Is this third COVID-19 wave our last? Austin is 822 people closer to the answer being ‘yes’

Coronavirus

AUSTIN (KXAN) — For the first time in roughly two months, hospitalizations in Austin-Travis County appear to be on a downward trend. Have we finally hit our third peak? Dr. Desmar Walkes, the local health authority, says she is “cautiously optimistic.”

While that is undoubtedly hopeful news, we’ve been burned before. For a glorious few months earlier this year, vaccinated Texans removed their masks, returned to movie theaters and restaurants and reincorporated activities into daily routine that had disappeared for roughly a year. It looked like the pandemic was finally nearing an end.

A member of a state mobile vaccine team administers a COVID-19 vaccine to an East Austin man on the porch of Sam’s BBQ at a community vaccination clinic on May 14 (Nexstar Photo)

Of course, we all know the rug was waiting to be ripped out from underneath us in the form of a variant more contagious than anything we had seen previously. The delta variant caused a third surge in Texas and in Austin-Travis County that pushed hospital capacities and healthcare systems to new extremes.

The question now is, will this third surge be the last?

Health experts say if we reach herd immunity, it will largely curb the creation and spread of additional variants, putting the pandemic to bed. Without herd immunity, that’s going to take a lot longer and have more speedbumps.

In short, it depends on your neighbors — and as it turns out, we have good news on that front.

A month ago, KXAN interviewed an Austin mom who was struggling to convince her adult kids, one who lives in Austin and one who lives out of state, to get their COVID-19 vaccine. Peggy Daniels reached out to us as a part of our ‘Keep Austin Well’ town hall in an effort to find tools to convince her kids to get their shot.

“They’re both very well educated, they’ve got good jobs, and for some reason they were both hesitant,” she said. “My daughter was a little bit afraid of it because she didn’t feel like there was enough testing and all that stuff. I think my son was just more turned off by the political ramifications of the whole thing.”

But now, a month later, both of her kids have received at least their first dose of a vaccine. Daniels says the FDA’s full approval of the Pfizer vaccine was largely to thank for her son’s vaccination. Her daughter was worried about spreading the virus to her parents, as the delta variant has proven more transmissible.

“She actually got her first shot before it was FDA approved,” Daniels said.

The Daniels family’s story is something we’re hearing across our city. Whether the final push was more businesses and localities putting forward vaccine incentives, the full FDA approval of the Pfizer vaccine or because of concerns brought on by the delta variant, 822 people got their first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine last week through Austin Public Health and CommUnity Care, according to the APH dashboard. That doesn’t include first doses given by other providers and clinics like Walgreens and CVS.

Austin Public Health says of the first doses given by APH last week, 171 were Moderna, 359 were Pfizer and 45 were J&J. Those numbers do not include CommUnity Care numbers.

An APH spokesperson told us they haven’t overwhelmingly seen people requesting the Pfizer vaccine at their clinics as a result of it receiving full FDA approval. They suspect the popularity of the Pfizer vaccine last week was simply a product of it being approved for kids 12-17. APH did several mobile vaccine clinics at schools.

Still, and for whatever reason, the gap between us and herd immunity is closing. Only nine percent of the community is vulnerable to the virus right now, Walkes reported.

Graph shows progress to herd immunity
A graph shown before Austin City Council and Travis County Commissioners Tuesday, August 31, shows progress to herd immunity (Courtesy of APH)

In the graph above, the category marked “estimated” are people who have had COVID, but were asymptomatic or did not have symptoms and therefore were not tested, according to APH.

It’s worth noting that while infections are considered in this graphic in reference to herd immunity, health experts still say the vaccine is much more effective in protecting against reinfection than antibodies brought on by contracting the virus.

Data collected daily by KXAN shows that roughly 67% of the Travis County population is fully vaccinated.

Texas trends

It’s not just locally that we’re seeing an uptick in first vaccinations, it’s a statewide trend. The chart below shows the number of vaccine doses administered each day across Texas. The pink bars show first doses administered but does not include first doses of the J&J vaccine, which is a one dose vaccine and is included in the second or only dose data represented in green.

Over the past month, vaccinations across the state of Texas have consistently crept to daily levels we haven’t seen since May.

While this is all very promising news, the fact remains that roughly 250,000 eligible people in Austin-Travis County remain unvaccinated, according to Dr. Adrienne Sturrup, the interim director of APH. Communities of color continue to lag behind, she said in a briefing Tuesday.

According to data from the Texas Department of State Health Services, 39.26% of people who are Black or African American in Travis County are fully vaccinated, 54.49% of Hispanic or Latino people are vaccinated. That’s compared to the 68.64% of people who are white and fully vaccinated.

A spokesperson for CVS Health says over the past two months, 40% of vaccines administered have been to members of underrepresented communities nationwide. APH has also said they’re focusing on getting vaccine information and clinics to communities falling behind in vaccination rates.

To find COVID-19 vaccine locations near you or to make an appointment, go to Austin Public Health’s website. Vaccine sites will be closed over the holiday weekend.

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