When the Texas Department of State Health Services expanded its eligibility criteria for the COVID-19 vaccine to include residents 16 and older, it was partly in response to doses sitting unused in certain regions in the state. But Austin providers continue to report strong demand, and the increased eligibility criteria may stress the limited available supply.
In Travis County both the number of doses allocated by the state and the number of doses administered by providers are trending upward.
Travis County has steadily increased the number of weekly vaccine recipients since the rollout began. The dip the week of Feb. 15 was due to the winter storm. (Texas Department of State Health Services)
Austin Public Health filled all of its available appointments as part of its regular releases on Monday and Thursday. Local CVS, H-E-B and Walgreens locations were also fully booked, and only one Randalls Pharmacy location within 50 miles of Austin had "limited availability," according to its online scheduler, as of Friday morning.
The mass drive-thru vaccine site at the Circuit of the Americas, which is a partnership between Ascension Seton, CommUnity Health Centers and Travis, Bastrop, Caldwell and Hays counties, has administered roughly 10,000 doses each week and remains appointment-only. CommUnity Care is reaching out to its existing patient network to schedule appointments, and the counties are working with school districts and other select populations to expand access to the vaccine.
Although Travis County Judge Andy Brown has said he hopes that weekend drive-thru will eventually open up to the public on a walk-in basis, demand remains strong enough among local priority populations—including CommUnityCare's largely un- or under-insured patient network—to fill up the weekly appointments.
In addition to expanding eligibility, DSHS also recently shifted its weekly allocation to include more pharmacies, private practices and medical clinics, including 38th Street Pharmacy, Bee Caves Family Practice and Tarrytown Pharmacy in Travis County.
Texas Medical Association President Dr. Diana Fite said this is welcome news to smaller providers who were less likely receive doses from the state earlier in the rollout, when the focus was on hub providers. "The physicians in private practice and clinic are actually very excited," she said.
This could help expand access, as private practices and clinics are able to do more direct patient outreach, and address vaccine hesitancy, as doctors may be better able to address patient concerns given their existing relationship.
After a brief lag in demand for vaccine appointments last week, Austin Public Health expanded access to its waitlist registrants who are 40 or older this week. All of the department's appointment slots were filled following releases on Monday and Thursday.
APH will open up access further starting next week to include waitlist registrants who are 18 and older.
All of the appointments have been filled for this week!💉
We are excited to announce appointments will be open to the general public, including anyone 18+. Next appointment release for the FIRST dose of Moderna will be Monday (4/12)
📌Pre-register here: https://t.co/AVhWdhK3fS pic.twitter.com/TIImdYy0IW
— Austin Public Health (@AusPublicHealth) April 9, 2021
Dr. David Lakey, vice chancellor for health affairs at the University of Texas System and a member of the Texas COVID-19 Expert Vaccine Allocation Panel, said the decision to open access up to all adults was motivated by decreasing demand in parts of Texas. Some local health departments—including those in Beaumont, Midland and the Rio Grande Valley—opened up appointments to the general public earlier due to doses going unused.
"The reason that took place is because we were starting to see, in certain areas of the state, challenges in using the vaccine as quickly as we needed to," he told Austonia.
Fite applauded the state's decision to expand eligibility. "I think opening it up to everybody was a great idea," she said, adding that people who are essential workers but didn't fall into any of the priority groups now have access.
But Fite also stressed that expanding eligibility doesn't mean that the state's supply has increased enough to keep up with the current demand. "It seems like a lot of people still want the vaccine but have not been able to get it," she said.
I can't tell if there are no vaccines in the Austin area or if everyone is getting vaccinated. Every time I look there are no appointments available 😭
— Danielle ✌🏻 (@stfux3dannii) April 6, 2021
Some Austin residents continue to take hours-long road trips, twice, to keep appointments in other jurisdictions with more availability.
Gotta get to bed early tonight. Have to drive an hour and a half away tomorrow to get my vaccine, but it's better than trying to find an appointment here in Austin.
— Señor Lobo ⭐️🐺 (@Frute_Brute) April 2, 2021
For Texans who live in areas with high demand and are still waiting for a vaccine appointment to come available, Lakey predicts it may take until next month for supply to catch up with demand. "For the general population as a whole, it's going to be a little bit longer," he said.
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Looks like Austin FC is cleaning house—and they're taking a few Verde faves out ahead of the 2022 season.
Following the retirement of defender Matt Besler, the club's original 33-man roster was trimmed to 22 in roster changes announced Tuesday.
