This post has local news on the coronavirus pandemic from Tuesday, July 21. If you have a news tip or question, email us at news@KUT.org.
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Travis County sees 603 new COVID-19 cases and nine more deaths
Austin Public Health reported 603 new cases of COVID-19 in Travis County on Tuesday, a number much higher than other daily totals reported in the last week. In the past few days, APH has been reporting daily totals of less than 300. The seven-day average of new cases is 342.3.
APH reported nine more coronavirus-related deaths in the county on Tuesday.
The number of people reportedly hospitalized with the virus in the five-county region (Travis, Williamson, Hays, Bastrop and Caldwell) is now at 459, down from 480 on Monday. Despite that net decrease, APH reported there were 57 new COVID-19 hospital admissions on Tuesday, up from 43 on Monday.
The seven-day average of new hospital admissions is now at 63.4, down from 65.8. Local officials worry about hospitals being overwhelmed by coronavirus patients, so they’re keeping an eye on that number and adjusting restrictions based on it and other factors.
Right now, the area is in stage 4 of APH’s risk-based guidelines. If the average of new hospital admissions reaches 70 or higher, local officials could decide to move to stage 5, the highest level. That move, though, also depends on how quickly the average is increasing.
Texas says health officials must ID nursing homes with COVID-19 outbreaks
Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton says health authorities must now divulge the names of nursing homes affected by COVID-19 in publicly released data.
The Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas and media outlets requested identifying information of nursing homes and assisted care facilities with coronavirus cases, but state health officials blocked any identifying information for facilities, citing medical privacy laws.
Yesterday, the transparency nonprofit announced Paxton's office sided with them, as the requests weren't for personal medical information protected under federal law.
Austin Public Health says it's in discussion with city and county attorneys on how to comply with the attorney general's ruling.
— Andrew Weber
Escott says ‘there’s more disease out there than the numbers reflect’
Austin Public Health says it's seen a plateau in new cases and hospitalizations related to COVID-19, but that the coronavirus is going undetected within the agency’s five-county region.
At his weekly update to the Travis County Commissioners Court, APH's interim Medical Director Mark Escott briefly addressed two studies released this week that showed some areas of the U.S. have only been able to detect paltry fractions of COVID-19 cases.
The analyses, which examined thousands of results from antibody tests, showed that the infection rate of the coronavirus was, in one case, 24 times higher than reported.
Escott said Austin, which was not featured in either study, is also only detecting a fraction of overall COVID-19 cases.
"There is more disease out there than the case numbers reflect," he said.
While testing has expanded, Escott said, an analysis from UT Austin epidemiologist Lauren Ancel Meyers suggests that APH only detected about 12% of the symptomatic COVID-19 cases in the community in May and June – meaning the virus was eight times more infectious than thought.
He said testing expansion has led to better detection, but that it's next to impossible to document asymptomatic spread.
"As we have moved along and we have increased testing, we believe that we're detecting closer to 35 to 40% of the symptomatic cases," he said. "But that doesn't tell us a lot about the asymptomatic cases. So I have no doubt that there's many more."
— Andrew Weber
UIL releases modified athletics schedule for Texas high schools
Smaller public schools in Texas can start their athletic practices on schedule this year, but larger schools will have to wait until September, the University Interscholastic League announced on Tuesday.
UIL released updated calendars based on school size. Schools in the 1A to 4A conferences can start volleyball and football practice Aug. 3, while larger schools will have to wait until Sept. 7. The organization says it’s giving schools in more populated areas — those in 5A and 6A conferences — a delayed start because of the “challenges with COVID-19 those communities are facing.”
All marching bands can begin their curriculum Sept. 7.
UIL says its plan also allows for “local flexibility,” because COVID-19 affects each community differently.
Since not all schools can start at the same time, UIL says its plan allows schools to make decisions at the local level and the organization will “work directly with schools that have scheduling issues.”
“Our goal in releasing this plan is to provide a path forward for Texas students and schools,” said UIL Executive Director Dr. Charles Breithaupt in a press release. “While understanding situations change and there will likely be interruptions that will require flexibility and patience, we are hopeful this plan allows students to participate in the education-based activities they love in a way that prioritizes safety and mitigates risk of COVID-19 spread.”
