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August 15th, 2020:

Time for another COVID roundup

Let’s start with some good news, which comes wrapped in a warning.

The number of coronavirus patients crowding hospital wards in the Houston area is now in its sixth week of steady decline, a welcome reversal of the virus’ alarming surge in June and July.

The headcount of COVID-19 patients has fallen by half since its mid-July peak in hospitals affiliated with the seven systems based in the Texas Medical Center. And the number of intensive care patients at those facilities has dropped by a third.

The subsiding wave has merely shifted civic leaders’ concerns, however — and not only because hospital headcounts, new cases, and other metrics remain well above their levels before the spike.

Worried that Houstonians will invite another crisis by concluding it is safe to attend cookouts or crowd onto restaurant patios, public officials and medical leaders are stressing that the best measures of success are not empty intensive care beds but an absence of widespread infections.

“I do worry about people listening to this news and taking it the wrong way, saying, ‘Whew that’s over, now let’s go back to life as normal,’” said Dr. Esmaeil Porsa, CEO of Harris Health, the county’s public hospital district. “This is not the time.”

[…]

In every case, these metrics suggest the Houston region remains well short of containing the virus. The testing positivity rate, for instance, is about 15 percent in the city and county, and 10 percent among TMC institutions.

What about case counts? Harris County over the last week has averaged more than two and a half times as many daily cases as the 400 it would take to step down from Hidalgo’s top threat level. And the nine-county Houston region is averaging almost nine times as many new daily cases as the TMC goal of 200.

Another of Hidalgo’s metrics calls for the share of intensive care patients who have COVID-19 to not exceed 15 percent; the share of ICU patients in the county who have COVID-19 remains more than double that.

We’re headed in the right direction, but we’ve still got a long way to go. Stay home. Maintain social distancing. Wear a mask. Wash your hands.

And while case numbers may be coming down, fatality numbers are higher than we’ve counted.

Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in Texas, the state’s death toll from all causes has soared by thousands above historical averages — a sobering spike that experts say reveals the true toll of the disease.

Between the beginning of the local pandemic and the end of July, 95,000 deaths were reported in Texas, according to U.S. Centers for Disease Control data. Based on historical mortality records and predictive modeling, government epidemiologists would have expected to see about 82,500 deaths during that time.

The CDC attributed more than 7,100 deaths to COVID-19, but that leaves roughly 5,500 more than expected and with no identified tie to the pandemic. The CDC’s chief of mortality, Dr. Bob Anderson, said these “excess deaths” are likely from a range of pandemic-related problems, including misclassifications because doctors did not initially understand the many ways that COVID-19 affects the circulatory system and results in a stroke or a heart attack.

“It can cause all sorts of havoc in the body,” he said.

The CDC data offers an opaque but important estimate of how deadly the virus has been in Texas, which suffered from testing shortages for weeks as COVID-19 case counts climbed.

“It has shocked me to see people think that there’s overcounts of the COVID deaths, because I can’t even imagine that that’d be the case,” said Mark Hayward, a professor at the University of Texas who studies mortality trends. “The undercount is so dramatic.”

And there is a clear racial disparity in the undercounts. Between March and the end of July, Texas recorded more than 21,000 deaths of Latinos — more than 5,000 higher than epidemiologists predicted. Of those, about 2,100 were attributed to COVID-19. That leaves more than 3,000 deaths in excess of the expected number, many of them in border counties that lack resources for testing.

This is a phenomenon we’ve seen literally around the world. We’ve certainly known that it’s happening in Texas. The expert opinion is that we’ve already passed 200K deaths nationally, or about 25% more than the official count. If you could read one of the names of those 200K dead Americans every second, it would take you over 55 hours, nonstop, to read them all. Think about that for a minute. Or for 55 hours.

Also, too, we still suck at testing.

After plummeting for days, the number of COVID-19 tests reported in Texas suddenly jumped by 124,693 on Thursday, which state health officials said was a result of coding errors and a system upgrade.

