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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Texas Longhorns linebacker Jake Ehlingers' death this spring was the result of an accidental drug overdose, according to a statement by the late student's family.
According to the statement, the 20-year-old University of Texas student and Westlake High grad overdosed on pills believed to be Xanax laced with Fentanyl, an often-deadly combo that has resulted in thousands of accidental fatalities nationwide.
Ehlinger was found dead off campus May 6 in a tragedy that shook the Austin and UT community, as well as Ehlinger's family, including his brother, former UT quarterback Sam Ehlinger, who now plays for the NFL's Indianapolis Colts.
An honorable mention All-State player and district defensive MVP while in high school, Ehlinger followed in his brother's footsteps and continued his football career as a walk-on at UT. He was also a sophomore in finance, a member of the Phi Gamma Delta fraternity and a member of the Texas Silver Spurs, a student organization that cares for beloved mascot Bevo the Longhorn.
Counterfeit Xanax pills have caused an increasing number of fatalities in the area with 1,000 deaths related to synthetic opioids in the state in 2020. Drug dealers have begun stuffing fentanyl, an opiod that the DEA said can be up to 60 times more deadly than heroin, into pills resembling the prescription anti-anxiety medication and selling them to unwitting customers.
"The spread of counterfeit pills is an ongoing and significant issue throughout our country, particularly in schools, colleges and universities," the the Ehlinger family said in a statement. "As our family continues to process Jake's death, we felt it was important to share these details with the hope that Jake will not have died in vain. We pray that sharing Jake's story will help shed light on this problem and prevent other families from also tragically losing a loved one."
To combat the surge of deaths, Austin police now have access to a supply of Narcan, a drug that can combat the effects of an opiod overdose. Though it's not mandatory, APD officers can now check out supplies of the drug when responding to calls. The department had almost completed training on the drug by June, according to a KXAN report.
"You can talk to a number of families that have had family members die because of opioid overdoses and if this was an option to help their loved one or save their loved one, I'm sure that every single one of them would tell you that it was incredibly important that we now have this incredible tool in our tool belt," Assistant Chief Scott Perry said in the report.
Ehlinger is remembered by his brother, Sam, his mother Jena, his sister Morgen and the University of Texas community. Ehlinger's father, Ross, died of an apparent heart attack while swimming in a triathlon in 2013.
"(Jake) was his dad's little buddy, and they shared an unbreakable bond," Jake's obituary read. "His father's spirit was alive and well in every part of Jake's life. Tragic life circumstances created a unique opportunity for Sam and Jake to uplift and empower each other. They were each other's biggest fans. Their mother, Jena, as well as their sister, Morgen, were the loves of Jake's life. Everyone will miss his giant hugs, but no one more than Jena and Morgen."
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Eight of the world's best Brazilian jiu-jitsu athletes flew into Austin in September to be in the new hub for the sport. But after over a decade of fighting together, they'll no longer be under the same name.
The legendary Danaher Death Squad, which started in 2007 and was led by black belt John Danaher, made a highly-publicized split in late July while in Puerto Rico, with Danaher, legend Gordon Ryan and teammate Gary Tonon announcing the aptly-titled "New Wave Jiu Jitsu" as their new studio to open soon in Austin.
Missing from the new roster were former teammates Craig Jones, Ethan Crelinstein, Nick Rodriguez and even Ryan's younger brother, Nicky Ryan. The new crew announced that day that they would also be forming a new studio with the tongue-in-cheek title "B Team Jiu Jitsu."
Jiu jitsu greats Craig Jones (left) and Gordon Ryan have opened rival studios in Austin.
Both teams chose to move to Austin, a hotbed for the sport that the B Team's Seth Belisle said is becoming a "mecca for jiu-jitsu." With plenty of renowned studios, jiu-jitsu enthusiasts like Joe Rogan coming into town and the presence of Flo Grappling, the sport's premier media outlet, Belisle said there's now "more jiu-jitsu here than anywhere in the world."
While Belisle, an Austin native, handles the business side for the crew, the team's coaching is headed by Jones, a leopard-print wearing Aussie who has been known to sport assless chaps and places importance on the lighter side of things (the studio advertises that they train "Mexican ground karate," a name they created for jiu-jitsu).
Rumors abound about the famed fighters' breakup, including money issues in the Ryan family or a well-rehearsed PR stunt, but Jones told Austonia that the split of the Death Squad simply comes down to personal differences between the fighters.
"It wasn't an amicable breakup at all," Jones said. "What Gordan represents is quite controversial... I would say there would be no line he wouldn't cross to promote a grappling match. So in that sense, we're sort of focused on a different, more positive sort of vibe."
