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by Rich Oppel
New York Times opinion columnist Michelle Goldberg's Sunday piece was headlined, "Lawrence Wright Saw a Pandemic Coming." It was a fine column about an impending book—and one written by one of Austin's finest authors.
Wright is a long-time resident of West Austin. His new book, "The End of October," comes out next month. As Goldberg reports, it is about a devastating illness that races around the globe, leading to apocalyptic upheaval.
This is not the first time Wright has been prescient.
He co-wrote the screenplay for "The Siege," a 1998 movie that foreshadowed 9/11. "The End of October" describes an epidemic that begins in Asia and spreads worldwide. America had plenty of plans, but health officials weren't given the resources to carry them out. There was a shortage of ventilators, syringes, diagnostic test kits, gloves, respirators and antiseptics—"all the stuff we need to treat patients and protect ourselves," said a character in this novel.
As Goldberg writes, the president in Wright's book is "almost entirely absent from the debate about how to deal with the contagion, except to blame the opposing party for ignoring public health needs before he took office."
Just before President Trump's news briefing yesterday, I emailed Wright with my compliments and a couple of questions:
Q: Would you describe how the president in "End" compares with President Trump in their respective handling of the epidemics?
Q: You've now effectively forecast two catastrophes, 9/11 with "The Siege" and the COVID-19 pandemic with "End." Have you begun working on still another book about impending disaster in the world's future? If you can't or won't say, could you mention 1-2 possible large-scale threats that we should be worrying about?
Twenty minutes later, Wright messaged back:
"Rich, thanks for the good words. It's going to be interesting to see what happens when the book comes out. There's a lot of interest, but there are also obstacles—bookstores shuttered, no author tours.
"As for the president in the novel, let's just say he's one of a kind.
"I'm not writing another book about the future, at least not now, but I've received quite a lot of suggestions: a world in which we solve the climate crisis, elect a woman president, etc. The general sentiment is: please don't write about another catastrophe. Even my wife is on that page."
Count me with Roberta Wright when it comes to predicting more catastrophes, but I'll definitely read "The End of October." And I hope Austonia readers will as well.
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.