Nursing homes and front-line healthcare workers will be the first to receive the COVID vaccine. Will they opt in?
On Thursday, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration will review an emergency use authorization application from Pfizer regarding its COVID-19 vaccine. If approved, the pharmaceutical company could begin distributing doses as early as next week, with an initial allotment of 13,650 slated for the Austin area.
Long-term care facility residents and staff, front-line healthcare workers and first responders are first in line to receive the vaccine in Austin. Industry representatives welcomed the news but told Austonia that challenges remain, including convincing vaccine skeptics.
At highest risk
Long-term care facilities will be among the first to administer the vaccine, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and state distribution guidelines.
In Travis County, staff and residents at long-term care facilities account for more than 42% of the 495 COVID-19 deaths reported as of Monday.
"This is such a vulnerable population that it's important that we target them first," said Kevin Warren, president and CEO of the Texas Health Care Association, which represents long-term care facility staff.
But there are still logistical challenges to work through.
The federal government announced in October that it had partnered with CVS and Walgreens to distribute COVID vaccines to long-term care facility residents. Many Texas facilities have registered to be a part of this program, Warren said, which will likely involve drug stores setting up inside individual facilities to help get vaccines in arms.
This will likely account for many of the Austin area's initial vaccine allotment as there are 139 long-term care facilities registered in Travis County, with a total of 8,419 residents, according to Texas Health and Human Services.
Another challenge will be convincing skeptical residents and staff who may be unsure of the vaccine.
Patty Ducayet has served as the state's long-term care ombudsman—an independent resident advocacy role—for 15 years. Based on conversations she has had with residents' family members, there is "diversity of opinion" regarding a vaccine.
Some want their loved ones to be first in line to receive the vaccine, given their disproportionate risk of death from the disease.
"(But) there's another side of that coin, which is people being skeptical of this vaccine," she said. "I think we have a bit of a battle ahead of us."
Although the state is still developing its guidance on the topic, Ducayet expects that the vaccine will remain optional for long-term care facility residents, similar to the current flu vaccine protocol. But she hopes residents will opt in.
"I see this as such an important tool for us to move forward and out of this crisis period with very limited visitation and other kinds of restraints on residents' rights," she said.
On the front lines
Outside of nursing homes and other long-term care facilities, front-line healthcare workers and first responders will be the first to receive a COVID vaccine.
This is welcome news to a beleaguered workforce.
"Our medics are definitely very, very exhausted," Austin EMS Association President Selena Xie said.
In addition to facing exposure to COVID at work, where they wear multiple layers of personal protective equipment, and worrying about the risk of spreading the virus to their loved ones, Austin medics have also faced staffing issues.
Any time a member of the 500-person force is experiencing COVID symptoms, they are asked to self-quarantine, Xie said. As a result, the department is in emergency staffing mode, which essentially means it is understaffed. This, combined with the other pressures of the job, has led to some medics needing time off for mental health reasons, further straining staffing levels.
So the news of an imminent vaccine has been welcomed. "It definitely takes weight off of our shoulders," she said.
The Austin EMS Association is "anxiously awaiting" more information about how the initial vaccine allotment will be administered, Xie added. "We absolutely want to receive it as soon as possible."
Nurses at hospitals and in other front-line positions feel similarly.
"The level of burnout is pretty high," said Serena Bumpus, director of practice for the Texas Nurses Association.
Although many nurses are ready to be vaccinated, some are skeptical.
As a result, TNA is working to provide educational materials so that those members can make informed decisions based on science. "We're hopeful that the majority will receive the vaccine," Bumpus said.
The educational materials TNA develops may also prove helpful down the line, as the vaccine becomes more widely available to the general public. The optics of front-line healthcare workers choosing to be vaccinated may also prove encouraging.
"If we trust the vaccine, then others will trust it as well," she said.
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Tesla's third-quarter profits were released on Wednesday afternoon and current richest-man-on-earth Elon Musk topped the charts since his high-profile transition to Austin.
