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Austinites experienced a deja vu moment Thursday as Mayor Steve Adler and Austin Public Health officials once again took to a press conference to announce they were imposing stricter recommendations according to the city's risk-based COVID-19 guidelines.
With an average of 15 or more individuals hospitalized due to COVID complications in the Austin metro every day for the past seven days, officials announced a return to Stage 3 and recommended that unvaccinated individuals wear masks while in public places. APH officials believe that the highly contagious Delta variant may be to blame for the recent increase in cases and related hospitalizations.
While Austin is the first Texas metro to increase COVID recommendations since dropping masking restrictions, other major U.S. cities including Las Vegas and Los Angeles have done the same as all 50 states are reporting a sudden uptick in cases.
It wasn't welcome news to anyone, including Adler himself.
"I hate that we are here together again at a press conference talking about the virus," he said at the Thursday press conference. "I had thought and hoped that we would not be in front of you again talking about a rise in COVID cases."
While Stage 3 recommendations don't affect fully vaccinated individuals, some Austin businesses, including Waterloo Records, brought back masking requirements in the wake of the announcement. Austinites, who had just begun a summer of recovery after a long pandemic year, may now revert to more cautious behavior in light of the uptick in new cases.
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
So, what would it take for masking to come back to Austin?
Austin's daily new case rate has tripled in recent days, and new hospitalization admissions have increased to up to 22 on Thursday. "Almost everyone" who has been admitted to a hospital has been unvaccinated, Austin Public Health Interim Health Authority Dr. Desmar Walkes said Thursday, spurring on more requests from city officials for residents to get fully vaccinated.
More than 61% of Travis County residents ages 12 and older are fully vaccinated, less than 10 percentage points short of the threshold for herd immunity, but local officials implored unvaccinated residents to get the shot. Although it is possible that fully vaccinated individuals get COVID, they are much less likely to suffer severe cases or death. Of the city's 34,000+ positive cases, 333—or less than 1%—belonged to vaccinated residents.
On Thursday, KXAN reported that a fully-vaccinated grandfather was sent to the emergency room after catching what was thought to be the Delta variant and spreading the virus to his unvaccinated grandchildren. All have since recovered.
Heather McClain, grandfather Frank Guardiola's daughter, told KXAN that she's still grateful for the vaccine and wonders what could've happened without it. "I hear people saying, 'The shot doesn't do anything, and you can still get it.' Well, yeah, you can, just like you can still get the flu or anything else," McLain said. "Having people realize that if [the vaccine] is going to make a difference of my dad just dealing with those symptoms here at home versus my dad or a loved one being in a hospital or in an ICU or even worse, then I would take the vaccine."
Even if a larger spike occurs, mask mandates will no longer be permitted in Austin or any Texas city after Gov. Greg Abbott prohibited them in March. Still, the city could move its recommendations back up to Stage 4 for the first time since March if the seven-day moving average of new hospitalizations increases from 30-90, depending on how quickly it increases.
Unlike Stage 3, Stage 4 guidelines would recommend that both vaccinated and unvaccinated individuals wear masks at all times. Under Stage 4, Travis County recommends that partially vaccinated or unvaccinated residents not attend outdoor or indoor gatherings and limit travel and dining/shopping to only essential activities.
Austin Public Heath recommends everyone wear a mask if raised to Stage 4 guidelines. (Austin Public Health)
Even with increased caution and a spike in cases, Austin seems relatively far from requiring masking. Still, Adler said it's foolish to assume that COVID is over in the Texas capital. "We cannot pretend that we are done with a virus that is not done with us," he said.
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Flashing back to early-pandemic times, hospitals are once again at critical capacity and pleading with residents to do what couldn't be done during the first wave: get vaccinated.
ICU capacity in the 11 county Trauma Service Region of 2.3 million people is fluctuating at 16 staffed beds.
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 cases in the Austin area is 47, just three cases away from triggering Stage 5 guidelines. "We cannot emphasize strongly enough the increased transmissibility of the Delta variant," the statement said.
Currently, Austin area hospital systems have 325 people who are hospitalized with COVID-19, 109 in ICUs and 62 on ventilators.
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."
