Tuesday, March 21, 2023

Austin Public Health Offering Gift Cards To Encourage All COVID-19 Vaccinations, Booster Doses

COVID-19 vaccination rates in Austin-Travis County remain static among low income communities and Travis County areas with limited access to clinics and pharmacies. To raise the vaccine uptake in our community, Austin Public Health (APH) will be offering gift cards to those who receive any dose of the COVID-19 vaccine. After much feedback on barriers to getting the shot, this incentive will be some relief for those who have to take unpaid time off work. Data shows those who are unvaccinated have worse symptoms and could be hospitalized, which ultimately causes more missed days from work or school.  

“With the Public Health Emergency set to end in May, the availability of free COVID-19 vaccines will likely drop,” said Dr. Desmar Walkes, Austin-Travis County Health Authority. “There's still time to get fully vaccinated and receive your booster dose. Now is the best time to get that next shot” 

In recent months APH has noted a decrease in demand for COVID-19 vaccines, especially first and second doses. APH’s COVID-19 Vaccine Incentive Program, which offered gift cards to those receiving their first and second doses, also saw a drop in interest. APH will now be offering these gift cards to: 

  • Anyone (of any age) that is eligible to receive a COVID-19 vaccine, and
  • Anyone receiving their first, second, or booster dose of the COVID-19 vaccine. 

The number of patients who could receive a gift card before these changes was limited due to eligibility restrictions from the funding source.  

The following vaccination rates are cause for concern in Austin-Travis County (as of March 1): 

  • 59.6% of Black residents, 39.6% of Hispanic residents and 37.4% of White residents remain unvaccinated. 
  • Only 38.2% of our entire population has received an additional dose following the primary series. 
  • Less than half (41.5%) of 5-to-11-year-olds and only a tenth (10.3%) of 6 6-month-to-4-year-olds have completed their primary series. 

“It’s important for everyone to remember we’re still in a pandemic; COVID-19 hasn’t gone away, its presence is being felt every day in doctor’s offices and hospitals,” said APH Director Adrienne Sturrup. “Let’s make Austin and Travis County a safer place for you and me by getting up to date with your vaccines.” 

You can find a list of upcoming APH events here

Vaccine Providers   

Visit Vaccines.gov (Vacunas.gov in Spanish) to find flu and COVID-19 vaccine providers near you.        

Free COVID-19 tests    

Free mail-order rapid antigen test kits are available once again through covid.gov/tests. Households are eligible for another round of four tests for a limited time.    

At-home COVID-19 test kits are available at APH Neighborhood Centers while supplies last. The U.S. Department of Health and Humans Services also lists community-based testing sites online.     

Free masks (N-95 respirators)     

Use the CDC’s mask-locator tool to find pharmacies near you that provide free masks (N-95 respirators). It does not show current inventories, so check with the location for availability.

Austin Public Works Launches Open House for the MoKan Trail, Virtual Open House link below

The City of Austin is making progress on plans for expanding a new urban trail in east Austin. Now, it’s time for Austin residents to weigh in on whether the project is on track. 

The MoKan Trail Preliminary Engineering Phase Virtual Open House, launched today, debuts recommendations for the trail’s alignment and design features. The open house is available in English and Spanish 24 hours a day, seven days a week through Sunday April 23, 2023. 

The open house focuses on six segments of the .75-mile trail extension between North Pleasant Valley Road and Springdale Road, each with unique design challenges and considerations. Surveys in English and Spanish inviting feedback on proposed design solutions for each segment are included as part of the online open house. 

“I’m pleased to see Austin’s Mobility Bond dollars put to work in east Austin,” said Council Member José Velásquez, who represents District 3. “Investing in trails is crucial to meeting our City’s mobility goals for walking, biking and transit. We need residents to get involved to make this trail the best it can be.” 

During the open house comment period, the MoKan Trail project team is providing four opportunities to meet the team, ask questions and provide feedback in person: 

*Spanish interpretation available at this date. Un intérprete de español estará disponible durante este hora. 

“It’s important to us to get the public involved early in the project process so they can provide meaningful input,” James Snow, Austin Public Works Interim Director, said. “And we want to make every effort to meet people where they are, rather than ask them to come to us.”  

illustrated map of the project limits

Plans for this trail connection have been years in the making. Once complete, the entire 1.5-mile MoKan Trail will connect an existing protected bike path on Pedernales Street to the Southern Walnut Creek Trail system. The trail will also connect to the Project Connect Green Line Pleasant Valley Transfer Station.  

Austin Public Works’ Urban Trails Program is managing the project through all phases of design, construction, and inspection. Funding sources for the trail include the voter-approved 2020 Mobility Bond and $1 million in federal Community Project Funding secured by Congressman Lloyd Doggett. 

