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Not only is southeast Texas home to the Piney Woods and Big Thicket National Preserve, but now COVID-19 vaccines have been added to its list of tourist attractions. And, vaccine-takers have been escaping Travis County's lottery-style vaccine process by traveling upwards of four or five hours, carting home kolaches, beef jerky, and even more kolaches as a bonus.
Once COVID-19 cases hit Texas, the state's eastern counties—Hardin, Jasper, Jefferson, Newton and Orange—banded together to form an emergency management system for coordinating pandemic efforts. By orders of their judges, some of those counties recently opened up vaccination qualifications to include all individuals, no matter the phase of vaccine distribution currently in use.
So, where can Texas residents get a vaccine if they don't fall within the current state vaccination phase? The following sites are accepting all individuals over the ages of 16 or 18 years old (depending on whether the vaccine is produced by Pfizer or Moderna):
- Hardin County: Sign up at https://vaccine.beaumonttexas.gov/ or call 409-550-2536. The drive time is just over four hours from Austin. The county has only received Moderna vaccines to date.
- Jasper County: Sign up at https://vaccine.beaumonttexas.gov/ or call 409-550-2536. The drive time is about four hours and 25 minutes from Austin. The county has only received Moderna vaccines to date.
- Newton County: Sign up at https://vaccine.beaumonttexas.gov/ or call 409-550-2536. The drive time is about five hours from Austin.
- Orange County: Sign up at https://vaccine.beaumonttexas.gov/ or call 409-550-2536. The drive time is about four hours and 20 minutes from Austin. The county has only received Moderna vaccines to date.
- Midland County (Northwest Texas): Sign up through Midland Health at https://www.midlandhealth.org/main/covid-19-vaccine-pre-registration-form or call 432-221-4829. The drive time is just over five hours from Austin.
- Big Bend Regional Health Center, Alpine: Sign up through www.bbrhc.com or call 432-837-0430. The clinic has extra doses from time to time, including last week. The drive time is just over six hours from Austin.
Behind the decision to open up vaccinations to everyone
According to state guidelines, as of March 15, individuals permitted to be vaccinated include first responders; healthcare workers; those with underlying medical conditions such as heart disease or cancer; teachers and childcare providers; and people who are at least 50 years old.
Hardin and Orange counties—the first counties in East Texas to open up their vaccine candidate requirements—share a health department and each county receives 3,000 doses per week from the state, including 1,500 first doses and 1,500 second doses, for a total of 6,000 doses, said Hardin's Health Director Sharon Whitley. After partnering with a local pharmacy to vaccinate first responders and seniors, she said appointment slots stopped filling up. As a result, vaccine appointments in Hardin County, followed by those in Orange County, were made available to the greater public.
Whitley stressed her department's top priority is to vaccinate those candidates within the phases dictated by the state, including the elderly. As of last week, Hardin and Orange counties had vaccinated a little over 14,000 individuals total, she said. The population of Hardin and Orange counties is about 56,000 and 84,000 residents, respectively.
"If we have extra vaccines, we're not going to leave them in the freezer," Whitley said. "We're going to put them in arms."
Similarly, Jasper County Judge Mark Allen opened up his shot slots because local residents weren't using up the county's vaccine allotments. The move was timely.
With many teens and college students on Spring Break, Allen said those celebrations may be in large groups and unmasked, possibly bringing the virus back home to parents and grandparents.
"It is also important to stop the infection from spreading among the young, too, because they are going to be in contact with people all over," he said. "By working on both ends, that's going to be much more successful than saying, 'we're only going to concentrate on a small portion (of the population).'"
And in the northwestern part of the state, Midland County, has also relaxed its vaccination qualifications.
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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Austin City Limits fest and iHeartRadio Fest are the latest festivals to announce the removal of rapper DaBaby, who has come under fire for homophobic comments made during a recent festival.
The 29-year-old rapper, whose real name is Jonathan Lyndale Kirk, was dropped by Lollapalooza just hours before his set on Sunday, followed by the Governor's Ball in New York and Nevada's Day N Vegas after making unsolicited comments about men with HIV/AIDS at the Rolling Loud Festival in Miami. Rolling Stone Magazine confirmed with iHeartRadio organizers that DaBaby will no longer perform.
DaBaby will no longer be performing at Austin City Limits Music Festival — lineup update coming soon. pic.twitter.com/jAYfdJFxJf
— ACL Festival (@aclfestival) August 3, 2021
There is no word on who he will be replaced with yet, though rumors on ACL's subreddit, r/aclfestival, are saying they expect Tyler, The Creator, who performed at Lollapalooza. Kirk will be replaced at Day N Vegas by rapper Roddy Ricch.
Kirk later backtracked his offensive statements on his Instagram story, but again faced criticism for not exactly apologizing.
After facing a second round of backlash for his Instagram statements, the rapper posted on Instagram, saying:
In addition to being dropped from the festivals, DaBaby has been denounced by fellow celebrities like Dua Lipa, Madonna and Elton John.
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