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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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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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