Residents can learn more and subscribe for project updates at the project website: AustinTexas.gov/MoKanTrail

Friday, March 10, 2023

City Steps in to Help Relocate Salvation Army Clients


The Salvation Army agrees to extend downtown shelter operations for up to 30 days.

After discussions with the City of Austin, the local advisory board of The Salvation Army Austin Area Command (The Salvation Army) has agreed to extend its downtown shelter operations for up to 30 days. The extension will cost up to $100,000, funded by the City. In the meantime, the organization will coordinate with the City’s Homeless Strategy Division and other service partners to facilitate the placement of clients. If case management is not available in new temporary housing settings, The Salvation Army staff will continue to provide that service to their clients.

The City Council’s Public Health Committee met on March 8, and committee members expressed concern about The Salvation Army shelter’s planned closure on March 15 and the impact on clients. Public Health Committee members requested that The Salvation Army extend its downtown operations to allow for safe placement of all clients.

Austin Interim City Manager Jesús Garza authorized the Homeless Strategy Division to exhaust all options to find placements for The Salvation Army clients. Today, staff reported to Council that the Homeless Strategy Division and community partners have identified alternative shelter or housing for approximately 50 remaining shelter clients.

Clients of The Salvation Army will likely be accommodated in a variety of settings, including local shelters, apartments secured by a service provider, transitional housing programs, board and care homes, and, if needed, hotel stays arranged through a nonprofit partner.

“Addressing this crisis in such a short period of time has only been possible through the collaboration and creativity of our community partners – over a dozen of whom have stepped forward to offer shelter beds, housing, and other resources,” Homeless Strategy Officer Dianna Grey said. “We also appreciate the willingness of The Salvation Army to extend operations to allow for a more thoughtful transition.”

This morning, the Homeless Strategy Division and other service providers visited clients and case managers at the downtown shelter to give an overview of relocation options and answer questions about the process. Clients were assured that they would be offered a local placement before the shelter closes.

“The residents of The Salvation Army shelter should never have been left in limbo as they were, but I truly appreciate that folks from our Homeless Strategy Division and Austin Public Health have stepped in to help the residents with compassion and urgency to ensure everyone has a safe space to stay,” Mayor Kirk Watson said. “From day one, I’ve pushed The Salvation Army to keep the shelter open while they sell the building and they’ve finally relented at least for the short term. While this is a temporary solution to an emergency, the work done here represents the kind of responsive service the City is now delivering to all its residents. I thank the City employees involved.”

Next steps include communication and dialogue with The Salvation Army clients, completing the process of matching clients to available locations, and coordinating logistics of program intake, transportation, and move-in. The Homeless Strategy Division will continue to regularly report on progress until all shelter clients are accommodated.

To learn more about homelessness in Austin, please visit www.austintexas.gov/homelessness

Thursday, March 9, 2023

Council Approves Measure to Expand Public Charging Stations

In recognition of the growing surge of electric vehicles in Austin, the City Council took steps Thursday to ensure the city has a robust network of public charging stations.

The Council voted to direct the City Manager to develop a plan for the equitable distribution of public charging stations, including DC (direct current) fast chargers and Level 2 chargers, which are more common in homes and workplaces.

The resolution, brought by District 7 Council Member Leslie Pool, aligns with the goals of the Austin Climate Equity Plan, which calls for reaching net-zero community-wide greenhouse gas emissions by 2040 as well as the distribution of a mix of public charging stations throughout the city. A more immediate challenge of the climate plan is the goal of reducing our use of fossil fuels to nearly zero by 2030.

“Making charging stations, especially fast chargers, more accessible throughout the city might nudge people who may be on the fence about electric vehicles to make the switch,” Pool said. “Having more access and more users will go a long way toward reducing our use of fossil fuels community wide.”

Initial cosponsors joining Pool on the resolution were Mayor Kirk Watson and Council Members  Zohaib “Zo” Qadri, José 'Chito' Vela, and Alison Alter. Mayor Pro Tem Paige Ellis and Council Members Vanessa Fuentes, Natasha Harper-Madison, and Ryan Alter also signed on as cosponsors.

The number of electric vehicles in Austin has grown by nearly 40% over the past year, according to data provided by nonprofit Texas Electric Transportation Resources Alliance, or TxETRA.

Recent federal action has opened competitive funding opportunities for the city to finance the charging stations, including $20 million of National Electric Vehicle Infrastructure (NEVI) funding to CAMPO, $2.5 billion in NEVI Clean Fuel Infrastructure grants, and credits up to $100,000 per charging station.

With its vote, the Council further directed the City Manager to coordinate with local and regional partners on this initiative, and to establish priorities for an initial three-year implementation phase of the plan. The Council expects a progress report with timelines by mid-September.

