capacity to treat patients with COVID-19, Dr. Escott said.
As of last night, 79 people were hospitalized with COVID-19 in the five-county area, which includes Travis, Williamson, Bastrop, Caldwell and Hays. Of those, 39 patients are in intensive care and 30 are hooked up to ventilators.
Researchers at the University of Texas-Austin who have worked on modeling the spread of COVID-19 estimate that, in this five-county area, the total daily hospital capacity is 3,239 beds and the total daily ventilator capacity is 675 machines.
Dr. Escott indicated that this new system could help prepare for the reopening of local businesses.
"As we open the window to the economy again it's important for us to be able to continue to track folks effectively, to make sure that we're reaching out to them often to check on their status and that we know who they've had contact with," he said during the press conference. "This system … really helps cover all those bases to ensure that we do reopen the economy, gently, progressively, [and that] we do that safely."
On Monday, local elected officials extended the "Stay Home-Work Safe" orders through May 8.
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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.
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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.