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 ›
- Travis County vaccine equity gap widens compared to Texas - austonia ›
- Unvaccinated Austinites at risk of Delta variant with hospitals seeing third wave - austonia ›
- COVID update: here's what it would take for mask mandates to return to Austin - austonia ›
- Three Texas House Democrats who traveled to Washington D.C. test positive for COVID-19 - austonia ›
Giga Texas, the massive Tesla factory in southeast Travis County is getting even bigger.
The company filed with the city of Austin this week to expand its headquarters with a new 500,000-square-foot building. The permit application notes “GA 2 and 3 expansion,” which indicates the company will make two general assembly lines in the building.
More details about the plans for the building are unclear. The gigafactory has been focused on Model Y production since it opened in April, but the company is also aiming for Cybertruck production to kick off in mid-2023.
While there is room for expansion on the 3.3 square miles of land Tesla has, this move comes after CEO Elon Musk’s recent comments about the state of the economy and its impact on Tesla.
In a May interview with Tesla Owners Silicon Valley, Musk said the gigafactories in Berlin and Austin are “gigantic money furnaces” and said Giga Texas had manufactured only a small number of cars.
And in June, Musk sent a company wide email saying Tesla will be reducing salaried headcount by 10%, then later tweeted salaried headcount should be fairly flat.
- Grand opening of Giga Texas faces push back from the community ... ›
- Giga Texas may start production of Model Y's this week - austonia ›
- Tesla hosts Cyber Rodeo grand opening party for Giga Texas ... ›
- Musk: Recently opened Giga Texas is a gigantic money furnace ... ›
- Elon Musk is spotted driving a Cybertruck through Giga Texas ... ›
- PHOTOS: Peek inside the Tesla Gigafactory producing Model Ys in ... ›
- Cyber Rodeo: what we know about the Giga Texas opening party ... ›
- Excitement over Giga Texas grand opening continues at Tesla Con ›
- Tesla's mileage range on new Model Y lowers - austonia ›
You’ll have to leave city limits if you’re looking for a proper ranch property like 417 Acres Shipp Lake Ranch, aptly named for its acreage. The property comes built out with three farmhouses, one of which has bedrooms and two bathrooms and two of which have two bedrooms and one bathroom. The nearly untouched property, which surrounds the 100-plus-acre Shipp Lake, has remained in the same family since the early 1900s and gives you picturesque views for the making of a dream home. In fact, the previous owners ran a water ski camp on the property.
Sitting waterside on Lake Austin, this home gives you the unique opportunity to own a piece of the lush Hill Country with views of Mount Bonnell. The 2,750-square foot, three-bedroom, four-bathroom house allows you to integrate indoor and outdoor life with large windows opening to an outdoor living area. The crown jewel is the .76-acre parcel of land that tapers off to your own lakeside resort, featuring an covered outdoor kitchen, fire pit, stone boat house to store your water sports supplies and veranda sitting at the mouth of the water, perfect for an entertainer.
Got dreams of becoming a real Texas rancher? 7814 Brown Cemetery Rd. is the perfect place to start with 40 rolling acres of land and its very own swimming hole. Just east of Austin in Manor, the modest-on-the-outside home clocks at 4,412 square feet with five bedrooms and five-and-a-half bathrooms, but there are an additional two living structures on the property. The horseshoe-shaped pond sits in the heart of the property and comes equipped with a water slide, diving board and a fishing dock.