Monday, March 16, 2020 by Elizabeth Pagano

What’s happening, what’s not, and how to help


Health Care


For general information about COVID-19, as well as the latest, most accurate information about recommendations, warnings, prevention and testing, visit the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention site dedicated to the virus.

The Texas Department of State Health Services is working with the CDC and maintaining its own output of Texas-specific information. General health information about prevention and testing can be found on the main page and current Texas counts can be found on the DSHS news page.

Texas Health and Human Services issued updated guidance for nursing facilities Sunday. Until further notice, the facilities are encouraged to use video conferencing and phone calls to facilitate contact between residents and their loved ones. Facilities are now required to screen those entering using the guidelines issued by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. Nonessential staff will be permitted in nursing facilities only under certain conditions, such as end-of-life or other compassionate care situations. HHS reports that the state will be conducting targeted inspections of facilities.

Austin Public Health has issued critical advice for those who have been in contact with an infected person and announced that it is currently “conducting tracing on hundreds of people.” According to the guidelines, anyone who has been within 6 feet of an individual infected with COVID-19 should self-quarantine and monitor symptoms for 14 days. Those who were in proximity greater than 6 feet should also monitor their temperature and symptoms for 14 days and avoid places where they cannot maintain a distance of 6 feet from others. Those who develop symptoms should contact their health care provider for an assessment of testing priority. Anyone feeling ill should stay home. Parents are urged to keep their children at home if they are sick and prepare for citywide school closures.

Hospital group Baylor Scott & White opened Austin’s first drive-through testing clinic on March 13, near the Domain. The center is designed to allow patients to be tested for COVID-19 without leaving their cars, which limits exposure for health care workers and, hopefully, allows for more efficient testing.

St. David’s has implemented visitor restrictions for its health care facilities. The hospitals have restricted visiting hours and the number of visitors allowed, and moving forward all visitors must be 18 years of age or older. A statement from St. David’s notes that “exceptions may be granted for extraordinary needs.”

Integral Care clinics remain open at this time and recommend that anyone experiencing a mental health crisis call the 24/7 crisis helpline at 512-472-HELP (4357), where someone will be available to provide nonjudgmental support. Alternately, those in need of help can text “TX” to 741741, which will connect to a crisis text line that provides free 24/7 crisis support.


City and County Services


Austin Energy announced Friday that it was suspending utility shut-offs due to unpaid bills. The initiative was forwarded by City Council Member Greg Casar during Thursday’s Council meeting and echoed by his colleagues just prior to an indefinite extension of a Declaration of Local Disaster. Austin Energy made the change in order not to exacerbate problems for those experiencing financial hardship due to COVID-19. Customers who are behind on their bills also have the option of being placed on a deferred payment plan. Limited income or medically vulnerable customers can also get assistance through the utility, and any customer with questions can contact the Customer Care Contact Center at 512-494-9400.

Travis County justices of the peace issued an order postponing eviction hearings in the Austin area until at least April 1. Justices also extended the time allowed to show up for traffic tickets. In addition, the Texas Office of Court Administration has issued guidelines that recommend either delaying nonessential court meetings or conducting them by phone/video. A list of current and upcoming court closures can be found here. All non-essential Municipal Court dockets will be rescheduled.

Given the prohibition on gatherings passed by the city and county, the Austin Parks and Recreation Department will be limiting access to Zilker Botanical Garden and the Austin Nature and Science Center to 250 people, and planned free days on March 17 and 28 at the botanical garden will be rescheduled to days that will allow for more attendance. In addition, all pools, golf courses, athletic programs, recreation centers, and cultural centers will be closed, except camps and spring break activities, which will continue through Wednesday. Likewise, all meal services for kids and seniors will continue.

All Austin Public Library locations, the Austin History Center and Recycled Reads will be closed to the public through March 29, though the city’s virtual library will continue to operate around the clock.

In order to maintain the health and safety of the public and city employees, Austin Animal Center has closed to the public for the time being.


Events


As of Sunday, March 15, the city of Austin and Travis County have banned community gatherings of 250 people or more. The orders, which were adopted by Mayor Steve Adler and County Judge Sarah Eckhardt, will continue until at least May 1. Along with the ban comes a recommendation that community members refrain from attending gatherings with more than 125 people. According to a press release from the city, “The Orders define community gatherings as any indoor or outdoor event that is likely to bring together 250 or more people at the same time in a single room or other confined or enclosed space, such as an auditorium, theatre, stadium arena or event center, meeting hall, conference center, large cafeteria, restaurant, nightclub/bar, or any other confined indoor or confined outdoor space. … The prohibition does not generally include office space or residential buildings, transit including airports, bus stations or terminals, grocery stores, shopping malls, or hospitals and medical offices and facilities. This is because while large numbers of people may be present it is considered unusual for them to be within arm’s length of one another for extended periods.”

Businesses with questions about the new rules should call 311, and employers are urged to consider telecommuting options for their employees. The city has also put together a FAQ for businesses, events and venues.

