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Despite the good news of a COVID-19 vaccine being administered in Austin starting today, local health officials painted a grim picture of disease spread locally that they attributed to the "Thanksgiving effect"—and warned that Christmas gatherings could cause a case surge on par with El Paso.
During Tuesday's Travis County Commissioners meeting, Austin-Travis County Interim Health Authority Dr. Mark Escott said that if Austinites didn't start making safe decisions now, the next two or three weeks could produce an aggressive surge.
With the effects of Thanksgiving gatherings giving way, Austin's moving case average hit 339 today, a 45% increase from the beginning of the month. Escott said the Thanksgiving surge was very concerning for health authorities and a repeat around Christmas could be disastrous.
"It is a concern for us because if we see surge happening now because of Thanksgiving and we see a repeat of that activity during Christmas. We really have the risk of having an El Paso or Lubbock type of substantial and catastrophic surge," Escott said. "We really do need folks to be more cautious."
Furthermore, with cases still rising, Escott said Travis County might be heading for a Stage 5-level shutdown before the end of the year. Travis County is expected to exceed 50 daily average ICU admissions by the end of this week, the threshold for Stage 5.
"This is not a forecast of what will happen," Escott said. "This is what could happen. This is the most likely scenario if disease transmission stays the way it has been."
Though Travis County still has the lowest amount of active cases and deaths than a lot of other major counties, COVID-19 will become the third leading cause of death for 2020 by the end of the year.
Looking at projections of age groups, every age range is higher than the threshold should be. However, Escott pointed out that even though 20-29 and 30-39 groups have seen a spike in cases, the hospitalization rates in those groups are very low.
Members of the 20-29 and 30-39 age groups are most likely to attend social gatherings and go to bars, where Escott said the risk is greatest. Escott said that is where a lot of virus transmission originates.
"This is what we were concerned would happen and it's in fact happening," Escott said. "We cannot sustain this kind of growth in cases for much longer. We certainly can't sustain this kind of impact post-Christmas."
Escott said the most efficient way to stop the spread is to return to the roots of the pandemic: staying home, avoiding social gatherings and not taking your mask off in front of anyone that you don't live with.
As of today, Austin hit a 9% positivity rate, up from 7.4% last week. Plus, Escott said with increased testing and new data coming in, they expect the number to go higher.
"I really don't know how to make the message any more clear that what we're doing now as a community is not working," Escott said. "This is going to be a memorable Christmas for folks for the wrong reasons. We are going to see unprecedented levels of cases and deaths in this community between now and the end of January if we do not take action right now."
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Austin FC officially tanked to the bottom of the MLS Western Conference after a lackluster performance against No. 1 Seattle Sounder's bench players last week, disappointing even the most hardcore fans who have been looking for another breakthrough for weeks.
But there could be light at the end of the tunnel.
Just as the club received scrutiny for their loss against the youngest MLS lineup ever and lack of scoring options, South American transfer expert Cesar Luis Merlo reported that Argentine Sebastian Driussi would be transferring to the club. The announcement comes after rumors of interest in Driussi, who plays in the Russian Premier League, swirled for weeks.
🚨🚨Sebastián Driussi jugará en el Austin FC 🇺🇲.
*️⃣El club de la MLS pagó la cláusula acordada para su salida y los abogados ya trabajan en la confección de su contrato.
*️⃣Su oficialización es cuestión de ⏳. #trarohecho pic.twitter.com/95qS6KJ1UH
— César Luis Merlo (@CLMerlo) July 26, 2021
Merlo, who broke the news on Twitter on Monday, last reported the signing of Austin FC's Tomas Pochettino from Argentina.
While Austin FC hasn't confirmed the move, Driussi's former club FC Zenit reported on the transfer on Monday afternoon.
We can confirm that Sebastian Driussi has now left the club.
Everyone at Zenit wishes him all the best for the future.
📰 https://t.co/DcbiIMnF4V pic.twitter.com/rJts0sqSST
— FC Zenit in English✨ (@fczenit_en) July 26, 2021
Driussi joins new signee Moussa Djitte, another forward and true striker from Grenoble, as new intriguing answers to Austin's cry for help.
