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Technology, science, and math

Get your kids vaccinated

A good start, but we can do a lot more.

Texas Children’s Hospital has administered COVID-19 vaccines to nearly 6,000 children ages 6 months through 4 years old since the youngest age group became eligible to receive the shots last week, the hospital said Thursday.

“We’ve been waiting for a long time to be able to protect our youngest children,” said Dr. Stan Spinner, the chief medical officer and vice president of Texas Children’s Pediatrics. “We’ve had families asking for a long time ‘When is this vaccine going to be available for our kids?’ And now it is.”

Still, the overall share of children younger than 5 who have received the shot is incredibly low — hovering around 1 percent statewide.

Another 3,000 children are scheduled for vaccine appointments at Texas Children’s Hospital or more than 60 Texas Children’s Pediatrics locations in the Houston, Austin and College Station areas, hospital spokeswoman Natasha Barrett said during a news conference.

Vaccines are also available to kids under 5 at other hospitals, including Children’s Memorial Hermann, as well as pediatrician’s offices, pharmacies and other locations.

Across Texas,the overall interest in vaccines for children has been lagging. Just 26 percent of Texas residents aged 5 to 11 and 59 percent of residents aged 12 to 17 are fully v accinated, according to data from The New York Times. Just 4 percent of Texas residents under 18 years old have received a booster.

However, Texas Children’s doctors said they have also been encouraged by that fact that families with children 5 to 11 years old have been signing up for booster shots of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved booster shots for that age group last month.

My kids are older and got vaxxed and boosted at their first opportunities. If there’s an omicron-specific booster this fall, they’ll get that, too. I’ve definitely been disappointed by the low vaccination rate among younger kids, but maybe that will turn around now. Even with the lower hospitalization and mortality rates, so many people have gotten an infection lately that perhaps the ongoing threat of this pandemic is sinking in again. We all still need to do our part to try to keep this under some control.

More on how abortion bans will be enforced

It’s all about the data.

The Supreme Court is shortly expected to issue its decision on a challenge to Roe v. Wade that will—if a leaked draft version of the opinion holds—end federal protection for abortion access across the US. If that happens, it will have far-reaching consequences for millions of people. One of those is that it could significantly increase the risk that anti-abortion activists will use surveillance and data collection to track and identify people seeking abortions, sending authorities information that could lead to criminal proceedings.

Opponents of abortion have been using methods like license plate tracking for decades. In front of many clinics around the US, it remains a daily reality.

[…]

“The biggest fear, I think, is that there are going to be states that not only ban abortion in short order, but start criminalizing pregnant people who are seeking abortion services even out of state,” says Nathan Wessler, the deputy project director of the Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project at the ACLU.

Some states that protect abortion services might be able to limit what out-of-state law enforcement can do directly, he notes, but that “doesn’t mean that there won’t be anti-abortion vigilantes recording information [outside of clinics] and then sending it to aggressive prosecutors in abortion-banned states.”

There is evidence that anti-abortion activists are already keeping close track of legal abortion activity. In 2014, for example, a recording surfaced of a training session for Texas anti-abortion activists, led by Karen Garnett of the Catholic Pro-Life Committee of North Texas. In it, Garnett explained how license plate tracking is used to keep tabs on both a clinic’s clients and its doctors.

“You track license plates … coming into any abortion facility. We have a very sophisticated spreadsheet. This way you can track whether or not a client comes back,” she said in the video.

We’ve discussed this before, and I said at the time that any real enforcement effort is going to involve a lot of invasive searches. License plate tracking is an old technique – as the story notes, it goes back to at least the 90s – but there are much more modern strategies as well.

A location data firm is selling information related to visits to clinics that provide abortions including Planned Parenthood facilities, showing where groups of people visiting the locations came from, how long they stayed there, and where they then went afterwards, according to sets of the data purchased by Motherboard.

[…]

How data collecting intersects with abortion rights, or the lack thereof, is likely to gather more attention in the wake of the draft. The country may also see an increase in vigilante activity or forms of surveillance and harassment against those seeking or providing abortions. With this aggregated location data available to anyone on the open market, customers could include anti-abortion vigilantes as well. Anti-abortion groups are already fairly adept at using novel technology for their goals. In 2016, an advertising CEO who worked with anti-abortion and Christian groups sent targeted advertisements to women sitting in Planned Parenthood clinics in an attempt to change their decision around getting an abortion. The sale of the location data raises questions around why companies are selling data based on abortion clinics specifically, and whether they should introduce more safeguards around the purchase of that information, if be selling it at all.

“It’s bonkers dangerous to have abortion clinics and then let someone buy the census tracks where people are coming from to visit that abortion clinic,” Zach Edwards, a cybersecurity researcher who closely tracks the data selling marketplace, told Motherboard in an online chat after reviewing the data. “This is how you dox someone traveling across state lines for abortions—how you dox clinics providing this service.”

Read the rest and do a little googling yourself. It’s very possible to identify people who have visited abortion clinics from “anonymized” location data and census tracks, especially people who live in less populated places. Geofencing, which has been used in the past for targeted anti-abortion advertising, may be used by law enforcement agencies that are all in on the forced birth agenda. It’s scary stuff. And when you see it happen, don’t say you couldn’t have known.

Social media monitoring is not a solution to school shootings

While current Republican “solutions” for gun violence include door control and arming teachers, one “solution” that has been in place for the past few years has been monitoring social media for signs of gun-related threats. That was in place in Uvalde, and it was not effective.

After a shooter killed 21 people, including 19 children, in the massacre at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, last week, the United States is yet again confronting the devastating impact of gun violence. While lawmakers have so far failed to pass meaningful reform, schools are searching for ways to prevent a similar tragedy on their own campuses. Recent history, as well as government spending records, indicate that one of the most common responses from education officials is to invest in more surveillance technology.

In recent years, schools have installed everything from facial recognition software to AI-based tech, including programs that purportedly detect signs of brandished weapons and online screening tools that scan students’ communications for mentions of potential violence. The startups selling this tech have claimed that these systems can help school officials intervene before a crisis happens or respond more quickly when one is occurring. Pro-gun politicians have also advocated for this kind of technology, and argued that if schools implement enough monitoring, they can prevent mass shootings.

The problem is that there’s very little evidence that surveillance technology effectively stops these kinds of tragedies. Experts even warn that these systems can create a culture of surveillance at schools that harms students. At many schools, networks of cameras running AI-based software would join other forms of surveillance that schools already have, like metal detectors and on-campus police officers.

“In an attempt to stop, let’s say, a shooter like what happened at Uvalde, those schools have actually extended a cost to the students that attend them,” Odis Johnson Jr, the executive director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Safe and Healthy Schools, told Recode. “There are other things we now have to consider when we seek to fortify our schools, which makes them feel like prisons and the students themselves feel like suspects.”

[…]

Even before the mass shooting in Uvalde, many schools in Texas had already installed some form of surveillance tech. In 2019, the state passed a law to “harden” schools, and within the US, Texas has the most contracts with digital surveillance companies, according to an analysis of government spending data conducted by the Dallas Morning News. The state’s investment in “security and monitoring” services has grown from $68 per student to $113 per student over the past decade, according to Chelsea Barabas, an MIT researcher studying the security systems deployed at Texas schools. Spending on social work services, however, grew from $25 per student to just $32 per student during the same time period. The gap between these two areas of spending is widest in the state’s most racially diverse school districts.

The Uvalde school district had already acquired various forms of security tech. One of those surveillance tools is a visitor management service sold by a company called Raptor Technologies. Another is a social media monitoring tool called Social Sentinel, which is supposed to “identify any possible threats that might be made against students and or staff within the school district,” according to a document from the 2019-2020 school year.

It’s so far unclear exactly which surveillance tools may have been in use at Robb Elementary School during the mass shooting. JP Guilbault, the CEO of Social Sentinel’s parent company, Navigate360, told Recode that the tool plays “an important role as an early warning system beyond shootings.” He claimed that Social Sentinel can detect “suicidal, homicidal, bullying, and other harmful language that is public and connected to district-, school-, or staff-identified names as well as social media handles and hashtags associated with school-identified pages.”

“We are not currently aware of any specific links connecting the gunman to the Uvalde Consolidated Independent School District or Robb Elementary on any public social media sites,” Guilbault added. The Uvalde gunman did post ominous photos of two rifles on his Instagram account before the shooting, but there’s no evidence that he publicly threatened any of the schools in the district. He privately messaged a girl he did not know that he planned to shoot an elementary school.

Any kind of surveillance involves a tradeoff between privacy and security. So far, the security gains from software like this are small, while the loss of privacy – which to be clear here is the privacy of children – is significant.

For privacy advocates, the lack of evidence for the technology’s effectiveness means that there are no sufficient grounds for the potential violations of privacy that come with its use. Hye Jung Han, a researcher at Human Rights Watch specializing in child rights, told The Verge that using surveillance technology on children could cause unwarranted harm:

“Could you imagine schools using toxic materials to build classrooms, even if it hadn’t met any safety standards? No,” said Han. “Similarly, to use unproven, untested surveillance technologies on children, without first checking whether they are safe to use, exposes children to an unacceptable risk of harm.”

Multiple requests for comment sent to Navigate360 — which acquired Social Sentinel in 2020 — did not receive a response.

The Uvalde school district was confirmed to have purchased monitoring capability from Social Sentinel in 2019–2020, though it is unclear whether the subscription was still active at the time of the shooting. However, even if it had been, the technology would have been unlikely to flag any of the shooter’s posts. There are now numerous reports of concerning activity surrounding the shooter’s online activity: he allegedly made frequent threats to young women and girls via chat apps, sent images of guns to acquaintances, and reportedly discussed carrying out the school shooting in an Instagram chat. But Social Sentinel is only able to monitor public posts and would not have had access to any content shared in private messages.

At the same time, there are significant privacy concerns with the software. In 2019, the Brennan Center for Justice outlined a range of civil and human rights concerns stemming from expanded social media monitoring in K-12 schools, among them the questionable effectiveness of the technology in combination with a tendency to disproportionately impact students from minority communities. In the same year, reporting by Education Week also covered the dramatic expansion of digital surveillance in schools, highlighting the large number of false positives generated by Social Sentinel’s technology. (Alerts were reportedly triggered by tweets about the Mark Wahlberg movie, Shooter and from a student pleased their credit score was “shooting up,” among other things.)

Of all US states, Texas has been the most enthusiastic about the use of digital surveillance for school children. A 2021 investigation by The Dallas Morning News found that no state has more school districts contracting with digital surveillance companies than Texas. But of the Texas districts that did take out these contracts, results were apparently mixed: a number of school districts that had paid for Social Sentinel told the Morning News that they had declined to renew contracts, describing a service that provided few actionable alerts or flagged mostly irrelevant information.

