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In light of new state and federal COVID-19 policies, Austin Public Health will debut a new School Saturdays vaccine program this weekend, focused on vaccinating school staff and childcare providers. Department officials also continued to stress the importance of masking and distancing given new variants, the low overall vaccine rate and the prospect of a third surge following spring break and the Easter holiday.
"It is effectively a moral imperative that people wear masks," Austin-Travis County Interim Health Authority Dr. Mark Escott said during a press conference Friday.
The Texas Department of State Health Services announced Wednesday that school and child care staff are now eligible for COVID vaccines after receiving a letter from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services directing states to expand priority groups to include these workers. President Joe Biden called on states to prioritize vaccinating teachers earlier this week as part of a renewed effort to reopen schools.
APH plans to focus vaccine distribution efforts to teachers, bus drivers, Head Start employees and other newly eligible residents during School Saturdays, starting tomorrow. Current outreach is focused on the more than 10,000 educators who have already signed up for APH's waitlist. "Education is definitely our priority," Director Stephanie Hayden-Howard said.
The expansion of vaccine eligibility to include teachers has raised concerns given the well-documented supply shortage and tech issues that have plagued the rollout so far. "I think one of the big failures of public health across the country has been its investment in information technology," Escott said. "We're still working from fax machines … to receive some cases. We have systems that don't talk to one another."
Although the department is making improvements, including a recently implemented queuing system, many eligible residents still report not being able to make an appointment and overall glitchiness. These problems could be compounded by additional demand—and the possibility that the state will further open up eligibility to include a group 1C of essential workers in the next couple of weeks. "It's an evolving system," APH Assistant Director Cassandra DeLeon said, adding that as more vaccine supply becomes available she anticipates the system will run more smoothly–similar to what happened during the testing rollout last year.
With more than 218,000 eligible residents currently registered with APH and a standing weekly allocation of 12,000 doses from DSHS, the department is only able to schedule around 5.5% of users for appointments each week. This rate may improve, however, now that the Johnson & Johnson vaccine is part of the mix. A state health department spokesperson told Austonia earlier this week that more than 200,000 doses of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine is expected to be allocated next week.
Some residents may be concerned about the vaccine, which was found to be less effective in clinical trials than the Pfizer and Moderna candidates. But Escott said "it is an excellent vaccine," with a higher efficacy rate than flu vaccines in recent years and the potential to benefit many more people because it only requires one dose. "The vaccine that you can get is better than the vaccine that you can't get," he added.
With new confirmed COVID cases and related hospitalizations trending downwards in recent weeks, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott announced Tuesday that he would lift business capacity restrictions and the statewide masking mandate next week, opening Texas 100%.
(Austin Public Health)
Since a peak in mid-January, the average number of new COVID cases confirmed each day in Travis County has plummeted from nearly 702 to 183. Hospitalizations have followed a similar trajectory, dropping from an average of 94 in early January to 27 on Thursday.
But local public health officials are still concerned about the possibility of a third surge, citing new variants and events such as spring break and Easter, which APH Chief Epidemiologist Janet Pichette called "opportune times for people to gather and have festivities."
With businesses reopening, including possibly bars, and the chance that residents may abandon masks, this could spell trouble for the local healthcare system. "I think it's reckless for bars to be open in the first place," Escott said. "Those individuals who frequent bars are those same individuals who have close to zero vaccinations."
Despite the governor's green light, Escott and local elected officials have asked Austin businesses to follow the local risk-based guidelines, which currently recommend a maximum capacity of 50%.
"I feel like our business owners understand the importance of masking, understand the importance of social distancing," Escott said. "And I think our business owners understand that if people don't feel safe in a space they will not come."
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With more research done on the COVID-19 Delta variant, Austin Public Health is upping its goal of 70% vaccinated to at least 80% due to the extreme virality of the strain.
As more Delta cases are identified—up to 29 cases are confirmed in Travis County—health officials are urging the unvaccinated to get their shots to contain the spread and relieve hospitals from reaching full capacity.
Austin-Travis County surpassed the Stage 5 threshold on Friday and has reached a seven-day average of 61 hospital admissions. However, Austin health leaders have yet to make an official shift as the Delta variant calls for new guidance, APH Health Authority Dr. Desmar Walkes said at a joint Travis County Commissioners Court meeting on Tuesday morning.
The new guidance has yet to be released, but Walkes said it will take into account the viral load of Delta on both unvaccinated and vaccinated people.
Last week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention revealed the Delta variant was as contagious as chickenpox, which has a herd immunity threshold of at least 90% vaccinated.