Backlogs at a hospital lab and a commercial lab accounted for most of the tests, which could not be added to the state’s official tally until the coding errors had been fixed, said Lara Anton, spokesperson for the Texas Department of State Health Services.

Of the 124,000 tests reported on Thursday, approximately 95,000 were from a lab that served several hospitals, Anton said, adding that the lab sent files containing an error in one of the data fields, which DSHS’ electronic system could not read.

DSHS doesn’t know when the tests were actually conducted and is working with local health departments to find out, she said.

[…]

Whether because of human error, shifting benchmarks or bureaucratic changes, it’s not the first time that Texas officials have corrected their data since the beginning of the pandemic. Almost every major data point has come with caveats, sometimes blurring for days the big picture of the pandemic in Texas.

It is what it is. I don’t know what else to say.

Finally, the coin shortage is real, y’all.

Some retailers have started posting signs notifying customers that they might not be able to provide exact change for their purchases, and instead ask for them to pay with a credit or debit card or exact payment.

“It’s not like coins are not there,” said Venky Shankar, professor and director of research at the Center for Retailing Studies in Texas A&M University’s Mays Business School. The coins are just being used less as business has slowed and more people stay home.

Another hurdle for coin usage, Shankar said, is the fear that money could carry the novel coronavirus, even though experts don’t know definitively whether cash actually poses a threat.

In order to keep coins circulating, the U.S. Mint has asked people to pay with exact change. “We ask that the American public start spending their coins, depositing them, or exchanging them for currency at financial institutions or taking them to a coin redemption kiosk,” the mint said in a news release. A new task force — the U.S. Coin Task Force — has also been charged with determining how to reinvigorate the supply chain.

[…]

According to Shankar, roughly 45 to 50 percent of sales in smaller stores — places such as convenience stores — are made in cash. But big grocers such as H-E-B, Kroger and Walmart have also faced a shortage of coins.

In response to the shortage, some retailers and restaurants have started to pay or reward customers for their coins.

The U.S. Mint has also increased production from 1.2 billion coins in June to 1.35 billion coins per month for the rest of 2020, according to a Statista review.

But that doesn’t solve everything.

“That still will not unlock the coins that are already in the drawers and the banks,” Shankar said.

Laundromats, which rely heavily on coins to function, are among the businesses directly impacted by the coin shortage.

Yeah, that would suck if no one has any damn quarters. This is a problem all over, and offhand I have no idea what to do about it. I normally like paying for things in cash, but have barely used any since March. This is a teeny tiny reason for saying this, but we live in very strange times.

Do not wait with your mail ballot

You have been warned.

The U.S. Postal Service has warned Texas officials that some ballots cast by mail may not arrive in time to be counted for the November election thanks to certain state deadlines for mail-in ballots being incompatible with its delivery standards.

“This mismatch creates a risk that ballots requested near the deadline under state law will not be retuned by mail in time to be counted under your laws as we understand them,” Thomas Marshall, general counsel and executive vice president of the USPS, wrote to Texas Secretary of State Ruth Hughs in a letter dated July 30. “As a result, to the extent that the mail is used to transmit ballots to and from voters, there is a significant risk that, at least in certain circumstances, ballots may be requested in a manner that is consistent with your election rules and returned promptly, and yet not be returned in time to be counted.”

It is unclear how many Texas voters may be affected should such delays occur. A spokesperson for the secretary of state’s office, which provided The Texas Tribune with a copy of the USPS letter, could not immediately be reached for comment about whether the agency plans to make changes ahead of the election.

Texas was among 40 states, including Florida and Michigan, that received a warning from the USPS over their long-standing deadlines, according to The Washington Post. Six other states and Washington, D.C., received more mild warnings from the Postal Service that said some ballots may be delayed for a smaller group of voters.

