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The great state of Texas

Have I mentioned that we need to get more kids vaccinated?

Seriously, y’all.

Since November, 693,345 Texas elementary-age children have received at least one dose of the vaccine, accounting for about 24% of the state’s 2.9 million children ages 5-11 — and a figure in line with the national rate. Nearly 390,000 of the 5-11 group are fully vaccinated, while more than half of Texans ages 12-15 are fully vaccinated.

Texas’ child vaccination rate is higher than in many other Southern states, where rates as low as 10% are being recorded. In the first two weeks after the shot was approved for emergency use in the younger age group, some 100,000 children showed up to Texas school clinics, pharmacies and pediatricians’ offices to get inoculated.

[…]

At Texas Children’s Hospital in Houston, positive cases among patients went from zero in early December to some 70 patients with COVID-19 a month later, mostly among unvaccinated children, said Dr. Jim Versalovic, pathologist-in-chief for the hospital. Their hospitalizations of children with COVID-19 broke all previous pandemic records, and at breakneck speed, he said. Just weeks after omicron was first detected in Texas, it was causing more than 90% of new cases showing up at his hospital — less than a month after the vaccine was approved for young kids.

“We have staggering numbers here during this omicron surge,” Versalovic said in a news conference in early January.

That same day, the state broke its own record of children hospitalized with COVID-19, reporting 350 — five more than the previous peak a few months before.

On Friday, the state health department released data on 3.8 million confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Texas in the first two years of the pandemic. Almost 19% of them — 722,393 — were diagnosed in residents under age 20. The demographics do not include cases reported in 2022.

During the first week of January, the Texas Department of State Health Services and the Texas Education Agency reported that about 26,500 students and 11,800 staff members had been infected with COVID, according to data released Friday.

While the numbers of student cases are nearing levels not seen since the start of school last fall, there are more cases of COVID-19 among staffers than at any other time in the pandemic. The numbers are likely to increase as more districts report their numbers to the state. The current numbers include only about half of all of the state’s 1,200 districts, and the number of districts reporting any numbers is inconsistent from week to week.

Meanwhile, on Wednesday, the state reported 471 children in Texas hospitals with COVID-19. Most of them are unvaccinated, hospital officials have said. But there is no state data detailing how many COVID-19 child patients are in Texas pediatric intensive care units.

Yes, I’ve said this before. The numbers have climbed a bit since then, but there’s so much farther to go. As was the case with previous iterations of the vaccine, there was a large initial burst of activity, as the folks who had been eagerly awaiting the day that it became available for that group rushed out to get it, then it leveled off. The difference is that this time that initial burst was much smaller. Gotta say, I have no idea why. Get your kids vaccinated. What are you waiting for?

You (probably) still have to get vaxxed if you work in Houston

I’m glad to see this, but there’s a huge question that this story doesn’t address, much less answer.

Local companies say they will maintain their vaccination policies despite last week’s Supreme Court ruling that struck down the Biden administration’s vaccination mandate for firms with more than 100 employees.

The Houston software company Hewlett Packard Enterprises, for example, said vaccinations are still required for employees to enter offices, work at clients’ sites, travel for business, or required for team members to enter work sites, work at third-party sites, and to travel or attend events on business. Those who decline to be vaccinated are required to work from home.

More than 90 percent of the company’s workforce is vaccinated, a company spokesperson said. The company has not yet decided whether to require booster shots.

[…]

The Houston chemical company LyondellBasell and CenterPoint, the Houston utility company, have not adopted vaccine mandates. They said they have COVID protocols in place and will continue to monitor them.

Corporate vaccine requirement increased the rate of vaccination among employees by 20 percent, according to a recent survey by the National Safety Council. The survey found 95 percent of workers at businesses with vaccine mandates were inoculated, compared to 75 percent among those at businesses without requirements.

At BakerRipley, employees are required to get vaccinated or tested weekly, the Houston charity said. Nearly 90 percent of its 1,200 employees are fully vaccinated.

Camden Property Trust, a national real estate company headquartered in Houston, put in vaccine requirements over the summer before Biden announced the mandate. Of its 746 Texas employees, 718, or about 96 percent, are vaccinated, said Ric Campo, CEO of Camden Property Trust said.

“We just had this discussion about safety and it’s about keeping teammates safe. We’ve done all the analysis and that’s what we think,” Campo said, “And once people had a rational discussion, and it wasn’t political, and it wasn’t ‘You do this or else’ people chose to vaccinate.”

The few who aren’t vaccinated must wear masks at work, Campo said.

Whether to require vaccinations is now in the hands of companies, said Seth J. Chandler, a professor at the University of Houston Law Center. It’s unlikely that Congress would pass new laws to give OSHA the authority that the Supreme Court says it now lacks to impose workplace vaccination requirements.

The story is about the effect of the SCOTUS ruling that blocked the Biden employer vaccination mandate. I’m happy that employers are mostly moving forward with whatever vaccine policies they already had in the works, but I have to ask: What about the state ban on such mandates? The original story line was that employers would be caught between conflicting orders, but that’s no longer the case. The thought that these employers are ignoring Abbott or have found a way around him is delightful, but how is it possible? What are their legal risks here? Is there a lawsuit against the Abbott’s order?

So I did some googling. While Harris County Attorney Christian Menefee urged businesses to sue Abbott over this order, as far as I can tell none have done so yet. Maybe they were waiting to see what happened with the federal mandate first. On the question of what Abbott’s order actually means, I found some interesting writing. For example:

The Order provides enforcement via fines. Specifically, non-compliant entities may be fined up to $1,000 per offense, while jail time is specifically excluded as a penalty. The Order’s language makes no exception for health-care providers such as hospitals and other related entities.

The Order also contemplates its own sunset upon the passage of overlapping legislation. Specifically, in the Order, Governor Abbot states that he is “adding this issue to the agenda” for an upcoming session of the Texas legislature, and that he “will rescind this [Order] upon the effective date of such legislation[.]”

Notably, the Order contradicts both the Governor’s own statements on the rights of private businesses within the state, and legal consensus regarding the ability of employers to mandate vaccinations in most cases. For example, in August, Governor Abbot issued an executive order banning public and governmental entities from enacting vaccine mandates, but explicitly left private entities to make their own decisions regarding the matter. At that time, a spokesman for the Governor’s office also commented that private businesses would be left to make their own decisions regarding the matter. The Order essentially closes that loophole.

The Order also contravenes existing legal precedent within the state regarding employer vaccine mandates. For example, in June 2021, the Federal District Court for the Southern District of Texas dismissed a lawsuit by 117 employees of Houston Methodist Hospital; who claimed Methodist’s policy requiring employees to be vaccinated against COVID-19 amounted to wrongful termination under the law, because the vaccine(s) are “experimental and dangerous.” Bridges v. Houston Methodist Hosp., CV H-21-1774, 2021 WL 2399994, at *1 (S.D. Tex. June 12, 2021). In no uncertain terms, the Order squarely contradicts the holding in Bridges.

[…]

The immediate impact of the Order on businesses who implemented vaccine mandates is unclear—especially in light of conflicting Federal mandates. For example, Texas-based Southwest Airlines and American Airlines have stated publicly that—regardless of the Order—they will continue to implement plans requiring employees be vaccinated, citing federal mandates for contractors and the forthcoming OSHA rule for private business with 100 or more employees. While nothing is certain, it is somewhat likely that OSHA rules and regulations would preempt the Order. But Texas businesses with fewer than 100 employees would still be subject to the Order, or future, related State legislation.

Regardless, in light of the Order’s language, any Texas business entity that previously required employees or customers be vaccinated should seek counsel and reexamine its accompanying policies or risk non-compliance with the Order. At a minimum, Texas businesses should—for now—consider adding exemption language to vaccine policies that mimic the Order’s “personal conscience” and “prior recovery from COVID-19” carve outs.

The fact that the order only calls for what appears to be a modest fine (though that may depend on how an “offense” is counted; if it’s per employee, that would quickly add up) and conflicts with an existing federal court ruling may be the reason for the lack of action on it. Here’s more:

Additional questions loom, such as whether the governor’s Order exceeds his authority – his prior Executive Orders regarding vaccinations and so-called vaccine passports governed only public employers and private companies who were receiving state funds. Additional uncertainties include likely legal challenges to the Order; possible conflicts with federal law; and how and to what extent EO-40 will be enforced. It is also unclear to what extent, if any, the State will actually enforce EO-40, which provides for fines of up to $1,000 per violation.

Companies with employees in Texas who have already begun requiring vaccinations can take a relatively low risk approach to dealing with the governor’s Order by modifying their policies to provide accommodations to employees who object to being vaccinated on the basis of “personal conscience” (which is not defined in EO-40) and for “prior recovery from COVID-19.” These practices can be modified as new federal rules are issued and/or legal challenges play out. Other options for responding the Order are discussed in more detail below.

[…]

EO-40 departs from the governor’s prior orders in other ways. The Vaccine Passport Ban prohibits state agencies from adopting policies or requiring proof of vaccination as a condition of receiving services. In a notable contrast, EO-40 does not expressly forbid proof of vaccination as a condition of employment. Instead, it specifically forbids an entity from “compelling receipt of a COVID-19 vaccine.” By aiming squarely on the act of receiving a vaccination as opposed to policies requiring proof of vaccination, the Order gives rise to more ambiguity. In other words, employers may argue that they are not “compelling receipt” of a vaccine so long as that they do not intend to strap an employee down to a chair and force a vaccine needle into a worker’s arm, which they do not. Instead, that worker always has a choice: they can refuse to get vaccinated, but the consequence is that they will lose their job. Thus, another question is whether employer policies requiring vaccination as a condition of employment would be considered coercive enough to be deemed a violation of EO-40’s bar on compelling receipt of a COVID-19 vaccination.

In a larger context, considering the Texas’ at-will employment environment and the narrow availability of a “wrongful termination” cause of action in Texas, it is not clear that an employer “compels” an individual to be vaccinated by making it a condition of employment.

That last bit was a key component of that Methodist vaccine lawsuit. My interpretation of all this – and you lawyers out there, feel free to tell me why I’m wrong – is that businesses that want to get their employees vaccinated see a way forward, and so far the state hasn’t tried to make an example out of anyone. Abbott’s order was primarily about politics and his need to appear maximally troglodytic for the primary. If he scares a few businesses into abandoning any pro-vaccination plans, so much the better, but the point was to make the order. Optics come first, and on that score Abbott got what he wanted. The details don’t matter. Very much on brand for him, in other words.

The cities and the freeze

Well, at least some government entities are trying to learn from the February disaster, even if they’re having a rough go of it.

Ten months after the freeze, Texas cities have made some headway on storm preparedness, an oft-neglected area of local government. They have bolstered reserves of bottled water for residents in case of water outages, bought tire chains for city emergency vehicles, and implemented measures intended to shorten potential power outages for residents and keep electricity flowing to critical facilities.

But as winter approaches and the electrical grid remains vulnerable to blackouts, cities are still short on two key fronts: making sure their most vulnerable residents have the information they need to survive a similar calamity and that the water stays on. Many preparations cities are undertaking to protect residents against future disasters will take months, if not years, to put in place, city officials have said.

And worries abound that officials didn’t learn the lesson and will neglect to adopt new readiness measures — as they have after past disasters.

Austin officials failed to make emergency preparations before February that may have helped during the winter storm, despite past recommendations to do so, according to a recent report conducted by city auditors. Austin has adopted only a sliver of the recommendations made in the wake of other recent calamities, the report says.

“It’s extremely frustrating, and we need systems in place that don’t let that happen again,” Austin City Council member Alison Alter said during a meeting on the report’s findings last month.

