Austin Public Health is expanding its free testing service to residents without symptoms due to a drop in demand as cases plateau.
"As a result, we are going to lower the threshold for testing which will allow some asymptomatic testing to occur again," Austin-Travis County Interim Health Authority Dr. Mark Escott said Wednesday.
APH is also considering offering rapid antigen testing. Unlike the genetic tests APH already offers, which detect active infections but can take days to return results, antigen tests identify those infections in 15 minutes.
Some private sites, including Remedy and Total Men's Primary Care locations, already offer rapid antigen testing. Escott said the decline in demand for testing at APH's sites could be because more residents are seeking them out.
"If we can increase our availability of rapid testing, it allows us to differentiate those positive cases sooner and allows us to do those case investigations sooner," Escott said. "It really would be more effective at the 'boxing-it-in' strategy, particularly as we see case numbers decline."
APH is working with its testing contractors to see if they have the equipment and capacity necessary to provide rapid testing to city residents.
APH officials emphasized that while residents are staying vigilant when it comes to masking and socially distancing in public, they must use similar caution at home, such as by avoiding family gatherings, in order to push past the current plateau and avoid any future bounce.
"We are seeing more cases that are connected to individuals having parties with family and friends," APH Director Stephanie Hayden said. "Please make good decisions so you don't cause an increase in COVID-19 cases."
What does this mean for schools?
The decision on when to reopen schools for in-person class is affected by whether Austinites heed this advice, Escott said. Otherwise, schools could face a second round of closures shortly after they welcome students back.
Area school districts are going mostly or entirely virtual through early September, although the Austin ISD board of trustees is meeting on Thursday to vote on whether to delay the first official day of school to Sept. 8 and, potentially, delay most in-person instruction for up to eight weeks after that.
"We don't want to be in a situation where we're turning schools on and turning them off in a repetitive cycle for the next six months or a year," Escott said. "Certainly if we are in a Stage 2 by Sept. 8, it will put us in a much better situation to reopen schools and keep them open."
Escott said he is concerned about high school and college sports, specifically the University of Texas-Austin, which is expected to host football games with 25% of the stadium's 100,000 person capacity.
"If we have a football game on Sept. 5 with 25,000 people, then by Sept. 19, we're going to be closing schools again, and kids are going to be learning virtually," Escott said.
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Nicklaus Pereksta says he loves photographing enthusiastic people, and it’s why his latest gig offering pictures to people out on Lady Bird Lake’s hike and bike trail is going smoothly. He sets up his gear on the Pfluger pedestrian bridge and puts out a sign: Photos, $10.
“Overwhelmingly, this has been a really positive experience,” Pereksta said. “I get excited when I wake up in the morning and I can't wait to go to work.”
Bikers and joggers are excited about it too. On the pedestrian bridge leading to downtown Thursday morning, a man on an e-bike rode up and posed, wanting more photos.
“I posted the last pictures on Instagram and people loved it. They asked, ‘where is this guy?’” the biker told Pereksta. Bashfully, Pereksta, who also photographs landscapes and at weddings and other events, said he was happy to hear that.
Pereksta started these photos about a month ago, after the strenuous runs required in his valet job started causing pain in his legs. And though he has a passion for photography, he wasn’t so sure when he started working independently if it would work out.
He felt uncertain about the demand for it and was also worried about having lots of expensive equipment out in the open.
“Then like the first day was nothing but high praise and people are like, this is so awesome. This is great. I've never seen anything like this before. I was like, Wow, this was really good, like positive turnout. So I got encouraged.”
Now, he wants to expand and is thinking of contacting the Mueller Farmers Market about how to become a vendor. Still, he'll carry a connection to photographing on the bridge since the word bridge is related to his last name.
“It's a name my great, great, great grandfather came up with when he was marrying somebody. It's actually quite a romantic name. It means a joining of two bridges," Pereksta said. "So, I thought it was ironic that I'm set up on a bridge. I'm kind of representing my last name right now.”
Austonia talked to Pereksta about life in Austin, where he’s lived for eight years after living in Boston doing band photography.
What was your first experience with Austin?
I came here to visit some friends and they took me to Barbarella. So we went to Barbarella and I was like, ‘wow, this place is great.’ And then the restaurants and the food and going to Barton Springs. I was like, ‘this is amazing.’ Because there's nothing like that in Boston. If you want to go to a natural spring, you got to go to New Hampshire. There's no pools in the city at all. So there's lots of swimming out here.
What do you like best about Austin?
You go to any little quiet bar and there's a band playing that should be like onstage for a sold out show. Yeah, they're playing to 10 people, right? Like, one of the best bands ever and they're playing for 10 people, right? And just little magic moments like that are pretty fun. You just run into little random weird things.
What do you think makes Austin different from other places?
There’s no fall.
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