COVID-19 Roundup March 15: Sixth Case Confirmed In Austin, UT President Tests Negative
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Here's a roundup of local news on the coronavirus (for Saturday’s updates, go here):
Sixth case confirmed in Austin-Travis County; city modifies services
There are now six confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Austin-Travis County, according to an updated count on the City of Austin’s website.
The city said in a statement Sunday that it will no longer make announcements for each new case, but instead update the count daily by 7 p.m.
The city says none of the cases is thought to have been picked up by another person in the community.
The city also announced Sunday that some city operations are being suspended until March 30. Starting Monday, all library branches, the Austin Animal Center, golf courses, pools, athletic programs, recreation centers and cultural centers will be closed. Nonessential Municipal Court dockets will be rescheduled.
Camps and spring break activities will be suspended after Wednesday, the city said. Meal services will continue for kids and seniors.
There will be no changes to essential services, like public safety; trash, recycling and compost pickup; and utility and transportation services. City employees who can work from home will begin doing so, and many boards and commissions meetings happening this week will be rescheduled or canceled.
Austin Public Health reported the first two presumptive positive cases in the city early Friday, and UT Austin President Greg Fenves announced in a letter to the UT community later that day that his wife, Carmel, had also tested positive. A city spokesperson confirmed two more presumptive positive cases Sunday afternoon.
Fenves himself tested negative for the virus, UT announced Sunday.
“Presumptive positive” is a term the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention uses to say a local or state lab has found the test positive, rather than a CDC lab.
Testing continues to be limited, and the number of cases is expected to rise as more people are screened. The Trump administration said Sunday that starting this week labs across the country will be able to process up to 4,000 coronavirus tests a day.
All Austin libraries will be closed Monday through March 29
The Austin Public Library announced that all library locations, the Austin History Center and Recycled Reads will be closed to the public starting Monday through March 29 "to balance the safety and health of our community." That means all programs and events, including story times and computer classes, are canceled.
In a tweet, Director Roosevelt Weeks said the system "can’t wait to open our physical doors to you again."
@AustinPublicLib will be closed to the public starting Monday, March 16 until March 29. Our virtual library services will be available 24x7 for your use. Thank you for understanding and we can’t wait to open our physical doors to you again. Questions, please contact our main line— Roosevelt Weeks (@rxweeks) March 15, 2020
UT Austin provides updates on COVID-19 response
UT Austin still plans to resume classes March 30, but President Greg Fenves wrote in a message to the university community Sunday that the plan “may change as public health circumstances evolve.”
Fenves also said faculty members are planning to teach as many courses as possible online. Social distancing procedures will be introduced in classes still taught in person, as well as in dorms, libraries and dining halls.
As for UT employees, supervisors will determine who can work remotely and whether some staffers would temporarily be out of work.
“In the coming days, I will review all the options available to me to preserve your compensation regardless of your work status,” Fenves said.
Fenves tested negative for COVID-19, but will remain in self-isolation for a 14-day period. He revealed Friday that his wife and another family member tested positive for the virus.
Olamaie says it's closing until at least May 1
Olamaie, one of the most celebrated upscale restaurants in Austin, is closing at least until May 1 “for the safety of our team and our community.”
“We are in uncharted territory, attempting to navigate an impossible situation,” Olamaie wrote in a Facebook post. “We are using our values as a compass.”
The nationally recognized restaurant, famous for its fine Southern cuisine and off-the-menu biscuits, says salaried employees will receive partial pay and that health insurance benefits will continue through April.
Olamaie and its executive chef Michael Fojtasek have been James Beard Award finalists. The establishment was named by the Austin American-Statesman as the best restaurant in Austin in 2019 for the third time in five years, praised by critic Matthew Odam for its “exceptional vision, strong narrative, flawless execution, inviting ambiance and considered service.”
Baylor Scott and White offers free COVID-19 online screening test
Baylor Scott and White has a drive-up COVID-19 testing site in Austin, but most people don’t qualify to get tested, and you can’t just show up to find out.
Before anything, the not-for-profit health care network wants you to use its free online screening test. The site requires you to provide some personal information including your name, email address and date of birth to create an account.
Baylor Scott and White is encouraging anyone experiencing flu-like symptoms, including cough and fever, to take the questionnaire before scheduling an appointment or walking into any of its clinics, hospitals or emergency departments.
Musicians bring performances online
As professional musicians across Austin feel financial pressure from people staying at home to reduce the risk of coronavirus spread, the local Selena tribute act Bidi Bidi Banda will perform a live show online this evening via Facebook Live and Instagram Live.
“Due to ongoing health concerns across the world, we’ve been forced to take a pause in live shows with an audience,” the band posted on their Facebook page. “In the event we don’t have a chance to perform together for a while again, we’re coming together as a family this evening to bring you a full length set at 6pm CST, live from our hometown of Austin, TX.”
The band will accept tips via their Venmo, PayPal and Cashapp accounts.
