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Austin health officials ask residents to stay home for July 4th as field hospital prep gets underway
Heading into the Fourth of July weekend, Austin health officials begged residents to stay away from each other to help slow the spread of COVID-19.
"You really must stay home right now," Austin-Travis County Interim Health Authority Dr. Mark Escott said during a media call Wednesday.
Since the state began reopening in early May, the rate of new cases and related hospitalizations has grown exponentially, threatening testing and hospital capacity.
Officials expect Travis County's confirmed caseload to surpass 10,000 later today.
A second shutdown
Dr. Escott provided a threshold for when he will recommend that Austin Mayor Steve Adler and Travis County Judge Sam Biscoe issue new stay-home orders.
"If [the seven-day moving average for new hospital admissions] surpasses 70, then I will make that recommendation," he said.
Right now, the moving average is 55, according to the county's COVID-19 dashboard. Yesterday, 67 patients were admitted to area hospitals with COVID-19. Dr. Escott said that he may make the recommendation sooner, especially if surrounding jurisdictions seem poised to exceed their hospital capacity—which would likely cause spillover into Travis County facilities.
"I'm concerned about our neighbors in San Antonio and Bexar County, who are reporting more than 1,000 cases a day right now," he said.
Flattening the curve
As of yesterday, Austin's three hospital systems—Ascension Seton, Baylor Scott & White Health and St. David's HealthCare—reported that 72% of their collective 2,470 staffed hospital beds are occupied and 80% of their 483 ICU beds are.
Dr. Escott is less concerned about hospital capacity—which he said is normally within the 85% to 95% range—than he is with the increasing rate at which new cases are being reported in Austin and elsewhere.
"We cannot afford to have major fires burning in all of our major cities [in Texas] and expect to be able to provide hospital beds to everyone who gets sick if we don't make serious changes right now," he said.
To this end, Dr. Escott asked Austinites to stay home when possible and to be vigilant about masking, social distancing and hygiene when not.
"We cannot afford missteps right now," he said. "Not this weekend."
Convention center prep
In response, Dr. Escott has issued a request for federal funding to build out an alternate care site. Although the city has not officially announced its location, local officials have said it will be hosted at the Austin Convention Center.
"It will take several weeks for us to build it up in such a way to start taking patients," Dr. Escott said, adding that it will be outfitted in installments to match the demand for care.
The total capacity of the site, as detailed in the city's surge plan, is around 1,500 low-acuity patients.
If staffing the alternative care site, or area hospitals, becomes an issue, Dr. Escott said he has received confirmation from the White House that it will provide additional medical personnel through the U.S. military.
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After Austin voters passed Proposition B, reinstating a ban on public camping, City Council directed staff to look into possible sanctioned campsites where homeless residents could live legally. Now two members are asking to shelve discussion on the controversial topic.
Staff presented dozens of possible sanctioned campsites across each fo the 10 council districts in late May, following the election. But members mostly pushed back on the proposed locations, citing cost, wildfire risk and lack of transparency as concerns.
With updated criteria, staff recommended two sites—one in District 1 and the other in District 8—for further review last week. After being briefed on the options during Tuesday's work session, Mayor Pro Tem Natasha Harper-Madison, who represents District 1, and Council Member Paige Ellis, who represents District 8, issued a joint statement proposing "a pause" on further discussion of temporary sanctioned encampments.
"We are not convinced that these sites would be a cost-effective solution, but rather a band-aid tactic when we need to be supporting the long-term strategy to get folks off the street permanent," they said. "It is our responsibility to look at the situation holistically and objectively, and to spend out city's limited resources on solutions we know can work."
Homeless Strategy Officer Dianna Grey noted that the two locations were imperfect and would require a lot of time and money to outfit as sanctioned campsites during the briefing.
City staff and homeless experts have previously raised concerns about sanctioned encampments, saying they are expensive to maintain, challenging to manage and hard to close, even when intended to to be temporary.
