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No Hall of Famers this year

Better luck next year.

On Tuesday, the Baseball Writers Association of America revealed the 2021 Hall of Fame voting results. No players appeared on at least 75 percent of this year’s ballots, meaning no one will earn induction through the traditional avenue. The 2021 class is empty. Entering the day, three individuals had received votes on more than 70 percent of the publicly available ballots: Curt Schilling, Roger Clemens, and Barry Bonds. None of them hit the 75-percent voting threshold needed for induction, however.

This is the ninth time the BBWAA did not vote a player into the Hall of Fame. It also happened in 1945, 1950, 1958, 1960, 1965, 1971, 1996, and 2013. Although no players were voted into Cooperstown in 2013, eight players on that year’s ballot were eventually voted in by the BBWAA.

Schilling ended up with the highest vote total (71.1 percent) on this year’s ballot and was just 16 votes shy of induction.

This was the penultimate year on the ballot for Bonds, Clemens, and Schilling. All three are set to appear on the ballot for the 10th and final time next year. However, shortly after the results were announced Tuesday night, Schilling wrote on Facebook that he wants to be removed from the 2022 ballot. If Schilling, Bonds and Clemens are not voted in next year, their Hall of Fame fates will be passed on to the Eras Committees, which meet every few years to consider players not voted in my the BBWAA.

Can’t say I’m surprised by the result. This doesn’t surprise me much, either.

Schilling, in a lengthy letter to the Hall that he also posted to Facebook, asked to be removed from the writers’ ballot next year.

“I will not participate in the final year of voting. I am requesting to be removed from the ballot. I’ll defer to the veterans committee and men whose opinions actually matter and who are in a position to actually judge a player,” Schilling wrote. “I don’t think I’m a hall of famer as I’ve often stated but if former players think I am then I’ll accept that with honor.”

Hall of Fame Board Chairman Janes Forbes Clark said in a statement that the board “will consider the request at our next meeting.”

While there were several deserving players on the ballot, I’m happy to see Schilling not get it. Far as I’m concerned, he can be elected posthumously. Same for Pete Rose.

There will be a ceremony, to induct the Class of 2020, as that obviously could not happen last year. Next year, Alex Rodriguez and David Ortiz get added to the ballot. I’m sure that will make for a boring process. The Hall of Fame press release is here, and Joe Sheehan has more.

The COVID vaccine wait list

Good idea, and about time.

Judge Lina Hidalgo

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo announced Monday afternoon a new COVID-19 vaccine waitlist, in an effort to ensure those who are high priority don’t get overlooked and make for a smoother process.

Hidalgo explained the basics of how the waitlist will work. Hidalgo was joined by Dr. Sherri Onyiego, the interim local health authority for Harris County Public Health.

The waitlist is said to be weighted and randomized, meaning the website won’t necessarily favor whoever has the quickest internet connection. Once the portal opens Tuesday, everyone will be able to register.

If you fall under the 1A, 1B or seniors groups, then your registration will be weighted for priority, and it will then be randomized within the priority list.

The launch of this new portal and waitlist expands the previous process by allowing eligible residents to sign up for vaccines on their own directly, according to a press release from the county.

Eligible residents without internet access can also call 832 927-8787 once the portal is live to be placed on the waitlist.

The new system starts today:

That’s a good approach, and honestly it’s how we should be doing this nationwide. I’ve heard plenty of stories of people with good Internet skills or just the right about of persistence and life-hacking who have helped people sign up for vaccines, but it really can’t and shouldn’t be this hard. And honestly, even for the folks like me who are closer to the back of the line, just being able to register now and then wait to be called when it is our turn would likely relieve a lot of anxiety out there. This starts today and if it works as well as I expect it will, I hope other counties will follow suit. The Chron and Houston Public Media have more.

Meanwhile, on a related note.

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick is pushing the state to refine its criteria for COVID-19 vaccination eligibility, saying that whittling down the list may better prioritize vulnerable Texans and clear up confusion over when shots will actually be available.

The state is currently offering the vaccine to frontline workers and vulnerable Texans, a group of more than 9 million people — even though the state is only receiving about 300,000 doses a week. That numerical reality has made for a confusing and frustrating process for Texans eligible for a shot, with many unable to find available doses or unsure where to look with demand far exceeding supply.

“Texans need to have a better understanding of the time it will take for everyone to be vaccinated in order to reduce lines, confusion and frustration,” Patrick wrote in a Thursday letter to the state’s Expert Vaccination Allocation Panel.

It will probably be May at the earliest before all members of that first priority group have been immunized, said Dr. David Lakey, a member of the state’s vaccine panel, in an interview this week with Hearst Newspapers. The Texans currently eligible are included in groups 1A — health care workers and nursing home residents — and 1B, those over 65 and anyone 16 or older with certain pre-existing medical conditions.

[…]

Patrick suggested creating subgroups within 1B over the next several weeks — perhaps by first taking two weeks to vaccinate those 75 and older, a group of about 1.5 million. Then, he said, a subgroup of roughly 65,000 teachers and school staff over 65 could become eligible.

“This would help give people an idea of reasonable expectations and reduce wait times and frustration each week,” Patrick wrote. “Right now, in many cities and counties when an announcement of available vaccinations is made, website sign-up pages crash and phone calls go unanswered.”

Seems reasonable, and as above it makes you wonder why no one had thought of this before. Including and especially Greg Abbott, who did not come up with this idea despite being the immovable object on everyone’s COVID plans. We’ll see what happens with this.

Of course some anti-vaxx groups got PPP funds

Completely on brand.

Texas-based anti-vaccine organization Informed Consent Action Network was among five anti-vaccine groups that collectively received more than $850,000 in federal loans from the Paycheck Protection Program, the Washington Post reported Monday. The organization received $166,000 in May 2020, according to founder Del Bigtree.

“Vaccine hesitancy” or “vaccine skepticism” poses a significant and ongoing challenge for health authorities trying to overcome mistrust within communities of color, by the anti-vaccine crowd and general uncertainty nationwide. Doctors and scientists say the coronavirus vaccines currently available in the United States are safe and effective.

“At a minimum, it’s a mixed message from the government,” said Timothy Callaghan, an assistant professor in the Department of Health Policy and Management at the Texas A&M University School of Public Health. “Those individuals who are hesitant are going to be looking to various pieces of information to help them make this decision…and if one of the key pieces of information coming out is the government funding anti-vaccine groups, it could send a signal to these individuals that maybe they shouldn’t be vaccinating,” he told The Texas Tribune.

The Austin-based nonprofit has more than 43,000 followers on Facebook and regularly posts information questioning the safety of the coronavirus vaccines. Bigtree’s online anti-vaccine talk show was penalized by Facebook and YouTube last year for violating misinformation policies and downplaying the severity of the pandemic.