Emergency officials say part of the reason those calls haven’t been entirely heeded is that large-scale disasters are becoming increasingly common as climate change worsens, making it more difficult to learn from the last one before the next one hits. On top of that, responding to the COVID-19 pandemic has stretched emergency responders thin.

“There hasn’t been enough time in between them to look at all those corrective actions,” Juan Ortiz, who heads Austin’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Management, told a council committee in November. “That really has caused the congestion in work that needed to be done.”

[…]

In San Antonio, city and utility officials are scheduled to deliver a joint emergency communications plan at the end of the month. An important question they are expected to address is how to communicate ahead of and during a storm with residents who don’t have internet access to begin with — like many residents on the city’s South Side.

Those residents can’t be left out in the cold, said council member Adriana Rocha Garcia.

“A preparation checklist should be on a door hanger for every vulnerable community to be able to just literally go out and get it from their doors so that they know exactly what to do, exactly who to call in case of an emergency during a winter storm,” Rocha Garcia said.

Now do the story about what Greg Abbott has learned from the experience and what he’s doing about it. Oh, wait…

We are so screwed if there’s a real cold front

[bangs head on desk].

During Texas’ first strong cold front of the winter this past weekend, natural gas production in the state’s top energy-producing region dropped by about 25%, according to a report from S&P Global. And while the lights largely stayed on across the state, the gas system’s performance during a brief cold snap raised more questions about the grid’s ability to handle extreme winter weather.

A separate Bloomberg report said gas production in the Permian Basin region of West Texas plunged to its lowest levels since last February’s deadly winter storm.

A number of natural gas companies reported to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality that they had to unexpectedly flare off gas last weekend because their equipment froze.

Meanwhile, the Railroad Commission, which regulates the oil and gas industry, said it didn’t know anything about the sudden drop in gas production. An agency spokesperson said the commission is “currently evaluating available data on natural gas production during the weekend of Jan. 1 and 2.”

Natural gas fuels a majority of power generation in Texas, and some power generators reported disruptions to their gas supply — but they said it was not enough to impact generators’ ability to produce electricity. Gov. Greg Abbott said the state’s main power grid operator was prepared with extra power supply online.

The Electric Reliability Council of Texas, the grid operator, said there were no significant power outages around the state.

But the disruptions to the natural gas supply during a typical Texas cold front calls into question whether the state’s gas companies are ready for extreme winter weather, a concern energy experts and power company executives have expressed in recent months after lawmakers didn’t require gas companies to immediately prepare their equipment for extreme cold.

“I think it means the gas system’s not ready for another cold snap,” said Michael Webber, an energy resources professor at the University of Texas at Austin. “It wasn’t even really cold. It was cold, but nothing close to Winter Storm Uri [in February].”

Who are you gonna believe, Greg Abbott or your lying eyes? At this point, all I can say is it would be best to prepare for winter like you prepare for hurricane season. Assume a disaster is coming, and act accordingly. Abbott doesn’t care if you live or die, so it’s everyone for themselves. Godspeed and good luck.

Feds halt Harvey relief funds over GLO error

The continuing saga.

The Department of Housing and Urban Development on Friday halted the distribution of $1.95 billion in aid awarded to Texas after Hurricane Harvey because it said the state has failed to send the federal agency required paperwork detailing its plans to spend it.

The delay is the latest in a series of hold-ups; almost four years after Congress approved $4.3 billion in HUD aid for Texas, about half of it remains unallocated.

HUD said in a statement its formal action gives the Texas General Land Office 45 days to submit the missing document, which the agency said is an analysis explaining how the state’s proposed list of disaster mitigation projects helps the most vulnerable residents.

“We look forward to receiving and reviewing Texas’s submission of the additional information needed for approval,” the HUD statement said. “We are hopeful that Texas will take the steps needed to begin much-needed, forward-looking mitigation projects in the state.”

The decision prevents Texas from distributing $1.2 billion in flood mitigation grants to local governments it had selected through a funding competition, as well as $750 million to Harris County, which was awarded nothing from that contest.

HUD in 2020 signed off on the GLO’s plan for the funding competition, which selected 81 projects, and said it welcomed the subsequent proposal for Harris County. The agency on Friday, however, said moving forward with those plans depends on whether GLO provides the missing report.

[…]

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo said she looked forward to GLO completing the paperwork. She said county staff are prepared to answer any questions from HUD about how its planned projects will help vulnerable residents. Hidalgo still is hoping for additional aid.

“This $750 million is a start, but more is needed since Harris County and the city of Houston took over 50 percent of the damage from Hurricane Harvey, and because millions of residents remain vulnerable to natural disasters,” Hidalgo said.

Mayor Sylvester Turner raised the same point about the unequal distribution of aid. He said he was pleased with HUD’s action Friday, and awaits the response from the Land Office.

We’ve been down this road before. The reason this is a problem for the GLO, and why they reacted so bitterly to HUD’s letter, is that they don’t have a good explanation for why they did the funding formula that they did. It was designed to screw the big Democratic cities and counties in favor of the rural Republican counties. That’s not the explanation HUD is looking for, so here we are. Tune in later in February to see how they try to wriggle out of it.

The hospitals are getting slammed again

Take precautions, y’all.

Pandemic forecasters in Texas say the state’s current surge of omicron infections and hospitalizations is likely to get much worse before it gets better, with hospitalizations expected to continue climbing for at least three weeks if social behaviors don’t change and slow the trend.

Across the nation, hospitalizations are already on the verge of breaking new pandemic records. In Texas on Thursday, according to state data, about 9,200 people were hospitalized with COVID-19 — far short of the record 14,218 hospitalizations from Jan. 11, 2021.

But with current numbers climbing exponentially each week, hospitalizations of Texans with COVID are likely to follow national trends and surpass previous levels in the state before they start to decline, said Anass Bouchnita, a researcher at the University of Texas COVID-19 Modeling Consortium, which uses data and research to project the path of the pandemic nationally.

The number of Texans testing positive for the virus every day is already at an all-time high, reaching a seven-day average of almost 44,000 confirmed cases on Friday. The seven-day average of new confirmed cases during the peak of the delta surge back in September was over 15,000.

That trend is likely to continue for at least another week, Bouchnita said.

“The situation in Texas is that it probably won’t reach the peak [for cases] until the second half of January,” he said.

Experts say the extremely high case count is why so many people are showing up in the hospital even as medical evidence suggests that the omicron variant — responsible for most new and active cases in Texas — is less severe than the previously dominant delta variant.

Bouchnita talked to The Texas Tribune on Friday, the same day the UT consortium released a report with the research team’s latest calculations about omicron’s projected path nationally. The report, which looked at eight scenarios in which omicron had varying degrees of severity, infectiousness and resistance to immunity, suggests the nation could see its new cases of this more contagious but less severe strain peak by mid-January before decreasing by half in early February.

The report called the current surge the largest COVID-19 wave in the United States to date.

[…]

Intensive care units at more than 50 hospitals are at 100% capacity, according to state reports, and some regions of the state, including El Paso, are reporting no ICU beds available in the area.

Already, the state’s children’s hospitals have more patients with COVID-19 in their beds than at any other time in the pandemic — 351 statewide on Thursday, which is higher than the last peak during the delta variant surge of 345 in early September.

“It’s pretty crazy,” said Frisco pediatrician Dr. Seth Kaplan, immediate past president of the Texas Pediatrics Society. “Our volume is way up.”

It’s mostly omicron now, very little delta in Texas, though there’s still a fair amount of delta in other parts of the US. It is true that omicron is less severe than delta, but it’s also true that it’s far more transmissible, and it’s affecting far more vaccinated people. Even with less severity, the sheer number of people being infected is driving the higher number of hospitalizations.

And while more vaccinated people are being infected by COVID, there’s still a big difference in outcomes between the vaxxed and the unvaxxed.

Omicron is sending a larger share of vaccinated people to the hospital that any previous COVID-19 variant, but unvaccinated people are still more likely to need critical care, according to Houston-area hospital officials.

Twenty-two of the 27 COVID patients in Harris Health System’s intensive care units are unvaccinated. At Houston Methodist, roughly 60 percent of the 80 COVID patients in the ICU are unvaccinated, and a high percentage of the remaining patients have underlying health conditions, said Dr. Faisal Masud, the hospital’s medical director of critical care.

It’s a similar story at St. Luke’s Health and Memorial Hermann Health System, both of which say 70 percent of ICU patients are unvaccinated.

“The vast majority of the people who are critically ill are either unvaccinated or have significant comorbidities,” said Dr. James McCarthy, chief physician executive at Memorial Hermann. “We are not seeing middle-aged, healthy, vaccinated individuals in the ICU like we did in the previous wave.”

[…]

Statewide, the number of patients in the ICU has been steadily rising since Christmas Eve, from 1,030 to 1,711 on Wednesday, according to the Texas Department of State Health Services. That’s about half of the patients in the ICU at the peak of the delta wave, but some Houston hospitals are already seeing ICU rates double over the last week.

The number of incoming ICU patients could exceed all previous peaks, said Dr. Esmaeil Porsa, president and CEO of Harris Health System. While the vaccines may not be as effective as they were initially, the current ICU population indicates that “they are still extremely effective against severe disease,” he said.

“More and more breakthrough infections are going to happen,” Porsa said. “We’re going to get a higher percentage of people who are vaccinated, but that number is never going to be a big number. It’s always going to be minority of people.”

Overall, doctors say omicron is not damaging the lungs as much as earlier strains. Fewer COVID patients in the Harris Health ICU require mechanical ventilation compared to delta, said Porsa, but other health issues like kidney and heart failure are becoming more common.

At Methodist, Masud has observed a similar pattern. A large portion of ICU patients Masud has treated ended up in the unit because the virus exacerbated an existing disease. The risk of facing such complications is higher for unvaccinated people, he said.

“This is eliciting an immune response, which is not only limited to lungs but which makes the patients sicker, with existing disease becoming much worse,” he said.

Masud said that now is a critical time to wear a well-fitted mask in public, especially for people who are not vaccinated.

It’s the same as before, in that the things you can do to mitigate your risk haven’t changed. Get vaxxed, and get your booster. Wear an N95 or KN95 mask when out with people. Avoid large indoor events and gatherings. Stay home if you’re not feeling well. This will pass, but how bad it gets before it passes is still up in the air. For more on the national picture, see TPM, Mother Jones, and Daily Kos.

The final official death toll from the big freeze

It’s undoubtedly an underestimate.

Texas has added 36 more deaths to the official death toll from the February snow and ice storm, bringing the total to 246 in what was one of the worst natural disasters in the state’s history.

The Department of State Health Services disclosed the new total in a report on the storm that was released Friday and described as the “final report” in an analysis by the department’s Disaster Mortality Surveillance Unit. The deaths occurred between Feb. 11 and June 4. The figure includes people who were injured in the storm but did not die until later, and also people whose bodies were found after the storm, including during repairs of damaged homes.

The 246 deaths spanned 77 counties and included victims ranging from less than 1 year old to 102 years old, according to the report. Close to two-thirds of the deaths were due to hypothermia. Of the deaths, the report classified 148 as “direct,” 92 as “indirect” and six as “possible,” using criteria developed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

DSHS previously pegged the death toll at 210 in July. The agency said in the report that it identifies deaths through “mortality surveillance forms, death certificates, and verification of informally reported deaths.”

[…]

In addition to hypothermia, DSHS attributed the storm-related deaths to “exacerbation of pre-existing illness” (10%), motor vehicle accidents (9%), carbon monoxide poisoning (8%), fires (4%) and falls (4%). The Texas Tribune and NBC News reported in December that portable generators, which can cause carbon monoxide poisoning, are some of the deadliest consumer products.