UIL has issued COVID-19 risk mitigation guidelines for the academic year, including guidance on face coverings and protocols for areas like band halls and locker rooms.
Field hospital opening at Austin Convention Center delayed
The field hospital at the Austin Convention Center was originally set to open today, but that has now been pushed back. Speaking at Tuesday's Travis County Commissioners Court meeting, Austin-Travis County Interim Health Authority Dr. Mark Escott said the opening was delayed to make sure Austin's hospitals have the staff they need before the field hospital is staffed.
Last week, the county's Alternate Health Authority Dr. Jason Pickett said resources were being stretched as area hospitals dealt with growing COVID-19 cases. He said there are no plans to run an intensive care unit inside the field hospital.
Instead, the care site will house lower-risk coronavirus patients to open up more hospital beds.
"I don’t know if we’re going to take patients from the hospitals on day one of the alternate care site being open, but I know that we will be ready to do so," Pickett said.
Individual hospitals will have the final call when it comes to moving patients to the new site. The total number of COVID-19 hospitalizations in the Austin area has plateaued recently.
On Monday, there were 43 COVID-19 hospital admissions in the Austin area. That brought the seven day-average for hospitalizations to about 66 — the lowest the average has been since July 1.
San Marcos CISD moves the first day of school to Sept. 8
San Marcos Consolidated Independent School District's reopening plans amid the COVID-19 pandemic closely mimic those of other districts in Hays County.
Superintendent Michael Cardona asked the Board of Trustees at Monday night's meeting to push back the first day of school to Sept. 8. And once the semester begins, the first four weeks of school to be virtual for everybody, with the possibility of an extension.
Cardona says the district will be ready to teach this fall. "I can tell you that we're more prepared than we were at the end of last year when we were all caught off guard. And I’m quite sure that we will do a much better job at the beginning of this year," Cardona said. "And so we ask our community to be patient."
Over the next two months, the district will be sending out surveys to parents on their preferred learning models. Cardona says the school has secured Chromebooks and iPads, and other technologies to make sure every student in the district has access to technology.
— Riane Roldan
UT Austin says it will have fans in attendance at football games this fall
UT Austin has announced it will move forward this fall with a 50% seating capacity for football games at Darrell K Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium.
The school says it can properly space fans and allow all season ticket holders to see every home game. Athletic Director Chris Del Conte sent a note to season ticket holders that they can opt-out of going to 2020 games without losing their regular seats going into 2021.
The stadium holds about 100,000 people, although that figure was going to be reduced slightly this season because part of the stadium is undergoing renovation, the Associated Press reports.
The first game in Austin is scheduled for Sept. 5 against the University of South Florida.
Read more from Andrew Weber.
Texas expects a $4.6 billion budget shortfall
Texas Comptroller Glenn Hegar is estimating a $4.6 billion budget shortfall for the biennium ending in August of 2021 due to the coronavirus pandemic and drop in oil prices.
Last fall, Hegar projected the state would have a general revenue of more than $121 billion. But now, that estimate is closer to $110 billion.
That projection assumes that COVID-19 restrictions will be lifted before the end of the year and economic activity will slowly bounce back.
"It’s important to note that this revised estimate carries unprecedented uncertainty. We’re assuming the state will effectively manage the outbreak and that infection rates won’t overwhelm our health care system," Hegar said in a statement. "This estimate also assumes that restrictions on businesses and individuals will be lifted before the end of this calendar year and that economic activity will strengthen but not return to pre-pandemic levels by the end of this biennium.”
The projection doesn't take into account state leaders’ call for a 5% spending reduction from state agencies. Hegar said he will provide an update in January.
AISD hosts virtual community conversations Wednesday and Thursday
The Austin Independent School District is hosting two virtual community conversations this week to preview what students can expect for the 2020-2021 school year.
The first conversation will discuss online learning and teaching at home. It will be hosted Wednesday morning from 9 until 10:30. Thursday's meeting will focus on students returning to campus after Labor Day. It'll run from noon until 1:30.
Families can tune in to both sessions on the district's Facebook page. The school district says the sessions will have close captioning and have Spanish interpretation. Questions can be submitted in advance here.
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