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The COVID-19 situation continues to worsen in the Austin metro, and models show that area hospitals could exceed their ICU capacity by Jan. 15.
"What we experienced over the summer is nothing compared to what we will experience over the next two months if we don't change things very quickly," Austin-Travis County Interim Health Authority Dr. Mark Escott said Tuesday. "The strategy is not working. The state strategy is not working."
Over the last month, the average number of new COVID cases confirmed in Travis County has increased 98% to 537. The average number of daily COVID-related hospital admissions has grown even more quickly, increasing by 140% to 77 over the same time period.
The positivity rate in Travis County is 15.5%, up from 12.7% last week and on track to exceed 20% if residents don't change their behavior.
Because of Christmas and New Year's festivities, Escott anticipates that the county will "break many new records" over the next few weeks as cases related to such gatherings develop.
The COVID-19 Modeling Consortium at the University of Texas at Austin projects that the metro will exceed its ICU capacity by Jan. 15, if transmission continues at its current rate.
"My expectation is that it may happen before that," Escott said.
This is particularly concerning giving the concurrent surges happening across Texas, which means that there are fewer healthcare workers available to provide additional support in Austin should the need arise.
"The entire state is in surge," Escott said. "The entire state is in a state of emergency."
This map shows the state's trauma service areas. Those with red marks have seen at least 15% of their hospital capacity taken up by COVID patients for at least seven consecutive days. Those with yellow marks, including area O, which includes Travis County, are approaching that threshold. (Austin Public Health)
If Austinites do not heed his and other public health officials' advice, they could end up in a similar situation as is unfolding in Los Angeles County, where the local emergency medical services agency directed ambulance crews not to transport patients with little chance of survival to hospitals because of oxygen supply issues. Other patients are spending hours in ambulances outside of hospitals, waiting for a bed to open.
"It's important for folks to understand that the same thing will happen here … unless we make substantial change right now," Escott said.
What Austinites can do
In the midst of this surge, Escott pleaded with Austinites to help carve out a path toward a peak, from which point things could start to improve.
To do this, residents should follow the Stage 5 recommendations issued by Austin Public Health:
- Not gathering with individuals outside on your own household
- Limiting dining and shopping to essential trips only
- Avoiding non-essential travel
Because the Texas Education Agency has tied state funding of public schools to in-person operations, local officials have avoided ordering a school shutdown. Instead, Escott strongly urged Austin parents to opt into virtual learning for the next two weeks, at least, in an effort to curb transmission. He said his own teenage son was learning from home this week.
The state of Texas Supreme Court recently blocked Austin-area orders that restricting dining in and drinking at restaurants over the New Year's weekend.
Within the ability to mandate such restrictions, Escott recommended that businesses operate through contactless options, such as curbside delivery, as a way to mitigate longer-term damage.
"If we had the ability, this would be the time where we would want to restrict activities," he said, alluding to state orders prohibiting such local policies. "I know that lots of folks are concerned about the impact on our businesses. I'm concerned about the impact on lives … and the consequences of having a community that faces a surge that lasts for months."
A vaccine update
In late December, state officials mandated that vaccine providers expand access to members of Group 1B, which includes people age 65 and older as well as those with a chronic illness, in addition to Group 1A, which includes frontline healthcare workers and first responders.
As a result, many local hospitals, pharmacies and other vaccine providers were caught with more demand than supply and are only vaccinating members of the 1A group.
"The problem is we have a shortage of vaccine," APH Director Stephanie Hayden said Tuesday.
Until the vaccine supply increases, APH is focused on setting up a preregistration portal and increasing the number of local providers enrolled in the state's vaccine distribution system. The department is also working to identify large-scale distribution sites, such as the Travis County Expo Center, that could be used for mass vaccination events.
County Commissioner Jeff Travillion, Council Member Natasha Harper-Madison and Council Member-elect Vanessa Fuentes expressed support for this idea.
I third that motion. https://t.co/8oLXeA3NpQ— Natasha Harper-Madison (@Natasha Harper-Madison)1609867205.0
"Everyone wants a vaccine," Hayden said. "It's a great problem for us to have."
Tesla CEO Elon Musk announced a record-setting second quarter during an earnings call broadcasted from the Giga Texas construction site in Southeast Travis County on Monday.
The electric carmaker reported more than $1 billion in quarterly net income and the production of more than 200,000 vehicles for the first time despite challenges such as a global semiconductor shortage.