Q3 held record-high deliveries for the electric vehicle manufacturer, despite chip shortages and supply chain issues. Revenue came in slightly shy of expectations but still yielded the most profitable quarter thus far for Tesla. Plus, adjusted earnings per share are also on the up and up.
"A variety of challenges, including semiconductor shortages, congestion at ports and rolling blackouts, have been impacting our ability to keep factories running at full speed," Tesla said in a statement. "We believe our supply chain, engineering and production teams have been dealing with these global challenges with ingenuity, agility and flexibility."
According to Tesla's update, the EV giant's Q3 revenue came in at $13.76 billion—a big year-over-year increase as Tesla recorded $8.77 billion in Q3 of 2020. The expectation was $13.9 billion and though the company came in just a few million lower, it was the company's ninth-straight profitable quarter.
Though earnings were a touch lower than expected, adjusted earnings per share came in at $1.86, where expected had been $1.67, and a year ago was 76 cents per share.
An accomplishment for Tesla this quarter was delivering more than 241,300 vehicles worldwide from its California factory—almost half of what the company delivered throughout all of 2020.
This Q3 update comes on the heels of Tesla's announcement that it would move its headquarters to the capital city. Additionally, the new Gigafactory in southeast Travis County is looking more complete by the day. While full-scale production isn't slated to start until 2022, the factory has already begun testing its robotic assembly line.
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Radhia Gleis never meant to join a cult—in fact, she didn't even know she was part of one until decades after she had joined—and she's still picking up the pieces that her departure left behind.
Although it was Buddhafield, a movement that has been called a cult by a host of ex-followers, that brought Gleis to the Hill Country, the group's Austin presence has diminished to almost nothing. After over two decades in the group, Gleis revealed it all in her first-place PenCraft award-winning book, "The Followers, 'Holy Hell' and the Disciples of Narcissistic Leaders" in which she talks about the dangers of groupthink and the impact that spending years in the Buddhafield cult had on her.
Gleis now works as a clinical nutritionist and is working on healing through her art. (radiagleis.com)
From a "well-to-do" family in California, Gleis was learning how to make cocktails for wealthy dinner guests shortly after she learned how to walk. She grew up emotionally distant from her parents and only brother; Gleis vividly remembered being called "dopey" by her father, consistently forgotten by her mother and held at knifepoint by her brother.
Needless to say, Gleis grew up without secure connections. On top of that, she grew up in the 1960s and '70s during mass cultural upheaval, the free love movement and obsession with Eastern religions.
"There were these desires to expand your thinking, expand your consciousness as opposed to the 'Leave it to Beaver' kind of paradigm," Gleis told Austonia. "There was a rebellion, a schism in the culture."
She had become interested in the idea of nirvana when she was in high school, so when a friend told her about spirituality sessions with a beautiful woman named Malila who claimed to have experienced God directly, her interest was piqued.
Her experiences with Malila threw her into the spiritual realm. Gleis met Jaime Gomez, the would-be leader of the Buddhafield cult who went by many names, in the early 1980s through a friend of Malila's in California. Gomez, a native of Venezuela, was known to often wear only eyeliner and a speedo in his prime and when Gleis met him, he was clad only in a golden tan, skin-tight jeans and a small vest.
The Shakti scam
Gomez originally began guiding members through an independent spiritual journey but flags were raised when he began to see himself as a godlike figure. (WRA Productions LLC)
Her initiation was subtle—it started as just a group of friends who followed Gomez, a young yogi with a small but growing following, to learn techniques of "The Knowing" that he possessed. Members were initiated via "shakti," a godly transfer of power that opened your third eye. Members would "pranam," or deeply bow to show respect, to God during the first four years of Gleis' time with Gomez.
The initiation started as a relationship between the individual and their "divine birthright" through God.
"Generations were trying to get Shakti from him, they were trying to get his energy," Gleis said. "He was like, 'Whatever you experience in your initiation is between you and God, it has nothing to do with me.'"
Things started to change at the next initiation when Gomez had new members pranam to him and connect to his love, not the divine love they had come seeking.