Wednesday, March 8, 2023

COVID-19 Emergency SNAP Benefits Are Ending – Here Is What to Do

This month everyone in Texas who receives benefits from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, will see a decrease in those benefits. Each of these 3.6 million households will receive at least $95.00 less than in the months prior.  

When the COVID-19 pandemic began in early 2020, Congress made the decision to allow each household that receives SNAP benefits to receive the maximum amount of monthly assistance. This measure to allow for SNAP Emergency Allotments was intended to help those who were most impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.  

These SNAP Emergency Allotments were supposed to end at the same time as the COVID-19 pandemic health emergency which is still on-going. However, Congress passed the Omnibus Appropriations Bill in December of last year. This bill allowed for more money to be available for the Summer EBT (Electronic Benefits Transfer) program for low-income families with kids. To free-up more money for that program, the bill calls for an earlier end to the SNAP emergency allotments; it took effect on March 2. 

For households wishing to offset this reduction in benefits, it is recommended that they update their information as soon as possible about medical, housing, child or disabled adult care costs using the any one of the following resources: 

  • Visit YourTexasBenefits.com, log into your account and find the case you want to make changes to. Select Details, then Open Change Report. 
  • Use the YourTexasBenefits mobile app (free on the Apple App or Google Play Store). 
  • Find your local HHSC benefits office, and report changes in person at your local HHSC benefits office.  
  • Call 2-1-1 and select option 2 to update your information.  

For a list of deductions that you can request from HHSC please look at sections A-1420 through A-1429.4 of the Texas Works Handbook.  

Another useful resource for those impacted by this decision is Double Up Food Bucks. This program allows Texans to use their SNAP EBT Card to buy more fruits and vegetables. For every dollar you spend on produce at participating farmers’ markets, farm stands, mobile markets, and grocery stores with your EBT Card, Double Up Food Bucks will add another dollar for you to buy more. You can find participating locations at DoubleUpTexas.org. 

Find a nearby food bank by typing your zip code into Feeding Texas network website to find participating food banks in your city. The Central Texas Food Bank located at 6500 Metropolis Dr., Austin, TX 78744 is a great resource for Austin residents. Contact the Central Texas Food Bank at 512-282-2111. 

AUS prepares passengers for a busy Spring Travel Season ahead

With a slew of events heading to Austin this spring, including SXSW, Dell Match Play, NASCAR, Texas Relays, and the CMT Awards, Austin-Bergstrom International Airport (AUS) advises passengers to expect a busy terminal beginning March 8th through early April. 1,822,198 passengers traveled through AUS in March 2022 – making it the busiest March in airport history. This year, airlines are offering 10% more seats than last – poising March 2023 to top March 2022.

“We’re excited for the return of Spring Travel Season,” said Towanda Cordon, Acting Deputy Chief of Operations. “AUS has taken steps to prepare the airport for the influx of travelers during March and April by coordinating with airlines and other on-airport partners to ensure we are staffed appropriately for the period. We ask that passengers plan ahead, arrive early, use our tips and pack their patience as our teams prepare for their arrival.”

When to arrive at AUS

  • Passengers using general Transportation Security Administration (TSA) screening should arrive at least 2.5 hours before departure for domestic flights and 3 hours before departure for international flights.
  • Passengers that need to check luggage, return a rental car, or complete other activities before joining the TSA security line should arrive even earlier.
  • TSA PreCheck and Clear users can expect a faster security process than those using general TSA screening.  On-site TSA PreCheck enrollment is now offered to departing passengers after they are cleared through security through a new enrollment program, which you can learn more about here.

Security screening & packing correctly

  • AUS has 4 security screening checkpoints and all checkpoints lead to all gates. The checkpoints open at 3:00 a.m. and TSA PreCheck and Clear are available at Checkpoints 1 and 2 West.
  • AUS Department of Aviation staff will be throughout the terminal to assist passengers.
  • The TSA has reported that AUS passengers continue to bring a record number of guns to security checkpoints. Bringing prohibited items, like firearms and liquids exceeding 3.4 oz. will cause delays for passengers.
  • Passengers can visit TSA.gov for guidance on how to pack and what items are allowed in carry-on luggage.
  • Event promotional items, bulky souvenirs and giveaways should be packed in carry-on luggage to prevent delays in the checked baggage security screening process.

Parking and/or dropping off passengers

  • Visit ABIAParking.com if you're planning to park at AUS. You can reserve a parking space and check for real-time parking availability before arriving at the airport.
  • Passengers should budget in extra arrival time for shuttle service to the terminal as it runs approximately every 15-20 minutes.
  • Use either the upper level for departures or the lower level for arrivals to drop off passengers. And vice versa - if you're picking up someone and the lower level for arrivals is backed up, have them go to the upper-level departures and pick them up there. We recommend using whichever level is least congested.
  • Allegiant and Frontier passengers are encouraged to park on-site at the South Terminal.

