COVID-19 has overtaken accidents as the third-leading cause of death in Travis County, despite improvements in testing and treatment since March.
"When we hit 517 (COVID deaths), it will surpass accidental death as the third-leading cause," Austin-Travis County Interim Health Authority Dr. Mark Escott said Monday.
As of Monday, 522 people have died of the disease locally, according to Austin Public Health data.
Nationally, COVID is the leading cause of death, killing more Americans than cancer, heart disease or drug overdoses—with a daily death toll equivalent to the 9/11 attack, which killed 2,988 people, according to a Dec. 17 article published in the Journal of the American Medical Association.
The disease is also spreading more quickly than ever in Austin, with more active infections than at any other time during this pandemic.
At the beginning of the pandemic, inadequate testing resources meant that the COVID case-fatality rate—defined as reported deaths per confirmed cases—was likely significantly higher than the official record. But nine months into the pandemic there have been improvements.
"Our case data and death data are a lot more reliable," said Dr. Mark Hayward, a sociology professor at the University of Texas at Austin who studies morbidity and mortality. "The testing, especially in Travis County, has really ramped up."
As a result, the reporting—of the number of confirmed cases as well as of COVID-related deaths—is much better than it was at the beginning of the crisis.
There have also been improvements in how local doctors treat COVID patients, both because they are more familiar with the disease and because they have more treatment options—including convalescent plasma, monoclonal antibodies and antiviral drugs such as remdesivir—in their arsenal.
Despite this progress, community spread is picking up—and holiday gatherings have prompted local, state and national health officials to worry that the current surge could be the pandemic's worst.
"All in all the news is not good, even though we have these improvements in the case-fatality rate," Hayward said.
Other concerns include the indirect and long-term consequences of COVID, as well as how the disease has exacerbated existing inequities.
"All health is political," Hayward said, pointing to North and South Dakota, which have recently led the country in COVID deaths and where Republican lawmakers have waited to impose—or avoided entirely—a mask mandate and stay-at-home orders.
Hayward expects the disease to be responsible for many deaths indirectly, such as in cases where a person avoided the hospital for fear of contracting the disease and instead died at home of a heart attack. He also worries about the more than 17 million people in the U.S., including more than 40,000 in Travis County, who have recovered from COVID.
"It's kind of like adding a frailty component," he said. "You've been through a war, so to speak."
What this means for other conditions—such as dementia and cardiovascular disease—remains to be seen, but Hayward believes it will be one of the first questions doctors ask patients when it comes to their health history.
"It's going to be a big risk factor for a variety of disease outcomes," he said.
Austin FC couldn't find the stamina to fight off a 2-0 loss against LAFC for their inaugural match on Saturday.
The match, which saw No. 21 Austin FC go head-to-head with No. 2 LAFC in Los Angeles, was broadcast nationally on FOX and FOX Deportes.
Salute the support. 👏
It's only the beginning for @AustinFC. pic.twitter.com/TduorqYr2y
— Major League Soccer (@MLS) April 18, 2021
Eleven players took the stage as Austin FC players for the first time, with five starters making their MLS debut. "Ringleader" Alex Ring took the captain's armband and wore it well. The defensive midfielder could be seen leading his teammates through their first ever match, but it wasn't enough to stage an Austin takeover in LA.
In the signature style of Head Coach Josh Wolff, the team played with quickness and intensity, nearly connecting on several fast breaks. It was harder for them to stay in front, however, something that Wolff credits with quick decision making and a tough LAFC defense.
"We have a quick attacking team, but I think when you make quick attacks and it fizzles it's just about some decision making," Wolff said. "Are we in position to finish attacks? If not, can we reestablish our attack and get stuff better?"
The club was given some generous breaks from No. 2 LAFC, who had one or both of their star DPs out for the half. While forward Diego Rossi is out for the entire match due to a hamstring injury, Carlos Vela was accidentally pulled too soon on what turned out to be a miscommunication.
"He gave us the sign that he needed to come off," LAFC Head Coach Bob Bradley said on broadcast. "I can't say more than maybe it's my fault."
LA pulled some dramatics and slowly gained more possession throughout the half, but ATXFC's defense wasn't initially as shaky as it seemed in preseason. Jhohan Romana has pulled his weight in getting the ball out of goal, and a 34-year old Matt Besler held his own in center back.
As the second half commenced, however, it became clear that LAFC had the advantage over Austin's first major league team.
Goalkeeper Brad Stuver had his work cut out for him, fending off 24 shot attempts, 11 of which were on goal. He didn't have much time to prepare, either: in the first 30 seconds of play, Stuver had already made a save to keep the match 0-0.
LAFC finally connected in the 61st minute of play as Corey Baird shot one into the bottom right corner. The team capitalized off their momentum and put one past Stuver a second time, drawing roars of approval from the LAFC crowd.
While some last-minute attempts from Jon Gallagher and others were made, Austin FC didn't have the endurance to bring a tie. After seven additional minutes of stoppage time, the club lost their first match 2-0.
While the scoreboard tells one story, Wolff said that the team did well considering the skill of LAFC and the pressure of their club debut.
"We've got to be realistic," Wolff said. "This is the first time this organization has been in front of TV with an opportunity to show itself and I think there were some promising moments. And we're going to maximize those and continue to try to develop those, but there's lots to build on."
The team may have lost, but it still won the support of thousands of Verde fans, dozens of which made it to watch their team's first match. When Stuver and the team made it to bthe stadium, Los Verdes fans were already there to show support, and Stuver said his wife saw the same back in Austin.
"The moment that we pulled into the stadium, we saw Black and Verde fans cheering us on as we got to the stadium," Stuver said. "During warm up, you can just look around and see different groups sitting in different sections of the stadium and it's just truly amazing to see the support in our first game. We know that we want to give the fans everything, because this we play for the city and we play for them."