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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It may not come as a surprise that dating app use surged during the pandemic when many had to swap the benefits of in-person dating for on-screen connections. Bumble revenue swelled to $337.2 million in 2020 compared to $275.5 million, Hinge revenue tripled in the same period and Tinder users broke two records from January to March of 2021.
What may be more intriguing, however, is that many apps anticipate more growth into 2022. Hinge expects to double its revenue by the end of 2021, while Tinder has announced several new features to meet new demands in time for what some are calling a "third surge" of COVID-19.
Vaccinated Austinites who had been eager for "Shot Girl Summer"—a season of in-person dating, going out and making up for time lost—may have to get back on the apps, at least partially, as cases rise higher than they've been since February and mask recommendations reenter the picture.
Austin-area resident Chloe Mohr, a 22-year-old recent college graduate, had sometimes used Tinder before the pandemic. While the app wasn't a supplemental replacement for deeper connections during stay-at-home orders, it did help her stay in the dating game and continue meeting new people.
"Using dating apps during the pandemic was easy when wanting something casual or entertaining," Mohr, who now works in marketing, said.
Chloe Mohr turned to Tinder more during the pandemic to stay connected to people. (Chloe Mohr)
Sixty percent of members came to Tinder because they felt lonely and wanted to connect with people, a Tinder study revealed, and chats were 32% longer during the pandemic.
But dating during a pandemic is no walk in the park when there's fear about contracting COVID, Mohr said. She had fears at the beginning
Tinder, Bumble, Hinge and OkCupid have responded to the new dating criteria, adding vaccination badges to profiles in partnership with U.S. and British governments.
In order to meet the demand for a stricter screening process and the superficial nature of swiping, Tinder has also introduced new features that allow users to add videos to their profiles and chat with others before they've even matched.
The new add-ons could be beneficial for the app as interest continues to swell—Google searches for "dating" have hit a five-year high, according to NPR.
But the future of dating could be vastly different—and stay different—even well into the next decade.
According to a Ypulse study, 43% of dating app users said the apps made them feel less lonely in the pandemic. Even post-pandemic, 40% of Tinder users say they plan on video-chatting with their matches before they meet, and being honest, authentic and respecting boundaries have become big talk on the app in the past year.
While it's unclear how the pandemic will shape dating for good, signs show that Austin residents and those nationwide may lean on dating apps once again if social distancing returns to the norm.
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With more research done on the COVID-19 Delta variant, Austin Public Health is upping its goal of 70% vaccinated to at least 80% due to the extreme virality of the strain.
As more Delta cases are identified—up to 29 cases are confirmed in Travis County—health officials are urging the unvaccinated to get their shots to contain the spread and relieve hospitals from reaching full capacity.
Austin-Travis County surpassed the Stage 5 threshold on Friday and has reached a seven-day average of 61 hospital admissions. However, Austin health leaders have yet to make an official shift as the Delta variant calls for new guidance, APH Health Authority Dr. Desmar Walkes said at a joint Travis County Commissioners Court meeting on Tuesday morning.
The new guidance has yet to be released, but Walkes said it will take into account the viral load of Delta on both unvaccinated and vaccinated people.
Last week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention revealed the Delta variant was as contagious as chickenpox, which has a herd immunity threshold of at least 90% vaccinated.
Although 63.42% of those eligible in Travis County are fully vaccinated, breakthrough cases—where vaccinated people are contracting COVID-19—are being identified. APH has identified 1,496 breakthrough cases of the roughly 800,000 vaccinated. Most breakthrough cases are showing less severe symptoms or are asymptomatic, according to APH.
Health officials are still asking residents to wear masks, although the city cannot mandate any masking orders due to an executive order by Texas Gov. Greg Abbott.
"Our challenge is going to be whether we're going to stand as a community and everyone who can get vaccinated, get vaccinated, and everyone wear a mask—that's what it's going to take," Walkes said.
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Save Austin Now police petition will reach November ballot after county clerk certifies 25,000 signatures
Save Austin Now is now 2-0 over Austin City Council after its petition to add more staffed police officers to the Austin Police Department was certified, garnering over the 20,000 votes needed to make it on an election ballot.
The petition calls for more police staffing per city resident, quicker response times and more training for city police officers in the wake of increasing violent crime rates nationwide and a year of limited APD staffing. The City Council will now decide whether to implement the ordinance outright or add it to the November election ballot; it will likely do the latter.
Over 25,000 of the 27,778 signatures racked up by the public safety petition were certified as valid, well over the 20,000-vote threshold required to be certified with the City Clerk. City Clerk Jannette Goodall placed the city's seal of approval on the petition on Tuesday morning.
The petition, by the same political group that got the camping ban reinstated through a petition in May, seeks to:
- Require minimum staffing of two officers per 1,000 residents
- Require a minimum standard of 35% community response time
- Add 40 hours of training
- Require city council members, Mayor Steve Adler and other city staff to enroll in the Citizens Police Academy
- Facilitate minority officer hiring through foreign language proficiency metrics
Austin's 160 patrol vacancies have dropped its staffing rate to 1.2 officers per 1,000 residents, according to the department. APD's response time has increased by about one minute and 50 seconds in a year.
The petition comes nearly a year after APD's budgets were slashed by city council following the summer's Black Lives Matter protests, which saw several demonstrators severely injured as millions called for justice in the police-related deaths of George Floyd and locally Mike Ramos, an unarmed Black man killed by APD officer Christopher Taylor, in April 2020.
Austin and the U.S. have experienced a widespread uptick in violent crime rates in 2021. The city has reached 49 homicides in 2021, higher than the total number of murders in all of 2020 and the 38 homicides in the city in 2019. Austin police officers have seen response times rise as the department suffers increased vacancies and fewer newcomers while cadet classes are being readjusted.
Opponents argue the ordinance would ramp up a policing budget while taking away from other departments including Fire, EMS, violence prevention, and mental health care. City Council Member Greg Casar, the Travis County Democratic Party and the Austin Justice Coalition have spoken out against the organization's latest public safety move, calling out the campaign as a "right-wing petition" that misleads those who sign.
🔥 PANTS ON FIRE: Republican-front group Save Austin Now is lying about their petition!
They say their measure is about police reform, when it's really about devastating our city budget - all for the benefit of the police union. Watch the video here ⬇️ #ATX pic.twitter.com/Z6QQSfhHfH
— Gregorio Casar (@GregCasar) August 2, 2021
The latest battle between city council and Save Austin Now will be decided by Austin residents in the Nov. 2 election.
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