Everything we know about COVID-19 in Austin right now: Bars stay closed and Stage 4 looms as cases rise
There are a lot of questions circulating about the pandemic and its impact locally. Each month, Austonia will answer them.
Is the local COVID situation improving?
Travis County is now reporting a moving average of 154 new confirmed COVID-19 cases each day, up more than 60% on Nov. 1.
The Austin metro is also seeing an increase in COVID-related hospitalizations. The moving average is now 26 new admissions each day, up nearly 50% since Nov. 1.
Austin-Travis County Interim Health Authority Dr. Mark Escott described the current situation as "precarious" and compared it to that of the region on June 17, two weeks ahead of its peak.
"We're not at the stage of recommending a lockdown, but certainly we need people to take less risk in the coming weeks," he said on Monday.
The next day Escott extended existing emergency rules through Dec. 31. First implemented on Aug. 14, the rules require individuals to wear masks, businesses to enforce social distancing and schools to maintain static cohorts of students and teachers, with certain exceptions.
How are area hospitals faring?(COVID-19 Modeling Consortium at the University of Texas at Austin)
Austin's three hospital systems—Ascension Seton, Baylor Scott & White Health and St. David's HealthCare—have plenty of capacity. But staffing is a concern, as the local caseload grows and other jurisdictions across Texas face worsening surges, drawing personnel to El Paso, Lubbock and Dallas.
Over the summer, the metro had planned for a surge capacity of 350 ICU beds. At the peak, 170 of those beds were filled, which led to considerable stress on hospital staff, Escott said Tuesday.
As a result, local health officials are considering adjusting the local surge capacity to 200 ICU beds.
"There's lots of space in hospitals. There's a lot of equipment. We have more ventilators locally than we anticipate we would ever need," Escott said. "But we don't have the people."
As of Monday evening, only 45 ICU beds were being used by COVID patients.
But the COVID-19 Modeling Consortium at the University of Texas is projecting that the metro could see as many as 40 COVID-related hospital admissions each day by Thanksgiving, raising concerns about hospital capacity in the coming weeks.
Considering these projections and the possibility that the local surge capacity may be lower than previously planned, Escott said he and other officials are considering reducing the threshold for Stage 4, according to Austin Public Health's risk-based guidelines.
Currently the threshold is 40 or more new COVID-related hospitalizations, on average, each day.
"My concern for the next week to two weeks is that we may need to transition to Stage 4, so that we can flatten the curve again," he said.
Does this affect local recommendations and the state’s reopening plan?
Currently, the metro is at a Stage 3 level of risk. If local health officials recommend a move to Stage 4, it would include guidance to avoid dining and shopping except at essential businesses and, for those individuals at high risk of COVID, to limit social gatherings to two people or fewer.
Escott also advocated for a possible rollback of restaurant capacity limits to avoid a second surge. He added that the next logical step may be to ask the governor to consider such an action.
Right now, restaurants are allowed to open at up to 75% capacity, per state order. Until recently, Escott had also suggested that bars may be able to reopen, with modified procedures, in the near future. But that is no longer the case.
"The discussion we should be anticipating in the coming weeks is, 'Do we need to scale back on risk? Do we need to ask restaurants to move back to 50% from 75%?'" Escott said on Monday.
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott announced last month that bars could reopen at 50% capacity in countries that chose to opt in and where COVID patients accounted for no more than 15% of hospitalizations.
Travis County Judge Sam Biscoe has so far declined to allow bars to reopen, citing the rising case numbers.
How does this compare to the state of Texas and the country as a whole?
Although local trend lines are concerning, Travis County is faring better than other metropolitan areas across Texas—with fewer active cases per capita than Harris, El Paso, Dallas, Tarrant or Bexar counties, according to the Department of State Health Services—and the country as a whole.
Over the last week, the U.S. reported 116,448 new COVID cases a day—a 64% increase compared to two weeks ago—and Texas has reported more new cases in the last week than any other state other than Illinois, according to the New York Times.
Local hospitals have already accepted "a handful" of COVID patients from other jurisdictions that have exceeded their capacity, such as El Paso, which occurred during the previous surge and stresses the state's response plan.
If cases in Austin continue to rise, the area will not be able to offer aid to other parts of the state, either in the form of hospital beds or medical professionals, Escott explained.
What does this mean for the upcoming holiday season?
Past holidays, including Memorial Day and most recently Halloween, have been linked to new COVID cases in Travis County.
"I would anticipate that Thanksgiving would have a similar impact," APH Chief Epidemiologist Janet Pichette said on Monday.
Local health officials have been explicit in their advice.
"Don't gather with people outside of your household this Thanksgiving," Escott said Tuesday.
