There are a lot of questions circulating about the pandemic and its impact locally. Each month, Austonia will answer a new batch of them.
Is the local COVID situation improving?
Despite the good news of V-Day, local health officials painted a grim picture of disease spread in Austin, which they attributed to the "Thanksgiving effect"—and warned that Christmas gatherings could cause a surge on par with El Paso.
"Our situation is getting worse in Travis County," Austin-Travis County Interim Health Authority Dr. Mark Escott said Wednesday. "Right now we are at a place where we have more active infections in our community than we've had at any other time in this pandemic."
Since the beginning of December, Travis County has seen a 45% in the average number of COVID-19 cases confirmed each day and a 57% increase in the number of daily COVID-related hospital admissions. The positivity rate has also increased to 9%, up from 7.4% last week, which Austin Public Health Director Stephanie Hayden said was "extremely high" on Wednesday.
Escott attributed these numbers to Thanksgiving gatherings and relaxed adherence to pandemic precautions, such as masking, social distancing and hand washing.
"It's a concern for us because if we see surge happening now because of Thanksgiving and we see a repeat of that activity during Christmas, we really have the risk of an El Paso or Lubbock type of substantial and catastrophic surge," he said Tuesday.
How are hospitals faring?
Hospitals in the five-county Austin metro are faring okay—for now.
The three major hospital systems—Ascension Seton, Baylor Scott & White Health and St. David's Healthcare—reported an overall occupancy rate of 82% and an ICU occupancy rate of 83% on Wednesday.
"We're not at the stage yet of asking our hospitals to scale back on elective procedures, because we do have enough cushion there to absorb a bit more," Escott said Tuesday. "What we're concerned about is two or three weeks from now."
The current surge in cases is due to Thanksgiving gatherings, Austin Public Health officials have stressed. If people continue to gather for Christmas, New Year's and other holidays, the surge could accelerate quickly.
"We're very concerned that the Christmas holiday may transition into that hockey stick, or exponential, phase of active case growth, which would put our hospitals in danger," Escott added.
Does this affect the local risk level?
The Austin-Travis County area is at Stage 4, according to APH's risk-based guidelines. At this stage, local health officials recommend that individuals at high risk or who live in households with people who are high-risk avoid gathering with others as well as non-essential activities, such as dining out and shopping.
Updated projections from the COVID-19 Modeling Consortium at the University of Texas at Austin, which were published on Sunday, suggest the region is on the precipice of reaching the threshold for Stage 5, which is a daily average of 50 or more COVID-related hospital admissions.
Already, local health officials are imploring Austinites to avoid nonessential trips in an effort to flatten the curve.
"Everything you do should be essential trips only," Hayden said. "We really encourage you not to connect with others who do not live in your household."
(COVID-19 Modeling Consortium at the University of Texas at Austin)
How does this compare to the state of Texas?
Compared to other large Texas counties, Travis County has reported the fewest active cases and cumulative deaths per capita over the course of the pandemic.
However, Austin officials said that the area could see a surge approaching the severity of that seen in El Paso and Lubbock prior to Thanksgiving if residents don't work to flatten the curve.
"This is what the beginning of that kind of surge looks like, what we're seeing now," Escott said Wednesday.
What does this mean for schools?
Disease transmission has largely occurred outside of classrooms, with local officials pointing to extracurricular activities and social gatherings as major reasons for cases among students and staff.
"So schools are safe," Escott said Wednesday.
However, increased community spread could affect schools. Escott doesn't anticipate making a blanket recommendation to close schools, he said, but may advise campuses to return to virtual learning for one or two weeks following the winter break, as happened after Thanksgiving.
If the pandemic continues to worsen locally, the next step would be to significantly reduce or halt extracurricular activities, he added.
In the case of school closures, APH officials would recommend closing high schools first and then middle schools in an effort to preserve in-person elementary education, where students are most adversely affected by virtual learning.
Who will get the COVID-19 vaccine first (and second)?
The initial allotment of COVID-19 vaccines were distributed across Texas earlier this week. UT Health Austin, the clinical arm of Dell Medical School, administered its first shots to frontline healthcare workers on Tuesday.
Earliest access to vaccines will go to frontline healthcare workers, EMT first responders and nursing home residents and staff.
As more doses of the vaccine become available, APH will prioritize those at highest risk of hospitalization and death due to COVID-19. They include people 60 years of age and older, those with underlying conditions and communities our color.
"Our decisions will be data-driven," Escott said Wednesday.
APH is working with a local coalition to arrive at a standardized approach for determining who is prioritized for vaccine access across different community providers.