As the WaPo story notes, this wasn’t just in Texas. In terms of actual dollars, it’s not that much, but boy does the principle of it rankle. And given how Greg Abbott has staked everything on getting the vaccine rolled out, it would be nice if he felt a little heat from this, since the anti-vaxxers have had more success than failure in the Legislature in recent years. You would think he’d be unhappy about this. Good luck getting him to say anything about it, though.

Finally, a bit of good COVID news

Naturally, it comes from the wastewater.

Researchers who study sewage to monitor the pandemic are detecting less virus in Houston than they have in months, a positive signal that could indicate a forthcoming drop in new COVID-19 cases, doctors said.

The amount of viral load has declined at 28 out of 38 wastewater treatment plants across the city for the first time in five months, said Dr. Paul Klotman, president and CEO of Baylor College of Medicine. He announced the good news during a Friday video update.

“It’s actually a big drop,” Klotman said. “What that means is, in 7 to 10 days, I think we’re going to see a pretty dramatic drop in the number of new cases.”

[…]

Other indicators show signs of improvement. The Houston area’s R(t) value has dipped below 1 for the first time in weeks, meaning community spread is slowing. The test positivity rate for the Texas Medical Center hospital systems dipped from 13.2% last week to 12.7% this week, Klotman said, and the weekly average of COVID-19 hospitalizations is beginning to plateau.

See here, here, and here for the background. As we know, people shed virus in feces and urine, so tracking virus levels in wastewater is a pretty good tool for determining what the true status is and where hotspots are forming. If this is the start of a trend, we’ll see infection and hospitalization levels – not to mention deaths – start to decline rapidly in the next few weeks. Keep wearing your masks and avoiding indoor gatherings, as that’s been our best defense so far, and get that vaccine when you can.

Nowhere to go but up with COVID vaccines

Starting from scratch.

Newly sworn in President Joe Biden and his advisers are inheriting no coronavirus vaccine distribution plan to speak of from the Trump administration, sources tell CNN, posing a significant challenge for the new White House.

The Biden administration has promised to try to turn the Covid-19 pandemic around and drastically speed up the pace of vaccinating Americans against the virus. But in the immediate hours following Biden being sworn into office on Wednesday, sources with direct knowledge of the new administration’s Covid-related work told CNN one of the biggest shocks that the Biden team had to digest during the transition period was what they saw as a complete lack of a vaccine distribution strategy under former President Donald Trump, even weeks after multiple vaccines were approved for use in the United States.

“There is nothing for us to rework. We are going to have to build everything from scratch,” one source said.

Another source described the moment that it became clear the Biden administration would have to essentially start from “square one” because there simply was no plan as: “Wow, just further affirmation of complete incompetence.”

The new administration has asked some of the key players who worked on Covid and vaccines under Trump to resign from their roles, including Operation Warp Speed chief scientific adviser Moncef Slaoui and Surgeon General Jerome Adams. It has kept on others such as Dr. Anthony Fauci, who is now serving as Biden’s chief medical adviser on Covid-19. Adams was asked to stay on as an adviser.

Prior to Inauguration Day, some of Biden’s Covid-19 advisers had wanted to be careful not to be overly critical in public of the Trump administration’s handling of the virus and vaccine, given that the Biden transition team was already having a hard time getting critical information and cooperation from the outgoing administration, the source said.

Now that the transition of power has taken place, the Biden administration is hoping that they can quickly start to get a clearer picture of where things actually stand with vaccine distribution and administration across the country, going through something of a “fact-checking” exercise on what exactly the Trump administration had and had not done, they added.

I trust none of this comes as a surprise. This would be a big challenge even if Team Biden were getting a handoff from a competent, caring, and diligent administration. And remember, right now we’re still experiencing over four thousand COVID deaths per day, with hospitals coast to coast full to bursting. We’re likely still not at the peak from the Christmas-celebration phase of the pandemic.

To be fair, it’s in the Biden administration’s political interests to emphasize what a crappy job Trump did with pandemic response, so that any blame they place on their predecessor for the inevitable bump or stumble sounds credible. And for all the justified criticism, the US is not doing all that badly when compared to other countries when it comes to getting people vaccinated. I’ve said before, the single most important thing that Biden can do to give Dems a fighting chance in the 2022 midterm election is to put the country back on a good track, and the two things he can do to make that happen are get the economy humming again and get everyone vaccinated. The incentives are lined up with the plan of action, the rest is all about getting it done. TPM and Daily Kos have more.

Bail reform plaintiffs want Paxton booted from case

I for one am a fan of kicking out Ken Paxton in any context.

Best mugshot ever

In a strategic move that could speed up their case against Harris County, the plaintiffs challenging felony bail practices are hoping to kick two dozen players out of the game — 23 judges and Republican Attorney General Ken Paxton, who represents most of them in the landmark suit.

These judges who dole out bail rulings on a daily basis to people accused of crime would become third parties. They would no longer go toe-to-toe with indigent defendants who sued in a civil rights case saying courts offer a vastly different outcomes to people arrested depending on how much money they have in their pocket.

The motion filed Wednesday asks Lee H. Rosenthal, the chief judge of the Southern District of Texas, to dismiss the felony judges as parties from the 2019 lawsuit. Should the judge grant it, the remaining defendants in the case would be the county and its sheriff. The majority in county government are in sync with bail reform and the sheriff’s office is headed by Ed Gonzalez, who has said that setting arbitrarily high bail rates doesn’t protect the public.

Paxton has been an impediment to progress, said Neal Manne, a pro bono lawyer from Susman Godfrey LLP, who is among the lead counsel behind twin bail challenges, to misdemeanor and felony bail.

“The county and the sheriff are actually operating in good faith and would like to figure out a solution to a terrible problem. The attorney general is not acting in good faith, he just wants to find ways to disrupt and disrupt and prevent any reform from happening.”

[…]

The idea of removing the judges from the case stems from a ruling by the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in a case that took on Dallas County’s bail system. The appellate court determined that sovereign immunity protected the Dallas judges from being sued over their bail practices. The 5th Circuit ruling said the sheriff is the key party to sue to obtain relief for people who are being detained unconstitutionally due to unaffordable bail.

See here for the previous update. The theory, as espoused by Judge Chuck Silverman, who is not represented by Paxton and agrees with the plaintiffs, is that this would thin the herd in the courtroom, which in turn might make it easier to come to a settlement agreement. It might also put some of the judges who are currently being represented by the AG’s office on the spot, and I’m fine with that.

More bike riders, more bike fatalities

We should try to do something about this.

The COVID pandemic sparked a surge in bike sales and bike riding across the Houston region at a time when pedaling — and driving — area streets is deadlier than ever.

A sharp drop in driving could not stop road fatalities from reaching a record high based on data compiled by the Texas Department of Transportation.

That lack of safety was especially true in 2020 for bicyclists, who represent a fractional number of road users but 5 percent of those killed. Last year 31 men and three women died on area roads. The annual total of 34 exceeds that of 2019, which also was a record at 27 for the region in a single year.

