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Travis County Confirms First Case of Zika Virus

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Editor’s note: This story has been updated with comments from a Thursday afternoon news conference by the Austin/Travis County Health and Human Services Department. 

Travis County health officials on Thursday confirmed the first case of the Zika virus in the county.

A man under the age of 50 contracted the illness while traveling in Colombia, according to the Austin/Travis County Health and Human Services Department.

On Tuesday, Dallas County officials confirmed the first sexually transmitted case of the virus. It also was the first confirmed case of a person contracting the virus within the continental United States.

Researchers have warned Zika could be linked with microcephaly, a condition causing children to be born with abnormally small brains and skulls. The World Health Organization on Monday called the virus a public health emergency, and the federal government has listed more than 20 Latin American countries, including Brazil, where public health officials say there have been roughly 4,000 reported cases of microcephaly since October and to which they are urging pregnant women not to travel.

The mosquito that carries the virus is endemic to Central Texas, but mosquito activity is low during the coldest months, according to Travis County health officials.

Jeffery Taylor, senior epidemiologist at the Austin/Travis County Public Health and Human Services Department, said at a Thursday news conference that 12 other people in the area who are ill and have recently traveled are also being tested for the virus.

While the Dallas County case is the only locally transmitted Zika virus infection, Taylor said mosquito movement will be closely monitored in the coming months.

“As temperatures get warmer in spring and summer, we’ll be monitoring what happens in Mexico, and if the virus appears to be moving northward, closer to Texas, the state health department will be monitoring whether we have cases in south Texas and the Rio Grande Valley,” he said. “If the outbreak evolves and affects Texas, I expect it will be south Texas first. But it’s already affecting Texas due to travelers.”

[gdlr_icon type=”icon-camera-retro” size=”16px” color=”#999999″]TOP IMAGE: Epidemiologist Senior Jeffery Taylor of Austin/Travis Country Health and Human Services speaks to the media follwing one Zika virus case confirmation in Austin on February 4, 2016. / photo credit: Shelby Tauber

[gdlr_notification icon=”icon-external-link” type=”color-background” background=”#ffcc20″ color=”#ffffff”]This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at http://www.texastribune.org/2016/02/04/travis-county-confirms-first-case-zika-virus/[/gdlr_notification]

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Austin

Austin Lifts City-Wide Boil Water Notice

After seven days of boiling their water, Austin Water customers are once again allowed to consume water directly from the tap.

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The Ullrich Water Treatment Plant is one of three City of Austin plants that draws water from the Colorado River. Photo credit: Bob Daemmrich/The Texas Tribune

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune

After seven days of requiring residents in America’s 11th largest city to boil water and warning them of a potential shortage without reduced consumption, Austin Water officially lifted its boil water notice Sunday afternoon. The notice went into effect following heavy rain and flooding in Central Texas. The severe weather caused elevated levels of silt and debris in the water supply and treatment systems could not keep up. 

The city warned residents that “immediate action” was necessary to avoid running out of water. Customers were asked to stop outside water use, such as watering their lawns or washing cars, and were encouraged to limit indoor use as much as possible. 

On Tuesday, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality determined that the turbidity — or the water’s cloudiness — exceeded standards. Austin Water was officially required by TCEQ regulations to issue a boil water notice, a precaution the utility had already taken. 

Mary Jo Kirisits, an engineering professor at the University of Texas at Austin, said Austin Water was right to issue a boil water notice when they did. She said the intensity and duration of recent storms contributed to increased sediment levels entering the city’s water treatment plants. 

“These plants were designed to handle a certain, reasonable range of water quality, but the quality of the water entering these plants in the last several days represents an extreme event,” said Kirisits, an expert in drinking water treatment. “This is a situation that we do not see very often, where the concentration of particles entering the plant is much higher than usual for multiple days.” 

By Thursday, Mayor Steve Adler signed a formal disaster declaration for the city, which formalizes collaboration among local and regional entities. Adler tweeted that he issued the declaration “to help with reimbursement & procurement.” 