You can see a copy of the letter here. This is of course all a part of the larger Trump strategy to suppress votes by destroying the Postal Service. This has to do with the deadline for requesting a mail ballot, which is eleven days before the election, or October 23 this year, according to the SOS calendar. It shouldn’t be this way, but it is very clear that that is way way way too late this year.

So what to do about this, other than hound your elected officials to raise holy hell about this? Well, if you receive a mail ballot application and intend to use it, get that sucker in ASAP. Like, seriously, next day. If at all possible, once you receive and fill out your mail ballot, take it to a dropoff location, wherever your county has them. They can be open all three weeks of early voting, so again, get on it early and take no chances. The rest of you, make a plan to vote in person. I guess the good news for Texas is that the vast majority of us vote in person anyway, so that’s what we need to do the heavy lifting for. But for crying out loud, if you are voting by mail this year, get on it ASAP and either use a dropoff location of send it in right away. There is truly no time to lose. The Chron and Daily Kos have more.

UPDATE: From Harris County Clerk Chris Hollins:

“In Harris County, we are expanding voter access to give voters more options to have their voice heard and cast their votes safely. Voting by mail is hands down the safest method to vote this November. I encourage all eligible voters to apply to vote by mail and return their application and ballot as soon as possible to avoid delays.

“Voters concerned with mail delays will be able to drop off their marked ballot in-person at any of the County’s eleven offices and annexes during business hours, beginning whenever they receive their ballots and continuing through Election Day, November 3, at 7:00 PM. This is the first time in Harris County history where voters can drop off their marked ballots during the Early Voting Period to ensure on-time delivery. We encourage eligible voters to use this method of voting to avoid long lines at voting centers.

“The earlier you apply to vote by mail, the faster my office can mail your ballot to you. Don’t hesitate to mail it back to us, but you also have the choice to utilize our drop-off locations to return your ballot directly.”

There will be dropoff locations at some if not all early voting locations as well. You have options. Just don’t wait to use them.

Harris County to buy digital devices for students

An excellent use of CARES money.

Harris County commissioners on Tuesday voted to spend up to $32 million in federal COVID-19 funds on providing hundreds of thousands of WiFi hotspots and devices to children in school districts across the county.

The funds, provided through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security, or CARES Act, will go toward the purchase of more than 200,000 devices, such as Chromebook laptops, and more than 80,000 WiFi hotspots. The county is partnering with the Texas Education Agency and T-Mobile as part of the initiative.

Commissioners stressed that the programs are targeted at low-income students, many of whom attend schools that could hold classes remotely during the fall due to the pandemic. Gov. Greg Abbott recently said public health authorities could not block schools within their jurisdictions from reopening, though he allowed for certain measures delaying the start of in-person instruction.

Commissioner Rodney Ellis cited a recent study that found about a quarter of Texas students lack the devices needed for at-home instruction, while about a third lack adequate internet access. Among the latter group, two-thirds are Black, Latino or Native American, the study found.

Honestly, this is the sort of thing that should have been done long ago, with the state providing the funds to every school district to ensure that all students everywhere could get online when they needed to. In the absence of that, this will have to do. Good job, Commissioners. A press release about this, with some extra details, from Commissioner Garcia is beneath the fold.

(more…)

College sports roundup

Southland Conference postpones fall sports.

After much deliberation, the Southland Conference has postponed league competition in all of its fall sports with the intent of playing a football season in the spring of 2021 due to concerns over COVID-19.

The Southland will, however, allow teams to play nonconference games if they choose.

Houston Baptist, for example, plans on playing its three scheduled nonconference football games this fall, including at Texas Tech. HBU’s other nonconference opponents are North Texas and Louisiana Tech.

The Huskies also will participate in nonconference games in volleyball and women’s soccer.

[…]

Sam Houston State will not try to play any sports in the fall, but Stephen F. Austin said it would.

HBU will play three opponents (North Texas, Texas Tech, and Louisiana Tech) who will pay them for the game. That’s one way to mitigate the financial hit for this.

