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After a bumpy September, Austin is seeing a decline in new COVID-19 cases and related hospitalizations even as schools and other facilities, including restaurants and public pools, continue to reopen.
"We had a period of increase through September," Austin-Travis County Interim Health Authority Dr. Mark Escott told Travis County Commissioners on Tuesday. "We flattened out a little bit, and now we've been decreasing over the past week in terms of new cases."
The seven-day moving average of daily new confirmed COVID cases in Travis County is 73, as of Monday evening, which is comparable to the rate a month ago and down from 128 on Sept. 16, according to Austin Public Health data.
The seven-day moving average of new hospital admissions is also improving. It is now 13, down from 18 on Sept. 1.
Escott described this current rate as a sweet spot, or "a place where we can live for some time where we have cases going on but we can keep them at a minimum … and we can open businesses and our schools and be safe."
But he also added that the Austin metro has been unable to push past a daily average of around a dozen new COVID hospitalizations.
"Twelve to 13 seems to be a roadblock for us," he said.
The threshold for a Stage 2 level of risk, according to APH's risk-based guidelines, is a daily average of 10 new hospitalizations. At that level, recommended restrictions would loosen.
Despite the hospitalization roadblock, there are other signs of progress.
Last week, Travis County testing sites reported their lowest positivity rate—3.8%— since the pandemic began. The positivity rate among Latino residents is improving, although at 6.3% still remains higher than the average. There has also been a substantial decrease in the positivity rate among members of the 10-19 age group who have been tested recently.
The COVID-19 positivity rate in Travis County hit an all-time low last week, Austin-Travis County Interim Health Authority Dr. Mark Escott said. (Austin Public Health)
Over the last week, APH monitored 25 cases among primary and secondary school students, faculty and staff, Escott said, adding that although there are "pockets of transmission"—mostly attributable to extracurricular activities—so far "explosions of cases" have been avoided.
Austin ISD began in-person learning on Monday, following in the footsteps of most other local public school districts. Despite pushback from some parents and teachers, Escott sanctioned AISD's reopening plan and seems optimistic about the weeks to come—so long as Ausinites continue to observe certain precautions.
"If we continue to screen ourselves every day before we leave the house, and screen our children … we can really continue to impact the spread of this disease in Austin, and we can continue to be an example to other cities across Texas," he said.
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Tesla CEO Elon Musk announced a record-setting second quarter during an earnings call broadcasted from the Giga Texas construction site in Southeast Travis County on Monday.
The electric carmaker reported more than $1 billion in quarterly net income and the production of more than 200,000 vehicles for the first time despite challenges such as a global semiconductor shortage.
"It … seems that public sentiment towards electric vehicles is at an inflection point, and at this point, I think, almost everyone agrees electric vehicles are the only way forward," Musk said.
Exterior shots taken just a while ago of Giga Texas (while @elonmusk is reportedly at the Gigafactory!) during today's earnings call!
Hope @peterdog15 got to catch the technoking in his video! #fastestinhistory #Tesla pic.twitter.com/WqeDlb5wU3
— Austin Tesla Club (@AustinTeslaClub) July 26, 2021
Despite rising consumer demand and adequate factory capacity, Tesla faces what Musk described as a "quite serious" global semiconductor shortage, which will determine the company's growth rate for the rest of the year.
With increased revenue and production, Tesla is investing in new factories, Chief Financial Officer Zachary Kirkhorn said. These include Giga Texas, the $1.1 billion manufacturing plant that broke ground last summer and is slated to open later this year.
The Giga Texas factory in Southeast Travis County has rapidly increased in size since ground broke last August. (Tesla)
Musk commended the construction team for "incredible progress," transforming what was basically a vacant site into "a mostly complete large factory a year later."
I was at Giga Texas yesterday. Team is making excellent progress. Building will be almost a mile long when complete.
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) July 25, 2021
Giga Texas will produce the highly anticipated Cybertruck, along with other models, but Musk said scaling its production will be difficult, especially given the supply chain delays caused by the pandemic. "It's going to move as fast as the slowest of its up to 10,000 unique parts," he said.
In other news, Musk said Monday's earnings call would likely be his last regular appearance, only jumping on future quarterly calls when big announcements warrant it.
Tesla Solar recently made news when it announced plans to build the nation's most sustainable residential community in Southeast Austin earlier this month. The newly built homes will feature Tesla solar roof tiles and Powerwall battery storage as well as electric vehicle charging stations.
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The city of Austin released a shortlist of seven candidates for the police chief position left vacant when Brian Manley retired in March.
City Manager Spencer Cronk hopes to announce an appointment by the end of August, which will require City Council approval.
The finalists, chosen from a field of 46 applicants, include:
- APD Interim Chief Joseph Chacon, who previously served as an assistant chief in the department for almost five years
- Anne Kirkpatrick, former police chief in Oakland, California, who was fired last year after a federal monitor criticized her handling of a fatal 2018 police shooting of a homeless man
- Dallas Police Department Assistant Chief Avery L. Moore, who is a 30-year veteran of the department
- Atlanta Police Department Deputy Chief Celeste Murphy, who manages the department's community services division
- Dekalb County Police Chief Mirtha V. Ramos, who previously served as division chief in the Miami-Dade Police Department
- Wichita Police Department Chief Gordon Ramsay, who is a former president of the Minnesota Police Chief's Association as well as one of the first police chiefs of a major U.S. City to call George Floyd's death a murder, as reported by the Wichita Eagle
- Los Angeles Police Department Deputy Chief Emada E. Tingirides, who is also commanding officer of the department's newly formed Community Safety Partnership Bureau, which serves L.A.'s underserved communities
City staff will interview the finalists in the coming weeks, with several community input opportunities to come, according to a Monday press release.
The city conducted a public survey in March and hosted community input meetings in April to learn more about what residents are looking for in their next police chief, which helped shape the selection criteria for the position.
"They want to see the Chief be reform-minded and transparent and have a track record of fostering community involvement and accountability," Cronk said in the release. "The candidates selected show these characteristics in various ways."
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Days after Austin began once again recommending masks in public spaces, Austin ISD announced Monday that kindergarten through sixth-grade classes will have virtual options this fall.
The district will discuss the move in a special board meeting Monday evening starting at 5 p.m., while full details will be released Friday.
Teachers will not have to fret about the new option—no educators will have to juggle both virtual and in-person learning. Instead, certain teachers will specialize in virtual education, according to a press release.
The news comes after a recent spike in COVID cases in Travis County and across the nation. Children typically suffer fewer symptoms of COVID when contracted, but they are now catching the virus more often than their older counterparts without a vaccine available to them and as the more contagious Delta variant is quickly being spread.
While local health officials are recommending everyone wear masks, public school districts are unable to mandate masks due to an executive order issued by Gov. Greg Abbott in May.
Parents have expressed concern about classrooms with masks unenforceable and children under the age of 12 ineligible for a vaccine. Some have even said they would look for alternative schooling if AISD did not offer a virtual option for students.
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