In 2019, staff declined to make recommendations for such sites despite being directed by council to do so, citing 2018 guidance from the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness. "Neither authorized encampments nor parking areas provide housing for people experiencing homelessness," staff wrote in a memo. "Rather, each option detracts from the staff resources assigned to addressing this moral imperative."
But with Prop B being enforced and too few shelter beds and affordable units for the estimate unsheltered homeless population in Austin, the city is facing the same predicament that prompted District 9 Council Member Kathie Tovo to pursue possible sanctioned campsites in the first place: "When individuals in encampments ask where they should go, we need to have places to suggest," she said at a May 6 council meeting.
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Don't lose your mask just yet—the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced it is now recommending masks in areas that are surging as cases rise nationwide and the Delta variant looms.
The CDC announced Tuesday that even fully vaccinated individuals should mask up indoors if their community is experiencing substantial transmission—defined as areas with more than 50 cases per 100,000 people. Travis County is sitting at an average of 94.59 cases per 100,000 over the past seven days, falling into the highest risk category, according to the CDC.
#DeltaVariant surging in U.S. New data show Delta much more contagious than previous versions of #COVID19. Unvaccinated people: get vaccinated & mask until you do. Everyone in areas of substantial/high transmission should wear a mask, even if vaccinated. https://t.co/tt49zOEC8N
— CDC (@CDCgov) July 27, 2021
After two COVID-19 recommendation stage jumps in the last two weeks, from Stage 2 to Stage 4, Austin-area cases are the highest they have been since February. The seven-day average for cases is on an upward trend, reaching 226 on Tuesday.
The CDC is also recommending that all students K-12 wear masks indoors, regardless of vaccination status. A May executive order by Gov. Greg Abbott prohibits schools from requiring masks, regardless of vaccination status. Austin ISD is "strongly" encouraging students to wear masks.
Although vaccinated individuals are still protected against the most severe symptoms of the variant, infections are spreading rapidly and now make up 83% of confirmed cases in the U.S. At least a dozen cases of the delta variant have been confirmed in the Austin area, though there are likely more since testing for it is limited.
CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said that hospital admissions are "almost exclusively" coming from people who are unvaccinated but those who are vaccinated can still catch and spread the virus.
"Unlike the alpha variant that we had back in May, where we didn't believe that if you were vaccinated you could transmit further, this is different now with the Delta variant," Walensky said. "That leads us to believe that the breakthrough infections, rare that they are, have the potential to pool and transmit at the same with the same capacity as an unvaccinated person."
Research suggests those who become infected carry 1,000 times more of the virus than other variants and could stay contagious for longer.The announcement comes on the heels of the Biden administration ramping up cautionary measures in the face of the Delta variant. Just last week, the CDC said it had no plans to change its May guidance of vaccinated not having to wear masks unless there was a significant change in the data. Officials met on Sunday night to review new evidence, according to reports.
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The Moody Center, a $338 million, 530,000-square-foot multipurpose arena at the University of Texas at Austin, celebrated its topping out on Tuesday.
With the final beam placed, the arena's steel-frame structural phase—which involved more than 5.3 million pounds of steel—is complete.
"This past year has been full of unprecedented events, not to mention weather challenges, and yet the women and men working on this project continue to deliver," Moody Center General Manager and Senior Vice President Jeff Nickler said in a press release.
To celebrate the topping out Oak View Group, the development and investment firm behind the Moody Center will affix a tree to the final beam in keeping with the time-honored tradition.
The practice dates back to ancient Scandinavian religious rites, which involved placing a tree atop new buildings to appease tree-dwelling spirits displaced during the construction process, according to the International Association of Bridge, Structural and Ornamental Ironworkers in Washington D.C.
After the steel-frame structure phase, the development will move on to enclosing and finishing the interior of the Moody Center.
The arena is set to open next April and already has some major acts scheduled for its inaugural year, including The Weeknd, Justin Bieber, John Mayer and The Killers. It will replace the 43-year-old Frank C. Erwin Jr. Center and serve as the home of UT's men's and women's basketball games, among other sports and community events.
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