West Coast Conference postpones fall sports.

Keeping in line with many other leagues around the country, the West Coast Conference, which includes BYU, announced Thursday that it has postponed all conference fall competition due to the coronavirus pandemic and is looking at ways to compete in the spring.

The decision was reached by the WCC Presidents’ Council after consulting with the league’s 10 athletic directors and commissioner Gloria Nevarez over the past several weeks.

This move impacts women’s volleyball, soccer, men’s cross-country and women’s cross-country. But it doesn’t affect men’s and women’s basketball, which is scheduled to tip off in November.

The conference “remains fully committed and continues to work closely with campus leadership on plans to ensure a safe environment to conduct the 2020-21 WCC men’s and women’s basketball seasons in the winter,” according to league officials. “The conference intends to explore various models for conducting WCC competition in the fall sports of men’s and women’s cross-country, men’s and women’s soccer and women’s volleyball in the spring of 2021. The WCC strongly supports efforts to encourage the National Collegiate Athletic Association to conduct fall NCAA championships in the spring.”

The WCC includes Gonzaga, so you can understand the desire to play basketball.

Southern Conference postpones fall sports.

VMI will not play Virginia nor any other football team this fall.

The Southern Conference announced Thursday that it is postponing its fall sports season until next spring because of the coronavirus pandemic. SoCon presidents voted on the matter Thursday afternoon.

Although SoCon games are moving to the spring, the conference is permitting its teams to still play nonleague games this fall.

But VMI decided not to exercise that option. So the Keydets will not play their scheduled game at UVa on Sept. 11.

“We made the decision, our CEOs did, regarding fall moving to spring, and we support that and believe it’s in the best interest of our cadet athletes to shift things to the [spring],” VMI athletic director Dave Diles said Thursday in a phone interview. “And therefore [VMI] didn’t feel it was the right thing to have any additional parts separated from that decision.”

VMI would have received $375K to play UVa.

Horizon League postpones fall sports.

The Horizon League has canceled sports this fall.

On Thursday afternoon, the league announced it has postponed all competition for fall sports. Among the schools in the Horizon League are Detroit Mercy and Oakland.

In total, 10 sports have been canceled, including men’s and women’s cross country, men’s and women’s soccer, men’s and women’s golf, baseball, softball, men’s tennis and women’s volleyball.

The league said any decision to move fall sports competition to the spring will be made at a later date. Individual schools will implement their own rules involving team workouts, in accordance with NCAA and state guidelines.

The Horizon League had previously voted to delay the start of the fall sports season until October 1.

Big Sky and Western Athletic Conferences postpone fall sports.

There won’t be any sports competitions this fall in either the Big Sky Conference or Western Athletic Conference due to health and safety concerns related to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Both leagues made their announcements Thursday and are looking at the possibility of moving fall competition to the spring. It impacts four Utah colleges: Weber State and Southern Utah in the Big Sky, and Utah Valley and Dixie State in the WAC.

The Big Sky had previously announced it would postpone the league’s conference competition in football this fall, and Thursday’s news confirms there won’t be any nonconference play in any sport. The decision also impacts Big Sky competition in sports like men’s and women’s cross-country, soccer and volleyball that compete for their championships in the fall, as well as those in their nonchampionship portion of the season, including men’s and women’s golf, softball, men’s and women’s tennis.

[…]

The Big Sky punted making a decision on when the league’s winter sports — men’s and women’s basketball, men’s and women’s indoor track and field — could start competition.

The WAC’s fall championship sports impacted include men’s and women’s cross-country, volleyball and men’s and women’s soccer. The league also said the earliest possible competition date for sports in the nonchampionship portion of their season is Jan. 1, 2021, affecting men’s and women’s golf, baseball, and softball.

The WAC will discuss winter athletics competition at a later date, while saying competition in men’s and women’s basketball and men’s and women’s swimming and diving competition will be postponed through the end of October.

