When the COVID-19 pandemic began prompting shutdowns in March, Austin resident Jonathan Osborne and his childhood friend, Brandon Camp, were about halfway through writing a scripted podcast for kids.
The pair were inspired to create a production company, Austin-based HodgePodge Media, after observing the explosion of podcasts among adults. With kids of their own, they separately arrived at the same conclusion. "We both had this individual light bulb pop up over our collective heads in which we realized that, although the space was really blossoming, the kids podcasting space was not," said Camp, who is based in Los Angeles and wrote and directed the 2018 family movie Benji.
Then the COVID-19 pandemic happened.
Rather than continue with their script, Osborne and Camp scrapped their draft and began work on a new one—Quaranteen'd—about a ragtag crew of kids who believe they have found a cure to the pandemic. Its first four episodes are available now, with a new one debuting each week.
Producing the quarantine-themed show while sheltering in place required some ingenuity.
The cast and crew of Quaranteen'd held long Zoom calls.
With the help of Cindy McCreery, an associate screenwriting professor at the University of Texas at Austin, they hired a team of young writers, who fleshed out the story over long Zoom calls. "We treated it like any traditional Hollywood writers' room," Camp said.
In search of a cast, they created an Instagram account and put out a call. Close to 2,000 submissions filtered in. "We completely underestimated how much time people had on their hands," Osborne said.
Mayla Montgomery plays the lead role in Quaranteen'd
Mayla Montgomery, a rising seventh grader at Round Rock ISD, plays lead character Zoe Cross, a teenager who believes she's discovered the cure—but it is being hidden by the Bridge Corp., which stands to profit from the pandemic. "She's always fired up and passionate about something," Montgomery says of her character.
After hearing about Quaranteen'd from her neighbor, an executive producer of the show, Montgomery decided to try out. She put together a resume with her experience with improv at the local comedy club ColdTowne Theatre and musical theater. After submitting her audition, she was "shocked" to receive a callback. Her surprise doubled when she was offered the role.
Soon, Montgomery received a recording kit from Osborne and Camp. "We've been shipping equipment all over the country," Osborne said, adding that they soon learned how to conduct mic tests over Zoom and instruct the actors to wrap themselves in blankets for the best sound quality.
Sometimes kids' productions are shoddily made and don't take their audience very seriously, Camp said, but he wanted Quaranteen'd to be a true cinematic experience—on par with films by Steven Spielberg and moves such as The Goonies and Star Wars.
Montgomery said she has listened to the first few episodes with her younger brother, who is usually a little too distracted to sit through things. But Quaranteen'd has him hooked.
"We're not surprised because this is what we always felt like we were capable of bringing to the space, but it certainly has been pleasant," Camp said of the reaction so far.
Once this season is over, Osborne and Camp plan to tackle an even more ambitious project: remotely producing a musical podcast.
"The irony is that this is the time of isolation and yet I feel like we have brought together this family for this family podcast," Camp said. "Amid the 2 a.m. sessions with the sound engineering and pulling out hair and wondering why the heck we're doing this—those are the moments that have certainly inspired me and kept me going."
To help make sense of the all information emerging about COVID-19 in Austin, we're answering a few big questions:
1. Why do I keep hearing about Austin's ICU capacity?<div class="flourish-embed flourish-chart" data-src="visualisation/3127217" data-url="https://flo.uri.sh/visualisation/3127217/embed"><script src="https://public.flourish.studio/resources/embed.js"></script></div><p>Because we may not have enough of it.</p><p>ICU beds are Austin's "critical limited resource" and Austin is at risk of reaching capacity—and overwhelming the city's health care system—sooner than previously thought, Dr. Lauren Ancel Meyers told Austin City Council on Thursday. <br><br>Dr. Meyers, a modeler at the University of Texas at Austin, said she and her team of researchers recently experienced "a fundamental shift" in their understanding of hospital capacity. ICU beds are filling up faster than regular hospital beds, making ICU capacity the most important metric to watch.</p><p>"It is very possible that we may hit our lower limit for ICU capacity soon," Dr. Meyers said, giving an estimate of early August.</p><p>Area hospitals report they have the beds and staff needed to treat up to 331 COVID patients in their ICUs. If they are able to access additional personnel—such as through contractors and the U.S. military—that capacity could increase to 474.</p><p>If the ICUs fill up, it could threaten the ability of the hospitals to care for COVID patients as well as patients with other medical issues.</p><p>The current state of ICUs:</p><ul><li>There are 149 COVID patients in Austin area ICUs as of Wednesday evening, and they account for about a third of the occupied beds.