Based on a preliminary analysis — reports can take weeks to enter the state’s crash database maintained by TxDOT — crashes involving bicycles are down 15 percent while deaths are up 26 percent from 2019.

Safety researchers and cycling advocates, however, were reluctant to draw too many conclusions from the early numbers or begin laying blame for the jump on any single cause. In fact, where crashes occurred and who died does not align with the noticeable increase in recreational cycling but, rather, the same factors present before the pandemic: a lack of safe space for bicycles, inadequate or absent lighting, and street design choices that enable drivers to speed.

“These aren’t accidents,” said Joe Cutrufo, executive director of BikeHouston, a local advocacy group. “Our streets were intentionally designed to accommodate one mode, and only one mode.”

[…]

Yet, despite bicycle use for recreation and commuting being higher in neighborhoods within and around Loop 610, that is not where fatalities are happening. Deaths of bicyclists within Loop 610 dropped from seven in 2019 to one last year.

Instead, it is suburban areas where crashes are happening in larger numbers, such as in Houston along U.S. 90 and major streets nearby within the Sam Houston Tollway and along FM 1960 near Bush Intercontinental Airport, which were not built with bicycles in mind.

The number of fatalities always has fallen off the farther from central Houston one gets, but this year some suburban counties logged increases, notably in Brazoria County where five bicyclists lost their lives in 2020. The county’s previous high was three in 2011.

[…]

Last year’s rise in bicyclist deaths mirrors the increase in overall road deaths despite the pandemic-induced economic slowdown that has resulted in fewer vehicles on freeways and streets.

In the 11-county Houston area, 710 roadway deaths were reported by police in 2020, with almost 60 percent being drivers or passengers in cars and trucks. Despite efforts at the state, regional and local levels to curtail crashes and a pandemic that at times cut vehicle use in half, wrecks continued to claim more lives, including a record 482 in Harris County and 263 in Houston.

The conclusion of researchers — who caution that 2020 information is preliminary — is that fewer miles of automotive travel is leading to fewer wrecks, but the resulting collisions and catastrophes occurring are more severe. As a result, few can say roads are any safer.

The connection between less traffic (due to the pandemic) and more traffic deaths was noted months ago, and seems to be the result of people driving faster on those less-congested streets. For obvious reasons, that will be especially deadly for bike riders. There’s a chart embedded in the story that shows 2020 was the highest traffic fatality year since at least 2011 in the Houston area, which I believe in this case is the 11-county H-GAC region. There’s a lot that can be done about this, and a lot that needs to be done, including more roads built for safety over speed, more bike lanes, more and better sidewalks, and just more drivers being aware of bikes and pedestrians. We can make a difference, but we have to want to.

Census apportionment shenanigans to be officially curtailed

As it should be.

The Trump administration’s protracted efforts to keep some immigrants from being counted when congressional seats are divvied up after the 2020 census ended with the former president’s departure from the White House, but President Joe Biden’s administration inherits a census running far behind schedule.

Among his first acts after being inaugurated, Biden on Wednesday is expected to sign an executive order undoing his predecessor’s plan to keep undocumented immigrants from being included in the state-by-state tallies that determine how those living in the U.S. are represented in Congress for the next 10 years.

Trump’s scheme to fundamentally alter the process had already been foiled by processing delays, but Biden’s order serves as an official reversal as state lawmakers wait for the detailed census results they need to reconfigure political districts to reflect a decade’s worth of population growth.

The most significant effect for Texas politically remains an extended delay in the Legislature’s efforts to redraw the state’s congressional and state legislative districts, and part of the job could ultimately fall to a Legislative Redistricting Board or the courts.

Texas lawmakers would ordinarily expect to receive detailed data from the census as soon as mid-February — marking an unofficial kickoff to the redrawing of political districts so they’re roughly equal in population. Instead, the Texas Legislature is operating on uncertainty.

The coronavirus pandemic took hold of the country last year just as it was set to begin the high-stakes, once-a-decade count of every person living in the U.S., setting back elaborate plans for counting communities and the deadline for tallying by several months. With the release of that data delayed — and amid political turmoil at the Census Bureau — it remains unclear whether lawmakers will even be able to embark on the redistricting process before the end of the regular legislative session in May.

“It appears to me [that] a reasonable person would look at what is occurring today and believe the numbers would not come until early summer, but don’t hold me to that,” state Sen. Joan Huffman, the Houston Republican who chairs the Senate redistricting committee, said on the Senate floor last week.

[…]

The Census Bureau was statutorily required to produce the population numbers that determine how many congressional seats each state gets by Dec. 31, but lawyers for the federal government indicated in court hearings that those counts won’t be ready until early March because anomalies in the data must be fixed. The detailed census results used to redraw districts come in a second dataset that must be delivered to states by March 31. The federal government has not provided details on when that data will be available.

In 2011, the Census Bureau began delivering the second dataset to Texas lawmakers on Feb. 17.

In announcing his executive order on Wednesday, the Biden transition team indicated the president would “ensure that the Census Bureau has time to complete an accurate population count for each state” in search of apportionment that is “fair and accurate so federal resources are efficiently and fairly distributed for the next decade.”

“I think at this point the delays are probably a good thing” because the data is being scrubbed for accuracy, said Joaquin Gonzalez, a voting rights attorney with the Texas Civil Rights Project, which has been pushing for a more transparent redistricting process at the state Capitol.

In a joint statement released earlier this month, a group of former directors of the Census Bureau indicated it was “appropriate” for the bureau to take the necessary time to ensure the count was accurate given the delays caused by the pandemic.

However, state lawmakers are up against a constitutional clock that says state House and Senate seats must be redrawn by the Legislature during the first regular legislative session after the census is published. If they fail to do so, the Legislative Redistricting Board — a panel made up by the lieutenant governor, the Speaker of the House, the attorney general, the state comptroller and the state land commissioner — takes over the mapping with no requirement to hold hearings for public input.

“In some ways, the worst case scenario is that the data comes down to the states in May or something like that because then the Legislature really doesn’t have time to do its job correctly, but because of the state constitution, the state districts would automatically get sent to the [Legislative Redistricting Board],” Gonzalez said. “In terms of public participation and transparency, that’s sort of the worst case scenario.”

See here for the previous update. I have been assuming that the redistricting process would have to occur in a special session anyway – it just never seemed like there would be enough time to fit it into the regular session. Dems strategy will apparently be to force the matter to the courts, which was the scenario for Congressional map-drawing if they had taken the House and no agreement could be reached. Don’t know if that can work, but it’s a strategy. Putting that aside, the main result here is that Texas will get a full count, and will get the likely three new Congressional districts that it merits. I’ll never get over the fact that our state leaders didn’t fight for that, but it happened anyway without them. You’re welcome.

Our petty Governor

Sheesh.

Gov. Greg Abbott met with hospital executives in Houston on Tuesday to discuss the state’s coronavirus vaccine rollout, while appearing to snub city and county officials who are overseeing a bulk of the distribution.