All of these conferences are FCS; the WAC used to be FBS, but dropped football after lots of schools moved to other conferences. Also, FCS school New Mexico State postponed its fall sports, becoming the third independent FCS school to do so, following the University of Connecticut and the University of Massachusetts. They all join the Big 10 and the PAC 12 in sitting it out for now, leaving the fall to the Big 12, SEC, and ACC

I don’t know what other FCS conferences there are out there, but for now at least this is what we’re going to get. I’m still quite skeptical that these three Power 5 conferences, plus the non-P5 FCS schools that are still in, can do this safely, but they’re going to try. And who knows, maybe they can. Sean Pendergast makes the case that the conferences that postponed were the foolish ones.

Regular students are coming back to campus anyway
At many of these schools, particularly in the Big Ten, regular students are actually returning to on campus classes this month. Yes, thousands of kids on campus, left to determine social distances and left for us to trust their masking policies. Football players at those schools will now be spending MORE time near the rest of those students. Also, if the Big Ten schools with student returning to campus are THAT concerned about COVID-19, to where they re canceling football, then why on earth are they bringing students back? It makes no sense.

Players in the SEC, ACC, and Big XII will have better access to testing and medical care
When they ultimately nail down hard and fast protocols, it is widely assumed that the SEC, ACC, and Big XII will obviously have some sort of regular testing for COVID-19. This, along with the access to top notch medical staff and facilities, make the players at those schools the most cared-for college students anywhere when it comes to COVID-19. Between frequent testing, the structure of a football regimen, and great doctors, you could argue the safest students in the country are the football players of the SEC, ACC, and Big XII. I feel for the Big Ten and Pac-12 kids who are now left without testing, and many of them being sent back to their hometowns, where depending on their family’s healthcare coverage, it’s hit or miss as to just how protected they are from the coronavirus.

Athletic departments budgets are about to be plundered, say goodbye to non-revenue sports
It would be naive to ignore the fiscal suicide being committed by the Big Ten and the Pac-12, who stand to lose tens of million of dollars by canceling the 2020 football season, basically out of fear — fear of bad press, fear of future litigation, fear of whatever. It’s why I wanted to establish first that the student-athletes in the conferences PLAYING football are actually safer from COVID-19, so my argument doesn’t appear mercenary. Big Ten schools pocket over $50 million per year from the Big Ten Network ALONE. Athletic departments stand to drown in a sea of red ink approaching nine figures. Non-revenue sports, basically everything that’s not football and basketball, that provide scholarship opportunities for literally thousands of kids, many female and minorities, are going to die under a financial guillotine when this is all said and done.

Playing a spring season is actually MORE dangerous than playing in the fall
Here is perhaps the least logical part of the whole thing — the Big Ten and Pac-12 are reportedly wanting to play in the spring. So this would mean playing a football season, which I’m assuming is a minimum of eight games, starting in, say March. This would run through May. Training camp for the fall season, assuming there’s a COVID vaccine and/or therapeutic medicine, would begin in July. That’s LESS than two months between seasons. Seasons of FOOTBALL. This is beyond malpractice, and far more abusive than any sort of exposure players would have to COVID-19. It seems that everyone wanting to cancel football, stuck in their coronavirus fetal position, conveniently forget that they’ve been watching and enjoying a sport for years that includes the risk of permanent head trauma.

Maybe! I think #3 is a legitimate concern, and #4 is a concern for a different reason, which I’ve seen expressed elsewhere: You’re moving football games from October and November to January and February, which are a lot colder and have more snow. That’s not great for a variety of reasons. Multiple football programs have had COVID outbreaks among their players already, some bigger than others, and I have plenty of doubts that the coaches, ADs, and whoever else is making these decisions has any idea what they’re going to do if a team has a similar outbreak during the season. And Lord help us if they all insist on having fans in attendance. I will readily admit, moving these sports to the spring has its share of risks and downsides. But let’s not underestimate the risk of staying the course.