There are other ways to approach this question. Last spring Buzzfeed used “excess mortality” – a comparison to the actual number of deaths at that time to the historic baseline – and estimated that as many as a thousand people may have died as a result of the freeze. That comes with large error bars, but even the low end of that range is almost twice as much as the official DSHS tally. However you look at it, it was a lot, and it was totally unnecessary. And it remains a big risk going forward because Greg Abbott and the Legislature and the Railroad Commission did basically nothing to mitigate it. That’s the real headline here.

Hey, if libraries are fair game…

Why stop at school libraries?

When the Llano County Library shuts down for three days this week, starting Tuesday, it won’t be for the holidays.

Instead, a group of six librarians in this small Central Texas county will be conducting a “thorough review” of every children’s book in the library, at the behest of the Llano County Commissioners Court. Their mission will be to make sure all of the reading material for younger readers includes subjects that are age-appropriate. A new “young adults plus” section will be added to separate books written for an older teen audience from those geared toward younger readers.

The three-day closure of the library system in Llano County, about 80 miles northwest of Austin, also means a temporary shutdown of its virtual portal through the online book provider Overdrive.

“I think we owe it to all parents, regardless if it’s a school library or a public library, to make sure that material is not inappropriate for children,” Llano County Judge Ron Cunningham said.

The Llano County community’s push to scrutinize the local library’s book stacks comes two months after a Texas lawmaker first questioned the inclusion of more than 850 books about race, equality or sexuality in public school libraries.

And Llano County is not the only community in Texas asking harder questions.

Local public libraries in Texas, including those in Victoria, Irving and Tyler, are fielding a flurry of book challenges from local residents. While book challenges are nothing new, there has been a growing number of complaints about books for libraries in recent months. And the fact that the numbers are rising after questions are being raised about school library content seems more than coincidental, according to the Texas Library Association.

“I think it definitely ramped it up,” said Wendy Woodland, the TLA’s director of advocacy and communication, of the late October investigation into school library reading materials launched by state Rep. Matt Krause in his role as chair of the House Committee on General Investigating.

[…]

“A library may get one or two [book challenges] in two years, or some librarians have never had challenges,” Woodland said. “So this is very rare and very unusual and different from the way challenges have been brought forth in the past.”

See here, here, and here for the background. The “review” of school library books will surely be the template for the “review” of public library books. But don’t worry, I’m sure everyone involved is passionately opposed to cancel culture.

Simply having a COVIDful Christmastime

Sorry not sorry.

Houston has surpassed 300,000 COVID-19 cases, just days after the highly contagious omicron variant leapfrogged delta to become the dominant viral strain circulating in the region and around the United States.

The staggering milestone reached Thursday, when the Houston Health Department reported 2,397 new cases for a cumulative total of 302,460, underscores the virus’s ability to evade all attempts at containment nearly two years into a global pandemic few predicted would be this persistent or deadly.

“Twenty-one months ago I never imagined our cases would get anywhere close to this big,” Houston’s Chief Medical Officer Dr. David Persse said. “If you had told me 300,000 I would have politely told you, ‘I think you’re crazy.”

Yet the easily transmitted omicron variant, first detected last month in South Africa, appears poised to sweep the Houston area and is already fueling outbreaks and scuttling holiday plans across the region.

The milestone is almost certainly an undercount, Persse said. Prevalence studies have found between 20 and 25 percent of Houston residents carry the antibodies that indicated a previous COVID infection. Accounting for those who contracted the virus but were never tested could put the city’s true COVID case count closer to half a million people.

“It’s a lot of suffering,” Persse said.

Extrapolating out to Harris County, that’s something like 1.2 million people who have had COVID, maybe a bit more. Obviously, for a lot of those people the consequences have been fairly small so far, but who knows what the longer term effect may be. And of course, we’re in the early stages of the omicron surge. So check back again later to see where these numbers go.

This says a lot, too.

As the omicron variant of COVID-19 threatens to fuel another surge of infections this winter, the state’s vaccination data shows demand for booster shots has outpaced the demand for first doses of the vaccine in the last few months — even as millions of Texans remain unvaccinated.

The average number of people getting boosters in Texas every day has surpassed those getting their first shots since late September, according to the state’s data. As of Dec. 21, the daily average of Texans who received their booster shots over the last week was about 52,000 — compared with the approximately 20,000 who received their first doses.

So far this month, at least 1.2 million Texans have gotten booster shots — nearly triple the number of people who received their first doses of the vaccine during the same time.

Meanwhile, the number of people getting their first shot of the vaccine over the last few months has remained far below people getting boosters, though the rate of first shots slightly increased in November and December.

[…]

Booster rates have gone up as the Food and Drug Administration has gradually authorized their use among different age groups. Adults 18 and older are allowed to get booster shots, and this month, the FDA authorized emergency use for 16- and 17-year-olds who had the Pfizer vaccine as their initial two-dose treatment, making them eligible to receive the same vaccine as a booster.

Meanwhile, the amount of people getting their first vaccine doses has waned in the last few months as vaccines have become more widely available and more people take the next steps in their vaccination regime. The state’s data shows a slight bump in first doses in November as Thanksgiving approached.

Even so, 10 million Texans remain unvaccinated.

And while there isn’t one specific reason why first-dose rates lag behind booster shots, Dr. Emily Briggs, who specializes in family medicine and has seen the split in the demand for the vaccine from a private practice in New Braunfels, largely credits ideology.

“We are at that point of anybody who believes in science acknowledges that we have had benefit from this vaccine. Those who are politically motivated or have been given fear and are focused on that fear are not vaccinated,” she said.

The people who have taken this pandemic seriously and have done what they can to minimize their risk and protect their communities are continuing to do so. The people who have not done so are still not doing so. Same as it ever was.

Same as it ever was.

As other states are mobilizing to respond to the rapidly spreading omicron variant, Gov. Greg Abbott is not budging on his hands-off approach to the coronavirus pandemic that was cemented months ago.

In March, Abbott ended the statewide mask mandate, marking the beginning of a sharp shift toward preaching “personal responsibility” and an outright rejection of any government mandate — whether state or local — to curb the pandemic. That philosophy carried the state through the delta variant this fall, even as hospitals were overrun and deaths climbed. Now as the state stares down the latest variant, Abbott remains unmoved, continuing to rule out any mask or vaccine mandates and business shutdowns.

“We’re moving forward with life as we know it,” Abbott said Tuesday in a radio interview when asked about omicron.

[…]

Asked Tuesday what the state is doing to address omicron, Abbott’s spokesperson Renae Eze said in a statement that the governor recently got a briefing on the state response to the variant by John Hellerstedt, the commissioner of the Department of State Health Services, and Nim Kidd, chief of the Texas Division of Emergency Management. Eze otherwise gave no indication the state was doing anything differently, saying it was continuing to respond to the pandemic by “setting up therapeutic infusion centers, ramping up COVID vaccination efforts, and providing surge staffing and medical equipment to hospitals and nursing homes.”

Eze ended by calling vaccination the “best defense” against COVID-19 and encouraging Texans to get immunized.

Even as Abbott’s office says it’s prioritizing vaccines as the best defense against COVID-19, the state’s vaccination rate lags nationally. As of Monday, 56% of Texans were fully vaccinated, placing Texas in the back half of the 50 states when ranked by vaccination rates.

Abbott got vaccinated on camera late last year and has encouraged Texans to get the shot. But he does not go out of his way to promote vaccinations and he has expended much more energy in recent months fighting vaccine requirements by local and federal officials.

Abbott has been virtually silent on the booster, which the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said last month every qualifying adult should receive. The word “booster” has never appeared on Abbott’s personal Twitter account, and a spokesperson did not respond when asked whether the governor has received a booster.

I’m sure he has been boosted. Abbott is not an idiot. He’s a coward, but he’s not going to risk his own health and well-being. Same as it ever was.

Our year in COVID

It was bad. How it is next year is at least partially up to us.

Speaks for itself (Source: DSHS)

Texas recorded a 35 percent increase in COVID-19 deaths in 2021, compared to the first year of the pandemic, even though vaccines have been available for all adults since March.

The climbing toll, public health experts said, is almost entirely driven by people who are unvaccinated. From mid-January through October, just 8 percent of Texas virus deaths were among inoculated residents.

Memorial Hermann Chief Physician Dr. James McCarthy said it makes sense there would be more virus deaths in 2021, the first full year of the pandemic, though the highly transmissible delta variant coupled with a low vaccination rate and the decline of safe practices made fatalities worse than they otherwise would have been. And as the ultra-contagious omicron variant spreads rapidly in Houston, the pattern could continue.

“The real reason it’s worse this year is we stopped all the mask-wearing protection activities we had with a large portion of the population still unvaccinated and vulnerable to infection, hospitalization and death,” McCarthy said.

Texas this year had recorded 42,100 virus deaths through Dec. 13, according to data from the state health department, compared to 31,309 in 2020. The pandemic was declared in March 2020.

The share of fully vaccinated Texans is 56 percent, the 29th-highest rate in the country. Its large population means Texas has more unvaccinated residents — 12.8 million — than any state except California.

Four of the six deadliest months of the pandemic in Texas were in 2021. The most populous cities and counties have had the most virus deaths.

[…]

At this pace, Texas would not reach 70 percent until late May of 2022, the Centers For Disease Control and Prevention projects.

Harris County is outperforming the state average vaccine rate. Through Dec. 16, 59 percent of county residents were fully inoculated.

In other words, there’s still a lot of room for the next surge to rip through and infect, hospitalize, and kill unvaccinated people. Vaccinated people will also get sick, but they will be far less likely to get sick enough to be in danger.

We’re not going to get any help from the state government. The federal government is making more tests available and has ordered vaccine mandates, which really will do a lot to improve things, but of course our state leaders are fighting them as if they had stock in COVID itself. I don’t have anything original to say, but do go read the Department of State Health Services report that provided a lot of these numbers. And do what you need to do to protect yourself and your family.

Climate change and freezing weather

A little science for you.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The high pastoral life

Sweeeeeeeeeeeeet.

This fall, county officials mailed out property tax bills to the owners of a 10-bedroom, 10.5-bath Houston-area mansion, an 8,000-square-foot residence in a historic San Antonio neighborhood, an elegant Highland Park estate in Dallas and a house on more than an acre overlooking Corpus Christi Bay. The homes are worth millions of dollars. In each case, their 2021 tax bill was identical:

Zero.

Most people know that religious organizations pay no property taxes on their houses of worship. Lesser known is that many also get a valuable break on residences for their clergy as well.

The word “parsonage,” as these residences are called, conjures images of humble, spartan rooms attached to drafty churches. A few still are.

Yet in many places across Texas, parsonages are extravagant estates nestled in the state’s most exclusive enclaves. Like their wealthy neighbors, the clergy occupants enjoy spacious and well-appointed homes, immaculate grounds, tennis courts, swimming pools, decorative fountains and serene grottos.

Unlike their neighbors, the parsonage owners pay nothing in taxes, leaving other Texans to backfill the uncollected revenue to cover the cost of schools, police and firefighters.

State law allows religious organizations to claim tax-free clergy residences of up to 1 acre. Yet each of the state’s counties has its own appraiser responsible for overseeing local properties. So no one entity has examined how many parsonages there are in Texas, their value and their legality.

A first-of-its-kind Houston Chronicle investigation analyzing thousands of pages of property records found:

• The state’s most populous counties identified 2,683 parsonages worth about $1 billion, costing other residents who must fund school districts and local governments $16 million every year. The true cost is almost certainly higher because several large counties did not or could not respond, and even those that did conceded they did not regularly update values for the tax-exempt properties.

• There is no dollar limit to a parsonage’s tax exemption. At least 28 of the clergy residences were worth more than $1 million.