The Republican governor said the county, and specifically Houston Methodist Hospital, is leading the state in vaccinations, with more than 250,000 doses administered through the weekend. Dallas County is second for the most shots given, he said.

“Houston Methodist has helped Texas become a national model for the vaccination program,” Abbott said, following a closed-door meeting with executives at the hospital.

[…]

In a tweet over the weekend, Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said city and county health officials had not been invited to participate in the governor’s meeting.

“Any roundtable conversation in Houston about vaccine distribution in Houston, Harris County region should include diverse representation to ensure there is equitable vaccine distribution to at risk, vulnerable communities,” Turner wrote.

Abbott has been repeatedly at odds with Democratic municipal leaders including Turner and County Judge Lina Hidalgo, who have asked for stricter emergency restrictions to slow the spread of the pandemic. The state has recorded more than 32,000 coronavirus deaths since March, and remains in the midst of a massive second surge.

The city and county are currently receiving about 17,000 vaccine doses each week, combined.

Asked about why municipal health leaders were excluded from the discussion, Abbott said state agencies are in “constant communication with local officials, and that process will continue.”

Abbott’s gonna Abbott. Remember how back at the beginning of the pandemic he was happy to let Mayors and County Judges lead when they were doing the hard and unpopular work, and then later he just cut them completely out of everything once he caught some heat from the wingnut faction over masks and quarantines? It’s who he is and what he is, and we shouldn’t be surprised. No wonder Mayor Turner is asking for more direct control of vaccine doses.

On capping restaurant delivery app fees

Fine by me, but I’ll bet more than fifteen percent of my most recent delivery tab that this does not go anywhere.

Rep. Carl Sherman

High delivery fees by third-party apps, such as DoorDash and Uber Eats, are often cited by restaurant operators as a source of financial strain, especially during the coronavirus pandemic. A new bill filed in the 87th Texas Legislature is seeking to cap the fees food delivery services charge restaurants at 15 percent.

The industry standard hovers around 30 percent of a customer’s order, depending on the platform. This would be significantly reduced across the state if the bill passes.

“This is one of my wishes for 2021,” says Alex Au-yeung, the chef and owner of Phat Eatery in Katy.

Au-yeung used Grubhub, DoorDash and Uber Eats at one point, but he got rid of them even before the pandemic. Phat Eatery now operates its own delivery system. With razor-thin profit margins, a fee that high is untenable for restaurants, he says: “If you give 30 percent away, how can we survive?”

Rep. Carl Sherman Sr. introduced H.B. 598 in the House after he heard from restaurant owners in his DeSoto-area district that the high delivery fees were creating hardship for their business.

“The impact of COVID exacerbated the problem,” Sherman says. With dining rooms closed, then reopened at lower capacity, restaurants had to rely on takeout and delivery, often turning to third-party apps. “They were unable to factor in the levied costs from these delivery services,” he says.

Chef Justin Turner closed all four locations of his popular Bernie’s Burger Bus restaurants this year. While he said there were many factors at play, high delivery fees were one of them. Turner signed up for the services because he saw the convenience of delivery become increasingly popular with customers. He said representatives for the companies told him he would see an increase in business by being on the platforms, but he hasn’t found that to be the case. Instead, Turner noticed sales simply shifting away from dine-in to carryout over time. The pandemic made this worse.

“People want the convenience,” Turner says. “Especially in a COVID world, being able to get food dropped off at their door without talking to a person or touching a person.”

Turner adds that these fees also affect the customer. He’s already seen some restaurants increasing to-go prices to make up for the high commission from delivery apps. In his opinion, most food doesn’t travel that well, so people are paying more money for lesser quality than is offered by dining in person.

[…]

Besides the high commission, Au-yeung had other gripes about the delivery apps. His team couldn’t communicate directly with people ordering through the platforms, which made the restaurant’s mission of great customer service impossible. And while he made the decision to leave DoorDash, he found it impossible to take Phat Eatery down from their website. He says he’s tried to contact the company, to no avail. To turn people away from ordering through the app, he edited the menu items to read “Do not order here.” He also jacked up the prices to discourage people.

One service Au-yeung likes, though, is Favor Fleet, an offshoot of the local delivery app now owned by H-E-B. If the restaurant is busy and short-staffed for deliveries, he can request drivers from Favor Fleet on-demand, for a flat fee of $7.50 per order. “That, I can deal with,” he says.

Turner says he favors the bill’s passage but is skeptical about its chances in the Legislature.

“I don’t think, with two publicly traded companies and lobbyists, that this is going to make it further,” he says. “You’re asking them to cut their profits, that they’ve been making for a long time now, in half.”

I suspect that is absolutely correct. This will be smothered by lobbyists before it ever has a chance to breathe. It’s still worth bringing up. Personally, I never use delivery services for takeout. I pick it up myself, which is the only way I can be sure that the money I’m spending goes entirely to the restaurant. It helps that 90% of the time I’m ordering from a neighborhood place, but still. And when this damn pandemic is over, I’m going back to dining in most of the time. Restaurant food tastes best when it’s right out of the kitchen, and no amount of convenience makes up for that to me. Your mileage may vary.

More vaccination hubs

Keep ’em coming.

State health officials Saturday announced 79 hub providers that are expected to receive allotments of COVID-19 vaccines this week, including newly designated hubs in some suburbs of Houston.

The hub providers include two in Galveston County, one each in Fort Bend County, Montgomery County and Liberty County and six in Harris County, according to a list of the hubs that are intended to focus on mass vaccination efforts. Officials plan to distribute 333,650 first doses of COVID-19 vaccines to 260 providers across the state. Additionally, the state will order about 500,000 doses expected to be the second ones for people who received their first shot a few weeks ago.

Earlier this month, the Houston region’s three hubs were all in Harris County, making officials in some surrounding counties fear they’d been forgotten. The Texas Department of State Health Services previously said more hubs were likely to be added but that the main obstacle was a short supply of vaccines.

“In the past week, Texas became the first state to administer 1 million doses of vaccine, and vaccine has been administered to residents of all 254 counties,” state health officials said in announcing the allocation breakdown of the week’s doses. “Vaccine remains limited based on the capacity of the manufacturers to produce it, so it will take time for Texas to receive enough vaccine for all the people in the priority populations who want to be vaccinated.”

The vaccine first arrived in Texas on December 14, so that million doses was administered over about five weeks, or less than 30K per day. Things have surely picked up since the first few days, with the emergence of hubs. We’re still working to get to that 50K per day minimum target, which as we have discussed is still a 20-month time frame. Getting the rate higher than that is going to depend on the federal supply, which was very much over-promised and under-delivered by the Trump administration. But today is a new day, and now we have a new President, and things should be looking up soon. Let’s all hope so.

SCOTUS rejects TDP petition on vote by mail

Back to the lower court, I think.

The U.S. Supreme Court turned away a Democratic bid to force universal vote-by-mail in Texas, leaving intact a state law that lets people cast no-excuse absentee ballots only if they are 65 or older.

