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Local elected officials and public health leaders are concerned about a spike in new COVID cases and related hospitalizations as four cases of the more contagious Delta variant were confirmed in Travis County on Wednesday and amid continued vaccine hesitancy.
"I hate that we are here together again at a press conference talking about the virus," Austin Mayor Steve Alder said Thursday. "I had thought and hoped that we would not be in front of you again talking about a rise in COVID cases."
With rising new COVID cases and related hospitalizations, Austin-Travis County Interim Health Authority Dr. Desmar Walkes announced a return to Stage 3, according to Austin Public Health's risk-based guidelines.
At Stage 3, APH recommends high-risk unvaccinated individuals wear masks and take other precautions to mitigate risk. "This is due in part to the confirmed presence of the Delta variant in our community and the associated dramatic increase in new cases and hospitalizations that we've seen in the last few days," Walkes said.
The seven-day moving average for new COVID-related hospital admissions in the five-county Austin metro was 20 as of Wednesday, after 29 people were admitted, according to Austin Public Health data. The average has jumped from 14 a week ago.
Not the direction we wanna go in. The best way to flatten the curve and bend it back down again is to get as many eligible residents as possible fully vaccinated. It's safe, effective, and free! Anyone who's still on the fence needs to check out https://t.co/stZMeGXU5F now. https://t.co/463Jw4kP0A
— Natasha Harper-Madison (@NatashaD1atx) July 15, 2021
Almost everyone hospitalized with COVID is unvaccinated, officials said, although they declined to provide more specific numbers. Walkes told KXAN last week that more than 90% of hospitalized patients were unvaccinated.
Of the 107 people hospitalized overall on Wednesday, 41 patients were in the ICU, where capacity is currently strained, Walkes said at the same press conference.
In addition to increased demand as Austinites shed their masks in favor of summer social outings and travel, there are also staffing shortages at area hospitals. "It's been a hard year," Adler said, adding that it's harder to hire nurses and other healthcare professionals at this stage of the pandemic.
Even before the four Delta variant cases were confirmed on Wednesday, public health leaders said it was very likely it was spreading through the community given confirmed cases in surrounding counties. Testing limitations—with the sequencing required to detect the variant only be used in limited cases—means that detection is also limited.
Unfortunately, with Covid infections rising in Austin, even some of the fully vaccinated getting infected, the uncertainty of the delta variant, and with Austin now in stage 3 on a collision course with stage 4 restrictions, we are going back to requiring masks at all times.
— Waterloo Records (@WaterlooRecords) July 15, 2021
To reverse these trends, officials implored residents to get vaccinated, if they aren't already, and encourage others to do the same. "This has to stop, and we know how to make that happen," Walkes said, adding that all three vaccines—Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson—are effective at protecting recipients from severe COVID disease and death.
As of Wednesday, around 70% of Travis County residents 12 and older have received one dose of the COVID vaccine and 62% are fully vaccinated. Although the county is approaching the threshold for herd immunity, which experts estimate is around 70%, the uptake rate varies across communities and ZIP codes.
Although demand for vaccine appointments has dropped off in recent months, there are still 14 providers in Travis County offering shots. Austin Public Health has also partnered with community organizations and will arrange for in-home appointments or to visit businesses. "Whatever you need to make this choice, we are prepared," Interim APH Director Adrienne Sturrup said.
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Tesla CEO Elon Musk announced a record-setting second quarter during an earnings call broadcasted from the Giga Texas construction site in Southeast Travis County on Monday.
The electric carmaker reported more than $1 billion in quarterly net income and the production of more than 200,000 vehicles for the first time despite challenges such as a global semiconductor shortage.
"It … seems that public sentiment towards electric vehicles is at an inflection point, and at this point, I think, almost everyone agrees electric vehicles are the only way forward," Musk said.
Exterior shots taken just a while ago of Giga Texas (while @elonmusk is reportedly at the Gigafactory!) during today's earnings call!