Austin’s DJ Mel has also been spinning “Living Room Dance Party” sets on his Facebook page to lift people’s spirits while they self-seclude.
Texas eases restrictions on deliveries as shoppers flock to stores
Gov. Greg Abbott announced he is waiving restrictions that prohibit alcohol delivery trucks from servicing grocery stores.
"This is yet another example of the private sector stepping up and Texans helping Texans as we all work to mitigate the impact of COVID-19 in our state," Abbott said in statement. "By waiving these regulations, we are streamlining the process to replenish the shelves in grocery stores across the state. We are all in this together, and I want to remind all Texans that hoarding resources is neither necessary nor productive. Texas has the supplies to meet the needs of Texans, and we will continue to expedite the flow of groceries to stores across the state."
Grocery stores, including H-E-B and Randalls, are closing earlier than normal, so employees can restock shelves to meet demand.
Earlier in the day, President Donald Trump held a conference call with more than two dozen grocery store operators, including executives from Whole Foods Market and Albertsons, which owns the Randalls chain. A White House spokesman said supply chains remain strong and reiterated that there is no need for Americans to hoard supplies.
Hospitals, health care providers to get additional protective equipment
Hospitals and health care providers across Texas will begin receiving protective equipment like respirators, surgical gowns and gloves from the Strategic National Stockpile, a federally maintained reserve of emergency equipment and medication established in 1999 to support a response to public health threats. The Strategic National Stockpile was most recently tapped last year in response to Hurricane Dorian.
The Texas Department of State Health Services (DSHS) says the personal protective equipment began arriving at a San Antonio warehouse Saturday. A statement gave no indication how many supplies were being received.
"We’re using a system Texas has used before in times of disaster to get supplies where they’re needed," DSHS Commissioner Dr. John Hellerstedt said in the statement.
Number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in Austin rises to five
Two new presumptive positive cases of COVID-19 have been confirmed in Austin, a city spokesperson said Sunday. Both cases are travel-related.
The confirmations bring the total number of presumptive positive cases in the city up to five, a number that will likely change by the end of the day, the spokesperson said. Testing continues to be very limited, and the number of cases is expected to rise as more people are tested.
The city is going to start releasing information on positive tests at the end of each day, rather than as they are confirmed, the spokesperson said.
UT president tests negative for COVID-19
UT Austin President Greg Fenves has tested negative for COVID-19, but will still continue to self-isolate for 14 days.
Fenves' wife was one of the first confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the Austin-Travis County area, along with an unidentified family member who works at UT Austin.
Dr. Amy Young, chief clinical officer of UT Health Austin, said Fenves had symptoms that showed a possibility he "may have been infectious prior to his COVID-19 testing."
Young says the university is reaching out to those who may have had contact with Fenves recently and is asking them to self-isolate and monitor themselves for flu-like symptoms.
Texas tells nursing homes to ban nonessential visitors
The state is mandating that nursing homes ban nonessential visitors. That means only staff, certain medical professionals and providers of essential services can enter the facilities – and even they will be subject to COVID-19 screening measures issued by the U.S. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. Some exceptions on visitor restrictions will be made for “compassionate care situations,” such as end-of-life visitation.
“We understand how difficult these new restrictions will be for residents and their families and loved ones,” Texas Health and Human Services deputy executive commissioner David Kostroun said in a statement.
Any facility with a history in the past three years of “infection control deficiencies” are being targeted for inspection, the Texas Health and Human Services said.
Hays County and San Marcos issue state of disaster declaration
Hays County and San Marcos declared a local state of disaster amid coronavirus concerns during a news conference Sunday morning.
“The biggest message will be to understand why we are doing this,” Hays County Judge Ruben Becerra said. “Although the risk of severe illness may be low, we want every resident in Hays County to take the personal responsibility to prevent the spread.”
San Marcos Mayor Jane Hughson said the declaration activates the city’s emergency plan and enables the city to use disaster funding and resources available through state and federal agencies.
City of Austin cancels Statesman Cap10K Race
The largest 10K race in Texas has been canceled. More than 26,000 people already registered for the 43rd Statesman Capitol 10,000, which was scheduled to happen April 5. But Austin’s new ban on gatherings of 250 people or more means the event can no longer go on as planned. The city is also not permitting the race to be rescheduled again this year.
“We’re working diligently on a series of solutions. At this point, in either May or June after the critical coronavirus period has passed, we’ll invite participants to pick up their 2020 race shirt, bib and finisher’s medal,” said Jeff Simecek, Statesman Cap10K race director. “We’re also inviting runners to complete a Cap10K 6.2 mile virtual race when it’s convenient for them and to share and tag their photos and videos with the hashtag #Cap10Kvirtualrace.”
Simecek says all registered participants can expect to receive more information via email. Next year's race is scheduled for Sunday, April 11.