Austin is under Stage 4 guidelines, which asks—but cannot enforce under Gov. Greg Abbott's executive order—that vaccinated individuals mask in all situations and unvaccinated individuals mask, while only leaving their homes if essential.
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The 2020(1?) Olympics have induced plenty of late nights and early mornings for millions of Americans as they watch the world's best leap, flip and dive through the 2020 Tokyo Games.
Over two dozen athletes with Austin ties and many more from Texas are making headlines for their contributions to the Games, including 17-year-old gold medal swimmer Lydia Jacoby and legendary softball pitcher Cat Osterman.
So far, Austin athletes have racked up a gold and two silvers for Team USA. Some have more history-making opportunities ahead of them in the Games; others are soon headed home early with no medal but an Olympic title nonetheless. Team USA is in third place overall and has accumulated 40 medals, the second-most behind China, at this year's Games.
We're one week into the Games. Here's a quick look at the biggest headlines in this year's controversial competition and how athletes with Austin ties stacked up.
The Olympics' strangest Games to date? A quick rundown
This year's Games have been an outlier for several reasons. Many athletes have been impacted by COVID, with some saying that the Olympics maybe shouldn't have happened at all.
Millions of fans are getting an insider's view of the Olympics thanks to TikTok. U.S. women's rugby sevens star Ilona Maher helped viewership of her sport spike after her witty videos, including a clip where the team attempts to break the Olympic Village's cardboard beds.
The once-delayed Games have also seen upsets like no other, with many U.S.-dominated sports being championed by the most unlikely of teams.
In gymnastics, Texas native and world-renowned gymnast Simone Biles stepped out of the team competition left the team final and the individual all-around due to what is known as the "twisties," a sort of mind-and-body disconnect that could result in life-threatening injuries. Biles isn't sure if she'll compete in individual events next week, but her team is still doing well without their leader: the U.S. won silver as a team and Suni Lee was the individual gold medal winner.
A condom was used to repair the canoe of world-renowned Australian canoeist Jessica Fox. Meanwhile, a crash put Rio gold medalist Connor Fields in the hospital after a dangerous crash involving six riders on the BMX track.
Things got awkward in a post-swimming press conference when Team USA silver medalist Ryan Murphy and British bronze medalist Luke Greenbank said that the Games are "probably not clean," alluding to Russia's state-sponsored doping campaign that forced them to switch names to the Russian Olympic Committee. ROC competitor Evgeny Rylov was the gold medalist in the event.
Austin athletes have taken a gold and two silvers so far in the Games, with two swimming medals and a silver softball title.
Upcoming UT freshman Lydia Jacoby earned her first gold medal as a 17-year-old in the women's 100m. The Alaska native is the first of her state to win a swimming gold medal, and she completed the feat despite not having an Olympic-size swimming pool to train with.
Longhorn Erica Sullivan made it to the podium as well with a silver medal in the women's 1500m freestyle, finishing just behind U.S. star Katie Ledecky.
Legendary UT alum Cat Osterman's decorated Olympic run is up. The 38-year-old lefthanded pitcher left her final Olympics with a bittersweet silver medal after home team Japan secured the gold in the women's softball final. The loss was the first time the two had seen each other since Japan first took the gold from Team USA in 2008, the last time softball had been in the Olympics. Osterman's next move is off the pitcher's mound; the current assistant coach at Texas State University hopes to work for a nonprofit in Austin after she officially retires on September 27.
Those who went home
While every Olympian wants to go home with that precious metal, even making it to the world's biggest competition is a feat on its own. Here are the Austin athletes who didn't quite make it to the podium:
- Longhorn swimmer Townley Haas was 5th in the semifinals of the men's 200m freestyle and did not advance.
- Despite being medal favorites, Longhorn Gia Doonan and her women's eights crew just missed the mark with a fourth place finish in Tokyo after many members recovered from COVID.
- Austinite Alison Gibson and partner Krysta Parmer finished eighth in the women's 3m synchronized diving competition.
- Haas and fellow UT alum Drew Kibler helped Team USA to a fourth-place finish in the men's 4x200m swimming freestyle.
- Caspar Corbeau, a Longhorn swimming for the Netherlands, finished 7th in his opening heat for the men's 100m and 200m swimming freestyle.
