After almost a full week of sitting at the Stage 5 threshold, Austin health leaders made the official shift to the highest level of risk of its risk-based guidelines on Thursday.
At Stage 5, officials ask everyone to take extra measures to contain the virus, such as avoiding dining out and shopping in-person—regardless of vaccination status—and continuing to wear a mask at all times. Those that are unvaccinated are asked to avoid all gatherings and stay home.
The news comes as hospitals and ICUs fill at an unprecedented rate, likely due to the hightly contagious Delta variant.
According to APH Interim Health Authority Desmar Walkes, the current surge is "by far the fastest and most aggressive that we've seen" as hospitalizations—nearly all of which are the result of unvaccinated patients getting sick—continue to rise.
Unlike past surges, Walkes said ICUs have seen a worrying trend- young people are being admitted at much higher rates.
"ICU staff are seeing a younger population in our hospitals," Walkes said. "Patients in the ICU are sicker and stay in the hospital longer than prior surges, putting more strain on hospital resources. ECMO machines, which are life support machines that are often used as a last resort, are now used on people as young as 19 years old."
The city has seen a rise in pediatric cases as well. Children under 12 are uneligible for vaccinations and are thus more vulnerable to catching the disease, which officials have discovered can be transmitted to vaccinated adults.
As officials plea for residents to wear a mask and the unvaccinated to avoid nonessential trips, residents are still free to make their own choices as Gov. Greg Abbott's executive order keeps local mandates from being issued. And while some businesses such as Waterloo Records and BookPeople are once again heeding the guidance by requiring masks again, the majority of businesses in Austin are not.
Walkes pled with businesses to once again adhere to masking and social distancing policies as they did in the past.
"Our businesses are at the core of the success that we've seen in our past surges," Walkes said. "We need your help too. In recent days, when I've spoken to business leaders, they're up for the challenge. We know that there have been struggles in many businesses, and know that many of these businesses are just getting back on their feet. We want to keep our business community open and thriving."
(Austin Public Health)
To reach Stage 5, hospitalizations needed to surpass a seven-day average of hospital admissions of 50, which it surpassed last Friday; it is now at an average of 67. The last time Stage 5 was met was in December.
The more contagious Delta variant along with the unmitigated spread of the virus in unvaccinated people has been attributed to the recent spike.
Health leaders have renewed their focus on vaccine outreach due to the spike in cases. As the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention revealed the Delta variant was as contagious as chickenpox—which requires 90% to get vaccinated for herd immunity—APH has changed its herd immunity threshold to at least 80% vaccinated, up from 70%.
"Getting vaccinated is your best possible defense from getting sick, hospitalized or dying," Walkes said.
Those that are unvaccinated have made up about 80% of those hospitalized with COVID complications in the past two weeks, according to APH.
The three local hospital systems are being overwhelmed with COVID patients, they said in a statement recently, as the Delta variant spreads and a nursing staffing shortage persists. ICUs have been at critical levels for days in the 11 county Trauma Service Region of 2.3 million people, fluctuating at 16 staffed beds, according to APH last week.
Hospitals have a "surge plan" in the case that beds run out, including sourcing supplemental staff and arranging for the return of an alternate care site. APH is monitoring the situation and has not started going forward with a plan as of Thursday.
This story was updated at 12:20 p.m to include new info released by health authorities at the press conference.
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The Texas Senate Democratic Caucus is urging Gov. Greg Abbott to call an emergency special legislative session to consider a variety of gun restrictions and safety measures in the wake of a mass school shooting in Uvalde that left 19 children and two adults dead this week.
In a letter released Saturday morning, all 13 Senate Democrats demanded lawmakers pass legislation that raises the minimum age to purchase a firearm from 18 to 21 years old. The Uvalde gunman was 18 and had purchased two AR-style rifles which he used in the attack.
The caucus is also calling for universal background checks for all firearm sales, “red flag” laws that allow a judge to temporarily remove firearms from people who are considered an imminent threat to themselves or others, a “cooling off period” for the purchase of a firearm and regulations on high capacity magazines for citizens.
“Texas has suffered more mass shootings over the past decade than any other state. In Sutherland Springs, 26 people died. At Santa Fe High School outside Houston, 10 people died. In El Paso, 23 people died at a Walmart. Seven people died in Midland-Odessa,” the letter reads. “After each of these mass killings, you have held press conferences and roundtables promising things would change. After the slaughter of 19 children and two teachers in Uvalde, those broken promises have never rung more hollow. The time to take real action is now.”
Such laws are unlikely to gain traction in the Republican-controlled Legislature, which has a track record of favoring legislation that loosens gun restrictions. Only the governor has the power to call lawmakers back into a special session for emergency work.
Asked about a special session at a Friday press conference in Uvalde, Abbott said “all options are on the table” adding that he believed laws would ultimately be passed to address this week’s horrors. However, he suggested laws would be more tailored toward addressing mental health, rather than gun control.
“You can expect robust discussion and my hope is laws are passed, that I will sign, addressing health care in this state,” he said, “That status quo is unacceptable. This crime is unacceptable. We’re not going to be here and do nothing about it.”
He resisted the idea of increasing the age to purchase a firearm, saying that since Texas became a state, 18-year-olds have been able to buy a gun.
He also dismissed universal background checks saying existing background check policies did not prevent the Santa Fe and Sutherland Springs shootings, which both happened while he has been in office.
“If everyone wants to seize upon a particular strategy and say that’s the golden strategy right there, look at what happened in the Santa Fe shooting,” he said. “A background check had no relevance because the shooter took the gun from his parents…Anyone who suggests we should focus on background checks as opposed to mental health, I suggest is mistaken.”
Since the massacre at Robb Elementary School, the governor’s comments about potential solutions have centered around increasing mental health services, rather than restricting access to firearms.
This story has been edited for length.
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Designs for stations along Project Connect’s Blue Line were presented this week, giving a detailed look at what part of the rail system extending from downtown to the airport could look like.
The planned stations that have gotten the latest focus include Waterfront, Travis Heights and Lakeshore stations past Lady Bird Lake.
At the Waterfront station, the preliminary design aims to prevent visual obstructions and save on costs. This is accomplished by a transit guideway that will lower from the bridge to a level station.
Heading onto East Riverside Drive, the light rail faces a curve requiring a slow down to about 10 miles per hour.
The Travis Heights station could involve relocating a pedestrian crosswalk zone at Alameda Drive to Blunn Creek. Since light rails can't effectively operate on a steep grade, this allows the transit guideway to avoid that.
From there, the rail will extend to the Norwood Park area, and though it will reach along the right-of-way zone, the park will be able to remain open.
A view of the Blue Line by Lady Bird Lake. (Project Connect)
The line involves some coordination with the Texas Department of Transportation. That's because the department is working on an intersection that will have to be built before the phasing of the section of the Blue Line involving an I-35 crossing.
When it comes to the safety of cyclists and walkers, design ideas include a pedestrian hybrid beacon by East Bouldin Creek that would provide a protected signal to cross. And for the intersection TxDOT is carrying out, Project Connect is working with them on pedestrian access across the intersection. It could involve shared use paths along the street and crossings beneath it.
This summer, the public can expect 30% of design and cost estimates to be released. Though the project was $7.1 billion when voters approved it in November 2020, the latest estimates factoring in inflation and supply chain constraints show it could ultimately be upwards of $10 billion.
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