New COVID-19 cases and hospital admissions continue to rise in Austin, but local health officials provided two reasons to be optimistic.
ICU occupancy across the Austin metro is down significantly compared to the surge that occurred in June and July, which they attributed to improved treatment options. Travis County is also doing better than any other large county in Texas when it comes to mitigating disease spread.
"There is not something magical about Travis County," Austin-Travis County Interim Health Authority Dr. Mark Escott said on Tuesday. "We don't have a force field around us."
Instead, he said Austinites' commitment to protective measures—masking, social distancing and hand-washing—has helped inoculate our region from the catastrophic surge seen in El Paso and other Texas jurisdictions.
A positive sign
Travis County is reporting, on average, 301 new confirmed COVID cases each day, up from 232 a week ago. Similarly, the five-county Austin metro is seeing 35 new COVID-related hospital admissions each day, on average, compared to 32 last week.
It will likely take another week to ascertain the full impact of Thanksgiving gatherings, Escott said, and to determine whether the current trend lines will flatten out or continue to rise.
In comparing the current surge to the one that occurred in June and July—which was about twice as severe at its peak—there is a key difference. Although hospitalizations are on the rise, ICU capacity is about 50% greater than it was at this stage during the summer surge.
This change is due to improved clinical outcomes, Escott said.
Doctors are better able to manage COVID patients outside of the ICU setting and have more treatment options—including convalescent plasma, monoclonal antibodies and antiviral drugs such as remdesivir—in their arsenal.
"That's great," Escott said, adding that ICU capacity is the "weight-limiting step" because of limited personnel at area hospitals.
The Austin metro's three hospital systems—Ascension Seton, Baylor Scott & White Health and St. David's HealthCare—reported a combined ICU occupancy rate of 87% on Friday.
Escott said this shouldn't give rise to alarm as hospital ICUs typically operate with an occupancy rate between 80% and 95%. Additionally, the hospital systems' leadership have said they are not concerned about capacity at this time.
"That doesn't mean that we shouldn't be careful," Escott said. "But our hospitals are in good shape locally."
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.
El Paso County is reporting more than 103 confirmed cases per 1,000 people, Dallas County nearly 50 confirmed cases and Harris County nearly 40, according to data compiled by the Texas Department of State Health Services.
Travis County is reporting just over 31 confirmed cases per 1,000 people.
Escott estimated that, by avoiding the surge seen in El Paso and Lubbock counties, the Austin area has prevented more than 1,500 deaths.
To maintain this, he and other local health officials stressed the importance of adhering to local pandemic recommendations.
The Austin area is currently at Stage 4, according to Austin Public Health'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 avoid gatherings as well as non-essential activities, such as dining out and shopping.
For everyone else, Escott emphasized that the real risk lies in gathering with people outside of your household without masks. Activities that allow for masking or limit interaction to those in one's pod are considered less dangerous at this stage.
"It is safe for people to go to a restaurant and have a meal with their family members and take their masks off while they're eating," he said.
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Austin FC couldn't find the stamina to fight off a 2-0 loss against LAFC for their inaugural match on Saturday.
The match, which saw No. 21 Austin FC go head-to-head with No. 2 LAFC in Los Angeles, was broadcast nationally on FOX and FOX Deportes.
Salute the support. 👏
It's only the beginning for @AustinFC. pic.twitter.com/TduorqYr2y
— Major League Soccer (@MLS) April 18, 2021
Eleven players took the stage as Austin FC players for the first time, with five starters making their MLS debut. "Ringleader" Alex Ring took the captain's armband and wore it well. The defensive midfielder could be seen leading his teammates through their first ever match, but it wasn't enough to stage an Austin takeover in LA.
In the signature style of Head Coach Josh Wolff, the team played with quickness and intensity, nearly connecting on several fast breaks. It was harder for them to stay in front, however, something that Wolff credits with quick decision making and a tough LAFC defense.
"We have a quick attacking team, but I think when you make quick attacks and it fizzles it's just about some decision making," Wolff said. "Are we in position to finish attacks? If not, can we reestablish our attack and get stuff better?"
The club was given some generous breaks from No. 2 LAFC, who had one or both of their star DPs out for the half. While forward Diego Rossi is out for the entire match due to a hamstring injury, Carlos Vela was accidentally pulled too soon on what turned out to be a miscommunication.
"He gave us the sign that he needed to come off," LAFC Head Coach Bob Bradley said on broadcast. "I can't say more than maybe it's my fault."
LA pulled some dramatics and slowly gained more possession throughout the half, but ATXFC's defense wasn't initially as shaky as it seemed in preseason. Jhohan Romana has pulled his weight in getting the ball out of goal, and a 34-year old Matt Besler held his own in center back.
As the second half commenced, however, it became clear that LAFC had the advantage over Austin's first major league team.
Goalkeeper Brad Stuver had his work cut out for him, fending off 24 shot attempts, 11 of which were on goal. He didn't have much time to prepare, either: in the first 30 seconds of play, Stuver had already made a save to keep the match 0-0.
LAFC finally connected in the 61st minute of play as Corey Baird shot one into the bottom right corner. The team capitalized off their momentum and put one past Stuver a second time, drawing roars of approval from the LAFC crowd.
While some last-minute attempts from Jon Gallagher and others were made, Austin FC didn't have the endurance to bring a tie. After seven additional minutes of stoppage time, the club lost their first match 2-0.
While the scoreboard tells one story, Wolff said that the team did well considering the skill of LAFC and the pressure of their club debut.
"We've got to be realistic," Wolff said. "This is the first time this organization has been in front of TV with an opportunity to show itself and I think there were some promising moments. And we're going to maximize those and continue to try to develop those, but there's lots to build on."
The team may have lost, but it still won the support of thousands of Verde fans, dozens of which made it to watch their team's first match. When Stuver and the team made it to bthe stadium, Los Verdes fans were already there to show support, and Stuver said his wife saw the same back in Austin.
"The moment that we pulled into the stadium, we saw Black and Verde fans cheering us on as we got to the stadium," Stuver said. "During warm up, you can just look around and see different groups sitting in different sections of the stadium and it's just truly amazing to see the support in our first game. We know that we want to give the fans everything, because this we play for the city and we play for them."