But while Social Sentinel advertises an ability to monitor a broad range of platforms, there’s some suggestion that its surveillance capabilities are dictated more by the accessibility of data sources than by their importance. A client presentation from the company shared by the EFF lists a range of social media sources for monitoring, including Instagram, YouTube, Vimeo, Flickr, Tumblr, WordPress, and even Meetup.

Data obtained by BuzzFeed News confirmed this through data obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, which showed the company skewed heavily towards Twitter monitoring. Of the 1,206 Social Sentinel alerts provided to BuzzFeed, 98 percent (1,180) related to tweets — even though Instagram, YouTube, and even Facebook are more widely used by younger demographics. But the conventions of Twitter — where the vast majority of posts are publicly visible, even unintentionally — mean that it is comparatively easier to monitor, providing a wealth of social media data on tap that can be assimilated by companies looking to boost their surveillance credentials.

The DMN reports that some of the school districts that kicked the tires on Social Sentinel later decided it wasn’t worth it.

Uvalde is among at least 52 school districts and three colleges in Texas that have used the Social Sentinel service, according to records from GovSpend, an organization that tracks state and local government spending. It has also been used by dozens of colleges and hundreds of school districts nationwide.

Uvalde purchased Social Sentinel in August 2019, according to GovSpend. A document from the 2019-2020 school year lists the service as one of the district’s “preventative security measures.”

“UCISD utilizes Social Sentinel to monitor all social media with a connection to Uvalde as a measure to identify any possible threats that might be made against students and or staff within the school district,” the document reads.

The district made two payments to the company totaling more than $9,900, the data show.

Several Texas districts that have used Social Sentinel complained the service was mostly ineffective. The News reached out to every school district that used Social Sentinel, including Uvalde, for comment last year. Clear Creek ISD, a district outside of Houston, used the service in the 2018-19 school year but soon canceled.

“The Clear Creek Independent School District discontinued the use of Social Sentinel in its first year,” Elaina Polsen, Clear Creek’s chief communications officer, told The News last year. “The District determined the service just did not meet our needs, and we were receiving far stronger information through our anonymous tip line.”

Representatives from Keller, Lewisville, Mineral Wells and Schertz-Cibolo school districts also said the service provided them with few alerts or alerts that contained mostly irrelevant information.

HISD does not appear to have been a user of Social Sentinel, so we’ve got that going for us. There are other companies with similar products out there, so be on the lookout for that kind of pitch. It’s not out of the question to me that a tool like this could be effective at some point (we would still have to debate the privacy impact, and I can just about guarantee that it won’t be good), but we’re not there yet and it may be awhile before we can reasonably broach the subject. In the meantime, I dunno, maybe ban assault weapons again like we did in the 90s? Worked pretty well back then, and it didn’t involve snooping on things kids were saying among themselves. Just a thought.

(FYI, I first heard about Social Sentinel and its connection to Uvalde on the What Next podcast. I went looking for the DMN story from there, and found the others in the same search.)

Are we going to raise the COVID threat level again?

Maybe, but not yet.

Coronavirus infections are on the rise across Houston, wastewater tracking shows, even as fewer people seek testing two years into the pandemic.

Four months after the city saw record infection rates caused by the highly contagious omicron variant, new COVID-19 cases are once again climbing, according to data collected by Rice University and the Houston Health Department. The most recent sewage samples show increased viral loads at all but a few of the city’s three dozen wastewater treatment plants.

Citywide, the amount of virus particles detected in wastewater is up 242 percent above baseline, with an overall positivity rate of 14 percent. Both metrics increased by about a third over the previous samples, taken in early May. At the 69th street plant, serving much of the Inner Loop, officials said virus levels are 123 percent above baseline, with a 22 percent positivity rate.

Despite the uptick, health officials do not anticipate raising Harris County’s threat level to the highest level. The county’s threat level is currently set at moderate, signally a controlled level of COVID spread.

“Even though we see positivity rates going up, our hospital rates continue to remain low, said Dr. Erika Brown of the Harris County Health Department.

[…]

New of the rise in viral levels in the wastewater comes days after researchers at Houston Methodist reported new insight into how the omicron variant is mutating in Houston and across Texas.

Researchers demonstrated that two dominant sublineages of omicron have developed “unprecedented numbers” of spike protein mutations, leading to increased transmissibility. The mutations also enhance its ability to evade vaccines and the immune system.

This is a press release about the study in question; it’s from late April, which I’d classify as more than “days” ago, but whatever. The COVID levels in our wastewater continue to rise, but if the hospitals are still not seeing an increase in patients, then the threat level will stay where it is. I don’t know how long we can maintain this balance, but I sure hope it continues.

That press release is worth a read:

“One of the surprising findings in this study was that many mutations with critical roles in immune escape in previous variants of SARS-CoV-2 do not play the same roles in immune escape in omicron, and, in some cases, the effects of these mutations are completely reversed,” said Gollihar, who is the head of antibody discovery and accelerated protein therapeutics in Houston Methodist’s Center for Infectious Diseases. “The virus also appears to be stabilizing itself to allow for more mutations to evade our immune systems.”

He said this study is the first to systematically dissect each of the omicron mutations across the entirety of the spike protein. Previous studies miss contextual and long-range interactions across the protein.

“We developed a comprehensive map showing various mechanisms of immune escape by omicron that allows us to identify which antibodies retain neutralization activity against the virus,” Gollihar said. “This and future work will enable clinicians to make informed decisions about the use of monoclonal antibody therapy and aid in the development of next-generation vaccines.”

Having this new information about key features of omicron’s spike protein mutations and how they synergize, Gollihar and his team say it’s possible that the continuing accumulation of mutations may set the stage for greatly altering the equilibrium and stability of the spike protein in a way that allows for new, more virulent strains to develop. Understanding this evolution is critical, they say, to better inform future therapeutic targets and vaccine formulations, as the SARS-CoV-2 virus will continue to evolve with new variants inevitably arising and spreading.

Looking forward, they add, the strategy used in this study also will be applicable to future zoonotic outbreaks and other microbial pathogens, providing a powerful platform for investigating evolutionary trajectories of infectious agents and engineering appropriate and adaptable vaccines.

“We will continue to monitor the virus for changes in the spike protein and add new antibodies to test as they are discovered. Continuing to do so will allow us to design better probes for antibody discovery in hopes of engineering new therapeutics by finding potent neutralizing antibodies across all variants,” Gollihar said. “We have also recently expanded the platform to other pathogens where we hope to stay ahead of other potential outbreaks.”

I’m in awe of the work these folks have done and continue to do – I’m speaking of the researchers worldwide, not just these specific ones. We’re in a constant race with this virus, and so far we’ve been able to keep up. As above, I sure hope that continues, too. Stace has more.

Bad news for the crazy ants

They have found a mighty foe.

Several years ago, staffers at Estero Llano Grande State Park in Weslaco, Texas, noticed a new type of invasive ant species. Tawny crazy ants were so aggressive that they were driving birds out of their nests and occasionally swarming over visitors who paused to sit on a trail. Populations of other native species—like scorpions, snakes, tarantulas, and lizards—sharply declined, while rabbits were blinded by the ants’ venom.

That’s when University of Texas at Austin biologist Ed LeBrun got involved. The park “had a crazy ant infestation, and it was apocalyptic—rivers of ants going up and down every tree,” he said. Crazy ants have since spread rapidly through every state on the Gulf Coast, with over 27 Texas counties reporting significant infestations. The usual ant-bait traps and over-the-counter pesticides have proven ineffective, so the EPA has approved the temporary (but restricted) use of an anti-termite agent called fipronil. But a more targeted and less toxic control strategy would be better.

LeBrun has worked extensively on fire ants, another invasive species that has plagued the region. He has spent the last few years investigating potential sustainable control strategies based on crazy ants’ natural enemies in the wild. LeBrun and his colleagues have now discovered that a specific type of fungus can effectively wipe out crazy ant colonies while leaving other native species alone, according to a new paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

See here, here, here, and here for some background. I can’t believe I’ve not had any crazy ant posts since 2011, but there you have it. I’ll take my good news where I can get it.

Rich guys back from space

What goes up, must come down.

The first all-private crew to visit the International Space Station landed in the Atlantic Ocean on Monday, completing the first mission a Houston company organized as a precursor to building its own space station.

Axiom Space brought home its four-person crew at 12:06 p.m. CDT. Larry Connor, 72, Mark Pathy, 52, Eytan Stibbe, 64, and Michael López-Alegría, 63, spent 17 days in space, including 15 days living and working alongside NASA astronauts on the International Space Station.

Their mission was originally planned for 10 days, with eight days on the space station, but bad weather at the landing site off the coast of Florida helped extend the trip — giving the crew their millions of dollars’ worth with a few extra days in microgravity.

This mission, Ax-1, is the first of many missions planned by Houston-based Axiom Space. The company is sending paying customers to the International Space Station to generate revenues and learn how to operate in microgravity. It plans to launch the first segment of its commercially owned and operated space station in late 2024.

“It’s like the first chapter of many chapters,” said Axiom Space co-founder Kam Ghaffarian. “A beginning of many beginnings. We will have private astronauts going to space as part of democratizing low-Earth orbit and creating this new ecosystem.”

[…]

The men wanted to set a good example of what everyday citizens can do in space. They tried not to be a nuisance — their presence expanded the station’s crew to 11 people — and they contributed to a database examining how commercial astronauts (who may or may not be as fit as NASA astronauts) react to microgravity.

Houston’s Translational Research Institute for Space Health, a NASA-funded organization at the Baylor College of Medicine, is collecting this data. Connor is now the oldest person to participate in the database. And last year, the organization gathered information from a childhood cancer survivor who went into space on the Inspiration4 mission.

“The diversity here is key,” said Dr. Emmanuel Urquieta, chief medical officer for the Translational Research Institute for Space Health. “They really provide the data that we need to know so we can safely send any human into space.”

Before and after their mission, the crew had their eyes examined and provided physiological data, including heart rate variability and blood oxygen saturation. They also used tablets to participate in cognitive tests and sensory motor tests. The latter could help researchers understand who might get motion sick and how that might be prevented.

“This one is absolutely critical,” Urquieta said. “If you get space motion sickness, you’re going to be feeling bad for pretty much half of your mission.”

See here for the background. As someone who occasionally suffers from motion sickness, I applaud them for adding to the research, from which I hope to benefit some day. As I said before, better them than me.

More rich guys in space

But it could be good for Houston, so…

Axiom Space launched a high-stakes mission Friday, sending three paying customers to the International Space Station as Houston seeks to anchor a new era of human spaceflight.

