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September 18th, 2020:

And so the re-reopening begins

Are we really ready for this?

Gov. Greg Abbott announced Thursday that most of Texas will be able to loosen some coronavirus restrictions, including letting many businesses increase their capacity to 75%, as soon as Monday.

Retail stores, restaurants and office buildings, which have been open at 50% capacity, will be permitted to expand to 75% capacity. Hospitals will be allowed to offer elective procedures again and nursing homes can reopen for visitations under certain standards.

The new reopening stage applies to 19 of the state’s 22 hospital regions. The three hospital regions excluded are in the Rio Grande Valley, Laredo and Victoria. Abbott said those regions’ hospitalizations are still “in the danger zone,” which he defined as places where coronavirus patients make up 15% or more of all hospitalizations.

At the same time, Abbott said the state was not yet ready to reopen bars, saying they are “nationally recognized as COVID-spreading locations.” He stressed, though, that the state is looking for ways to let bars reopen safely.

[…]

“Gov. Abbott’s press conference today was notable for what he didn’t say,” state Rep. Chris Turner of Grand Prairie, who chairs the House Democratic Caucus, said in a statement. “There was no mention of a contact tracing program, no mention of improving the state’s unreliable data and no mention of expanding Medicaid to increase access to health care for the millions of Texans who are uninsured.”

The Texas Democratic Party said Abbott is “basing his decisions on dirty data.”

Abbott began the news conference by hailing the state’s progress in the fight against coronavirus, saying the “biggest reason” for improvements has been that Texans are taking the pandemic seriously and exercising personal responsibility.

The governor reminded Texans that doctors have said the goal is not to eradicate the virus but to “contain the disease, to limit its harm and to maximize the health care system’s ability to treat both COVID patients as well as other medical needs of the community.”

When it comes to further reopenings, he emphasized the state will consider all data but “rely most heavily” on hospitalizations, calling that metric the “most important information about the severity of COVID in any particular region.” It is also the “most accurate information available on a daily basis,” Abbott said.

To that end, the regions that will be allowed to further reopen must have seen coronavirus hospitalizations make up less than 15% of all hospitalizations for seven consecutive days, according to the governor. If coronavirus hospitalizations rise above the 15% threshold for seven consecutive days in a region, a “course correction is going to be needed,” Abbott said, suggesting the solution would be a reversal of the area’s latest reopenings.

Given that many other countries have essentially eradicated the virus, one could certainly disagree with Abbott’s assertion about what the goal should be. Though to be fair, it does seem impossible to set such a goal while Donald Trump is President, so perhaps this is just Abbott acceding to that reality. The Chron adds some details.

The new regional threshold marks a significant shift for the Republican governor as the state’s pandemic response moves into the fall, with flu season arriving and many schools about to reopen for in-person instruction. He previously resisted committing to a regional approach, and said he would rely on a range of metrics — not just hospitalizations — to determine policies.

But the state’s health agency has been dogged by data backlogs, and some counties said they had lost confidence in state metrics such as the number of new daily infections and the percent of positive COVID tests, also known as the positivity rate. While the state has remedied at least some of the issues, hospitalization data have been more reliable throughout the pandemic.

Other large states, including New York and California, are currently using regional reopening plans based on several criteria, including new cases and test positivity. Public health experts caution against relying on hospitalizations alone, since they lag behind infections and therefore provide a delayed glimpse into the community spread of the virus.

All but two of the state’s 22 hospital regions have previously surpassed the new 15-percent threshold, according to the state’s calculation. The governor did not provide the methodology for how they calculated the percentages, and a spokesman did not immediately respond to questions about how the benchmark was selected.

The state has reported nearly 700,000 infections since March and nearly 14,500 deaths, a toll similar to that in other large states, including California and Florida. New York has reported fewer infections but more deaths, stemming from a surge earlier this year.

Texas has been below 10 percent test positivity for at least two weeks now. Earlier this week, state health officials unveiled a new method of calculating the rate, which shows it first dropped below 10 percent in mid August. Abbott has said before that he would consider further reopenings once the state remained below that threshold for two weeks.

