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Last weekend, after the city of Austin recommended social distancing, but before the shelter-in-place order was announced, Connor Leech brought home a new dog.
The 24-year-old IBM content strategist lives in the Cherrywood neighborhood with two roommates. Prior to the pandemic, he planned to adopt a dog. But after realizing he would be working from home for at least several weeks he decided to call Austin Pets Alive.
"If there was a right time, it would be now," Leech said.
In early March, Austin's shelters began preparing for the coronavirus to arrive in Austin—and the likelihood that volunteers and staff would be affected. APA, the Austin Animal Center and the Austin Humane Society began calling for foster placements on their social media pages in an effort to free up space at their facilities.
With fewer animals on site, staff could continue to accept critical cases—such as sick or injured animals—and absorb the work usually done by volunteers, most of whom are not considered essential workers. Having fewer animals also means that the shelters can operate with a leaner staff.
"We needed to get as many animals out in case we had staff that became ill and we didn't have enough staff [to care] for animals," AAC Director Don Bland said.
AAC's goal was to move half of its inventory into foster homes. As of this morning, there were 129 animals on site, with around 494 in foster homes.
For the time being AAC is not worried about running out of animal food or supplies and will be able to continue to observe the city's no-kill policy, which requires 95% of animals that enter the shelter not be euthanized.
"This is going to be something that we'll be able to maintain easily now that we've sent so many animals to foster," Bland said.
Although animal shelters are familiar with emergency situations—those in Austin took in thousands of animals during Hurricane Harvey—this pandemic is different.
"This will be a more sustained response," said Dr. Katie Luke, a veterinarian and chief operations officer of the Austin Humane Society. "We don't really know what the endpoint will be."
To this end, AAC is no longer accepting strays or surrendered animals and is instead only responding to top priority calls, such as those involving a bite or an animal that is sick or injured. The shelter recommends that people who find dogs outside try to return them to their owners, who likely live nearby. APA is hosting virtual meet-and-greets on Zoom and Google Hangouts to avoid unnecessary contact between staff and prospective foster owners. And AHS has inventoried its medical supplies to see what masks, gloves and gowns it may be able to donate to area hospitals and clinics treating those with coronavirus.
The latter is also preparing for the likelihood that some animals exposed to the coronavirus will need care. Although there is no evidence that dogs and cats can contract the disease, they may carry it in their ears and mouth. Shelters may need to keep animals isolated or take in the pets of people with the disease who cannot care for them while ill, Dr. Luke said.
Another concern for shelters is fundraising.
Citing a drop in donations and cancelled events, Austin Pets Alive created a Facebook fundraiser on March 21 with a goal of $25,000. As of this morning, it has raised $16,724.
The nonprofit usually runs two thrift stores that generate revenue for the shelter; both are closed because of the pandemic.
"We know that as people fall on hard times, animals will fall on hard times, too," APA's Executive Director Dr. Ellen Jefferson said in a Facebook video posted to the shelter's page on March 26.
In the private sector, animal-related businesses are also experiencing financial hardship—but a boom in adoptions could mean more customers once this pandemic is contained.
Tim Smith—owner of Southpaws Playschool, a dog day care in South Austin—said he is seeing 80% less business than usual, even as he has increased operating hours to 24 hours a day to accommodate the schedules of essential workers.
Some customers, however, continue to bring in their pets because they need more exercise after being cooped up at home all day or they want to support a local business. Smith is also hopeful that, once people return to work, they may bring their new pets to Southpaws.
"Anything that gets pets out of the shelter—whether they get into foster care on a temporary basis or take the next step and actually get adopted—that's a good thing," he said.
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After reaching Stage 4 last week of Austin Public Health's risk-based guidelines, Austin-Travis County is now at the Stage 5 threshold with a seven-day average of 50 hospitalizations and dwindling ICU capacity.
While unenforceable under Gov. Greg's Abbott order against local mandates, vaccinated individuals are asked to choose drive-through and curbside options, outdoor activities, social interactions with limited group sizes, as well as social distance and wearing masks indoors. Partially or unvaccinated individuals are asked to avoid gatherings, travel, dining and shopping, choose curbside and delivery options, as well as wear a mask on essential trips.
Flashing back to early-pandemic times, hospitals are at critical capacity—the 11 county Trauma Service Region of 2.3 million people is fluctuating at 16 staffed beds, according to APH.
In a statement on behalf of Ascension Seton, Baylor Scott & White Health and St. David's Healthcare, a spokesperson said that hospitals are asking residents to "help us and each other" by getting vaccinated and continuing to utilize safety practices to slow the spread of the virus.
According to the statement, a "longstanding" nurse staffing challenge combined with the recent COVID-19 spike is putting "extraordinary pressure" on hospital systems.
Along with the unmitigated spread of the virus in unvaccinated, the more contagious Delta variant is also to blame for the spike in cases. The seven-day moving average of COVID hospitalizations in the Austin area reached the Stage 5 threshold of 50 on Friday, triggering local health officials to ask residents to take action.
Local hospitals have a "surge plan" that includes utilization of "all available patient care space and employees within our hospitals and in other settings" that will go into effect when capacity is hit, according to the statement.
The hospitals are working on sourcing supplemental staff and emphasized that emergency care will still be available but it may involve patient transfers "in order to provide the most appropriate care."
Healthcare systems have hit this threshold previously during the pandemic: the city held an alternate care site at the Austin Convention Center from January to March of this year.
"Our responsibility during this pandemic continues to be balancing our readiness to care for patients with COVID-19, while making sure patients who depend on our hospitals receive needed and timely care," the statement said. "We do not want to see necessary non-COVID care delayed as it was during the early stages of the pandemic."
This story has been updated to after publication to include that Austin has reached the Stage 5 threshold.
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Austin legend Willie Nelson will perform at the Texas Capitol today, his first large performance since the pandemic began, closing out a four-day long march across Central Texas to build support for federal voting protections.
Organized by The Poor People's Campaign, the march began in Georgetown on Wednesday and will end with a 10 a.m. rally at the Capitol featuring appearances from former U.S. Congressman Beto O'Rourke and Rev. Dr. William Barber.
Willie Nelson (with Charlie Sexton & friends) will play a free concert at the Poor People's Campaign march for democracy & justice in Austin this Saturday! https://t.co/zZSA0BpbWA
Sign up to join us and see Willie at 10am Saturday: https://t.co/KrDPIFIvST
— Beto O'Rourke (@BetoORourke) July 29, 2021
The rally calls on Congress to "stop attacks on democracy" by ending the filibuster, pass all provisions of the For the People Act, restore the 1965 Voting Rights Act, raise the federal minimum wage to $15 per hour and pass permanent protections for all 11 million undocumented immigrants.
Nelson denounced election law proposals gaining traction in red states, such as Senate Bill 1 and House Bill 3 in Texas, which 55 House Democrats foiled by fleeing to Washington, D.C., on July 12.
The bills would require additional ID verifications for mail-in ballots, allow partisan poll watchers "free movement" and prohibit elections officials from sending absentee ballot applications to voters who didn't request one.
"Laws making it more difficult for people to vote are unAmerican and are intended to punish people of color, the elderly and disabled," Nelson said. "If you can't win by playing the rules, then it's you and your platform–not everyone else's ability to vote."
The march is in the spirit of the Selma to Montgomery March of 1965, led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., which protested the blocking of Black Americans' right to vote by Jim Crow laws.