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The great state of Texas

More interesting questions from that Matthew McConaughey poll

Let’s try this again.

By 58% to 26%, Texans oppose a bill the House approved — and sent to the Senate Friday — that would allow people to carry handguns without a permit. Last month, opposition was greater — 64% to 23%.

[…]

In two polls by The News and UT-Tyler early last year, a majority of Texas registered voters endorsed a national ban on the sale of semiautomatic assault weapons. This month, that slipped to support by a plurality, 48% for and 33% against.

[…]

At the same time, confidence that elected officials are doing enough to prevent mass shootings has ebbed. In early 2020, not long after Trump, Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick mused publicly about possible gun law changes in the wake of the August 2019 slaughters in El Paso and Odessa-Midland, up to 47% of Texans agreed that elected officials were doing enough to avoid repetition of the tragedies.

This month, 38% agreed and 59% disagreed — including 86% of Black people, 65% of Hispanics and 46% of Republicans.

See here for yesterday’s post, here for my blogging on the March poll (I didn’t comment on the gun control aspects of it), here for the April poll data, and here for the March poll data. I cut out a couple of quotes from people about the gun question because I didn’t care about them. I don’t know if the change in the numbers from March are just normal float or perhaps the result of recent Republican messaging, but in either case that’s still a solid majority against the permitless carry bill. Maybe that should be a bigger campaign issue in 2022 than it has been in the past. Lots of other issues to talk about as well, to be sure, but there sure looks to be a lot of upside here.

Nearly half a century after the U.S. Supreme Court in Roe v. Wade established a woman’s right to an abortion, at least in the first three months of pregnancy, a majority of Texans — and Republicans, if barely — said the court should not overturn Roe.

Among all Texas registered voters, 61% said Roe should not be overturned, while 37% said it should be. Republicans split 51%-49% against overturning, as did women, 63%-35%. White evangelicals favored voiding the controversial ruling, 56%-43%

Both GOP-controlled chambers of the Legislature are advancing a half dozen measures to restrict abortion.

In The News and UT-Tyler’s poll, a plurality of Texas registered voters (42%-37%) supported a Senate-passed bill that would ban virtually all abortions once a fetal heartbeat is detected, usually about six weeks into pregnancy, except in medical emergencies. Texas law currently bans abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy — or up to 22 weeks from the last menstrual period.

Though about two-thirds of Republicans and white evangelicals support the so-called “heartbeat” bill, women narrowly oppose it, 40%-38%, as do Democrats, 47%-31%.

The problem here of course is that heartbeat bills, which have been passed in other states and blocked by the courts, are a direct challenge to Roe. The main point to take away from all this is that voters are often confused on this issue because there’s a lot of jargon and misdirection involved in bills like these.

While a plurality of Texans approve of the overall job Biden is doing as president (48%-41%), a slight majority — 52% — disapprove of his performance at handling immigration at the border. Just 30% approve.

Abbott enjoys a higher job-approval rating among Texans than does Biden: 50% approve, 36% disapprove. But it’s Abbott’s lowest showing in eight tests by The News/UT-Tyler poll since January 2020 — and down from a high of 61% in April 2020. That’s when, near the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, Texans appeared to rally around his shutdown orders.

Asked if they trusted the leaders to keep their communities healthy and safe during the public health crisis, Texans narrowly said they trust Biden, 51%-44%.

However, a narrow plurality now distrusts Abbott to protect their communities from COVID-19: 46% trust the Republican governor, 47% do not. It’s the first time in six polls that Abbott has sunk underwater on the question. In this month’s poll, he’s especially lost ground among independents (30% trust him, 59% distrust him) and Black people (20% trust, 71% distrust).

You can look at the baseline approve/disapprove numbers in the poll data, they’re on page 2 in each case. Not much has changed since March. The polls included the same questions for Dan Patrick and Ken Paxton, but so many people answered “Neither” to the approve/disapprove question for those two (37% for Patrick, 36% for Paxton), which I interpreted as mostly “don’t know”, that I don’t think there’s much value in those numbers. The main point here is that Biden continues to be above water in approval polling, and as long as that remains the case I believe Dems will have a more favorable climate in 2022 than they had in 2010 or 2014. Whether it’s as favorable as it was in 2018 is a different matter.

As for activities during the pandemic, Texans are more comfortable gathering with friends now: 44% are extremely comfortable, while only 23% felt that way in April 2020.

Texans are not as comfortable, though, being in crowds: 16% are extremely comfortable now, very close to the 15% who said they were extremely comfortable last April.

Sixty percent of Texans say they have been or definitely will be vaccinated against COVID-19, up from 57% last month. An additional 14% say they probably will get immunized. If they all do, as many as 74% could be inoculated, approaching the level many experts say is needed to achieve “herd immunity.” If all the state were Democrats, combining the three responses would produce an 89% acceptance rate, compared with 69% among Republicans and 66% among independents.

Could be worse. Given the data from some national polling, could be much worse. In the end, I think we’ll just have to see where we end up. If we get to over 70% in Texas, I’ll be pretty happy.

We are still managing to avoid a new COVID surge

It’s good news, whatever the reason for it may be.

More than a month has passed since Gov. Greg Abbott ended virtually all statewide restrictions related to the coronavirus pandemic. Nationwide, new coronavirus cases are on the rise as new variants of the virus spread. And about four-fifths of Texans are not yet fully vaccinated.

But at least for now, the most dire predictions of a new major wave of cases in Texas have not come true, prompting a mix of theories from public health experts.

Those experts caution that a major increase in cases could still come and it may still be too early to tell whether Abbott’s decisions to lift the statewide mask mandate and allow businesses to fully reopen could prompt a new wave of infections. Still, daily new cases and the positivity rate have leveled off over the past month, while deaths and hospitalization have gone down substantially.

Experts point out that vaccination is ramping up, many businesses are still requiring masks and there are unique factors impacting individual metrics — like a drop in demand for testing that is driving down raw case numbers.

They also emphasize that, especially at this point in the pandemic, a stabilization of such metrics, or even a modest decline, is not exactly cause for celebration.

“I think we could’ve been even lower at this point in time,” if not for Abbott’s latest decisions, said Dr. Luis Ostrosky, an infectious disease specialist at UTHealth’s McGovern Medical School in Houston. “The fact that we’re sort of stable is not necessarily good news — because we’re stable at a very high level. It’s like everybody saying you’re at a stable cruising speed — but at 100 miles per hour.”

Abbott’s decision to end most statewide restrictions went into effect 35 days ago, on March 10. The seven-day average for daily new confirmed cases was 3,020 on that day; it was 2,456 on Tuesday. The seven-day average of the state’s positivity rate — the ratio of cases to tests — was 6.24% on March 10; it was 5.89% on Monday. (The latest positivity-rate figures are considered preliminary and subject to recalculation as more test results come in from the date in question.)

Deaths and hospitalizations, which lag new cases, have seen steeper drops since March 10. The seven-day average of new daily deaths was 187 on March 10; it was 64 on Tuesday. There were 4,556 Texans hospitalized with the virus on March 10; there were 3,002 on Tuesday.

The four key metrics are way down from peaks earlier in the year, when the state was seeing daily new caseloads approaching 20,000, a positivity rate that went above 20%, hospitalizations that topped 14,000 and weeks of more than 300 deaths per day.

Like I said, it’s good news, and you should click over and look at the charts, which are a harrowing reminder of how bad it has been in past months. I continue to believe that the reason the numbers haven’t ticked back up is that enough people are staying masked up. We have some limited public opinion data to suggest that, but beyond that it’s mostly my own observations, which are not on a particularly representative sample of the population. Warmer weather, which allows for outdoor activities, may be helping, and in the end we may just be lucky. Whatever the case, let’s hope it continues.

And before you ask, no, we are nowhere near herd immunity. Given the continued resistance to getting vaccinated from large swaths of Republicans, getting there will be a challenge. Prioritizing older folks for the vaccine has no doubt helped reduce the hospitalization and death totals, and that’s no small thing, but we have to deliver a lot more shots into arms because we can begin to think about easing up on that.

Now it really is time for Texas to expand Medicaid

Good for the Biden administration putting the pressure on.

It’s constitutional – deal with it

The Biden administration on Friday rescinded changes to a federal funding agreement, known as a 1115 waiver, that would have extended for 10 years Texas’ health care safety net for uninsured residents — teeing up a new round of negotiations before the existing waiver expires in 2022.

The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services said in a statement that it erred in exempting the state from the normal public notice process before granting an extension to the waiver in the waning days of the Trump administration.

The agency “has rescinded the extension approval, which corrects this oversight with as little impact as possible to the people of Texas, since the original demonstration remains intact through September 30, 2022,” it said in a statement.

The Washington Post, citing two federal health officials, said the decision was a bid to push Texas toward expanding Medicaid to cover more low-income adults, a move the state and eleven others have resisted.

The 1115 waiver reimburses hospitals for the “uncompensated care” they provide to patients without health insurance and pays for innovative health care projects that serve low-income Texans, often for mental health services. The extension — worth billions of dollars a year — would have continued hospital reimbursements until September 2030, but allowed the innovation fund to expire this year.

The earlier waiver is still in effect, and federal authorities “stand ready to work with the state” if it wishes to extend it beyond next year, according to a Friday letter from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.

The state’s rationale to get out of the normal public notice process was that health care providers needed financial stability during the coronavirus pandemic, the letter said. But the state’s request did not “meaningfully explain why the extension request addressed the COVID-19 public health emergency or any other sudden emergency threat to human lives,” it said, in part.

See here for some background, and be sure to click on the NBC News link in that post. The 1115 waivers were used during the Trump years to approve the skinniest and stingiest Medicaid expansions possible, and in typical Trump fashion were done with zero regard for existing law or protocol. The Chron has some more details.

While the state’s current 1115 waiver won’t expire until September of next year, the reversal has immediate political impacts because the state Legislature has only weeks left in its session and won’t meet again until 2023. Without certainty over how much the federal government will contribute going forward, lawmakers risk leaving huge funding gaps for counties and hospitals.

Texas Republicans, who control the state government, have long campaigned against the Affordable Care Act and have declined to expand Medicaid under the act’s provisions as they seek to overturn the law in court. The state has depended on the waiver system as a cheaper alternative that nonetheless leaves millions of Texans uncovered.

Today, Texas has the highest uninsured rate in the country, with nearly 1 in 5 people lacking coverage. That results in staggering amounts of uncompensated emergency room visits each year, some of which is reimbursed by the 1115 waivers.

[…]

Earlier this year, a group of national health associations including the American Cancer Society, the American Heart Association and the American Lung Association called out the Trump administration’s expedited approval, saying there was plenty of time to hold a public comment period before the existing waiver expires next year.

“The waiver application was hundreds of pages, I don’t think it even mentioned COVID,” said Joan Alker, a Medicaid expert at Georgetown University who had signed on to the letter. “So it was a blatant disregard of what the exemption was supposed to be for.”

The Texas Hospital Association said it was disappointed with the decision.

“This action undermines the safety net and hospitals’ ability to protect people,” president Ted Shaw said in a statement. “It puts the state’s health at serious risk and creates unprecedented levels of uncertainty for an industry that is charged with saving lives.”

Others noted that the waiver was never meant to be a permanent solution.

“The waiver was always intended to serve as a temporary bridge until the state implemented an insurance option — with federal Medicaid expansion funds — for low-wage workers whose jobs don’t provide health coverage,” said Patrick Bressette, who directs the Children’s Defense Fund Texas. “Now would be a good time to have a real conversation about Medicaid expansion.”

Texas Sen. Nathan Johnson, a Democrat from Dallas who authored an expansion bill that has some Republican support, said the state should immediately reapply for the waiver while also taking up the expansion question.

“The story being told on the Republican side is Biden’s taking away resources from vulnerable people. False,” he said. “There’s still time left under the old waiver protections to do this the right way.”

I can understand why the Texas Hospital Association is unhappy with the decision, but the root of that is the failure to expand Medicaid, which has cost Texas hospitals tons of money. The waiver lets them get a few of those dollars back, but why settle for pennies when the dollars are available? Do the expansion, like we should have done a decade ago, and everyone is better off. It may be late in this session but there will need to be at least one special session for redistricting anyway, so the legislative calendar isn’t actually a problem. The choice and the benefits are clear, and the only reason not to is sheer partisan obstinance. Quit whining and get it done already.

The infrastructure bill and Texas flooding

It’s more than just the Ike Dike.

President Joe Biden’s infrastructure plan includes $50 billion to fortify states against future extreme weather events such as the droughts, floods and hurricanes that caused up to $200 billion in damage in Texas over the past decade — a tally that includes six droughts, five hurricane landfalls and five floods that each left at least $1 billion in damage behind.

Texas was hammered by 67 major weather disasters from 2010 to 2020, more than any other state in the nation, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Fifty-nine of those were billion-dollar disasters — more than double the 25 costly storms the state saw in the decade prior as major weather events have become increasingly common.

The NOAA data does not include the deadly winter storm that killed nearly 200 Texans and caused billions in damage. The state was bracing for more severe weather on Monday with Gov. Greg Abbott ordering rescue boats, helicopters and other resources to stand at the ready for spring storms expected to bring heavy winds and hail.

The storm damage figures are a key piece of the White House’s efforts to sell Biden’s $2 trillion infrastructure proposal, which administration officials stepped up on Monday as they released breakdowns of needs in each state.

Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg pointed to the winter storms that left millions of Texans without power for days as an example of the need to make infrastructure more resilient to increasingly severe weather.

“We saw what happened in Texas — and that’s an example of a resilience problem,” Buttigieg said. “It’s not a fundamental technology problem. Natural gas plants were part of what failed not because they couldn’t conceivably work, but because there wasn’t weatherization … Things like wind power can operate in sub-zero conditions — I’ve seen it myself in Iowa — but only if you build it in a resilient way, which was not necessarily the case in Texas.”

[…]

In Texas, the Biden administration says the plan could help fix more than 800 bridges and over 19,400 miles of highway in poor condition, expand broadband to the estimated 12 percent of Texans who live in areas without access to it and increase affordable housing options for more than 1.7 million renters in Texas are who spend more than 30 percent of their income on rent, among other things.

It’s the most detail the administration has offered so far on what Biden’s proposal could send to Texas — and could be as much detail as the White House will offer until the plan becomes law. The administration has said its goal is to establish competitive grant programs to dole out much of the funding, meaning Texas and its cities and counties would have to make their case for projects.