• Compared to some other states, Texas’ parsonage law is vague and permissive, allowing appraisers little leverage to question the legitimacy of a religion or clergy member. A lack of enforcement authority means the process effectively operates on the honor system.

• Across Texas’ largest counties, the Chronicle identified more than 30 parsonages for which appraisers had granted the 100 percent tax break even though they exceed the law’s 1-acre limit. Presented with the Chronicle’s findings, 13 appraisal districts said they were initiating reviews of parsonages in their jurisdictions.

“If you’re trying to paint a picture of there’s a lot of abuse in the clergy exemption, it does a pretty good job with that,” Brent South, chief appraiser in Hunt County and former president of the Texas Association of Appraisal Districts, said of the newspaper’s investigation. “The numbers don’t lie.”

It’s like my momma always told me. You wanna really make some bank in this world, put some mousse in your hair, develop an drawl, and become a megachurch preacher. (*) Doesn’t get any better than this. The Chron has been running a series of stories about how completely stacked the property tax system is in this state – you can read it here if you want to get your heart rate up. There’s stuff we’ve discussed here before, and there’s stuff like this which I had no idea about. Check it out.

(*) My fingers originally typed that as “magachurch preacher”. Clearly, my subconscious needs a break.

ERCOT and PUC swear there will be no blackouts this winter

Do you believe them?

The Public Utility Commission and the Electric Reliability Council of Texas on Wednesday pledged that the “lights will stay on” this winter as it inspects power generators and enforces other requirements to avoid a deadly power outage that crippled Texas during a February storm.

Peter Lake, chairman of the PUC, which regulates utilities in the state, said at a press conference that his agency and ERCOT, the state’s grid manager, have moved at “lightning speed” to change the requirements for power producers and natural gas supplies to operate during winter months. The PUC oversees ERCOT.

“Our grid is safer and stronger than ever,” he said. “Because of all these efforts, the lights will stay on. No other grid has made so many changes in such a short amount of time as we have.”

The promise to keep power flowing comes about 10 months after massive outages caused by a winter storm that plunged millions of Texans into freezing darkness, leading to the deaths of hundreds. All commissioners who served the PUC resigned or were fired, as was the CEO of ERCOT. State legislators and new commissioners on the PUC have passed laws and rules requiring power generators and affiliated companies to better prepare for frigid weather.

Among the changes are new penalties and requirements, and a reduction in the maximum price for one megawatt hour of power to $5,000 from $9,000 beginning Jan. 1. Alison Silverstein, an Austin-based energy consultant who worked for the PUC from 1995 to 2001 and with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission from 2001 to 2004, said the previous pricing scheme allowed generators to make the bulk of their money during tight grid conditions.

“This is intended to redistribute revenues so instead of making all your money only during extreme scarcity events, you’re getting more money from a flatter curve,” she said. ” You’re still getting $5,000 per megawatt hour in a tight time, which is still a whole lot of cash, but more of your revenue will come from normal days.”

[…]

Silverstein said that the violation reports and other rules changes are a good start, but that more needs to be done. The PUC, she said, should commission an analysis of the current condition of the grid, determine what needs to be done to improve reliability and estimate the cost to consumers, she said. Power generators, she said, should be able to show they can restart the entire grid in the event it collapses. And, she said, the PUC should address Texas’ nation-leading energy demand instead of solely focusing on adding new generation.

“I think they are right to say they have made a meaningful dent in preventing some of the problems that Winter Storm Uri revealed,” Silverstein said. “But that doesn’t mean the job is done yet.”

It is plausible to me that some beneficial changes have been made. Whether any of that makes a material difference or not, who knows. If we do make it through the winter with no problems, the odds are it’s due to a more normal winter and a bit of luck rather than anything transformative, but in the end it is the result that matters. For sure, whether by luck or by better oversight and regulation, Greg Abbott will win his bet and claim credit for it. The Texas Signal and the Trib, which reminds us that the Railroad Commission has not yet drafted any new weatherization rules for gas producers, have more.

Our cow poop future

It’s a resource we have a lot of, to be sure.

TotalEnergies plans to build its first biomethane plant in the Texas Panhandle to produce renewable transportation fuel from cow manure.

The French oil major on Tuesday said it has partnered with California-based Clean Energy Fuels Corp. to construct a biomethane plant on the Del Rio Dairy Farm in Friona, Texas, where it plans to produce more than 40 gigawatt hours of biomethane every year. The biomethane produced at the dairy farm will be distributed across the country through Clean Energy’s fueling station network, supplying renewable natural gas to as many as 300 trucks a year.

“We are pleased to consolidate our entry into the U.S. biomethane market by jointly developing this first production unit on the Del Rio Dairy farm, through our joint venture with Clean Energy,” said Laurent Wolffsheim, TotalEnergies’ senior vice president of green gases and growth. “This project marks another step in TotalEnergies’ transformation into a multi-energy company, and in the implementation of its ambition to be a major player in renewables.”

Oil and gas companies are increasingly investing in biogas and alternative fuel projects as they face mounting pressure from governments and investors to avoid the worst consequences of climate change. TotalEnergies said it expects its Texas biomethane project will divert 45,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions annually by substituting fossil fuels with renewable natural gas made from cow manure, a significant source of methane emissions.

You can supply your own Ted Cruz joke here. I don’t actually know how much of an improvement biogas is over other options, from a climate change perspective. I hope it’s worthwhile, if only for the long term humor potential. And that’s your important cow poop news update for the week.

We continue to register more voters

Seventeen million and counting.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

Texas has surpassed 17 million registered voters for the first time, continuing a pace that is reshaping the state’s electorate so rapidly that even the politicians cannot keep up.

Despite a series of new election regulations from the Republican-led Legislature and more purges of inactive voters from the rolls, the state has added nearly 2 million voters in the last four years and more than 3.5 million since eight years ago, when Gov. Greg Abbott won his first term.

The result is at least 1 of every 5 voters in Texas never cast a ballot in the Lone Star State prior to 2014 — a remarkable wild card in a state that had stable politics and a slow stream of new voters for a generation before that.

“You have a largely new electorate that is unfamiliar with the trends and the personalities in the area,” said Brandon Rottinghaus, a University of Houston political science professor. “That rapid turnover leads to a lot of uncertainty for candidates.”

Texas was just short of 17 million people eligible to vote in the constitutional amendment elections Nov. 2. Harris and Dallas counties combined to add nearly 12,000 more voters as Election Day approached, putting the state over the threshold.

It’s all setting up for a 2022 election cycle that is more competitive, more expensive and more uncertain than statewide candidates are used to seeing in Texas.

Just a reminder, these are the voter registration figures for Harris County since 2014:

2014 = 2,044,361
2016 = 2,182,980
2018 = 2,307,654
2020 = 2,431,457
2021 = 2,482,914

That’s 438K new voters in the county over those seven years. I’ve gone over these numbers before, but 2014 was the first two-year cycle in the 2000s that saw a real increase in the voter rolls. It makes a difference having a government in place that wants to increase voter participation. (And yes, as I have said multiple times before, I credit Mike Sullivan, in whose tenure these numbers started to increase, for his role in getting that started.)

But there’s a group that deserves a lot of credit, too.

Texas is unique in how it runs voter registration, barring non-Texas residents from volunteering to help people through the process. Even Texans can’t help fellow Texans register without first jumping through a series of hurdles or facing potential criminal charges.

Anyone in Texas who wants to help voters register must be trained and deputized by county election officials. But going through the one-hour course in Harris County allows volunteer registrars to sign up voters only in that county. To register voters in a neighboring county, they have to request to be deputized there as well and take that training course, too.

To be able to sign up any voter in the state, a volunteer registrar would need to be deputized in all 254 Texas counties — and those temporary certifications last only two years.

Consequently, voter registrations in Texas grew at a glacial pace before 2014. From 2000 to 2014, the state added just 1 million registered voters — about the number of voters Texas now adds every two years.

Those boots on the ground that [Michael] Adams, the Texas Southern University professor, mentioned began to arrive in 2014, when a group of campaign strategists from President Barack Obama’s re-election campaign launched an effort they called Battleground Texas to build an army of volunteer registrars.

“What we’re going to do is bring the fight to Texas and make it a battleground state so that anybody who wants to be our commander in chief, they have to fight for Texas,” the group’s co-founder, Jeremy Bird, said in a national interview with talk show host Stephen Colbert in 2013.

While pundits scoffed — especially after Abbott beat Democrat Wendy Davis by 20 percentage points in the 2014 gubernatorial election — Battleground Texas says it has identified and helped train 9,000 voter registrars across Texas to find eligible voters and sign them up.

It hasn’t gotten easier to register voters in Texas. There are just more people who are able to do it, and Battleground Texas deserves praise for that. Other groups have picked up the torch from there, and the results speak for themselves. We saw in the 2020 election that Republicans can register voters, too, so like all things this strategy needs to be refined and advanced by Democrats to continue making gains. Let’s keep moving forward.

The Ike Dike is still a work in progress

I’ll be honest, I thought we were further along than this.

Members of Texas’ congressional delegation are gearing up for a “marathon” effort to secure funding for a long-sought barrier to protect the Texas Gulf Coast from catastrophic storm surge.

That’s because it’s unlikely much, if any, of the resiliency funding in the $1 trillion infrastructure bill that President Joe Biden signed into law this month will go toward the $29 billion project.

The effort will begin in earnest next year, when Texans in both chambers will push to include federal authorization for the so-called “Ike Dike” in a massive water resources bill that Congress passes every two years. But members of the delegation are bracing for what will likely be a long, difficult push for as much as $18 billion in federal funding.

“This is going to develop over a number of years,” U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, a Republican, told Hearst Newspapers. “This is going to be a marathon.”

Cornyn said he doesn’t anticipate trouble getting the federal OK for the project in the 2022 Water Resources Development Act, a biennial, typically bipartisan bill that helps pay for flood mitigation infrastructure across the country.

But the water bill typically doesn’t pass Congress until fall or winter, and it isn’t expected to include funding for the coastal spine.

“That’s going to be a heavy lift because, unfortunately, it’s easier to get money after a natural disaster than it is to prevent one,” Cornyn said.

[…]

The U.S. Office of Management and Budget is preparing to present the project to Congress for authorization and appropriations, said Lynda Yezzi, a spokeswoman for the Army Corps.

Members of the Texas delegation earlier this year had hoped to get a jump on funding as they pushed to include a dedicated stream of money for coastal resiliency measures like the Ike Dike in the infrastructure bill.

“Now is the time to be innovative and strategic and to spend our resources preparing, in partnership with our local stakeholders and capable federal partners,” Texas members of Congress led by U.S. Rep. Lizzie Fletcher, a Houston Democrat, wrote to leaders of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee in May.

That didn’t happen. Instead the package included funding for $47 billion for a wide range of resiliency projects, including coastal projects, but also to help brace against flooding, droughts and wildfires and bolster cybersecurity.

The bill also included about $9.6 billion in funding for the Army Corps, which is overseeing the project. But the Army Corps has a deep backlog that currently includes more than $100 billion worth of work.

“This is why we need to continue to advocate for more opportunities,” Fletcher said in an interview with Hearst Newspapers.

Fletcher said the resiliency funding in the $1 trillion infrastructure package — some of which is targeted to states that have been affected by federally declared disasters, including Texas — is a “good start.” But she said the delegation needs to continue to push for a dedicated funding stream for coastal resiliency projects.

Looking at my last post, I see that we were just at the “presentation of the finalized plan” part of the process, and that getting funding was next. Which is where we are, and at least there appears to be a pathway from here. But we’re still years out from any reasonable expectation that construction will begin, and that’s an awful lot of risk to bear in the meantime. Sure hope our luck holds out.

