Here we go again.
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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Republic Square Park has turned into a Ford-themed fiesta for its Built to Connect pop-up experience, complete with test drives, off-roading and an inside look at the Tesla-rivaling electric vehicles that the motor vehicle company is planning to integrate over the next decade.
The outdoor driving event is free, open to the public and will stay in the park from now until Oct. 24, offering rides on Bronco Mountain, a 0-40 mph zip in the 2022 all-electric Ford F-150 Lightning and a chance to win an original Ford Bronco.
The event kicked off with a panel of speakers, including Austin Director of Transportation Rob Spillar, Ford General Manager Darren Palmer and engineering specialists discussing Ford's goals to make it so that 50% of the vehicles on the road are electric by 2030.
As an eco-conscious city, Spillar said that around 4,000 vehicles, or 22% of the Texas electric vehicle market, as well as over 15,000 plugins lie in Austin, meaning driving electric just got accessible.
"Austin, as you know, is a fast-growing modern city that is committed to protecting the long term health and viability of our communities and strategies that reduce greenhouse gases, mitigate the effects of climate change and improve the drone quality of life here in Central Texas for all of our residents," Spillar said.
And Ford's electric vehicles are putting up some steep competition for newly-Austin-based company Tesla. The new electric Mustang Mach-E and F-150 Lighting offer amenities that used to be exclusive to Musk's brand, such as the BlueCruise self-driving network. The cars also boast a 300-mile range on a single charge, assisted reverse technology and access to the biggest charging network outside of the home.
Plus, Ford's got affordability on its side. The F-150 Lightning starts at $39,974 and the Mustang Mach-E starts at $42,895, while the cheapest Tesla model, the Model 3, starts at $41,990 and averages 262 miles on a single charge.
Speaking of price, the numbers on the electric vehicles may look like a little more than you'd like to pay for your transport, but Palmer promises it will pay off. In addition to a $7,500 tax credit you can earn for your sustainability, you'll never have to buy a pricey tank of gas again.
"Personally, I have not found one customer ever, who would go back to gas so that says something," Palmer said. "I realized, at $51,000, that car outruns every childhood hero car I ever had."
Texas buyers: take note. The Ford Lightning can power your house for three to 10 days, just in case the statewide power grid fails. You can take it glamping with you, so you don't have to leave the comfort of modern life behind, and in a pinch, Palmer said he's even seen a wedding party powered by the truck.
Ford is investing $30 billion into the U.S. market to meet demand by 2025 and the new electric truck already has over 150,000 reservations.
"I think they're going to take off much faster than you expect—they're going to be extremely, extremely popular next year," Palmer said. "With the incentives that are available today, this is starting to become more mainstream and viable for more and more families. We couldn't have done that before, we didn't have the technology, or the technology at that price."
The event is ongoing through next weekend from 12-9 p.m. Monday-Friday and 9 a.m.- 8 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.
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The Austin Police Department is searching for a man who is believed to be behind a series of robberies that is "sexual in nature and is escalating."
Three robbery cases that took place in North Austin within a 30-day period are being investigated by police, who report the victims all had similar descriptions for suspects in the case. The suspect is described as a 20-25-year-old Spanish-speaking Hispanic man, approximately 5'3, thin build, recently shaved with black hair. Police say he is known to typically wear athletic clothing and used a knife on each of the victims.
Here's a breakdown of the cases:
1. At 7:56 a.m. on Sept. 22 at the 1600 block of Rutland Drive, a woman was walking alone and returning from her child's school when a suspect walking by inappropriately touched her. The suspect then grabbed her by the arm, threatened her with a knife and demanded "her property."
2. At 8:10 a.m. on Oct. 11 at 1700 block of Colony Creek Drive, a woman was walking to her child's school when a man approached her with a knife and then demanded her personal items. The suspect then said he would return the items in return for sex.
3. At 11:03 a.m. on Oct. 13 at the 9300 block of Northgate Boulevard, a woman was with her child in the laundry room of an apartment complex when a man walked in performing a sexual act. The suspect demanded personal items from the victim, threatening to hurt the victim and take her child.
Police cautioned the public to walk without earbuds, stay alert and report suspicious activity to the police.
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