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With new COVID cases, hospital admissions and positive tests on the rise in Travis County, local health officials asked residents to recommit to protective actions—or risk a worsening surge as holiday gatherings accelerate transmission.
"The real threat is over Thanksgiving," Austin-Travis County Interim Health Authority Dr. Mark Escott said Tuesday. "If people don't heed the advice, if they gather with family and friends in the traditional sense …. We are going to see substantial spread as a result of that."
In the last 12 days, Travis County has posted a more than 100% increase in the average number of new COVID cases confirmed each day. There has also been a 50% increase in new hospital admissions over the same period.
These trends raise concerns about local hospital capacity.
Already, Travis County hospitals have accepted 13 patients from other jursidictions, Escott said. They are primarily from El Paso, where there are now nearly as many active COVID cases as total cases reported in Travis County since March.
Although Austin's three hospital systems—Ascension Seton, Baylor Scott & White Health and St. David's HealthCare—have plenty of available beds right now, staffing is a concern.
"From the hospital standpoint, we have beds. We have ventilators," Escott said. "The challenge is the people."
As a result, local health officials have revised the metro's ICU surge capacity from 331 beds to just 200. They are also considering lowering the threshold for Stage 4 risk-based guidelines from an average of 40 new COVID-related hospitalizations each day, given the reduction in ICU beds.
Currently, 64 ICU beds are occupied in the Austin metro.
But updated projections from the COVID-19 Modeling Consortium at the University of Texas at Austin suggest that many more could be soon.
Based on the current transmission rate, researchers at the consortium estimate that the metro could see as many as 116 ICU patients by mid-December, which means there would be fewer beds available for non-COVID cases, such as heart attacks, strokes and serious injuries.
To help prevent this outcome, local officials are discussing policy changes, such as a reduction in restaurant capacity limits, that might help reverse this trajectory and avoid a second shutdown.
#COVID19 update 11-16-20: We're seeing our numbers increase. We are in a fight to keep schools and businesses open.… https://t.co/ae0Y5Z0xWV— Mayor Adler | 😷wear a mask. (@Mayor Adler | 😷wear a mask.)1605577141.0
Ultimately, such changes are up to the governor.
In the meantime, Escott stressed the importance of masking, social distancing and hand-washing over the Thanksgiving holiday.
This is especially important for high school and college students, who may be involved in extracurricular activities or returning home from campus.
(Austin Public Health)
Last week, Travis County school districts reported 144 new COVID cases among students and teachers, nearly all of which stemmed from social or extracurricular activities rather than from classroom interactions, Escott said.
The University of Texas at Austin also reported a significant increase in its clinical testing positivity rate, which was 12.1% for the week ending Nov. 14, compared to 7.1% the week before.
Escott urged students to wear masks while at home and maintain social distancing to avoid infecting their family members and other close contacts.
"We're seeing what we expected to see," he said. "When people aren't masked or social distancing, transmission is happening."
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Texas Gov. Greg Abbott announced Monday that Texas will opt out of further federal unemployment benefits related to the pandemic effective June 26, citing the number of current job openings and concern about potentially fraudulent unemployment claims. The benefits include a $300 weekly supplement.
"The Texas economy is booming and employers are hiring communities across the state," Abbott said in a statement. "According to the Texas Workforce Commission, the number of job openings in Texas is almost identical to the number of Texans who are receiving unemployment jobs."
TWC listed 837,273 job openings as of Monday afternoon compared to 226,849 unemployment insurance claims filed statewide between March 31 and May 1. An estimated 1 million Texans were unemployed as of March, according to latest estimates released by the state agency.
Some local business owners, including Doc's Backyard Grill owner Charles Milligan, suspect unemployment benefits are deterring Austinites from returning to work. But others agree with economists who say multiple factors are at play, including health concerns and child care availability.
We're seeing lots of posts about how nobody wants to work right now. Just wanted to share our experience.
We received over 60 resumes for a taproom bartender position we posted last week. Every applicant we've set up an interview with has shown up.
People want 𝘨𝘰𝘰𝘥 work.
— Austin Beerworks (@AustinBeerworks) May 11, 2021
Abbott also cited fraudulent unemployment claims. Between March 2020 and April 2021, TWC received 4.48 million unemployment benefit applications, 611,000 or around 14% of which were tagged as suspicious. Most of those tagged were blocked before any benefits were paid out, according to an April 29 press release.
Federal law requires the effective date of such benefits change to be at least 30 days after the U.S. Department of Labor is notified.
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