No explicit discussion of the Ike Dike yet, but one has to assume it’s in scope. Preventing a hurricane from wiping out a bunch of refineries is a matter of national security (not to mention environmental protection), and it has always needed to be treated as such. We’re in the middle of a dumb debate about what counts as “infrastructure”, and of course the Republicans, led by Ted “Just get yourself on a plane to Cancun” Cruz, will reject every last penny of this because, well, I have no idea why. Doesn’t really matter anyway. Go back and look at that dollar amount for the past few years’ worth of emergencies in Texas and ask yourself why we wouldn’t want to do something about it right now. I’m sure you can think of a better reason for action than Ted Cruz can for sitting on his thumbs.

ERCOT roundup

Just a few stories of interest that I didn’t feel like putting in their own posts…

ERCOT will argue it is immune from lawsuits.

The Electric Reliability Council of Texas will argue that it has governmental immunity that protects it from the at least 35 lawsuits that have been filed against the operator after February’s disastrous winter storm which killed dozens of people and created millions of dollars of damages.

“ERCOT has and will continue to assert that it is entitled to sovereign immunity due to its organization and function as an arm of State government,” the organization wrote in a Wednesday court filing requesting to consolidate several of the lawsuits it’s battling.

Sovereign immunity grants protections for state agencies against lawsuits, with some exceptions. And this isn’t the first time ERCOT has made the argument — with some success — that it should be shielded from lawsuits due to its role acting upon the directives of state agencies and lawmakers.

In 2018, an appeals court in Dallas ruled that ERCOT, despite the fact that it is a private nonprofit, has sovereign immunity after Dallas-based utility Panda Power sued the operator over allegations of flawed energy projections.

That immunity was challenged at the Texas Supreme Court last month. However, the high court refused to rule on the issue, claiming it lacked jurisdiction because the original case that posed the question was dismissed — a hotly contested opinion with four of the nine justices dissenting.

See here for the previous update. I don’t know what practical effect this might have if ERCOT succeeds, but as a general principle I think this kind of legal immunity needs to be carefully limited. Maybe it’s appropriate here, but there needs to be a strong argument for it.

ERCOT: Blackout primarily caused by power plants freezing up:

The massive loss in power generation during the Texas blackout in February was caused primarily by power plants freezing up under historically cold conditions, according to a new report by the Electric Reliability Council of Texas Tuesday.

The state’s grid operator reported that on the morning of Feb. 16, the most severe moment of the blackout, 54 percent of the loss of power supply stemmed from weather-related issues at power plants, while 12 percent was due to a lack of fuel such as natural gas. Some 51,000 megawatts of generation — more than half of the system’s capacity — were offline at the height of the blackouts at 8 a.m. of Feb. 16, ERCOT reported.

The findings come as state officials are debating how to fix the state’s energy system to prevent a repeat of the power outages that left millions of Texans without power for days on end.

The report Tuesday offered a fairly limited perspective on what went wrong, failing to explain why specific types of generation were unable to operate during the winter storm or what happened. But it will add questions to how well prepared ERCOT and the state’s power plants were for cold weather, despite warnings from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to winterize following a less severe cold snap in 2011.

[…]

After weather-related problems, the second biggest loss of generation on Feb. 16 was caused by planned or unexpected outages prior to the cold snap that began sweeping Texas earlier in the week, accounting for 15 percent of lost power supply.

Another 14 percent of lost generation came from equipment failures unrelated to the weather. Only four percent of outages were due to transmission problems or a short drop in the frequency of the power grid that occurred early Monday morning.

I don’t know enough to say what this means in terms of figuring out the best path forward, but I sure hope that the Legislature has some people who know how to read a report like this available to explain it to them. We screwed this kind of response up last time. We have no excuse for screwing it up again.

Faulting ERCOT, insurer says it shouldn’t have to cover storm damages:

ERCOT’s insurance company is seeking a court ruling excusing it from defending Texas’ electric grid manager from lawsuits or covering damages stemming from the catastrophic power failure in February.

The Cincinnati Insurance Co. on Tuesday sought relief from the U.S. district court in Austin, arguing it does not have to defend the Electric Reliability Council of Texas because it does not view the power outages as an accident, defined by the insurer as a “fortuitous, unexpected, and unintended event.” As a result, the company said it has no obligation under its insurance policy to cover ERCOT, which faces a flood of lawsuits after the winter storm.

“The allegations in the Underlying Lawsuits allege ERCOT either knew, should have known, expected, and/or intended, that Winter Storm Uri would cause the same power outages which occurred as a result of previous storms in Texas, including storms in 1989 and 2011,” the insurer said in court documents. “The Underlying Lawsuits allege the power outages caused by Winter Storm Uri were a result of the exact same failures including failures of the same generators which failed in the previous winter storms, and therefore, the power outages were foreseeable, expected, and/or intended.”

[…]

ERCOT’s insurance policy with Cincinnati Insurance, effective until June 2022, states that the insurer “will pay those sums that the insured becomes legally obligated to pay as damages because of ‘bodily injury’ or ‘property damage’ to which this insurance applies. We will have the right and duty to defend the insured against any ‘suit’ seeking those damages.’

The policy, however, says Cincinnati Insurance has no duty to defend ERCOT in cases in which the insurance policy does not apply, and retains the discretion to investigate any “occurance” and settle any claim or lawsuit that results from it. The insurer defines “occurrence” as “an accident, including continuous or repeated exposure to substantially the same general harmful conditions.”

In case you were wondering why ERCOT really doesn’t want to be sued. Also, when was the last time that an insurance company paid a claim without fighting it?

An open Texas power grid would boost reliability and renewables, experts say.

Since the February power outages, Texas legislators have been busy weighing a host of improvements for the state’s grid, from weatherizing equipment to shaking up oversight to partnering with the billionaire investor Warren Buffett on new emergency-use power plants.

But hardly any of them have focused on what some believe could be a more widespread fix: plugging into other U.S. power supplies.

While Texas has long opposed opening its grid to avoid federal oversight, and ostensibly to keep prices low, energy experts say the calculus is not what it once was and that the benefits of connecting to the outside world are at least worth examining, especially as renewable energy is poised for a major expansion under the Biden administration.

Not only is the state missing out on a potential lifeline in future blackouts, they warn, it also risks passing up billions of dollars in new investments for clean, marketable electricity.

“We export every form of energy you could imagine except electrons,” Michael Webber, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin, told reporters recently. “This is ridiculous,” he said. “Let’s at least study the option.”

There are some good arguments for this, and some reasonable ones for maintaining the independence of the Texas grid. Just because our setup is dumb and expensive and unreliable doesn’t mean it has to be that way, after all. But this is all an academic point, because there’s a zero percent chance this happens. Go ahead and write a report, but don’t ever expect Greg Abbott or Dan Patrick to read it.

When the vaccine problem becomes more about demand than supply

Or to put it another way, what are we gonna do with the people who refuse to get vaccinated?

Low vaccination rates in counties that are whiter and more conservative could be impairing Texas’ ability to quickly reach herd immunity for COVID-19.

Texas counties that are poorer, whiter, less-educated and where former President Donald Trump won a larger than average share of the vote have vaccinated a smaller share of their population than the state average, a Houston Chronicle analysis found.

In the 144 Texas counties that meet these criteria, about 28.7 percent of people aged 16 and older have received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine. Statewide, the average is 32.2 percent.

In Liberty County, fewer than 20 percent of residents have received at least one dose of the vaccine, one of the lowest rates in the state. What’s more, as Harris County residents have begun flocking to rural counties for easier access to vaccines, state data shows that providers in Liberty County — a rural patch between Houston and Beaumont — have put 27 percent more shots in the arms of Harris County residents than they have in residents of their own county

Meanwhile, in the 22 counties where Joe Biden won a majority of the vote — places that tend to be both more diverse and educated — an average of about 44 percent of eligible Texans have received at least one dose of the vaccine.

The vaccination gap between whiter, more conservative counties and the state average may not be cause for concern for the state’s vaccination efforts yet, said Rice University health economist Vivian Ho, but there is a potential for it to widen over the next two to three months.

“As more vaccines become available, that gap is going to widen, because there’s still excess demand for vaccines in our cities, where the majority of the population lives,” she said. “If, for instance, only 50 percent of people in these outlier counties are vaccinated, they will continually be subject to superspreader events that will overwhelm the weakest components of the state’s healthcare infrastructure.”

[…]

Across the state, health officials are searching for ways to reach and vaccinate people who are reluctant to do so.

State health officials are trying to think through the “last mile”, said Dr. David Lakey, a member of the Texas COVID-19 Expert Vaccine Allocation Panel. People who are hesitant to get vaccinated may not go to mass vaccination sites or hubs, but may go to providers they trust.

In Public Health Region 4/5 North — a group of counties in the northeastern part of the state, around Tyler — officials are working with faith-based communities and hosting vaccine fairs to vaccinate more people in the region with the state’s lowest average rate. They have also been conducting home visits as part of these efforts to bring vaccines to homebound people.

Ron Nichols, emergency coordinator for Chambers County, said having well known, local paramedics dole out doses has helped assuage some residents’ concerns. Nichols said demand for vaccines was initially high, but has begun to plateau in recent months because people are either waiting on the single-shot vaccine from Johnson & Johnson, or because of distrust rooted in misinformation.

“There are a lot of people who just don’t understand, don’t know or don’t trust the process,” he said. “The Facebook misinformation machine has been running rampant.”

I suppose there may be fewer Houstonians taking vaccination road trips now that there’s more doses available. Be that as it may, the approach being outlined here makes sense. It’s largely the same strategy that has been advocated and used for communities of color and immigrants, and for the same reason – people trust people they know. It’s more arduous, but it has to be done. It would be nice if more of the state and federal elected officials who represent these areas stepped up and took some of the responsibility for convincing their constituents to get vaxxed, but I’m not holding out much hope for that.

(I am going to attempt to exercise some grace about the hesitancy in these parts of the state, even as we know that lies and propaganda are the main reasons for the fears that many of these folks have, and the risk that their hesitancy may help give rise to a stronger and more vax-resistant strain of the virus. For now, at least. We’ll see where the numbers are in a few months.)

It was worse in Harris County during the freeze

Very interesting.

Harris County residents were far more likely to have lost electricity and water during February’s winter storm and blackout crisis than residents of other Texas counties, a survey by the University of Houston’s Hobby School of Public Affairs found.

The findings may help explain why Harris County residents account for a third of the almost 200 deaths so far attributed to the storm, while only accounting for 16 percent of the state’s population. Most froze to death in their homes or while exposed to the elements, succumbed to carbon monoxide poisoning or died when medical devices failed without electricity.

“During the week of the winter storm, Harris County residents were significantly more likely than other Texans to lose electrical power, lose internet service, lose access to drinkable water, be without running water, lose cell phone service, have food spoil, suffer economic damages, and experience difficulty finding a plumber,” the survey authors wrote.

Ninety-one percent of Harris County survey respondents said they lost power during the blackouts, compared to 64 percent of respondents from the other 212 counties on the state’s main power grid. Asked if they had lost water, 65 percent of Harris County residents said yes, compared to 44 percent of those in other counties. Thirty-eight percent of local respondents said they suffered burst pipes.

On average, Harris County respondents were without electricity for 49 total hours and 39 consecutive hours, confirming that the outages were not rotating as the grid operator, ERCOT, had hoped. CenterPoint Energy, the Houston area’s electricity distributor, said during the crisis it could not rotate blackouts because the drop in available power to distribute was so severe.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, 72 percent of Harris County respondents said they somewhat or strongly disagreed that the power outages were distributed in an equitable manner.

[…]

The survey also measured how Harris County respondents rated the performance of government officials and entities during the storm. President Joe Biden and County Judge Lina Hidalgo scored the highest, with more than 45 percent of respondents somewhat or strongly approving of their handling of the crisis.

Gov. Greg Abbott and state government as a whole were rated poorly, with about 21 percent somewhat or strongly approving of their performance. ERCOT polled the worst, with 78 percent of respondents somewhat or strongly disapproving of the power grid operator’s performance.

The survey found broad support among Harris County residents who identify as Republicans, Democrats and independents for a series of reforms. More than 70 percent of these respondents said they supported requiring the electric grid and natural gas pipelines to fully winterize and giving the Public Utilities Commission greater oversight over the electric grid.

Fifty-three percent of respondents, however, said they were unwilling to have higher utility bills to ensure the grid is better-prepared for severe weather.

The landing page for this poll is here. The data for Harris County is here and for the state as a whole is here. The poll was done via a webpanel, with a sample of 1500 adults in total, and an oversample of 513 adults in Harris County. Note that as before, the partisan makeup of the sample is more Democratic than it would be if we were talking about registered voters. In Harris County, it was 38% Democrats, 36% Independents, and 18% Republicans, and statewide it was 32% Dem, 30% Independent, and 25% Republican. I sent an inquiry about that, and was told that among those who reported voting in the 2020 election, Trump won by a 51-47 margin, not far off from the actual 52-46 spread. In other words, if there’s a Democratic skew it’s among the non-voters.

I say all that up front because there were approval ratings in the polls, at least for how the freeze was handled. For the statewide sample:

Governor Greg Abbott: Strong approve 15%, somewhat approve 13%, neutral 15%, somewhat disapprove 10%, strong disapprove 38%
Your County Judge: Strong approve 14%, somewhat approve 11%, neutral 26%, somewhat disapprove 7%, strong disapprove 16%
Your Mayor: Strong approve 14%, somewhat approve 14%, neutral 27%, somewhat disapprove 8%, strong disapprove 17%
President Joe Biden: Strong approve 21%, somewhat approve 11%, neutral 21%, somewhat disapprove 5%, strong disapprove 32%

And for Harris County:

Governor Greg Abbott: Strong approve 12%, somewhat approve 9%, neutral 17%, somewhat disapprove 9%, strong disapprove 47%
County Judge Lina Hidalgo: Strong approve 35%, somewhat approve 13%, neutral 19%, somewhat disapprove 6%, strong disapprove 18%
Your Mayor: Strong approve 27%, somewhat approve 19%, neutral 19%, somewhat disapprove 6%, strong disapprove 19%
President Joe Biden: Strong approve 36%, somewhat approve 13%, neutral 20%, somewhat disapprove 5%, strong disapprove 19%

Again, bear in mind the partisan breakdown of the sample. There’s a lot more to the polls, and a separate set of questions about lifting COVID-19 restrictions that I’ll write about separately, so go check it out.

Leave me out of the ballgame

What a snowflake.

Gov. Greg Abbott on Monday announced he would not throw out the ceremonial first pitch at the Texas Rangers’ home opening game and would boycott any other Major League Baseball events, citing the league’s decision to pull its All-Star Game from Georgia in response to new voting restrictions there.

