Like ‘trying to build a supersonic jet while we’re flying:’ Austin public health officials reflect on one year of COVID-19
Hundreds of Austinites cycled through the Delco Activity Center in Northeast Austin on Saturday morning, making their way through an orderly process that ended with them partially or fully vaccinated against COVID-19.
Thirteen weeks into the vaccine rollout, this event was in some ways routine. But it also took place on the one-year anniversary of the first confirmed case in Austin-Travis County.
Since March 13, 2020, Austin Public Health has reported 77,329 confirmed cases and 778 deaths. Nearly 200 people were hospitalized with the virus across the five-county Austin metro on Friday, and another 20 were receiving treatment at the alternate care site downtown.
"A year ago today, we didn't even have a vaccine that was available," APH Director Stephanie Hayden-Howard told Austonia at the Deldo vaccine event. "So knowing that thousands of people will come through here … and receive that vaccine, I'm overjoyed."
Saturday also marks the one-year anniversary of the planned first day of SXSW 2020. City officials canceled the annual festival on March 6, 2020, citing fears of the spreading coronavirus.
Austin-Travis County Interim Health Authority Dr. Mark Escott recalled a series of meetings—with the CDC, state officials and local stakeholders—that took place in advance of that announcement. "I made the statement that this would be incredibly disruptive," he said. "I had no idea how long the disruption would last."
Austin-Travis County Interim Health Authority Dr. Mark Escott speaks about the one-year anniversary of the first locally reported COVID case on Saturday. (Christa McWhirter)
In hindsight, the "difficult" decision has proven to be a good one. "Remember at the time we had zero cases," Escott said. Since then, however, case investigations have revealed that nearly 100 people had contracted coronavirus on the day the festival was scheduled to begin. "Had SXSW been going on with that number of cases at the state, we would have seen an early and aggressive surge," Escott said. "I think (canceling) saved a lot of lives."
The cancellation of SXSW and local stay-home orders in the early days of the pandemic set the stage for a relatively successful response. "I'm incredibly proud of how this community has come together to ramp up testing, to lock down when we needed to lock down, to mask for as long as we've had to wear masks," Escott said. "And I think that is why Austin is doing better than every other metropolitan jurisdiction in Texas and most others in the United States."
But the past year has not been without its challenges. Antiquated public health infrastructure, including fax machines, and decades of disinvestment stymied the initial testing rollout and contact tracing efforts. Similar technical issues have plagued the vaccine rollout, with Ausinites reporting long wait times, missing confirmation emails and unreachable help lines.
"A lot of people use the analogy of trying to build the airplane while you're flying," Escott said. "We're trying to build a supersonic jet while we're flying."
A new stage
Despite these delays, the pandemic forecast is improving. The Austin-Travis County area entered Stage 3 of APH's risk-based guidelines on Saturday—the first time since mid-November—after a two-month decline in new confirmed COVID cases and related hospitalizations.
Although Escott remains concerned about new emerging variants and the prospect of increased transmission due to spring break travel, he is hopeful that Austinites will continue to take precautions—such as quarantining and getting tested—to mitigate this prospect. "This is measured risk," he said of the decision to move down to stage 3.
The vaccine rollout is also improving, with increased supply expected in the coming weeks thanks to recent FDA approval of Johnson & Johnson's one-shot candidate. Nearly 100,000 Travis County residents are fully vaccinated—around 7.8% of the total population—and more than twice that number have received their first dose, according to the Texas Department of State Health Services.
Although this is far short of the 70% to 85% vaccinate rate associated with herd immunity, it is already having an impact. "Herd immunity is not an all-or-nothing thing," Escott said, explaining that risk-taking behaviors will be safer than it is today once the community has achieved an overall vaccination rate of 20% or 30%.
Groups with higher vaccination rates—such as nursing home residents—are already seeing an impact. In the last 14 days, Travis County long-term care facilities have reported nine new COVID cases, compared to around 350 during a two-week period two months ago. "It's been a remarkable and rapid decline of cases as a testament to the efficacy of the vaccine," Escott said.
Working through the waitlist
Vaccine eligibility is also expanding in Texas, although local public health officials say there is still not enough supply to meet demand.