When asked if Austinites should get tested in advance of any holiday gatherings to limit the risk of spread, Escott referred to the latest outbreak of COVID at the White House, adding that everyone who enters the building is tested but may not have the viral load necessary for detection at the time.
For those who plan to gather "against very strong advice" not to, Escott recommended a self-quarantine period of one to two weeks and getting tested within five days of the interaction.
"If you plan to be around those at high risk, you have to be very strict," he said.
What can Austinites do to help flatten the curve?
Local health officials repeated their regular advice: wearing a mask, social distancing and washing one's hands are effective protective measures against COVID.
Escott added that Austinites have successfully flattened the curve in the past and could help repeat this success by limiting their interactions to members of their household and avoiding unnecessary trips.
"If we flatten things out … we'll be in a much better place for Thanksgiving and Christmas," he said Tuesday. "If we don't do that … then Thanksgiving is going to look bad, and Christmas may look worse."
Austinites looking to help are also encouraged to donate blood, where they will be screened for COVID antibodies. If they have developed them, they are eligible to donate convalescent plasma, which is one of the few treatment options for COVID patients and one that can be replenished through donations, unlike the antiviral drug Remdesivir, which Escott said he is concerned may be depleted in the case of another surge.
What is the status of the COVID vaccine?
Pharmaceutical giant Pfizer announced Monday that a potential vaccine candidate has been 90% effective in preventing COVID in a trial setting.
Should the Pfizer trials, which include one being conducted at Austin Regional Clinic, continue to deliver successful results, the company projects it can produce up to 50 million doses globally by the end of the year and 1.3 billion in 2021.
CEO Dr. Albert Bourla told CNN that the company will offer the vaccine for free "to all American citizens."
Local health officials said earlier this week that they are working with state officials and a local coalition to plan for widespread distribution of a vaccine, once one is available.
The coalition will identify priority populations, which will receive earliest access to a vaccine, APH Director Stephanie Hayden said on Monday.
But other challenges remain, including the need for peer review, ultra-cold storage and a second dose.
"There are still a lot of unknowns as far as logistically how things will come," Pichette said.
What is the local testing situation?
(UT Austin COVID-19 Dashboard)
APH continues to offer free testing to Austin residents.
"We have more tests available than people who are seeking out testing," Escott said Tuesday, encouraging people who gathered for Halloween festivities or attended a post-election protest or celebration to get tested.
However, the local positivity rate is increasing.
Last week's tests, of which around 5,000 have been tallied, produced a positivity rate of 5.3%, which is significantly higher than in recent weeks, when it has mostly stayed below 4%, Escott said.
The University of Texas at Austin, which offers its own testing services, is posting similar increases.
University Health Services and UT Health Austin offered 435 clinical tests to students during the week ending Nov. 7, with a positivity rate of 7.6%, up from 5.4% the week prior.
What is the impact of flu season?
Despite concerns of a "twindemic," when the annual flu season coincided with the pandemic, local health officials are encouraged by the data so far.
"In general, our flu cases have been lower than they have been over the last four seasons," Escott said Monday.
This is heartening given that, last winter, flu patients filled up area hospitals. If that happens this winter, it could limit capacity for COVID patients.
Health officials continue to encourage Austinites to get their flu vaccines to help minimize this possibility.
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A first minute error gave Austin FC an early setback, but with the help of two red cards and two second-half goals, the Verde and Black still forced a last-minute tie in a messy home battle against Orlando City SC Sunday night.
With the 2-2 draw, Austin dropped from No. 1 in the MLS West conference but still earned a point in the standings thanks to a penalty kick goal from Sebastian Driussi and a breakthrough shot from striker Moussa Djitte, who scored his first goal with the club in the final minute of play.
Here are the top three takeaways from the match:
A fateful mistake
Just days after his highlight reel-worthy LAFC performance, Austin keeper Brad Stuver scratched heads as he gave away a goal seconds into the game. Stuver's fateful pass went straight to Orlando's Junior Urco, who was already in the box and tapped a quick pass to Ercan Kara to score the first goal of the match.
The mistake forced Austin to chase a tie for the rest of the match, especially as center back Ruben Gabrielsen benched himself in the 20th minute. The team later said Gabrielsen has come down with something similar to a stomach bug.
Orlando would score two minutes later, and Austin FC left the first half looking like the opposite of its "Best in the MLS" self from just days prior.
The two red cards
By the 60th minute of the match, however, the tides had turned. Orlando's Rodrigo Schlegel, who had already racked up a yellow card on a handball, was ousted from the game two minutes later for yet another handball, this time in the penalty box.
Austin's main man Sebastian Driussi took the kick and sent it in for his eighth goal of the season to make it 2-1.
And just over five minutes later, Orlando's Cesar Araujo was the second man in purple kicked out of the match after he kicked Alex Ring on a slide tackle near the box. Austin was left with just over 20 minutes, and just nine opponents left, to try and tie it up.