In a letter to a top Texas Rangers executive, Abbott said he had been “looking forward to” tossing out the first pitch “— until [MLB] adopted what has turned out to be a false narrative about the election law reforms in Georgia.”

“It is shameful that America’s pastime is not only being influenced by partisan political politics, but also perpetuating false political narratives,” Abbott said, adding that he “will not participate in an event held by MLB, and the state will not seek to host the All-Star Game or any other MLB special events.”

Oh, boo hoo hoo. If Greg Abbott can’t take a little political criticism then we’re all better off if he just stays home and pouts. Maybe he just doesn’t want to take a chance on getting booed, like a certain former president at the 2019 World Series. Whatever the case, there’s one clear winner here:

As the first commenter notes, this teacher gets to throw out the first pitch and avoid a photo of with Abbott. Now that’s a day at the ballpark.

Chron analysis puts freeze death total at 194

Sobering, to say the least.

The deaths of nearly 200 people are linked to February’s cold snap and blackouts, a Houston Chronicle analysis reveals, making the natural disaster one of the worst in Texas this past century.

The tally, which is nearly double the state’s official count, comes from an investigation of reports from medical examiners, justices of the peace and Department of State Health Services, as well as lawsuits and news stories.

The state count, which is preliminary, has yet to incorporate some deaths already flagged by medical examiners as storm-related.

The 194 deaths identified by the Chronicle so far include at least 100 cases of hypothermia that killed people in their homes or while exposed to the elements, at least 16 carbon monoxide poisonings of residents who used dangerous methods for heat and at least 22 Texans who died when medical devices failed without power or who were unable to seek live-saving care because of the weather.

Sixteen deaths were from other causes, such as fires or vehicle wrecks, while the remaining 40 were attributed by authorities to the storm without listing a specific cause.

“This is almost double the death toll from Hurricane Harvey,” said State Rep. Rafael Anchia, D-Dallas. “There was no live footage of flooded homes, or roofs being blown off, or tidal surges, but this was more deadly and devastating than anything we’ve experienced in modern state history.”

The toll is almost certain to grow in coming weeks as death investigators in the state’s most populous counties clear a backlog in cases from the cold snap. The Travis County medical examiner alone is investigating more than 80 deaths between Feb. 13 and Feb. 20.

The deaths come from 57 counties in all regions of the state but are disproportionately centered on the Houston area, which at times during the crisis accounted for nearly half of all power outages. Of the known ages, races and ethnicities of the victims, 74 percent were people of color. Half were at least 65. Six were children.

The previous count released by the state was 111, but as noted then and in this story that is sure to go up. There’s no central database for this kind of thing, only 14 counties have a medical examiner’s office, and not all county data is currently available. As with COVID deaths, there are likely some cases where one could argue whether the freeze was the actual cause of death or whether it was just proximate. The main point here is that the freeze was responsible for a lot of misery around the state and by any count more deaths than there were from Hurricane Harvey. It remains to be seen if the Legislature and the Public Utility Commission (which currently has no members) are taking adequate action to prevent this from ever happening again.

The infrastructure bill and the Ike Dike

This is encouraging.

President Joe Biden’s infrastructure plan sure seems to be considering building the Ike Dike.

His $2 trillion plan includes improving and strengthening infrastructure in coastal areas most vulnerable during hurricane season.

Biden pitched part of the American Jobs Plan on Wednesday in Pittsburgh.

The Biden Administration’s plan includes investing in improving “coastal resilience to sea-level rise and hurricanes.” While specific projects were not named in the plan, the Biden administration says the American Jobs Plan will “protect and, where necessary, restore nature-based infrastructure,” which could include funding the Ike Dike.

[…]

State Rep. Gene Wu, who represents part of Houston, circulated a letter to Biden last week requesting federal support for the Ike Dike. Mayor Sylvester Turner and Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee have also expressed support for the coastal spine.

The Houston Chronicle’s Benjamin Wermund reports that Biden’s plan also includes $50 billion to improve infrastructure strength against hurricanes and other natural disasters, especially in lower-income areas. Biden’s administration used the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey as an example of the need for increased federal support and infrastructure development.

“People of color and low-income people are more likely to live in areas most vulnerable to flooding and other climate change-related weather events. They also are less likely to have the funds to prepare for and recover from extreme weather events,” a statement from the White House says. “In the wake of Hurricane Harvey, Black and Hispanic residents were twice as likely as white residents to report experiencing an income shock with no recovery support.”

I’ll have more to say about the infrastructure plan, which is not yet a bill but an outline and a list of priorities right now, because if it is realized in its full form it would truly do a lot for Texas. That definitely includes the Ike Dike, mostly because it would solve how to pay for it, which I noted a few weeks ago.

To its credit, the Lege is at least thinking about that issue.

A proposed bill in the Texas Legislature would create a regional district with the authority to tax and issue bonds to raise money to build and maintain a $26 billion storm surge barrier on the southeast Texas coast.

The bill, SB1160, is sponsored by state Sen. Larry Taylor, R-Friendswood, with a companion bill in the state House sponsored by Rep. Dennis Paul, R-Houston. The bills would establish the Gulf Coast Protection District, an entity comprised of members from Chambers, Galveston, Harris, Jefferson and Orange counties.

The district would be empowered to operate the long-proposed coastal barrier, once known as the “Ike Dike,” as well as issue bonds and impose taxes to maintain the project. It would also have eminent domain power to seize property or land “for the exercise of the district’s functions,” according to the bill’s text.

During a Monday meeting of the Senate Water, Agriculture & Rural Affairs Committee, Taylor noted that the bill is vital to the Army Corps of Engineers’ proposed coastal barrier project, which aims to protect the region from the kind of catastrophic storm surge experienced during Hurricane Ike in 2008.

“This is a very important bill, and not just not just for the state of Texas, but for our country,” Taylor said. “The number one supplier of military aviation fuel is in this area. So if you’re talking about national security, this area gets wiped out and we don’t have the aviation fuel, that would be a security problem. It’s our number one military port. And it’s our number one petrochemical complex.”

[…]

A final report on the coastal barrier study will be completed in April, according to the Texas General Land Office, which is co-sponsoring the study. The report will released to the public in September and submitted to Congress for final approval.

The Gulf Coast Protection District would be governed by a board of 11 directors appointed by the governor in consultation with the respective commissioners courts from each county. Each of the five counties would have one representative except for Harris County, which, because of its larger population, would have two. The district would also include one representative for the regional ports; one representative for the environmental sector; one representative for the regional industrial complex; and one representative for the cities within the five counties.

The district would have to hold a vote among its member counties before it began collecting property taxes, but will be able to issue bonds.

I don’t know how likely this bill is to pass, but I tend to agree with Campos that this is at best an unwieldy mechanism for funding it. Read that last paragraph and ask yourself how likely it is that the member counties of this district are actually able to raise property taxes for this purpose. For more on what’s in the Infrastructure Plan That Is Not Yet A Bill, see Slate and the Trib.

The infrastructure bill and the power grid

Of interest.

President Joe Biden’s $2 trillion infrastructure plan could help rebuild Texas highways and ports and push broadband into rural parts of the state, where up to 31 percent of residents do not have access to high-speed internet.

It could help Texas weatherize the grid in a way that wouldn’t stick consumers with the bill as well as guard the Gulf Coast against hurricanes and address racial disparities that have made Latino and Black communities particularly vulnerable to natural disasters.

The infrastructure pitch is the president’s latest attempt to offer up money for things Republican leaders in Texas have been looking for funds to cover, as well as some that state lawmakers have been reluctant to take on.

But the president’s latest proposal also comes with a heavy emphasis on clean energy that some Texas Republicans have framed as an attack on the state’s oil industry, and Biden is calling for corporate tax increases to foot the bill.

[…]

Though Biden outlined the package in Pittsburgh on Wednesday, the pitch may as well have been aimed at Texas.

“As we saw in Texas and elsewhere, our electrical power grids are vulnerable to storms, catastrophic failures and security lapses to tragic results,” Biden said, pledging to “put hundreds of thousands of people to work” rebuilding a “modern, resilient and fully clean grid” and capping hundreds of thousands of dry oil and gas wells, many in Texas.

[…]

The infrastructure bill could also help pick up the tab — if not cover completely — the cost of weatherizing Texas’ power grid, which state lawmakers are so far requiring the industry to cover. Consumer advocates have warned those costs would then be passed down to consumers.

So far the White House has not detailed specific projects, but the plan calls for $100 billion to be spent on energy projects, including upgrades to electrical grids. [Michael Webber, an energy resources professor at the University of Texas at Austin] said given that Texas accounts for about 8 percent of the U.S. population and 10 percent of the GDP, a proportionate slice of that $100 billion would cover the estimated $8 to $10 billion price of weatherizing the grid.

But the president’s push for green energy in the infrastructure package already has state leaders pushing back.

The Texas Legislature is working to counteract tax credits for clean energy Biden would extend as his proposal aims for 100 percent carbon-free electricity by 2035. The state Senate passed a bill this week adding fees on solar and wind electricity production in the state in hopes of boosting fossil fuels.

More far-reaching proposals for clean energy in the plan could have major implications for the Texas oil and gas industry. Republicans are calling it Biden’s latest attack on fossil fuels after moves to end the Keystone XL pipeline and pause drilling on federal lands.

As Biden is calling for pouring $174 billion to juice the electric vehicle market and another $213 billion to retrofit 2 million homes and businesses to increase energy efficiency, he is also proposing spending $16 billion plugging oil wells — an endeavor Webber said could be a multi-billion dollar industry in Texas offering plenty of jobs to oil workers worried about Biden’s clean energy bent.

“This is a multi-hundred million to multi-billion dollar economic opportunity,” he said. “If you’re looking to be angry, you could be angry about what this might do to oil and gas — but I would say actually it’s a pretty good opportunity.”

As a reminder, right now this is the Infrastructure Plan That Is Not Yet A Bill, though the House is now working on what it will look like as legislation. The Texas Senate has passed its bill to overhaul the electricity market, which has some good things in it as well as that dumb and petty attack on renewable energy, which last I checked was still big business in Texas. The fact that Biden’s plan includes ending tax subsidies to fossil fuel companies will I’m sure have heads exploding all over the state. I have to assume that federal funds to cover the cost of weatherizing the grid would be scooped up and used, though never acknowledged and certainly not voted for by Republicans.

It’s hard to know how any of this will play out, given that we don’t have a piece of legislation yet, and we very much have to take into account the whole filibuster obstacle in the Senate. I have read elsewhere that the legislative calendar is such that this would all need to be done by late summer, so to say the least it’s a race. As a reminder, if you want to know more about the plan, see Slate and the Trib.

Expanding telemedicine

Seems like a good idea.

Last year, rules temporarily changed in Texas allowing for additional types of doctor appointments to happen virtually.

As the state returns to more normalcy, there are questions about whether that broader use of telemedicine will continue.

Patterson said he hopes so but was recently surprised to find out he couldn’t schedule a virtual appointment with Advanced Pain Care.

“When Gov. Greg Abbott lifted his emergency order in early March, it was widely thought that the Medical Board also rescinded their rule on telemedicine, but it turns out there was a separate rule allowing us to continue with telemedicine,” said Dr. Mark Malone, president of Advanced Pain Care.

Malone explained they stopped telemedicine for about two weeks, because there was some confusion but offered curbside appointments as another option to patients concerned about COVID-19.

[…]

According to a spokesperson with the Texas Medical Board (TMB), the board’s emergency rule expanding the use of telemedicine is still in effect.

The board’s emergency rule regarding prescriptions was renewed earlier this month and will continue until May 1.

“The emergency rule continues to allow for telephone refill of certain prescriptions to established chronic pain patients as long as the patient has been seen by the prescribing physician, or health professional… in the last 90 days either in-person or via telemedicine using audio and video two-way communication,” said the rule on TMB’s website.

Abbott said during his State of the State address last month that he wants to permanently expand access to telemedicine services.

A number of bills have been introduced this legislative session regarding telemedicine. Several have already been heard in committee hearings.

Those bills would include a pilot project to provide emergency telemedicine medical services in rural areas and reimbursement and payment of claims for telemedicine medical services and telehealth services under certain health benefit plans.

A recent study showed that as many physician offices closed last February to April, the use of telehealth quickly escalated.

This makes sense, in the same way that lifting the rules about drinks to go made sense. And as is often the case, Texas had been a laggard compared to other states. Telemedicine was only legalized by the Legislature in 2017, following a federal anti-trust lawsuit that forced the issue. I wouldn’t want telemedicine to become the default, but that’s not what’s on the table here. Having it be part of the mix is valuable, and allowing it to grow and change as the needs of the patients demand it is what should happen. If one of those bills can be passed it would be a good thing.

Winter storm death count now at 111

A revision of the numbers. Expect this to happen at least once more.

At least 111 Texans died as a result of last month’s winter storm, according to updated numbers released Thursday by the state Department of State Health Services.

The newly revised number is nearly twice what the department had estimated last week, and will likely continue to grow. Some of Texas’ larger counties, such as Tarrant County, have yet to report any storm-related deaths.

The majority of people died from hypothermia, but health officials also attributed deaths to “motor vehicle accidents, carbon monoxide poisoning, medical equipment failure, exacerbation of chronic illness, lack of home oxygen, falls and fire.”

[…]

Harris County reported 31 storm-related deaths, the largest share in the state. Travis County followed with nine deaths.

Health officials will continue to update their preliminary findings weekly.

According to DSHS, the data is compiled from forms that certify deaths are related to a disaster, notification from death certifiers and analyses of death certificates from state epidemiologists.

See here for the background. As a reminder, there were 103 deaths attributed to Hurricane Harvey, so the February freeze event (I’m sorry, I’ve not adopted the new paradigm of naming winter storms, so I have not and probably will not again refer to this as “Winter Storm Uri”) has now surpassed that total. And will likely put some more distance between them when the next month’s data is available.

There has been a bit of legislative action on this front.

A bill that would overhaul Texas’ energy industry — including mandating weatherization for natural gas and power generators — was approved by a Texas Senate committee on Thursday.

The sweeping Senate Bill 3, sponsored by Republican state Sen. Charles Schwertner of Georgetown, includes a number of reforms that have been floating around the state Capitol since last month’s deadly winter storm left millions without electricity during freezing temperatures. While the Texas House earlier this month approved a package of similar, standalone bills, Thursday’s vote represents the first substantive action on the issue by the upper chamber.

“This is an important issue to get right for the people of Texas, for the future of Texas, for the economy of Texas,” Schwertner said.