B Team and New Wave alike are opening at a critical time for jiu-jitsu, as the sport slowly becomes a household name. Now, top fighters can make a living from their sport while still maintaining a much lower profile than MMA fighters or boxers.
That name recognition and B Team's positive attitude drew in droves of new trainees, with many opting to move to Austin solely to train at B Team.
"Jiu-jitsu is a relatively new sport," Belisle said. "If you love basketball, it's impossible for you to say, 'I'm going to go play with LeBron James and learn from him this weekend... in jiu-jitsu, that's possible. You have access to the stars of the sport because it hasn't really blown up yet. It's something special."
After an open house that saw over 150 athletes show up, the team realized they needed to become more exclusive. Now, the studio trains only the "Olympians" of the sport, something that sets them apart from other local studios. They also frequently bring in celebrities of the sport for training sessions, including famed female fighter Ffion Eira Davies.
"We're obviously a new gym, but we're probably some of the best guys in the world," Jones said.
Meanwhile, New Wave is training at the famed Renzo Gracie Studio, Danaher's former trainer, as they wait for a new studio.
Will the world's two best teams soon have showdowns in the Texas capital?
While it's unclear whether or not things will get personal (no brother vs. brother matchup is on the horizon), trainees under each studio went head-to-head for the first time Wednesday as New Wave's Gordon Ryan announced his first match out of semi-retirement. Ryan, often lauded as the best grappler in the world, forced UFC fighter Phillip Rowe to submit four times in the 15-minute friendly exhibition match at Austin's Palmer Events Center.
But Rowe, who was first a jiu-jitsu athlete before switching to UFC, said he didn't know about the beef and was just looking to train under his favorite athletes, Jones and Rodriguez.
He competed for a few reasons—including a break from UFC and a chance to give BJJ a bigger name—but he mostly came into town for the fun of it. Ryan and Rowe talked often prior to the meet, with Rowe gifting Ryan a Bumpboxx, or decorated boombox, in honor of Ryans' father. The respect was mutual—Ryan shouted out Rowe after the match for coming out with a broken hand and the death of some loved ones a week prior.
The match was the first indirect competition between the two gyms. Jones said they won't be training with the goal of fighting any of their former New Wave compadres.
"I don't know what's going to happen ultimately," Jones said. "Because obviously, we're not friendly as it is right now, but I mean. I wouldn't go so far as to train someone that was going to compete against them directly."
But with B Team fighters like Nick Rodriguez expressing their interest in fighting in the future and both gyms training for the WNO Championships in 2022, it's almost inevitable that the former teammates will find themselves on either side of the mat sooner or later.
"'I'd be lying if I said that every day since I started jiu-jitsu my goal is to beat Gordon. I'd be lying if I was saying that isn't true," Rodriguez told the Jason Chambers podcast. "My goal is to be the best grappler in the world and nothing less. That's an old teammate that I have to go through to knock him out and get to the top, then that's fine with me."
Atop one of Austin's signature rolling hilltops, 1501 Ridgecrest Drive is similar to one of the plush palaces that one might find in Calabasas. For $10.9 million, the home has four bedrooms, four-and-a-half bathrooms and caps at 10,498 square feet.
Park in the massive, fully air-conditioned garage before walking in, where you'll have eight full spaces to park your collection of cars. If you're not a collector, the garage makes an excellent studio space.
The wide-open living spaces will draw your eyes to the two-story ceilings, glass catwalk, integrated fireplace and wall of floor-to-ceiling windows that overlook the pool.
Though the house was built in 2011, it doesn't show its age. Sleek, clean lines lead seamlessly from the formal living area to an elite open-plan kitchen. Separated by a 25-foot waterfall island that can seat at least eight people, the kitchen is fitted with only the finest Miele and Subzero appliances. The custom cabinets are just as pricey as the rest of the place, finished with custom high-gloss Aston Martin (you read that right) paint.
Upstairs in the sprawling master's suite, there are enough amenities to never have to set foot outside again. Armani tile floors, space for living and a walk-in showcase closet lead into the resort-style bathroom, where you'll find dual vanities, a walk-in shower and a lounging bathtub.
The bedroom is a quick elevator trip away from the "party" room, complete with a bar, wine room and movie theater, only the best for entertaining. If your guests are staying over, rest assured they'll be comfortable with the kitchenette, washer and dryer and spa-like bath in their suite.
Though summer has passed, you can still enjoy the grand lap pool's unobstructed Hill Country views, many private lounging areas, grill a homemade snack at the outdoor kitchen or shoot some hoops at the newly-added court.
The listing is held by Compass' Gary Dolch.
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