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November 12th, 2021:

Federal judge blocks Abbott’s ban on school mask mandates

Excellent news.

A federal judge ruled Wednesday that Gov. Greg Abbott’s executive order prohibiting mask mandates in schools violates the Americans with Disabilities Act — freeing local officials to again create their own rules.

The order comes after a monthslong legal dispute between parents, a disability rights organization and Texas officials over whether the state was violating the 1990 law, known as the ADA, by not allowing school districts to require masks. U.S. District Judge Lee Yeakel barred Attorney General Ken Paxton from enforcing Abbott’s order.

“The spread of COVID-19 poses an even greater risk for children with special health needs,” Yeakel said. “Children with certain underlying conditions who contract COVID-19 are more likely to experience severe acute biological effects and to require admission to a hospital and the hospital’s intensive-care unit.”

The judge said the governor’s order impedes children with disabilities from the benefits of public schools’ programs, services and activities to which they are entitled.

The advocacy group, Disability Rights Texas, filed the federal lawsuit on behalf of several Texan families in late August against Abbott, Paxton and Texas Education Agency Commissioner Mike Morath. It states that the governor’s order and the TEA’s enforcement of it deny children with disabilities access to public education as they are at high risk of illness and death from the virus.

Kym Davis Rogers, litigation attorney with Disability Rights Texas, said in a statement that the court found that Texas is not above federal law and state officials cannot prevent school districts from providing accommodations to students who are especially vulnerable to the risks of COVID-19.

“No student should be forced to make the choice of forfeiting their education or risking their health, and now they won’t have to,” Rogers said.

Rogers said she doesn’t rule out the state appealing the decision in the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals because the state has done so before, most recently with its new law that bans abortions after as early as six weeks.

[…]

In court documents, Ryan Kercher, the attorney representing the state, argued that neither the attorney general nor the state education agency were enforcing the executive order so they couldn’t be sued.

But Disability Rights Texas attorneys said the three were enforcing the order and provided the court with a letter that the TEA sent to the attorney general’s office. In it, the education agency listed school districts that appeared to be operating in violation of the governor’s order. The plaintiffs also noted how Paxton sued several school districts over requiring masks and sent “threatening” letters to districts telling them that they were violating the order.

This isn’t the first time state attorneys argued that Paxton and Abbott didn’t actually enforce the law. In an August lawsuit against the state over the mask order, Paxton made the same argument and indicated that it was up to local county prosecutors to enforce the order.

See here, here, and here for the background, and here for a copy of Judge Yeakel’s ruling. As the story notes, the US Department of Education is also doing an investigation into Texas’ mask mandate ban; it’s not clear to me what effect this ruling, if it stands, could have on that. Also as the story notes, Paxton had filed multiple lawsuits against school districts that had mask mandates, getting most if not all of them to stop. We’ll see what happens next with that.

I do expect the state to appeal to the Fifth Circuit, and why wouldn’t they? The Fifth Circuit gives them everything they ask for pretty much all of the time, whatever the facts or merits of the case in question. This is still a significant ruling, and we should always take the opportunity to revel in any defeat suffered by Greg Abbott and Ken Paxton. May this be the start of a very long losing streak. The DMN and the Chron have more.

Luke Warford announces for Railroad Commissioner

He’s got the right idea about what to run on.

Luke Warford

A 32-year-old former top staffer for the Texas Democratic Party is running for a spot on the three-person commission regulating the state’s oil and gas industry, hoping to unseat Republican incumbent Wayne Christian with a chief focus on the power grid failure earlier this year.

Luke Warford, the party’s former chief strategy officer, said in an interview with The Texas Tribune that he is running for the Texas Railroad Commission “because I genuinely think this is one of the most important elected offices in the state and because the current people serving on the commission are only looking out for their interests and the interests of their friends, not the interests of Texans.”

“No time was that clearer than during the winter storm,” Warford said, faulting the commission for not doing enough to ensure natural gas companies “weatherize” their facilities, or prepare them for extreme weather.

Christian announced months ago that he would seek a second term in 2022, and Warford is an underdog. The 2020 Democratic nominee for railroad commissioner, Chrysta Castañeda, lost by 9 percentage points, despite getting national money and facing a little-known Republican, Jim Wright, who had unseated an incumbent in the primary.