Chief among the bill’s provisions is a requirement that all power generators, transmission lines, natural gas facilities and pipelines make upgrades for extreme weather conditions — a process known as weatherization. Many power generators and gas companies were ill-suited for the freezing temperatures in February, which led gas pipelines to freeze and power transmission to falter.

The measure would delegate rulemaking authority to the Texas Railroad Commission, which regulates the oil and gas industries, and the Texas Public Utility Commission, which regulates the electric and telecommunication industries. If a gas or energy company fails to comply with the weatherization rules, it would face a fine up to $1 million for each offense. The bill does not address funding to pay for the required upgrades.

A Texas House committee earlier this month passed a similar weatherization bill. But the requirements only apply to electric companies, not natural gas companies. In public testimony before the Legislature, Railroad Commission Chair Christi Craddick largely dodged talks of winterizing the natural gas supply chain.

There’s more, so read the rest. I don’t know enough to offer a general critique of these bills, but I would certainly argue that natural gas companies should have the same weatherization requirements. All of these bills are sure to change as they move from one chamber to the other, so we’ll need to see where they wind up.

The vaccination eligibility list is about to be wide open

Go ahead and get on it, though be prepared to wait as the supply issues work themselves out.

Everyone age 16 and older, regardless of occupation or health status, will be eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine in Texas starting March 29, state health officials said Tuesday.

The Texas Department of State Health Services is still asking providers to prioritize appointments for people who are 80 and older, and to prioritize walk-ins from anyone in that age group who shows up without an appointment. The vaccines are not limited to Texas residents, and citizenship is not a requirement for the vaccine.

“We are closing in on 10 million doses administered in Texas, and we want to keep up the momentum as the vaccine supply increases,” said Imelda Garcia, DSHS associate commissioner for laboratory and infectious disease services and the chair of the state’s Expert Vaccine Allocation Panel.

Until now, eligibility for the vaccine was mainly restricted to a few groups: health care workers, people ages 50 and older, those with certain underlying health conditions who are 16 or older, and employees of schools and day care centers. Texas began receiving vaccines in mid-December.

The vaccine is still in short supply as the announcement makes about 22 million people eligible on Monday. The state has been allocated more than 14 million doses since distribution began in December — far short of the supply needed to fully vaccinate everyone right away.

[…]

The state is also launching a website next week for people to sign up for vaccines at public health centers and state-run clinics. The Texas Public Health Vaccine Scheduler will alert participants to upcoming events and available appointments. For those who do not have access to the internet, the state will also be creating a hotline for appointments by phone, officials said.

The DSHS has more on Twitter. Great news for those who have not yet been eligible, though as we have previously discussed it’s not necessarily great for the distribution effort or for vaccine equity. All states were mandated by President Biden to make the vaccine generally available by May 1, so this is just getting a one-month head start on that.

County Judge Lina Hidalgo calls this a milestone moment.

“Opening vaccine eligibility vaccines to every adult is a key milestone in our fight against COVID-19,” Hidalgo said. “The onus is now on each adult to do their part. This vaccine is safe and effective, and the faster we all get a vaccine the sooner we’ll be able to pull through this crisis, get our economy running at full speed, and get life back to normal.”

Many experts have continued to raise concerns about unequal access to vaccines, particularly among low-income communities.

Rice University health economist Vivian Ho said the opened eligibility could help on that front because public health agencies will be able to, for example, vaccinate all workers at a grocery store.

“Now you can say we are going to go to workplaces, because there’s no age limit,” she said.

Conversely, Ho said, the announcement will do little to convince people who have already decided not to get vaccines, namely in communities outside of major cities.

Opening eligibility criteria will clear confusion for many communities who have hesitated to get a COVID-19 vaccine because of constantly changing age and medical condition restrictions, said Luis Torres-Hostos, dean of the University of Texas – Rio Grande Valley School of Social Work.

Torres-Hostos, who has worked with his university to get the message out to Latino communities, is hopeful public health officials will have more luck with immunization with these changes.

“Where are the vaccine deserts? Where are the places where it’s really hard for members of the community to get their vaccine?” he said. “We’ve got to do something to make sure that the vaccine is being given there.”

However, even his optimism comes with a caveat. Expanded criteria will only fix inequities if it comes with increased vaccine supply.

Communities of color and low-income communities are not hesitant to get the vaccine; a recent poll by the Kaiser Family Foundation finds 7 in 10 Hispanic people surveyed have received or want to book an appointment for a COVID-19 vaccine.

“If we build it, they will come,” Torres-Hostos said.

I sure hope this will help with the inequity issue, and I agree it will clear up any lingering confusion. We’ll look for that DSHS website when it’s up (and hopefully doesn’t crash). Y’all get yourself – and anyone you know who might need some assistance – in line for the vaccine.

COVID vaccination road trips

It’s a thing that happens.

With more vaccine supply flowing into Texas, the statewide mask mandate rollback and businesses reopening at 100 percent capacity, some Houstonians unable to get a COVID-19 vaccine close to home are making the drive two hours east to get their doses. More than 2.3 million people live in Houston, but the city and Texas Medical Center are only able to administer 232,000 doses a week.

And demand is only growing: Starting Monday, those 50 and older are eligible for a COVID-19 vaccine in Texas.

While Hardin, Orange and Jefferson counties are still prioritizing residents 65 and older, they’re now accepting vaccine appointments for anyone, even out-of-towners, according to county officials. While interest has dropped off from locals, they sought to keep their tens of thousands of doses from going to waste.

Dr. Jana Winberg, the Hardin County Health Authority, said people come from surrounding areas, like Houston, to get their shot in Hardin County. But that doesn’t take away vaccines from county residents.

“We are still finding ways for people who want to get the shot to get in those slots,” she said.

[…]

As of March 1, Hardin County opened registration to the public regardless of eligibility criteria, telling the Beaumont Enterprise that they had an “extremely low” turnout for vaccine appointments, said Hardin County Judge Wayne McDaniel.

The Hardin County Health Department manages Orange County’s vaccines, but both are part of the Southeast Texas Regional Emergency Operations Center (SETROC) vaccine distribution hub, Winberg said.

Divvying up the area’s vaccines between Jefferson, Hardin, Jasper, Newton and Orange counties depends on which location can give the shots in a timely fashion, she said.

Hardin County has fewer than 60,000 people, and neighboring Jasper County is smaller at 35,500, Winberg said. One week in February, the county received 300 doses and fewer than 100 people made appointments.

Rather than have the Moderna vaccines sit in refrigerators, Winberg said they would prefer to bring doses to those who want them.

I know a couple of people who have done this, and I have no problem with it. If anything, it shows that there should be more vaccines distributed to the larger counties. Hopefully the supply will continue to ramp up so that fewer people will feel the need to do this. (Especially now that everyone will be eligible for a shot starting on Monday.) Until then, everyone getting a vaccine who seeks one out is a good thing, however it’s done.

The vaccination rate keeps inching up

Making progress.

A quarter of Texas residents 16 and older have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine as of Wednesday afternoon, state data shows.

A Chronicle analysis found that the first dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech or Moderna vaccines, or a Johnson & Johnson vaccine, has been administered to more than 5.6 million people, accounting for 25.4 percent of adults over 16.

About 2.9 million Texans have been fully immunized against COVID-19, according to the data. More than 8.4 million doses have been administered.

Harris County is at 23.98 percent as of Wednesday afternoon, which means the area is poised to hit the 1-in-4 milestone this week as well.

As the story notes, greater supply of the vaccine (thanks to the authorization of the Johnson & Johnson one-shot vax) and more vaccination centers being opened have contributed to the steady rise in people getting the shot. More people will be officially eligible for it on Monday, so hopefully that trend will accelerate even more. Get your appointment and your shot at your first opportunity to do so.

Our rinky-dink critical infrastructure

Good Lord.

On Valentine’s Day, the major utility that supplies electricity to West Texas readied for a severe winter storm. Hired contractors prepared to fix power lines, managers started up the storm emergency center, and operators reviewed the list of facilities that should — no matter what — keep power during an emergency: 35 of them on Oncor’s list were natural gas facilities that deliver fuel to power plants.

As Sunday turned to Monday, Allen Nye, the CEO of Oncor, one of the state’s largest transmission and delivery utilities, thought his team was ready.

But the situation rapidly deteriorated as the storm bore down on Texas. At 1:20 a.m., the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, which manages the state’s power grid, ordered the first cut of power to bring demand down to match an extremely low power supply as the frigid temperatures caused power plants to rapidly trip offline.

Oncor’s team, along with other utilities, began a plan to roll outages at 15- and 30-minute intervals. But just before 2 a.m., ERCOT ordered them to take even more power offline — then kept ordering more reductions. By late Monday morning, ERCOT had ordered 20,000 megawatts of power offline; Oncor’s share was 8,000 megawatts, or enough to power 1.6 million homes.

Rolling the outages “quickly became impossible,” Nye said. “We sat there praying that electrons showed up.”

With millions of Texans without power, Nye got an urgent request from DeAnn Walker, then chair of the Public Utility Commission: She needed Oncor to flip the switch back on to certain natural gas facilities that couldn’t deliver fuel to power plants without electricity. A PUC spokesperson said Walker was “ceaselessly” on the phone, calling Nye about dozens of natural gas facilities that weren’t on Oncor’s “critical” list.

That meant that Oncor, which delivers power to the Permian Basin — the state’s most productive oil and natural gas basin — had unwittingly shut off some of the state’s power supply when it followed orders to begin the outages.

The desperate scramble to power up natural gas facilities again exposed a major structural flaw in Texas’ electric grid: Oncor and other utilities didn’t have good lists of what they should consider critical infrastructure, including natural gas facilities — simply because natural gas companies failed to fill out a form or didn’t know the form existed, company executives, regulators and experts said.

[…]

“In my opinion, if we had kept the supply [of natural gas] on, we would’ve had minor disruptions,” James Cisarik, chairman of the Texas Energy Reliability Council, told legislators. “[Texas] has all the assets, we just have to make sure we evaluate every link in that chain to keep it going.”

The failures were years in the making: There is no requirement for natural gas and other companies that operate crucial parts of the grid to register as “critical.” And a trend toward electrifying key components of the state’s natural gas infrastructure in recent decades, plus the lack of a single agency to oversee all parts of the electric delivery system, created what Kenneth Medlock, a fellow in energy and resource economics at the Rice University’s Baker Institute, called a “single point of failure” — one that state regulators were blind to.

“That’s a failure of regulation,” said Medlock, who is also the senior director of the Center for Energy Studies at Rice. “That’s all it is. It’s relatively simple.”

That’s one way to put it. “Infuriating” and “inexcusable” also come to mind, along with a bunch of swear words. As someone once said, there’s a lot more to gain by avoiding stupid mistakes than there is by coming up with genius solutions. This is the sort of thing that the Legislature should be focused on. If this kind of simple, no cost fix is not implemented, you know who to blame. The Chron has more.

The state of the Public Utility Commission

News item #1:

While many Texans last week were worried about sky-high electric bills from February’s winter storms, the state’s sole utility commissioner was privately reassuring out-of-state investors who profited from the crisis that he was working to keep their windfall safe.

Texas Monthly has obtained a recording of a 48-minute call on March 9 in which Texas Public Utility Commission chairman Arthur D’Andrea discussed the fallout from the February power crisis with investors. During that call, which was hosted by Bank of America Securities and closed to the public and news media, D’Andrea took pains to ease investors’ concerns that electricity trades, transacted at the highest prices the market allows, might be reversed, potentially costing trading firms and publicly traded generating companies millions of dollars.

“I apologize for the uncertainty,” D’Andrea said, promising to put “the weight of the commission” behind efforts to keep billions of dollars from being returned to utilities that were forced—thanks to decisions by the PUC—to buy power at sky-high prices, even after the worst of the blackout had passed.

Billed as “Learning the Texas Two Step: A Chat with the PUCT,” the call originally was scheduled for early February but was postponed until after the winter storm. The conversation shows a coziness between a top Texas regulator and some of the biggest players in the electricity market at a time when the PUC’s oversight is under fire from lawmakers. At one point, during a discussion about whether natural gas, which also saw huge price spikes during the crisis, would be “repriced,” D’Andrea said no, adding that most legislators understand that gas is priced by global markets and is out of their purview. “But I’ll let you know if I hear anything crazy on it,” D’Andrea said.

You can click over and listen to the audio and read the explanations for the words that D’Andrea used if you want. In the meantime, here’s news item #2, from later that same day.

Public Utility Commission Chair Arthur D’Andrea, the only remaining member of the three-seat board that regulates Texas utilities, is resigning from his post, Gov. Greg Abbott said Tuesday night.

Abbott said in a statement that he asked for and accepted D’Andrea’s resignation and plans to name “a replacement in the coming days who will have the responsibility of charting a new and fresh course for the agency.” D’Andrea’s resignation will be effective immediately upon the appointment of a successor, according to a copy of D’Andrea’s resignation letter that was obtained by The Texas Tribune.

He is the latest in a long line of officials who have left the PUC or the Electric Reliability Council of Texas since last month’s deadly winter storm plunged large swaths of Texas into subfreezing temperatures and overwhelmed the state’s electricity infrastructure, causing massive power outages. At least 57 people died in Texas as a result of the storm — most of them from hypothermia — according to preliminary data the state health department released Monday.

The reason for D’Andrea’s resignation was not immediately clear late Tuesday.

I think we have a reasonable hypothesis about it – this article goes on to mention that Texas Monthly story about D’Andrea’s phone call. None of the members of the PUC – all of whom were appointed by Greg Abbott – remain. Heck of a job, there. Be more mad at the PUC. Kimberley Reeves has more.

Winter storm death count at 57

This is likely to rise as we get better data.

At least 57 people died in Texas as a result of last month’s winter storm, according to preliminary data the state health department released Monday.

The largest number of deaths — at least 25 — occured in Harris County, the Texas Department of State Health Services reported.

The deaths occurred in at least 25 counties between Feb. 11 and March 5, the state agency said. The majority of verified deaths were associated with hypothermia, but health officials said some were also caused by motor vehicle wrecks, “carbon monoxide poisoning, medical equipment failure, falls, and fire.”

The preliminary data is “subject to change” as state disaster epidemiologists gather additional information and additional deaths are verified, the agency said. The information will be updated weekly, it said.

For purposes of comparison, there were 103 deaths in Texas attributed to Hurricane Harvey, 68 to direct effects of the storm and 35 more in the aftereffects. The financial costs of the freeze were higher. Just keep all that in mind when you see Greg Abbott and Dan Patrick and others play the blame game.

