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Rapid COVID-19 tests are becoming increasingly available and popular in Austin, but the results are not counted toward the area's confirmed-case totals, raising questions among health officials about whether they are underestimating the disease's spread.
"That's something that we're looking at right now, as to what kind of impact that's having on our numbers," Austin-Travis County Interim Health Authority Dr. Mark Escott said.
The results of the rapid antigen tests, which return results in as little as 15 minutes, are slightly less accurate than the slower genetic tests and aren't reported in the county's daily confirmed cases because they are considered "probable" instead of "confirmed" in state and CDC guidelines.
While local health officials study the issue - and even consider offering the antigen tests for free to residents - some in the medical community say the impact of the omission on daily totals is clear.
"I think we're seeing an undercount by not including the rapid antigen tests," said Dr. David Gude, Chief Operating Officer of Texas MedClinic, which offers the tests at its 19 Central Texas locations.
The number of people seeking out free COVID-19 genetic testing through Austin Public Health has declined in the wake of the recent surge. Local officials attribute this to both a lower transmission rate and the increasing availability of the rapid antigen tests, which detect active COVID infections.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration issued its first emergency use authorization to a rapid antigen test in May, acknowledging that the model is marginally less sensitive than the genetic—or polymerase chain reaction tests—already in use.
But the antigen tests offer the benefits of being cheaper to produce, less invasive to conduct and much faster results—in around 15 minutes.
Patients who receive genetic tests, on the other hand, may wait more than a week for results because the tests must be sent out to labs for processing, and many national labs are overwhelmed.
The Texas Department of State Health Services recently began reporting the number of antigen tests and positive results as probable cases, although an agency spokesperson told the Houston Chronicle earlier this month that the policy may change given the growing reliance on antigen tests.
Since Aug. 6, 16,409 antigen tests have been conducted in Texas compared to around 100,000 genetic tests in that same period.
Texas recently began reporting the number of rapid antigen tests conducted across the state.
The state dashboard shows the recent addition of antigen test numbers.
(Department of State Health Services)
APH would not provide the number of positive results reported from rapid antigen tests conducted in Travis County. Austonia has filed a public records request for the information.
"I think it's very unfortunate that some decision-makers have decided to not include the rapid antigen tests in the case counts," Gude said.
A clear preference
Although genetic tests continue to outnumber rapid antigen tests overall, at the private testing sites that offer rapid antigen tests—which require certain on-site equipment to process—this is not the case.
At Total Men's Primary Care, which has 16 locations in and around Austin, demand for genetic tests is down because of the long wait times for results, CEO Robert Sek said.
Similarly, Texas MedClinic is seeing decreased demand for both rapid antigen testing and genetic testing compared to the surge period. But the level of interest for each type of test is not the same.
For patients not traveling abroad or awaiting surgery, two instances that might require a negative genetic test result, antigen tests are the clear favorite because of their rapid response time, Gude said.
"The only patients that I see that have any preference for a [genetic test] is because there's some agency or entity that is requiring [it]," Gude told Austonia.
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Matthew McConaughey is reportedly weighing a run for Texas governor in 2022.
The Austin resident and Oscar winner has been "quietly making calls to influential people in Texas political circles, including a deep-pocketed moderate Republican and energy CEO" as he decides whether to run, according to Politico.
McConaughey said a gubernatorial run is "a true consideration" while on a March episode of Houston's "The Balanced Voice" podcast.
Although most political strategists doubt McConaughey's commitment and viability as a candidate, some are still intrigued by the possibility.
"I find it improbable, but it's not out of the question," Karl Rove, a top Republican strategist with a long history in Austin, told the political news site. He added that the big question is whether McConaughey would run as a Republican, a Democrat or an independent.
Brendan Steinhauser, an Austin-based GOP strategist, told Politico he's surprised McConaughey isn't being taken more seriously. "Celebrity in this country counts for a lot," he said. "It's not like some C-list actor no one likes. He has an appeal."
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott plans to run for a third term and remains popular among Republican voters, 77% of whom approve of his performance as of April, according to the Texas Politics Project.
Some strategists believe an independent McConaughey run would benefit Abbott. But a recent poll from The Dallas Morning News and the University of Texas at Tyler found that McConaughey would beat Abbott, 45% to 33%, with 22% opting for someone else.
Mimi Swartz, an executive editor at Texas Monthly, mulled a McConaughey run in a recent opinion essay from the New York Times. "Texas may not be ready for a philosopher king as a candidate, much less governor," she wrote. "May the best man win, man."
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Some JuiceLand production facility workers and storefront employees are organizing to demand wage increases, better working conditions (including air conditioning in the warehouse) and pay transparency, among other asks. They are also calling on staff to strike and customers to boycott the Austin-based company until their demands are met.
JuiceLand responded on Saturday. "We are listening," the company wrote on their Instagram story. "JuiceLand crew now makes guaranteed $15 an hour or more companywide."
JuiceLand, which was founded in 2001 by Matt Shook and now has 35 locations in Austin, Houston and Dallas, acknowledged the rising cost of living across Texas and the added stress of the pandemic in an email to employees on Saturday, part of which @juicelandworkersrights shared on social media. "There's no denying that times are tough and financial security means more now than ever," the company wrote.
Organized JuiceLand workers rejected this proposal, according to a recent post on the @juicelandworkersrights Instagram account, and reiterated their demands.
"Cost of living in Austin is rising exponentially and will only continue to get worse with the tech boom," the post read. "$15 is barely a sustainable living."