Early this month, Stephen Buckle, 38, visited New York with his wife and two others.
When the group returned to Austin, two of them developed flu-like symptoms. But Buckle, a musician who lives in the Rosedale neighborhood, only had a minor cough, which he attributed to an oak allergy that "obliterates" his health each spring.
Nearly three weeks later, Buckle learned that Baylor Scott & White was offering drive-thru testing for COVID-19. He completed the online screening—which included listing his one symptom and noting that he had recently traveled to New York—and was approved for a test on March 20. "There was literally no one there," he said.
Two days later, Buckle learned that his test was a presumptive positive—the next week, a state lab confirmed the results. When his wife and the others in his group tried to get tested themselves, however, they were denied. "In a matter of days, it just completely changed," he said. "Which is frustrating."
Since March 22, the number of COVID-19 tests conducted in the state of Texas has more than tripled, according to the Department of State Health Services. Yet many people continue to be denied testing, even when exhibiting symptoms.
"We know that we're challenged by testing," Austin-Travis County Interim Health Authority Dr. Mark Escott said at a March 24 press conference. "We know that we're challenged by getting folks through and getting results in a timely fashion."
Neither the city of Austin nor specific hospital systems—including Ascension Seton, Baylor Scott & White or St. David's HealthCare—are providing local testing numbers or explanations for the shortage.
Nationally, lack of testing is due to a number of reasons, leading back to early January: faulty test kits distributed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, initial restriction on which labs could make the test and who would qualify to take them, and required FDA approval to perform testing up until March, according to the Washington Post.
City and state health officials recommend doctors follow the CDC guidelines for determining which patients qualify for testing, with top priority going to those who are exhibiting symptoms and require hospitalization, are a healthcare worker or have recently traveled to certain affected countries. Individuals without symptoms, such as Buckle, are "non-priority," according to the CDC.
Lack of testing makes it difficult to understand the scope of the pandemic in Austin. As of Monday evening, Travis County confirmed 206 COVID-19 cases. But Dr. Escott said at the March 24 press conference that the number of local cases is likely seven times that of those confirmed.
Claus Wilke, chair of the Department of Integrative Biology at the University of Texas at Austin, said, "If you're testing at the levels at which we're currently testing, the only thing that you know is that the disease is here."
As of Monday evening, DSHS reported 35,880 tests conducted across the state. This amounts to around one in every 800 Texans being tested, using 2018 population data from the U.S. Census Bureau.
This ratio pales in comparison to some other countries, such as South Korea, which have tested at a much higher rate. According to the Korea Centers for Disease and Prevention, the county has tested 395,194 people, or around 1 in every 130 people.
In the absence of proof otherwise, Wilke said we have to behave as if everyone has the disease.
"There's a tradeoff: The less you test, the more strict you have to be with social distancing," he said.
Although Buckle self-isolated after he returned from New York, he said his positive test result led him to stop going to the grocery store—and even to his mailbox.
"I think I would be lying if I said [the test] doesn't change things," he said. "It makes you take it more seriously."
- Austin’s new contact tracing tech aims to curb the pandemic - austonia ›
- Less distancing may come at 'substantial cost' in lives, UT COVID modeler says - austonia ›
- Antibody tests show up in Austin, but not all are FDA approved ›
- Austin officials say COVID-19 testing remains a challenge - austonia ›
- Austin, Texas do not include rapid COVID tests in counts - austonia ›
Austin parents and grocery store shelves are feeling the effects of a nationwide baby formula shortage.
Caused mostly by a February recall due to contamination issues, followed by the Abbott Nutrition factory closure in Michigan, the shortage has left Austin shelves barren. However, earlier this week, U.S. officials announced a plan with the facility to restart production.
In the meantime, local parents in crisis have turned toward the Mother’s Milk Bank to keep their babies fed.
HEB on East 7th has been picked clean of formula and is limiting purchases. (Laura Figi/Austonia)
The milk bank—which takes donations from lactating mothers and dispenses milk to babies in the NICU—has been helping feed upwards of 30 families in need as the formula supply tightens.
According to the bank’s executive director Kim Updegrove, Mother’s Milk Bank has seen an uptick in calls from parents with healthy babies in need of help since the shortage began.
“We aren't used to hearing from families with healthy infants,” Updegrove said. “They're typically very upset, angry, frustrated, sobbing—it's scary to not be able to feed your infants. So in the past few weeks, those calls have been significantly increasing.”
Mothers are only able to donate if they are within a year postpartum, so Updegrove said they are constantly bringing on and retiring donors. While donors had been on a 30% decline leftover from 2021 when the shortage began, Updegrove said the shortage has led to mass community interest and more than 90 prospective donors in just the past few days.
“We and other milk banks are experiencing significant interest from the community—becoming milk donors and helping to turn around this crisis,” Updegrove said. “Every infant needs to be fed, every one of us can relate to that need, and we need to make sure as a community that it happens.”
Whole Foods downtown was also cleaned out of typical formula. (Laura Figi/Austonia)
While you may still be able to find formula at places like Whole Foods—which currently has goat milk, soy and plant-based formula in stock—Updegrove said it might not be what a baby needs.
Updegrove said it is best to buy types that say “infant formula,” as they are FDA approved and will provide the nutrients, vitamins and minerals a baby needs. Plant-based, homemade, non-cow's milk or diluting formula may not provide the same nutritional value.
As the community navigates the shortage, Updegrove said the most important way to help out is to not panic buy or stockpile.
“This is a crisis for families,” Updegrove said. “This is the time for the community to gather together and figure out what everyone can do to help families with young infants.”
Next time you’re sitting at a red light in Austin, you may look over and see a car without a person at the driver’s wheel.
Autonomous vehicle tech company Argo AI has brought driverless operations to Austin and Miami, starting out with only company employees using the service. Later on, tests with Lyft and Walmart will carry out ride-sharing and grocery delivery services, with the help of a human safety operator. The company has already made moves on this front in Miami Beach where some Lyft passengers have used its autonomous vehicles with a human operator.
While its platform is designed for integration with multiple vehicle types, the test fleet uses the Ford Escape Hybrid and VW's all-electric ID.Buzz.
The Pittsburgh-based company says this progress on its autonomy platform has been more than five years in the making and boasted about reaching this milestone before others.
"Argo is first to go driverless in two major American cities, safely operating amongst heavy traffic, pedestrians and bicyclists in the busiest of neighborhoods," said Bryan Salesky, Founder and CEO of Argo AI.
Expect to see the autonomous cars on the road during daytime business hours as the tech aims to learn from a diversity of road infrastructure and driving behaviors.
The company, which is testing in eight cities in the U.S. and Europe, has brought its tech to Austin as the company looks to expand in densely-populated cities. In particular, Argo is looking at ridesharing, delivery and logistics companies for integrating its autonomous vehicles into their digital services.
Argo anticipates its service availability to someday cover more than 15 million people in Austin, Miami and Washington D.C.
- Elon Musk "The Boring Company" tunnel to be built in Austin ... ›
- Austin voters ask: How will Project Connect affect transit ridership ... ›
- Robots become part of everyday Austin life - austonia ›
- Tesla files plans to build batteries at Austin Gigafactory - austonia ›
- Tesla and Space X CEO Elon Musk is moving to Austin, Texas ... ›
- What would Austin's roads look like if they were built for growth ... ›
- The robots are driving: Argo AI gears up to bring driverless ... ›
- Take a ride in Ford's new electric vehicles in downtown Austin with ... ›
- Austin-based company displays upcoming 'flying car' - austonia ›