It's no secret that Austin isn't putting the ball in the back of the net: the club has been shut out for eight of its last ten matches, just two of which have taken place within its stadium walls. Head Coach Josh Wolff has endured the brunt of explaining the team's scorelessness, admitting the team's lack of scoring every week with a slightly deeper frown etched on his face.
"From a goal-scoring standpoint... it's been lackluster and poor," Wolff said after the 1-0 Seattle loss. "The reality is that we haven't scored goals... you've got to score goals to win games."
While some criticism toward Wolff's strategy, a lack of urgency and poor decision-making on the pitch are warranted—and have been freely expressed by frustrated fans and haters—the team has been even worse off due to its constant slew of injuries.
The team has been without a solid striker at least since frontman Danny Hoesen was declared out for the season due to a hip injury. Even before his injury, Hoesen had failed to solidify himself as the team's offensive leader, while teammate Jon Gallagher showed spurts of greatness but couldn't find consistency.
Gallagher himself scored the first Q2 Stadium goal with an injured foot and was out for a few weeks, as have been Captain Alex Ring, midfielder Tomas Pochettino and center back Matt Besler. Starters including midfielder Daniel Pereira, left back Ben Sweat, right back Nick Lima are among the six still stuck on the bench.
With injuries and a learning curve to boot, Austin has scored just 10 goals this season—tied for the least in the conference. While Dominguez and surprise star Diego Fagundez have scored three goals apiece, the out-of-position players haven't been able to heal the holes in the lineup and beat veteran MLS opponents.
Even after a breakout 4-1 over Portland that injected new energy into the team, Austin has been subject to critics who fairly wonder when the club will right its sinking ship.
First summer signing: Moussa Djitte
DONDE ESTÁ DJITTE?!?!?— WeAreAustinTV (@WeAreAustinTV) July 23, 2021
HAVE YOU SEEN DJITTE?!?! pic.twitter.com/ssMfTdby1v
Wolff and Sporting Director Claudio Reyna have long had plans to get a boost in the summer transfer window, and the need for scoring help became increasingly evident as the season progressed.
Djitte, a 21-year-old striker in the French Ligue 2, was announced as a U-22 signee with an undisclosed transfer salary on June 30.
Djitte comes from Grenoble in the French league, where he scored eight goals in 35 appearances last season. The striker also spent time with FC Sion in the Swiss Super League but is originally from Senegal, where he played for ASC Niarri Tally in Dakar. He also represented Senegal internationally, making his debut for the Senegal U-20 team and scoring the only goal in his first match with the U23 team in 2018.
Wolff and crew hoped for Djitte's arrival by the July 22 match, but to no avail. As the club once again failed to put points on the board, fans continue to impatiently await his arrival.
The pressure's on for Djitte, who some have called the club's only hope. But that burden is put twofold on Driussi, who holds more experience and acclaim than his new younger teammate.
Second signing: Sebastian Driussi
Sebastian Driussi: "Thank you from me and from my family. St. Petersburg is an amazing city and Zenit is a fantastic club. Maybe one day we will meet again!"@SebadriussiOk has a farewell message to the club and the fans— FC Zenit in English✨ (@fczenit_en) July 26, 2021
📧 https://t.co/urgPQxvcVr pic.twitter.com/Yr1AbBsQvj
Driussi has an even more decorated history under his belt. An Argentina native, the forward spent five seasons with Primera Division member River Plate, scoring 17 goals in his final season with the club before transferring to the Russian Premier League. While with FC Zenit, Driussi helped the club to the Russian Cup Championship in 2019 and scored 21 goals in four seasons with the team.
Driussi has already been lauded as a saving grace for Austin's stagnant offense, but it will be a minute before he steps onto the pitch in Verde. Djitte is expected to fly to Austin this week, but both players will need to quarantine before they can suit up onto the Q2 Stadium turf.
Time will tell whether or not the two turn the tables for Austin before it's too late, but the new faces are sure to bring back excitement as Austin reaches the halfway point of its first-ever season.
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New COVID spike leads Austin parents to consider homeschooling, private options for kids under 12—again
With Austin-Travis County in Stage 4 and local COVID case counts rising, parents of young children are weighing the question: Is it safe to send kids back to the classroom?