The 'Mouss' is loose!
As the whistle blew and regulation time ran out, Orlando seemed to have won the match. The team had withstood many, many close calls—including two shots off the post from Austin FC's Diego Fagundez and Maxi Urruti—as Austin FC flooded the box with 22 cracks at a goal.
But thanks to the chaotic nature of the game, Austin FC was given nine extra minutes to tie it up. Moussa Djitte was the one who finally broke through five minutes into stoppage time, earning his first goal in Verde to put a 2-2 cap on the wild home match.
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This Gemini season, starting today, is appropriately paradoxical, twisting and blending simple concerns with life’s bigger, faster and more fiery quests.
On Sunday, May 29, we’ll experience one of the year’s biggest calls to adventure in the Mars/Jupiter conjunction—a potent duo whose combined force will start to be especially strongly felt when Mars moves into Aries on May 24. Contrastingly, Mercury, the ruler of Gemini, will keep our mental temperament grounded and steady as they move slowly through the sensual, materially-oriented sign of Taurus for most of the month. These contrasting forces might be tricky to weave together—read ahead for tips on how your sign can find the right approach this month!
Gemini: May 21-June 20Gemini: May 21-June 20
Welcome to the season of your Solar Return, Gemini! This month will set the stage for your whole coming year, so it will be great to start it off on the right foot. The most important bit of cosmic context is Mercury moving slowly till the end of the month in the grounded sign of Taurus. This is an encouragement to savor your questions and conversations with the world, without needing to rush to answers and to mull over the elemental, fundamental aspects of your life. It would be great to give yourself perspective, especially by experiencing new environments and by moving through the world in a new manner. Allow yourself to be surprised! You might loosen some of your hardened beliefs, but don’t discount the trustworthiness or substance of the new ideas you may stumble upon.
Cancer: June 21-July 22Cancer: June 21-July 22
For you, Cancer, the paradoxes of Gemini season have to do with inwardness and outwardness. On the one hand, you can expect your inner world to be as active as ever, swirling with meaningful thoughts and experiences needing to be digested. On the other, this month features a strong call to get out of your shell, open up to the world at large, and bravely share yourself—perhaps even in an unprecedented way! In transitioning between these extremes, the Moon can be as good a guide as ever—heading into and out of the New Moon on the 30th, you might focus on articulating and envisioning this burgeoning impulse and nourishing the terrain for its growth. As we ramp up to the full moon on the 14th, you might find small ways to embody, communicate and make real this developing dream.
Leo: July 23-Aug 22Leo: July 23-Aug. 22
This Gemini Season is particularly intense for you, Leo, as it calls forth both a fiery, hungry spirit and a more serious, dedicated energy, aware of life’s hardships and limitations. These impulses herald a summer of growth and maturation, which would be great to get a good jump on. Just don’t let this process make you too heavyhearted or self-involved! Your friends, community, and experience of the broader social world at large can help soften and clarify this strong, fiery self that’s metamorphosing. You might rely upon this bigger, human perspective to help you progress smoothly and gracefully. Although it might require some extra humility, taking yourself less seriously can be a superpower. A lighthearted approach can be extraordinarily efficient and effective. It might be paradoxical, but consider that relying on a bigger, greater power than your own is your path to individual fullness.
Virgo: Aug. 23-Sept. 21Virgo: Aug. 23-Sept. 21
This Gemini season brings a charge for you to expand into more substantive and serious subjects, Virgo. Especially if you feel you’ve been playing small, this will provide an opportunity for you to grow into more meaningful and demanding work in the world. At times, this will feel hectic and harsh—there will be no shortage of fire this month. You, as much as anyone, though, can help find the right place and time for that fire, directing it where there’s a need for more energy and oomph. Lightheartedness can be really helpful in navigating and dancing with this heat—with a bit of humor and perspective, you can respond and adapt quickly and gracefully. By the end of the month, you should be able to feel like your view of and faith in the bigger picture has expanded.
Libra: Sept. 22-Oct. 23Libra: Sept. 22-Oct. 23
This Gemini season will provide ample opportunities for you to learn and grow through your relationships, Libra. We’re really looking at the full spectrum of potential experiences here—on the one hand, Mars’ entry into Aries can ignite flammable subjects, and people are generally likely to be on edge, assertive and protective. On the other, Venus’ conjunction with Uranus toward the end of the month can bring unexpected encounters and new forms of relationship into play. Throughout all of this, there’s a theme for the next year of growth through fiery, direct relationships. This is a step beyond just keeping the peace which may be discomforting, but consider that it may take your relationships to incredibly satisfying and enduring places.