"It … seems that public sentiment towards electric vehicles is at an inflection point, and at this point, I think, almost everyone agrees electric vehicles are the only way forward," Musk said.
Exterior shots taken just a while ago of Giga Texas (while @elonmusk is reportedly at the Gigafactory!) during today's earnings call!
Hope @peterdog15 got to catch the technoking in his video! #fastestinhistory #Tesla pic.twitter.com/WqeDlb5wU3
— Austin Tesla Club (@AustinTeslaClub) July 26, 2021
Despite rising consumer demand and adequate factory capacity, Tesla faces what Musk described as a "quite serious" global semiconductor shortage, which will determine the company's growth rate for the rest of the year.
With increased revenue and production, Tesla is investing in new factories, Chief Financial Officer Zachary Kirkhorn said. These include Giga Texas, the $1.1 billion manufacturing plant that broke ground last summer and is slated to open later this year.
The Giga Texas factory in Southeast Travis County has rapidly increased in size since ground broke last August. (Tesla)
Musk commended the construction team for "incredible progress," transforming what was basically a vacant site into "a mostly complete large factory a year later."
I was at Giga Texas yesterday. Team is making excellent progress. Building will be almost a mile long when complete.
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) July 25, 2021
Giga Texas will produce the highly anticipated Cybertruck, along with other models, but Musk said scaling its production will be difficult, especially given the supply chain delays caused by the pandemic. "It's going to move as fast as the slowest of its up to 10,000 unique parts," he said.
In other news, Musk said Monday's earnings call would likely be his last regular appearance, only jumping on future quarterly calls when big announcements warrant it.
Tesla Solar recently made news when it announced plans to build the nation's most sustainable residential community in Southeast Austin earlier this month. The newly built homes will feature Tesla solar roof tiles and Powerwall battery storage as well as electric vehicle charging stations.
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The city of Austin released a shortlist of seven candidates for the police chief position left vacant when Brian Manley retired in March.
City Manager Spencer Cronk hopes to announce an appointment by the end of August, which will require City Council approval.
The finalists, chosen from a field of 46 applicants, include:
- APD Interim Chief Joseph Chacon, who previously served as an assistant chief in the department for almost five years
- Anne Kirkpatrick, former police chief in Oakland, California, who was fired last year after a federal monitor criticized her handling of a fatal 2018 police shooting of a homeless man
- Dallas Police Department Assistant Chief Avery L. Moore, who is a 30-year veteran of the department
- Atlanta Police Department Deputy Chief Celeste Murphy, who manages the department's community services division
- Dekalb County Police Chief Mirtha V. Ramos, who previously served as division chief in the Miami-Dade Police Department
- Wichita Police Department Chief Gordon Ramsay, who is a former president of the Minnesota Police Chief's Association as well as one of the first police chiefs of a major U.S. City to call George Floyd's death a murder, as reported by the Wichita Eagle
- Los Angeles Police Department Deputy Chief Emada E. Tingirides, who is also commanding officer of the department's newly formed Community Safety Partnership Bureau, which serves L.A.'s underserved communities
City staff will interview the finalists in the coming weeks, with several community input opportunities to come, according to a Monday press release.
The city conducted a public survey in March and hosted community input meetings in April to learn more about what residents are looking for in their next police chief, which helped shape the selection criteria for the position.
"They want to see the Chief be reform-minded and transparent and have a track record of fostering community involvement and accountability," Cronk said in the release. "The candidates selected show these characteristics in various ways."
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Days after Austin began once again recommending masks in public spaces, Austin ISD announced Monday that kindergarten through sixth-grade classes will have virtual options this fall.
The district will discuss the move in a special board meeting Monday evening starting at 5 p.m., while full details will be released Friday.
Teachers will not have to fret about the new option—no educators will have to juggle both virtual and in-person learning. Instead, certain teachers will specialize in virtual education, according to a press release.
The news comes after a recent spike in COVID cases in Travis County and across the nation. Children typically suffer fewer symptoms of COVID when contracted, but they are now catching the virus more often than their older counterparts without a vaccine available to them and as the more contagious Delta variant is quickly being spread.
While local health officials are recommending everyone wear masks, public school districts are unable to mandate masks due to an executive order issued by Gov. Greg Abbott in May.
Parents have expressed concern about classrooms with masks unenforceable and children under the age of 12 ineligible for a vaccine. Some have even said they would look for alternative schooling if AISD did not offer a virtual option for students.
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