The Texas Democratic Party and its allies argued unsuccessfully that the law violates the Constitution’s 26th Amendment, which says the right to vote “shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of age.”

Voting by mail became a sharply partisan issue amid President Donald Trump’s unsupported contentions that the practice led to widespread fraud in the November election. Texas’s Republican governor and attorney general urged the Supreme Court to reject the Democratic appeal.

A divided federal appeals court in September rejected the 26th Amendment claim, saying the Texas law didn’t make it more difficult for anyone to vote. The panel left open the possibility the law could be challenged as a violation of the Constitution’s equal protection clause.

The Supreme Court also rejected Texas Democrats in June, when the justices refused to reinstate a trial judge’s order that would have let any voter request an absentee ballot to avoid the risk of contracting Covid-19. That order, which was blocked by the appeals court, was designed to govern the 2020 election and might have boosted Democrats’ prospects.

See here for the last update, which was a petition for review of the Fifth Circuit ruling that kept intact the existing law on vote by mail in Texas as the original lawsuit that claimed the existing law violated the 26th Amendment is litigated. If I understand this correctly, the original case needs to be re-argued, with guidance from that Fifth Circuit ruling, and then once there is a ruling on the merits, we’ll go through the appeals process again. Or maybe not, if Congress and President Biden can pass a new Voting Rights Act that would allow for this nationally. I don’t see that particular provision in there now, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t or wouldn’t be there. Anyway, it’s kind of a non-starter now, since the effort was to make that happen in 2020, but it’s never too late to make it easier to vote. Just don’t expect anything to happen in the short term, outside of what Congress may do. Reuters has more.

Drinks to go on the legislative menu

Looks likely to succeed.

As the 87th legislature kicks into high gear in Austin tomorrow, a new bill introduced in both the Texas House and Senate is aiming to make to-go alcohol from restaurants and bars permanent.

Venues in Texas have been able to sell beer, wine and liquor with takeout food orders since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, when Gov. Greg Abbott signed an emergency waiver in an effort to help the struggling service industry as it navigated shutdowns and other safety regulations.

The governor allowed to-go mixed drinks in June 2020 after bar and restaurant operators lobbied him to ease the restrictions further. Before that, many offered cocktail kits with the liquor in its original package.

Sen. Kelly Hancock and Rep. Charlie Green filed Senate Bill 298 and House Bill 1094, respectively, on Jan. 7. The bills would allow Texans to buy alcohol from licensed venues, via pick-up and delivery, for off-premise consumption.

“Without Governor Abbott’s temporary waiver allowing restaurants to safely sell alcohol with their to-go food orders, Texas would have seen many more restaurants – small and large – close their doors and lose their employees because of this pandemic,” said Emily Williams Knight, president and CEO of the Texas Restaurant Association (TRA), in a statement. “We know the road to recovery will be long, which is precisely why we need tools like alcohol to-go to become permanent.”

Here’s SB298; HB1094 had not been filed as of when I went looking. You know I support this, and from all evidence so does Greg Abbott, which is perhaps a bit more important. There will likely be some concern about the potential for increased drunk driving, but we do have open container laws, and I’m not aware of any increases in DUI since May when the prohibition on drinks to go was first lifted. There’s still plenty of other things we can do to clean up the byzantine system of alcohol regulation in this state, but I’ll take this as a start.

Vax and the cities

Makes sense.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

A group of mayors representing some of the United States’ most populous cities — including Austin, San Antonio and Houston — is asking President-elect Joe Biden to give them direct access to coronavirus vaccines.

In a Wednesday letter, the 22 mayors urged the Biden administration to establish a national vaccine distribution plan for cities, instead of allocating all available doses to state governments.

“Cities have consistently been on the front line of our nation’s COVID-19 response,” San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg wrote on Twitter. “I’m proud to join my mayoral colleagues in requesting that the Biden Administration prioritize a direct line of vaccines to our communities. We must do all we can to expand and improve access.”

Direct shipments of the vaccine would allow local leaders to plan and connect directly with their constituents, including disadvantaged communities, and help distribute vaccines more swiftly, the mayors argue.

“While it is essential to work with state and local public health agencies, health care providers, pharmacies, and clinics, there is a need to be nimble and fill gaps that are unique to each local area,” they wrote. “Very few cities are receiving direct allocations, and as a result, the necessary outreach needed to lay the groundwork for your vaccination goals are not being met.”

It’s basically an argument for streamlining the supply chain. I favor this because I don’t have much faith in the state’s apparatus, but I’ll listen to your counterargument if you have one. President Biden is proposing a big COVID relief plan that includes a bunch of money for “community vaccination centers”, which kind of sounds like vaccination hubs to me. We’ll see what kind of response this gets.

And we already have our first COVID cases from the Lege

Surely not the last.

Rep. Joe Deshotel

A Texas House member tested positive for the coronavirus after being on the chamber floor for three straight days, giving lawmakers an early indication of the dangers of governing during the pandemic.

State Rep. Joe Deshotel, D-Beaumont, told The Texas Tribune he tested positive Thursday — three days after lawmakers gaveled in for this year’s legislative session. The Democrat said he received a rapid test outside the Capitol because it was “free and quick” as he was heading home Thursday afternoon.

He has “no idea” how he contracted it, said Deshotel, who is currently quarantining and reported minor symptoms. “I don’t know where it came from. It rather shocked me when the guy told me.”

“Getting tested is important and wearing a mask is important,” he added. “You can certainly have [the coronavirus] and not know it, I can tell you that.”

Deshotel said his last test for the virus prior to testing positive on Thursday had been on Monday. He did not opt to receive a test before entering the Capitol on Tuesday or Wednesday.

[…]

State Rep. Michelle Beckley, D-Carrollton, tweeted Friday morning that she had been informed the night before of a “member in my 3 foot radius” testing positive for the virus.

“They did not test on Tuesday prior to the swearing in ceremony,” Beckley tweeted. “10 day self quarantine.”

Another House member, state Rep. Erin Zwiener, D-Driftwood, told the Tribune on Friday that she would also self-quarantine according to guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and said she appreciated Deshotel notifying those who he came into contact with after testing positive.

“With COVID-19 cases soaring across the state, including here in Central Texas, it’s inevitable that legislators will test positive and expose our colleagues,” Zwiener said. “Rep. Deshotel is setting a tone of transparency that’s essential as we move forward.”

Before the House gaveled in Tuesday, House Administration Chair Charlie Geren, R-Fort Worth, had asked lawmakers to take a test ahead of the opening day ceremony. State Rep. Justin Holland, R-Rockwall, responding to Beckley’s tweet, called it “very selfish and irresponsible” to not do so.

“Anyone that objected to take one prior to Tuesday clearly did so out of pride,” Holland tweeted. “Shame on them.”