Yes, our lousy data quality is an issue. I get that there’s a lot of pressure to let businesses get back to “normal” again. But let’s be real here: One, plenty of people will still not change their habits to what they were in the Before Times until they feel confident that the pandemic is truly under control. Public opinion is clear that most people do not feel this way, and as such this greatly limits the upside of any reopening scheme. Two, we have been down this road before, and the last time we went this way Abbott basically ignored all the metrics that he himself set and just went about loosening restrictions even though none of his own stated criteria were being met. There’s no reason to believe he has learned this lesson. Three, even if we had complete clarity on hospitalizations, that’s a lagging indicator, meaning that by the time the hospitals have started to fill up again, it’s already too late to stop it. Four, see above about the lack of our data quality, which again strongly suggests that even if Abbott is sincere about turning the car around at the first sign of trouble, that first sign may not be at all apparent when it’s happening.

Finally, the reason why people finally started to take the pandemic seriously is because Greg Abbott finally started taking it seriously, and conveying a message that we all needed to be wearing face masks and social distancing and avoiding large gatherings, especially indoors. We certainly haven’t gotten that message from Donald Trump or his biggest toadies like Dan Patrick. If you want to praise everyone for their personal responsibility, then you need to emphasize that they have to continue being personally responsible, which means wearing masks and so on. If that makes the rock-filled heads of Steven Hotze and his ilk explode, then so be it. Abbott loves being in front of the parade, but he does a crappy job of leading it. As I said the last time we re-opened, I really hope this works out. And I really hope Abbott is serious about backing off at the first sign that it isn’t. A statement from Mayor Turner is here, and the Dallas Observer, Reform Austin, the Texas Signal, and the Houston Press have more.

The Green Party owes Ken Paxton a thank-you note

He did them a solid, that’s for sure.

Turns out it is easy being Green

In the legal fight to exclude minor party candidates from the November ballot, Republican Attorney General Ken Paxton took a flexible view of time and deadlines.

After the Texas GOP filed suit Aug. 21 to remove 44 Libertarians from the ballot for failure to pay a required candidate filing fee, Paxton told the Texas Supreme Court that there was plenty of time to pursue the challenge.

This week, however, Paxton told the same court that a Democratic bid to oust three Green Party candidates — filed four days before the unsuccessful GOP challenge — was begun much too late and needed to be overturned.

“The (Democrats’) dilatory conduct and unjustified delay in seeking relief imposed an undue burden on the Green Party officials,” Paxton told the court in a brief filed Monday.

[…]

[F]acing an Aug. 21 deadline to declare candidates ineligible, Democrats sued Aug. 17 to strike three Greens running for U.S. Senate, U.S. House and Railroad Commission.

The Austin-based 3rd Court of Appeals gave the Greens less than 48 hours to respond, then issued an Aug. 19 order declaring the three Green Party candidates ineligible for failure to pay the filing fee. The 2-1 ruling had two Democrats in the majority and one Republican dissenting.

The ruling drew the notice of Republican Party leaders, who quickly demanded that Libertarian leaders drop a long list of candidates for the same reason.

When those demands were rejected, Republican organizations and candidates asked the 3rd Court of Appeals to follow the precedent set in the Democratic challenge and order the Libertarians removed from the ballot.

But the GOP filed its challenge on Aug. 21, the deadline to declare candidates ineligible, and the appeals court tossed it out, ruling that there wasn’t time to hear from all parties and gather the necessary information before the deadline expired.

The GOP turned to the Texas Supreme Court, arguing that instead of challenging candidate eligibility under an expired deadline, it was challenging the Libertarians’ candidate applications as improper — giving them until Sept. 18 to seek court intervention.

Paxton, in a letter brief to the Supreme Court, agreed with the GOP interpretation of state election law.

“Under Texas law, there is still time for this Court to compel compliance,” Paxton told the court on Sept. 4.

The all-Republican Supreme Court disagreed, ruling Sept. 5 that the GOP and Paxton were looking at the wrong section of the Election Code on deadlines. The court concluded that the Libertarians could not be removed from the ballot because the GOP challenge was filed too late.