That includes reimbursement for any costs incurred as a result of the emergency, such as overtime pay for first responders, according to the Travis County Judge’s office. Costs would be recouped from the state and federal level. The declaration will continue for one week from Oct. 25, unless it is renewed by the Austin City Council. The disaster declaration will still continue even when the boil water notice is lifted, according to Angel Flores, a spokesman for the city. 

“It is up to the federal government whether we qualify for reimbursement,” Flores said. “At this time, it is too early to tell how much we may be reimbursed.” 

In the same declaration, Adler also activated the City of Austin Emergency Operations Plan. Activation of the plan brings all necessary parties under one roof at the Combined Transportation and Emergency Communications Center on Old Manor Road. This allows city, state and federal officials to better coordinate emergency response efforts. 

During the boil water notice, the City of Austin set up water distribution centers for people unable to boil water, those who needed it for work and those with special needs. Sites included Dick Nichols Park, the Onion Creek Soccer Complex, Circuit of The Americas and Walnut Creek Park, among other locations. 

With no rain in the immediate forecast, the city’s water treatment plants are now able to process more water, according to a city statement issued Thursday. It is unclear how long it will be until the plants are running at full capacity. Normally, Austin Water can process more than 300 million gallons per day. 

Disclosure: Steve Adler and The University of Texas at Austin have been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.

The Texas Tribune is a nonpartisan, nonprofit media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them – about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

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Austin Issues City-Wide Boil Water Notice

As Austin Water works to stabilize the water treatment system, customers are being asked to boil water for at least three minutes before drinking it.

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Record rainfall in Llano and Burnet counties in the Texas Hill Country cause major flooding in Marble Falls on Oct. 16, 2018. / photo credit: Bob Daemmrich / The Texas Tribune

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune

Early Monday morning, Austin Water issued a boil water notice for all of its customers due to elevated levels of silt from last week’s flooding. And by Monday night, the city was warning residents that “immediate action” was needed to avoid running out of water. 

The water system is “the most recent infrastructure to struggle to keep up with” the impact of unprecedented rains, City Manager Spencer Cronk said at a Monday press conference. 

Last month was the wettest September on record in Texas. Heavy rains last week in Central Texas and the Hill Country led to catastrophic flooding. A high level of debris, silt and mud requires additional filtration that slows the process of getting treated water into the system, according to a city statement. 

“Today, we are now asking you to not drink from the sink,” Cronk said. “In the abundance of caution, we are issuing a boil water notice for all customers of Austin Water.” 

This is the first time in the utility’s history that a notice of this kind has been issued for the entire system. The notice will be lifted once treatment systems can be stabilized, according to the city statement. 

Customers are being encouraged to boil water for drinking, cooking, brushing their teeth and for making ice. Activities such as showering and doing laundry are safe, but the city is asking people to conserve water if at all possible. 

“Austin water treatment plans can currently produce approximately 105 million gallons of water per day,” a message to city residents said Monday afternoon. “Current customer use is about 120 million gallons per day. Water reservoir levels are reaching minimal levels. Immediate action is needed to avoid running out of water.” 

“This is an emergency situation,” the message said. 

In addition to residents, this impacts hospitals, schools and universities, food services, and area manufacturers, Cronk said. 

“This is simply a case of Mother Nature throwing more at the system than the system can currently process,” Cronk said. 

Austin Water has three major drinking water plants and all of those draw water from the river, Austin Water Director Greg Meszaros said at the Monday press conference. 

“Once the flood started, it washed untold volumes of soil and silt into the river system,” Meszaros said. 

Meszaros said the water has an elevated level of turbidity, or degree of haziness. He said it is at a level never experienced before in the utility’s history. Normally, Austin Water can process more than 300 million gallons per day, but because of the extreme weather the utility has not been able to process much more than 100 million gallons over the past two days, KXAN reports

“Historic flood waters flowing into our water supply lakes contain very high levels of silt that makes it challenging for the water plants to produce the volume of water needed to supply customers at this time,” the statement said. 

With the announcement, many grocery stores in the Austin area saw long lines, as customers waited to purchase bottled water. 

As Austin Water works to address this problem, customers are asked to reduce water usage as much as possible, and, when preparing water for consumption, customers should bring water to a “vigorous, rolling boil for three minutes,” according to the statement. 