- Remedy Rule, a Longhorn swimming for the Philippines, finished eighth in the semifinal for the women's 200m butterfly.
- Anna Elendt, a UT swimmer competing for Team Germany, finished 7th in the semifinals of the women's 100m freestyle and was sixth in the prelims as part of the 4x100 medley relay.
What's to come
Sugar Land native and standout Simone Manuel helped Team USA to set a single-day record for medals won on Sunday with a bronze in the 4x100 freestyle relay. Fellow Team USA star Caeleb Dressel established his dominance with a first-place finish in the men's 100-meter freestyle on Thursday and set an Olympic record in the prelims of the 100m butterfly after helping the men's 4x100m freestyle earlier in the week.
Coming up, former Longhorn Joseph Schooling, who beat Michael Phelps in the Rio Olympics, will compete in the men's 100m butterfly final alongside Dressel on Saturday.
Hailey Hernandez, a Texan diver who is coming to UT in the fall, was the youngest competitor to advance to the semifinal round of the women's 3m springboard competition early Saturday morning.
Track and field
UT alum Teahna Daniels has advanced to the women's 100m semifinals alongside teammates Javianne Oliver and Jenna Prandini after a heat-winning time of 11.04 seconds. Daniels and crew will look to establish themselves as the world's fastest women in the semifinals at 6:15 a.m. followed by the finals at 8:50 a.m.
The women's 100m trio were some of the first to hit the track on Thursday. Team USA DQ'd in the 4x400m mixed race on Thursday, squandering veteran Alyson Felix's quest for another medal. Ethiopia and Uganda are the only current medal-winners for the sport, but UT alum Melissa Gonzalez will look to change that on Saturday morning as she competes in the women's 400m hurdles. Fellow Longhorn Pedra Seymour will begin her fight to beat her 6th place finish in Rio as she runs in the prelims for the women's 100m hurdles for Team Bahamas on Saturday, while men's long jumper Steffin McCarter will look to qualify in the men's long jump competition that afternoon.
The world's fastest men will begin competition Saturday morning as well, with Team USA's Trayvon Bromell as the favorite to get the gold.
Other UT track stars including world-record shot putter Ryan Crouser (Thursday), Team Jamaica 4x400m runner Stacey-Ann Williams (Thursday), and long jumper Tara Davis (Sunday) will hit the track next week.
Win or go home AND WE’RE NOT GOING HOME YET 😤 pic.twitter.com/qdK7Aa7c4s— U.S. Soccer WNT (@USWNT) July 30, 2021
Team USA advanced to the semifinals in penalty kicks in an adrenaline-pumping match early Friday morning. Next, they'll play Canada in the semifinals to compete for that top spot and avenge their loss in Rio as they fight for the finals. On Team Canada's Olympic team is UT midfielder Julia Grosso, who has helped her team to a win and three draws thus far.
Kevin Durant and team have had a rocky start to the Olympics, leaving many to wonder if their No. 1 status is in jeopardy. The team suffered their first Olympic loss since 2004 in a 83-76 upset against France. They bounced back with an easy win against Iran, though the win was expected against a team with no NBA players in their roster. Next up is the Czech Republic, a team with two NBA talents that the U.S. is expecting to smother at 8:30 a.m. Saturday.
The USA Women's basketball team picks up their first W 🚨— Bleacher Report (@BleacherReport) July 27, 2021
USA takes down Nigeria, 81-72
A'ja Wilson (Olympic debut): 19 PTS | 13 REB pic.twitter.com/cRwnEgAzhn
The U.S. women's basketball team, including UT alum Ariel Atkins, have shakily continued their world dominance in Tokyo. The team is 2-0 in Group B after an 81-72 defeat over Nigeria and 86-69 victory over Japan. Atkins celebrated her birthday on the same day as the Japan defeat.
Next up, the team will look to increase their winning margins as they take on France at 12:40 a.m. on Monday.
Longhorn middle blocker Chiaka Ogbogu and the Team USA volleyball team are fighting hard for their first gold medal in 57 years. The team has already swept defending gold medalists China and was undefeated in group play with wins over Argentina and Turkey as they head to the quarterfinals starting Wednesday, They'll look to defeat the ROC and Italy in their final group rounds along the way.
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