</li><li>Austin's ICUs are at about 85% occupancy, up from 80% last week, according to a Tuesday report from the Ascension Seton, Baylor Scott & White Health and St. David's HealthCare hospital systems.</li></ul><p>The continued influx of COVID patients is straining area hospitals, which are also facing requests to accept patients from other Texas cities, according to Austin-Travis County Interim Health Authority Dr. Mark Escott.</p><p>"It is not normal operations," he said.</p><p>To meet the rising demand, hospitals will have to reassign non-ICU doctors to care for their patients, which means "a different standard of care than we're used to," Dr. Escott said.</p><p>In the worst-case scenario, patients will spill over into the Austin Convention Center, which could open as a field hospital for low-acuity patients as soon as July 20.</p>
2. Is the COVID-19 fatality rate improving?<img lazy-loadable="true" src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMzQ0NTg3My9vcmlnaW4ucG5nIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYxOTQ3NzIxN30.wTIFalip3a_dj2_xbbzNCKH_-ngM4tkqb_mGQ3s0ER8/img.png?width=980" id="db25c" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="85e039ae61eeebdf2b91a3f582088700" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" /><p>Yes, but with caveats.</p><p>Austin's COVID-19 <a href="https://public.flourish.studio/visualisation/3121104/" target="_blank">fatality rate</a>—defined as reported deaths per confirmed cases—continues to drop, even as the local caseload and <a href="https://austonia.com/Coronavirus/austin-hospitals" target="_self"><u>related hospitalizations increase</u></a>. But Dr. Escott cautions that it likely does not show the full picture.</p><p>Travis County has confirmed 13,161 cases as of Wednesday evening and reported 159 deaths, for a fatality rate of around 1.2%. This is down from <a href="https://austonia.com/Coronavirus/coronavirus-deaths-austin" target="_self"><u>1.8% on June 22</u></a> and 3.6% at the end of April.</p><p>However, many of the confirmed cases have been reported in the last two to three weeks, which means those patients have likely not yet required hospitalization—or died.</p><p>"The deaths that are going to happen for the people in the hospital just haven't happened yet," Dr. Meyers told the council Thursday.</p><p>There are some signs that the fatality rate is declining—at least to some degree—for two main reasons:</p><ul><li>Improved treatments—such as the antiviral drug remdesivir, steroids and convalescent plasma therapy.</li><li>An increasing number of cases among young people, who have a higher probability of recovering.</li></ul><p>But COVID-19 remains disproportionately fatal for certain groups.</p><ul><li>People over 60 account for 11% of confirmed cases but 85% of deaths.</li><li>Black residents, who make up 9% of Travis County's population, account for 6% of confirmed cases but 10% of reported deaths.</li><li>Latino residents—34% of the population—account for 52% of confirmed cases and 41% of deaths.</li></ul>
3. Are we moving to Stage 5?<img lazy-loadable="true" src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMzQ0NjAzNy9vcmlnaW4ucG5nIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYyNTEwNTk5MX0.VDN5YmTKWAXjP37di8y2V9nHBJOuElRm7HWxqi593pU/img.png?width=980" id="ab95f" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="654ed55191bb22d73a3257b8782a35e7" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
4. What does this mean for Austin schools?<p>In her presentation to the council, Dr. Meyers delivered projections about what may happen when Austin ISD begins its school year on Aug. 18.<br></p><p>Even if the city issues a 35-day shutdown order between now and then, modeling shows some students will arrive at school with COVID-19.</p><p>In the case of less severe restrictions, the number of infected students expected to arrive at schools next month is higher.</p><p>During the same meeting, Dr. Escott said schools could see COVID clusters—like those reported at nursing homes and construction sites.</p><p>"There shouldn't be an expectation that there will be a school without a cluster," he said.</p><p>Education Austin, a union that represents AISD teachers and staff, is pushing for online-only instruction and encouraging its 3,000 members to avoid campuses if the district doesn't change its plans.</p><p>"All signs point to disaster," ED President Ken Zarifis said during <a href="https://austonia.com/education/austin-schools-online" target="_self"><u>a press conference</u></a> Wednesday.</p>
5. What is Austin City Council doing about this?<p>Austin City Council unanimously approved on Thursday two ordinances that allow for stronger enforcement of existing COVID-19 restrictions:</p><ul><li>One allows civil penalties—including daily fines of up to $2,000—for people who violate masking orders and other rules set by APH to curb the spread of COVID-19.</li><li>The other allows the city to declare properties a public health nuisance if they do not do enough to slow the spread of COVID-19, including enforcing the state's mask mandate and limiting the number of individuals who gather or stand together to a total of 10 or fewer.</li></ul><p>Properties maintained by government entities, used as residences, or that provide medical services or childcare are excluded.</p><p>Mayor Steve Adler said he and Travis County Judge Sam Biscoe will be appealing to Texas Gov. Greg Abbott for state assistance to address the staffing shortages faced by area hospitals.</p>