Scorpio: Oct. 24-Nov. 21Scorpio: Oct. 24-Nov. 21
This Gemini season brings opportunities for sharpening both your wits and tools, Scorpio, although this may feel like a trial by fire. Although they may feel particularly urgent and exciting this month, many of these challenges and opportunities will last throughout the summer, so take your time to get your focus clear and settle into a groove. The real challenge and potential this month have to do with navigating subtle, intricate dynamics so that you aren’t flustered and know exactly where to put your effort. In order to develop this discernment, you can definitely rely on trusted allies, who can act as mirrors, triangulation points and simple safe havens amid the storm. This is a strategic necessity, but be sure to give thanks and enjoy the simple goodness of companionship, too!
Sagittarius: Nov. 22-Dec. 21Sagittarius: Nov. 22-Dec. 21
The sharp, powerful impulses and stimulation of this Gemini season are pushing you to the development of your free will, Sagittarius—a spirit of playful, proud independence and spontaneity. There are a couple of ways that you might think about this. First, that courage is necessary to truly live out your convictions and ideals, as well as a way to ultimately best serve the world. Truth isn’t always soft or easy. On the other hand, this isn’t too complex and is keyed to cutting through stagnation. There’s a sort of simplicity and instinctive wisdom that you can draw upon and develop into this month, letting things happen. If you need to, you can think of this as an act of trust, or faith in a basic goodness and natural, flowing order of things.
Capricorn: Dec. 22-Jan. 19Capricorn: Dec. 22-Jan. 19
The motion and activity of this Gemini season can quickly develop your values and taste, Capricorn, as you strip back ordinary and inherited ways of thinking and open your eyes to life’s beauty. This simple and vibrant beauty will stimulate your desire to savor life’s goodness and strive for the highest quality experience possible. Along the way, your fixed, limited ideas about what is possible can fall away, even as the new and extraordinary may require incredible strength and devotion from you. Although these are lofty ideals, they’ll have a lot to do with your tangible, everyday experience of your body and sense of home—this is a primal, almost wild energy being rekindled. Alongside this intense fire comes a certain risk, so make sure to enter into this new adventure step by step, without injuring yourself or anyone else.
Aquarius: Jan. 20-Feb. 18Aquarius: Jan. 20-Feb. 18
This Gemini season can help you learn how to feel more rooted and alive in life’s simple aspects, Aquarius. Although this can certainly take place in tandem with new teachers, these don’t have to be big gurus—rather, your curiosity, delight, and common sense might be the best guides. In this regard, your quality of perception, thought and the well-being of your inner child can all make great strides. Through the first part of the month, this will likely feel exciting and overwhelming. As we approach our new moon, though, you can get a better sense of where you need to be settling into more focus and definition in your life. This back and forth between a growing sense of clarity and inner authority and a stronger capacity to be firm and to the point will continue to deepen throughout the summer.
Pisces: Feb. 19-March 20Pisces: Feb. 19-March 20
This Gemini season is focused on helping you develop a stronger sense of connection to the world around you, Pisces. Although this can take place by rearranging and bringing more life into your body and environment, an initial spirit of fresh possibility and willingness to release what is stale and outgrown is a necessity. In doing so, you can land upon a greater sense of capability and being resourced for life’s adaptations and evolutions. This will certainly be a month of growth in your material world and relationship with your body, but the serious litmus test is how settled you feel internally—the quality and clarity of your thoughts and inner world. Ideally, though this summer you’ll develop a stronger trust in yourself and an easier interface between your inner riches and outer quality of experience.
Aries: March 21-April 19Aries: March 21-April 19
The Mars/Jupiter conjunction is especially important for you, Aries, as it happens in your home sign. This signifies a spark of expansion that will play out over the coming year. Here, Jupiter is calling you into new ventures and adventures, to level up and act on the big dreams and desires brewing inside of you. Thus, this month is a great time to initiate some bigger change, to take some jump, leap or healthy risk. Although you don’t want to let this moment slip away, please don’t get impulsive or headstrong—make sure you’ve got at least a bit of a plan. Ideally, whatever you’re aiming at will require a good bit of care, and you can expect that much of this opportune, fertile energy will continue and develop throughout the next year.
Taurus: April 20-May 20Taurus: April 20-May 20
The start of the coming month will challenge you to keep up the pace, Taurus, so that it can consolidate into a healthy rhythm. Finding the right stride, you can find yourself breathing more easily, and maybe let yourself loosen your grip or take your hands off the handlebars, trusting your sense of balance and the strength in your legs. This can set the stage for an opportune spell at the end of Gemini Season, as your ruler Venus makes a conjunction with Uranus—you might keep an eye out for spontaneous side adventures, ways to create space for synchronicity, or simple moments where life is calling you into new ways of being. Ideally, these will feel like clear upgrades, but if you need to think of them as experiments or trial runs, that’s totally okay, too.