Obviously, I hope Rep. Deshotel has a quick recovery, and that no one else became infected. This is the limit of testing – there’s a lag between when you get sick and when you might first test positive. That’s also the reason why wearing masks is so damn important, because anyone could be sick and not only not know it but also have a recent negative test to show. Until we’re all vaccinated, we’re all at risk. At least the House is adjourned till January 26, so no one should miss any time in session as a result of this. But please, for everyone’s sake, wear the damn mask. Texas Monthly has more.

More on the Metro security robot

Looks like this is finally getting rolled out.

Typically, when a security guard weighs 400 pounds, it means they are not well suited for foot patrols. K5, however, was built for it.

Soon the spaceship-shaped sentries will roll into action at transit stops and continue keeping watch on a parking garage at Bush Intercontinental Airport, under tests to see if more mechanized monitoring can help people navigate places and provide a bit more security in spaces that could use an extra set of eyes.

Airport officials deployed two K5s, built by Silicon Valley-based Knightscope, in early December. In the coming weeks, once they are properly branded with logos, Metropolitan Transit Authority said it will roll out K5s at a park and ride lot and a transit center in the area. A stationary K1, also built by Knightscope, will be installed at a rail platform. Metro’s board approved a $270,000 contract with Knightscope about 11 months ago.

Robots likely will hit the beat in a few weeks, transit agency spokeswoman Tracy Jackson said. Officials have not confirmed the locations where the units will be deployed.

The intent at Bush, airport parking director Walt Gray said, is to see if the robots prove helpful addressing minor issues that come up in the garage, such as someone who cannot find their car or a traveler who returns with a trip to find a flat tire. A button on the robot can be pressed to speak directly with someone, with the robot able to pinpoint the exact location.

Gray said the robots are supplemental tools to on-site security, though airport officials could have bigger plans to let K5 loose in the terminals to help travelers with directions.

See here for the background. That contract was approved about a month before COVID shut everything down, so I presume that that is the reason why it took so long to get from contract approval to actual pilot test. I don’t have anything to add to what I said back then, I just look forward to the day when I can find myself on a rail platform and encounter one of these things.

House adopts its rules

Here you go.

Rep. Todd Hunter

The Texas House unanimously adopted rules Thursday that will require members to wear masks in the chamber and during committee hearings and allow them to cast votes on legislation from outside the House floor.

But the chamber opted to not require testing for lawmakers as they meet during the coronavirus pandemic and did not expand its virtual testimony options to allow members of the public who have not been invited to testify to comment at committee hearings remotely.

“We’re new to this pandemic, and the whole point about these rules — the key is respect, the key is courtesy,” said state Rep. Todd Hunter, R-Corpus Christi, while introducing the rules proposal earlier Thursday. “What’s the rules? It’s 150 people, that’s what the rules are.”

The coronavirus requirements were part of a broad resolution setting rules for the House during the Legislature’s 2021 session. Members debated amendments on the resolution for hours. In addition to voting on health protocols, the chamber overwhelmingly shot down proposals that would have kept Democrats from serving as committee chairs in the Republican-controlled House.

House members, staff and the public will be required to wear face masks while inside the chamber or a committee hearing room, though witnesses and lawmakers may remove them while speaking from a microphone. Members may also remove masks during a committee hearing if protected by a barrier and socially distanced from others.

The House’s decision to not require testing for people entering the chamber or attending a committee hearing differs from protocols the Senate passed Wednesday. Every senator will be required to test negative for the virus before entering the upper chamber or attending a committee hearing. Senate staff must be tested the first day of the week they enter the Capitol and before accessing a hearing or the chamber.

Addressing the House’s testing approach, Hunter told members that the chamber could not mandate testing until it’s “available in our courthouses and … schoolhouses,” saying it “would be wrong” for members to prioritize their health and safety above others.

“That is the people’s House,” said Hunter, one of the House members spearheading the rules proposal. “And for us to prioritize our own health and safety above others would be wrong.”

The House rules also authorized members to cast votes for legislation “from a secure portable device” if they are inside the chamber, in the gallery, or “in an adjacent room or hallway on the same level as the House floor or gallery,” such as the speaker’s committee room or member lounge. That expansion could help space out the chamber’s 150 members should a lawmaker wish to do so.

See here for some background. The rules are codified in HR4, and you can see a long Twitter thread about the housekeeping rules that were the preliminaries for all this here; note that some of the proposed amendments were later withdrawn. One of the two House members who got up to some mischief but was roundly rejected by the rest of the chamber. I mean, when Briscoe Cain is speaking eloquently for tradition and bipartisanship, you know you’ve gone off the rails somewhere.

Of interest is also the rules relating to redistricting:

Suit up, y’all. It’s on.

The five-ninths rule

All hail the new “smaller than three-fifths” rule.

The Texas Senate on Wednesday approved a fundamental alteration of its rules, ending the minority party’s ability to block legislation it unanimously opposes in the Republican-controlled upper chamber.

In a 18-13 vote, lawmakers voted to lower the threshold of support that legislation needs to make it onto the Senate floor. In past sessions, the Senate required a three-fifths supermajority, or 19 votes, to bring legislation to the floor. But after the defeat of Sen. Pete Flores, R-Pleasanton, reduced the number of Republicans from 19 to 18, lawmakers lowered the threshold to 18 members — a move Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick had been pushing for.

Passage of the rule required a simple majority — or 16 members. State Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston, tweeted that the resolution passed on a party-line vote.

Republicans on the floor hailed the move. Patrick, who presides over the Senate, first floated the idea of lowering the threshold last January, later contending in December that the 2020 election proved voters support conservative candidates and that he planned on “moving a conservative agenda forward.”

[…]

In introducing the resolution, state Sen. Bryan Hughes, R-Mineola, said: “I believe our tradition of requiring a supermajority is good and we should retain it, but … it’s my view that there are enough big items that the majority of Texans have asked for that would be blocked with a 19-vote requirement, which would put us in a special session where we have no control over the agenda.” (To be clear, only Gov. Greg Abbott can call lawmakers back for a special legislative session.)

While the procedure may sound like parliamentary arcana, the impact could spell trouble for Democrats. The change essentially allows Republicans to continue deciding which bills are brought up for consideration without the minority party’s input.

See here and here for the background. As you know, I oppose having artificial anti-majoritarian rules in place, for reasons you can peruse at those earlier posts. I have no illusions that this will be a good thing in this session. It’s going to suck, bigtime. I totally get all the complaints that the Democratic Senators have raised. I just disagree with them about the merits of this tradition.

One thing that was not clear to me, from this story or from the Chron story, was just exactly how this new, lower threshold for bypassing the blocker bill was to be determined. As noted in my previous post, the fraction used could be 5/9, or it could be 4/7, or it could just be “minimum eighteen Senators needed”. Neither of these stories explored that or the potential ramifications of it – I’ll get to that in a minute – but I eventually found it in Senate Resolution 2, the text of which is here (hat tip to Kimberly Reeves for providing the vital #SR2 hash tag that gave me the clue I needed to find this):

Any bill, resolution, or other measure may on any day be made a special order for a future time of the session by an affirmative vote of five-ninths [three-fifths] of the members present.

