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‘That’s All We Have For Tonight, Folks’: San Antonio’s Live COVID-19 Briefings Come To An End

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Joey Palacios / Texas Public Radio
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Assistant City Manager Dr. Colleen Bridger, San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg and Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff take a moment to reflect on the last year after Thursday's Final COVID-19 briefing.

San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg and Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff ended what was at one point a daily update on COVID-19 information for the city and county. It’s a sign conditions during the pandemic are improving, but the threat is not over yet.

“Good evening, I’m Mayor Ron Nirenberg with Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff. Tonight we are launching a daily update on COVID in our community,” said Nirenberg on March 27, 2020, the first day of the briefing.

At that point, there were 120 COVID-19 cases and five deaths in Bexar County

“We’re at an increasingly intense phase of the coronavirus pandemic here in San Antonio. The virus is spreading and has already taken several lives, testing has increased and that means we expect more cases in the coming days,” he continued.

Now 433 days later, the briefings are coming to an end. As of Thursday, June 3, 2021, COVID-19 cases in Bexar County are at 223,000, and 3,486 people have died.

Thursday’s final briefing took on an undertone of crossing a marathon’s checkpoint. Joined by Assistant City Manager Dr. Colleen Bridger and Wolff, Nirenberg announced Bexar County had surpassed a 50% vaccination rate among the eligible population.

About 50.2% of San Antonio’s population is now fully vaccinated — more than 834,00 people. About 1.03 million people have received at least one dose.

“If you haven’t been vaccinated yet I promise we have enough doses for you, so do it for yourself, do it for your loved ones and your community and do it for San Antonio,” Nirenberg said. “We have not reached the end of this pandemic.”

The vacation rate is still 20% short of what it would take to reach herd immunity by vaccination.

“Our response and recovery efforts will shift to a more targeted approach especially as it relates to vaccines and we have to remain vigilant to make sure everyone gets vaccinated as soon as possible,” the mayor added. “Our local rates of infections and hospitalizations are all proof and we have demonstrated that these vaccines work.

Wolff said the city is better prepared for future pandemics but acknowledged that this one is not over.

“We are past the worst but the future still has some uncertainty,” Wolff said. “We don’t know how long the vaccine will last, we don’t know possible other mutations, we know some people have chosen not to get shots and it still continues to spread in our community, not like it was before but people are still getting COVID and they’re still entering the hospital today.”

Throughout the pandemic there have been many lessons learned.

““I think we have learned to care for each other more than we maybe have in the past,” Wolff said. “All of the precautions we took not only protected us, but also protected everybody else. I really, really appreciate the fact that people have done that."

It will take some time — and agreement with the Centers For Disease Control — before Bexar County and San Antonio are out of the woods.

“We’re working with the CDC to figure out what that looks like,” Bridger said. “I think the first major milestone that we will hit is when we hit that 70% fully vaccinated and there are plenty of states who have accomplished that so we know it’s not impossible to do.”

While it remains uncertain, San Antonio Metro Health may consider case rates or hospitalization rates. Bridger noted that the positivity rate among tests remained under 3% for eight weeks.

“I think we can check that box,” she said.

Over the last 14 months, Nirenberg, Wolff and Bridger and a series of guests have appeared before the public sometimes nightly, or twice a week to update the public on various aspects.

Nirenberg said the joint briefing was meant to present a coordinated response from the city and Bexar County.

“Our ability to stay in front of the public as much as possible with clear data and direct access to our public health officials was going to be absolutely vital in fighting what we’ve now known as global and terrible pandemic,” Nirenberg said this week.

For Wolff, going live most nights was about accessibility.

“I believe being open and being willing to answer questions — I think it began to build community support among the vast majority of our community that’s over 2 million people in the county,” he said.

The city and county partnered with San Antonio’s media outlets — including Texas Public Radio — to select a coordinated broadcast time: 6:13 p.m. The briefings became a daily journal entry on the virus’ spread.

Bridger — who is also the city’s COVID-19 incident commander — said the local messaging changed based on how the new virus travelled, infected and impacted.

“As we communicated about this novel, emerging virus, what we knew also evolved overtime, and so those nightly briefings were the perfect venue to share the latest information,” Bridger said.

Those frequent changes included the city and county issuing stay at home orders and closing businesses.

“We were asking people to do a lot of things they didn’t have to do before,” Bridger said.

At first, the city and county did not promote face mask usage due to limited PPE for healthcare workers. But in early April 2020, the city and county issued a mask mandate based on new Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance. A few weeks later, the mask mandate and business closures were rescinded by Gov. Greg Abbott.

“We were undermined by the governor when he began to take those things away, and then we saw the second wave in the winter that was even more devastating than the summer was,” said Wolff

Beyond the state, the Trump administration’s response to the pandemic was often disconnected. Bridger said the mayor’s and judge’s briefings were meant to keep everyone in Bexar County informed.

“What they did was bring some calm and authority to the void that was left by the president and some confusing chaos that was created by the governor,” Bridger said.

The focus of the briefings evolved over time: Weekly updates on schools in Bexar County, testing availability, when and how businesses could open or close based on hospital capacity, and emergency assistance for renters.

During the winter storm in February 2021, the briefings shifted focus to when water and power would be fully restored. Finally, the briefings transitioned to vaccine updates. Vaccines went from scarcely available to widely abundant.

“The phase that we are in right now is that we control our destiny in regards to this pandemic and the last few months of getting vaccines out has allowed us to start to live life as we knew it, so we have to continue to do that,” Nirenberg said.

Daily COVID-19 cases are under 150 per day, many fewer than the 2,200 per day seen in the wintertime. As Wolff and Nirenberg sign off, it’s a trend that could mean a return to normal is on the horizon.

TPR’s Brian Kirkpatrick contributed to this report

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