The crew, tucked inside a SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule, launched from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center at 10:17 a.m. CDT. They’re scheduled to reach the space station Saturday morning and spend eight days there.

American Larry Connor, 72, Canadian Mark Pathy, 52, and Israeli Eytan Stibbe, 64, are not the first people to buy tickets to the International Space Station. But their privately funded mission — each reportedly paying tens of millions of dollars — is notable because it’s the first all-private crew to visit the station. Previous missions have been shepherded by a government-paid astronaut. The Axiom Space commander, Michael López-Alegría, 63, is an Axiom employee and former NASA astronaut.

There’s a lot riding on this mission. The crew must show that private astronauts aren’t a nuisance to International Space Station operations. Houston-based Axiom Space must learn to conduct human spaceflight missions before launching its own commercial space station. And Houston must show that it can continue supporting human spaceflight as NASA trusts companies to own and operate the hardware that protect people in space.

“The space industry, as a whole, is currently in a massive switch from completely government to commercial,” said Meagan Crawford, co-founder of Houston-based venture capital firm SpaceFund. “And in order for Houston to maintain its moniker of Space City, we’ve really got to cultivate that startup environment here.”

Houston has a long and storied history in human spaceflight. When astronauts called home from the Apollo spacecraft, space shuttle and International Space Station, they spoke to folks at NASA’s Johnson Space Center.

But lately, it’s not just NASA sending people into space. The Axiom Space mission, Ax-1, is the sixth human spaceflight mission launched by Hawthorne, Calif.-based SpaceX.

For missions to the ISS, astronauts train on the SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule in California and learn the International Space Station systems in Houston. Spacewalks are practiced in Houston in a giant swimming pool called the Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory.

But as companies begin to own and operate the systems used to launch people into spacelower them onto the moon and shelter them in low-Earth orbit, their facilities may or may not be located in Houston.

“Houston has the possibility of becoming a place where a lot of people who know how to ‘do space’ live and want to start their own businesses,” said John Logsdon, founder of George Washington University’s Space Policy Institute.

NASA is willing to share its facilities and expertise in operations, medicine, food and spacesuits, said Johnson Space Center Director Vanessa Wyche.

“We’re in a renaissance,” Wyche said. “In order for us to explore — go onto the moon, go onto Mars — it’s going to take all of us. It’s going to take government, it’s going to take commercial industry and it’s going to take the international community.

“I want Houston to continue to be the human spaceflight hub. For the world,” she said.

I don’t have a whole lot to add here. I can’t say I’m a fan of rick guy space tourism, but it’s not like I can do much to stop it. Maybe some benefits will eventually trickle down to the rest of us, I dunno. Better these guys take the risk of this activity than me, that’s for sure. CultureMap has more.

Studying COVID in cats and dogs

Seems like a reasonable thing to look at.

Brushing a dog’s teeth is hard enough. The dog looks at you plaintively, eyes wide with betrayal, as you insert the toothbrush and perform a quick pantomime of a tooth cleaning in the seconds before it closes its jaws—and heart—to you.

Researchers at the lab of Texas A&M veterinary epidemiologist Sarah A. Hamer have a more difficult task: they must get pets to submit to a nasal swab, something which even many humans have to be cajoled into doing. Their aim is to better understand how COVID-19 spreads from humans to their pets, and how a pet’s behavior, such as whether it shares an owner’s bed or whether it is a prolific face licker, affects that transmission.

The testing has involved more than six hundred animals—mostly in Central Texas—who live in households where at least one human has COVID. Only about a quarter of the pets from which Hamer’s team has taken samples since June 2020 have tested positive for SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID, and just one quarter of those infected pets were symptomatic. Some suffered sneezing, diarrhea, runny noses, and irritated eyes, but the most common symptom owners reported was lethargy: their dogs and cats simply seemed lazier than usual.

“It was all very mild illness, and it all sort of resolved without veterinary interventions,” Hamer said. “From our study, we have no evidence that the virus is killing pets.” (She noted, however, that there have been reports of animals with comorbidities experiencing more severe illness, just as humans might.)

Despite this relatively low threat to cats and dogs, the lab’s work is crucial for surveilling, and understanding, the coronavirus—especially because the pandemic is thought to have originated from an animal-to-human transmission event. (Hamer’s team identified the first known UK variant of the coronavirus in an animal, in March 2021.) Casey Barton Behravesh, an A&M grad who’s now an expert on zoonotic diseases with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, explained that when viruses jump from species to species, there is an increased risk of mutations creating new variants. The CDC has consequently funded much of Hamer’s research, providing about $225,000.

“It’s important to look at both people and animals, tracking mutations and the possible formation of variants, so we can keep a close eye on what might be happening,” Barton Behravesh said. “We don’t want to see a strain emerge that becomes more serious in terms of illness in people or animals. We don’t want a strain to emerge that can’t be detected by the diagnostic tests that we have available, or that might impact the therapeutics that are becoming available, or impact the vaccine.”

Read the rest, it’s good stuff. We know that deer can carry COVID, and since most of us will come in much closer contact with pets than with deer, it’s good to know what the risks may be. The good news is that they seem to be low, but best to stay on top of it.

Yeah, ivermectin is useless against COVID

Hardly a surprise.

Antiparasitic drug Ivermectin became a partisan battleground during the Covid-19 pandemic, as anti-vaccine influencers and Republican politicians hawked it as a miracle cure, to the widespread skepticism of infectious disease experts.

A peer-reviewed study recently presented by Dr. Edward Mills, a professor of health sciences at McMaster University in Canada, offered significant new evidence that ivermectin was coronavirus snake oil all along.

In the largest trial yet analyzing the effectiveness of ivermectin on treating the coronavirus, Mills and his fellow researchers found that Covid-19 patients at risk of severe illness who received ivermectin did no better than those prescribed a placebo, the Wall Street Journal reported on Friday.

“This is the first large, prospective study that should really help put to rest ivermectin and not give any credibility to the use of it for Covid-19,” Peter Hotez, dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine, told the Journal.

Of the 1,358 patients, researchers prescribed half a three-day course of ivermectin pills, and the other half with a placebo. They then tracked how many patients were hospitalized over the course of four weeks, how quickly the patients rid the virus from their bodies, and death rates, among other variables. The researchers parsed the data in a variety of different ways and found no instances where ivermectin impacted patient outcomes.

There’s another study of ivermectin going on in Texas, which I expect will yield similar results. What it might take to convince those who have been humping ivermectin as a cure-all to see reality, I have no idea. For those of us who want to maximize our chances of surviving this pandemic, get vaxxed and boosted, keep wearing masks where it makes sense to do so, and get a real treatment regimen if you need one. It’s pretty simple, honestly.

On gender affirming care and fertility

The more you know

The fertility of transgender youths in Texas was thrust into the spotlight recently after state leaders issued a directive designating gender-affirming care as child abuse that infringed on a person’s “fundamental right to procreation.”

Medical interventions for transgender adolescents can have an impact on a person’s short and long-term fertility.

But trans health experts say it’s a nuanced issue: New research into the preservation of fertility is opening doors for trans patients who may want to have their own biological children in the future.

State leaders have gone too far by prioritizing future fertility over the current health concerns caused by gender dysphoria, said Renee Baker, a professional counselor in Dallas who specializes in LGBT-specific care.

“It’s almost like you’re saying the life of an unborn possibility is more important than the existing life [of a transgender adolescent],” she said.

[…]

Consideration of a trans adolescent’s ability to have children in the future has been a critical part of proper trans health care, medical experts say. Scientists are still researching the potential impact of gender-affirming medical care on fertility, and they say more data is needed to fully understand its implications.

“It is essential that a thorough discussion of fertility preservation and the options available are provided. Not to do that would be malpractice,” said Dr. Stephen Rosenthal, medical director of the child and adolescent gender center for the University of California, San Francisco Benioff Children’s Hospitals.

Patients and their families have to give informed consent, meaning that they’ve been given information about all the potential risks and benefits of a treatment before deciding whether or not to pursue it, Baker said.

Gender-affirming medical treatments can alter a person’s fertility, depending on when the treatments are initiated and whether they are continued. Such treatments are not started until a person has begun puberty. Puberty varies by person, but it can start as early as age 8 for people assigned female at birth and age 9 for people assigned male at birth, according to the Cleveland Clinic.

Most parents don’t anticipate discussing fertility preservation with their teenager. Most parents also don’t anticipate having to balance a transgender adolescent’s need for gender-affirming care with any potential risks to their future fertility.

“If you say that, ‘I’m not going to let you have access to pubertal blockers until you’re older, until you’ve gone through full puberty,’ well then [the adolescent] would experience all of these irreversible physical changes that can increase their risk for severe mental health problems, including suicide attempts,” Rosenthal said.

There are some options for transgender adolescents who want the opportunity to have their own biological kids down the road, although those options look different for each individual case.

I think SB8 and all of the anti-abortion bills that came before it expresses quite clearly the relative value of existing people versus theoretical ones. It’s all part of a consistent Republican philosophy. Local control is great because government closest to the people is best, except when they do things we don’t like. Parents should be fully free to make whatever decisions they want about how to raise their children, except when we don’t agree with those choices. Businesses should be free of the yoke of government regulation, except when they adopt “too woke” policies. It all makes sense, if you understand that underlying philosophy.

COVID may be down but it’s definitely not out

Just a reminder, this pandemic hasn’t gone away. It’s less of a threat to us here right now, but it’s still very much a threat.

The evolution of the coronavirus is likely to produce dangerous new variants that escape built-up immunity and evade vaccines, according to a new study that may offer clues for the future of the pandemic.

In a searing condemnation of “misconceived and premature theories” about the demise of COVID-19, the authors — microbiologists at the European Commission and the University of Oxford — take aim at what they call the “persistent myth” that the virus will evolve to be benign.

That omicron caused relatively mild disease “has been enthusiastically interpreted to be a sign of the approaching end of the pandemic,” the authors write in the study, which was published Monday. “Yet the lower severity of omicron is nothing but a lucky coincidence.”

Instead, the microbiologists believe more severe strains could be on the way as the virus adapts to dodge natural immunity and vaccines. Analyzing the possibilities for how COVID may evolve in the coming months and years, they attempt to debunk the notion that omicron’s lessened severity represents a step towards normalcy.

“Omicron is not at all a good predictor for the future,” said Dr. Peter Markov, a scientist at the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre and lead author of the study.

Many viruses that plague human populations, including HIV and Hepatitis C, do not evolve to be less severe over time, Markov said.