The freeze was hard on the trees

Palm trees in particular.

Galveston’s majestic palm trees could be another casualty of Texas’s four-day freeze last month.

The cold snap that left millions of Texans without power and caused burst pipes across the state has also had a pronounced effect on local vegetation. Weeks after the freeze, with the winter weather now normalizing to mild temperatures for the region, many trees in Galveston remain in a torpid state — with brown leaves, broken branches and a general hang-dog appearance.

“Your queen palms, Japanese blueberry trees, citrus trees, olive trees — there’s probably a 90 percent chance that those are just really not going to come back,” said Orvis Himebaugh, owner of Tree Worxx, a company that specializes in tree servicing in Galveston County and the Houston area.

Galveston’s iconic palms, synonymous with the island’s laid-back ethos, bore the brunt of the impact from the harsh weather. The lofty trees — there are more than 20 species of palms on Galveston Island — are surprisingly resilient, able to withstand the region’s volatile climate from hurricanes and tropical storms to the occasional frost. But the sustained subfreezing temperatures and vicious winds in February proved too severe for the trees to overcome.

Himebaugh said the palms on the island’s West End were hit particularly hard by the freeze, as there are fewer buildings on that part of Galveston to shield the trees from being pummeled by arctic winds. He added it will take up to two months to determine whether any of the damaged trees will perk up.

In Houston, where palm trees are also flagging from the spate of cold weather, the official prognosis is that it’s too soon to tell which will survive. Jeremy Burkes, division manager of urban forestry for the city’s Parks and Recreation Department, said it could take anywhere from six months to a year for trees to make a full recovery.

“It (a palm tree) is completely brown, there’s a good chance that it may not make it,” Burkes said. “But if there’s any, any sign of green, then we’re hopeful that the tree is going to thrive and come back.”

As the story notes, there was some variation in the damage to the Galveston palms based on geography – some places had more wind than others, which magnified the effect of the freeze. Houston palm trees generally did better than those in Galveston. There’s one on my street that appears to have ridden it out. We won’t know for a few months if the damage is permanent or if some of these trees can recover. Just another thing to worry about.

Vaccine progress

Good news.

Texas will surpass more than 7 million COVID-19 vaccination doses administered today, top public health officials told the Texas Senate as Gov. Greg Abbott lifted all capacity limits for businesses and ended government-imposed mask mandates in the state.

At the same time, the health officials also offered a strong defense of the previous mask mandates, saying they reduced the chance of asymptomatic people spreading the virus and resulted in a record low year for influenza in Texas.

The speed with which vaccinations are being distributed is one of the keys to Abbott’s new order removing all mask mandates and allowing all businesses to re-open to 100 percent of their occupancy. Still, Texas has one of the lowest vaccination rates in the country, with 15.8 percent of residents having received at least one shot.

“We have come a long way in a very short period of time,” said Imelda Garcia, a top official with the Department of State Health Services, as she testified before a committee in the Texas Senate on Wednesday morning.

Garcia reminded lawmakers that Texas didn’t get its first vaccine shipments until Dec. 14. She lauded vaccine providers around the state for stepping up to administer so many shots in such a small window.

“They have been busting their butts in order to get shots in arms as fast as they physically and possibly can,” Garcia said.

Harris County alone topped 1 million doses on Tuesday.

Because the majority of vaccines in Texas require two doses, the number of people fully vaccinated is just over 2 million statewide.

Yes, there has been a lot of great work done, and everyone involved should be praised and thanked for it. There have been plenty of obstacles to overcome, that’s for sure. Because I’m a numbers nerd, I feel like I have to say something about the totals and percentages cited in this story, because as is they’re making me twitch. Seven million people would represent about 23% of the total state population. Given that the vaccines are only being given to those 16 and up, that makes the denominator in that fraction smaller, and thus would make the percentage higher. The only way this works if that total of “seven million doses administered” counts all shots given, both first and second. That would put the number of people that have had at least one shot at almost five million, which is closer to that 15.8% (it’s now higher on that NYT page, as it updates in real time). I’m just a little annoyed that I had to think it through like this to make sense of it all.

Not so good news.

The Texas Medical Center, in partnership with the city, is now administering 232,000 COVID-19 vaccine doses per week, and experts expect that number to ramp up as more vaccines are shipped to the state.

While vaccination rates are increasing and COVID-19 cases are trending downward again, medical officials said the public shouldn’t get too comfortable. Texas Medical Center leaders said there is currently no strong correlation between vaccination and hospitalization rates.

Experts are anxious that there could be another surge as students go on spring break this month. There’s more virus in Houston, and it’s spreading faster as more infectious variants circulate in the area.

“We’re not seeing the rapid decline we want to see,” Bill McKeon, president of the Texas Medical Center, said at a Wednesday webinar on the state of COVID-19 in Houston.

Part of the reason for this is that it takes time for the vaccine to take full effect – this is true of both the one-shot J&J vaccine and the two-dose Pfizer and Moderna vaccines – and it is eminently possible to continue to carry the disease after getting your shots. You will be much less likely to get sick, but you can pass it on to others, who may not be so lucky. This is why everyone who cares about keeping people alive and healthy are continuing to urge everyone to wear masks and maintain social distancing. We are approaching a point where those things will not be vital, but we are not there yet.

Good news for some, just news for others.

Texans ages 50 and older will be eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine starting March 15, state health officials announced Wednesday.

“We’ve seen a remarkable decrease in the number of hospitalizations and deaths since people 65 and older started becoming fully vaccinated in January,” said Imelda Garcia, the chair of the state’s Expert Vaccine Allocation Panel. “Expanding to ages 50 to 64 will continue the state’s priorities of protecting those at the greatest risk of severe outcomes and preserving the state’s health care system.”

Currently, the state is vaccinating members of priority groups 1A and 1B, which include health care workers, Texans 65 and older, and anyone over age 15 who has a pre-existing condition. Last week, state officials also made educators and child care employees eligible for a dose.

Those 50 and older will be included in priority group 1C. More than 93 percent of Texans who have died from the virus have been at least 50 years old, health officials said in a press release.

One can certainly argue that some other folks should have been next in line, but this is where we are. On the plus side, thanks to President Biden, everyone will be eligible for the shot in a few weeks. Until then, get yourself signed up at your first opportunity. And keep that mask on until someone other than Greg Abbott tells you to take it off. The Trib has more.

Starbase, Texas

If you read that title and you thought that Elon Musk must somehow be involved, you would be correct.

Elon Musk is attempting to create a city in south Texas.

He wants to incorporate Boca Chica Village, where his company SpaceX is developing and launching prototypes of its Starship spacecraft, into a city.

It would be called Starbase, Texas, Musk announced via Twitter on Tuesday.

Boca Chica Village, not far from Brownsville, is a tiny unincorporated area of Cameron County. County Judge Eddie Treviño Jr. confirmed the news, saying Cameron County had been officially approached by SpaceX over the past few days.

“If SpaceX and Elon Musk would like to pursue down this path, they must abide by all state incorporation statutes,” Treviño said in a statement. “Cameron County will process any appropriate petitions in conformity with applicable law.”

There’s a process to creating a city. First, the area must have at least 201 inhabitants, said Kellen Zale, associate professor at the University of Houston Law Center who specializes in land use and local government law.

For areas with fewer than 2,000 inhabitants, the city cannot be larger than 2 square miles — that’s 1,280 acres.

“The steps for incorporation are pretty minimal,” she said. “It’s just that population requirement and the territorial requirement, and then you need to get a certain number of signatures and then hold an election.”

It’s interesting to get a peek at the process for incorporating a city in Texas. I have no idea how often that happens these days, but I’d guess it’s relatively rare. Musk and SpaceX have been in Boca Chica Village for a few years now, and it’s been a mixed bag for the locals. Maybe this will be better for them. Assuming it happens before Musk’s attention span runs out, anyway.

What can we expect from the maskless mandate?

More COVID, obviously.

The Centers for Disease Control is increasing pressure on Republican leaders in states like Texas that have eased COVID restrictions, publishing a study on Friday showing evidence that the measures — such as the mask requirement that Gov. Greg Abbott rescinded this week — clearly decrease COVID cases and deaths, while opening up restaurants causes them to spike.

“We have seen this movie before: When prevention measures like mask mandates are rolled back, cases go up,” CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said. “I know the idea of relaxing mask wearing and getting back to everyday activities is appealing, but we’re not there yet.”

[…]

On Friday, Walensky continued to sound the alarm. She said that COVID cases and deaths have started to plateau for more than a week at levels similar to the late summer surge — just as some states are easing restrictions that helped drive those cases down.

White House officials said Friday the trend is concerning, especially as progress has been made on vaccinations. Nearly 55 percent of people 65 and older have received at least one vaccine dose, up from just 8 percent six weeks ago, senior White House COVID-19 adviser Andy Slavitt said.

More than 3.5 million Texans have received at least one dose of the vaccine, and nearly 2 million have been fully vaccinated, out of a population of 29 million. Still, the state ranks among the lowest for the percentage of people vaccinated, at 13 percent.

“It’s better to spike the football once you’re safely in the end zone, not once you’ve made a couple of completions,” Slavitt said.

The CDC released a new report on Friday that showed COVID cases and death rates decreased within 20 days of the implementation of state mask mandates. That progress was quickly reversed with the opening of restaurants, however, the report said. COVID cases rose between 41 and 100 days after states allowed dining in restaurants and daily death rates rose between 61 and 100 days after.

“Policies that require universal mask use and restrict any on-premises restaurant dining are important components of a comprehensive strategy to reduce exposure to and transmission of SARS-CoV-2,” the study said. “Such efforts are increasingly important given the emergence of highly transmissible SARS-CoV-2 variants in the United States.”

I think what’s so infuriating about this is that we really are in the home stretch now. Texas is at the back of the pack in terms of vaccination rate (though Harris County is doing reasonably well), but we are making steady progress. Anecdotally, I know so many more people now who have gotten at least their first shot compared to just a month ago. It would have been so easy to say that we just need to hold on until (say) Memorial Day or something like that, when we can expect to have a significant number of people who have been vaccinated, then we can really begin to ease up. We can emphasize outdoor events first, and be clear about when masks aren’t needed (when everyone involved has been vaccinated) versus when they should still be worn. We’ve come this far, we can see where we want to be, we just need to finish the job. Why was that so hard?

You may say, as Abbott was quoted in the story, that we haven’t actually enforced the mask mandate in Texas that just urging people to wear them while explicitly not requiring it isn’t all that different. I’d say first that the reason we haven’t enforced it is because Greg Abbott was so frightened by the likes of Shelley Luther that he cowardly backed down from any kind of official enforcement. What that has meant in practice is that responsibility for mask requirements falls squarely on the shoulders of frontline workers, who at least had the backup of an executive order when confronting some maskhole. But now even that is going away, which means we’ll have a lot more of this:

Fidel Minor, a Houston Metro bus driver, said Gov. Greg Abbott’s mask rollback will incite “mass chaos” on city buses as drivers like him try to enforce federal mask requirements for transit.

“It’s already a hard enough job as it is without having conflicting directives,” said Minor, a driver for Houston Metro.

Abbott relaxed requirements on businesses Tuesday, lifting statewide mask mandates and reducing capacity restrictions on restaurants and retailers. The order, effective March 10, sent chills through frontline workers across the region who say they still face risks on the job.

Asking customers to wear masks means being met with a daily dose of attitude, said Stacy Brown, bakery manager at Phoenicia Specialty Foods, a grocery store on the ground floor of One Park Place downtown. Now she fears that attitude will spread.

“We’re gonna have people come into the store, not wanting to comply just because of what (Abbott) says,” she said, noting she feels it’s especially important that her customers wear masks because as a diabetic she’s in a high-risk group.

[…]

David Lee, a deli manager at Kroger in Galveston who got sick with the virus in December, said it’s scary to know he and his colleagues will be surrounded by more of the maskless customers he believes exposed him to the virus in the first place. “I think (Abbott) should wait at least two more months,” he said. “It’s going to be scary now.”

For its part, the family-run Phoenicia will keep its mask mandate at its two Houston stores and restaurants, said owner Haig Tcholakian. Requiring masks inside his stores is about health and safety for staff and customers, first and foremost, he said. But also because when workers get sick or exposed, it affects business, too.

“It disrupts operations quite a bit, and if there are multiple (illnesses) across all businesses that would probably limit us and make us scramble to make up for that,” he said.

Tcholakian said he and his employees have to ask people to leave a handful of times a week. Like Brown, his bakery manager, he’s concerned that enforcement will get more difficult now. “We’ll have to prepare for it.”

For Teresa McClatchie, an escalator monitor at Bush Intercontinental Airport, the governor’s policy change seems at odds with the facts on the ground. She said her coworkers are still ill with the virus — one may need to stay on oxygen on an ongoing basis because of damage the virus did to her lungs.

“We still have some employees out,” she said, “and some, they may not be back.”

The number of restaurants and other businesses that will continue to require masks is inspiring and may just help blunt the effect of Abbott’s foolishness, but it still shouldn’t fall on these people to ensure that the jackasses out there don’t endanger them or others.

And for those of you who may be mad at HEB for urging but not requiring masks at their stores, it’s exactly with this in mind that they made this call.

H-E-B President Scott McClelland has the explanation why the store won’t require customers to wear masks in light of Gov. Greg Abbott’s Tuesday announcement.

While it has the power to require customers to wear masks before entering, McClelland said H-E-B won’t take that step – in part because of belligerent customers who have caused nearly 2,000 in-store incidents surrounding masks at Houston stores alone.

If a customer walks into the store without a mask, a worker will ask them to put one on, McClelland said. If they don’t have one, they will be offered a mask.

If they still refuse to put one on, McClelland said “we are not going to escalate.”

“What’s important to me is, I’ve got to ensure for the physical safety of both my employees and customers in the store,” McClelland said. “That’s what we have been doing, and frankly it’s the same thing we’ll continue to do.”

I confess, I recently yelled at one dipshit at HEB who was walking around with his mask on his chin. It wasn’t smart, and it wasn’t considerate of the other customers in the yogurt aisle who had to be wondering if something was about to go down, but I was so mad and I felt like someone needed to do something. McClelland is right about not escalating, and I will just have to keep that in mind. And I have already spent more time and energy thinking about this than Greg Abbott ever will.

More maskless mandate stuff

A bit of a roundup, because there’s so much out there.

Three of Gov. Greg Abbott’s four coronavirus medical advisers say they weren’t directly consulted prior to lifting mask mandate

In April 2020, an optimistic Gov. Greg Abbott announced at the Texas Capitol that he would soon take initial steps to allow businesses to reopen during the coronavirus pandemic.