Warford is undeterred, saying he believes the grid failure “fundamentally changes the calculus” for the race. The latest University of Texas/Texas Tribune poll found that voters are very dissatisfied with how lawmakers responded to the crisis, with 18% approving and 60% disapproving.

Warford may or may not have the primary to himself – filing season still hasn’t begun, so we just don’t know yet. He may be a great candidate on paper, but we’ve all seen good candidates struggle to make themselves known to primary voters because they don’t have any money, and we know what kind of random results we can get because of it. So while I’m glad to see him in the race and I’m especially glad to see the issues he wants to prioritize, let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

All that said, Warford has the right idea for how to position this campaign. The freeze and the blackout are necessarily going to be big issues, and the Railroad Commission is uniquely placed to do something about what happened. I fully expect there will be similar messaging from the top of the ticket, which will help. I mean, probably 90% of the state has no idea who or what the Railroad Commission is, but thanks to that deeply scarring incident from earlier this year, more people have likely at least seen a mention of it, and should be receptive to hearing about what they have (not) done and what they can do to make sure another disastrous freeze-induced blackout doesn’t happen again.

Both incumbent Wayne Christian, a former backbencher in the Lege, and Democrat Grady Yarbrough, an annoying perennial candidate, were bigtime underperformers in the 2016 election. Both got the fewest votes for their party on the statewide ballot. Nearly 750K voters, a bit more than 8.5% of the total, picked one of the third-part candidates instead. Some of that is because voters’ attention tends to wander a bit in those lower-profile races, and some of that was because those two were and are unqualified chuckleheads. We can at least take care of our side of that equation this year. Beyond that, raising enough money to make sure the voters know who’s who on this ballot is going to be critical. I welcome Luke Warford to the race and hope he can pull his weight and get the support he’s going to need if he’s the nominee. The Chron has more.

County Court At Law Judge Lesley Briones announces for Commissioner Precinct 4

From the inbox (and on Facebook):

Lesley Briones

Today, I announce my candidacy for Harris County Commissioner, Precinct 4.

I have devoted my career to helping people – and serving as a county commissioner will allow me to help improve people’s lives in a more direct, impactful way.

Together, we can build a county government that keeps our families safe, protects our homes from flooding, expands access to health care, treats everyone fairly, and creates good jobs that help our families thrive.

I have been represented by the current Precinct 4 commissioner for the last ten years. In that time, Harris County has changed – and now is the time for new leadership that will get better results for our community.

As part of this transition, I have resigned from my position as judge, and will continue serving until my successor is appointed. It has been a tremendous honor to advance equal justice on the bench, and I look forward to building upon my experience as we work to create a safer, healthier, and more prosperous Harris County for all.”

County Commissioner Adrian García made the following statement:

I enthusiastically give my full support to Judge Lesley Briones in her campaign for County Commissioner, Precinct 4. Lesley’s professional qualifications and life experiences make her the best qualified to confront the issues facing Precinct 4 and all of Harris County – from public safety and flooding to health care and jobs. I am unequivocally all in for Lesley!

County Commissioner Rodney Ellis made the following statement:

I am proud to endorse Judge Lesley Briones for County Commissioner, Precinct 4. Lesley’s proven values of fairness and equal justice, combined with her proven skills at getting results for children, seniors, and families, will help keep Harris County safe, healthy, and thriving for all our residents.

Briones was appointed to the County Court At Law #4 bench in 2019 following the Bill McLeod “wait, do I have to resign now that I said I was running for another office?” kerfuffle. Note that she explicitly mentioned her intent to resign in the press release, so good form there. She then decisively beat McLeod in the 2020 primary and easily won a full term that November. She’s the first candidate to announce for the newly-Democratic precinct, and comes out of the gate hot with the two endorsements. I’m aware of at least one other person looking at this race, so she won’t have the primary to herself, but she’s off to a good start. This is the biggest prize on the ballot in 2022 for local Dems, so for sure there will be some further interest in that race. Her Facebook page is here, she’s got a website on the way, and we’ll see who the Court picks to fill that bench again.

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.