You can find more details here. You know that BA2 omicron variant that’s already making case counts go up in Europe? We’re starting to see evidence of more infection in the US as well. In the wastewater, of course.

There’s a whole thread to read for that. The good news locally is that our wastewater virus levels are still trending down, as of March 7. That of course can change quickly. You know what the best protection from this is, of course.

That drum has been beaten to death, and yet the US as a whole and Texas and Harris County in particular are not great on getting shots in arms. Too many vaccinated people haven’t gotten boosters. Too many vax-eligible kids haven’t gotten theirs. The anti-vaxx crowd is as loud and obnoxious and dangerous as ever. And yet even with all that, we’re in a better position than some other places.

Another thread to read. An astonishingly small number of people over the age of 80 have been vaccinated in Hong Kong, which is absolutely getting slammed right now, and in China as well. That and a lack of immunity from prior exposures – this is their reward for suppressing the first waves of COVID so well – are the underlying factors. Our vax rate in Texas isn’t great, but so many people have been infected at least once that it helps make up the gap somewhat. But vax + booster is still by far the most effective protection against hospitalization and death. If the next variant is more effective at avoiding existing protections, or is more severe in addition to being more transmissible, we’re going to be in deep trouble. Hope for the best, make sure everyone in your circle is vaxxed and boosted, and stay vigilant. Stace has more.

Sure, go ahead, test ivermectin

Just keep your expectations very low.

Texas universities, including Texas Tech’s Health Science Center in El Paso, are now recruiting subjects for a nationwide study to test the effects of unproven repurposed drugs against non-severe COVID cases.

Ivermectin, an anti-parasitic medication that local and federal health agencies have warned against using for COVID symptoms, is a candidate in the clinical trial known as ACTIV-6, along with fluticasone, an asthma medication, and fluvoxamine, an anti-depressant.

None of the three drugs have been shown to be beneficial against COVID-19 in any large-scale clinical trial.

The form of ivermectin tested by the study is different from the over-the-counter formulation and dosage, meant to treat animals, that some people have attempted to use for COVID, Dr. Edward Michelson of Texas Tech’s Health Science Center in El Paso told local station KTSM. Michelson leads the local ACTIV-6 study in El Paso.

The study aims to determine whether any of the drugs can help meet a “critical” need for medications to prevent COVID from worsening in people with “mild-to-moderate” cases that do not require hospitalization or oxygen, according to the study website.

I mean, maybe they will find some valuable use for ivermectin in treating COVID. Or maybe they’ll find super solid evidence that none of these off-use drugs work and it will deter some people from taking advice from quacks instead of getting real help. (There’s already evidence for that, and indeed that ivermectin is actually harmful.) I don’t expect much to come out of this, but I want to hold some space in my heart for the possibility. If you want to do your part for SCIENCE, click here, and godspeed to you.

Corbevax gets its approval

Kudos.

The Peoples Vaccine
Image courtesy of Texas Children’s Hospital

Texas Children’s Hospital and Baylor College of Medicine today announced Corbevax — a protein sub-unit COVID-19 vaccine — has received approval from the Drugs Controller General of India to launch in that nation.

The vaccine has been developed in Houston by Dr. Peter Hotez, the dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine and co-director of the Center for Vaccine Development at Texas Children’s Hospital and Dr. Maria Elena Bottazzi.

Hotez called the approval “an important first step in vaccinating the world and halting the pandemic.”

[…]

Bottazzi and Hotez led efforts at Texas Children’s Hospital to develop the “initial construct and production process of the vaccine antigen.” After the vaccine was found to be “safe, well tolerated and immunogenic,” the Drugs Controller General of India granted emergency use authorization.

Corbevax completed two Phase III clinical trials with more than 3,000 subjects. The trials suggested a better immune response to the Ancestral-Wuhan strain of the virus as well as the delta variant compared to Covishield, which was developed by Oxford-AstraZeneca. None of the subjects showed severe adverse reactions to the vaccine; and adverse effects in the study were half of those from Covishield.

See here for the background. Vaccine supply isn’t a problem in the US and Europe but it is a problem in many parts of the world. We know very well that the more opportunities this virus gets to spread and mutate, the more chances it has to turn into something worse and more dangerous. Hopefully Corbevax can help close that gap. Kudos to all involved. Here’s the Texas Children’s Hospital page about Corbevax and its development, and CultureMap has more.

Climate change and freezing weather

A little science for you.

It was the coldest February Texas had seen in more than four decades, and the sustained blast of arctic air knocked out much of the state’s power grid for several days, causing hundreds of deaths and billions of dollars in damage.

Yet 2021 also brought the planet’s 16th-warmest February since records began. On average, winters are getting more mild because climate change has increased temperatures worldwide. How could a warmer world bring such a severe cold snap to Texas?

Scientists say they are still working to understand the relationship between climate change and extreme winter weather patterns. Many factors can influence localized cold snaps, and evidence suggests that climate change is affecting longstanding climate patterns in new ways.

“The way those kinds of events occur involve a lot more complicated atmospheric processes,” said Jennifer Francis, a senior scientist and acting deputy director for Woodwell Climate Research Center in Falmouth, Massachusetts.

Francis and other scientists said there’s a significant body of research that can help explain why Texas — and other areas of the U.S. — may still experience extreme cold from time to time amid an overall warming of the planet.

“Maybe there was some nuance that was missed when people started talking about winters disappearing and how we’re never going to see snow again,” said Judah Cohen, a leading scholar on winter weather and climate change and the director of seasonal forecasting at the climate analytics company Atmospheric and Environmental Research. “People say, ‘I was told one thing and I’m experiencing something else.’”

Several factors impact the frequency and severity of cold spells in Texas, from the strength of the polar vortex — a seasonal, swirling mass of cold air that circles high above the Arctic — to whether we’re in an El Niño or a La Niña year, which influences whether Texas has a wet or dry winter, to the natural patterns that influence the position and strength of the jet stream, which can determine the path and duration of weather systems.

Here’s what factors scientists say can cause an extreme cold snap to hit Texas — and how such storms may be influenced by climate change.

You should read the rest, because it’s pretty interesting. The science is still being developed, and so there’s disagreement about some of the findings, but the big picture is there. You might familiarize yourself with the concept of a “polar vortex”, because it’s a key factor. Hope for the best and be prepared, whatever happens.

A broader look at the Houston project to track COVID in wastewater

The DMN tells me things I did not know about my current favorite public works project.

The [Houston] health department is conducting the wastewater surveillance for COVID-19 in partnership with researchers at Rice University and Baylor College of Medicine. Wastewater testing cannot identify individual people who have COVID-19, but it can identify neighborhoods with particular virus variants or relatively high virus loads.

Dallas County is not participating in similar wastewater surveillance to track the virus, said Dr. Philip Huang, director of Dallas County Health and Human Services. He said he doesn’t know of any other organizations or municipalities in North Texas that are operating similar programs.

While Dallas County previously considered using wastewater surveillance, the price of creating such a system was too high. “It’s actually quite expensive to set that up,” Huang said.

“After the 10-week survey, [the water district] discontinued its participation in the study due to inconsistent data that required continuous interpretation by local and state public health officials,” said Kathleen Vaught, public relations specialist at the water district.

Public health experts have long used wastewater samples to track the growth and spread of bacteria and viruses, like the poliovirus.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention began discussing the use of the tool to study COVID-19 in February 2020.

By September of that same year, the CDC and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services launched the National Wastewater Surveillance System, also known as NWSS, to help state, tribal and local health departments track and respond to COVID-19.

[…]

Houston is the only Texas city to participate in the NWSS, although that could change as the program grows in the next month, said NWSS team lead and CDC microbiologist Dr. Amy Kirby. Data taken from Houston wastewater samples is submitted to a national database tracking similar data from nearly 400 utilities across the country.

The University of California, Merced’s Naughton Lab created and maintains a dashboard, called COVIDPoops19, to track global wastewater testing for the virus.

I just want to say that learning of the existence of a dashboard called COVIDPoops19 has improved my life in ways I could not have imagined. You can zoom in on Houston in this dashboard and click on the various icons to learn more; clicking on the icon for Baylor College of Medicine led me to the actual Houston dashboard for this, which I had not seen before. If you play around with the slider, which shows you what the viral levels were for past weeks, you can see that the inflection point for this year was the week of June 21 – levels had been dropping through June 7, then you saw a few upticks on June 14, and on the 21st it was all increases, and it got worse for the next few weeks. We’re on more of an upward trend right now (December 6 is the most recent date), but there are increases and decreases in the various locations. I’m going to be bookmarking this page. Anyway, if you want to know more about this project, there you go.

Corbevax

Very cool.

A Houston-made COVID-19 vaccine will likely be approved for use in India by the end of the year, said Dr. Peter Hotez, co-director of Texas Children’s Hospitals Center for Vaccine Development.

Hotez and his co-director, Dr. Maria Elena Bottazzi, created the vaccine as a cheap and easy-to-produce option to fill global gaps in vaccine coverage. Dubbed Corbevax, it uses a safe and traditional vaccine technology, called recombinant protein subunit, that has been used for decades in the hepatitis B vaccine and is therefore easier for other countries to make themselves.

Drug maker Biological E has agreed to manufacture 300 million doses in India, where 36 percent of the population is fully vaccinated and 59 percent have at least one dose. Efficacy data has been submitted to the Drugs Controller General of India for authorization.

The vaccine does not have a patent, and Hotez hopes manufacturers in other low- or middle-income countries will take advantage of its availability.

“If you leave large populations unvaccinated, that’s where the greatest concerns of variants arise,” he said, referring to the current spread of the omicron variant from the largely unvaccinated South African population. “So this vaccine is therefore needed not only for global health but also economic development.”

Bottazzi, who is from Honduras, is especially interested in the vaccine’s proliferation throughout Latin America. Less than 40 percent of the population is fully vaccinated in several countries there, according to the New York Times global virus tracker.

“Corbevax is gong to be a trailblazer,” she said.

The work is based on research they had done for a SARS virus but never took to a human trial because the virus had receded by then. Anything we can do to get more shots in arms is absolutely a good thing. Kudos to all for the achievement.

Omicron may be coming, but delta is still here

It’s still a big problem, in case we haven’t forgotten.

Omicron’s arrival in the U.S. came as no surprise to federal health officials and will be met with similar anticipation in Texas, where experts believe it could show up in state and local sequencing efforts as soon as this week.

“It’s almost certainly here,” said Dr. Benjamin Neuman, a Texas A&M University professor and chief virologist at its Global Health Research Complex, which does sequencing for COVID-19 variants.

On Monday, federal health officials concerned about omicron urged eligible vaccinated adults to get their booster shots to increase their protection from COVID-19, in whatever form it might take over the winter, and to keep masking, hand-washing and social distancing when possible.