The loosening of restrictions, his team said, would be informed by a statewide “strike force,” composed of business leaders and four medical experts who would advise the governor on a safe, phased plan.

“Every recommendation, every action by the governor will be informed and based on hard data and the expertise of our chief medical advisers,” James Huffines, a lobbyist who Abbott named as chair of the strike force, said at the time. “Everything we do will be medically sound. These nationally recognized advisers are leading experts in their fields and we will rely on their knowledge and expertise every step of the way.”

Since then, Texas has suffered through two major case surges and thousands of deaths. Abbott imposed a mask order in July, and vaccine distribution has begun to give residents a reason for hope. On Tuesday, Abbott made waves again by announcing the repeal of his mask order and declaring “it is now time to open Texas 100%.”

This time, however, Abbott’s team of medical advisers appeared to play a minimal role in the decision. Three of the four said on Wednesday that Abbott did not directly consult with them prior to the drastic shift in policy. The fourth said he couldn’t say whether the move was a good idea.

One such adviser expressed overt reservations about the move.

“I don’t think this is the right time,” Dr. Mark McClellan, a former commissioner of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and director of the Duke-Margolis Center for Health Policy at Duke University, said in a statement. “Texas has been making some real progress, but it’s too soon for full reopening and to stop masking around others.”

McClellan said that he was “not consulted before the announcement.”

Hey, remember the Strike Force? Yeah, no, nobody does. Either you’re going to tell Greg Abbott what he wants to hear, or he won’t listen. What’s the point?

Texas’ largest cities will keep requiring masks in municipal buildings even after statewide mandate ends

Mayors in some of Texas’ biggest cities announced that they will still mandate the use of masks in municipal buildings, even after the statewide mask order ends next week.

Austin, Dallas, Houston, San Antonio and El Paso’s leaders announced Wednesday and Thursday that masks will be required to enter city-owned indoor spaces like libraries, police and fire department headquarters, convention centers and transportation hubs.

“I am going to issue an order mandating masks at all city-owned buildings. We have to do what we are legally allowed to do to get people to wear masks,” Dallas Mayor Eric Johnson said on Twitter Thursday morning. “We also still need to practice social distancing. And we still need to avoid taking unnecessary risks. The pandemic is not over.”

[…]

In an email, Abbott spokesperson Renae Eze confirmed that cities are allowed to take this measure “just like private companies can with their property.”

I’m sure he’ll get the Legislature right on that, though.

Speaking of private companies, Texas businesses must decide whether to require face masks. Some worry they could lose customers either way.

“I do feel that we’ll probably lose guests based on whatever decision we do make, but I guess that’s just part of the environment that we are in now,” said Jessica Johnson, general manager of Sichuan House in San Antonio. “It’s either you wear masks and piss a couple people off, or you don’t wear masks and you piss a couple people off.”

At least one business owner, Macy Moore of HopFusion Ale Works in Fort Worth, said Wednesday on CNN that he had not slept since Abbott’s announcement because he’s so worried about the health and safety of his staff. Others, like Anne Ng of Bakery Lorraine in San Antonio, have decided to keep mask requirements in place for staff and customers regardless of what Abbott and the state government say.

“By repealing the mandate, the government is putting everyone at risk, and foodservice workers are sadly at the front lines in facing potential hostility from folks who will refuse to respect our mask policy,” Ng said. “We don’t deserve that.”

[…]

Christine Ha, a partner and co-executive chef at Xin Chao in Houston, sent out a notice to her whole staff Wednesday afternoon that the restaurant would continue requiring masks and operating at a reduced capacity. She expressed concern about enforcing those policies, though, because local agencies and law enforcement no longer have to support her restaurant’s safety requirements.

“This leaves it up to my team to enforce these policies, and they are in the business of hospitality, not policing,” Ha said.

There are many ways in this world to be an asshole. Yelling at a retail or restaurant worker who asks you to please observe their mask-wearing policy is one of the most effective ways to identify yourself as among the world’s biggest assholes.

For some Texans who lost loved ones to the coronavirus, lifting the mask mandate is a “slap in the face”.

What confuses Delia Ramos about Gov. Greg Abbott’s recent decision to cast off coronavirus restrictions in Texas isn’t his order to let more people into restaurants. The Brownsville school counselor knows people are hurting economically.

But with more than 43,000 dead in Texas — including her husband — is wearing a mask in public too much to ask? At the least, it could take pressure off the medical systems and help prevent more people from dying, she said.

“It’s not about taking away anybody’s job or making anybody else suffer financially because everybody has their families to take care of,” said Ramos, who lost her husband Ricardo to the coronavirus last year.

“People can go pick up groceries, people can go into a restaurant and people can shop around the mall in masks,” she said.

[…]

In nearby McAllen, Ana Flores watched Abbott’s announcement in disbelief on Tuesday. For the 39-year-old, who works at an adult day care, it immediately brought back memories of when Abbott loosened COVID-19 rules in May — weeks before infections surged and devastated the predominantly Hispanic or Latino communities along the U.S.-Mexico border.

She got severely sick with the virus. Her husband of ten years, a truck driver, who was cautious and “knew a little bit about everything,” was hospitalized and died at age 45.

“For [those of] us who lost a loved one, for us who survived — because I got pretty sick as well … it’s like a slap in the face,” Flores said of Abbott’s announcement, noting his “happy” tone and the “clapping” people around him.

For Abbott to say “it’s time for us to get on with our lives, everything to go back to normal,” she said, “normal is not going to happen for us ever again.”

She said it felt like Abbott “doesn’t care” that counties in the border are “still struggling” even if other parts of Texas are doing better.

Mandy Vair, whose father, a hospice chaplain, died with the virus last summer, saw the order and wondered: Did his death not matter? She and other family members were limiting social activities and wearing masks, but were infected in November and Vair was sick for weeks. Her family still hasn’t had a memorial ceremony for her late father because they don’t feel it’s safe to gather.

She said Abbott’s decision made her think, “He got his immunization and maybe all of those that are important to him already got the immunization. So [now] the rest have to kind of fend for themselves until their turn comes up,” she said. “We have to be responsible for ourselves — well, haven’t we been trying to be responsible for ourselves the whole time?”

Though I have to admit, Greg Abbott’s method is pretty effective as well. For more stories, if you’re not fully rounded up yet, here’s a collection from the Chron.

ERCOT’s overcharges

Oops.

The Electric Reliability Council of Texas made a $16 billion error in pricing during the week of the winter storm that caused power outages across the state, according to a filing by its market monitor.

Potomac Economics, the independent market monitor for the Public Utility Commission of Texas, which oversees ERCOT, wrote in a letter to the Public Utility Commission that ERCOT kept market prices for power too high for nearly two days after widespread outages ended late the night of Feb. 17. It should have reset the prices the following day.

That decision to keep prices high, the market monitor claimed, resulted in $16 billion in additional costs to Texas power companies. The news of the overcharging was first reported by Bloomberg.

Some of the providers that were charged during the high price period could pass the costs to customers, depending on the type of contract they have, according to Detlef Hallermann, director of the Reliant Energy Trade Center at Texas A&M University.

In Texas, wholesale power prices are determined by supply and demand: When demand is high, ERCOT allows prices to go up. During the storm, PUC directed the grid operator to set wholesale power prices at $9,000 per megawatt hour — the maximum price. Raising prices is intended to incentivize power generators in the state to add more power to the grid. Companies then buy power from the wholesale market to deliver to consumers, which they are contractually obligated to do.

Because ERCOT failed to bring prices back down on time, companies had to buy power in the market at inflated prices.

The error will likely result in higher levels of defaults, wrote Carrie Bivens, a vice president of Potomac Economics, the firm that monitors the grid operator. She said the PUC should direct ERCOT to remove the pricing interventions that occurred after outages ended, and allowing them to remain would result in “substantial and unjustified” economic harm.

At least $1.5 billion could be passed on to retail electric providers and their customers. Some retail providers have already begun to file for bankruptcy.

[…]

“The ERCOT market was not designed to deal with an emergency of this scale,” wrote Patrick Woodson, CEO of ATG Clean Energy Holdings, a retail power provider based in Austin, to the Public Utility Commission. The pricing failure, he wrote, “has pushed the entire market to the brink of collapse.”

Bivens wrote that while she recognizes that retroactively revising the prices is “not ideal,” correcting the error will reflect the accurate supply and demand for power during the period after the outages.

First and foremost, most if not all of that $16 billion in overcharges needs to be refunded to the customers and retail providers. This isn’t a matter of reading the fine print, it’s a matter of the market failing. No one should have to pay those extortionate rates, and no one should have their credit ratings dinged because they were charged those extortionate rates.

Second, the PUC cannot be allowed to authorize such rates again in the future. I don’t know if this was a process problem or a judgment problem, but either way the effect was extremely damaging. That needs to be a high priority.

But in some sense, these are just details. The big picture problem is that the system we have in place failed completely during the freeze week. The bright idea behind this deregulated, market-driven system of power delivery is that it’s supposed to provide incentives to power companies to ensure there’s a sufficient supply of power, while lowering prices for the customers. The latter has long been a massive failure, but we see now how the former failed as well. All it did was serve as incentive for the system to be gamed. We can tinker around the edges and maybe put in some guard rails, but the underlying problem won’t be solved.

Of course, the Republicans in charge aren’t interested in systemic reform, because they think everything was just fine outside of that one unfortunate week. The real first step in solving this problem is getting people into office that want to solve it. The Chron has more.

UPDATE: That’s not how you fix it.

Texas’ utility regulator had an opportunity Friday to eliminate some of the $16 billion that the state’s grid operator erroneously overcharged power companies during last month’s deadly winter storm — but the board of the Public Utility Commission chose not to do so.

Some Texas electricity customers could have benefited from a decision to readjust the electricity market prices for the week of the storm, according to PUC Chair Arthur D’Andrea and some independent analysts. But other customers could have been harmed by such a move, D’Andrea said.

“I totally get how it looks like you’re protecting consumers [by readjusting electric prices],” D’Andrea said Friday during a PUC meeting. “But I promise you you’re not.”

D’Andrea added that a retroactive decision would have winners and losers: “You don’t know who you’re hurting. And you think you’re protecting the consumer and it turns out you’re bankrupting [someone else].”

[…]

State Sen. Drew Springer, R-Muenster, was hoping for a different decision by the PUC on Friday.

“Keeping the market at an artificial $9,000 for 32 hrs cost $16B,” Springer tweeted, adding that the Potomac Economics report “says those hours should be repriced, I agree.”

You have the power to do something about that, Sen. Springer. What are you going to do?

President Biden disagrees with the maskless mandate

I mean, duh.

President Joe Biden

President Joe Biden said Wednesday that Texas made a “big mistake” by removing its statewide mask mandate and suggested the decision reflected “Neanderthal thinking.”

The comments by the Democratic president came a day after Republican Gov. Greg Abbott announced he was not only ending the mask requirement but also allowing businesses to reopen at full capacity. A small fraction of Texans have been fully vaccinated, and while coronavirus numbers have been generally declining in the state, they remain substantial.

“Texas — I think it’s a big mistake,” Biden said at the White House. “We are on the cusp of being able to fundamentally change the nature of this disease because the way in which are are able to get vaccines in people’s arms. The last thing — the last thing — we need is Neanderthal thinking in the meantime.”

Biden’s administration has urged states not to let up on restrictions as vaccinations pick up. Rochelle Walensky, Biden’s director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, reiterated that earlier Wednesday during a White House coronavirus briefing when asked about Abbott’s announcement.

“I think we at the CDC have been very clear that now is not the time to release all restrictions,” Walensky said.

Asked about the Texas news a short time later, White House press secretary Jen Psaki did not directly address Abbott’s actions but said “the entire country has paid the price for political leaders who ignored the science when it comes to the pandemic.”

Abbott’s announcement came four days after he joined Biden for a tour of Houston that was partly about the state’s vaccination efforts. In remarks at the end of the trip, Biden stressed it was “not the time to relax” practices to curb the spread of the virus.

“We have to keep washing our hands, staying socially distanced,” Biden said. “And for God’s sake, wear your mask.”

See here and here for the background. I’m sure we can all surmise what Abbott’s opinion of Biden’s opinion is, but then Abbott only cares about what a few people think. He won’t be unhappy if Biden gets mad at him.

Vaccination hesitation blues

This is the next thing we will have to really focus on.

Most Texas voters believe vaccines are safe and effective, but 28% do not plan to get a COVID-19 vaccine when it’s available to them, according to the latest University of Texas/Texas Tribune Poll.

A solid majority (61%) agree that “in general … vaccines are safe.” That includes majorities of both Democrats (74%) and Republicans (54%). Asked whether vaccines are generally effective, 63% said yes, including 78% of Democrats and 56% of Republicans. More than half (56%) said that vaccines are both safe and effective, including 71% of Democrats and 48% of Republicans.

Even so, 36% said they’ll get vaccinated against COVID-19 as soon as it’s available to them, 28% said they will not, and 16% said they’re not sure. Another 15% said they’ve already been vaccinated, meaning just over half have either been vaccinated or are planning to be when they can. In a poll last June, 59% said they would get a COVID-19 vaccine if it was available at low cost; in the October 2020 UT/TT Poll, that number fell to 42%.

Polling data is here. These numbers trail the national numbers that I can find, but the most recent national polling was from at least three weeks ago. The two most recent results I saw, from the second week of February, had national willingness to take the shot (plus those who had already received it) at around 65%. There will be some core group that will be extremely resistant, but I believe there are still quite a few who just want to take it more slowly and will get there in their own time. We have some work to do to meet them where they are and get them where they need to be.

Reactions to the maskless mandate

Let’s start with the doctors, since clearly they weren’t consulted.

Houston-area doctors and medical professionals reacted with dismay to Gov. Greg Abbott’s Tuesday decision to roll back the state’s mask mandate and other precautions against COVID-19.

“I had a pretty strong visceral reaction — like PTSD,” said Dr. Matt Dacso, an internist at the University of Texas Medical Branch. “I can think of no other word but incomprehensible… Everybody is hurting, but gosh, man. The masks were doing a lot for us.”

Dacso said the order was a huge hit to morale, coming almost exactly one year after the first recorded case in New York. His team had been celebrating the progress made since then — until they heard about Abbott’s order.

[…]

“It’s true that Texas has been vaccinating people,” said Peter Hotez, vaccine researcher at Texas Children’s Hospital Center for Vaccine Development. “But after the recent freeze, we rank at the bottom of states in the percentage of people we’ve vaccinated: Only 13 percent of Texans have had their first dose.