COVID hospitalizations are (generally) down in (most of) Texas

For now. I think you always have to add “for now” to this sort of thing.

As Texans head into the holiday season, there is much to celebrate when it comes to addressing the pandemic. But health experts say the state is not out of the woods just yet.

First, the good news. The number of residents here hospitalized with COVID-19 is at one of its lowest points since the beginning of the pandemic, while average daily deaths from the virus are also dropping and vaccines are finally — after a year of parents anxiously waiting for approval — flowing into the arms of the state’s elementary age children.

After a miserable summer when the delta variant caused a surge that rivaled the worst moments of the coronavirus pandemic, state health officials and experts say they are grateful for signs of relief. But they’re wary of being too optimistic about a pandemic that has, more than once, had this state in a stranglehold.

“People are just kind of happy or relieved that the most recent surge is done with, but I don’t think anybody’s celebrating anything yet,” said Dr. James Castillo, public health authority in Cameron County. In that county, the share of hospital beds occupied by COVID-19 patients has dropped to 3% percent, down from over 25% during the summer surge.

Still, health officials are now watching a recent increase in the number of new confirmed COVID-19 cases and a small uptick in the rate of COVID-19 tests coming back positive as potential warning signs.

They’re also keeping an eye on a troubling new surge in the nation’s Western states that has hit El Paso, a region that was spared the deadly delta surge that rocked the rest of the state in August and September.

“We’re certainly in a better place right now than we have been in quite a while,” said Chris Van Deusen, spokesperson for the Texas Department of State Health Services. “But we are sort of starting to see things change again. And you know, if there’s one thing we know about this pandemic, it’s that it’s going to keep changing.”

[…]

Every day of good news, it seems, carries with it a note of caution.

At highest risk, officials say, are the millions of Texans who have not been vaccinated. During the month of September, at the height of the surge when about half of Texans had been fully vaccinated, unvaccinated people were 20 times more likely to die from the virus than those who had been vaccinated.

What that means, scientists say, is that a surge among the unvaccinated could still happen.

“Overall, our projections right now are fairly optimistic for the state of Texas,” said Spencer Fox, associate director of the University of Texas COVID-19 Modeling Consortium. “But when we look at the winter, we’re still fairly concerned about what might happen in the future. … Our models suggest that there’s still enough susceptibility in our population to see another pandemic surge if we remove all precautions. I think Thanksgiving will be a lead indicator of what’s to come.”

As one of the graphics in this story shows, only 54.3% of the state’s population is fully vaccinated. So yeah, there’s a huge reservoir of vulnerable targets for the virus. And all of this is before we consider the possibility of new variants reaching our shores. If you’re fully vaxxed, you’re as safe as you’re going to be, but the old standbys of wearing masks and avoiding crowded indoor spaces are still in vogue. Don’t let your guard down.

We’re still vulnerable to blackouts

So says ERCOT.

Electricity outages in Texas could occur this winter if the state experiences a cold snap that forces many power plants offline at the same time as demand for power is high, according to an analysis by the Electric Reliability Council of Texas. The outages could occur despite better preparations by power plants to operate in cold weather.

Heading into the winter, ERCOT considered five extreme scenarios in a risk assessment of the state’s power supply. The grid operator estimates both how much electricity Texans are expected to demand and how much electricity power plants are expected to produce ahead of each season.

Following the widespread February power outages that left millions without electricity for several days, ERCOT changed those assessments to calculate what would happen if extreme conditions occurred simultaneously — like what happened this year.

The calculations show the power grid’s vulnerability to the cumulative impact of multiple pressures that could leave the system short of a significant amount of power. Power grids must keep supply and demand in balance at all times. When Texas’ grid falls below its safety margin of 2,300 megawatts of extra supply, ERCOT, the grid operator, starts taking additional precautions to avoid blackouts, such as asking residents to conserve power.

The calculations for severe risk this winter show that it wouldn’t take a storm as bad as the one in February, when hundreds of people died, to take the grid offline.

[…]

“We’ve had years of poor planning of peak [demand] by ERCOT,” said Alison Silverstein, an expert on Texas’ electricity system who formerly worked at the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and the Public Utility Commission of Texas. She spoke during a public event hosted by the environmental group the Sierra Club on Saturday. “ERCOT’s power market has historically been managed to minimize costs, not to assure excellent reliability.”

Four of the five extreme risk scenarios ERCOT considered would leave the grid short a significant amount of power, which would trigger outages for residents.

The extreme scenarios have a low chance of occurring, ERCOT emphasizes in its report, and the grid operator estimates more power generation will be available than last winter.

Under typical winter grid conditions, the ERCOT report said, there will be sufficient power available to serve the state.

Well yeah, but if this winter had been typical we wouldn’t have had the massive power failures we did. The point is we did have them. There is a calculation that needs to be done to balance the likelihood of a given event occurring and the bad things that will happen if it does. Not all risks are worth the cost of mitigation, but we do tend to take action against the things that have the biggest downside. House fires are increasingly rare, for a variety of reasons, but we still install smoke detectors and carry insurance against the damage and loss they cause. If we’re not taking all reasonable steps to mitigate against the kind of outage we had this February, we are definitely doing it wrong.

FERC report on the freeze

It was lack of weatherization all along.

A shortage of natural gas during the winter storm that swept Texas and other states in the south central United States in February was primarily caused by the oil and gas industry’s failure to weatherize its systems, resulting in more than 58 percent of generation outages occurring at natural gas-fired power plants, the Federal Energy Regulatory Agency reported Tuesday.

Over a more than 300-page report, federal officials catalogued how one of the largest blackouts in the nation’s history came to pass, leaving millions of people in Texas without power for days on end. And while all parts of the region’s energy industry shouldered some of the blame, federal officials reported natural gas operators’ equipment freezing up was responsible for more than twice as much of the gas supply shortages as were rolling blackouts and downed power lines.

“The (report) highlights the need for substantially better coordination between the natural gas system and the electric system to ensure a reliable supply that nearly 400 million people across North America depend upon to support their way of life,” Jim Robb, president of the North American Electric Reliability Corporation, said in a statement.

[…]

In September, FERC and NERC issued a preliminary report recommending power plants and natural gas producers be required to protect critical equipment from freezing temperatures, as well as providing compensation for generators to recoup weatherization costs – similar to recommendations made following a similar but less severe power outage in Texas in 2011.

The agencies reiterated those recommendations Tuesday but also included more detail on what in went wrong in February.

Among their findings were:

– Eighty-one percent of freeze-related generating unit outages occurred at temperatures above the units’ stated ambient design temperature.

– Eighty-seven percent of unplanned generation outages due to fuel issues were related to natural gas, predominantly related to production and processing issues, while 13 percent involved issues with other fuels such as coal or fuel oil.

– Natural gas fuel supply shortages were caused by natural gas production declines. Some 43 percent of natural gas production declines were caused by freezing temperatures and weather, and 21.5 percent caused by midstream, wellhead or gathering facility power losses, which could be attributed either to rolling blackouts or weather-related outages such as downed power lines.

See here for the September preliminary report, and here for the FERC news release, which includes a link to the full report. It’s nothing we haven’t heard before – you know, going back to 2011 and 1989 – but there it is again. Maybe someone in a position of power will read it this time.

On a related and timely note, we now have a new expression for the higher gas and electricity prices we’re now paying because of this malfeasance:

I’m thinking you’ll probably hear that a few more times over the next 12 months or so. Chris Tomlinson, who has harsh words for the Railroad Commission and their false claim that a “paperwork snafu” was at fault, has more.

Those pesky high utility rates

Still a problem.

Those of us who lived through Winter Storm Uri have hardly forgotten the experience, of course. But we’ll have a little reminder of it on our gas bills. Every month. For the next decade. At least.

And should we face a similar winter weather disaster soon, as we may, well, that’s all right — any costs incurred then can simply be added to the tab, too.

“There’s a huge moral hazard here,” says Doug Lewin, an energy consultant based in Austin who, like many Texans, sustained serious property damage in February, thanks to a busted pipe.

The Railroad Commission of Texas on Wednesday approved a plan under which the Texas Public Finance Authority will issue $3.4 billion in state-backed bonds to pay back the natural gas suppliers that remained in operation during the February storm.

The move has been in the works for a while. During the crisis, as you no doubt recall, the price of gas soared to historic heights, as utilities scrambled over limited supplies. A Bloomberg analysis found that gas producers reaped $11 billion in profits as a result.

Those costs would have been passed on to consumers directly, but legislators this year passed a measure, House Bill 1520, allowing for the bill to be spread out via the securitization process. As ratepayers, we’re still on the hook for the $3.4 billion, but we’ll pay it back in smaller increments, over a longer period of time; utilities expect the costs for each customer to be roughly $5 a month.

The House Research Organization, in its bill analysis, summarized the argument from supporters: “State policies have been cited as contributing factors that led to the widespread power outages experienced by millions of Texans. Therefore, it would be appropriate for the state to play a role in minimizing the impact of the storm to ratepayers and utilities, including through securitization of certain costs.”

[…]

Industry executives and trade associations have suggested that stronger state action is not necessary because power producers themselves have an incentive to winterize. If they weren’t able to produce during Uri, they missed out on an unusually profitable week. During the course of the storm, natural gas spot prices soared across the country. And the Electric Reliability Council of Texas set prices at $9,000 per megawatt-hour — the highest allowable rate and several hundred times higher than the typical rate — in a desperate effort to get more power on the grid.

But that logic doesn’t really hold up to scrutiny. If every producer had adequately winterized, none of them would have been able to make hay over the situation. From a coldly calculating perspective — if we’re just looking at the heartless logic of economic incentives — the optimal move would be to partially weatherize; that way, in the event of another storm, you would have less product to sell, but at comically higher prices.

“I’m not one of these people who thinks the oil and gas industry is evil or something like that, but they need a clear, strong regulatory signal of what they need to do,” said Lewin. “They are for-profit businesses. If they don’t have a clear regulatory signal, they will follow price signals — and the price signal tells them these kind of events are great for the bottom line.”

“What industry doesn’t like making 11 billion in one week?” he added.

Executives themselves seem content with the current regime. In June, for example, oilman Kelcy Warren donated $1 million to Gov. Greg Abbott’s reelection campaign. His company, Energy Transfer Partners, had its best quarter ever during the storm, raking in an additional $2.4 billion as a result.

We’ve discussed this before. Author Erica Greider notes that this will be an issue in the race for Railroad Commissioner. I hope she’s right, and that it’s more than just in that race. The more we talk about it, the better those chances are.

And it’s not just your heating bills.

Have you looked at retail electricity prices lately?

On the suggestion of readers, I pulled up the state-sponsored marketing site — PowerToChoose.org (beware of imitators) — and it was like I stuck my finger in a wall socket. I was shocked.

For as long as The Watchdog can remember, the opening pages usually highlighted kilowatt hour rates of around 6 to 9 cents.

Now the opening pages show double-digit pricing of 10 cents or more.

Prices of the two dominant players in the market — TXU Energy and Reliant Energy — offer an added jolt.

TXU shows one-year plans for 1,000 kWh around 12 cents. Another listed plan offers a 15.9 cents rate.

On the TXU website, I saw different plans that varied from those presented on the state website. A reminder that with all companies, always remember to check both PowerToChoose and that company’s website.

Reliant shows plans on the state site from 13.4 cents to 15.2 cents for various kWh usage.

[…]

What do Texas experts say about these price jumps?

Ed Hirs, an energy fellow at the University of Houston, says the banning of Griddy, which sold power at wholesale prices, removed a major incentive for retailers to keep their prices down to compete.

He says the increase in natural gas prices we’re seeing is another cause because many Texas power plants run on gas. He blames hurricanes which struck the Gulf of Mexico.