Hope @peterdog15 got to catch the technoking in his video! #fastestinhistory #Tesla pic.twitter.com/WqeDlb5wU3
— Austin Tesla Club (@AustinTeslaClub) July 26, 2021
Despite rising consumer demand and adequate factory capacity, Tesla faces what Musk described as a "quite serious" global semiconductor shortage, which will determine the company's growth rate for the rest of the year.
With increased revenue and production, Tesla is investing in new factories, Chief Financial Officer Zachary Kirkhorn said. These include Giga Texas, the $1.1 billion manufacturing plant that broke ground last summer and is slated to open later this year.
The Giga Texas factory in Southeast Travis County has rapidly increased in size since ground broke last August. (Tesla)
Musk commended the construction team for "incredible progress," transforming what was basically a vacant site into "a mostly complete large factory a year later."
I was at Giga Texas yesterday. Team is making excellent progress. Building will be almost a mile long when complete.
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) July 25, 2021
Giga Texas will produce the highly anticipated Cybertruck, along with other models, but Musk said scaling its production will be difficult, especially given the supply chain delays caused by the pandemic. "It's going to move as fast as the slowest of its up to 10,000 unique parts," he said.
In other news, Musk said Monday's earnings call would likely be his last regular appearance, only jumping on future quarterly calls when big announcements warrant it.
Tesla Solar recently made news when it announced plans to build the nation's most sustainable residential community in Southeast Austin earlier this month. The newly built homes will feature Tesla solar roof tiles and Powerwall battery storage as well as electric vehicle charging stations.
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The city of Austin released a shortlist of seven candidates for the police chief position left vacant when Brian Manley retired in March.
City Manager Spencer Cronk hopes to announce an appointment by the end of August, which will require City Council approval.
The finalists, chosen from a field of 46 applicants, include:
- APD Interim Chief Joseph Chacon, who previously served as an assistant chief in the department for almost five years
- Anne Kirkpatrick, former police chief in Oakland, California, who was fired last year after a federal monitor criticized her handling of a fatal 2018 police shooting of a homeless man
- Dallas Police Department Assistant Chief Avery L. Moore, who is a 30-year veteran of the department
- Atlanta Police Department Deputy Chief Celeste Murphy, who manages the department's community services division
- Dekalb County Police Chief Mirtha V. Ramos, who previously served as division chief in the Miami-Dade Police Department
- Wichita Police Department Chief Gordon Ramsay, who is a former president of the Minnesota Police Chief's Association as well as one of the first police chiefs of a major U.S. City to call George Floyd's death a murder, as reported by the Wichita Eagle
- Los Angeles Police Department Deputy Chief Emada E. Tingirides, who is also commanding officer of the department's newly formed Community Safety Partnership Bureau, which serves L.A.'s underserved communities
City staff will interview the finalists in the coming weeks, with several community input opportunities to come, according to a Monday press release.
The city conducted a public survey in March and hosted community input meetings in April to learn more about what residents are looking for in their next police chief, which helped shape the selection criteria for the position.
"They want to see the Chief be reform-minded and transparent and have a track record of fostering community involvement and accountability," Cronk said in the release. "The candidates selected show these characteristics in various ways."
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Days after Austin began once again recommending masks in public spaces, Austin ISD announced Monday that kindergarten through sixth-grade classes will have virtual options this fall.
The district will discuss the move in a special board meeting Monday evening starting at 5 p.m., while full details will be released Friday.
Teachers will not have to fret about the new option—no educators will have to juggle both virtual and in-person learning. Instead, certain teachers will specialize in virtual education, according to a press release.
The news comes after a recent spike in COVID cases in Travis County and across the nation. Children typically suffer fewer symptoms of COVID when contracted, but they are now catching the virus more often than their older counterparts without a vaccine available to them and as the more contagious Delta variant is quickly being spread.
While local health officials are recommending everyone wear masks, public school districts are unable to mandate masks due to an executive order issued by Gov. Greg Abbott in May.
Parents have expressed concern about classrooms with masks unenforceable and children under the age of 12 ineligible for a vaccine. Some have even said they would look for alternative schooling if AISD did not offer a virtual option for students.
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