With vaccine eligibility expanded to Texas residents 16 and older, an increasing supply of doses and falling hospitalization numbers, many Austinites feel newfound hope that the pandemic's end is, finally, in sight.
And it really could be as public health experts are optimistic that herd immunity is achievable through mass vaccination. With the current rate of vaccinations, herd immunity is achievable by summer, says Shelley Payne, director of the John Ring LaMontagne Center for Infectious Diseases at the University of Texas at Austin. "I think we can hit the goal," she told Austonia.
Experts also warn, however, of obstacles to achieving this goal, including vaccine hesitancy and new viral variants that could make herd immunity harder to reach.
Herd immunity 101
Herd immunity occurs when enough people are immune to a disease—either because they have recovered from it and developed natural immunity or because of vaccination—that makes it unlikely for someone who contracts the disease to spread it. With no one to infect, the disease dies out.
Public health experts have said herd immunity for COVID will require around 80% of the population to be immune based on its relative infectiousness. COVID is "not as infectious as measles"—which has a herd immunity threshold of 95%—"but it is still relatively easy to pass the disease onto other people," Payne said.
Although natural immunity also contributes to herd immunity and is partially responsible for the sharp downturn in the number of new COVID infections and related hospitalizations in the last few months, vaccination is the gold standard among experts because of the increased security it offers. There remain unanswered questions about natural immunity, including how long it lasts and how many people have it, Payne explained. Plus, vaccines offer a kind of booster to those who have natural immunity already.
Austin Public Health estimates there have been 77,473 recovered COVID cases in Travis County since the pandemic began. Although this is surely an undercount due to the limitations of testing and the occurrence asymptomatic cases, it is still dwarfed by the number of county residents who have been vaccinated so far: 350,444, according to the Texas Department of State Health Services.
An obstacle course
Nearly one-third of Travis County residents are partially vaccinated, and just over 15% are fully vaccinated, according to the Texas Department of State Health Services. Among certain priority groups vaccination is much higher. For example, around 63% of residents 65 and older are at least partially vaccinated.
Dr. David Lakey, vice chancellor for health affairs at the University of Texas System and a member of the Texas COVID-19 Expert Vaccine Allocation Panel, said this has translated into fewer severe cases, hospitalizations and deaths as well as much needed relief for the healthcare system. "In many ways, we're already seeing the benefits of the number of people that are immune," he added.
This is good news given that Lakey also pointed to obstacles that could defer herd immunity, including the prospect of a fourth surge. "I am concerned related to spring break," he said, referring to reports of packed Florida beaches and unmasked throngs.
Because high-risk groups are likely to be vaccinated and low-risk groups are unlikely to require hospitalization, such a surge would be less severe than previous ones. But it could lead to new variants.
Dr. Deborah Fuller, a vaccinologist and professor of microbiology at the University of Washington, explained that as long as COVID is spreading, it is mutating. Until we reach herd immunity, such mutations could lead to a new form of the virus that isn't covered by the current vaccines or is more dangerous to low-risk populations, such as children. "It's sort of a battle where, in order to reach herd immunity, we have to get ahead of the virus," she said.
A likely forecast
At this stage in the pandemic, with both natural immunity and the vaccination rate continuing to grow, especially among the highest-risk populations, we are less susceptible than we were in the beginning. "It's not like we're going to go back to lockdowns again," Fuller said, adding that any coming surges will likely be less devastating.
Still, herd immunity is not guaranteed because of obstacles such as vaccine hesitancy, the emergence of new variants and the possibility of a fourth surge that could prevent us from reaching the 80% threshold—or even drive the threshold up further if the new variants are more infectious.
DSHS is tracking COVID-19 variant cases in Texas.
Variants may spread more easily or cause more serious illness. Vaccines and #HealthyTexas steps can help slow and contain variants.
Texas COVID-19 variant tracking info and cases: https://t.co/mZjELTOrF2 #COVID19TX pic.twitter.com/12HPgOhWkT
— Texas DSHS (@TexasDSHS) March 25, 2021
There is also the possibility that Travis County achieves herd immunity but surrounding regions, states or countries do not. "We have so much travel and mixing of populations now that ... we really need to get to herd immunity everywhere," Payne said.