In Texas, state health officials say they are ready to assist hospitals should another surge happen over the holidays and they are ramping up their own efforts to identify more variants in more parts of the state.

But their largest push, at least publicly, is for vaccination and booster shots. About 55% of Texans were fully vaccinated as of Dec. 1. Some 18.7% of fully vaccinated Texans have had boosters, according to state health numbers.

“Prevention is important, and vaccination remains our best prevention tool,” said Chris Van Deusen, spokesperson for the Texas Department of State Health Services.

[…]

Texas hospitals are still in the throes of a staffing shortage after almost two years of deadly surges and a summer wave of deaths and hospitalizations that saw record numbers of ICUs filled to capacity.

With more than 13 million Texans still not fully vaccinated, the fear of the medical community here is that another wave will further strain a health care system that is already exhausted and depleted.

At the moment, without more data about omicron, delta is still the variant likely to cause the most problems this winter, Neuman said.

“Today, it’s the delta wave that worries me. Not omicron yet,” Neuman said. “We’ve got to wait and see what omicron does, if anything. But with cases rising across the country — that’s entirely being driven by delta.”

There’s some interesting stuff in the article about how scientists in Texas are tracking different variants here – did you know there was such a thing as the Texas Variant Partnership? I didn’t – so read on. Everything I’ve read about omicron so far suggests it will be a couple of weeks before we have some real data on it, which will help us understand basic questions about how transmissible it is, how deadly it is, and so on. A huge question, especially in a still largely unvaccinated state like Texas is how much protection is natural immunity versus vaccination. I’m betting on the latter, but it’s certainly a possibility that another booster may need to be developed. Which, thanks to the nature of mRNA vaccines, can be done quickly, like three to four months. In the meantime, stay cautious and for crying out loud get your shots.

Deer COVID

In case you were running low on things to feel anxious about.

Scientists have evidence that SARS-CoV-2 spreads explosively in white-tailed deer and that the virus is widespread in this deer population across the United States.

Researchers say the findings are quite concerning and could have vast implications for the long-term course of the coronavirus pandemic.

Since SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes the disease COVID-19, first emerged, there have been several signs that white-tailed deer would be highly susceptible to the virus — and that many of these animals were catching it across the country.

In September of last year, computer models suggested SARS-CoV-2 could easily bind to and enter the deer’s cells. A recent survey of white-tailed deer in the Northeast and Midwest found that 40% of them had antibodies against SARS-CoV-2.

Now veterinarians at Pennsylvania State University have found active SARS-CoV-2 infections in at least 30% of deer tested across Iowa during 2020. Their study, published online last week, suggests that white-tailed deer could become what’s known as a reservoir for SARS-CoV-2. That is, the animals could carry the virus indefinitely and spread it back to humans periodically.

If that’s the case, it would essentially dash any hopes of eliminating or eradicating the virus in the U.S. — and therefore from the world — says veterinary virologist Suresh Kuchipudi at Penn State, who co-led the study.

[…]

From April to December of last year, about 30% of the deer that they tested were positive for SARS-CoV-2 by a PCR test. And then during the winter surge in Iowa, from Nov. 23, 2020, to Jan. 10 of this year, about 80% of the deer that they tested were infected. At the peak of the surge, Kapur says, the prevalence of the virus in deer was effectively about 50 to 100 times the prevalence in Iowa residents at the time.

During this time frame, the team also sequenced the genes of nearly 100 samples of the virus. They found the variants circulating in the deer matched the variants circulating in people.

Those genomic sequences suggest that during the pandemic, deer have caught the virus from people multiple times in Iowa alone, Kapur says. “The data are very consistent again with frequent spillover events from humans into deer and then transmission among the animals.”

Virologist Linda Saif at Ohio State University’s College of Veterinary Medicine says humans are likely infecting white-tailed deer across the country. The white-tailed deer is native to North America, Central America and the northern edge of South America. In the U.S. alone, there are an estimated 30 million animals.

“We also have detected the virus in deer in Ohio,” she says. “And there are antibody studies that suggest the prevalence of COVID infections among deer are pretty high in the Midwest and East.”

Although the virus doesn’t seem to make the animals sick, Saif says, the new data from Iowa are “very concerning.”

“Now the question is: Can the virus spill back from deer to humans? Or can deer transmit the virus effectively to grazing livestock? We don’t know the answers to those questions yet, but if they are true, they’re obviously concerning,” she says.

Yeah, I’d say so. Have I mentioned lately that getting vaccinated, and then getting boostered when you need to, is a really good idea? The odds are that sooner or later, we’ll all need a different version of the COVID vaccine, just because some awful new variant has arisen. This is the same reason why we need new flu shots every year. The sooner we accept that reality, the better off we’ll all be. USA Today and Texas Public Radio have more.

The Pfizer pill

This would be a big step forward.

Pfizer Inc. said [recently] that its experimental antiviral pill for COVID-19 cut rates of hospitalization and death by nearly 90% in high-risk adults, as the drugmaker joined the race for an easy-to-use medication to treat the coronavirus.

Currently most COVID-19 treatments require an IV or injection. Competitor Merck’s COVID-19 pill is already under review at the Food and Drug Administration after showing strong initial results, and on Thursday the United Kingdom became the first country to OK it.

Pfizer said it will ask the FDA and international regulators to authorize its pill as soon as possible, after independent experts recommended halting the company’s study based on the strength of its results. Once Pfizer applies, the FDA could make a decision within weeks or months.

Since the beginning of the pandemic last year, researchers worldwide have been racing to find a pill to treat COVID-19 that can be taken at home to ease symptoms, speed recovery and keep people out of the hospital.

Having pills to treat early COVID-19 “would be a very important advance,” said Dr. John Mellors, chief of infectious diseases at the University of Pittsburgh, who was not involved in the Pfizer study.

“If someone developed symptoms and tested positive we could call in a prescription to the local pharmacy as we do for many, many infectious diseases,” he said.

[…]

Study participants were unvaccinated, with mild-to-moderate COVID-19, and were considered high risk for hospitalization due to health problems like obesity, diabetes or heart disease. Treatment began within three to five days of initial symptoms, and lasted for five days. Patients who received the drug earlier showed slightly better results, underscoring the need for speedy testing and treatment.

Pfizer reported few details on side effects but said rates of problems were similar between the groups at about 20%.

It’s much better to prevent COVID than to treat it, in the same way that it’s much better to prevent malware from getting on your computer than to clean up after it. As such, getting vaccinated is still far and away the best thing to do to mitigate the risk of COVID. But if I want to extend the cybersecurity analogy, you must have multiple layers of defense to truly have good security practices, and so having a safe and reliable treatment to COVID that can keep people out of the hospital is crucial. I look forward to both the Pfizer and Merck pills getting approved by the FDA.

Don’t forget your flu shot

The flu is going to be back this year. Don’t fall for it.

After a historically light flu season in 2020, experts warn an influenza resurgence is looming this fall and winter.

“I would expect a more intense influenza season, simply because we did not have a flu season last year,” said Dr. Pedro Piedra, a virologist at Baylor College of Medicine.

Flu exposure breeds a level of natural immunity, creating a cellular memory of prior infections in those it infects. The absence of influenza last year, due to widespread masking and social distancing, has left many with a weakened immune defense — a development that could spell trouble as Texans venture out in droves this fall.

The return of the familiar body aching, fever-inducing wintertime scourge could not arrive at a worse time. Hospitals are still reeling from the fourth surge of COVID-19 spurred by the highly contagious delta variant and stagnating vaccination rates.

Experts predict flu season could hit Houston by early November.

“Now is the time to start making flu vaccine appointments,” Piedra said.

This past year was a historic anomaly due to COVID restrictions and precautions, and the lack of those plus a year out from anyone getting the flu we’re likely to see a resurgence. The flu shot may not be quite as effective this year, as it will be harder to model what it needs to be, but it will still be way better than nothing. Don’t miss out.

Your thermostat may be plotting against you

Welcome to 2021.

Amid [recent] sweltering temperatures in Houston, the agency that operates the state’s power grid asked residents to cut back on how much electricity they used to help it meet demand. That’s how some people apparently learned the hard way that their “smart thermostats” were programmed to rise in their homes when grid conditions got tight.

A user posting on the Reddit page for discussions about Houston wrote of knowing eight people with thermostats that bumped up automatically and made their homes less cool — sparking a conversation about how and why this happens. The concerns were first reported by KHOU.

Turns out, utility customers can opt in to programs that automatically adjust their thermostats when demand is high and grid capacity is strained. Those people can also opt out. Some, it seemed, were caught unawares.

One user wrote of being automatically enrolled in a program and then waiting months while trying to get out of it. Another reported sending an email to get removed from the service.

A third chastised them all: “This is what happens when you don’t read the contract.”

A software provider called EnergyHub works with thermostat manufacturers to run such programs. No one is enrolled without their consent, said Erika Diamond, the company’s vice president for customer solutions.

The idea is to reduce energy load when the grid is stressed, such as during an extreme weather event, Diamond said. Temperatures at George Bush Intercontinental Airport hit at least 95 degrees every day from June 11 through June 16.

I’m sure this was somewhere in your user agreement, which I know we all read thoroughly. One could easily argue that this is a net benefit for all, as the modest reduction in A/C that everyone affected by this would experience would save energy and maybe avoid some blackouts. It’s almost certainly more effective than asking people to voluntarily dial it back, as some won’t do it and others won’t be aware you’re asking. But it would be better if people were generally aware of this, even if it meant more of them opted out or manually overrode the auto-adjustment as they can do, if only to prevent the inevitable conspiracy theories and overall mistrust that a lack of awareness will spawn. At least it’s mostly been not-so-hot since then, so this has been less of an issue, but obviously we can’t just count on that. Reform Austin and Mother Jones have more.

Is it a car that flies or a plane that drives?

It’s a little of both.

Photo from Klein Vision

A prototype flying car has completed a 35-minute flight between international airports in Nitra and Bratislava, Slovakia.

The hybrid car-aircraft, AirCar, is equipped with a BMW engine and runs on regular petrol-pump fuel.

Its creator, Prof Stefan Klein, said it could fly about 1,000km (600 miles), at a height of 8,200ft (2,500m), and had clocked up 40 hours in the air so far.

It takes two minutes and 15 seconds to transform from car into aircraft.

The narrow wings fold down along the sides of the car.

Prof Klein drove it straight off the runway and into town upon arrival, watched by invited reporters.

He described the experience, early on Monday morning, as “normal” and “very pleasant”.

In the air, the vehicle reached a cruising speed of 170km/h.

