Travis County is once again seeing a decline in the number of new confirmed COVID cases and related hospitalizations after a brief plateau, but more kids are testing positive and being hospitalized with the virus, the county's top health official said Tuesday.
Area hospitals are reporting increased capacity and adequate staffing after two months of operating in surge mode, and the positivity rate among COVID tests conducted by and reported to Austin Public Health is declining.
"Our hope is at this stage, we're pushing past that plateau," Austin-Travis County Interim Health Authority Dr. Mark Escott told county commissioners during their weekly meeting.
But despite the progress, Escott said, there has been an increasing portion of children ages 10-19 testing positive for and being hospitalized with COVID-19. The age group accounted for more than 5% of the positive test results reported Aug. 4-10.
Children ages 10-19 had the highest or second-highest rate of positivity in the county in recent weeks, Escott said.
In the last week, 2.7% of the metro's hospitalizations were among children ages 10-19, which he said was higher than what the metro area had been seeing. It also mirrors national trends, he said, which are attributed to a variety of things including less frequent testing of asymptomatic children.
Nonetheless, Escott said, children ages 10-19 with known exposure should be tested to prevent an additional spread.
"You have seen that across the country there's been a significant increase in the number of school-aged individuals who have contracted COVID-19," Escott said.
School guidance coming
APH will recommend, in guidance coming this week, that area schools resume in-person classes at 25% capacity for the first two to three weeks, an idea that Escott has floated before.
"We want to make sure that the schools can manage the disease spread and new processes with a small number of students before we take on any additional risk," Escott said. "Having said that, I think doing things in a slow and methodical way is going to prevent the surge we may see if we just pack students back into school in August or September."
Continued declines in the number of new cases and hospitalizations are critical if schools are to reopen safely on Sept. 8, Escott said, especially as Labor Day and the prospect of college football games threaten to increase community transmission in the short term.
Although Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton said in recent nonbinding guidance that local health officials don't have the authority to shut down schools due to COVID-19, Escott feels he is within his rights to give his professional opinion.
"From my perspective, I believe I have the legal authority to do that," Escott said.
Disinterest in testing
Escott also noted that interest in testing is declining.
In late July, Austin Public Health was conducting more than 6,000 tests a week. Over the last week or so, however, it has conducted fewer than 1,400 because of a lack of demand. As a result, the department is expanding its free service to some asymptomatic individuals.
Last week, Escott attributed the decline to fewer cases emerging, a side effect of the decline and plateau the area has seen recently.
But residents have also complained in recent weeks about free tests that take days or weeks to return results, along with long lines - either of which may account for part of the decline. APH has reported improvement in both of those areas.
On Tuesday, APH discouraged employers from requiring employees to provide proof of multiple negative test results as a condition of returning to work.
This places an "unnecessary financial burden on the employee," APH said.
Instead, individuals who have had COVID should stay home at least 10 days following the onset of symptoms before returning to work, according to CDC recommendations.
Expect some whiplash this week, Austinites: with an expected high of 103 degrees, Monday is predicted to be the hottest day of the year, but a midweek cold front is on the way to bring that first glimpse of fall.
Austin-Bergstrom International Airport could see its first 100-degree temperature this year on Monday as temperatures citywide are expected to exceed this year's record of 102 degrees.
The cold front arrives Tuesday afternoon to evening.#atx #atxwx #cbsaustinwx https://t.co/rQni6ug3y4 pic.twitter.com/PoFeHPYtnM
— Chikage Windler WX (@ChikageWeather) September 20, 2021
After a typical summery Tuesday with highs in the mid-90s, Wednesday will welcome the first signs of fall as a cold front drops lows into the 50s.
Expect more wind and a chance of rain come Tuesday with a 40% chance of scattered storms. The cold front, which should last through Friday, will bring drier, crisper air that could cause fire hazards on Wednesday.
Highs will be in the upper 80s and lows in the 50s and lower 60s for the front's final two mornings.
After near record heat today, a cold front arrives tomorrow! Hang in there South-Central Texas, we have almost made it. pic.twitter.com/yd9UbNo7hY
— NWS Austin/San Antonio (@NWSSanAntonio) September 20, 2021
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After months of speculation, a new report says political personality Beto O'Rourke is mulling a run for Texas governor that he will announce later this year.
Sources tell Axios the former congressman is preparing his campaign for the 2022 election, where he will likely vie for the position against incumbent Gov. Greg Abbott. The only other candidate that has announced he will take on Abbott for governor is former Texas GOP Chairman Allen West—no Democrats have announced they are running as of yet.
"No decision has been made," Axios reports David Wysong, O'Rourke's former House chief of staff and a longtime adviser, said. "He has been making and receiving calls with people from all over the state."
A new poll from The Dallas Morning News and University of Texas at Tyler shows O'Rourke is narrowing the gap between himself and Abbott's prospects for governor. In the poll, 37% said they'd vote for O'Rourke over Abbott, while 42% said they'd vote for Abbott.
Abbott has been in the hot seat due to his handling of COVID-19 and the signing of landmark legislation into law, including new abortion and voting rights laws; 54% of poll respondents voted they think the state is headed in the "wrong direction." Still, Texas hasn't had a Democrat as governor since the 90s.
O'Rourke's people-focused approach to the 2018 Senator race, which he lost to Sen. Ted Cruz, gave him a widespread following and many hoped he'd throw his hat into the ring since he said he was considering it earlier this year.
"We hope that he's going to run," Gilberto Hinojosa, the state chair of the Democratic Party, told Axios. "We think he'll be our strongest candidate. We think he can beat Abbott because he's vulnerable."
Austin rapper Jordi Esparza may not have won the 2021 Red Bull Batalla, the world's largest Spanish freestyle rap competition, but for a spirited two rounds, the 22-year old Mexican native looked like he had every right to.
On Saturday evening in Los Angeles, the event itself looked like Cobra Kai meets Star Search with graphics adding a very Batman Beyond aesthetic. Over a dozen rappers hoping to represent the U.S. in the international round of the competition took to the stage with in-your-face jabs at accents, sexual orientation and odors, among other things.
This was Esparza's second rodeo; he had placed third at the 2020 National Finals, automatically securing him a spot this year.
However, things were different this year. He was not nervous about the contest. Unlike in 2020, when he made his Red Bull Batalla debut, the anxiety of the event led him to "feeling so bad."
Affecting a casual calm, the locally-based landscaper said he just felt "so relaxed, so happy" and primarily wanted to "enjoy everything."
Choosing his first-round opponent, Esparza, whose stage name is Jordi, elected to go against LA-based Boss.
Esparza freestyled an attack on his opponent's weight and cholo style of dress.
Boss—bracketing his Latin freestyle with English appeals to the crowd—mocked Jordi's lack of education, made fun of how clean Jordi's shoes looked and suggested that Jordi just came back from a Footlocker.
That first round went to Jordi.
But his next opponent Eckonn would prove to be his undoing.
Eckonn compared Jordi to Hannah Montana, while Jordi soulfully explained that he had learned from the best.
Esparza's verbal dexterity is matched by a rattling rhythm and a game face that is as mawkish as it is mockish. The overall effect is that of an underdog with bite.
Eckonn beat Esparza in that round with the overall championship going to Palm Beach-based rapper Reverse.
However, Esparza was just happy to be there. He recently told Austonia going to the finals again was a dream come true—a pinnacle that he said he won't know how to top.
With his nimble jabs and sneaky prowess, honed from pop culture and the swagger of a young working man hungry to be more, Jordi Esparza is just getting started.