So what happens if we don't achieve herd immunity? It is likely that COVID goes the route of whooping cough or chicken pox, rather than polio, which was eradicated through vaccine-powered herd immunity in 1979, Lakey said. This would be an improvement from the current pandemic status, with limited outbreaks similar to the annual flu season, if not quite as ideal as herd immunity. "It's going to be awhile before this totally goes away," he said.
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Community First! Village, Austin's 'most talked about neighborhood,' will add 1,400 homes for chronically homeless
Local nonprofit Mobile Loaves & Fishes announced plans to vastly expand Community First! Village, a 51-acre master-planned development that is home to more than 220 formerly chronically homeless residents, on Wednesday.
The two-phase expansion will add 1,400 micro homes and 127 acres between two pieces of land—one across the street from Community First! Village on Hog Eye Road in far East Austin and the other on Burleson Road in Southeast Austin—with development starting in summer 2022. The land purchases were made possible thanks to a donation commitment from Love, Tito's, the philanthropic arm of Tito's Handmade Vodka. (Disclosure: Tito's is an Austonia sponsor.)
Mobile Loaves & Fishes has operated Community First! Village, which Austin Mayor Steve Adler has coined as "Austin's most talked about neighborhood," for more than five years. During that time, the social outreach ministry has paid out more than $3 million to residents, who make and sell art and maintain the village.
The expansion consists of Community First! Villages third and fourth phases and will more than triple its size and sextuple its current number of homes, from 240 to 1,900 total. In addition to the coming micro-homes, the village also includes RVs and canvas-sided cottages.
Amber Fogarty, president of Mobile Loaves & Fishes, said the expansion announcement is proof that there is hope despite the city's ongoing homelessness crisis. "We realize there's an intensifying conversation happening in our city right now as it relates to homelessness, and for some it may seem like a dismal situation," she said in a statement. "It brings us great joy to think that today's expansion news means we will bring home many more of our friends who are currently suffering on the streets of Austin."
As residents prepare to vote on a controversial proposition that would reinstate a ban on camping and other activities in parts of the city, Adler said Community First! Village is "a vital and important piece of the puzzle" when it comes to addressing homelessness in Austin and praised Mobile Loaves & Fishes founder and CEO Alan Graham for his vision.
To be eligible to live at Community First! Village, applicants must be chronically homeless, meaning they have lived in a place unsuitable for habitation for at least one year and have at least one qualifying disability; have lived in Travis County for at least one year; and have the ability to pay rent, through social security income, disability benefits or on- and off-site work.
Tim Shea has lived at Community First! Village for five years. (Emma Freer)
Tim Shea has lived at Community First! Village for five years, after three decades of intermittent homelessness, heroin addiction and incarceration. After living in an RV, he became the first person in the country to move into a 3D-printed home, furnished by the Austin-based construction technology company ICON. "I am loving it," he said, citing its high ceilings, big windows and solidity as his favorite features.
The expansion plans are welcome news to Shea. "I'm not surprised," he said. "I just know that more people need to know about it."
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Austin FC's first season will officially be underway, but their inaugural match will be nearly 1,500 miles away from their home city.
The match, which will see No. 21 ATXFC face No. 2 LAFC, will be broadcast nationally on FOX and FOX Deportes at 5 p.m. on Saturday, but for some, simply watching from home isn't quite enough.
Luckily, Austin FC, fan clubs and bars across the city are looking to keep the soccer spirit alive in Austin through several Saturday watch parties. So, put on your Verde gear and head to one of these watch parties this weekend.
1. Circle Brewing Co., 2340 W Braker Ln
This 12-hour party (from 11 a.m.-11 p.m.) claims to be the biggest watch party in Austin. Formed by Austin Anthem, ATXFC's original supporters' group, the outdoor party will hold over 1,000 people in the lot in front of Circle Brewing near Q2 Stadium. Entry is free, and the immersive experience will feature a 23' x 13' screen viewable from 500 feet away, an immersive audio experience and a special guest DJ at 7:30 p.m. RSVP here.