It can carry two people, with a combined weight limit of 200kg (31 stone).

But unlike drone-taxi prototypes, it cannot take off and land vertically and requires a runway.

I’ve blogged about flying cars a few times before – what can I say, the subject is fascinating, and also somewhat terrifying – with the first entry in 2017, when Uber was talking about having an “intra-urban flying vehicle network” available in 2020, with Dallas and Fort Worth being its target. Didn’t quite work out the way they envisioned – they’re now talking 2023 as a more realistic date – but that’s the way it goes. This particular model is basically a car with retractable wings; other models we have heard about include flying motorcycles and something that looks like a drone capable of carrying multiple humans. That latter model is likely a few more years off, but who knows with any of this.

There are a lot of concerns about these things, including noise, safety, and of course the climate effect, but so far that hasn’t stopped anyone from trying. As with driverless cars, which are still in their infancy and still have some major engineering challenges to solve, I think it’s a matter of when and not if for these things. We ought to at least think about how we want to integrate them into society, rather than react when they do show up. You can see more pictures and videos for this particular flying car at the Klein Vision website. CNet and Yahoo have more.

Kids still get COVID, too

And they need to get vaccinated if at all possible.

Since the Food and Drug Administration approved emergency use of the Pfizer vaccine for 12 to15 year olds on May 10, more than 300,000 Texas adolescents and teenagers have received at least one dose. Girls in this age range are receiving the vaccine at a higher rate (153,000) than boys (149,000), according to Texas Health and Human Services. Nationwide, more than 626,000 12 to 15 year olds have received two doses, according to the CDC.

Though young people can now receive shots, the number of children and adolescents being hospitalized is increasing. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released data from the first half of 2021 that shows nearly one-third of adolescents who are hospitalized with COVID-19 require intensive care. Five percent of those patients need to be put on ventilators with supplemental oxygen, as well.

The CDC reports that nearly 400 children and adolescents are currently in hospitals across the country with COVID or complications from the virus. More than 16,000 under the age of 18 have been hospitalized from COVID since the start of the pandemic, and more than 300 of them have died from it, said Dr. Jim Versalovic, interim pediatrician-in-chief at Texas Children’s Hospital.

“This is a huge setback for a child or adolescent with time spent out of school or activities,” Versalovic said. “There’s a long recovery time even if the infection is mild initially.”

He attributes the increase to fewer masks and stagnating vaccination rates.

More than half of all Texans are vaccinated with at least one dose, but that doesn’t mean Houston is free of several coronavirus variants that are more transmissible and deadlier than the original virus.

In the last month, fewer people are masking up in public outdoors and indoors after the CDC said it was safe for vaccinated people to go masklessThree-day holiday weekends and the onslaught of summer weather has turned Houston into the partying swamp city it was before the pandemic, too.

[…]

Versalovic said about 10 percent of children diagnosed with the virus at his hospital require hospitalization. This rate is nearly three times greater than the seasonal flu, which the CDC reported killed nearly 600 children between 2017 and 2018.

Child survivors sometimes have a whole new set of problems when the initial infection clears. Several weeks after other symptoms have gone away, children who had mild COVID develop other symptoms that typically require hospitalization. This is called Multisystem Inflammatory Syndrome in Children, or MIS-C.

MIS-C symptoms include fever, stomach pain, diarrhea, vomiting, neck pain, random rashes and bloodshot eyes. Extreme fatigue is also a symptom, but it’s usually blamed on other problems.

Texas Children’s has vaccinated more than 18,500 12 to 15 year olds since early May. Any person age 12 and older is eligible for a free Pfizer vaccine from the hospital, regardless of whether they are currently a patient. Vaccines are available at six Texas Children’s sites across Houston Monday through Saturday.

The hospital is partnering with Houston-area school districts now to immunize their students, so middle and high schools can open safely for the fall semester, he added.

“We are going to be very busy during the summer months as we seek to immunize as many children as possible,” Versalovic said. “It’s important to protect adolescents to stop the spread of COVID as they get ready for summer activities, camps, sports and the school year in August.”

Not much to say here that we haven’t said already, many times. Get your kids vaccinated. As long as there are unvaccinated and/or immunocompromised members of your household, you should continue with pre-vaccination safety protocols as much as possible, which I know is vastly more difficult now that masks are being removed all over the place. It is true that the health risks to kids from COVID are lower than they are with adults, but they are not zero and they can be serious. For all the progress we’ve made, we’re not out of danger yet.

The COVID wastewater tracking project has been a big success

This has been one of the best things to come out of this interminable and miserable COVID experience.

Lauren Stadler’s environmental engineering students always pose the same question at the beginning of a semester: “What happens to water in the toilet after you flush?”

Historically, humans have worked to quickly dispose and eradicate their own waste, which can carry diseases.

But an area’s waste creates a snapshot of who is there and what they’ve been exposed to, said Stadler, a wastewater engineer and environmental microbiologist at Rice University. She’s working with the Houston Health Department and Baylor College of Medicine’s TAILOR program to find SARS-CoV-2 in the city’s wastewater.

Stadler’s hunt has revealed variants in particular areas, heightening the city’s urgency to procure resources — COVID tests, informational meetings, advertising and now vaccine sites — in an effort to quash them before they proliferate.

“The beauty and challenge of wastewater is that it represents a pool of sample — we’ll never get an individual person’s SARS-CoV-2 strain, but a mixture of everyone in that population,” Stadler said. “We can find a population level of emergence of mutations that might be unique to Houston.”

[…]

Variant tracking has become an important part of the wastewater analysis process, Stadler said.

In February, the city and its research partners began seeing a quick emergence of the B.1.1.7 variant, which is now the dominant variant in the area. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, nearly 21,000 cases of the B.1.1.7 variant have been detected in nationwide.

Now that the team has gathered data and built a sustainable process, Stadler said they are using this information to forecast future pandemics. “Taking wastewater data, you can predict positivity rates and forecast infection burdens — it has this predictive power essentially. It’ll be very important to identify areas in the city experiencing increases in infection, and we can direct resources.”

The wastewater analysis team works with public works employees to collect weekly samples from nearly 200 sites across the city.

“I think they see this as a monitoring tool beyond the pandemic, and we see it as well,” Stadler said. “Hopefully, when SARS-CoV-2 is behind us, we will be able to monitor for an endemic virus, like flu. We can use wastewater monitoring to look for other viruses, bacterial pathogens and other pathogens of concern.”

See here and here for recent entries. I don’t have much to add, just my admiration for everyone involved and the knowledge they have gained. This was a simple and inexpensive innovation, and it will yield public health benefits for years to come. Kudos to all.

Houston Methodist tells its employees to get vaxxed or else

I’m okay with this.

Four out of five Houston Methodist employees are vaccinated against COVID-19. The sliver who are not will be suspended or fired if they refuse the shot, according to company policy.

The hospital required managers to be vaccinated by April 15 and all other employees — about 26,000 workers in total — by June 7, said Stefanie Asin, a Houston Methodist spokesperson.

With 84 percent of the staff vaccinated, the hospital is close to herd immunity, CEO Marc Boom wrote in a letter to employees this month.

“As health care workers we’ve taken a sacred oath to do everything possible to keep our patients safe and healthy — this includes getting vaccinated,” Boom wrote.

A little more than 4,100 employees have not received at least a first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine. The hospital does not know yet how many employees potentially will be suspended or terminated because of the mandatory vaccination policy.

Since 2009, a hospital policy has mandated its workers receive the flu vaccine each year, unless they have a medical or religious objection qualifying them for exemption.

[…]

Several nursing homes in Houston are requiring COVID-19 vaccinations of their workers, while other hospitals in the Texas Medical Center have not yet followed suit.

“UTMB is not mandating vaccination,” said Christopher Smith Gonzalez, senior communication specialist for the hospital. “But, in view of the high contagiousness of the some of the SARS-CoV-2 variants, UTMB has implemented enhanced respiratory precautions for all unvaccinated individuals caring for or evaluating patients for COVID.”

While 80 percent of Texas Children’s Hospital employees are vaccinated against COVID-19, the hospital does not require inoculation. St. Luke’s Health has vaccinated “thousands of our staff,” vaccinations are not mandatory, according to the health system.

But some are considering it to cut back on health hazards for employees and patients.

“As a provider of health care services, Baylor College of Medicine currently requires vaccination for employees for a variety of infectious diseases,” said Dr. James McDeavitt, senior vice president of Baylor College of Medicine. “For example, flu vaccination for employees has been mandatory for several years. With appropriately defined exemptions (medical contraindications, religious beliefs), we support mandatory vaccination for COVID-19. We do not yet have this requirement in place, but it is under active consideration.”

Memorial Hermann will make COVID-19 vaccines mandatory after it relaxes some of its COVID-19 protocols, such as mask-wearing and social distancing. However, it has not set a deadline for employees to receive the vaccine, said Drew Munhausen, a Memorial Hermann spokesperson.

This all makes sense to me. They’re health care workers, which not only makes them at high risk for catching COVID, it means they’re in very close contact with a lot of extremely vulnerable people as well. The story notes a recent incident in a Kentucky nursing home, where an unvaxxed worker was the cause of an outbreak. While most of the residents, who had been vaccinated, had only mild symptoms, one of them died. None of that should have happened. State law requires that health care facilities have a policy about vaccinations, but doesn’t require that they mandate them; federal law allows employers to require vaccinations, but also doesn’t mandate it. I for sure would want to know that the doctor or nurse or physician’s assistant who is giving me medical assistance, as well as all of the support staff, have been vaccinated for COVID. I understand that some of the employees may be hesitant about the vaccine, and I have some sympathy for them, but only so much.

There is also this:

Houston Methodist was one of several companies to offer incentives for its workers to get a COVID-19 vaccine. The hospital is granting $500 bonuses to anyone who worked during the pandemic and received the vaccine.

“Already we’re seeing positive results as the number of employee infections has dropped inversely with the number of employees receiving the vaccine,” Boom wrote.

Paying people to get vaxxed has its merits. One of the hesitant Methodist employees from the story says that some of her fellow hesitators are thinking about getting the shots to keep their jobs. Clearly, incentives work. Maybe that’s a lesson for us for the broader issue.

You will eventually need a COVID booster shot

Just get used to the idea.

More than 28 percent of Texans 16 and older are now fully vaccinated against COVID-19, having received either one shot of the Johnson & Johnson or two of Moderna or Pfizer. But as scientists continue to study the virus and emerging variants, they’re concluding that even the fully vaccinated may need booster shots to stay protected.

“It might be necessary because of waning immunity,” said Dr. Wesley Long, an infectious disease expert at Houston Methodist Hospital. “It might be necessary if we have a variant strain of COVID that maybe the original vaccines doesn’t protect against as well.”