Since the announcement that South by Southwest would be canceled, a long list of events have followed suit. Spectrum News has compiled a list of events that have been canceled and venues that have closed, but Austinites are encouraged to contact event hosts if they have questions.


Schools


Austin Independent School District students are currently set to return to school on Monday, March 23. On March 13, AISD trustees passed a resolution that looked very much like preparation for extended school closures, giving the superintendent “emergency authorization to act nimbly and effectively to address the ongoing situation that affects students and staff.” Specifically, trustees expanded the superintendent’s authority in order to allow them to make purchases outside of the normal contract process, compensate employees impacted by the suspension of school and apply for waivers from the TEA concerning instruction and attendance. Austin Independent School District COVID-19 updates (and the resolution) are posted at austinisd.org/student-health/coronavirus.

For now, it looks as though most local charter schools will follow the lead of the school districts.

At the moment, the University of Texas at Austin has extended spring break and classes are set to resume on Monday, March 30, with new social distancing measures in place. Campus visits and tours are suspended and all events at Frank Erwin Center and Bass Concert Hall have been postponed. In addition, all university-sponsored travel has been suspended for the time being and there has been a worldwide recall of all university-sponsored travelers (faculty, staff and students). UT is maintaining a website of news updates, guidelines and FAQs, which is located at utexas.edu/coronavirus.

Austin Community College is closed, with spring break extended one week. Only essential personnel are reporting to work on campus, with students scheduled to return March 30. Updates on scheduling and a FAQ can be found at austincc.edu/coronavirus.

St. Edward’s University canceled classes on Friday, March 13, and there will be no on-campus instruction until April 4 at the earliest. During the period of online instruction scheduled to run from March 22-April 4, students are discouraged from going on campus. St. Edward’s has stated it will update students by March 31 about when they can return to campus, and the university has been posting updates on its alert center.

Huston-Tillotson University has extended its spring break to March 29, with all classes to be held online thereafter, until further notice. Residence halls are also closed. More information and updates can be found on the school’s coronavirus preparedness site.


The Region


Last week marked not only the official declaration of a pandemic, it was also the official launch of the 2020 U.S. Census. As The New York Times reports, the virus and public reaction to the virus could amplify the already-tough task of counting some populations. It’s not clear yet how measures to preserve public health will impact local efforts to ensure a complete count, but it is a good year to debut the ability to respond to the census online, to say the least. That can be done on the U.S. Census website. Mariana Salazar, who is the Census 2020 project director at United Way for Greater Austin, told the Monitor, “Now that we are all facing the threats of COVID-19, by necessity, many of our census outreach strategies will need to change.” Though the situation evolved quickly, Salazar said she anticipated that they would be relying more on digital strategies such as social media, texts and phone banks moving forward and canceling large events and face-to face canvassing in favor of virtual meetings, videos and distributing informational material. Anyone with questions about the census may call 211 and will be transferred to available phone lines in English, Spanish and 11 other languages.

Hays County declared a state of disaster after reporting its first case of COVID-19 on Saturday. Local leaders will be holding a press conference in conjunction with the city of San Marcos on the morning of March 15. “The Council and the city’s leadership team continue to evaluate operating procedures at all city facilities and will adjust event schedules to proactively take precautions to protect residents and our community,” San Marcos Mayor Jane Hughson said. “We aren’t canceling all city events at this time, but will be making appropriate adjustments depending on the location, participants and the availability of volunteers who are vital to our operation.” The city of San Marcos will conduct its Council meeting on Tuesday, but encourages people to watch the live stream and submit comments via email. All other commission and board meetings have been canceled.

Despite the absence of COVID-19 cases in the county, Williamson County Judge Bill Gravell declared a local state of disaster March 14. The Williamson County and Cities Health District is maintaining a bank of information on its website.


Ways to Help


As promoted by Travis County Judge Sarah Eckhardt, Mayor Steve Adler and state Sen. Kirk Watson, the Stand With Austin Fund is an Austin Community Foundation joint designed to support nonprofits assisting those impacted by the cancellation of SXSW. More info about the fund can be found on the website.

The Red River Cultural District has helped set up a GoFundMe called Banding Together to aid the venues, artists, service industry workers, production workers and businesses that rely on the influx of money from the now-canceled spring festival season.

Anticipating increased need, Central Texas Food Bank put out an urgent call for support: “We still need volunteers to help us get food out to our neighbors who need it, so our volunteer operations are open. In fact, we may need your help more than ever as some corporate groups cancel as a result of their company policies.” The food bank is encouraging virtual food drives and online donations.

We Are Blood has an urgent need for blood and platelet donations: “This week, multiple businesses have canceled their mobile blood drives after implementing new work-from-home or building access policies due to concern about the coronavirus. A simultaneous downturn in appointments, likely due to cold and flu season, has left us deeply concerned about blood and platelet donations in the coming weeks.”

This list will continue to be updated with resources and news. Please send information and tips to editor@austinmonitor.com.

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