Austin-Travis County Interim Health Authority Dr. Mark Escott reported that the local COVID-19 caseload, related hospital admissions and positivity rate continue to climb reaching the Stage 5 threshold. With "the one-two punch" of Christmas and New Year's Eve on the horizon, and the lingering "Thanksgiving effect," he implored Austinites to help reduce spread—but held off on recommending a move to Stage 5.
"We do need people to wear their masks, to socially distance, to wash their hands and not go out if they're sick," he said Tuesday. "If people do that, then we don't need to make a recommendation to close things down."
The key indicator for Stage 5, according to Austin Public Health's risk-based guidelines, is a moving daily average of 50 or more COVID-related hospital admissions. Travis County crossed this threshold on Monday.
At Stage 5, APH guidelines recommend Austinites avoid all gatherings outside of the home and avoid any nonessential trips.
However, Escott said he and his public health colleagues plan to monitor the situation for several days before making a recommendation on the current risk level and other restrictions, such as another shutdown.
Escott would like to avoid such a scenario and said that the next steps would be to ask state officials to close a loophole that allows certain bars to remain open and to curtail extracurricular activities at area schools, both of which have been traced to recent cases.
The overall positivity rate in Travis County is now 9.9%, which is nearly double what it was last month. It is especially high—nearly 25%—among the 20-29 age group, according to APH data, which Escott attributed to bars that allow for crowded, face-to-face interactions sans masks.
"We have many bars that are not behaving well," he said, listing 25 establishments that have recently been cited—some multiple times—for violating local and state pandemic rules. They include Unbarlievable on Rainey Street, Yellow Jacket Social Club on East Fifth Street and Rose Room at the Domain.
In the last week, more than 1,400 students and staff at Travis County school districts have quarantined due to possible exposure to the coronavirus. Escott cited basketball as well as social gatherings among students and parents—a soccer team photo shoot, a parents' trip to Fredericksburg—as a major cause of these new cases.
A vaccine update
As the caseload continues to grow in Austin and around the state, healthcare providers are working to administer COVID vaccines from Pfizer and Moderna, which promise the best line of defense against future spread.
Travis County hospital facilities received 13,650 doses of the Pfizer vaccine last week. Area pharmacies and private practices were added to the mix this week, when an additional 18,325 doses—mostly from Moderna—will be distributed.
In addition to frontline healthcare workers, EMS first responders—including Escott, who also serves the EMS System Medical Director—are first in line to receive the current vaccine supply. Next week, long-term care facilities such as nursing homes will begin to administer vaccines to residents on-site through a state partnership with Walgreens and CVS.
Thanks to @DellMedSchool, Paramedics + EMTs with Austin Travis Co. EMS @ATCEMS, @AustinFireDept, + various… https://t.co/RyktLuLyVF— Austin Public Health (@Austin Public Health) 1608419669.0
These populations have been prioritized because they will help bolster our healthcare system in case of a worsening surge and protect those at highest risk of hospitalization and death. People 50 years of age and older have accounted for 94% of Travis County's 522 COVID deaths.
There are approximately 80,000 healthcare workers and 205,000 residents 50 years of age and older or with underlying conditions in Travis County.
"By focusing on a relatively small number of people and getting them vaccinated effectively, we can decrease the threat of overwhelming our healthcare system relatively quickly," Escott said.
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A $500 million mixed-use development spanning 1,400 acres is coming to Southeast Austin, near Tesla’s headquarters at Giga Texas.
Plans for the development by Houston-based real estate firm Hines include 2,500 houses along with multi-family and townhomes, and commercial land. Hines is partnering with Trez Capital, Sumitomo Forestry and Texas-based Caravel Ventures.
The development, which is known as Mirador, will be located off the 130 Toll and Highway 71, which the developers say provides easy access to the Circuit of the Americas Formula 1 racetrack and other Austin attractions like restaurants, parks and live music venues.
Hines also boasts amenities like a 60-acre lake, over 600 acres of greenbelt, community parks, trails and a swimming pool.
“As Austin continues to grow into the tech epicenter of Texas, coupled with a supply-constrained market, the demand for new housing is at its highest,” Dustin Davidson, managing director at Hines, said. “Mirador will be critical in providing more options for Austin’s growing population and we are excited to work alongside our partners given they each provide a unique and valued perspective in single-family development.”
The local housing market has been hot in recent years, with home sales accelerating earlier in the pandemic. In July 2021, the Austin metro area hit its pricing peak at $478,000. As Austonia previously reported, the area has been expected to see the Tesla effect, with the new workforce driving up demand for housing and other services.
The single-family houses are expected to be developed over the course of six years, in phases. Construction on the homes is expected to start this year and home sales will begin in 2023.
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Editor's note: This story summarizes Sports Illustrated's story detailing Michael Center's involvement in the Varsity Blues college admissions scandal, based on interviews with SI's Jon Wertheim. Additionally, Austonia received comments from Michael Center, included in this story.