The event is entirely outdoors. All attendees must wear face masks when not eating or drinking.
2. Hopsquad Brewing, 2307 Kramer Lane
Hopsquad Brewing, the official headquarters of Austin FC supporters group Los Verdes, is launching an immersive watch party to kick off the team's first season. Free to enter, the Brewery will feature indoor and outdoor taps and screens, live music, art and food trucks. Rideshare or take a ride on Cap Metro for $1 off your first beer. The party begins at noon and is set to end at 7 p.m. RSVP here.
Indoor and outdoor space is available, and masks are required when not eating or drinking.
3. Black Sheep Lodge, 2108 South Lamar Blvd.
For those who want Los Verdes action on the south side, head to Black Sheep Lodge. Starting at 3:30 p.m., the watch party will include La Murga's signature chants, stickers and plenty to drink through 8:30 p.m. RSVP here.
A mask is required when not eating or drinking.
4. Rustic Tap, 613 W. 6th St.
For those looking for a downtown locale, this watch party will be going from noon to close. This pet-friendly location will feature a 7 by 12 foot LED wall, live music and over 60 Texas-based spirits.
5. Mean Eyed Cat, 1621 W 5th St.
6. Star Bar, 600 W 6th St.
7. Lavaca Street Bar, 405 Lavaca St.
Gibson Street Bar, 1109 S Lamar Blvd
For those south of downtown, Gibson Street Bar will have a low-key watch party ready for the club's first match. RSVP here.
6. Over 30 pub partners
If none of these watch parties are quite the right fit for you, 31 bars will be streaming the match in the Austin metro as part of the Austin FC Pub Club.
- Austin Eastciders- Barton Springs, 1530 Barton Springs Rd.
- Austin Eastciders- Collaboratory 979 Springdale Rd. Suite 130
- B.D. Riley's Mueller, 1905 Aldrich St. Unit 130
- The Bon Aire, 9070 Research Blvd
- Bouldin Acres, 2027 S Lamar Blvd
- Casa Chapala, 9041 Research Blvd Suite 100
- The Cavalier, 2400 Webberville Rd Unit A
- Cover 2,13701 N Highway 183
- Cover 3 Anderson Lane, 2700 W Anderson Ln Unit 202
- Happy Chicks, 214 E 6th St.
- Haymaker, 2310 Manor Rd.
- High Five- Anderson Ln, 2700 W Anderson Ln Unit 101
- Local Post Pub, 7113 Burnet Rd
- Pelons, 802 Red River St
- Play on 6th, 620 W 6th St
- Pluckers, various locations
- Revelry On The Boulevard, 6215 N Lamar Blvd
- Revelry- East 6th, 1410 E 6th St
- Rusty Cannon Pub, 730 W Stassney Ln Unit 120
- San Jac Saloon, 300 E 6th Street
- Shiner's Saloon, 422 Congress Ave Unit D
- Shooters Billiards 620, 11416 N FM 620
- Taco Flats, mulitple locations
- Twin Peaks, 701 E Stassney Ln
- Cover 3- Round Rock, 2800 N Interstate Highway 35 Unit 200, Round Rock
- Crafthouse, 242 N LBJ Dr. Suite 101, San Marcos
- High Five- Lakeway1502 RM-620 N Lakeway, Lakeway
- Red Rooster's, 109 E Pecan St., Pflugervile
- Sean Patrick's, 202 E San Antonio St., San Marcos
- Shooter's Billiards Cedar Park, 601 E Whitestone Blvd, Cedar Park
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As Austin navigates its homelessness crisis, city voters will decide starting Monday whether to reinstate a ban on sitting, lying and camping in certain areas of the city. Proposition B has drawn impassioned support and opposition and is perhaps the most contentious item on the May 1 ballot.