DSHS announced earlier this week that it would expand eligibility criteria to include a new group—1C, or adults ages 50 to 64—starting Monday. Although APH initially said it would not make appointments to individuals in this group, citing limited vaccine supply, the department issued an updated statement on Saturday: "In the coming days, APH will make modification to our registration platform to include the 1C population and allow us to prioritize based on 1A, 1B and 1C status."
Since being designated a hub provider in January, APH has received a weekly allocation of 12,000 first doses. But the department currently has around a quarter of a million people on its waitlist who are currently eligible—under groups 1A and 1B or as educators and childcare personnel—and still waiting for an appointment. Adding in residents who qualify under group 1C starting Monday could add another 200,000 to the queue, Escott said. "There's not enough vaccine to go around right at the moment," he added.
Until its vaccine supply increases, APH is working to reach those in priority groups who have still been unable to secure an appointment. In partnership with Travis County, the department debuted an equity call center in January, which accepts referrals from local nonprofits and reaches out to elderly folks directly. APH is also working with faith-based organizations to set up smaller vaccine clinics at local churches; this effort could be especially important in reaching Black residents, who remain underrepresented among vaccine recipients relative to their share of the local population.
APH officials also recommend residents sign up for any waitlist they can find, as other local providers may have more availability.
Coupled with the anticipated increase in vaccine availability, these improvements have left Hayden-Howard feeling optimistic. "We are so hopeful and so excited about the future," she said.
This story was updated at 3:45 p.m. to include an update from Austin Public Health regarding its policy on 1c eligibility.
- Austin moves to stage 3, APH will not vaccinate group 1C - austonia ›
- With cases down, Austin could lift restrictions to Stage 3 - austonia ›
- COVID has claimed 754 lives in Travis County since March 2020 ... ›
- Mark Escott says COVID restrictions could be gone by fall - austonia ›
- Austin Public Health to open up vaccine slots to 40+ age group - austonia ›
Former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin was found guilty on three charges—second- and third-degree murder as well as manslaughter—in the killing of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man whose final moments were recorded by onlookers, sparking a global protest movement over police violence and racial injustice. He faces up to 40 years in prison.
Jurors deliberated for 10 hours over two days after an intense, three-week trial before reaching a verdict Tuesday afternoon, four days shy of the first anniversary of the Austin police killing of Mike Ramos, an unarmed, 42-year-old Black and Hispanic man whose name became a rallying cry—along with Floyd's—for Austin protestors, who marched en masse last summer, prompting some police reforms.
Austin Police Department Officer Christopher Taylor was charged with first-degree murder—an unprecedented charge in Travis County—in the case of Ramos' death on March 10. But Warren Burkley, community outreach director for the Austin Justice Coalition, was measured in his response to the Chauvin verdict. "It's highly visible accountability, so it will give people hope in the system," he told Austonia. "But it's just one innocent life taken. And even in this city, this happens regularly, and it doesn't make national news."
Local elected officials, community leaders and residents also responded to the news as APD officers spent their second day on tactical alert, prepared to respond to any protests or demonstrations, and City Council heard recommendations from a task force on how to reimagine public safety.
Chauvin guilty on three charges!!!!
— Chas Moore (@iGiveYouMoore) April 20, 2021
Full justice would mean that George Floyd was still with us. But today's guilty verdict represents a historic step toward justice and for his family. So important now for the Senate to approve the House George Floyd Justice in Policing Act.https://t.co/9zUOgZYg4L
— Lloyd Doggett (@RepLloydDoggett) April 20, 2021
For the first time we saw accountability in the courts for the murder of an innocent Black person.
Derek Chauvin murdered George Floyd on camera.
This prosecution is historic. People are feeling temporary relief. This is more than Justice, this is #AccountabilityforGeorgeFloyd. https://t.co/HlBqW7sScx
— Rep. Eddie Rodriguez (@EddieforTexas) April 20, 2021
Many of us have been afraid for days that Derek Chauvin would be found not guilty, despite what the video so clearly showed in broad daylight. The guilty verdict today provides important accountability, but it does not provide real justice. (1/5) ⬇️
— Gregorio Casar (@GregCasar) April 20, 2021
George Floyd's murder led to national protests and calls for the enactment of policing and social justice reforms, including here in Austin. We have made a commitment here to holding police officers accountable and to implementing social justice and policing reforms.