Austin FC declined its contract options for six players, including:
- Kekuta Manneh
- Aaron Schoenfeld
- Brady Scott
- Aedan Stanley
- Jared Stroud
- Ben Sweat.
Stroud became an early fan favorite for the team after helping teammate Diego Fagundez to the team's first goal in April, racking up a second assist just one match later with another Fagundez goal. After a few months of limited appearances, Stroud started once again in November and attempted his first MLS goal, but no dice.
Manneh, a forward, showed promise as Austin FC's first Austinite: a Gambia native, Manneh played soccer in the Texas capital while in high school and early in his professional career. Manneh showed energy on the pitch but never saw his efforts translate to the stat board.
By the start of the season, Sweat had secured a starting spot as left back for Austin FC but tore his ACL in the Colorado Rapids match on April 17, putting him off the pitch for the remainder of the season.
Both under 23, Stanley and Scott saw few appearances to the Verde pitch. In May, Scott went on loan to play as goalkeeper for USL Championship side Memphis 901. Schoenfield, a 31-year-old forward, has played briefly for various MLS and USL teams as well as professional teams in Israel.
Austin FC also announced that they would not exercise the transfer options for Sebastian Berhalter and Emmanuel Perez, both of whom spent the 2021 season in Verde on loan.
Berhalter, the son of U.S. Men's National Team Head Coach Gregg Berhalter, filled some big shoes in key moments of the season as central midfielder. At just 20, Berhalter started five times in the key position for Captain Alex Ring. Perez made four starts as forward for Austin FC.
It wasn't all doom and gloom. The club held on to the following for the 2022 season:
- Captain Ring
- Freddy Kleemann
- Will Pulisic
Ring, known as one of the top defensive midfielders in the league, had a rocky but rewarding road as Austin FC's captain in their inaugural season. Despite two red cards that rendered him out of two key matches, Ring tallied four goals and three assists as he led the team throughout the season, earning MLS Team of the Week honors multiple times.
At 22, Kleemann made just three appearances in central midfield for Austin FC but showed potential toward the end of the season. Pulisic wasn't able to start due to fellow goalkeeper Brad Stuver's standout success, but the cousin of Chelsea standout Christian Pulisic has plenty of years left in the tank.
Austin FC now has three goalkeepers, six defenders, seven midfielders and six forwards as the team's brief offseason continues. After the retirement of legendary central midfielder Matt Besler, the team will need to make strong signing options in the back and midfield positions in the MLS SuperDraft and transfer seasons before their first match against FC Cincinnati on Saturday, February 26.
But don't worry about fan favorites Fagundez, Sebastian Driussi or Stuver: all 22 other players are still firmly rooted in place for the upcoming season.
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Just as the world takes a breath from the Delta variant-induced third COVID surge that pushed hospitals past capacity this summer, a new variant—the omicron—is forcing countries around the world to once again consider shutting their doors.
It's too early to tell whether the variant will have the devastating effects of the Delta variant, the Mu variant—which accounted for 3% of U.S. cases before dropping off almost entirely by October—or somewhere in between. But as omicron continues to rise sharply in all provinces of South Africa, the Biden administration is reintroducing some travel restrictions that went into effect Monday.
As the variant spreads to countries around the world, including Canada, the Netherlands and Hong Kong, the World Health Organization declared omicron a "variant of concern"—though some are calling the move premature.
What is omicron?
The omicron variant, B.1.1.529, is now under strict watch from the WHO after quickly spreading throughout Southern Africa.
It's genetically different from the Alpha and Delta variants and has up to 30 mutations in its genetic code, leading some to worry that the risk of retransmission from those who have already had COVID could be high. The strain's mutations could also aid omicron in beating out other strains and spreading more quickly to hosts.
Omicron is the latest version of the coronavirus to cause concern. Here’s what we know about where it’s spread so far and what makes it different than other variants that came before. https://t.co/ncciXnIuw9
— The New York Times (@nytimes) November 29, 2021
It appears to be doing the trick. While an Associated Press report found that case numbers in South Africa are still well below other pandemic peaks—3,220 new cases were reported in South Africa on Saturday— up to 90% of new cases in the South African province of Gauteng are omicron.
The strain's effects seem to be mild so far, and hospitals haven't been overburdened yet, though hospitalizations are rising.
And doctors worry that the full extent of the variant hasn't been realized. Vaccine hesitancy is strong among South Africa's youngest population—22% of those aged 18 to 34 are vaccinated—and most of those infected with COVID have been in those younger age groups. Doctors worry that older age groups will be more adversely affected.