Austonia sought out clear and brief editorials from either side of the debate. Arguing in favor of Prop B is Cleo Petricek, a Democrat and co-founder, along with Travis County GOP Chairperson Matt Mackowiak, of the Save Austin Now political action committee, which has led the charge to reinstate the camping ban. Opponent Emily Seales is a licensed clinical social worker and advocate with over 20 years of experience working and volunteering in homeless services in Austin and around the country. She is currently on staff at the Sunrise Homeless Navigation Center and is board co-chair of Open Door.
Editor's note: These submissions are the unedited views of their authors. Claims made have not been fact-checked to give the proponent and opponent a chance to speak their minds freely.
Homeless residents have also set up tents along Cesar Chavez Street near Buford Tower, which recently caught fire after a blaze spread from the camp. (Emma Freer)
Pro: Voting yes on Prop B sends a message to council that voters' voices and real solutions are paramount
In June 2019, the Austin City Council rescinded regulations on camping in public spaces. They did so without any serious public discussion and in fact appeared to actively avoid serious scrutiny. The resulting chaos is clear for all to see. Parks and playgrounds impacted by illicit behavior, lewd activities in public, trash strewn in waterways and public spaces, and most critically, assaults on the public and on other homeless individuals.
It is obvious that the homeless are not helped by this misadventure. Vulnerable women and youth in these camps are abused, mentally ill individuals are not served and there is no incentive for substance abusers to seek help.
Proponents of this mess have put forward no credible plan for any short term housing that restores safety—instead they talk about abstract housing concepts that even they acknowledge will take years to develop. This is the mark of narrowly focused activism, not what citizens should expect from elected leaders who promise to serve their communities. At every turn, the proponents of this chaos have demonstrated that they are not capable of fully considering the needs of diverse communities and proposing workable solutions. Instead they simply double down on trying to tell Austin that anything other than their chaos is heartless and inhumane. This is intellectually lazy, and Austin should demand better.
The chaos created by the City Council has resulted in a public outcry culminating in the citizens demanding to be heard by direct ballot. This demand is across the political and economic spectrum. As a co-founder of the Save Austin Now PAC and a lifelong Democrat, I have seen the diversity of people raising their voices in concern for our city.
It's time we turn this situation around and vote yes on Prop B. It sends a clear message to the council that the citizens of Austin must be heard as we work toward real solutions. There are successful models to learn from and some in our own state. But it all starts with voting yes on Prop B starting April 19.
A homeless residents sleeps in the middle of a bike scavenging operation based at a camp under the South Austin overpass. (Jordan Vonderhaar)
Con: Prop B blames homeless individuals rather than providing solutions to societal problems
Austin's homeless population needs help, but Prop B doesn't do anything to solve our city's problems. It simply tells people who are experiencing homelessness that they cannot exist, visibly, in public space. I, too, am worried about the encampments. They are evidence that our strategies to help people return to housing aren't sufficient. But telling people "You can't stay here" without giving them alternatives isn't a solution.
The reason so many people are experiencing homelessness is that it takes a long time to get into housing, even when you do everything right. Shelters are at capacity, we lack deeply affordable housing, landlords can refuse housing vouchers, and housing programs are full.
As a case study, I want to tell you about "Bill," whom I met two years ago. Bill was a veteran, father, former truck driver and person of faith. He was also homeless and unsheltered. Bill had recently suffered a series of strokes and was desperate for both disability income and housing.
Bill and I worked together every single week for 17 months. He eventually was awarded disability and moved into his own apartment.
Bill's situation is typical of hundreds of people who are stymied by our complicated processes and lack of housing. Prop B would not add resources for people like Bill. Read the ballot language. Because Prop B bans "camping," people would have to move around constantly to avoid being cited. All that moving around takes time and energy. People like Bill would have a harder time keeping their appointments with case managers. Unpaid fines from citations build a criminal record—and landlords can choose not to rent to someone with a record. So punishing people for not having housing makes it even harder to get housing. Prop B hurts, not helps.
In this election, Austinites have a choice to criminalize people like Bill or to work toward solutions. Prop B places the blame on individuals rather than recognizing homelessness as a failure of society.Prop B is an inhumane and wrong response. Oppose Prop B, and let's focus on solutions. Learn more here.
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