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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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After reaching Stage 4 last week of Austin Public Health's risk-based guidelines, Austin-Travis County is now at the Stage 5 threshold with a seven-day average of 50 hospitalizations and dwindling ICU capacity.
While unenforceable under Gov. Greg's Abbott order against local mandates, vaccinated individuals are asked to choose drive-through and curbside options, outdoor activities, social interactions with limited group sizes, as well as social distance and wearing masks indoors. Partially or unvaccinated individuals are asked to avoid gatherings, travel, dining and shopping, choose curbside and delivery options, as well as wear a mask on essential trips.
Flashing back to early-pandemic times, hospitals are at critical capacity—the 11 county Trauma Service Region of 2.3 million people is fluctuating at 16 staffed beds, according to APH.
In a statement on behalf of Ascension Seton, Baylor Scott & White Health and St. David's Healthcare, a spokesperson said that hospitals are asking residents to "help us and each other" by getting vaccinated and continuing to utilize safety practices to slow the spread of the virus.
According to the statement, a "longstanding" nurse staffing challenge combined with the recent COVID-19 spike is putting "extraordinary pressure" on hospital systems.
Along with the unmitigated spread of the virus in unvaccinated, the more contagious Delta variant is also to blame for the spike in cases. The seven-day moving average of COVID hospitalizations in the Austin area reached the Stage 5 threshold of 50 on Friday, triggering local health officials to ask residents to take action.
Local hospitals have a "surge plan" that includes utilization of "all available patient care space and employees within our hospitals and in other settings" that will go into effect when capacity is hit, according to the statement.
The hospitals are working on sourcing supplemental staff and emphasized that emergency care will still be available but it may involve patient transfers "in order to provide the most appropriate care."
Healthcare systems have hit this threshold previously during the pandemic: the city held an alternate care site at the Austin Convention Center from January to March of this year.
"Our responsibility during this pandemic continues to be balancing our readiness to care for patients with COVID-19, while making sure patients who depend on our hospitals receive needed and timely care," the statement said. "We do not want to see necessary non-COVID care delayed as it was during the early stages of the pandemic."
This story has been updated to after publication to include that Austin has reached the Stage 5 threshold.
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Austin legend Willie Nelson will perform at the Texas Capitol today, his first large performance since the pandemic began, closing out a four-day long march across Central Texas to build support for federal voting protections.
Organized by The Poor People's Campaign, the march began in Georgetown on Wednesday and will end with a 10 a.m. rally at the Capitol featuring appearances from former U.S. Congressman Beto O'Rourke and Rev. Dr. William Barber.
Willie Nelson (with Charlie Sexton & friends) will play a free concert at the Poor People's Campaign march for democracy & justice in Austin this Saturday! https://t.co/zZSA0BpbWA
Sign up to join us and see Willie at 10am Saturday: https://t.co/KrDPIFIvST
— Beto O'Rourke (@BetoORourke) July 29, 2021
The rally calls on Congress to "stop attacks on democracy" by ending the filibuster, pass all provisions of the For the People Act, restore the 1965 Voting Rights Act, raise the federal minimum wage to $15 per hour and pass permanent protections for all 11 million undocumented immigrants.
Nelson denounced election law proposals gaining traction in red states, such as Senate Bill 1 and House Bill 3 in Texas, which 55 House Democrats foiled by fleeing to Washington, D.C., on July 12.
The bills would require additional ID verifications for mail-in ballots, allow partisan poll watchers "free movement" and prohibit elections officials from sending absentee ballot applications to voters who didn't request one.
"Laws making it more difficult for people to vote are unAmerican and are intended to punish people of color, the elderly and disabled," Nelson said. "If you can't win by playing the rules, then it's you and your platform–not everyone else's ability to vote."
The march is in the spirit of the Selma to Montgomery March of 1965, led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., which protested the blocking of Black Americans' right to vote by Jim Crow laws.