St. David’s HealthCare facilities implement visitor restrictions
St. David’s HealthCare is putting visitor restrictions in place at all its facilities to control the spread of the coronavirus starting Sunday. St. David’s President and CEO David Huffstutler calls this “necessary given the recent presumptive cases in our community.”
Visiting hours will be limited to 6 a.m. to 8 p.m., and only one adult visitor per patient is allowed at a time. No one under 18 will be allowed to visit. St. David’s will allow one visitor to remain overnight only in certain areas of the hospital. This includes pediatrics, neonatal ICU, and labor and delivery.
St. David’s says it will continue to screen people who enter the facilities and will not let visitors in if they do not pass the test.
Catholic Diocese of Austin limits attendance at Mass
The Catholic Diocese of Austin says it is restricting the number of people attending Mass to 250 in adherence to the city’s new ban on large gatherings.
The diocese says ushers will be counting the number of people at church doors. If necessary, it will instruct parishes to host a simultaneous Mass on other church grounds, like a hall or gym.
The 250-person limit applies only to parishes within the Austin/Travis County area. The Austin diocese is made up of churches in Georgetown, San Marcos, Bastrop and other cities.
Movie theaters keep distance between viewers to prevent COVID-19 spread
Alamo Drafthouse has said it will start building in “buffer” seats around moviegoers — meaning that when you buy a ticket, the seats next to you will be taken offline and remain empty for the show. While the company’s official release announced the change only in some New York and California locations, a screenshot shared with KUT shows that it’s happening in at least one Austin theater.
The Austin Film Society is taking similar steps and on Monday will cut in half the capacity at its theaters to “encourage audience members to maintain distance while in the cinema.”
Both companies said staff members are sanitizing seats, armrests and cup holders, and that all staff will be wearing latex gloves during these cleanings.
Government wants to make sure college students are counted in census
The U.S. Census Bureau is modifying its operations to make sure college students are counted in the 2020 Census, even as many universities have asked students to not return to campus as the new coronavirus spreads.
The census is a headcount that happens every 10 years. The count helps the federal government figure out how to divvy up federal funds for health care, education and transportation among states, as well as divvy up seats in Congress.
“In general, students in colleges and universities temporarily closed due to the COVID-19 virus will still be counted as part of this process,” agency officials said in a statement Sunday. “Even if they are home on census day, April 1, they should be counted according to the residence criteria which states they should be counted where they live and sleep most of the time.”
Census officials said they are asking schools to reach out to students to remind them to respond to the questionnaire.
This year is the first year most of the census will be conducted online, which the agency says will be the most popular method for college students to use.
The bureau also said in its statement that according to its residence criteria, “in most cases students living away from home at school should be counted at school, even if they are temporarily elsewhere due to the COVID-19 pandemic.”
Pflugerville bans gatherings of more than 250 people
The city of Pflugerville is the latest Central Texas municipality to ban gatherings of 250 people or more. A letter from Pflugerville Mayor Victor Gonzales says it is also "discouraging concentrated crowds or gatherings, regardless of size."
The city is asking all organizations – including faith-based groups and volunteer organizations – to reduce any plans or programs that would allow people to assemble in groups.
Austin announced a ban Saturday. Read more from Andrew Weber here.
Texas House speaker tweets thread about the importance of social distancing
Rep. Dennis Bonnen said he's not worried about his teenage sons, but he is worried about his 86-year-old mother.
"One way she may contract this virus is by my boys going out into the world to socialize and becoming a carrier and then visiting her when they are symptom free but able to pass the virus on," he wrote.
Let’s talk about social distancing. If your school has closed, this is not a typical weather closure. This is a public health initiative to keep groups from gathering.— Speaker Dennis Bonnen (@RepDennisBonnen) March 15, 2020
"Social distancing means limiting our interactions with others so that our most vulnerable are protected."
Mayor Adler says residents play an important role in preventing community spread
Mayor Steve Adler says the move to ban events with more than 250 people in Austin is an attempt to thwart the spread of COVID-19 in the city.
“This virus is coming and it’s going to spread just like the flu,” he told KUT. “But the cities that have done well are the cities that have managed … to not overwhelm the city or its health care system. So social distancing … is really our city’s protection against getting overwhelmed.”
Public health officials say the three confirmed cases in Travis County are not cases of person-to-person spread. Adler said the city still has time to contain spread, and that will require people to heed the directions laid out by the city.
“We have some control over how [the] virus impacts us, and that’s a good thing to have the measure of control,” he said. “But it’s also something that really makes it up to us. How this impacts Austin will be the result of the decisions we make individually and collectively.”
People over 60 with pre-existing health conditions are advised to avoid gatherings of more than 10 people. Austin Public Health is also asking that gatherings with more than 125 people be canceled due to health concerns. Adler says these decisions were made with a focus on minimizing community spread.
“We shouldn’t forget why it is that we’re going through this period of time,” he said. “Everybody should really focus on making sure that we do absolutely the best we can with this virus. And that means creating an environment where the virus just does not spread the way that it has in some places.”