[…]

Then on Friday, the Green Party asked the Supreme Court to reinstate its three candidates, arguing that like the GOP, the Democrats relied on the wrong part of the Election Code, rendering their challenge void as well.

The court asked Paxton’s office for its opinion.

In Monday’s response, filed 10 days after arguing that the GOP had not acted too late in challenging Libertarian opponents, Paxton urged the court to reinstate the Green candidates because the Democrats waited too long to act and because the 3rd Court of Appeals engaged in a rushed process that didn’t give the Greens, other political parties and other candidates time to weigh in.

“The 3rd Court abused its discretion,” Paxton wrote.

The Supreme Court’s one-paragraph order to reinstate the Green candidates did not explain the court’s rationale.

See here for the background. We expect SCOTX to publish its opinion on this ruling today, so we may get some idea if it’s all a bunch of sophistry or if they can make a principled argument that the Greens were deprived of their right to respond to the Dems’ legal action in a timely manner, which was a part of the ruling against the GOP in the Libertarian purge attempt. That Ken Paxton was willing to be morally and conveniently flexible on the subject should come as no surprise, given everything we know about him and his character. The Republican Party of Texas has a longstanding willingness to help the Greens whenever they think it might benefit them. This time that support came from an elected official instead of a deep-pocketed donor. Whatever works.

There was a debate in the comments of the last post about ranked choice voting (RCV) being a solution to this kind of legal gamesmanship. The theory is that since the people who voted Green or Libertarian (or independent, or whatever else may have been on the ballot) would still be able to express their electoral support for whichever major party candidate they like as their backup selection, which in turn would reduce the incentive for the major parties to bump them off the ballot. The logic has merit, though the lack of RCV around the country means there’s no data to test that hypothesis.

In this case, the argument that had been made by both the Ds and the Rs is that the other parties’ candidates had violated the law by not paying the newly-mandated filing fees – you may note, the Dems did not challenge the three Greens who did pay their filing fees, just the three candidates who had not – and there is a long history of candidates being challenged because they failed to meet eligibility requirements. If the filing fee law continues to survive the lawsuits against it, and there are Greens and Libertarians who refuse to comply with it in 2022, I would fully expect them to be taken to court again, surely in a more expeditious fashion, and I would expect that even in an RCV-enabled world. This is a basic tool in the political toolbox, one that I would not expect to go away if the method of determining the winner of an election changes. That too is a testable question, and perhaps one day we’ll have an answer for it. For now, that’s how I see it.

We suck at COVID data, the continuing story

Would have been nice to have known this when it was happening.

State health officials published new data this week that showed the state’s positivity rate was higher in the spring that originally disclosed, even as public officials cited the data to justify business reopenings during the pandemic.

The Department of State Health Services on Monday announced a new method for calculating the positivity rate, or the proportion of positive tests, and conceded the previous method obscured the extent of viral transmission by combining old and new cases. The new formula relies on the date a coronavirus test was administered, rather than the date it was reported to health officials and verified as a case.

As Texas prepared for the first phase of reopening in late April, Gov. Greg Abbott repeatedly pointed to the state’s positivity rate, even as the number of new cases and deaths continued to rise. Announcing his initial reopening order on April 27, Abbott declared that the “COVID-19 infection rate has been on the decline over the past 17 days.”

The following week, the governor downplayed a new single-day record in new COVID-19 cases by again pointing to the positivity rate.

“Despite concentrating on areas where we think there may be a high level or number of people who could test positive, the fact remains that more than 95% of the people who were tested test negative,” Abbott said during a May 5 news conference.

State data at the time placed the seven-day average positivity rate at 5.84%, near the 5% benchmark recommended by the World Health Organization before governments ease restrictions. The actual rate, however, was higher. According to the new method employed by DSHS, Texas’ seven-day average positivity rate was actually 8.4%, near the 10% threshold Abbott had called a “warning flag” indicating a high level of community spread.

Following the reopening of bars, restaurants, stores and child care centers throughout May, Texas saw a surge in cases beginning in June. The state’s reported seven-day average positivity rate under the old method jumped from 4.27% at its lowest point in late May to 17.4% at its peak in mid-July. After revising the data, the state’s new chart shows that the positivity rate jumped from 5.81% in May to a peak of 21% in early July.