— Mayor Adler | 😷wear a mask. (@MayorAdler) April 20, 2021
Derek Chauvin's conviction is only one step towards providing healing/justice for George Floyd's family + for our nation as a whole. It's up to us to honor Mr. Floyd + the many others lost to police violence by transforming public safety and making our communities safe for all. https://t.co/RVgQmcAf6I pic.twitter.com/hCHLibYjoy
— Council Member Alison Alter (@ALTERforATX) April 20, 2021
No person should be above the law. If you transgress the law you should be held accountability.
Derek Chauvin- GUILTY
— Emmanuel Acho (@EmmanuelAcho) April 20, 2021
George Floyd's murder heightened the long-overdue national conversation on systemic racism. Derek Chauvin has been found guilty, but this is just one step on a long road towards racial equity. We must enact significant systemic changes in order to achieve justice.
— Every Texan (@EveryTxn) April 20, 2021
- How to keep on supporting Austin's Black-owned restaurants ... ›
- Downtown Austin boards up in anticipation of protests, again ... ›
- List of proposed changes to Austin Police Department after protests ... ›
- Austin searches for new police chief amid reform process - austonia ›
- Mural on I-35 memorializes police brutality victims - austonia ›
Californians love Texas, and Austin—with its liberal politics, relatively affordable housing and job opportunities—is particularly adored. In fact, the Lone Star State was the main recipient of departing Californians in 2019, according to the latest available U.S. Census Bureau data.
But other states, including Florida, are seeing increased interest. Miami Mayor Francis Suarez has made a name for himself on Twitter recruiting techies and hyping up his city, which has a lot in common with Austin—with the added benefit of a beach and sans the "Don't California my Texas" attitude.
California expats and industry experts say Austin remains the bigger draw for Californians, especially those in the tech sector, but warn that this advantage could shift to Miami if the city doesn't address the policy challenges that prompted the migration in the first place: housing affordability.
"If Austin doesn't accommodate this influx, I think all the talent will come to Miami," said Peter Yared, a tech entrepreneur who moved to Miami from San Francisco in September. "I think Miami's going to be the one that sucks it all up."
Both Texas and Florida promise business-friendly state tax policies, and their governors tout the relocations of companies such as Tesla and Oracle from California. But Darien Shanske, a law professor at the University of California Davis whose specialties include taxation, said this is a red herring because corporate taxes are based on where sales occur rather than headquarter locations.
This is not to say other state policies are irrelevant. "The area in which California regulatory policy has been, in my opinion, not a complete failure but problematic … is housing policy," Shanske said. Austin and Miami can offer "not cheap, just cheaper" housing than what is available in Silicon Valley. Plus, both cities are developing a critical mass of talent, which further draws Californians in. "If you're a software engineer, you want to live near other software engineers," he added.
But not every Californian is motivated to move. "San Francisco is a fantastic place to live if you can afford it," said Brandy Aven, a professor of entrepreneurship at Carnegie Mellon University's Tepper School of Business. As a result, it's more common for what she called the labor—engineers, programmers and even company founders—to relocate to cities such as Austin and Miami than the monied venture capitalists. Burgeoning tech cities may find that they need to develop homegrown investor networks to support local ventures in the absence of Californian transplants, but she believes this is doable.
Paul O'Brien, CEO of the Austin-based MediaTech Ventures and a startup veteran, moved to Austin from California in 2009, during the Great Recession. "I'm a firm believer that the world has been seeking an alternative to Silicon Valley for a long time," he said, pointing to Austin as the natural heir for myriad reasons.
Austin has regional appeal as the epicenter of three of the country's largest cities—Houston, Dallas and San Antonio—and their respective industry niches. Tech entrepreneurs could cater to the local consumer goods industry or Houston's oil and gas sector. Plus the city has cultural appeal, thanks to the Red River District and South by Southwest, which made it attractive to job seekers. "The whole reason everyone moved to Silicon Valley is opportunity," O'Brien said. "The whole reason people are now looking beyond Silicon Valley to somewhere else is opportunity."
It's less clear what Miami's key industries are, O'Brien said, but the city offers other selling points, including the mayor's buy-in and "a tremendous depth of wealth" to support a technology and startup ecosystem.