"There simply isn't enough to go around right now, and there won't be for quite some time," he added.
It also appears unlikely that teachers and other school employees will have any particular priority based on their profession.
"A young, healthy 25-year-old teacher has a quite different risk profile than a 45-year-old teacher with diabetes," Escott explained.
I haven't felt so much joy since before the pandemic, watching the frontline receive such an amazingly effective va… https://t.co/T7iQr5eddp— Clay Johnston (@Clay Johnston)1608049298.0
How will I get vaccinated?
APH is one of more than 200 local providers that have registered to distribute the COVID vaccine in Austin and Travis County.
As the vaccine becomes more widely available, the local health department will focus on low-income and uninsured residents.
"Austin Public Health has always been a safety net provider to our community, and we will continue to be in that space," Hayden said.
Austinites with insurance are encouraged to go through their usual vaccine providers—whether that be pharmacies or primary care physicians—when the time comes.
Does the COVID vaccine control spread as well as prevent infection? What are the differences between the vaccines?
Experts are still working to understand the level of protection that COVID vaccines provide in terms of preventing spread.
For this reason, the CDC recommends that people continue to wear masks and social distance even after they have been vaccinated.
Both the Pfizer and Moderna COVID vaccines rely on a spike protein invented by a team of scientists led by Dr. Jason McLellan, an associate professor of molecular biosciences at the University of Texas at Austin.
The spike protein developed by McLellan's team mimics those found on the coronavirus. When injected via a vaccine, it signals the body to start creating antibodies, which then attach to the virus and lock it in place before it rearranges, preventing infection.
The Pfizer vaccine has been distributed in Texas. While the Moderna vaccine is scheduled to be reviewed by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for an emergency use authorization on Thursday.
Two other vaccine candidates, from Johnson & Johnson and AstraZeneca, use adenoviruses to deliver DNA from the coronavirus to stimulate an immune response in the vaccine recipient, according to the University of Michigan Health Lab.
What does this mean for the upcoming holiday season?
Local health officials continue to advise Austinites to avoid gathering with people outside of their households and to recommit to precautions such as masking and social distancing.
"We have the possibility of having a miserable Christmas and a miserable New Year's if we allow this kind of transmission to continue," Escott said Wednesday.
Like Thanksgiving, officials recommend developing new traditions this holiday season to minimize risk—and ensure loved ones are around to celebrate in person next year.
"We must alter our holiday celebrations or we could face a real disaster here," Escott added.
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After two years of no in-person events, Austin festival South by Southwest has agreed to give 50% of ownership to P-MRC, a Los Angeles company that controls publishing operations for Rolling Stone and Billboard.
The media venture was founded in 2020 and is part-owned by Jay Penske, racer Roger Penske's son and head of Penske Racing and Penske Media.
The move comes after the COVID-19 pandemic left the festival with two years worth of hemorrhaging funds. SXSW organizers were left scrambling for solutions in March 2020 when the city of Austin canceled the festival at the onset of the pandemic. One-third of the festival's 175 year-round employees were laid off, and the festival ran a shortened virtual event in 2021.
SXSW CEO and co-founder Roland Swenson said in a statement that the company is grateful to get aid when they need it most and that they are now looking to the future.
"It has been an incredibly tough period for small businesses, SXSW included," Swenson said. "When Jay Penske approached us with an interest in becoming a partner, it was a true lifeline for us. Both of our companies share a passion for producing high-quality content that helps shape modern culture, so this feels like a natural alliance."
Both of Austin's big-name festivals are now in the hands of out-of-town buyers. In 2014, homegrown festival Austin City Limits was bought in part by LiveNation, who took 51% ownership in Austin live promoter C3 Presents.
.@MLS Commissioner @thesoccerdon and @AustinFC's Minister of Culture and part-owner Matthew @McConaughey will discuss how the League is deepening fan engagement, and how Clubs are becoming cultural mainstays at 10am on Channel 3. ⚽ #SXSW pic.twitter.com/2XFj4XEdwL
— SXSW (@sxsw) March 18, 2021
The fest has captured the essence of Austin arts and culture for 34 years, and it doesn't plan on stopping now. With P-MRC by its side, SXSW said it plans on keeping its unique identity but expanding operations as it prepares for an in-person celebration next spring.
"Since 1987, SXSW has been the world's premier festival centered at the convergence of tech, media, film, and music," Penske said. "Today SXSW continues to be one of the most recognized brands for empowering creative talent and bringing together the brightest creators of our time. As part of this significant investment, we plan to build upon SXSW's incredible foundation while extending the platform further digitally and assisting Roland and his incredible team to bring their vision to even greater heights."