He also blames the Texas government’s bailout allowing companies to recoup billions of lost dollars during the horrific February freezeout through the purchase of $6.5 billion in bonds. Those costs will be passed on to consumers.

When the Texas Legislature sided with companies over consumers, he said, “You know the game is fixed.”

Beth Garza, who served until 2019 as the independent monitor of grid operator ERCOT, said companies selling one-year contracts must anticipate higher prices expected to increase during the length of those contracts.

James Boyle, who once led Texas’ Office of Public Utility Counsel, said: “We all know that what happened in the legislative session is that everybody was taken care of except the home folks. And the consumer pays for everybody else’s mistakes. I think that’s reflected in those prices.”

Kelso King, who runs King Energy Consulting and monitors all Public Utility Commission meetings, warns that still to come is the pass-through to consumers of the multi-billion-dollar bailout for energy companies. That was the solution approved by lawmakers and Gov. Greg Abbott.

King added, “For decades, policymakers kept saying that the great thing about a competitive market was that all of the risks would be borne by generators instead of ratepayers. But when it came down to it, unsurprisingly, end use customers were left holding the bag.”

More fruit of the same tree. I agree that the original appeal to our “free market” in electricity was that providers would bear the risk of price fluctuations, but other than the late and not-really-lamented Griddy that hasn’t been the case. Of course, given the massive effect that big donors have on the system, how can you even call it a free market?

Ten years after the Bastrop fire

The headline on this story asks whether Texas is ready for the next big fire. I think we know the answer to that.

Photo by Chase A. Fountain/TPWD

Ten years ago, Texas experienced it’s worst wildfire disaster in the state’s history. Over 31 thousand fires burned more than 4 million acres of land in the state. This unprecedented fire season included the most destructive fire ever in Texas.

The Bastrop complex fire in September of 2011 was the most destructive wildfire in Texas history. Over thirty two thousand acres of forest burnt, 6500 homes destroyed, thousands evacuated. Several factors came together to cause the massive blaze, including the worst drought in Texas on record since the 1950s Dust Bowl era and high winds caused by Tropical Storm Lee, which made landfall on the Gulf Coast.

[…]

Brad Smith is a meteorologist with the Texas A&M Forest Service. He says unlike other areas of the country, Texas has wildfire seasons almost year-round.

“We can be in a fire season any time that we see three to four weeks of extended drying” said Smith.

Smith stops short of admitting climate change will drive more wildfires in the future. But Texas state climatologist John Nielsen-Gammon said increased drought will definitely have an effect.

“We’re definitely going to have hotter droughts when they occur, which means things dry out faster and that by itself increases the risk of wildfire,” said Nielson-Gammon

The Texas State Climatologist’s Office recently released its report on future trends and extreme weather in Texas. The report says that the eastern area of Texas will be prone to more drought and wildfire, and the change could come on quickly as the climate gets drier from west to east.

“The way that plays out is trees die and they don’t get replaced, and the way large expanses of the trees get wiped out is through wildfire”, he said. “So that overall landscape transition that we expect to see happening over the next hundred years isn’t going to be the gradual transition. We might hope it will probably take place through wildfires from which the ecosystem doesn’t recover in the same way that it would have when the climate was cooler and wetter,” he added.

Back at Camp Swift, Kari Hines is worried that Texas residents may not be ready for the next major fire event in Texas.

“We have so many other disasters, whether it’s floods or ice storms or hurricanes that that get our interest, just getting people to realize that wildfires are something that happen and that they absolutely can do something to prepare for to decrease their chances of their home being lost or losing their lives. It worries me. I talk to a lot of people who don’t think wildfire is an issue,” said Hines.

See here and here for some background. The irony is that we had a wildfire protection plan in place, but it was a victim of the budget cuts from the previous legislative session, because that’s how we roll in this state. We did pass a constitutional amendment in 2013 to fund a water infrastructure fund as a drought mitigation effort. That was good and necessary (and I’d really like to see some reporting about how that is going), but it’s not about wildfires.

I think it’s fair to say that the professionals whose job it is to deal with wildfires are as ready as they can be, but our state leadership cannot bother their pretty little heads about it, and that’s even after taking concern about climate change out of the picture. We’ve obviously had our hands full dealing with flooding, and there was that little ol’ freeze last year that exposed all kinds of problems with our power grid. Why would be any better prepared for wildfires? The bottom line is that we’re lousy at investing in our infrastructure. The rest follows from there.

Just a reminder, the COVID vaccine really will save your life

Numbers don’t lie.

New data from the Texas health department released Monday proves what health officials have been trying to tell vaccine-hesitant Texans for months: The COVID-19 vaccine dramatically prevents death and is the best tool to prevent transmission of the deadly virus.

Out of nearly 29,000 Texans who have died from COVID-related illnesses since mid-January, only 8% of them were fully vaccinated against the virus, according to a report detailing the Texas Department of State Health Services’ findings.

And more than half of those deaths among vaccinated people were among Texans older than 75, the age group that is most vulnerable to the virus, the study shows.

“We’ve known for a while that vaccines were going to have a protective effect on a large segment of our population,” said Dr. Jennifer A. Shuford, state epidemiologist. “By looking at our own population and seeing what the impact of the vaccines have been on that population, we’re hoping just to be able to reach people here in Texas and show them the difference that being fully vaccinated can make in their lives and for their communities.”

The state health department study covers most of the positive cases and COVID-19 deaths reported in Texas among residents from Jan. 15 to Oct. 1. It’s the first time state officials have been able to statistically measure the true impact of the vaccine on the pandemic in Texas — which has one of the highest death tolls in the nation. The majority of Texans ages 16 and up didn’t become eligible for the vaccine until late March.

State health officials also found the vaccine greatly reduced the risk of virus transmission, including the highly contagious delta variant that ravaged the state over the summer.

Only 3% of 1.5 million positive COVID-19 tests examined since mid-January occurred in people who were already vaccinated.

Let’s be clear, these are the stakes when Greg Abbott and Ken Paxton do all the things they’ve been doing and are still doing to impede vaccination efforts. People have died, are dying, and will die because of them. We wouldn’t have needed the mandates if people like them hadn’t been feeding a steady diet of lies and grievances to the mostly gullible population that listens to them. I will never understand any of that.

The new report is particularly well-timed, officials say, because gatherings throughout the holiday season could touch off another surge as families get together — many of them for the first time since last year — and around 9 million Texans remain unvaccinated.

Texas saw its deadliest surge of the pandemic in January, when more than 400 deaths were reported daily at its peak, a trend health officials said was likely a direct result of the holidays.

The recent Texas Coronavirus Antibody Response Survey, commissioned by the state health department in partnership with the University of Texas System, estimated that about 75% of Texans — roughly 22 million people — likely have some level of protection against the virus, either by natural immunity from being infected or through vaccination.

But that doesn’t mean infected people are immune indefinitely or that they shouldn’t get the vaccine, health experts say.

In fact, doctors, scientists and health officials urge those who have been infected to get vaccinated anyway, saying the vaccine provides a strong boost in immunity even to those who have some level of natural protection.

The Texas CARES study found that fully vaccinated participants showed significantly higher antibody levels than those who were unvaccinated but had been infected.

A week ago, the CDC found that while both vaccination and natural infection provide about six months of protection from infection by the virus, the vaccine provides a “higher, more robust, and more consistent level of immunity” than natural infection does.

And while the fact that a solid majority of Texans are estimated to have some protection from the virus bodes well for the state in its fight against the pandemic, Shuford said, it still means that millions of Texans are vulnerable to severe illness or death from the highly contagious virus, without any vaccine or natural immunity.

The next frontier in COVID data reporting needs to focus on repeat infections, which I’m going to bet will also be overwhelmingly from the unvaccinated population. You get some immunity from having had the virus, but it’s not nearly as much as you might think. I don’t actually expect data to move a whole lot of opinion, but maybe it’ll help a little. And maybe those mandates plus vaxxes for kids will finally get us ahead of the curve. Here’s hoping, because winter is coming.

Maybe there won’t be another freeze this winter

Views differ.

Love it or hate it — winter looks especially warm in Texas this year.

Federal forecasters at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Climate Prediction Center said last week that much of the country is likely to see warmer than average conditions this winter, including Texas, thanks to La Niña.

It’s the second winter in a row that La Niña climate conditions — a natural cooling of sea water in the tropical Pacific Ocean — have emerged. The climate pattern affects the position of the jet stream and thus the weather across all of North America.

The outlook, which extends from December 2021 through February 2022, leans toward above normal temperatures for Texas.

Keith White, a meteorologist for the National Weather Service, told the Express-News that Texas should expect similar temperatures to last year before Winter Storm Uri brought plummeting temperatures and snowfall.

A Farmer’s Almanac forecast released in August predicted frigid temperatures and another winter storm.

“We’re still anticipating some cooler and wetter-than-normal weather,” White said. “But something like the storm we saw last year would be unlikely.”

See here for the opposing prediction. Sure, another freeze like last year is unlikely – we’ve only had a couple like it in the last 30 years. But climate change is real, and our grid remains rickety, so better safe than sorry. Be prepared, and hope for the best.

People still support mask mandates

One more tidbit from the UT/Trib poll for October.

A majority of Texas voters support requiring masks at schools and indoor public places and allowing businesses to require their employees to be vaccinated, according to a new University of Texas/Texas Tribune poll.

This comes as Gov. Greg Abbott has banned vaccine requirements by all Texas entities, including private businesses and health care facilities, and mask mandates by local government and state agencies.

A survey of 1,200 registered voters in Texas showed that 57% of voters support mask requirements in indoor public spaces based on local conditions, while 58% support mask requirements for students and staff in public schools. Forty percent oppose the requirements at indoor public places and 39% oppose the requirements at schools.

Fifty-four percent of Texas voters also support allowing businesses to require employees to provide proof of vaccination or submit to frequent COVID-19 tests, compared to 43% who are opposed. Meanwhile, a slight plurality is opposed to the same requirements for customers: 47% support them, while 49% are against.

Similarly, 54% of voters support and 43% oppose allowing public schools to require staff to either provide proof of vaccination or submit to frequent testing. Texas voters are nearly split on requiring students to adhere to the same measures: 49% oppose the idea and 48% support it.

Texans also leaned in favor of requiring vaccinations for admission to large events or activities, with polls showing that 47% of voters favor the vaccine passports while 43% oppose them.

Voters were fairly evenly split on whether they supported allowing government entities to require vaccines or COVID-19 tests for employees. Just 50% supported the requirements while 46% opposed.

Overall, there is a wide partisan divide on the issue of mandates. While Democrats surveyed overwhelmingly support them, there is still significant opposition among Republicans.

“As a whole, the state looks more in favor of mitigation efforts than the policy, but amongst the majority party there’s really not much appetite for many of these mitigation efforts,” said Joshua Blank, research director at the Texas Politics Project.

That’s true, and it’s what I’d expect as that has been the general pattern on all things that have been politicized these days, but with a caveat. If you look at the bar charts they included to show the partisan breakdown for some of these questions, Democrats are more in favor than Republicans are opposed, and in general independents are in favor, though by modest margins. For example, on the question of whether businesses should be allowed to mandate vaccines for their employees, Democrats favor it by an 89-9 margin, independents favor it by 53-41, and Republicans oppose it by 72-26. That’s more than enough to give it a fairly solid majority overall.

You can see a few more examples in the story, some of which are closer calls, and you can see all of the crosstabs here. They hadn’t included that in previous poll stories, probably because they wanted to publish them all before they spoiled them by showing the data ahead of time. I’ve got another post in the works based on a couple of interesting bits I saw in there, but for now the takeaway is that a campaign that is harshly critical of Abbott and Paxton for their unrelenting obstruction on masking and vaccination will find some purchase. If nothing else, it will fire up the base, and for sure we’re going to need all of that we can get.