Confined to his couch, former Longhorns tennis coach Michael Center praised his players via FaceTime after the program he built produced the Longhorns’ first national championship in 2019—a bittersweet moment as Center faced federal charges as part of the Varsity Blues college admissions scandal.
His name dragged through the mud, Center was fired, arrested by the FBI and sentenced to six months in a Central Texas federal prison after pleading guilty to two charges related to mail fraud. And over a year after his release, Center told Sports Illustrated he doubts he was the only one in burnt orange involved.
When the Varsity Blues scandal broke out to the public in 2019, the investigation was a perfect storm for nationwide attention: Hollywood glamour, blue blood conspiracy and faith in the tried-and-true American education system came to a head as 33 movie stars and other elites were found guilty of paying more than $25 million to pave their children’s way into eight colleges, including the University of Texas.
UT was one of eight schools caught in the college admissions scandal. (Laura Figi/Austonia)
The figure behind Varsity Blues, “college consultant” Rick Singer, would plead guilty to four felony counts for faking SAT scores and bribing coaches at prominent universities for his elite clients—but not before throwing Center under the bus.
Singer's client, private equity executive Chris Schaepe, was looking for a way to bend UT's tight admissions policies for his son, who was seeking a position oddly as a manager on UT’s basketball team. Through a middleman, Singer contacted Center, who eventually agreed.
Schaepe's son hadn't played tennis since his freshman year of high school. It was a detail that Center says passed through plenty of hands before he was admitted, including "academic support staff, the compliance office, the sports supervisor and, ultimately, the athletic director," SI's Jon Wertheim writes.
No one in the entire athletic department, including seven "risk management and compliant services department" employees, was named, implicated or punished. After an internal investigation, Center was the only one named in the Varsity Blues "subterfuge" in a September 2019 UT news release signed by the university president.
He told Austonia he was never contacted by the university during the investigation, and when the NCAA interviewed him for its investigation, he says it cleared him of any violations.
“I almost fell out of my chair,” Center said. “I literally couldn’t breathe. There’s no college coach in America—much less at a state school, much less a coach of a nonrevenue sport—who can admit an athlete without consulting other people in the athletic department. What they were asking people to believe, it’s just impossible.” SI said Center's assertion was backed by multiple UT coaches and administrators at other schools.But why would the Forty Acres be complicit?
Center said UT’s then newly named athletic director Steve Patterson made clear that Center suddenly was responsible for more than building a successful tennis program. He was to be a "fundraiser first and coach second" and he would need to find donors to fund a new tennis facility. Patterson admitted to SI that he wanted his coaches to find donors and said the department was "$15 million in the red" when he started in 2013, though he denies any knowledge of the false tennis recruitment.
Center said he knew he would be "considered a team player" if he let in the son of a Silicon Valley magnate. And sure enough, Schaepe immediately began pulling out his wallet, donating $100,000 to UT tennis and a six-figure check to the school's communication program.
"I never entered this as a way to profit. This was a fundraising mission where I made a terrible mistake at the end,"
Months after Schaepe's son was admitted, Center agreed to meet Singer at the Austin airport and found himself accepting a backpack filled with $60,000 in cash meant for him, personally. He said he immediately knew he had made a mistake. He told SI “I put the money in my basement and gave most of it away.”
“Why did I do it?” Center told Sports Illustrated. "I go to bed and wake up each day asking myself the same question. I had to convince myself that I somehow deserved the money."
Once in court, Center showed texts with UT's compliance official and mentioned Chris Plonsky, a department executive involved in "overseeing men’s tennis, compliance, academic support (which generates letters of intent) and the Longhorn Foundation," according to SI.
“I knew I had to answer for my guilt,” Center said. “But I was like, 'Man, schools are going to get hammered.'"'
INMATE 77806-112 but out on Sunday: Actor Felicity Huffman in prison uniform outside low-security Federal Correctional Institution in Dublin to visit actor husband William H. Macy & their daughter. Huffman admitted to paying $15K to have fixer boost daughter’s SAT score. 📸: @TMZ pic.twitter.com/9jALmqnA0U
— Henry K. Lee (@henrykleeKTVU) October 21, 2019
But Center was the only Longhorn to go down for the crimes. “I was no rogue actor,” Center said. “And this wasn’t my word against their word. There were signatures that went along with it. That’s the system... There wasn’t one point in the process where I thought people wanted to learn the whole truth.”
Back at home in Austin, Center watched as actress Felicity Huffman served just eleven days for her part in the scandal. Some served up to five months; others simply paid a fine, and others, like Singer, await sentencing.
And because the prosecution chose to blame individual coaches, framing schools as victims in the case, universities like UT have received less than a slap on the wrist for their possible involvement.
“I was always taught that actions have consequences,” Center said. “What I’ve come to realize is that, yes, for some people actions absolutely do have consequences. Serious, heavy ones. For others, actions can have no consequences at all.”
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