Paused Texas reopening may not be enough to stop surge of COVID-19: 'We need to go back,' UT epidemiologist says
Gov. Greg Abbott's announcement that he would pause the reopening process for Texas at its current Phase 3 may not be enough to slow the spread of the coronavirus, according to University of Texas Health epidemiologist Katelyn Jetelina.
"You're going to have to go back" to Phase 1, Jetelina said, if the state hopes to get a hold of the rapidly spreading virus.
The source of the surge
In barely a week, Gov. Greg Abbott went from saying Texas had "abundant" hospital capacity for additional COVID-19 patients to "pausing" Texas' reopening and suspending elective surgeries.
The coinciding of Memorial Day and the Black Lives Matter protests with the beginning of Phases 1 and 2 of reopening, respectively, makes it hard to pinpoint the true origin of the recent surge in cases. But cases started growing, based on data Jetelina studied, when the state moved to Phase 2 of reopening and allowed restaurants to open at 50% capacity, bars to reopen at 25% capacity and salons start doing business again.
"I really think we need to go back on our reopening phases, which is unfortunate, but this growth started way before Phase 3 reopening," she said.
A predictable curve
The effects of reducing social distancing on the spread of the virus have been predicted as far back as mid-May, Austin Public Health told Austonia Thursday. Before the state began reopening, Austin stood at a social distancing rate of 95%, but experts at UT predicted that if that reduced to 50%, the city would see the exponential rise in cases happening in June.
"You can see that so far [the model] has been really, unfortunately, quite accurate," Austin-Travis County Interim Public Health Authority Dr. Mark Escott told the Travis County Commissioners Court earlier this week. "We also have the potential that it could increase faster with projections—now that we have the potential, if we don't change substantially by the middle of July, [we could exceed] our threshold of capacity for our health care system."
Hospital capacities by region in Texas with the top of the chart, 1, representing full capacity. Each region represents a separate Trauma Service Area, which are used to analyze how different parts of the state are affected by the spread of the coronavirus and other hospitalizations. (Katelyn Jetelina)
Jetelina said suspending elective surgeries, which Abbott did for four large Texas counties—including Travis—on Thursday, will be a huge help to hospitals that have seen beds filled up in recent weeks.
When hospital capacity cracks 70%, that's when public health officials start to worry, Jetelina said. When it cracks 80%, that's when hospitals begin to need "surge centers." Austin's three main hospital systems said Wednesday that together the three networks are at 71% total capacity and 70% ICU capacity.
But Abbott's decision to pause the state's reopening will not do much to slow the spread of coronavirus, Jetelina said, especially since the governor has yet to release an official Phase 4 plan.
If Texas wants to truly "flatten the curve" again, Jetelina said, Texas leaders must reinstate protocols that require social distancing, like lowering restaurant capacity to 25% and closing bars and beauty salons.
"Really anywhere that people are coming together and conversing, especially if face masks are not required or mandated, you're just going to get human-to-human spread so much easier than if these places weren't open," she said, adding later, "if that means bars need to be closed or at least [reduce] capacity, then so be it. It's just a matter of getting as far away from each other as possible."
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Republic Square Park has turned into a Ford-themed fiesta for its Built to Connect pop-up experience, complete with test drives, off-roading and an inside look at the Tesla-rivaling electric vehicles that the motor vehicle company is planning to integrate over the next decade.
The outdoor driving event is free, open to the public and will stay in the park from now until Oct. 24, offering rides on Bronco Mountain, a 0-40 mph zip in the 2022 all-electric Ford F-150 Lightning and a chance to win an original Ford Bronco.
The event kicked off with a panel of speakers, including Austin Director of Transportation Rob Spillar, Ford General Manager Darren Palmer and engineering specialists discussing Ford's goals to make it so that 50% of the vehicles on the road are electric by 2030.
As an eco-conscious city, Spillar said that around 4,000 vehicles, or 22% of the Texas electric vehicle market, as well as over 15,000 plugins lie in Austin, meaning driving electric just got accessible.
"Austin, as you know, is a fast-growing modern city that is committed to protecting the long term health and viability of our communities and strategies that reduce greenhouse gases, mitigate the effects of climate change and improve the drone quality of life here in Central Texas for all of our residents," Spillar said.
And Ford's electric vehicles are putting up some steep competition for newly-Austin-based company Tesla. The new electric Mustang Mach-E and F-150 Lighting offer amenities that used to be exclusive to Musk's brand, such as the BlueCruise self-driving network. The cars also boast a 300-mile range on a single charge, assisted reverse technology and access to the biggest charging network outside of the home.
Plus, Ford's got affordability on its side. The F-150 Lightning starts at $39,974 and the Mustang Mach-E starts at $42,895, while the cheapest Tesla model, the Model 3, starts at $41,990 and averages 262 miles on a single charge.
Speaking of price, the numbers on the electric vehicles may look like a little more than you'd like to pay for your transport, but Palmer promises it will pay off. In addition to a $7,500 tax credit you can earn for your sustainability, you'll never have to buy a pricey tank of gas again.
"Personally, I have not found one customer ever, who would go back to gas so that says something," Palmer said. "I realized, at $51,000, that car outruns every childhood hero car I ever had."
Texas buyers: take note. The Ford Lightning can power your house for three to 10 days, just in case the statewide power grid fails. You can take it glamping with you, so you don't have to leave the comfort of modern life behind, and in a pinch, Palmer said he's even seen a wedding party powered by the truck.
Ford is investing $30 billion into the U.S. market to meet demand by 2025 and the new electric truck already has over 150,000 reservations.
"I think they're going to take off much faster than you expect—they're going to be extremely, extremely popular next year," Palmer said. "With the incentives that are available today, this is starting to become more mainstream and viable for more and more families. We couldn't have done that before, we didn't have the technology, or the technology at that price."
The event is ongoing through next weekend from 12-9 p.m. Monday-Friday and 9 a.m.- 8 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.
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The Austin Police Department is searching for a man who is believed to be behind a series of robberies that is "sexual in nature and is escalating."
Three robbery cases that took place in North Austin within a 30-day period are being investigated by police, who report the victims all had similar descriptions for suspects in the case. The suspect is described as a 20-25-year-old Spanish-speaking Hispanic man, approximately 5'3, thin build, recently shaved with black hair. Police say he is known to typically wear athletic clothing and used a knife on each of the victims.
Here's a breakdown of the cases:
1. At 7:56 a.m. on Sept. 22 at the 1600 block of Rutland Drive, a woman was walking alone and returning from her child's school when a suspect walking by inappropriately touched her. The suspect then grabbed her by the arm, threatened her with a knife and demanded "her property."
2. At 8:10 a.m. on Oct. 11 at 1700 block of Colony Creek Drive, a woman was walking to her child's school when a man approached her with a knife and then demanded her personal items. The suspect then said he would return the items in return for sex.
3. At 11:03 a.m. on Oct. 13 at the 9300 block of Northgate Boulevard, a woman was with her child in the laundry room of an apartment complex when a man walked in performing a sexual act. The suspect demanded personal items from the victim, threatening to hurt the victim and take her child.
Police cautioned the public to walk without earbuds, stay alert and report suspicious activity to the police.
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