So far, it’s looking probable people will require a booster shot around the holiday season. But there are still many unknowns.

Although the coronavirus pandemic has ravaged the globe for a year now, clinical trials for the vaccine haven’t been around as long. The most recent data from vaccine manufacturers show that the shots offer at least six months of protection, but researchers won’t know until the end of the year whether immunity lasts a full 12 months.

[…]

To test whether patients have lost protection, public health agencies and vaccine manufacturers will likely keep a close eye on the rate of hospitalizations and deaths. If people lose immunity, it’ll likely taper off gradually rather than come to an abrupt end.

“One of two things can happen: We may lose protection against all COVID-19 symptoms, the mild and the severe, which would be a problem, right?” said Dr. Hana El Sahly, an associate professor of molecular virology and microbiology at Baylor College of Medicine. “Or it might be that we only lose protection against the mild symptoms, but retain protection against the severe symptoms.”

Researchers are still studying how SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, is similar to other respiratory illnesses. While the disease has drawn some comparisons to influenza strains, the vaccines may work differently than flu shots, which require new vaccines every year to fend off emerging strains.

Even if the COVID-19 vaccine goes the way of the flu shot, experts say it’s not a bad sign.

“People shouldn’t be surprised, and it doesn’t mean that the original vaccines are a failure at all,” Long said. The vaccine will still keep people from dying and help them avoid the hospital.

Yeah, I’ve seen news stories about the likelihood of needing annual COVID shots, like one needs annual flu shots, for some time now. One reason for this is that there are new variants emerging with regularity.

College Station is best known as the home of Texas A&M University, but as of this month, researchers have confirmed it’s now the birthplace of a new COVID-19 strain.

Only one student has tested positive for BV-1, named for the Brazos Valley. They were diagnosed with COVID-19 on March 5 and experienced mild respiratory symptoms. A second test on March 25 turned up positive results, worrying researchers the variant would cause a longer infection in young adults.

“We do not at present know the full significance of this variant, but it has a combination of mutations similar to other internationally notifiable variants of concern,” Ben Neuman, a Texas A&M virologist, said in a statement. “This variant combines genetic markers separately associated with rapid spread, severe disease and high resistance to neutralizing antibodies.”

Viruses mutate, it’s what they do. So far, the known variants have all still been controlled by the existing vaccines, but eventually one or more of them will be more resistant. As long as there continues to be a significant population of people who wish to be a reservoir for the virus (read: anti-vaxxers), the virus will have plenty of opportunity to do its thing. As for the rest of us, vaccinations are all around us.

Walk-in COVID-19 vaccine clinics are now all the rage in Houston, as larger allocations and dwindling demand change the scarcity-fueled dynamic of the past several months.

“Now, there is more supply than there is demand,” said Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo during a Monday afternoon news conference at NRG Park. “That means we have more vaccines than we have people willing to get them.”

As of Monday, 44 percent of Texans have received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine. In Texas, vaccine administration is beginning to plateau at 250,000 doses per day, while vaccine manufacturers produce more doses a week, with 14.5 million shipped nationwide every week as of mid-April.

Harris County’s vaccine site, NRG Park, has abandoned the waitlist system that frustrated residents who found it difficult to schedule a time slot in advance. While the site, run jointly by the county and the Federal Emergency Management Agency, still recommends scheduling an appointment ahead of time to guarantee a dose, anyone age 16 or older can arrive on foot or by car during operating hours for a shot.

In addition, St. Luke’s Health is operating a walk-in clinic at Texas Southern University this week. Michael E. DeBakey Veterans Affairs Medical Center offers walk-up vaccines for veterans, caregivers and spouses.

Get your shot if you haven’t already. Make sure everyone you know gets theirs. And then be ready to do it again, sometime in 2022. This is the world we live in now.

No flu

I would never say that there was any such thing as a silver lining to the COVID pandemic, but it is true that basically nobody died from the flu this year because of masking and social distancing.

What medical officials worried would be a “twindemic” at the end of last year — the concurrence of influenza and COVID-19 sicknesses overwhelming Houston’s hospitals — turned out surprisingly well.

At Memorial Hermann, just three patients tested positive for influenza during the 2020-2021 flu season, compared to 983 patients during the 2019-2020 flu season. Doctors test for both flu and COVID-19 as a precaution.

The same public health measures that prevent SARS-CoV-2 from spreading — masks, social distancing and regular hand-washing — kept influenza strains from sickening people.

“When we were looking internally, we just weren’t seeing flu,” said Dr. James McCarthy, chief executive physician at Memorial Hermann.

Flu infections are down nationwide, with a hospitalization rate of 0.7 per 100,000 people, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. During the last flu season, the rate was nearly 100 times higher — 66.1 per 100,000 patients. Pediatric deaths also decreased, from 189 last year to one this year.

[…]

Researchers wondered whether being infected with the coronavirus would wipe out the chances of getting the flu, and say it may be a factor that contributed equally to declining flu rates.

“Part of it is because we had a worse virus that was spreading faster,” McCarthy said.

Knowing to wear masks and get a flu vaccine could be a huge step toward eradicating deadly flu seasons. But will people continue to practice those public health measures? Doctors don’t know.

“We’re recognizing that not only can we protect our friends and loved ones from COVID, but we can also do it from influenza with precautions for medically vulnerable folks,” McCarthy said.

I’ve gotten a flu shot every year for as long as I can remember, and as far as I know I’ve never gotten the flu. I will certainly continue to get those vaccines as before, and I’d strongly consider wearing a mask during the flu season going forward when doing things like grocery shopping. Hard to see any reason why not to at this point.

First look at the 2021 hurricane season

Yeah, it’s getting to be that time of year. From Space City Weather:

Good morning. The most reputable hurricane season forecasting service, led by Phil Klotzbach at Colorado State University, has released its first outlook for the 2021 Atlantic season. The forecast calls for above normal activity (see table below) with 17 named storms instead of the more typical 12; eight hurricanes instead of six; and about 50 percent total more activity, in terms of the duration and intensity of tropical systems, as measured by accumulated cyclone energy.

This outlook is consistent with other predictions, already released, in calling for a busier than normal season. What I like about Klotzbach’s forecast is that he’s very clear about his methodology—using a combination of statistical modeling, and historical correlations between Spring-time weather conditions and hurricane activity later in the year. Klotzbach also has a reasonable track record.

With that said, seasonal hurricane forecasts are far from perfect. I think, generally, we can expect a busier Atlantic season, but we’re almost certainly not going to see a brute of a year like 2020. Moreover, the chance of the Houston area being directly affected by serious tropical weather (in terms of floods, winds, or surge) is pretty low. Historically, the region only sees a significant storm about once a decade or so. Therefore, while it certainly is time to begin planning for the 2021 Atlantic season, I very much do not want you to start worrying or obsessing about it. Matt and I will, of course, be here every step of the way, and we’ll be releasing a new app before the June 1 beginning of the season to keep you informed.

“Not as bad as 2020” is a low bar to clear, but we have to start somewhere. There will be other forecasts, and that will give us a fuller picture of what is expected. Also of importance is predicting the development and path and severity of hurricanes and big rainstorms, and towards that end the NOAA rolled out a new model last month.

“You just get a better forecast,” said Lance Wood, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service’s Houston/Galveston office. “The day-to-day reliability of the model forecasting would be better, though it would probably be more noticeable in something like an extreme rainfall threat.”

The upgrades include a variety of changes. For one, the Global Forecast System (an atmospheric model) can now interact with a global wave model. Running these models together will extend wave forecasts to 16 days, up from the current 10-day forecasts. This is particularly helpful to mariners planning long-distance voyages, Wood said.

The upgrades also provide a more detailed look at the atmosphere at various vertical levels. Previously, the model showed data at 64 different levels in the atmosphere. Now, it will show 127 different levels. This type of information can help provide more accurate cloud coverage forecasts — a weather outlook that’s often requested by general aviation pilots who want to know how thick the clouds will be.

And finally, the new-and-improved Global Forecast System will be able to pull more data from satellites that provide weather observations and planes that measure wind, temperature and moisture, Wood said.

In other words, we’ll have more time in advance of a hurricane to know that it’s coming and to prep for it. We need all the help we can get with that. Stay alert, be prepared, don’t panic, and we’ll get through this.

What to expect when you’re fully vaccinated

The CDC has released some guidance that will help people understand what is safe to do and what precautions they will still need to take once they are fully vaccinated.

Fully vaccinated Americans can gather with other vaccinated people indoors without wearing a mask or social distancing, according to long-awaited guidance from federal health officials.

The recommendations also say that vaccinated people can come together in the same way — in a single household — with people considered at low-risk for severe disease, such as in the case of vaccinated grandparents visiting healthy children and grandchildren.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced the guidance Monday.

The guidance is designed to address a growing demand, as more adults have been getting vaccinated and wondering if it gives them greater freedom to visit family members, travel, or do other things like they did before the COVID-19 pandemic swept the world last year.

“With more and more people vaccinated each day, we are starting to turn a corner,” said CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky.

During a press briefing Monday, she called the guidance a “first step” toward restoring normalcy in how people come together. She said more activities would be ok’d for vaccinated individuals once caseloads and deaths decline, more Americans are vaccinated, and as more science emerges on the ability of those who have been vaccinated to get and spread the virus.

You can see their guidance here. Among other things, this should make a lot of grandparents happy:

A lot more people will get those vaccines in the coming weeks. The need for continued mask-wearing is simply because you can still get and carry the SARS-CoV2 virus after being vaccinated, you are just much less likely to become sick if you do. Basically, you can still be an asymptomatic carrier, and so for the safety of the not-yet-vaccinated, especially in public places, your mask is still needed at this time. But that will eventually decrease, as the vaccination numbers swell. We just had to wait a little longer. We can and must still do the right thing in the meantime. Vox, the Chron, and Daily Kos have more.

Memorial Hermann CEO begs for Abbott to reconsider maskless mandate

He won’t listen, but maybe some of the people who would have stopped wearing their masks will.

On March 2, Gov. Greg Abbott announced the issuance of a new executive order, which “re-opens” Texas. The new order, which takes effect Wednesday, March 10, also terminates the statewide mask mandate.

As a health system, we respect the governor and recognize that he has an incredibly difficult job right now; however, we disagree with the terms and the timing of this new order, and strongly encourage him to reconsider this decision.

[…]

Additionally, we are deeply concerned about the timing of this decision, especially as we have just learned that all of the major new COVID-19 variants, which seem to be more dangerous and more transmissible, have now been identified in Houston; in fact, we are the first major U.S. city to confirm that all of these new variants are active in our community. Even more, for the first time in many weeks, the number of new cases reported around the world is higher than it was a week ago. Finally, we are gravely concerned that upcoming Spring Break gatherings will result in surges similar to those caused by holiday get-togethers, or worse.