And while experts in the country expected a fourth surge and possible variant, the omicron still came as a "shock" as it quickly spread to all nine South African provinces and other continents. It's now the first strain labeled as a "variant of concern" since the Delta variant.
It's unclear if the variant is more immune to vaccines, although some signs indicate that it's a possibility.
Where has it been detected?
Cases of the Covid omicron variant have appeared in more than a dozen countries as of Monday. https://t.co/2bPapBIYK2 pic.twitter.com/idnQ6LjIfH
— NBC News Graphics (@NBCNewsGraphics) November 29, 2021
The omicron strain still hasn't been detected in dozens of countries, and it's far from the first strain to make a mark since Delta. But it's coincided with a quick uptick in cases in South Africa, where it was originally found, and became the dominant strain in Pretoria, a city of around 750,000, in just a few weeks.
Omicron is now present in nearby Botswana and has jumped on board flights to Europe, Asia, Australia and North America. Hong Kong has detected three cases, while 10 European nations including the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, Portugal and Germany have found a total of 45 cases. Canada has detected three cases, and none have yet been found in the United States.
What has been done?
Against the wishes of both South Africa and the WHO, several countries have decided to once again shut their doors.
After detecting an omicron case, Israel decided to bar entry to foreigners, while Morocco suspended incoming international air travel for two weeks. Dozens of countries are restricting travel from Southern Africa to South Africa's chagrin—the government said travel restrictions are “akin to punishing South Africa for its advanced genomic sequencing and the ability to detect new variants quicker.”
The WHO also called for borders to remain open as closing borders appears to have a limited effect on the spread of variants, and many countries are hesitant to clamp down on restrictions that have limited its citizens for so long.
The United States said in a statement Friday that it would restrict travel from eight southern African countries except for citizens and permanent U.S. residents who test negative for the virus.
White House Chief Medical Adviser Dr. Anthony Fauci said Sunday that it's "too early to say" whether tightened COVID restrictions will be needed to combat omicron but that citizens must be ready to do “anything and everything” to prevent its spread.
When will we know more?
The WHO said it will take around two weeks to gauge the full effects of omicron, from its ability to evade vaccines to its contagiousness.
For now, countries have once again urged their citizens to get vaccinated. Some vaccine companies have already spoken about the strain, including Moderna, which said Sunday that a new vaccine that protects against the variant could be released in early 2022 if needed.
For now, Fauci said that the country must "prepare for the worst" just in case omicron becomes the culprit of yet another surge.
“Inevitably, it will be here. The question is will we be prepared for it? If and when, and it’s going to be when, it comes here hopefully we will be ready for it,” Fauci said.
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Homeowners in Windcrest, Texas don't take Christmas lightly. Decking out their home in thousands of lights, one Windcrest couple even won ABC’s Texas episode of “Great Christmas Light Fight” that aired Sunday.
Known as "Christmas sweethearts," John and Brenda Wilson were awarded $50,000 after going up against fellow Texans, including a family in Amarillo and two families in Corpus Christi, in the ninth season premiere of the lights show.
(Great Christmas Light Fight)
Their holiday display featured a hand-built sled, a train called the Peppermint Expressway with actual peppermint smoke coming out of it and Santa's reindeer "in training." Designer and judge Taniya Nayak noted the linework of the lights displayed on the roof and the positioning of the red and lime green color palette.
"Right off the bat when the lights turned on, I couldn't believe how beautiful these peppermint lights were... it's just such a fun, happy, yummy, delicious vibe to it," Nayak said when she announced the Wilsons were the winners. "It really made a smile go from one ear to the other on my face."
Judge Nayak said she also enjoyed that their display had different stories behind each section.
(Great Christmas Light Fight)
John, or "Mr. Christmas" as Brenda called him, said he has been putting on a Christmas lights display for over 20 years—and it's only got better since he met his Mrs. Clause 12 years ago. The two said they met online and were 98% compatible.
"Brenda and I grew up back in the 50s when things were very simple, so we wanted to create something from when we were growing up," John said on the show.
And their efforts paid off: along with their monetary prize, the couple earned a light-bulb-shaped trophy.
KSAT reports the home got the attention of the show's casting directors last year, who encouraged them to apply to be on the show. The show was then shot last year, but the couple didn't learn they won until this year.
While being on the show is their intro to stardom, locals are familiar with the Wilsons' yearly display in the light-centric Windcrest. Each year their home is part of the Windcrest Light Up, a decades-old tradition where residents go all-out with their holiday light displays. They've won at least three grand prizes in the Windcrest contest and several other category first-place prizes.
The Windcrest Light Up kicks off Dec. 4.
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