Austin sees slight decline in COVID numbers—but it's still too early to tell the impact of Thanksgiving gatherings
After weeks of warnings, advisories and even an emergency text alert from local health officials, Austin's COVID-19 caseload appears to be on a post-Thanksgiving decline.
However, as was the case with past holidays, it will likely take two weeks before the full impact of Thanksgiving gatherings is revealed in local data.
The average number of new confirmed cases reported each day in Travis County is 230, down from 300 a week ago, according to Austin Public Health data. The average number of new COVID-related hospital admissions reported each day in the Austin metro is also falling; it is now 32, down from 38 a week ago.
The COVID-19 Modeling Consortium at the University of Texas at Austin projects a declining number of hospital admissions, on average, in the coming weeks and reports a 4% decline in the number of cases reported in the metro over the last two weeks. The consortium's model uses hospitalization data as well as anonymized cell phone mobility data to make its projections.
Although not the same data source used by the consortium, Google publishes regular COVID-19 community mobility reports. The latest one for Travis County, published on Nov. 24, shows a mixed bag when it comes to residents' behavior in the lead-up to the Thanksgiving holiday. Trips to retail and recreation locations, parks, transit stations and workplaces were all down compared to the baseline. But trips to the grocery store, pharmacy and residences were up.
As with past holidays, such as Memorial Day and the Fourth of July, it's still too early to tell whether Thanksgiving gatherings will contribute to a spike in cases—or mark a turning point in Austin's current surge. Experts have said it typically takes two weeks between transmission and the time that cases are confirmed by test results.
Local health officials issued repeated warnings ahead of Thanksgiving, warning Austinites of the growing surge of new COVID cases and pointing to other jurisdictions, where hospital capacity has already been overwhelmed.
"We are not immune from a tragedy like El Paso's," Austin-Travis County Interim Health Authority Dr. Mark Escott said in a statement earlier this month. "And like El Paso, we could be facing a rapidly growing surge between Thanksgiving and Christmas with Stage 5 a few weeks away."
After a months-long hiatus, Austin's three hospital systems—Ascension Seton, Baylor Scott & White Health and St. David's HealthCare—recently began offering hospital capacity updates on a regular basis. As of the last update, which was provided on Wednesday, the metro's overall hospital occupancy rate is 74% and its ICUs are 82% occupied.
Just dropped my wife Clarissa off at the airport, on her way to El Paso, where they desperately need help from hosp… https://t.co/Kpkt2QIuKf— Clay Johnston (@Clay Johnston)1606704942.0
APH issued post-Thanksgiving guidelines on Friday, recommending that residents continue to avoid higher-risk activities, such as indoor gatherings with people outside of their households and travel.
For those who did gather over Thanksgiving, APH recommends getting tested on Monday or Tuesday and staying home for at least a week as a precaution, even if the test results are negative.
The department also recommended that area school districts temporarily return to remote learning for the week following Thanksgiving. Austin ISD heeded the advice; some campuses in the Del Valle, Manor and Round Rock school districts temporarily closed in recent weeks due to outbreaks. UT Austin students will not return to campus until the spring semester.
The COVID-19 Modeling Consortium estimated last week, in its latest update, that there was a 54% chance that at least one person would arrive with a COVID infection for a school or pod of 100 people in Travis County. The larger the school or pod size, the greater the chance of spread.
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The Food and Drug Administration will consider Pfizer's COVID-19 vaccine application for emergency use authorization in 5-to-11-year-olds on Tuesday. The vaccine will likely be available to kids starting next week.
With 2.9 million Texas children in this age group, state health officials say this is a "big factor" in reducing the virality of COVID. At a Monday press conference, the Texas Department of State Health Services released info on the rollout efforts of the vaccine for children.
Here are some of the answers to your questions.
When and where will it be available?St. David's Healthcare staff unpack the first few shipments of its initial supply of the COVID-19 vaccine on Thursday.(St. David's Healthcare)
Assuming the FDA approves this version of the Pfizer vaccine this week, vaccines will start shipping out almost immediately with the first vaccines for children likely available next week.
DSHS has already put in an order of vaccines under the federal government's "pre-order prior to launch" program.
COVID vaccine providers will begin receiving those first shipments 1-5 days after the approval. After Monday night, DSHS will have put in three different orders for vaccines. The second shipment will arrive 3-7 days after approval and the third shipment will take place 5-9 days after the approval.
The Center for Disease Control and Prevention will meet on Nov. 2 and Nov. 3 to discuss best practices for administration, allowing for the first shots to be administered after.
The state will be allocated 1.3 million doses across 814 providers in 120 counties. Individual county allocations have not been released but each county got to send a request for how many doses they may need. Federal retail pharmacies, such as H-E-B and Walgreens, are getting their own shipments.
The health department advises using its vaccine finder tool to find the nearest vaccine provider near you.
How is this version of the vaccine different than the first one?Abbott says COVID vaccine to be available to other groups by end of March
The COVID vaccine for 5-11-year-olds is one-third of the dosage of the current vaccine available to those 12 years of age and older.
It is being identified as the orange cap vaccine, unlike the current purple cap. The purple cap vaccine cannot be administered to younger kids, according to the state health department.
And like the current vaccine, it is 95% effective. The first and second doses are the same and will be advised to be taken 21 days apart.