Although Yared didn't consider moving to Austin, he is aware of its appeal to engineers, especially now that their hero, Elon Musk, has moved there, shunning California. "Austin has a lock on tech," he said, but Miami draws a different crowd, including financiers from New York. This parallel migration, coupled with the city's more outwardly pro-growth building policies, gives him hope that Miami could supplant Austin in the coming years. "In the end, communities get to choose what they want," he said.
- Minister of Culture Matthew McConaughey talks preserving Austin ... ›
- Migration insights of Austin, who is moving to the city and who is ... ›
- Californians love Austin, but does the city love them back? - austonia ›
- California tech employees move to austin for business and way of ... ›
- Elon Musk says $1.1 billion Tesla factory will be in Austin - austonia ›
In the days after Austin FC's inaugural match against LAFC on Saturday, Head Coach Josh Wolff says he's watched the game "a number of times, to say the least."
In the match, Wolff and over 500,000 other viewers looked on as Austin FC took to the pitch for the first time, held their own in the first half against LAFC and eventually fell 2-0 to a team that's sometimes regarded as the best in the league.
Austin FC had the largest television audience of any soccer match in the U.S. over the weekend, surpassing even the USWNT. In a showcase of the club's dedicated fan base, dozens of Los Verdes fans were spotted in green and black around the stadium—even with the match limited to 20% capacity.
Salute the support. 👏
It's only the beginning for @AustinFC. pic.twitter.com/TduorqYr2y
— Major League Soccer (@MLS) April 18, 2021
While the team lost their first-ever match, they didn't make it as easy as some expected.
Wolff said that the team did relatively well offensively, holding possession for 48% of the match and keeping a solid passing game. Once they got to the box, however, Wolff said they could use some work on creating scoring opportunities.
"We saw a lot of good connections, good spacing (and) good speed of passing," Wolff said. "I think we can obviously have more presence centrally to have more numbers in between lines. I just want us to create more chances. There's a lot on both sides of the ball that we still need to work on."
LA pulled some dramatics and slowly gained more possession throughout the half, but ATXFC's defense wasn't initially as shaky as it seemed in preseason. Later on, however, the team gave up some goals and seemed to struggle with endurance. Wolff said the backline did "okay" and that the club, including young center back Jhohan Romana, are still getting conditioned to play a full match.
"It's a lot of information for a young player," Wolff said. "I think as he fatigues then the decision making, as with most players, becomes a little bit more cloudy and then thus the execution becomes cloudy."
An honor to represent this city and y'all. We're just getting started. 💚🖤 pic.twitter.com/tmOqCfbXvs
— Austin FC (@AustinFC) April 18, 2021
Goalkeeper Brad Stuver had his work cut out for him, fending off 24 shot attempts, 11 of which were on goal.
Going into the match, Stuver and fellow goalkeeper Andrew Tarbell were neck-and-neck, with both labeled potential starters. However, it was Stuver, who many thought signed as a backup, that wore the goalkeeper's jersey on the field for the first time.
"I think both Andrew and Brad did relatively well in preseason, but we decided with Brad just based on how we felt preseason went," Wolff said. "I thought he performed pretty well to be honest. I think he and Andrew are similar in some aspects... it's being mindful of where their strengths and weaknesses are."
Five starters made their MLS debut in the match, including midfielder Daniel Pereira and forward Rodney Redes. While Wolff said Pereira held his own in the match, he saw a weak spot in the team's right side, making it difficult for Redes to make offensive plays.
"For Pereira, I think it was a solid day for a young kid coming in his first MLS game against that opponent," Wolff said. "Obviously there's there's a different physicality to MLS and I think those are things that all these guys are going to acclimatize to.
Now, the club looks to put the ball in the back of the net for the first time as they head to Colorado. Austin FC will face the Colorado Rapids at 8 p.m.on Saturday. The match will stream on the Austin FC app and be broadcast on the CW Austin. Austonia will keep an eye out for potential weekend watch parties.
- Austonia heads to LA to cover ATXFC vs LAFC - austonia ›
- Austin FC, MLS release full 2021 schedule - austonia ›
- Matthew McConaughey and Will Ferrell go head to head in Austin ... ›
- Austin FC to play at Q2 Stadium on June 19, season opener against ... ›
- Halftime report: Austin FC is holding their own against No. 2 LAFC ... ›
- Austin FC loses steam in 2-0 loss at No. 2 LAFC - austonia ›