The Huntsville bat warehouse

I love stories like this, even when they leave me wanting more.

Hundreds of thousands of Mexican free-tailed bats streamed out of the abandoned brick building on a recent weeknight, leaving behind the burned-out structure where they’ve stayed for many summers — and which state prison officials for years sought to tear down.

The bats flew right past eight large bat houses, marked with bat logos, where officials had hoped the creatures would relocate several years ago. They didn’t. Some say the Texas Department of Criminal Justice bungled the effort.

What to do about these free-tailed bats, which draw extra attention around Halloween, is again up for debate. TDCJ and the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department in coming weeks will renew talks about how to get them out.

Knocking down the building with bats inside could kill them. But if the building is torn down when they leave for winter, the bats will search for new homes when they return. That scenario would make for bat mayhem of sorts in Huntsville, about an hour’s drive north of Houston, where TDCJ is headquartered.

Bats can wriggle into a hole the size of one’s pinky finger, explained Fran Hutchins, of Bat Conservation International, or BCI. So bats could end up in attics and under porches of nearby homes — anywhere with a small opening. There’s also the nearby Sam Houston State University dormitories.

And it would be a lot of bats searching for where to go. Some 750,000 of them may call the warehouse home.

Said Hutchins: “They’ve got to sleep somewhere.”

The story includes a link to this article from 2017 about those bat houses, which were built by TDCJ inmates for the purpose of, you know, housing the bats. What we don’t learn is why those bat houses failed in that task, and now I’m deeply curious. In the meantime, I say keep the old warehouse. Surely there’s no better purpose for it than those bats.

An estimate of the Census undercount

It could have been worse.

According to new analysis of the 2020 Census, Texas had the highest undercount of any US state in raw numbers. It’s estimated some 377,000 in the state weren’t included in the count.

Nationally, the 2020 census missed an estimated 1.6 million people, but given hurdles posed by the pandemic and natural disasters, the undercount was smaller than expected, according to the data reviewed by a think tank that did computer simulations of the nation’s head count.

The analysis, done by the Urban Institute and released Tuesday, found that people of color, renters, noncitizens, children and people living in Texas — the state that saw the nation’s largest growth — were most likely to be missed, though by smaller margins than some had projected. Still, those shortfalls could affect the drawing of political districts and distribution of federal spending.

The analysis estimates there was a 0.5% undercount of the nation’s population during the 2020 census. If that modeled estimate holds true, it would be greater than the 0.01% undercount in the 2010 census but in the same range as the 0.49% undercount in the 2000 census.

Texas and Mississippi were undercounted by 1.28% and 1.3%, respectively, in the simulated count. Minnesota, Iowa, New Hampshire and Wisconsin also registered overcounts in the simulation, an unsurprising conclusion since they had among the highest self-response rates in the nation during the actual count.

About a fifth of the U.S. residents not counted in the Urban Institute’s simulations lived in Texas, and that could have real-life consequences. According to the Urban Institute analysis, Texas stands to miss out on $247 million in 2021 federal Medicaid reimbursements for being undercounted.

[…]

“The fact that the undercount wasn’t larger is surprising and certainly a good news story,” said Diana Elliott, principal research associate at the Urban Institute. “This undercount suggests the 2020 census may not be as close in accuracy as 2010, but it may not be as dire as some had feared.”

The official undercount or overcount of the census won’t be known until next year when the Census Bureau releases a report card on its accuracy. The bureau’s post-enumeration survey measures the accuracy of the census by independently surveying a sample of the population and estimating how many people and housing units were missed or counted erroneously

Indeed, it could have been a lot worse. The Republicans did everything they could to make it as hard as possible to get an accurate count, so kudos to the Census Department for overcoming as well as they did. For more on the Urban Institute’s research and results, see here for an overview, here for a state-by-state guide, and here for the specifics about Texas. Daily Kos has more.

More kids are getting their COVID shots

So good to see.

The possibility of the parties, vacations and family gatherings energized six families who attended the COVID-19 vaccination event on Wednesday inside Memorial Hermann, the morning after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention officially expanded eligibility to kids from 5- to 11-years-old. Eager parents are clamoring for an opportunity to vaccinate their children after an especially challenging wave of infections, which hit a peak in late August just as kids returned to school.

Texas Children’s Hospital administered its first dose of the vaccine at 6:15 a.m., and is expected to administer thousands more throughout the week to children with an appointment, which are now only available as soon as Nov. 18. Memorial Hermann is making the vaccine available to walk-ins at its hospital campuses, beginning Thursday morning.

Parents, many of whom were affiliated with the Memorial Hermann system, shared their own harrowing experiences with the virus at Thursday’s vaccine event. Chris Lange, the father of 8-year-old and 5-year-old girls, said he is still dealing with brain fog after an aggressive bout with COVID during the February winter freeze.

The kids caught a less severe infection, but the experience raised the urgency of vaccination, he said.

“This whole (pandemic) is just such a drain on everyone,” he said. “Knowing that now maybe we don’t have to worry about schools closing. We don’t have to worry about kids staying home. I mean, that’s a big win.”

I’ve seen plenty of celebrating, on Facebook and Twitter, by friends who have kids in the 5-11 age range, much as I did when the shots were cleared for ages 12 and up. I figure we’ll see a big spike in vax rates in the first couple of weeks, then it will settle at a much lower level as the eager folks all get it done and what’s left are the more hesitant and resistant. Every little bit helps, that much is for sure.

Exempt yourself

Is it really a regulation if you can just say nope, sorry, no can do?

The Public Utility Commission of Texas approved weatherization standards for electricity generators on Thursday, requiring them to be ready for winter cold by by Dec. 1 but allowing them to seek exemptions if they fail to comply.

Among the new requirements, generators will be required to shelter systems from wind, protect sensors for components vital to cold-weather operations, inspect insulation, establish schedules for testing systems that guard against freezing and improve installation of systems to monitor components vital to cold-weather operations. They’ll also be required to train workers on cold-weather protocols and file winter weather readiness reports.

Power producers can seek exemptions if they fail to comply with any of the measures, even if they never plan to implement some of the requirements. Exemptions would require approval of the PUC, which regulates the state’s utilities, and ERCOT, which manages the state’s power grid.

ERCOT, which is overseen by the PUC, will be required to inspect power generators this winter. Any generator that experiences multiple forced outages will have to hire an engineer to assess weatherization efforts.

PUC Chairman Peter Lake said Thursday that the weatherization rules were the first wave of other, more permanent standards that will be developed and implemented by ERCOT at a later day. The rules approved Thursday will ensure that the grid is ready for the coming winter.

“We’ve got to make sure this is in place by winter,” Lake said. “This makes sure the reliability of grid will be vastly improved this year compared to last year.”

[…]

Ed Hirs, an energy fellow at the University of Houston, said the weatherization mandates mirror those recommended — but never enacted — after the 2011 freeze and subsequent power outages. He said they’re also similar to rules set up in the federally regulated grids, which have had more success staying online during severe weather. He cautioned, however, that could take a couple of years before generators across Texas finish weatherization efforts, and some may skip making changes by applying for the so-called good-cause exemption.

“Generation companies are concerned about these mandates and not having the revenue stream to fund it,” Hirs said. “If there’s no progress in that direction, and I don’t think there is, we may see a bunch of them say ‘Hey, we’re not ready, please grant us an exemption.’ ”

Alison Silverstein, an Austin-based energy consultant who worked for the PUC from 1995 to 2001 and with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission from 2001 to 2004, said she doesn’t think the PUC or ERCOT will rubber stamp exemption requests.

That remains to be seen. Like with many other things involving our state government, there’s no benefit of the doubt given the track record and the insistence from Greg Abbott that everything is just fine now. I’d very much like to see some followup reporting in a few months, to see how many exemptions were granted and for what reasons. Maybe this will lead to real improvements, but you’re going to have to show me the facts first.

More on the Abbott max anti-vaxx order

Businesses will face a choice that they would rather not have to face.

Companies doing business in Texas face new and complicated challenges after Gov. Greg Abbott this week banned COVID-19 vaccine mandates for all entities in the state — including private businesses — for employees or customers.

The ramifications for businesses could begin as soon as Friday, when companies that enter into contract work with the federal government will be required to have all employees vaccinated under orders from the White House.

This conflicts with Abbott’s ban on vaccine mandates, putting the many Texas businesses that receive federal contracts in a tough position: Comply with federal law and violate Abbott’s ban, or comply with Abbott and turn down business from the federal government.

[…]

“This harms Texans directly,” Karen Vladeck, an employment lawyer in Austin, said of the new order from Abbott. “I just think it wasn’t well thought out.”

Abbott’s office did not reply to a request for comment.

On top of prohibiting any entity in Texas from requiring vaccinations, Abbott’s order also lists several expanded exemptions. Vladeck and other employment lawyers said that this adds to the vaccine dilemma facing businesses in Texas. Under Abbott’s new rule, people may opt out of a vaccine requirement for medical reasons, including if they prove they have had COVID-19 in the past, despite scientists widely agreeing that this does not protect people against contracting the virus.

“The executive order’s medical reason language is a bit strange because usually you exempt people for medical reasons if they have a severe allergic reaction to a vaccine,” said Elizabeth Sepper, a law professor at the University of Texas at Austin. Abbott’s order is “meant to cover people who don’t want to get the vaccine because they believe, quite wrongly, that they’re completely protected by already having COVID.”

Abbott’s rule also allows people to opt out of a vaccine requirement if they prove they hold a deep personal belief against getting jabbed.

Any entity that fails to comply with Abbott’s rule could receive up to a $1,000 fine.

Abbott’s Monday order is a reversal from his position in August, when the Pfizer vaccine received final approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. At the time, Abbott’s spokesperson said that businesses had the option of mandating vaccination for employees and “private businesses don’t need government running their business.”

“It’s all about company choice in Texas, except now it’s come to something that they don’t like what the companies are choosing,” Vladeck said. “It puts a big burden on employers.”

See here for the background. So far, businesses that are also federal contractors, including airlines and companies like IBM, will ignore Abbott’s order, while others are awaiting the OSHA rules before making a decision. Multiple business groups, the same organizations that often turn to the state for a legislative solution to local ordinances they don’t like, harshly criticized Abbott’s order for making their lives more difficult. Harris County Attorney Christian Menefee released a statement encouraging businesses that want to be able to get their employees vaccinated to file a lawsuit against Abbott over the order. And in the end, even wingnut talk radio hosts weren’t impressed by Abbott’s order. It’s almost as if he were a weak, gutless leader.

Abbott goes max anti-vaxx

He really wants us dead.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott on Monday issued another executive order cracking down on COVID-19 vaccine mandates — this time banning any entity in Texas, including private businesses, from requiring vaccinations for employees or customers.

Abbott also called on the Legislature to pass a law with the same effect. The Legislature is in its third special legislative session, which ends Oct. 19.

“The COVID-19 vaccine is safe, effective, & our best defense against the virus, but should always remain voluntary & never forced,” he said in a tweet announcing his latest order.

The order marks a significant reversal after Abbott previously gave private businesses the choice to mandate vaccines for workers. An Abbott spokesperson said in late August that “private businesses don’t need government running their business.”

For weeks, Abbott has been under pressure from some on his right to go further in prohibiting vaccine requirements, and one of his primary challengers, Don Huffines, celebrated the latest order.

[…]

The latest move appears to be at least partly motivated by President Joe Biden’s actions in September that require all employers with more than 100 workers to mandate vaccines for workers or test weekly for the virus. Biden also required all federal government workers and contractors to get vaccinated, leading nearly all the major airlines — including American Airlines and Southwest Airlines headquartered in Texas — to announce they’d abide by the mandate.