What are the side effects for children?
During clinical trials, it was reported that some kids in this age group felt pain at the injection site, fatigue and headaches.
The data submitted to the FDA shows no serious complications, such as cases of myocarditis inflammation of the heart muscle, or pericarditis, inflammation of the outer lining of the heart—rare complications that have been reported among young boys and men receiving the vaccine in other trials.
How will this affect herd immunity?
With so many children across the state, DSHS said "we need to have as many people vaccinated as possible."
State health officials said the herd immunity threshold is still being looked into, but with 3 million children soon to be able to get the vaccine, it will be a big factor in reducing the viral load in the state.
"Until we're able to add all the children, we'll see a bigger wave in stamping down the pandemic," DSHS' Imelda Garcia said during the conference.
Of those 12 and older, 72% are fully vaccinated in Travis County as of Monday.
I'm not sure if my child needs this vaccine. Why should I have them get it?
DSHS says this vaccine is important for young kids because it will protect the older population and others around them as well as themselves. The department says to ask experts and doctors questions if you are hesitant so you can be confident with your decision.
Tesla is officially in with the big guns.
After Hertz Global Holdings Inc. placed an order of 100,000 Teslas—the biggest single electric car purchase ever—Tesla officially hit the $1 trillion market cap for the first time.
The trillion-dollar club has some big names, including Apple, Facebook and Amazon. With the purchase, Tesla's stock shot up to more than $1,045 a share by midday Monday, a new record after topping $900 a share just a day earlier.
The $4.2 billion deal is the biggest purchase of electric vehicles to date. Hertz said it will use the Teslas to round out their fleet of electric rental cars by 2022 just months after filing for bankruptcy protection.
The news came just days after Tesla followed its leader, CEO Elon Musk, and relocated its headquarters to Austin. Austin's Giga Texas plant, which is currently finishing construction, is set to begin producing Cybertruck models at the end of 2022 and will begin "volume production" by 2023, Musk said in the meeting.
Musk celebrated the stock market victory on Twitter.
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) October 25, 2021
Shortly after moving to Austin, Tesla saw its best quarter yet with Q3 revenue coming in at $13.76 billion—up from $8.77 billion this time last year. It was the electric car companies' ninth straight profitable quarter.
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They say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, right?
While Northwest Arkansas isn't exactly looking to be a breakfast taco-loving, live music-having tech hub, it is branding itself as the Austin of yesteryear. And who better to come to the quickly-growing paradise than Austinites themselves?
OZ Brands is the latest NW Arkansas organization to entice Austin residents to pack up and make the move. The company, which is named after the area's Ozark Mountains, promotes travel, trails and art within the region and is owned by Runway, a NW Arkansas business investment group. Runway is headed by Walmart founder Sam Walton's grandsons, Steuart and Tom Walton.
OZ is targeting Austinites with the "One Way Out" giveaway, a program that will give at least 10 Austinites a one-way Allegiant ticket from Austin to the Northwest Arkansas National Airport.
"Fall is the perfect time to visit and explore the natural beauty of the Ozarks," the program's website reads. "Why just one way, because once you're here, you won't want to leave!"
Why swap cosmopolitan Austin for NW Arkansas' forest-filled hideaway? Just like other local programs including the Greater Bentonville Chamber of Commerce and the NW Arkansas Council, OZ Brands is looking to capitalize on priced-out Austinites who may not be pleased with the region's unprecedented growth.
"It's okay, Austin, we get it. You're tired of the tourists, the traffic, the hassle," the website says, escalating to an all-caps message reading, "YOU NEED A BREAK, AND WE ARE HERE TO GIVE IT TO YOU."
OZ is far from the first program to offer financial incentives to move to the area. Ads for Greater Bentonville began cropping up on the feeds of Austinites weeks ago as they promoted their annual tech summit, while the NW Arkansas Council rolled out similar ads. Instead of "Austin City Limits," the organizations promised "Bentonville City Limitless." If you "wish you'd bought in Austin 10 years ago," the Council promises that the area is perfect for you.
The Greater Bentonville Chamber of Commerce and NW Arkansas Council have both made moves to bring Austinites to the region. (Greater Bentonville)
Like similar programs in the past, One Way Out "is an opportunity for Austinites who no longer feel at home in their own city to see for themselves the value and qualities of Northwest Arkansas ... It's for those living in the Texas city who feel the growing pains of Austin expanding beyond its limits," the company said in a press release.
The region has recently experienced substantial growth, moving to fourth on the U.S. News and World Report's list of 150 Best Places to Live in the U.S. in 2021-2022 and enjoying an influx of businesses, tech workers and startups tired of the West Coast's crowds and priciness. And with a great arts and culture scene, a lower cost of living and even a financial incentive to move to the area, talents like film producer Kristin Mann decided it was time to swap Austin for sunnier skies in Arkansas.
"I love (Austin) how it is now, don't get me wrong, but I've always fantasized about what it might have been like before it really exploded," Mann said. "And I feel like that's similar here...There's something really unique about this town, and it feels like there's something really exciting happening here."
The contest ends Oct. 29 and is open to anyone 18 and older that lives within 50 miles of Austin. Winners must book their trip within four months of the competition and finish the trip by May 1, 2022.
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