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Texas climbs to second-highest COVID caseload in U.S., despite ranking on top in vaccine doses administered
After reaching a grim milestone of two million COVID-19 cases on Thursday, Texas became the state with the second-highest number of cases, trailing just behind California, according to data from Johns Hopkins University.
At 2,040,751 total cases throughout Texas and a 13.33% positivity rate, California's total case count of 2,843,062 tops the U.S., however its overall positivity is only 7.55% in the state. On top of that, the death count between Texas and California is nearly identical: 31,277 and 31,684 deaths respectively.
Travis County makes up about 2.9% of the overall caseload, with 58,286 cases and a current 16.2% positivity rate. Travis County is currently experiencing its worst surge to date, although still behind other big Texas cities.
Austin officials have been hitting a disconnect on what regulations are best to help quell the surge; Escott has been calling for a stronger lockdown until the virus is under control, while state officials, including Gov. Greg Abbott, are worried about the effect another lockdown will have on businesses.
However, offering a glimmer of hope of the end of the pandemic, the Texas Department of State Health Services announced Thursday that Texas had also become the first state to administer more than one million vaccines, exactly one month and one day after receiving the first doses.
"Texas is leading the way for our nation once again," Abbott said. "This is the biggest vaccination effort we have ever undertaken and it would not be possible without the dedication and tireless efforts of our healthcare workers. We still have a long road ahead of us but Texans continue to prove that we are up to this challenge."
During a press conference yesterday, Austin-Travis County Interim Health Authority Dr. Mark Escott said it is imperative that people continue safe practices until they can get the vaccine, which could be a while with a shortage of doses to go around. Ultimately, Escott said, masking and distancing will have to be kept up until the vaccine is more widely available.
"While we're all frustrated about the numbers of vaccines that we have available, we have something else that works very well and it's those protective measures: the masking, the distancing, the handwashing, it prevents disease also," Escott said. "It's going to have to continue until we can get a substantial portion of our population vaccinated."
To help alleviate the strain on hospitals, Austin Public Health officials announced the opening of an alternate care site at the Austin Convention Center that can accept COVID-19 patients to free up ICU beds. Additionally, the city has rolled out infusion sites to treat recently-diagnosed patients without serious symptoms.
Escott said Austin could run out of ICU beds any day now and hospitals are currently seeing the repercussions from holiday celebrations.
"Right now, when we are facing unprecedented surge, unprecedented transmission of disease in our community, which is uncontrolled, we have to work together as a community to drive down the disease spread and flatten the curve again, to put our hospitals in a better situation and buy us time to get more people vaccinated," Escott said.
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After reaching Stage 4 last week of Austin Public Health's risk-based guidelines, Austin-Travis County is now at the Stage 5 threshold with a seven-day average of 50 hospitalizations and dwindling ICU capacity.
While unenforceable under Gov. Greg's Abbott order against local mandates, vaccinated individuals are asked to choose drive-through and curbside options, outdoor activities, social interactions with limited group sizes, as well as social distance and wearing masks indoors. Partially or unvaccinated individuals are asked to avoid gatherings, travel, dining and shopping, choose curbside and delivery options, as well as wear a mask on essential trips.
Flashing back to early-pandemic times, hospitals are at critical capacity—the 11 county Trauma Service Region of 2.3 million people is fluctuating at 16 staffed beds, according to APH.
In a statement on behalf of Ascension Seton, Baylor Scott & White Health and St. David's Healthcare, a spokesperson said that hospitals are asking residents to "help us and each other" by getting vaccinated and continuing to utilize safety practices to slow the spread of the virus.
According to the statement, a "longstanding" nurse staffing challenge combined with the recent COVID-19 spike is putting "extraordinary pressure" on hospital systems.
Along with the unmitigated spread of the virus in unvaccinated, the more contagious Delta variant is also to blame for the spike in cases. The seven-day moving average of COVID hospitalizations in the Austin area reached the Stage 5 threshold of 50 on Friday, triggering local health officials to ask residents to take action.
Local hospitals have a "surge plan" that includes utilization of "all available patient care space and employees within our hospitals and in other settings" that will go into effect when capacity is hit, according to the statement.
The hospitals are working on sourcing supplemental staff and emphasized that emergency care will still be available but it may involve patient transfers "in order to provide the most appropriate care."
Healthcare systems have hit this threshold previously during the pandemic: the city held an alternate care site at the Austin Convention Center from January to March of this year.
"Our responsibility during this pandemic continues to be balancing our readiness to care for patients with COVID-19, while making sure patients who depend on our hospitals receive needed and timely care," the statement said. "We do not want to see necessary non-COVID care delayed as it was during the early stages of the pandemic."
This story has been updated to after publication to include that Austin has reached the Stage 5 threshold.
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Austin legend Willie Nelson will perform at the Texas Capitol today, his first large performance since the pandemic began, closing out a four-day long march across Central Texas to build support for federal voting protections.
Organized by The Poor People's Campaign, the march began in Georgetown on Wednesday and will end with a 10 a.m. rally at the Capitol featuring appearances from former U.S. Congressman Beto O'Rourke and Rev. Dr. William Barber.
Willie Nelson (with Charlie Sexton & friends) will play a free concert at the Poor People's Campaign march for democracy & justice in Austin this Saturday! https://t.co/zZSA0BpbWA
Sign up to join us and see Willie at 10am Saturday: https://t.co/KrDPIFIvST
— Beto O'Rourke (@BetoORourke) July 29, 2021
The rally calls on Congress to "stop attacks on democracy" by ending the filibuster, pass all provisions of the For the People Act, restore the 1965 Voting Rights Act, raise the federal minimum wage to $15 per hour and pass permanent protections for all 11 million undocumented immigrants.
Nelson denounced election law proposals gaining traction in red states, such as Senate Bill 1 and House Bill 3 in Texas, which 55 House Democrats foiled by fleeing to Washington, D.C., on July 12.
The bills would require additional ID verifications for mail-in ballots, allow partisan poll watchers "free movement" and prohibit elections officials from sending absentee ballot applications to voters who didn't request one.
"Laws making it more difficult for people to vote are unAmerican and are intended to punish people of color, the elderly and disabled," Nelson said. "If you can't win by playing the rules, then it's you and your platform–not everyone else's ability to vote."
The march is in the spirit of the Selma to Montgomery March of 1965, led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., which protested the blocking of Black Americans' right to vote by Jim Crow laws.