6. Is there any good news?<p>Possibly.</p><p>There is some evidence that transmission of COVID-19 is slowing down in Austin, Dr. Meyers told the council. She attributed the change to policies implemented in late June, including the statewide mask mandate, and an increased culture of caution.</p><p>"It looks like we may have slowed things a little bit," she added.</p><p>But Dr. Meyers said that this is no reason to abandon precautions.</p><p>There is about a 10-day lag in the data she and her team use in their modeling, which means that the transmission rate could have changed.</p><p>"We don't know where we are today exactly," Dr. Meyers said.</p><p>The modeling also indicates that any slowdown that may be occurring is not at a high enough rate to avoid overwhelming hospitals, which could see ICUs reach capacity by early August.</p><p>"It is very, very uncertain," she said of any slowdown. "If anything, we should be reinforcing this culture of caution."</p>
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Gov. Greg Abbott said on Friday that "the worst is yet to come" in the Texas COVID-19 surge. "If we do not slow the spread of COVID-19," Abbott said during a TV interview, "the next step would have to be a lockdown."
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Update 7/10 6:58:
The Austin Watershed Protection Department said in a statement that there is now some preliminary concern about algae found at Red Bud Isle yesterday, though so far results are not definitive.
Fifteen people set to work during the July 14 election, including two election judges, have quit due to fears about the coronavirus pandemic, the Travis County Clerk's office confirmed.
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Fighting over child custody and visitation is painful under even the best of circumstances, but attorneys and parents say the coronavirus pandemic has brought more stress, more fear, and more "live ammunition" to the battlefield.
A high level of fear<p>Austin family attorney Robert Luther said situations like M's have become a regular occurrence.<br></p><p>"There's a lot of acrimony out there, caused by the philosophical and political positions relative to the pandemic," said Luther. "Everybody's fear level is super high, or their defensiveness is super high. It's one or the other."</p><p>And if it was bad in the beginning, when canceled schools in March threw custody agreements into chaos, then it's even worse now with the latest surge in numbers, Luther said.</p><p>Arrangements between parents who disagree on how to handle the pandemic—or who just don't trust each other—were uncomfortable, but the parents had resigned themselves to it for a few months, he said.</p><p>Now trust is eroding, he said.</p><p>"This new level of long-term fear has affected a whole different round of people, I think, who thought they were being optimistic," he said. "And now being optimistic is really hard to do."</p>
Help from the courts<p>In April, the Texas Supreme Court ruled that— without hearings—custody agreements must be honored, regardless of pandemic orders or school calendars.<br></p><p>It helped M, whose relationship with his son had been relegated to texting and Zoom. In June, a judge threatened to hold his ex-wife in contempt if she tried it again, and said M could make up the lost time, according to court records.</p><p>The judge also directed him to have a COVID-19 test before another overnight visit with his son.</p>
An uneasy arrangement<p>Austin mom Jodi has been uncomfortable for months about sending her two young kids to spend time with her estranged husband, who she believes is too cavalier about the virus.<br></p><p>As the numbers have spiked, so have her fears. But there is no written visitation agreement, and the uneasy cooperation that allows them fairly equal time with the kids is precarious. A custody agreement is likely in the future, when a divorce gets filed, and it's vital to her that they stay on good terms.</p><p>"I don't agree with how he's handling it, but I don't want to fight," said Jodi, who also asked that her full name not be used to protect her children.</p>
New lines of communication<p>Some divorced parents have found a way through years of anger and hurt, finding that the pandemic has opened up new lines of communication that benefit the kids.<br></p><p>Anthony and My-Cherie Haley have worked hard to make things easy during this uncertain time, they said. A birthday party and a Pre-K graduation spent together with the kids during lockdown would have been unheard of in the five years since the divorce.</p><p>"It's not been bad for us, interestingly," Anthony Haley said. "All that's just been put aside, and we're just working together on all of it. It's the only way to make it through this."</p><p>Said My-Cherie Haley with a laugh: "Was it always hunky-dory? No. But we've been really flexible with each other because of this pandemic."</p>
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The newest addition to the Austin Zoo is in need of a name, and for a $2 donation, you can pitch your own idea.