See here, here, and here for earlier entries in this chronicle. This stuff is hard, I don’t want to minimize that. Doctors and scientists have made mistakes and have changed their tune on COVID-related matters over time, as new data has come in and revised our understanding of what we thought we knew. Maybe no one could have known this at the time, I’m not in a position to judge. But as we’ve said before, the state rushed to reopen on Greg Abbott’s orders even as the Abbott-defined metrics for reopening were not being met. Now we know we were even further from the desired levels than we thought, and many more people have gotten sick and died or are suffering from long-term effects of the virus. We can have some level of sympathy for Greg Abbott, we can recognize that anyone would have made bad decisions if they were given bad data, and still hold him responsible for the outcome. His decision to reopen as he did was risky at the time, and it’s so much worse now. That’s all on him.

The post-Harvey flood control march

It’s a long journey, with a lot to be done. It’s going to take awhile.

Most of Kenwood, a working class, mostly Latino neighborhood, is so deep in the 100-year floodplain that Harris County engineers have concluded no flood control project could protect it from a strong storm. Instead, the county began a voluntary buyout program in Kenwood and seven other vulnerable areas two years ago, but found few takers. Under pressure to spend federal Harvey recovery aid more quickly, the county this summer chose to make the buyouts mandatory.

The extraordinary step only underscores that, more than three years after Harvey rolled ashore as the worst rainstorm in continental U.S. history — and amid a record-setting Atlantic hurricane season — progress toward reducing Houston’s greatest vulnerability has been painfully slow and piecemeal at best.

Voters passed a $2.5 billion bond two years ago, giving the county a huge injection of funding to tackle nearly 200 flood control projects. Those projects take time, often years, to complete, however. And county officials concede the cost to fully protect against 100-year storms is more than 10 times higher than what voters approved.

City Hall lacks a comparable cash infusion and so mostly is waiting on the slow-motion arrival of federal aid. Meanwhile, its voter-approved street and drainage program has been shorted by more than $260 million over the last six years, money that has been used on other city services.

The city and county did update their floodplain building standards in the months after the storm, but City Council has yet to follow Commissioners Court’s lead in strengthening storm water detention rules.

“Folks are definitely still quite dissatisfied with the level of flood protection that’s been provided thus far from the city and the county,” said Chrishelle Palay, director of Houston Organizing Movement for Equity. “When it comes to historically underserved communities of color, those are the communities where the infrastructure has been disinvested, both from street flooding and from watershed protection.”

The Houston region’s most readily available defense against future floods is the $2.5 billion county bond.

To date, the county Flood Control District has begun work on 144 of its 188 planned bond projects, but only 18 have reached the construction stage, said Deputy Executive Director Matt Zeve. A dozen projects the district funded with other revenues also have been completed since Harvey, removing an estimated 5,000 homes from the 100-year floodplain.

The bond funds are helping to accelerate long-planned projects and start new ones, Zeve said, but large infrastructure improvements cannot be engineered and built overnight.

“There are places in Harris County that are right where they were three years ago, but there are several areas where we’ve completed projects or are constructing projects right now, and those areas will have a lower risk of flooding in a future storm event,” Zeve said. “It’s not as fast as everyone wants, but we do feel like we’re making good progress on major flood damage reduction projects all over Harris County, with more to come.”

Home buyouts, though some take a year to complete, move the fastest, making the 560 repeatedly flooded homes the county has bought since Harvey among the few tangible signs of progress the city and county have made toward reducing flood risk since the storm.

Even this seemingly simple task, however, can be an arduous process fraught with difficulties and heartache for residents.

There’s progress, but it’s slow and spotty. We should acknowledge that capital projects take time by their nature, and so does relocating people. There’s a lot to be done because there was so much that hadn’t been done over the past thirty or forty years. I don’t know what else there is to say about this. We should keep a close eye on the progress of all of the projects, we should continue to demand that more is done, and we should be voting for politicians who work towards these goals, but in the end and under the best of circumstances, this is going to take time.