More information from the City of Austin can be found here

The Texas Tribune is a nonpartisan, nonprofit media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them – about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

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Conservative Groups Suing Austin Over Nondiscrimination Ordinance

The advocates say lawsuits challenging the city’s code prohibiting employers from discriminating against an “individual’s race, color, religion, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, national origin, age, or disability” won’t hold up in court.

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Austin City Hall. Photo credit: Todd Ross Nienkerk / That Other Paper under CC BY-SA 2.0 license

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune

After two conservative Christian groups filed lawsuits against the city of Austin over the past week challenging an ordinance that protects LGBTQ individuals from discrimination, Texas LGBTQ advocates said Wednesday they do not think the lawsuits will hold up in court. 

The first lawsuit, filed in federal court Saturday against the city by the U.S. Pastor Council, a conservative Christian organization based in Houston, argues that Austin’s nondiscrimination ordinance is unconstitutional because it does not allow churches the religious freedom to refuse to hire gay or transgender individuals. 

Texas Values, another conservative Christian organization, filed a separate, broader lawsuit in state district court, also on Saturday, seeking to invalidate the ordinance as it applies to both employment and housing decisions. 

Austin’s city code prohibits employers in the city from discriminating against employees based on “the individual’s race, color, religion, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, national origin, age, or disability.” The lawsuits claim the nondiscrimination ordinance forces individuals to take actions contrary to their religious beliefs. 

The U.S. Pastor Council, which also backed the 2017 session’s failed “bathroom bill” that would have restricted access to public restrooms for transgender Texans, said in its lawsuit that the city’s failure to exempt its 25 Austin churches from the nondiscrimination ordinance violates its rights as outlined in the U.S. Constitution, the Texas Constitution and the Texas Religious Freedom Restoration Act. 

“Because these member churches rely on the Bible rather than modern-day cultural fads for religious and moral guidance, they will not hire practicing homosexuals or transgendered people” as clergy or general church employees, the lawsuit said. The lawsuit also said member churches will not consider or hire women to be senior pastors in its churches. 

Texas Values’ lawsuit also invokes the Texas Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which says that, in general, governments cannot “substantially burden a person’s free exercise of religion.” 

“The city of Austin’s so-called anti-discrimination laws violate the Texas Religious Freedom Restoration Act by punishing individuals, private businesses and religious nonprofits, including churches, for their religious beliefs on sexuality and marriage,” Jonathan Saenz, the president of Texas Values, said in a statement to The Texas Tribune. 

David Green, the media relations manager for the city of Austin, said in a statement that the city is “proud” of its ordinance and is prepared to “vigorously defend” it in court. 

“These lawsuits certainly highlight a coordinated effort among people who want to target LGBTQ people in court,” said Paul Castillo, a senior attorney at Lambda Legal, an advocacy firm for LGBTQ rights. 

Castillo said he has not examined Texas Values’ suit but that the city of Austin “is on solid legal ground” in the U.S. Pastor Council lawsuit. 

“In order to walk into court, you have to demonstrate some sort of injury,” Castillo said. “It doesn’t appear that the city of Austin is enforcing or has enforced its anti-discrimination laws in a way that would infringe upon these religions.” 

He added that the timing of the lawsuits is “certainly suspect” as groups attempt to politicize LGBTQ issues ahead of the upcoming legislative session. 

Jason Smith, a Fort Worth employment lawyer, said he expects both lawsuits to “go nowhere.” He points to former Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy’s opinion in Masterpiece Cakeshop, Ltd. v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission, which Smith said made it clear that religious beliefs do not justify discrimination. 

Still, he said people should be “worried by the repeated attempts to limit the Supreme Court’s announcement that the Constitution protects gays and lesbians.” 

There is currently no statewide law that protects LGBTQ employees from discrimination, but San Antonio, Dallas and Fort Worth have nondiscrimination ordinances similar to Austin’s. Smith said the other cities will be watching how the lawsuits in Austin unfold and that some cities may even file briefs to make the court aware of their positions. 

The Texas Tribune is a nonpartisan, nonprofit media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them – about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

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