“I would have preferred to wait a couple of weeks to reopen while we see how these new variants play out here, and so that we could catch up to the rest of the country in terms of vaccinations,” Hotez continued.

While people who have been vaccinated may feel tempted to go out without their masks, they shouldn’t, said Dr. Diana Fite, president of the Texas Medical Association.

A vaccination means they’re less likely to face severe complications from COVID-19, not that they’re less likely to catch it and infect others. COVID-19 vaccine manufacturers are still studying the rate of transmission and infection in people who have been immunized, and trial data may not be available until the spring.

“Fully vaccinating 1.8 million people is still a huge number, but it’s far from getting anywhere near where we say things are going to be contained,” Fite said.

Local hospitals say they are not planning to change their masking requirements.

“The COVID-19 virus and its effects will be with us for a long time,” St. Luke’s Health officials said in a Tuesday afternoon statement. To ensure the safety and health of our communities, we urge people to continue to wear masks and practice other precautions like hand washing and social distancing, in addition to getting vaccinated. Wearing a mask is one of the most effective ways to limit the spread of the virus, which is why masks are still required at all St Luke’s Health facilities.”

See here for the background. Local health officials were equally vehement.

Keep wearing your mask and taking COVID-19 safety precautions, local health experts said Tuesday, after Gov. Greg Abbott announced he was lifting the statewide mask mandate and restrictions on businesses.

“Despite the impending removal of the state mask mandate, we must continue our vigilance with masking, distancing, and hand washing,” said Dr. Mark Escott, Travis County Interim Health Authority. “These remain critical in our ongoing fight against COVID-19.”

Expressing concerns about highly contagious variants of the virus and the need for local health officials to maintain some authority over their local situations — which vary widely from county to county — doctors and health officials cautioned that Texans should not take Abbott’s announcement as a signal to relax the behavior that has lead to a recent decrease in coronavirus case rates and hospitalizations.

[…]

Dr. Ivan Melendez, Hidalgo County Health Authority, said it’s premature to abandon safety precautions and hopes Texans can stay patient even in the absence of statewide rules.

“I think that people have a lot more common sense than we give them credit for, but … it’s very hard for human beings not to start socializing and to stop wearing masks,” he said.”I understand they are looking for any sign they can go back to the old ways, but I would just remind them that we’re in the bottom of the ninth, two runs out, and we’re almost there. This isn’t the time to put the bench in. This is the time to continue with the A-Team. Very soon, we’ll be there.”

Others said that while they’re glad Abbott did stress that Texans should stay cautious, the mandate provided an important function that the state may not be ready for yet.

“I think it’s a little bit early, in my opinion, to be removing the masking requirement,” said Dr. James McDeavitt, senior vice president and dean of clinical affairs at Baylor College of Medicine. “I would have preferred to see our numbers lower, and I would have preferred to see more people vaccinated before we took that leap.”

Dr. John Carlo, CEO of Prism Health North Texas and a member of the state medical association’s COVID-19 task force, agreed it was too soon for Texans to relax their safety practices, adding he is especially concerned about the increasing spread of the U.K. variant of COVID-19, which is thought to be more contagious and perhaps more deadly.

None of this should be a surprise. I’m sure there are some doctors out there who are Team No Mask, but as a group this is obvious. The Texas Medical Association took a diplomatic path:

Restaurants were also cautious, though they have clear reasons to be happy about the full reopening stuff.

Operators wondered if they would be ready to return so quickly to full service; if they could hire workers fast enough to accommodate full capacity; if their purveyors would be ready to service increased orders for food and other goods. And, most crucially, how mask wearing would be handled by workers and a dining public no longer required to cover up.

There were no clear answers Tuesday.

“Personally, I didn’t expect him to say that today. I thought we wouldn’t see it until sometime in the summertime,” said [Levi] Goode, whose restaurant portfolio also includes Goode Co. Seafood, Goode Co. Kitchen & Cantina and Armadillo Palace. “We’ve adopted some great practice from the safety standpoint during the pandemic, and many of those will remain intact until we feel comfortable we can move in another direction.”

But without a state mandate that masks are required, next Wednesday will bring uncertainty.

Ricardo Molina, president and co-owner of Molina’s Cantina restaurants, said that he probably will not enforce masks for his servers, but that those who choose to wear one will be able to do so. He added that customers will ultimately dictate how the staff will come down on masks.

“We’re probably going to find the vast majority (of customers) are ready to see masks go away,” Molina said. “If people are ready to go all-out business as usual, we’re ready to do that as well.”

Paul Miller, owner of Gr8 Plate Hospitality which includes The Union Kitchen and Jax Grill restaurants, anticipates a gradual return to practices that existed before COVID-19.

“Our primary concern is for our staff and our guests, and while we certainly appreciate the opportunity to go back to 100 percent and the governor has removed the mask mandate, we are going to continue to uphold our safety and sanitation protocols as we slowly but surely move into this new phase of our business,” he said.

How the restaurant industry will negotiate that new phase wasn’t clear on Tuesday. While the Texas Restaurant Association celebrated Abbott’s announcement, it was quick to say that Texas restaurants must “remain vigilant so we do not slide backward.”

“Consumers will only go where they feel safe, and so restaurants must continue to be very thoughtful and implement the safety protocols that will enable them to maintain and build trust with their consumers and employees,” the association stated.

Yeah, that. It’s a thing I’ve been saying for months – you have to beat the virus if you really want to reopen. People will not want to patronize businesses if they don’t feel safe doing so. That as much as anything is why I would have expected a more gradual reopening, one that takes into account the fact that we still have a lot of vaccinations to administer, and still have a lot of people getting sick and going to the hospital. Just declare your intention to take the victory lap. What was the rush?

Personally, I’ve been eating at a couple of places that have outdoor seating, and also doing takeout. I will continue to do that for at least the next few months. The Chron’s Alison Cook is surveying restaurants around town to see what their response is; her initial story on that is here. Quite a few are currently planning to stay with what they’re doing now, which surprises me a little, but in a good way. I’ll be very interested to see how the wider public reacts. For the record, the subset of barbecue joint owners and brewery owners were not impressed and seem to be determined to keep doing what they’ve been doing for now.

School districts have a choice to make.

Local school boards will have the authority to decide whether to require students over the age of 10 to wear masks under current Texas Education Agency health guidance, after Gov. Greg Abbott announced Tuesday he was lifting the state’s mask mandate and reopening businesses at 100 percent capacity.

In the governor’s executive order, which takes effect March 10, he wrote that public schools “may operate” under minimum health protocols found in Texas Education Agency guidance, and that private schools and colleges are “encouraged to establish similar standards.”

Under the previous mask mandate, all students older than 10 were required to wear masks on school property.

TEA’s most recent guidance, issued in December, says that outside the soon-to-expire mask mandate, school systems “may require the use of masks or face shields for adults or students for whom it is developmentally appropriate.”

Houston and Fort Bend ISDs issued statements Tuesday afternoon saying they would continue to require masks and face coverings at all schools and district facilities.

“This requirement is consistent with the advice of health professional and guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention,” HISD officials said in a statement.

We got a robocall from HISD Tuesday afternoon informing us of this. It’s the clear and obviously correct call, and as someone whose kids are attending school in person, I’d have been massively pissed if they had done otherwise.

Metro riders will need to keep their masks on.

Despite state officials loosening restrictions related to COVID, Metropolitan Transit Authority officials said requirements for face coverings on riders and employees will continue.

“Metro has no plans at this time to drop the mask requirement for people riding our system,” transit agency spokesman Jerome Gray said.

Since June, Metro has required masks for anyone using the system. Last month, the Federal Transit Administration issued guidance that all transportation providers — buses, trains, ferries and planes — prohibit anyone from riding without a mask.

For those who do not have a face covering and want to hop on a bus, Metro drivers will offer them a mask. Bus drivers and others have handed out 2 million masks along the Metro system, agency officials said.

Good call. This, not so much.

H-E-B will urge, but not require, customers to wear masks inside its grocery stores in Texas after Gov. Greg Abbott rescinded his statewide mask mandate Tuesday, the company said.

The grocer and retailer, however, will still require employees and vendors to wear masks in the stores.

“Although there is no longer a statewide mask order, H-E-B believes it is important that masks be worn in public spaces until more Texans and our Partners have access to the Covid-19 vaccine,” Lisa Helfman, the retailer’s local public affairs director, said in a statement.

I’ve already seen a few people react negatively to this on Twitter. I try to do my HEB shopping early in the morning, to avoid larger crowds. I may need to push it a little earlier now. Yes, we could order curbside – we have done it a couple of times – but I like the in store experience. Or at least, I have liked it. Don’t make me regret my choices, HEB.

What are your expectations? Will you avoid or patronize places that lift their mask requirements? The Texas Signal and Dos Centavos have more.

Teachers can get the COVID vaccine now

About time.

Texas teachers are now eligible for COVID-19 vaccines, health officials announced Wednesday.

Effective immediately, all Texas vaccine providers should include all school staff, Head Start program staff, and child care staff in their vaccine administration programs, according to a notice the Texas Department of State Health services sent to providers.

The notice comes after the Biden administration Tuesday urged all states to prioritize vaccinating teachers and school staff. Texas had not previously prioritized teachers. Texas received a letter from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Tuesday night directing it to expand eligibility, according to a DSHS news release.

Those eligible are “those who work in pre-primary, primary, and secondary schools, as well as Head Start and Early Head Start programs (including teachers, staff, and bus drivers) and those who work as or for licensed child care providers, including center-based and family care providers,” according to the federal directive.

State health officials said earlier this week that they expected to finish vaccinating older and most vulnerable Texans in the next few weeks and broaden eligibility to include more Texans by the end of the month.

That new group was expected to include teachers before Wednesday’s announcement, but officials have not said who else would be in that new “1C” group.

[…]

Educators and advocates have been begging the state to include teachers as it rolled out its vaccination program this winter and spring. After Abbott’s announcement Tuesday, several educator groups chastised him for removing the mask requirement without prioritizing teachers for vaccines.

“Abbott has shirked his responsibility to stick with medical advice and clarify what needs to happen to keep our schools safe. Every top health official has stressed that even with vaccinations we need to keep using the most simple tools to stop the spread,” said Zeph Capo, president of the Texas American Federation of Teachers, in a statement Tuesday.

If you want schools to be open – and you should want schools to be open, if they can open safely – then you need to make sure that everyone who works at those schools can get vaccinated. It’s pretty simple. Naturally, this took a nudge from the federal government for it to happen.

Dr. John Hellerstedt, who serves as commissioner for the Department of State Health Services, told the the Texas House of Representatives’ Committee on Public Health moments before the release was published that the change came after President Joe Biden announced Tuesday that he will direct states to prioritize teachers and school-based staff for vaccines.

“Right now we’re planning in Texas to see how we will bring that to functioning operation,” he said. “We are actively engaged in that as a priority item.”

About 30 states currently allow teachers to get earlier access to vaccines than the general public, Biden said Tuesday. Biden added that he was “directing” the remaining states to follow suit — though he did not specify what power he planned to employ to force the change — and announced he would use a federal pharmacy program to deliver vaccines to school employees and childcare workers.

“Not every educator will be able to get their appointment in the first week, but our goal is to do everything we can to help every educator receive a shot this month, the month of March,” Biden said.

The federal directive defined the people now eligible as “those who work in pre-primary, primary, and secondary schools, as well as Head Start and Early Head Start programs (including teachers, staff, and bus drivers) and those who work as or for licensed child care providers, including center-based and family care providers.”

Good thing the vaccine supply is increasing. It would be nice if most school districts continued to require masks for everyone, so that the teachers who can’t get a vaccine in the next week or so still have some protection. The Press has more.

Abbott lifts statewide mask mandate

Unbelievable.

Gov. Greg Abbott announced Tuesday that he is ending Texas’ statewide mask mandate next week and will allow all businesses to operate at full capacity.

“It is now time to open Texas 100%,” Abbott said from a Mexican restaurant in Lubbock, arguing that Texas has fought the coronavirus pandemic to the point that “people and businesses don’t need the state telling them how to operate” any longer.

Abbott said he was rescinding “most of the earlier executive orders” he has issued over the past year to stem the spread of the virus. He said starting next Wednesday, “all businesses of any type are allowed to open 100%” and masks will no longer be required in public. The mask requirement has been in effect since last summer.

Meanwhile, the spread of the virus remains substantial across the state, with Texas averaging over 200 reported deaths a day over the last week. And while Abbott has voiced optimism that vaccinations will accelerate soon, less than 7% of Texans had been fully vaccinated as of this weekend.

Texas will become the most populous state in the country not to have a mask mandate. More than 30 states currently have one in place.

Abbott urged Texans to still exercise “personal vigilance” in navigating the pandemic. “It’s just that now state mandates are no longer needed,” he said.

Currently, most businesses are permitted to operate at 75% capacity unless their region is seeing a jump in COVID-19 hospitalizations. While he was allowing businesses to fully reopen, Abbott said that people still have the right to operate how they want and can “limit capacity or implement additional safety protocols.” Abbott’s executive order said there was nothing stopping businesses from requiring employees or customers to wear masks.

[…]

Texans have been under a statewide mask mandate since July of last year — and they have grown widely comfortable with it, according to polling. The latest survey from the University of Texas and Texas Tribune found that 88% of the state’s voters wear masks when they’re in close contact with people outside of their households. That group includes 98% of Democrats and 81% of Republicans.

The absence of statewide restrictions should not be a signal to Texans to stop wearing masks, social distancing, washing their hands or doing other things to keep the virus from spreading, said Dr. John Carlo, CEO of Prism Health North Texas and a member of the Texas Medical Association’s COVID-19 task force.

Carlo declined to react specifically to Abbott’s order, saying he had not had a chance to read it. He also expressed concern that new virus variants, specifically the U.K. variant, could still turn back the positive trends cited by Abbott.

“We’re facing unacceptably high rates, and we still hear every day about more and more people becoming sick. And it may be less than before, but it’s still too many,” Carlo said. “Even if businesses open up and even if we loosen restrictions, that does not mean we should stop what we’re doing because we’re not there yet.”

It was clear from what Abbott said during President Biden’s visit that he was planning to take action to loosen restrictions. I was prepared for him to announce a step-down or a schedule or something more gradual. I did not expect him to just rip the bandage right off. I don’t know what to say, but Judge Hidalgo does, so let’s listen to her.