While children under 12 remain ineligible for the COVID vaccine, public school districts are unable to mandate masks as a result of an executive order issued by Gov. Greg Abbott in May. They also lack funding for virtual learning options after state lawmakers failed to pass such legislation during the regular session.
As last year's public school pandemic closures led to an enrollment bump at area private schools as well as the explosion of learning pods—teachers paired with family groups looking for help with virtual learning—some families are again considering homeschooling their elementary school-age kids or enrolling them in an alternative online program or private school.
Melissa Rojas Williams, a mother of four kids under 7 who lives in the Mueller neighborhood, talks about these options with her husband daily. If Austin ISD doesn't offer virtual learning options by the first day of school on Aug. 17, the couple is considering homeschooling or joining a learning pod. "You want your kids to be social… but the reality of COVID—it's in Stage 4—and also our kids, because of their ages, are unvaccinated," she told Austonia. "It's a harsh reality."
Rojas Williams is weighing priorities as she decides how to proceed. Her youngest child is 2 years old, and she worries that he lacks basic immunity after growing up almost entirely in quarantine. But she wants her older children to experience in-person schooling and knows that another year of virtual learning or homeschooling would come at a cost to her and her husband's careers. She's already extended her graduate studies at the University of Texas at Austin an extra year as a result of the pandemic.
"The worst part is this year is still better than the last because we seem to know a little more about what works," she said.
The privilege to choose
Similarly, Pete Gilcrease, a father of two—ages 9 and 5—in Hyde Park, is considering homeschooling or an alternative online program if AISD does not offer a virtual learning option. Superintendent Stephanie Elizalde told the Austin American-Statesman editorial board last week that the district is considering offering limited virtual learning; more information is due to be released by next Monday, according to the district.
Gilcrease worries that if his kids do attend school in person they could contract a case of COVID and suffer long-term effects. So until they are eligible to get vaccinated, he and his partner will choose to work from home to facilitate online learning. But he is frustrated with state and federal policies that force some parents to choose between their income and their children's health. "Most people don't have a choice," he said.
Scrambling for an alternative
Carrie Collier-Brown, a lawyer, is also frustrated. She and her husband recently moved their family to West Austin, where her kids—an 11-year-old rising sixth grader and 5-year-old twins—would attend Eanes ISD this fall. But now she is considering moving her twins to a private school or joining a learning pod because they are too young to be expected to wear masks all day without enforcement.
Austin is hurtling toward Stage 4, just in time for school. We have 3 kids who can't get vaxxed yet. Public schools are prohibited from requiring masks and have no funding for virtual school. I'm super pissed. pic.twitter.com/P8NjOnNWfr
— CCB (@ATXCollierBrown) July 20, 2021
Such a switch would involve scrambling to enroll the twins in a new program at the last minute and possibly committing to another year of virtual schooling, which would affect Collier-Brown and her husband's work lives. "It was nothing that we ever wanted to repeat," she said of the last school year.
Like many parents, Collier-Brown understands that school districts are in a bind. But she is fed up with state officials, whose policies, she says, don't seem to acknowledge the fact that young children cannot get vaccinated, and adults who opt not to. "Their selfish choices are directly impinging on my family's freedom," Collier-Brown said. "I think it's their turn to stay home."
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The University of Texas and The University of Oklahoma took the first official step toward leaving the Big 12 on Monday as they notified the conference they would not be renewing their media rights after they expire in 2025.
The announcement comes on the heels of a Houston Chronicle exclusive report that said the two universities had reached out to the Southeast Conference about joining the league. The two schools have not confirmed they did so.
If UT joined the SEC, Texas fans could see the return of the UT and Texas A&M rivalry for the first time since 2011. It would also make the SEC the first superleague in the NCAA, with 16 total teams in the conference if the two football powerhouses gain approval.
Some, including A&M Athletic Director Ross Bjork, expressed discontent on the potential move. Aggie officials will be meeting at 5 p.m. Monday to discuss what they consider a blindside by the conference. Meanwhile, Big 12 officials met with Texas and Oklahoma officials about strengthening the conference, reports say.
For the official move to the SEC to happen, 11 schools within the 14-team conference will need to vote in favor of the teams joining the league. New SEC additions could happen in the next few weeks if Texas and Oklahoma proceed with a formal request.