Further references to “three-fifths” were similarly struck and replaced by “five-ninths”. What this means is that on any day where there’s a full complement of Senators, eighteen votes are needed to bring a bill to the floor for a vote. That’s because, in math terms, 5/9 < 18/31. With a three-fifth requirement, 19 was the magic number (again, 3/5 < 19/31, but 18/31 < 3/5). The reason I'm obsessing over how this was officially expressed is because of the likelihood that at any point in the session, one or more Senators could be sidelined by COVID. If a Republican Senator is out, they're out of luck as long as the Dems are at full strength (17/30 < 5/9). They would need two Dems to be out to make the math work (5/9 < 17/29). Under normal circumstances, you'd shrug your shoulders and say these things happen, but in Pandemic Times, with the Republicans being very devil-may-care about masks, the risk of a self-own is higher than usual. This is one of the reasons why I thought Dan Patrick would give up on the fractions and just push a rule that does away with the pretense and enables majority rule. I wouldn’t have thought he’d be conservative in this sense, but here we are. We’ll see how it plays out.

How bad will the attack on voting be this session?

Hard to say, but there’s no reason to be particularly optimistic.

As the country’s political polarization reaches a boiling point — illustrated vividly Wednesday by the violent takeover of the U.S. Capitol by supporters of the president who believed his false claims that the election was stolen — Texas Republicans are seeking to make some of the nation’s strictest voting laws even stricter.

They say the unrest sparked by the events Wednesday is likely to invigorate discussions over the matter in the state Legislature, where the 2021 session will begin Tuesday.

Several election-related bills have been filed by lawmakers on both sides of the aisle — though their aims are in direct opposition, with Democrats looking to ease up laws they see as suppressing the vote and Republicans trying to curb the opportunities for the fraud they say plagued the 2020 election.

Democrats have filed about two-thirds of the election-related bills, with the other third coming from Republicans.

“If this week has highlighted anything, it’s that we need to protect and encourage democracy and that it’s fragile,” said Rep. John Bucy III, an Austin Democrat who sits on the House Elections Committee. “And so these types of bills are worth the investment.”

Election integrity was voted one of the Texas GOP’s top eight legislative priorities in 2020 by its members. Republican bills include measures to tighten mail voting restrictions and stop governors from changing election laws during disasters, two concerns that President Donald Trump raised in his election challenges.

[…]

State Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston, filed legislation that would codify a Texas Supreme Court decision that blocked Harris County from sending mail ballot applications to every registered voter in the county ahead of the November election. Texas is one of 16 states that require voters to have an excuse to vote by mail.

Bettencourt said Harris County’s move to mail the applications “would have certainly caused more voter confusion” because most recipients would not have been eligible for an absentee ballot. The state Supreme Court ruled last year that voters’ lack of immunity to the coronavirus alone does not qualify as a disability that makes them eligible to vote by mail, but could be one of several factors a voter may consider.

Other bills filed by Republican lawmakers aim to correct the voter rolls, such as one filed by newly elected Sen. Drew Springer that would require voter registrars to do various checks for changes in address on an annual basis.

Springer said the bill was inspired by an Ohio law that the U.S. Supreme Court in 2018 upheld that allows the state to purge voters from the registration rolls if they do not return a mailed address confirmation form or don’t vote for two federal election cycles. The Texas bill would require registrars to use data from the U.S. Postal Service and property records for inactive voters to identify possible changes of address, then to send the notice requesting confirmation of their current residence.

The Bettencourt bill, as described, doesn’t concern me much. Even in 2020, and even with all of the COVID-driven changes to election procedures, not that many people voted by mail, and the vast majority of those who did were over 65. Those folks will get their vote by mail applications one way or another. Unless there’s more to this, this bill is all show.

The Springer bill is potentially more concerning, but the devil will be in the details. I continue to have hope for a revamped federal law that will do a lot to protect voting rights that will blunt the effect of efforts like these, but it’s very much early days and there’s no guarantees of anything yet.

I did not excerpt a section of the story in which Rep. Steve Toth will propose a constitutional amendment that would require a special session of the Legislature in order to renew a state of disaster or emergency declaration past 30 days. It’s presented as a voting rights-adjacent measure, prompted in part by Greg Abbott’s extension of the early voting period, but as we discussed many times last year, there’s a lot of merit in asserting the role of the Legislature in these matters. I don’t trust Steve Toth any more than I trust Steven Hotze, but on its face this idea is worth discussing. It also would require a substantial number of Dems to support it, so there’s room for it to be a positive force. We’ll see.

There are bills put forth by Dems for obvious things like online voter registration, same day registration, no excuses absentee balloting, and so forth, all of which have little to no chance of being adopted. I’ve said before that I think people like voting to be easy and convenient for themselves and that Democrats should campaign on that (among other things), so I’m delighted to see these bills. I just know they’re not happening this session.

Beyond that, I’m sure there will be worse bills filed than what we’ve seen here. I won’t be surprised if there’s a push to amend the voter ID law to include absentee ballots, now that those are no longer seen as Republican assets. I’m sure there will be a bill officially limiting mail ballot dropoff locations, and maybe one to limit early voting hours. For sure, there’s a significant contingent of Republicans that would like to make voting extra super inconvenient for everyone, as well as make the penalties for whatever minor offense Ken Paxton can find to charge someone with as harsh as possible:

Laugh at the lunacy that is Allen West all you like, the man is in a position of influence. Note also the attack on drive-through voting, which is another likely target even without this hysteria. I don’t know how far the Republicans will go, but they’ll do something. We can do what we can to stop them, and after that it’s all about winning more elections. It’s not going to get any easier.

Vaccine roundup

Just a few news stories (and a Twitter thread) of interest from recent days.

How do you get a COVID-19 vaccine? In Texas’ rollout, it’s a game of luck and chance

Still, the contrast shows just how sharp and seemingly random the divide has emerged between those who are able to get the vaccine easily and those who cannot. In the fourth week of Texas’ vaccine rollout, a dermatology practice in Bellaire got 300 doses while Hope Clinic, which serves Houston’s poor and immigrant communities, got 100, according to the state’s most current list.

County registration hotlines have crashed under the volume of applicants while some doctors reported fielding calls from friends asking how to move to the front of the line.

In the month since the vaccines got federal approval, getting them into arms of the most vulnerable has been anything but smooth. Distribution has lagged. Demand has far outstripped supply. Critics call it yet another chapter in the failed government response to a virus that arrived nearly a year ago.

“There does seem to be no discernible distinction between those who are getting the vaccine and those who aren’t,” said Elena Marks, CEO of Houston’s Episcopal Health Foundation, an organization that works to improve health care access for poor.

