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Halloween isn't canceled, but COVID-19 health risks should keep the holiday celebration at a minimum this year in Austin.
At least that is what Austin public health officials are asking as COVID-19 cases likely increase, based on recent modeling predictions. The city is averaging about 100 cases per day, down significantly from the summer spike, but the rolling 14-day averages show an overall increase in COVID-19 cases, hospital admissions and ventilator usage, according to Dr. Mark Escott, interim Austin-Travis County health authority.
"Cases are on the rise, and Halloween is just around the corner," Escott said. "If we do not want to have Thanksgiving in a period of crisis, we've got to really tamp down our activity for Halloween."
This comes after several weeks of being "in a plateau," he said, potentially giving fatigued Austin residents false hope that it is now safe to resume normal activities. On the contrary, Escott warns that actions taken in the coming days and weeks will influence health conditions by late November during the holiday season.
"That's just the new way of life for us, at least at this stage," he said.
Austin health officials, including Austin Public Health Director Stephanie Hayden, acknowledged that months of quarantine measures have exhausted Austinites, but the same safety measures still apply: social distance, wear masks, wash your hands, stay home if you're not feeling well and quarantine and get tested if you've been exposed to COVID-19.
Concerns are exacerbated as the influenza season kicks off. Austin already has documented flu cases, APH Chief Epidemiologist Janet Pichette said, making it all the more important that residents get their flu vaccination. Seasonal flu patients took up most of the hospital ICU capacity last year, according to health officials.
- Oct. 24: Southeast Library, 5803 Nuckols Crossing Road (8 a.m. to noon)
- Walk-up flu shots on a first-come, first-served basis
- Nov. 7: Travis County Expo Center, 7311 Decker Lane (9 a.m. to 2 p.m.)
- Drive-thru flu shots, with appointments recommended
- Call APH Immunizations at 512-972-5520 to schedule an appointment
Despite concerns about rising COVID-19 and flu cases, Escott and the rest of the public health team insisted that in-person voting is still safe. In fact, Escott voted earlier in the day and considered the experience safe at every step.
"The risk of transmission is extremely low for in-person voting," Escott said. "(Voters) should feel confident in those safety procedures at their polling place."
Similarly, normal school activities also pose a low health risk. Most cases recorded in school settings have been isolated to social events outside of school or during extracurricular activities.
"Football programs, in particular, is where we have seen that situation develop over the past couple of weeks," Escott said.
It's important that anyone exposed or sick stay home the entirety of their 14-day quarantine period, health officials urged, or risk more dire circumstances by November. New hospital admissions are just below 20 per day currently, about halfway to stricter Stage 4 restrictions, which haven't been in place since late July.
"My hope is that in November on Thanksgiving that I was wrong about what I said today," Escott said. "I hope we don't see the rise that's predicted. But the only way that's going to happen is if we change our behavior."
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Texas Gov. Greg Abbott announced Monday that Texas will opt out of further federal unemployment benefits related to the pandemic effective June 26, citing the number of current job openings and concern about potentially fraudulent unemployment claims. The benefits include a $300 weekly supplement.
"The Texas economy is booming and employers are hiring communities across the state," Abbott said in a statement. "According to the Texas Workforce Commission, the number of job openings in Texas is almost identical to the number of Texans who are receiving unemployment jobs."
TWC listed 837,273 job openings as of Monday afternoon compared to 226,849 unemployment insurance claims filed statewide between March 31 and May 1. An estimated 1 million Texans were unemployed as of March, according to latest estimates released by the state agency.
Some local business owners, including Doc's Backyard Grill owner Charles Milligan, suspect unemployment benefits are deterring Austinites from returning to work. But others agree with economists who say multiple factors are at play, including health concerns and child care availability.
We're seeing lots of posts about how nobody wants to work right now. Just wanted to share our experience.
We received over 60 resumes for a taproom bartender position we posted last week. Every applicant we've set up an interview with has shown up.
People want 𝘨𝘰𝘰𝘥 work.
— Austin Beerworks (@AustinBeerworks) May 11, 2021
Abbott also cited fraudulent unemployment claims. Between March 2020 and April 2021, TWC received 4.48 million unemployment benefit applications, 611,000 or around 14% of which were tagged as suspicious. Most of those tagged were blocked before any benefits were paid out, according to an April 29 press release.
Federal law requires the effective date of such benefits change to be at least 30 days after the U.S. Department of Labor is notified.
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