With their future restored, SXSW's newest slogan rings truer than ever: "See you next year at SXSW!"
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Update: Former Travis County deputy suspected of killing 3 in northwest Austin now in police custody
Stephen Broderick is now in police custody for a suspected domestic violence incident that killed three in northwest Austin on Sunday.
After initially being called an active shooting incident, joint local law enforcement and more than 75 FBI agents proceeded with an almost day-long manhunt with three helicopters and on-ground teams for former Travis County deputy Broderick. Police captured him after a 911 caller reported a suspicious man walking along U.S. 290, where he was taken into custody.
Police believe the victims, who have been identified as two Hispanic women and one Black man, knew their assailant. A child was involved but is now safely in police custody. Two of the victims have been identified as former and current Elgin ISD students: Alyssa Broderick and Willie Simmons III.
The school district released a statement offering its condolences to the families. Alyssa was enrolled until October 2020 and played on the basketball team. Simmons was a senior at Elgin High School where he was captain of the football team and had been recruited to play football at the University of North Texas.
Travis County Sheriff Sally Hernandez released the following statement on the incident: "I'm truly heartbroken that a former Travis County Sheriff's Office Deputy is the suspect in such a horrific incident. TCSO is standing by to provide any, and all assistance we can to the families of the victims in their time of need. I'm proud of the integrity and professionalism shown by the men and women of TCSO, APD and other law enforcement agencies, who worked tirelessly throughout the night to locate Stephen Broderick. I'm especially grateful to the vigilant citizen who called 911 after seeing Broderick, and to the Manor PD officers and TCSO deputies who took him into custody this morning."
APD @Chief_Chacon provides updated media briefing in relation to Great Hills Trail incident. - PIO8 https://t.co/47siNWhARI
— Austin Police Department (@Austin_Police) April 18, 2021
During a press briefing at 4:45 p.m. on Sunday, Interim Police Chief Joe Chacon said law enforcement was on the scene for several hours investigating the incident with 41-year-old Broderick.
"We're very sorry that obviously this has happened and we continue to try and locate this individual, we are transitioning from a search in this area to a fugitive search and those efforts will continue until this person is located," Chacon said. "I don't want anyone to think that we're packing up and going home. We're going to continue to look for this individual because he continues to pose a threat to this community."
#texasshooting #masshooting Arboretum shooting Austin. pic.twitter.com/SkIsgDoYHt
— Jamie Hammonds (@jamie_hammonds5) April 18, 2021
This story has been updated at 8 a.m. Monday to include the latest information.
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Formula 1 is returning to Florida for the first time since 1959, announcing that the brand-new Miami Grand Prix will join the calendar in 2022 and Austin will no longer be the only F1 race in the U.S.
Held at the Hard Rock Stadium complex in Miami Gardens, this will be the first race in the Sunshine State in 62 years. With a new track setup, F1 will loop the stadium, home of the NFL's Miami Dolphins.
Excited for @F1 @f1miami @HardRockStadium - a Global Entertainment Destination. This event will bring opportunities for so many and will be world-class. Thank you to @gregmaffei #chasecarey #stefanodomenicali @MayorRHarris @Ogilbert @CommishDiaz @MayorDaniella pic.twitter.com/n6dDDD1cPX
— Tom Garfinkel (@TomGarfinkel) April 18, 2021
The new 3.36 mile circuit has 19 corners, three straights and potential for three DRS zones, with expected top speeds of 198 mph.
Now with two races in the U.S., F1 President Stefano Domenicali said they will avoid having back-to-back events by keeping the Miami Grand Prix separate from the U.S. Grand Prix, which is held at Austin's Circuit of the Americas.
The date of the race has yet to be confirmed, though Domenicali said he expects the first race in a 10-year deal to take place in the second quarter of 2022. Austin's race will take place on Oct. 24 this year.
"The USA is a key growth market for us, and we are greatly encouraged by our growing reach in the U.S. which will be further supported by this exciting second race," Domenicali said.
Miami will mark the 11th race location in the U.S. since the Championship began in 1950: Circuit of The Americas in Austin; Dallas, Texas; Indianapolis, Indiana; Sebring, Florida; Riverside, California; Watkins Glen, New York; Long Beach, California; Las Vegas, Nevada; Detroit, Michigan and Phoenix, Arizona. COTA was first opened in 2012.
Domenicali said F1 will be working with the FIA and the Hard Rock Stadium to leave a lasting impact on the community: discounted tickets for residents, a program to support local businesses and a STEM education program through F1 in schools.
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