See here for more on his previous order, which as noted explicitly avoided including private companies. There’s no question that this is one part a toddler’s response to the Biden executive order, but also a coward’s response to the toxic ravings of his primary opponents. Abbott’s weakness and ineffectuality are just embarrassing. Whether it’s enough to get a plurality of voters to turn against him, that’s the zillion dollar question.

As noted in the story, big employers like airlines are going to comply with the Biden order, which applies to companies with at least 100 employees. The Abbott order, to whatever extent it has an effect, will affect smaller companies.

Experts agree Abbott’s order — which says even private companies in Texas cannot “compel receipt of a COVID-19 vaccine by any individual” — would likely be trumped by President Joe Biden’s requirements that federal contractors and businesses with 100 or more employees require vaccines. Major corporations based in Texas, including Southwest Airlines and American Airlines, said Tuesday they would abide by Biden’s rules over Abbott’s.

The federal rules are still in the works, but even after they’re enacted they won’t affect the majority of the state’s workforce. The big businesses affected by Biden’s rule employ 44 percent of Texas workers.

How much protection the governor’s latest order provides to those 56 percent of workers employed by the smaller companies, however, is another question. Legal experts were split on whether those fired for refusing to get a shot could start collecting unemployment, for instance. Some attorneys believe Abbott has clearly opened the door for those workers to get benefits, while others argued the order stops well short of making such a guarantee.

And the order is likely to prompt conflicting rulings from judges at various levels of the court system, as has Abbott’s effort to stop schools and local governments from enacting mask mandates. Repeatedly, the state has admitted in court that it has no plans to enforce the ban on mask requirements, saying that is up to local district attorneys.

“You have these orders coming down at various levels. I think if you’re a consumer or even an employee, you’re kind of in a tough spot if you’re choosing to not be vaccinated,” said Alfonso Kennard, Jr., a Texas-based employment attorney. “The path of least resistance would be to be vaccinated.

“At a minimum, all it does is give some entity the ability to point to something and say, ‘The governor said this, so I should be OK,’” Kennard said. “But a week from now, a judge could say it isn’t lawful.”

The Texas Workforce Commission would not say whether the order impacts unemployment claims, saying only that each is handled on a case-by-case basis with the “totality of the job separation” taken into consideration.

Kalandra Wheeler, an employment attorney based in Houston, said Abbott’s order would appear to make it easier for unvaccinated workers to argue they deserve unemployment.

“What they have to establish for you not to get benefits is that you either resigned and there was no good cause connected to the work, or that you were terminated for misconduct,” Wheeler said. “I think there’s less of an argument you’ve done those things when the governor issues a ban that says you’re not required to get the vaccine.”

Randall Erben, a law professor at the University of Texas who previously worked as Abbott’s legislative director, said he believes the order was “very carefully drafted, very thoughtfully drafted, and drafted in a way that makes it harder to challenge and more easily enforceable.” Importantly, it doesn’t mention anything about unemployment eligibility.

“The executive order doesn’t really get into that,” he said. “What it says is a private employer can’t compel an employee to get a vaccine. What an employer does after that is not addressed in the order. It’s not even really contemplated.”

If there’s one thing that is clear, it’s that this will be a busy time for the lawyers. Actually, it’s also clear that Abbott has no qualms about contradicting himself:

OK, it’s also clear that we are already living in Don Huffines’ Texas. Abbott is just blowing in the wind. If you like this and want it to continue, you know what to do. Same for if you don’t. The Chron and the Trib, in a truly brutal analysis that includes observations such as how Abbott is “so overwhelmed by politics that he’s become a Random Policy Generator, throwing out edicts that make sense only if you forget everything he said before”, have more.

An overview of abortion attitudes in Texas

From the Texas Politics Project:

Since the political rise of the pro-life movement in the 1990s, it’s often been suggested that elected Republicans were less seriously committed to banning abortion than their public pronouncements may have conveyed. The rationale behind this logic was purely political: such a change to health, reproductive, and women’s rights would upend normal politics, resulting in a not-wholly, but largely, gendered political revolt against the GOP. But with Texas’ passage of one of, if not the, most restrictive sets of abortion laws in the country, impacting 85% of abortions in the state and sending women to Oklahoma (!), it would appear that this particular theory of a just-below-the-surface political equilibrium on abortion policy is about to face a serious test.

The reasons for the Texas GOP’s leap forward on abortion restrictions after a decade of chipping away at access are likely many, and worthy of their own piece of analysis (but the partisan sorting of college and non-college educated voters; the change in composition of the supreme court; the recent fending off of Democratic challenges in the state; and the chance to reinforce existing electoral advantages through redistricting in an increasingly competitive state are some possibilities that come to mind), but looking directly ahead to the next set of Texas elections in 2022, the sudden change in the reproductive health landscape begs the question: where do Texas voters stand on abortion?

Below, we collect some observations to answer this question based on a decade of relevant University of Texas polling.

Go read the rest, but to do the spoilers: Texas is pretty evenly divided between those who call themselves “pro-choice” and “pro-life”, very few people actually want to ban all abortions as SB8 did, the more restrictive the anti-abortion law from the Lege in recent years, the greater the opposition to them, and maybe – just maybe – this could come back to bite the Republicans, if not in 2022 then soon. Check it out.

Climate change is bad for Texas

In case you were wondering.

Climate change has made the Texas heat worse, with less relief as nighttime temperatures warm, a report from the state’s climatologist published Thursday found.

Climate data also show that the state is experiencing extreme rainfall — especially in eastern Texas — bigger storm surges as seas rise along the Gulf Coast and more flooding from hurricanes strengthened by a warming ocean, the report says.

Those trends are expected to accelerate in the next 15 years, according to the report, which analyzes extreme weather risks for the state and was last updated in 2019. The report was funded in part by Texas 2036, a nonpartisan economic policy nonprofit group named for the state’s upcoming bicentennial.

The average annual temperature in Texas is expected to be 3 degrees warmer by 2036 than the average of the 1950s, the report found. The number of 100-degree days is expected to nearly double compared with 2000-2018, especially in urban areas.

“From here on out, it’s going to be very unusual that we ever have a year as mild as a typical year during the 20th century,” said John Nielsen-Gammon, the Texas state climatologist who authored the report. “Just about all of them are going to be warmer.”

A hotter Texas will threaten public health, squeeze the state’s water supply, strain the electric grid and push more species toward extinction, experts told The Texas Tribune.

Read the rest, or see the Texas 2036 page for more. I don’t have anything useful to add here. Either you see this as an existential problem and there’s very little time to take the necessary action to make it less bad, or you’re part of the problem. Up to you.

More proof that vaccine mandates work

In the end, most people just get the damn shots. The rest is sound and fury.

Protests, lawsuits and national media coverage surrounded Houston Methodist Hospital in June when it became the country’s first major health system to require a COVID-19 vaccine as a condition of employment.

Now, as other Houston healthcare providers begin to enforce similar mandates, the drama has faded into the background. Hospitals are not facing the same pushback, officials say, and only a small portion of employees are holding out on the vaccine.

“There is a lot of noise around (mandates), and the anti-vaxx movement has been vociferous, but this is more of an outcry from the community rather than when it comes down to the brass tacks in facilities,” said Carrie Kroll, vice president of advocacy, quality and public health at the Texas Hospital Association.

Texas Children’s Hospital and Baylor College of Medicine were the first to reach their vaccine mandate deadlines following Methodist.

Baylor required its roughly 9,000 faculty and staff members to be fully vaccinated by Sept. 15. Those who did not attest to receiving their vaccine were subject to “progressive discipline,” which includes a series of warnings that ends in firing, according to a statement. The vast majority of employees complied, while about 3 percent were granted an exemption, according to numbers provided by the school.

One employee resigned. Another five will be fired after facing warnings.

[…]

Texas Children’s Hospital also passed its first-dose deadline on Sept. 21. Its doctors are employed by Baylor and already covered by the school’s mandate. In a statement, the hospital said “a very small number of employees did not receive the vaccine and therefore chose to leave the organization.”

Texas Children’s spokesperson Natasha Barrett said the hospital could not disclose a specific number of people who left or whether any exemptions were granted.

See here, here, and here for some background. A lawsuit by the (very small number of) fired Methodist employees was dismissed, though it is being appealed. There’s growing evidence from around the country that this is what happens pretty much everywhere that there’s a vaccine mandate – lots of loud whining and complaining and threats to quit, followed by near-universal compliance. This is why I’m happy for the San Antonio ISD vaccine mandate fight to move slowly through the courts, because regardless of outcome it’s going to cause people to get the damn vaccine. And don’t anyone tell Greg Abbott, but Southwest Airlines is doing a mandate now, too. The more, the very much better.

The Delta surge is killing younger people

So many avoidable deaths.

About two weeks later, sometime in August, the [woman in the San Antonio intensive care bed] died. She was in her mid-40s.

She is among more than 9,000 Texans who have died from COVID-19 in August and September, nearly 40% of them under the age of 60, part of an alarming upswing in reported daily deaths that threatens to overtake last summer’s deadly surge in average weekly numbers.

The dramatic and sudden increase in deaths — which jumped nearly tenfold over two months this summer — comes in spite of tens of thousands of vaccine doses being administered to Texans every day.

[…]

Of the nearly 19,000 Texas deaths attributed to COVID-19 since early February, 119 were fully vaccinated according to preliminary data from the state health department.

Scientists are still researching whether the delta variant is more deadly than earlier versions of the virus, but it is known to be much more contagious, and some data suggest that it makes people much sicker, much faster than the previous versions. The COVID-19 vaccines are extremely effective in preventing serious illness or death, scientists say.

“We shouldn’t be surprised,” Dr. David Lakey, vice chancellor for health affairs, chief medical officer at the University of Texas System and a member of the Texas Medical Association’s COVID-19 task force, said of the death numbers. “The main reason the fatality rates are as high as they are is there’s a lot of COVID in a lot of people that have underlying conditions and are not immunized.”

[…]

The deadliest month of the pandemic so far was January — before vaccines were widely available — when 9,914 people died from COVID-19, according to state data. That month only 15% of the COVID-19 deaths were among Texans under age 60. Last month during the height of the delta surge, they accounted for 38% of deaths.

More Texans younger than 60 died in August than at any other point in the pandemic. Deaths of Texans in their 40s, for example, jumped to 679 — nearly double the previous peak for that age group in January 2021. For Texans in their 30s, deaths in August were 33% higher than the winter peak, while deaths of those younger than 30 — 124 in August — were 77% higher than the previous peak for that age group, which was 70 in July 2020.

Older people are still dying in the largest numbers, even as their vaccination rate has reached 98% in some areas and 79% of Texans ages 65 and older are fully vaccinated statewide. That’s because they are still more vulnerable to the illness and much more likely to die from an infection than their younger counterparts, said Spencer Fox, associate director of the University of Texas COVID-19 Modeling Consortium.

While deaths in that age group also increased in August, they were far below their peaks over the winter and last summer.

Hospitalizations peaked in August statewide — nearly reaching the record numbers from the January surge — and more hospitals reported ICUs at or over capacity than at any other time in the pandemic. Those numbers are starting to level off or decline, along with the positivity rate, which measures the percentage of COVID tests that are positive.

It’s an encouraging sign that the delta surge may finally be cresting, although that’s not a certainty, Fox said.

National models are saying the same thing, though everyone remains worried about the winter. That’s actually less of a concern here, at least for much of the state, because our winters tend to be mild, the occasional deadly freeze aside, and that means people can continue to be outdoors. Given how high our overall death rate has been, we can use all the help we can get. We’re sure not getting any from our state government.