The pandemic is not over, and our safety measures should not be, either. We hope that by continuing to practice the proven safety measures and encouraging others to do so as well — and as more and more people in the greater Houston area become vaccinated — we can happily support lifting masking restrictions in the future, maybe even as soon as several months from now. But we feel that issuing this order at this time, considering the current environment, is premature. In the greater Houston area, it is clear that COVID-19 is not yet under community control.

You may think this is not particularly remarkable, but hospital bigwigs have tried very hard to stay out of political fights surrounding COVID:

And as for that mention about COVID variants in Houston, consider this:

Read that whole thread and maybe be a little scared. Definitely keep your mask on, and stay away from any business or other indoor location that doesn’t require masks. If we truly are on our own, we’ve got to take this a lot more seriously than Greg Abbott does.

Let me Google that vaccine locator for you

Good.

In the coming weeks, Google will begin implementing a vaccine locator service on its platforms for Texans to use, including appointment details, clinic hours and more.

The rollout comes as part of a $150 million plan announced by Google in late January for vaccine education and accessibility. Included in this plan are vaccination site location services for Texas, Arizona, Louisiana and Mississippi, as well as plans to open vaccination sites as needed.

“Searches for ‘vaccines near me’ have increased 5x since the beginning of the year and we want to make sure we’re providing locally relevant answers,” Google CEO Sundar Pichai said in a release.

Information for the vaccination locator will be pulled from government agencies, pharmacies and VaccineFinder.org to provide users with detailed assistance.

The plan also includes grants distributed to public health agencies and organizations assisting marginalized individuals with vaccine access.

You can read the full release here. This does seem like the simplest answer to the problem, but it did need for there to be consistent data out there about where to find vaccines in the first place. Now you won’t have to know where to look for that, you can just search as you normally do. Or at least you will in the coming weeks. That should help a lot.

Here comes the vaccine

Houston’s first doses have arrived.

Months of waiting for a COVID-19 vaccine to arrive in Houston are almost — but not quite — over, as hospitals prepare to move the first doses from sealed subzero shipments and into the arms of thousands of front-line health care workers this week.

About 19,500 doses of Pfizer’s vaccine will arrive Monday at four medical centers in Texas: MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, Methodist Dallas Medical Center, Wellness 360 at UT Health San Antonio and UT Health Austin’s Dell Medical School, according to the Texas Department of State Health Services, which is overseeing deliveries of the first vaccine approved and shipped in the United States.

Another 75,075 doses will arrive at 19 additional sites on Tuesday, including seven in the Houston area. By midweek, 27 hospitals in the Houston region, most of them Texas Medical Center hospital system flagships or suburban campuses, will have received doses.

Officials on Sunday at some Houston hospitals compared it to waiting on an Amazon delivery: The package is confirmed, but the email with the tracking number and details hasn’t arrived. The first inoculations in Houston could happen in days, depending on when those shipments appear, said Dr. Marc Boom, president of Houston Methodist.

“If it arrives tomorrow, we will have a full day of vaccinations on Tuesday,” Boom said Sunday. “If it’s Tuesday, depending on what time, we could have some people come in. … I have people scheduled literally in five-minute slots.”

[…]

Under a tiered plan developed by public health leaders, the first vaccine doses will be given to front-line hospital workers. Later shipments will allow hospitals to administer doses to patients at high risk of contracting COVID-19 and developing serious complications, likely in January.

And after that it gets trickier. And it could get even trickier still.

Here are some basic outlines of what’s happening. As we learned last week the Trump White House skimped on actually buying enough doses of vaccine from Pfizer. But the federal government will cover the actual purchase of vaccines. The White House says the military is in charge of and has a plan to actual get the supplies to the states. And though we don’t know all the details let’s assume they have that covered. But that only appears to be getting the crates of supplies to a central staging point in each state. That’s not a negligible job. But it’s only a relatively small part of actually getting the country vaccinated. You need public health campaigns. You need staging areas and distribution from wherever the military drops it off to actual health centers and vaccination centers around each state. And finally you need a small army of medical professionals to actually administer the doses. It’s a big job and the Trump administration hasn’t funded any of that or devised any national plan.

In the absence of any federal plan or budget the CDC and HHS have cannibalized existing budgets to get some money to states for planning. But the sums are by most estimates an order of magnitude less than the amount needed.

State governments would be hard pressed to fund an operation like that during the best of times. But states and local governments around the country are already pushing massive cuts because of the dislocations caused by the pandemic. Through much of the latter part of 2020 the assumption was that this would be dealt with in a follow-up stimulus plan. But of course that never happened.

What the White House has arranged funding for is a critical but relatively small part of the vaccination effort: vaccinations for people in assisted living facilities and health care workers. Those are the two most critical populations. They should go first, and the plan is to get those people vaccinated in December and January. But that leaves the great bulk of the population unvaccinated. The plan is for that phase to end around Feb 1. Meanwhile CARES Act funding, which states can use for various purposes, has to be spent by Dec. 31.

That’s all that’s funded. It’s like a trap door set up for Biden to fall through. So as you can see, today’s excitement and anticipation over the vaccine is cued up to turn sharply to disappointment in February when people start asking where their shots are and blame the train wreck on President Biden. No plan. And no funding to implement a plan. Of course that is potentially catastrophic in human terms. But a lag in vaccination means not only more suffering and death but more delay in allowing the economy to get back on its feet, since people aren’t going to go to restaurants and participate in public life until case numbers drop dramatically.

That…would be bad. I suppose as long as there are still talks for another COVID relief bill, or if Dems win both Georgia Senate runoffs, we still have hope. But yeah, that could be a problem.

Also a problem:

The White House Coronavirus Task Force is increasingly suggesting that states including Texas begin shutting down again, saying in reports sent to state leaders this month that they aren’t doing enough to slow the worst surge in COVID cases that the country has seen.

“This surge is the most rapid increase in cases; the widest spread of intense transmission, with more than 2,000 counties in COVID red zones; and the longest duration of rapid increase, now entering its 8th week, that we have experienced,” say the reports, sent to Texas and other states on Dec. 6. “Despite the severity of this surge and the threat to hospital systems, many state and local governments are not implementing the same mitigation policies that stemmed the tide of the summer surge; that must happen now.”

Texas, the report says, “must increase mitigation to prevent ongoing community spread,” including “significant reduction in capacity or closure of public and private indoor spaces, including restaurants and bars.”

The task force’s reports over the last several weeks, meanwhile, have consistently pointed to the success of European countries — many of which have shuttered restaurants, bars and other businesses — in stemming the outbreak.

“The majority of the United States is not mitigating similarly,” Dec. 6 state report says.

You know how I feel about this. Do your best to take care of yourself, because Greg Abbott isn’t going to do anything to help you. The Trib has more.

The COVID breathalyzer test

Sounds promising.

Texas A&M researchers and a Dallas artificial intelligence company are developing a rapid COVID-19 test that would use a breathalyzer, rather than a swab, and potentially make it safer to hold large gatherings.

The testing device, housed in a kiosk that can fit in the back of an SUV, could be set up outside of large group settings such as schools, churches and corporate offices.

People would step up to the device and, with a disposable straw, blow into a copper hole on the front of the kiosk.

The system captures the user’s breath and analyzes it for compounds that a body generates when it’s fighting SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. Users would receive the results within a minute of the test through a mobile app.

“It’s all about establishing a controlled environment where people can interact and have confidence about it,” said Rob Gorham, executive director of SecureAmerica Institute, a network of public institutions and private manufacturing and technology companies based at Texas A&M. “It can create more normalcy around establishing these trusted group settings, whether it be an airplane or a football stadium.”

The device, called Worlds Protect, is a collaboration between Texas A&M researchers, who developed the hardware for the testing systems, and Worlds Inc., which developed the artificial intelligence software.

Here’s a story on Texas A&M’s website about the development. They’re waiting for FDA approval, and could start manufacturing the devices as soon as March. The devices cost about $5,000, and each test costs less than fifty cents, so it would be reasonably cost effective for, say, a pro sports team or stadium to buy a few and use them as a prerequisite for attending a live event. I would hope that the test is aggressive about flagging questionable results – the default should be “go get yourself a real test”, so that there are essentially no false positives. Better to turn away a hundred COVID-free people than to let one COVID-positive person in the door. If this fulfills its promise, it’s a big step in the direction of returning to “normal”.

“COVID-killing machines”

I like the sound of that.

The George R. Brown Convention Center was built to hold Houston’s biggest crowds, but during the pandemic its halls have grown quieter. In reviving the center, Houston First squared off with a problem facing all local venues — showing the public they’re safe.

To address the problem, the local government corporation created to operate the city’s convention and performing arts facilities launched a public education campaign in August and spent about $30,000 on three mobile air filtration units for the convention center’s general assembly space, which is often used by businesses for presentations. The units, installed in September, add a layer of security for guests, said Michael Heckman, the group’s acting president and chief executive.

“Any level of added confidence that we can give to the public during this time is incredibly important,” Heckman said. “And I think once people understand the level of sophistication of this technology they’d be highly impressed, as we were.”

The filters are the product of Houston’s Integrated Viral Protection, an enterprise formed by engineer and real estate developer Monzer Hourani based on technology developed by researchers at the University of Houston.

[…]

Other pandemic-era inventions, such as UV light devices, require people to leave the room and, while they kill viruses on surfaces, they are not as effective at treating the air, Hourani said. Most HEPA, or high-efficiency particulate air filters, remove particles through holes still big enough to let coronavirus through, he said.

Despite the creation, Hourani said people gathering still need to wear masks. From a clinical perspective, air filtration devices like IVP’s can be used as an added layer of protection in addition to other preventative measures, said Dr. Jill Weatherhead, assistant professor of infectious disease for Baylor College of Medicine.

“At this point it’s unclear how much benefit it provides,” she said, “and it shouldn’t take the place of mask-wearing and social distancing. And frequent disinfecting.”

Most of what’s in between is technical details about the filters and the company, which you can peruse as you see fit. I think the idea of “making it safer for people to congregate indoors, as long as they wear masks” is a good one, and if it works would allow for a greater resumption of normal activities, without increasing the risk. It’s pretty clear that there are a lot of people who can’t or won’t do the risk-mitigating things we need them to do – and let’s be clear, some of these folks are service and retail workers who have no choice, while some others very much could be making different decisions – and as long as that is the case, the next best thing we can do is improve the odds overall. I hope this works as intended.