The anticipated post-Thanksgiving surge is starting to reveal itself in the Austin region's COVID-19 caseload and hospitalization data, leading to worsening projections around how the virus will spread in the coming weeks.
"We certainly are seeing an increase," Austin-Travis County Interim Health Authority Dr. Mark Escott said Wednesday.
Case investigations have revealed that many of the newer cases date back to the holiday
"We are hearing story after story after story about families who gathered during Thanksgiving," Austin Public Health Chief Epidemiologist Janet Pichette said.
Over the last week, the number of new COVID-related hospital admissions recorded in the Austin metro has increased steadily, with a more significant jump in the last couple days.
On Wednesday, 47 people were admitted to hospitals in the five-county area with the virus, bringing the seven-day moving average to 37, according to APH data. Last week, that average was 30.
There has also been an increase in the number of patients requiring intensive care while hospitalized.
"We are concerned," Escott said. "This is about the time we expect to see the hospital side of things start to be more significantly impacted."
The growing number of hospitalizations doesn't bode well for future projections.
Immediately following Thanksgiving, the COVID-19 Modeling Consortium at the University of Texas at Austin projected a declining number of cases in the coming weeks. This may have been because of an increased demand for testing in the week before Thanksgiving, which lowered the positivity rate.
But now the consortium's model projects a worsening pandemic locally.
(COVID-19 Modeling Consortium at the University of Texas at Austin)
So, too, does the model used by the PolicyLab at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, which was updated on Wednesday.
"More areas of Texas are also beginning to realize the winter surge, with Houston, San Antonio and Austin leading the way in case incidence growth," PolicyLab researchers wrote in a blog post announcing their findings.
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Despite the increase in cases and hospitalizations, there are reasons for Austinites to feel hopeful.
Travis County is doing better than any other large county in Texas when it comes to mitigating disease spread, which Escott attributed to residents' commitment to protective measures such as masking and social distancing.
Hospitals are also better at caring with COVID patients now than they were during the last surge period, in June and July. Data shows both the case fatality and ICU occupancy rates have improved over the same period thanks to better treatment options and more familiarity with the virus.
"That doesn't mean we shouldn't be careful," Escott said Tuesday. "But our hospitals are in good shape locally."
Additionally, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration is expected to approve an emergency use authorization for Pfizer's COVID vaccine on Thursday.
Local health officials have said Austin's priority populations—including nursing home residents, first responders and front-line healthcare workers—will begin receiving the vaccine as soon as next week.
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Last fall, Janneke Parrish was pushing hard in her advocacy at Apple. She wanted to see flexibility with remote work, pay equity and for Apple to respond to Texas’ six-week abortion ban with paid time off and coverage for the procedure under the company’s health insurance plan.
Then, in October last year, she was fired.
Parrish, who lives in Round Rock and worked at Apple’s Austin campus as an Apple Maps program manager for about five years, is a leader of an internal movement at the tech giant. It comes at a time when the company is expanding its local presence with a new $1 billion Northwest campus with space for 5,000 employees.
Parrish worked at this Apple campus on West Parmer Lane. (Steven Joyner)
In August, the movement known as #AppleToo launched a website with the goal of organizing employees and sharing stories about alleged workplace harassment and discrimination. Austonia talked to Parrish and another former Apple employee who are part of the movement about their claims in what they observed while working for Apple.
“I’ve been advocating for members of my immediate team within Apple for several years,” Parrish said. “And when I realized that the issues that I was seeing with my own team were true throughout Apple, there was a natural transition toward, ok let’s expand this advocacy and instead be more of an advocate for everybody at Apple to ensure that we the workers at Apple are treated fairly and equitably and get treated as human beings.”
In the lead-up to her firing, Parrish faced an allegation that she had leaked details from a recent all-hands meeting to the Verge. She says she suspects it’s this, along with her advocacy, that influenced Apple’s decision to fire her.
“I didn’t do (the leak). And I know that Apple knows I didn’t do this,” Parrish said since a few employees including herself didn’t have access to that meeting due to a system crash that day. “I was still placed under investigation.”