Mobility assistance and accessibility needs

  • Passengers who require wheelchair assistance need to contact their airline prior to their travel date to set up the service.
  • AUS offers SkySquad, a new service which connects passengers with a trained, pre-vetted airport assistant to provide an extra pair of hands from the curbside to their gate (from ticketing, checking bags, loading items onto the security belt, keeping an eye on travel items when they go to the restroom and more). Passengers need to book 24 hours in advance. Visit the SkySquad website or call (877) 359-2256.
  • AUS has a new Mobility Lounge for passengers using wheelchairs and other mobility assistive devices located on the ticketing/departures level.
    • AUS also has a new Mobility Assistance Zone, which provides priority access for Wheelchair Accessible Vehicles (WAVs), taxis and rideshares to pick-up passengers with limited mobility. It is located on the lower level curbside one lane across from the G and H pick-up areas; it is free and open daily from 7 a.m. to 2 a.m. 
    • We also have a Mobility Assistance Tram, which transports Passengers with mobility needs via tram across the walkway between the car rental area and the terminal curbside. It operates 7 days a week.
  • Consider requesting TSA Cares Assistance. TSA Cares is a helpline that provides travelers with disabilities, medical conditions and other special circumstances additional assistance during the security screening process. Contact them at (855) 787-2227.

Checking into your flight

  • Airline ticket counters open at various times. Passengers should contact the airline directly for hours of operation.
  • Passengers without checked luggage can bypass the busy ticket counters and head immediately to TSA screening checkpoints using these time-saving flight check-in options:
    • Use a mobile boarding pass to skip the airline ticket counters.
    • Use a self-service kiosk located inside the terminal to print boarding passes.
    • In addition to traditional check-in procedures, some airlines offer outside curbside check-in on the upper level.

Getting the most out of AUS

  • Once inside, explore the food, new art installations, live music stages, and more using step-by-step directions on the AUS digital wayfinding map at AirportMaps.AustinTexas.gov.
  • AUS is excited to offer a special music line-up, featuring 52 different live music performances starting Monday, March 13 through Friday. March 17.  You can view a detailed schedule of our 8 music stages on the Live Music in the Air at AUS program webpage.

Information for Allegiant and Frontier travelers: Know your terminal

  • Passengers flying Allegiant or Frontier will depart from The South Terminal, which is a separate terminal located near US 183 and Burleson Road at 10000 Logistics Lane. This terminal is not accessible from the main Barbara Jordan Terminal. While we do provide shuttle service to the terminal, we encourage Allegiant and Frontier passengers to park on-site at the South Terminal to save time.

Passengers needing assistance at any point in their journey at AUS are encouraged to call the Airport Operations Center at (512) 530-2242 or to ask any Department of Aviation staff member for assistance.

City Working on Plan to Relocate Salvation Army Downtown Shelter Clients

Austin Interim City Manager Jesús Garza announced Wednesday that the City is actively working with The Salvation Army on options to ensure guests at the organization’s downtown shelter have somewhere to go, despite The Salvation Army’s plans to close the shelter on March 15.

The Salvation Army announced on Feb. 17 that the shelter would be closing. The news came as a surprise to shelter residents and partner organizations in the homeless response community. To address the situation, the City will announce detailed plans later this week on how the current guests of the downtown shelter will be assisted.

“This is a vitally important issue to Council and to the community,” Garza said. “We are exploring all options for placement and will have a solution by the end of this week that ensures each Salvation Army resident is provided for and able to stay here in our community if they wish to do so.”

Mayor Kirk Watson expressed concern not only about the closure, but also the short notice residents were given.

“I’m disappointed that it’s taken this long for The Salvation Army to live up to the promise they made in January to take care of each and every resident that they’re displacing. I’ve been pushing them every step of the way and sent a letter to Major (Lewis) Reckline yesterday demanding that they fulfill their responsibility,” Watson said. “Last night, Salvation Army asked for help from the City to do so. Austin is home for these residents, and we will take care of our neighbors.”

Council Member Zo Qadri, who represents District 9 where the downtown shelter is located, shares Watson’s disappointment and emphasized the urgency of the current situation.

“Any community should be judged by how it treats its most vulnerable residents, and right now, we can do better. I’m disappointed that The Salvation Army didn’t adequately communicate the timeline of this closure to the District 9 constituents who are using this shelter to lift themselves out of unfortunate circumstances,” Qadri said. “The urgency of this crisis is real and the fear and uncertainty it has created is as unfortunate as it was avoidable. Moving forward, our collective priority should be to take care of our neighbors and keep them on a path towards permanent housing.”

Austin Public Health Offering Gift Cards To Encourage All COVID-19 Vaccinations, Booster Doses

COVID-19 vaccination rates in Austin-Travis County remain static among low income communities and Travis County areas with limited access to...