Although 63.42% of those eligible in Travis County are fully vaccinated, breakthrough cases—where vaccinated people are contracting COVID-19—are being identified. APH has identified 1,496 breakthrough cases of the roughly 800,000 vaccinated. Most breakthrough cases are showing less severe symptoms or are asymptomatic, according to APH.
Health officials are still asking residents to wear masks, although the city cannot mandate any masking orders due to an executive order by Texas Gov. Greg Abbott.
"Our challenge is going to be whether we're going to stand as a community and everyone who can get vaccinated, get vaccinated, and everyone where a mask—that's what it's going to take," Walkes said.
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Save Austin Now police petition will reach November ballot after county clerk certifies 25,000 signatures
Save Austin Now is now 2-0 over Austin City Council after its petition to add more staffed police officers to the Austin Police Department was certified, garnering over the 20,000 votes needed to make it on an election ballot.
The petition calls for more police staffing per city resident, quicker response times and more training for city police officers in the wake of increasing violent crime rates nationwide and a year of limited APD staffing. The City Council will now decide whether to implement the ordinance outright or add it to the November election ballot; it will likely do the latter.
Over 25,000 of the 27,778 signatures racked up by the public safety petition were certified as valid, well over the 20,000-vote threshold required to be certified with the City Clerk. City Clerk Jannette Goodall placed the city's seal of approval on the petition on Tuesday morning.
The petition, by the same political group that got the camping ban reinstated through a petition in May, seeks to:
- Require minimum staffing of two officers per 1,000 residents
- Require a minimum standard of 35% community response time
- Add 40 hours of training
- Require city council members, Mayor Steve Adler and other city staff to enroll in the Citizens Police Academy
- Facilitate minority officer hiring through foreign language proficiency metrics
Austin's 160 patrol vacancies have dropped its staffing rate to 1.2 officers per 1,000 residents, according to the department. APD's response time has increased by about one minute and 50 seconds in a year.
The petition comes nearly a year after APD's budgets were slashed by city council following the summer's Black Lives Matter protests, which saw several demonstrators severely injured as millions called for justice in the police-related deaths of George Floyd and locally Mike Ramos, an unarmed Black man killed by APD officer Christopher Taylor, in April 2020.
Austin and the U.S. have experienced a widespread uptick in violent crime rates in 2021. The city has reached 49 homicides in 2021, higher than the total number of murders in all of 2020 and the 38 homicides in the city in 2019. Austin police officers have seen response times rise as the department suffers increased vacancies and fewer newcomers while cadet classes are being readjusted.
Opponents argue the ordinance would ramp up a policing budget while taking away from other departments including Fire, EMS, violence prevention, and mental health care. City Council Member Greg Casar, the Travis County Democratic Party and the Austin Justice Coalition have spoken out against the organization's latest public safety move, calling out the campaign as a "right-wing petition" that misleads those who sign.
🔥 PANTS ON FIRE: Republican-front group Save Austin Now is lying about their petition!
They say their measure is about police reform, when it's really about devastating our city budget - all for the benefit of the police union. Watch the video here ⬇️ #ATX pic.twitter.com/Z6QQSfhHfH
— Gregorio Casar (@GregCasar) August 2, 2021
The latest battle between city council and Save Austin Now will be decided by Austin residents in the Nov. 2 election.
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Austin City Limits fest and iHeartRadio Fest are the latest festivals to announce the removal of rapper DaBaby, who has come under fire for homophobic comments made during a recent festival.
The 29-year-old rapper, whose real name is Jonathan Lyndale Kirk, was dropped by Lollapalooza just hours before his set on Sunday, followed by the Governor's Ball in New York and Nevada's Day N Vegas after making unsolicited comments about men with HIV/AIDS at the Rolling Loud Festival in Miami. Rolling Stone Magazine confirmed with iHeartRadio organizers that DaBaby will no longer perform.
DaBaby will no longer be performing at Austin City Limits Music Festival — lineup update coming soon. pic.twitter.com/jAYfdJFxJf
— ACL Festival (@aclfestival) August 3, 2021
There is no word on who he will be replaced with yet, though rumors on ACL's subreddit, r/aclfestival, are saying they expect Tyler, The Creator, who performed at Lollapalooza. Kirk will be replaced at Day N Vegas by rapper Roddy Ricch.
Kirk later backtracked his offensive statements on his Instagram story, but again faced criticism for not exactly apologizing.
After facing a second round of backlash for his Instagram statements, the rapper posted on Instagram, saying:
In addition to being dropped from the festivals, DaBaby has been denounced by fellow celebrities like Dua Lipa, Madonna and Elton John.
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