As a requirement of the investigation, Parrish turned in her work devices. Before doing so, she wiped the files from her computer, saying she didn’t want her personal files on Apple servers. After a few days on paid suspension, she says human resources called and told her she’d been terminated with the reason being that she’d deleted those files.
Parrish is one of the leaders of the AppleToo movement. (Janneke Parrish)
Before Parrish’s firing, Apple was taking action on leaks and workplace organizing. An internal memo from 2018 noted a number of leakers they had caught were arrested. About a month before Parrish was fired, the tech giant had fired a senior engineering program manager for allegedly leaking confidential information. And in a September note, CEO Tim Cook sent a note to all Apple employees saying “people who leak confidential information do not belong” at Apple.
Austonia asked Apple about Parrish’s case and other matters at the company. In an email reply, the company said:
“We are and have always been deeply committed to creating and maintaining a positive and inclusive workplace. We take all concerns seriously and we thoroughly investigate whenever a concern is raised and, out of respect for the privacy of any individuals involved, we do not discuss specific employee matters.”
Another piece of Parrish’s advocacy involved career opportunities for workers, particularly those based in Austin.
Even though Apple upped their presence in Austin in recent years, Parrish said Austin-area employees couldn’t enjoy networking opportunities like California workers did as Apple events were held on the West Coast. Texan Apple workers shouldn’t have to relocate to move up, she said.
“For those of us in Austin, I noticed, especially for my department, my career options were extremely limited,” Parrish said. “I was told by a manager that if I really wanted to advance in my career, I would have to move out to California.”
Parrish said Apple employees in Austin do not have the same career opportunities as those in California. (Shutterstock)
Austonia spoke to another member of the organizing group AppleToo. She requested anonymity to not hinder future job prospects in the tech industry. She’ll be identified with the pseudonym Mary.
Mary said she’s worked at Apple since 2008 in Austin, starting off as a contractor in customer support at iTunes and moving around over the years, leaving the tech giant earlier this month.
“It’s too hard to advance and there are no opportunities for development so (I was) just kind of stuck in a dead-end job,” Mary said.
Mary felt that another challenge was being a woman at a tech company. Starting out, she says she was the lowest paid in a training class of mostly men with pay of around $30,000, which rose to about $55,000 by the time she left.
But aside from pay, communication also proved to be a hurdle. To make her persona appear gender-neutral, she changed how her name was displayed on Slack, the interoffice directory and over email to just her first initial.
“The hard part was when I would have to get into a meeting with people then I felt like my voice is giving me away now,” Mary said. “But when I could avoid having meetings, I felt like it did make a difference.”
Mary says there’s been some movement in the right direction. An internal memo in November affirmed employees’ right to discuss pay after it had shut down employee-run pay equity surveys and an employee-run Slack channel. Earlier this month, it announced new efforts in a racial equity and justice initiative.
“We all want to see positive changes from Apple,” Mary said. “We all want them to look at wage disparities. We’d like to see more diversity—more minorities in leadership positions, more females in leadership positions.”
Still, Mary feels there’s more to be done. “I wish Apple was more responsive at making bigger changes,” she said.
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The Texas French Bread Bakery, located on 2900 Rio Grande Street, has been completely destroyed after a fire erupted on Monday night.
The Austin Fire Department responded to the fire just before 11 p.m., where they arrived to see flames coming from the roof of the bakery. Firefighters fought the fire for about an hour before the roof collapsed.
While no one was injured in the fire, firefighters say the historic building was completely totaled.
Texas French Bread just went up in flames pic.twitter.com/agXqKN3c00
— Jordan (@AimIessFriend) January 25, 2022
AFD determined that the fire was accidental and caused by mechanical failure. AFD said the damages amounted to $1.6 million total: $1.1 million in structural damage and $500,000 in damage to the contents of the bakery.
This year, Texas French Bread will celebrate 40 years of business. Before the bakery occupied the building, it was the Rome Inn, a music venue that hosted 1970s artists like Stevie Ray Vaughan.