"He would say, 'Well, Radhia, some people, not you, need a living person they can touch and see and talk to, I am just being that for them,'" Gleis said. "So he considered himself now a living deity like Jesus or Krishna or Buddha."
Although she did not support the pranam to Gomez, the shift was harrowing. While Gomez was a "skilled sociopath," Gleis said, he was also her friend and she was his close adviser; he knew all of her' hopes, dreams, fears and how to keep her around.
"If you go to Disneyland, it's a fantasy, but you're willing to forgo your disbelief for the fun, for the ride," Gleis said. "But what if you don't know it's fake? What if all your friends and all your family are in on it? And the one person that you revere the most is creating the illusion?"
It would take years for Gleis to learn Gomez was secretly taking advantage of members in the group.
The domino effect
The Buddhafield waltzed into Austin from West Hollywood in the late '90s after accusations against Gomez came out, Gleis would later learn. She found out that later that multiple members alleged that Gomez sexually abused them, and it was a pattern of his to jump ship and change his name once people started speaking out.
There were a few reasons the group chose Austin: their new home had to be in a warm climate, near a body of water, full of rich culture and jobs.
Having been in the cult for over a decade, the Austin move had triggered a need to build a life outside Buddhafield for Gleis. The connections she made outside the "family" she had made for herself led her to visit the home of an injured member of Buddhafield, where she says she was greeted by two men who told her tales of Gomez's transgressions.
Tales of Gomez attempting to hypnotize male members of the group into removing their clothes, which Gomez would deny, and his penchant for using the AIDS crisis to scare members into silence came to light. It was a feat in and of itself to tell a single soul about the things the victims had experienced, let alone make formal charges.
Among the victims was Will Allen, who released the documentary "Holy Hell," made from hours of his own original footage, in 2016 to detail his experiences.
The women in the group were untouched to Gleis' knowledge and some of the victims took years to gain the courage to speak out.
"Now it was like dominoes, it was like this was our #MeToo movement. When this guy came out, now all of a sudden, I'm getting phone calls because the rumors spread," Gleis said. "It was very heartbreaking—I started hearing all these stories of what (Gomez) had done and all the secrets that all of these men had been holding, these traumas that they had been holding in for years."
That was her line in the sand—so, at 55 years old, Gleis left Buddhafield, "alone and forsaken." And she has learned a good deal about herself since then—she works as a clinical nutritionist but left all of her friends behind, with no one to fall on but herself.
It has been 15 years since her departure—15 years to ponder how she was manipulated into that place. Gleis often compares those two decades of her life to Trumpism, where Gomez had tapped into her preconceived notions and led her to believe what she wanted to believe.
As someone who grew up not knowing love, it made sense to jump headfirst into the sense of community and protection that Buddhafield offered.
"We have to be careful when we use words like 'brainwashed.' We went willingly. Jaime didn't torture us. He didn't brainwash us," Gleis said. "All he did as a narcissist—he figured out what we were all thinking about and he became that for us. When you pranam to him, which we did, then he becomes bolder. That's what a sociopath does."
Gleis details her story of what led her in and out of Buddhafield in her book, "The Followers." Gomez and certain members who are still connected to Buddhafield have moved on to Hawai'i, but Gleis remains in Austin and is currently working on a children's novella.
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Austin will never feel more like itself come the end of November, as lines will be able to once again form around the block of Franklin Barbecue.
The acclaimed barbecue restaurant, recently named in Texas Monthly's top BBQ joints list, is opening its dining room for the first time since the onset of the pandemic on Nov. 23. So grab your folding chairs and arrive before you're even hungry because you can expect there to be an hours-long wait, just like pre-pandemic times.
Franklin's opened in 2009, becoming a world-renowned destination for good Texas barbecue. Long lines around the block on East 11th Street were the norm until the pandemic hit and the pitmasters decided to close their dining room, opting for curbside only.
It had originally planned to reopen its doors in August but postponed after a summer surge of COVID cases and hospitalizations.
In preparation of its reopening day, Franklin will be closed on Nov. 21.
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