COVID-19 Live Updates: Federal Court In Austin Shuts Down Coronavirus 'Vaccine Kits' Website

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We'll be updating this story throughout the day Monday with the latest local news on the coronavirus. If you'd like to go through a roundup of COVID-19 news from over the weekend, read it here. If you have a news tip or question, email us at news@KUT.org.

Update at 9:02 a.m. — Mayor Adler says shelter-in-place order is "absolutely" under consideration

Austin Mayor Steve Adler says Travis County is considering its own "shelter-in-place" policy — but no final decision has been made, he said on KUT Morning Edition.

On Sunday, Dallas County became the first county in Texas to issue such an order in an effort to keep hospitals from being overrun with patients. Adler says a lot of the rules put in place with the Dallas order are things the City of Austin is already doing, including keeping only essential businesses open and enforcing social distancing. Still, Adler says nothing is off the table. 

"Shelter-in-place policy is something that is absolutely under consideration. I know that the county judge here has been in contact with the county judge in the other big counties. And we're making these decisions on a day-to-day basis," the mayor said.

Adler says, right now, the most important thing to do is to stay home – especially is you're not feeling well. If you do need to leave to run errands, the mayor suggests only one person from every household go out at a time and make sure there's six feet between you and those around you at all times. 

Update at 7:39 a.m. — Federal court in Austin issues restraining order against website offering coronavirus vaccine

The Department of Justice said it has taken its first action in federal court against fraud related to the coronavirus pandemic. 

The operators of coronavirusmedicalkit.com, which has since been shut down, are engaging in a wire fraud scheme to profit from the confusion and fear surrounding COVID-19, federal prosecutors said.

The website claimed to offer access to World Health Organization vaccine kits in exchange for a shipping charge of $4.95. There are currently no legitimate COVID-19 vaccines and the WHO is not distributing any such vaccine, the DOJ said.  

The restraining order issued in Austin required the website registrar to immediately block public access to it.

“Attorney General Barr has directed the department to prioritize fraud schemes arising out of the coronavirus emergency,” said U.S. Attorney John F. Bash of the Western District of Texas. “We therefore moved very quickly to shut down this scam." An investigation of the website and its operators continues.

The DOJ urges the public to report suspected fraud schemes related to COVID-19 by calling the National Center for Disaster Fraud (NCDF) hotline (1-866-720-5721) or by e-mailing the NCDF at disaster@leo.gov.

Catch up on what happened over the weekend

Gov. Abbott issues new rules to increase hospital capacity

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott announced Sunday he is issuing orders to increase health care and hospital capacity as COVID-19 spreads throughout the state. He said he was not, however, going to issue a "shelter-in-place" order for Texas, as other governors have done.

Abbott is directing health care professionals to postpone all surgeries and procedures that are not necessary to correct a serious medical condition or to preserve the life of a patient. He said he is also suspending regulations that prevent doctors from treating more than one patient in a room.

“Together these orders will free up countless hospital beds across the entire state of Texas to be able to treat the potential increase in COVID-19 patients,” the governor said. 

On Saturday, Abbott waived some nursing license regulations in the state to increase the number of available nurses. 

Austin and Travis County open joint COVID-19 testing sites

The City of Austin and Travis County opened its first COVID-19 testing site Saturday, one of 11 sites in a public-private partnership between Austin Public Health, St. David’s, Ascension Seton, UT's Dell Medical School and Baylor Scott and White.

The city says there is a big gap between the number of tests available and the number of people seeking a test, so sites will prioritize individuals who are sent by referral and have an appointment. Priority will be given to individuals with specific symptoms and risk factors such as travel, close contact with confirmed cases or underlying health conditions.

Federal disaster loans now open to small businessses and nonprofits in Austin

Austin small businesses and nonprofits hurt by the COVID-19 crisis can now apply for emergency loans from the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA). The Austin City Council is also considering a gap-financing program that could provide loans to applicants as they await the federal loans.

The SBA disaster assistance loans became available in Texas after the state received a federal disaster declaration over the coronavirus. The loans offer borrowers up to $2 million to pay “fixed debts, payroll, accounts payable and other bills that can’t be paid because of the disaster’s impact,” according to this SBA fact sheet.  

Other local coronavirus news:

  • Austin Mayor Steve Adler signed an order requiring retail businesses like grocery stores to ensure social distancing of at least 6 feet between customers in front of and inside stores.
  • Ascension Seton, Baylor Scott & White and St. David’s HealthCare are implementing a “no visitor” policy in all hospitals. 
  • Burnet County has its first confirmed case of COVID-19, County Judge James Oakley announced Sunday. 
  • Capital Metro is hiring full-time and part-time positions to help provide essential services to the community during the COVID-19 pandemic.