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo and Mayor Sylvester Turner slammed Gov. Greg Abbott Tuesday for allowing all businesses in Texas to fully reopen next week and lifting his statewide mask mandate, suggesting the governor timed the move to distract angry Texans from the widespread power outages during the recent winter storm.

“At best, today’s decision is wishful thinking,” Hidalgo said. “At worst, it is a cynical attempt to distract Texans from the failures of state oversight of our power grid.”

Turner said Abbott’s decision to rescind the COVID measures marked “the third time the governor has stepped in when things were going in the right direction,” a reference to the surges in cases, hospitalizations and deaths that ensued after Abbott implemented reopening guidelines last year.

“It makes no sense,” Turner said. “Unless the governor is trying to deflect from what happened a little less than two weeks ago with the winter storm.”

[…]

Before Abbott’s announcement, Hidalgo and Turner sent the governor a letter urging him not to lift his statewide mask mandate.

“Supported by our public health professionals, we believe it would be premature and harmful to do anything to lose widespread adoption of this preventative measure,” Hidalgo and Turner wrote, arguing the mandate has allowed small businesses to remain open by keeping cases down.

The disparity between Hidalgo and Turner’s concerns — that Abbott would simply lift the mask order but keep other restrictions intact — and his decision to fully reopen the state puts on full display the diverging messages Houstonians are receiving from their local Democratic leaders and the Republicans who run the state. While Hidalgo is telling residents to stay home and buckle down, Abbott is giving the green light for a return to normal life, albeit one where Texans govern themselves using “personal responsibility,” he said Tuesday.

We know how well that’s worked so far. The irony is that other parts of state government still understand what’s at stake:

I’d love to say that Abbott will suffer political blowback for this, but polling data is mixed and inconsistent.

Texas voters’ concerns about the spread of coronavirus are higher now than they were in October, before a winter surge in caseloads and hospitalizations, according to the latest University of Texas/Texas Tribune Poll.

Almost half of Texas voters (49%) said that they are either extremely or very concerned about the spread of the pandemic in their communities — up from 40% in October. Their apprehension matches the spread of the coronavirus. As cases were rising in June, 47% had high levels of concern.

Caseloads were at a low point in October, as was voter concern about spread. And sharp increases through the holidays and into the new year were matched by a rise in public unease.

Voters’ concern about “you or someone you know” getting infected followed that pattern, too. In the current poll, 50% said they were extremely or very concerned, up from 44% in October, and close to the 48% who responded that way in the June poll.

“The second, bigger surge seems to have had an impact on people’s attitudes,” said James Henson, co-director of the poll and head of the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas at Austin. “In October, there was a trend of Republicans being less concerned, but this does reflect what a hard period the state went through from October to February.”

While their personal concerns have risen, voters’ overall assessment of the pandemic hasn’t changed much. In the latest survey, 53% called it “a significant crisis,” while 32% called it “a serious problem but not a crisis.” In October, 53% called it significant and 29% called it serious.

Economic concerns during the pandemic remain high. Asked whether it’s more important to help control the spread of the coronavirus or to help the economy, 47% pointed to the coronavirus and 43% said it’s more important to help the economy. In a June poll, 53% of Texans wanted to control the spread and 38% wanted to focus on the economy.

“The economy/COVID number is 2-to-1 in other parts of the country. Here, it’s almost even,” said Daron Shaw, a UT-Austin government professor and co-director of the poll. “What was a 15-point spread is now a 4-point spread.

So people are concerned about the pandemic, but also about the economy. Some of that may just be a reflection of the partisan split, but I have no doubt that Abbott thinks the politics of this are good for him, and that’s even before we take into account the distraction from the freeze. The scenario where he’s most likely to take a hit is one in which the numbers spike and a lot more people die. Nobody wants that to happen, yet here we are at a higher risk of it because of Abbott’s actions. It’s just enraging. So please keep wearing your damn mask, even after you get your shots. Wait for someone with more credibility than Greg Abbott to tell you it’s safe to do otherwise.

One more thing:

We both know how plausible that is. Texas Monthly, Reform Austin, the San Antonio Report, the Texas Signal, and the Chron has more.

More vaccines coming

Bring ’em.

The Food and Drug Administration approved Johnson & Johnson’s COVID-19 vaccine on Saturday for use in the U.S., the third vaccine to be approved since the pandemic began.

Texas could initially receive more than 200,000 doses, according to the Texas Department of State Health Services, but the agency hasn’t received a timeline for when they would arrive. The company has said it plans to ship 20 million shots in the U.S. by the end of March and an additional 80 million doses before the end of June.

Texas received about 1.5 million vaccine doses by Pfizer and Moderna this week, including doses that had been undelivered earlier in the month because of the winter storm.

Unlike those vaccines, Johnson & Johnson’s formulation is the first to only require one dose, and it can be stored at regular refrigeration temperatures. The others require two doses, and Pfizer doses must be stored at below-freezing temperatures.

[…]

Five million vaccine doses have been administered overall in Texas as of Feb. 25. That equals about 5.8% of the state’s population — a long way from the 70% to 80% that experts estimate is necessary to achieve herd immunity. It would require nearly 100% of adults to be vaccinated to reach those figures, according to census numbers.

Scientists are still monitoring how well vaccines prevent the spread of the coronavirus, and health officials advise those who are vaccinated to continue wearing masks, social distance and follow other COVID-19 safety guidelines.

Hopefully, the J&J vaccine will really kick this up a notch, since it only requires the one shot. But as always, it’s first a matter of supply, and just having another supplier should help. If J&J is delivering 80 million doses nationally by the end of June, that should be six or seven million for Texas. It’s all about the numbers.

Please don’t take your mask off yet

Seriously, what’s the rush?

Gov. Greg Abbott said Thursday that Texas is looking at when it will be able to lift all statewide orders related to the coronavirus pandemic and that an announcement is forthcoming.

Abbott made the comments at a Corpus Christi news conference where he was asked when the statewide mask mandate would end as Texans continue to get vaccinated. That requirement has been in effect since July.

Abbott called it a “great question.”

“We’re working right now on evaluating when we’re gonna be able to remove all statewide orders, and we will be making announcements about that pretty soon,” Abbott said, without giving a specific time frame.

[…]

The Centers for Disease Control recommends that people who have received two doses of the vaccine continue to avoid crowds, stay at least 6 feet away from people who live outside their households, and wear masks to cover their nose and mouth.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious-disease doctor, has repeatedly said that he does not know when Americans will be able to return to normal, but that they may still need to continue wearing face masks into 2022.

Note that at this point about five percent of Texans total have been fully vaccinated. We need to get to over 70% to achieve something like herd immunity. Maybe Abbott is speaking of some hypothetical date well into the future to lift the mask mandate, but he deserves no benefit of the doubt. Why do we always have to learn these lessons the hard way? There’s absolutely no reason to rush this. The Chron and the San Antonio Report have more.

Biden’s visit to Houston

It’s so nice to have a normal, functional person as President, isn’t it?

President Joe Biden

President Joe Biden, in his first trip to Texas since taking office, toured Houston on Friday to size up the aftermath of the state’s recent winter weather crisis and promote the national coronavirus vaccination campaign.

“We will be true partners to help you recover and rebuild from the storm and this pandemic and economic crisis,” Biden said during a late afternoon speech outside NRG Stadium, the site of a vaccination mega-center. He promised his administration is in it “for the long haul.”

Biden hailed the mega-center — one of three federally backed mass vaccination clinics in Texas — as a key part of his strategy to have 100 million vaccine doses administered in his first 100 days in office. The country reached the halfway mark Thursday.

“The more people get vaccinated the faster we’ll beat this pandemic,” Biden said, reassuring Americans that the vaccines are “safe and effective” and cautioning that it is still “not the time to relax” measures such as social distancing and mask-wearing.

Gov. Greg Abbott, who joined Biden in Houston, said Thursday his office is looking at when it could lift all statewide orders related to the pandemic. That would include the statewide mask mandate that Abbott issued last summer. He said an announcement could be coming “pretty soon.”

Biden on Friday spoke from a parking lot outside the stadium, in front of a FEMA trailer and a row of health care workers who administer vaccines.

[…]

On the flight to Houston, Elizabeth Sherwood-Randall, Biden’s deputy national security adviser, told reporters there is a need going forward for the federal government, states and the private sector to incentivize building the “kind of resilient infrastructure that we can truly depend on in the future.” Sherwood-Randall avoided prescribing specific proposals for Texas but noted the state made the decision to have its own grid and that meant that it lacked the “kind of backup in terms of supply or generation capability that they needed to have in this crisis.”

Before Biden spoke near the vaccination facility, he toured the Harris County Emergency Operations Center, where the county judge, Lina Hidalgo, explained how the building “has been our home away from home for five months” — first due to the pandemic and then during the winter freeze. Biden told officials they have a “hell of an operation here.”

“It’s probably the best one in the country,” the president said, according to a pool report. “You’re saving peoples’ lives. As my mother would say, you’re doing God’s work.”

As Biden saw the Emergency Operations Center, First Lady Jill Biden and Cecilia Abbott volunteered at the Houston Food Bank, packing bags for a program that provides food to students on weekends who depend on school meals during the week. After the president was done at the Emergency Operations Center, he met up with his wife to tour the food bank and meet with volunteers.

Politically, the trip marked Texas Republican leaders’ first face-to-face encounter at home with a new Democratic president whose policies they have vowed to resist. And Biden is aware — during a virtual meeting with a group of governors Thursday, he told Abbott, “I don’t want to ruin your reputation, but I look forward to coming down tomorrow, to Houston, to be with you.”

See here for the background. As noted in the story, Sen. Cornyn was with Biden and Abbott in Houston, while Sen. Cruz was not, as he did not ask to be. I think we can all agree that that was for the best. I don’t know what President Biden would have said if someone had asked him about Abbott’s eagerness to lift the statewide mask mandate, but allow me to roll me eyes and heave a sigh of despair in his stead. Biden’s willingness to be a partner in the recovery is admirable and welcome and of course should be exactly what we expect, but it appears to be a one-way street. I’ll get to that in another post. I will say this much: Someone needs to be spending a few million dollars here in Texas highlighting what the President is doing to help not only the COVID vaccination effort but also the freeze recovery effort, to make sure that the credit goes where it belongs. Those approval ratings aren’t going to maintain themselves. The Chron has more.

The freeze effect on farmers

As you might imagine, single digit temperatures are not good for agriculture.

Well before the sun finally broke through the cloudy and icy haze in Texas’ Rio Grande Valley last week, Dale Murden knew he was in for a bad spell.

After a few days of clearer skies and warmer weather let him assess the damage to his grapefruit orchard in Harlingen more closely, the South Texas citrus grower confirmed his fears.

“As time goes on, it’ll start to look worse,” said Murden, who is also the president of Hidalgo County-based Texas Citrus Mutual.

The winter storm that paralyzed Texas for days last week is going to have lasting effects on Murden and his fellow citrus growers in the Rio Grande Valley after the extended freeze killed millions of pounds of citrus. The storm also brought the state’s dairy industry, concentrated in the Panhandle, to a near standstill when widespread power outages halted processing.

Though it’s still too early to put a dollar amount on the losses, industry leaders are urging patience as they try to restock grocery shelves.

“As a grower, I would appeal to consumers to stick with us and, when we do get back on the shelf, please support us,” Murden said.

The 20-year annual average for grapefruit produced in the Rio Grande Valley is about 460 million pounds, Murden said. More than half of this year’s yield will be lost after the storm, and Valencia oranges, which are considered late-season harvests, will be nearly a total loss, he added. The damages will extend into next year because the freeze also damaged citrus blooms that would become fruit for the next season’s harvest.

“This will last well into 2021 and 2022,” he said. “The ability for Texas grapefruit growers to get it to your shelf right now is zero until we start growing a crop.”

The effects on the state’s dairy industry will be shorter, but the duration will depend on how quickly milk and other products can be processed, said Darren Turley, the executive director of the Texas Association of Dairymen. Most of Texas’ livestock survived the harsh weather, he said, but a loss of power meant processing and production was at a standstill and will need time to recover.

Turley said Panhandle livestock are used to severe winter weather, “But our natural gas was turned off and so much of our processing relies on that.”

It was reported during the freeze that a lot of milk was being dumped by dairy farmers (who still had to milk the cows because otherwise they stop producing) because there was no power for them to process it. Unlike the citrus growers, their supply should bounce back pretty quickly.

More from the Chron.

The kids in sweaters pix were cute, tho

Constant Ngouala pulled carrots from the ground on his farm, a Plant It Forward site in Southwest Houston, and held up the intact bunch victoriously for his team to see. The vegetable is one of the few that survived the winter freeze in Texas last week. Ngouala lost 80 percent of his crop.

In the raised beds around him, vegetation was wilted to the ground, some slimy and still wet from the snow and freezing rain, others dried and a lifeless shade of brown.

This is a familiar scene on farms across Texas after the historic February storm. The state was plunged into darkness as temperatures dropped in the teens, leaving millions without power, heat or water for days. On farms and ranches, the freeze decimated crops and killed or hurt livestock.

The Plant It Forward team had prepared for the storm, harvesting everything they could the weekend before. Some crops were ready, others weren’t quite but could still be sold. What remained in the ground was protected by frost cloth or mulch for insulation.

Ngouala and his teammate Guy Mouelet lifted a tarp on Saturday to assess damage. It wasn’t long enough to cover the bed’s whole length. Small, just-emerging heads of romaine lettuce were still bright green under the cloth, but browning around the edges outside it. Ngouala thinks the onions, radishes and other root vegetables that were underground during the freeze will be fine, but he has to wait for them to sprout up to confirm.

Liz Vallette, president of Plant It Forward, said even though the farm lost a lot, she had expected it would be even more dire. The damage is worse than Hurricane Harvey, but the 2017 storm prepared them well for this.

They were in good spirits that day, but there was work to do. Ngouala has to clean his beds and replant with spring crops as soon as possible in order to have cash flow 30, 40, 50 days from now.

[…]

Within the larger food system, shoppers will feel the freeze’s effects at the grocery store in the weeks to come.

“Prices for consumers are going to go up, there’s no question,” said Texas Department of Agriculture communications director Mark Loeffler. “The vast amounts of gaps that have been caused in the food supply chain are pretty amazing.”

Loeffler said significant impacts could last between six to eight weeks, depending on the industry. Some sectors’ long-term recovery could take months or years.

In the same way that this past year has been a great and necessary time to support your local restaurants, this is a great and necessary time to buy your food from local farms as much as possible. Check out the labels, visit a farmers’ market or two, and buy from local growers. We’re all in this together.