Such unevenness is happening not just among the public but also within the medical community. At some small and midsize private practices, access to the vaccine remains elusive for front-line health care workers who regularly treat COVID patients, doctors say. Yet employees of large medical practices and big-name facilities are vaccinating staff that is not in direct contact with patients and in some cases working from home.

Clogged phone lines and ethical dilemmas: Texas health providers scramble to roll out vaccine with little state guidance

Texas has largely left the vaccine rollout process in the hands of local providers like Tarrytown Pharmacy, one of more than 1,000 providers approved to vaccinate Texans. And outside of dictating the first two groups allowed to receive it, providers say the state has given little instruction or information on when allotments will arrive, how immunization operations should be organized and what principles ought to be followed in prioritizing within groups 1A and 1B.

As they spearhead vaccination in a state of 29 million people, hospitals, pharmacies and community health centers alike across Texas built new scheduling systems from scratch, struggled to sync their patient information systems with the state’s and answered to an increasingly anxious public wondering when their turn for the shot will come — all while helping fight the COVID-19 pandemic during its highest peak in Texas.

“Every space I have is booked. I have phones going off the hook saying, ‘Where’s mine?’” said Dr. James McCarthy, chief physician executive for the Memorial Hermann Health System in Houston. “The demand is insatiable right now. Everybody wants it today, and we just don’t have enough vaccines. It will take months.”

The state’s initial allocation of 1.2 million doses had been shipped by Jan. 3, according to state health officials, and another January shipment was expected to bring the state’s total allotment to 1.7 million. That’s still hundreds of thousands of doses short of the roughly 1.9 million necessary to provide just a first dose of vaccine to those Texas health care workers and residents of long-term care facilities eligible in group 1A.

But before many of those first in line had received a dose, the state allowed providers to start administering the vaccine to the second group — about 8 million people older than 65 or at least 16 with certain medical conditions. A Department of State Health Services official said there is some overlap between groups 1A and 1B (doctors and other health care workers over age 65, for example).

The sudden announcement to open vaccinations to the second group — just a week after the first distribution of vaccines for the first group — caught many providers off guard.

“It was in response to all of the chatter and angst to ‘Oh my God, they haven’t given all their vaccines out,’ and it’s been five days,” said McCarthy of Memorial Hermann. “I thought we would get all the health care workers done, and then we would move on. I didn’t think we’d be doing them simultaneously.”

Greg Abbott’s Politics Create a Vaccine Stampede

But Texas decided to do things differently than the CDC. While the state’s designated first tier matched that of the feds, its second tier included all Texans age 65 and older, as well as those with preexisting health conditions that make them vulnerable to severe cases of COVID-19. This approach put lower priority on police and younger essential workers, like grocery clerks or restaurant servers, many of whom were bitter about the state’s decision. Then, just before the new year, Governor Greg Abbott and his state health department changed the game further. On December 29, state health commissioner John Hellerstedt ordered providers to start vaccinating those in the second tier immediately, even though many in the first tier remained unvaccinated. Abbott backed him up in a tweet: “The state urges vaccine providers to quickly provide all shots.”

In an instant, I effectively had been moved to the front of the vaccination line. The problem was finding where that line began. Abbott had started a stampede.

There were too many eligible people chasing too little vaccine. The Texas Department of State Health Services reported that it had received 1.3 million doses. But Abbott had authorized another 8 million people to receive the vaccine even though providers weren’t anywhere near finished inoculating the 1.9 million Texans in what was supposed to be the first-tier priority group. Abbott’s declaration got too many in the state (even those under 65 and without any severe health conditions) thinking vaccines were more widely available. With few providers actually offering shots to the general public, the Hunger Games of vaccination had begun.

Advocates worry vaccines will be out of reach for Black and Hispanic neighborhoods devastated by COVID-19

COVID-19 has been disproportionately deadly for communities of color in Texas. And advocates for those communities are worried that they will have more trouble accessing vaccinations than the white population because of where vaccination sites are located.

“We already saw huge disparities in death rates and people getting [coronavirus] infections, and there wasn’t availability of resources like health care for brown and Black communities suffering tremendously,” said Kazique Prince, interim executive director for the Central Texas Collective for Racial Equity, a nonprofit association based in Austin. “I’m very nervous and anxious that this [vaccination effort] is not going to work out for us.”

According to the Texas Department of State Health Services data, more than half of the fatalities in Texas due to COVID-19 have been Hispanic individuals and almost 10% have been Black people. Yet the state’s designated vaccination sites — mostly hospitals, clinics, nursing homes and pharmacies — are concentrated in more affluent areas where those facilities tend to be located.

And, just as a reminder:

Health officials in Austin are considering opening a makeshift hospital as its intensive care units fill up. Patients in North Texas are being treated in lobbies or in hallways. And hospitals around Laredo, Abilene and College Station have three or fewer intensive care unit beds open, according to state data.

A week into the new year, hospitalizations in Texas have well-surpassed a deadly summer wave that overwhelmed health care workers in the Rio Grande Valley. Health experts have long warned of a dark winter — with a public tired of following safety precautions, a raging pandemic and cold weather drawing people indoors where the virus can more easily spread. Add to that holiday gatherings and increased levels of travel, which health officials say are already being reflected in the growing numbers of hospitalized coronavirus patients.

New year, same story. We deserve so much better. We’ll get better soon from the federal government. When will we get it from our state government?

We have our Speaker

Congratulations.

Rep. Dade Phelan

The Texas House on Tuesday elected state Rep. Dade Phelan as the next House speaker, ushering into office a new leader who will oversee a chamber facing its toughest set of legislative challenges in years against the backdrop of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

The House voted 143-2 for Phelan, with four members not voting. The two members who voted against Phelan were GOP freshmen Bryan Slaton and Jeff Cason.

Phelan, a Beaumont Republican, replaced former House Speaker Dennis Bonnen, who retired from office thanks to a secret recording scandal that fractured relationships in the 150-member lower chamber. Phelan has billed himself as a figure who has earned the trust of his colleagues and who wants to lead the House by letting members drive the business of it.

Phelan’s election to the gavel was one of the House’s first orders of business Tuesday, when the Legislature gaveled in for the 2021 legislative session.

Best of luck in the new session. My advice is to never, ever speak to anyone associated with Michael Quinn Sullivan if you can avoid it, and if you can’t avoid it remember that they are almost certainly recording you in the hope that you will say something dumb and they can torpedo you over it. Learn from the mistakes of your overly self-confident predecessor. And don’t let anyone get away with sedition, insurrection, or not wearing a mask. Good luck, we’re all counting on you.

There was also this.

The Texas Legislature gaveled in Tuesday for its biennial session with a heavy security presence after the U.S. Capitol insurrection last week and rampant reminders of the still-raging coronavirus pandemic.

The state House and Senate met in the early afternoon without incident, and there was only a small protest outside the Capitol beforehand. Still, the sight of state troopers clustered around the building’s entrances and lining the halls inside was striking, especially after the unrest in the nation’s capital on Wednesday that left five people dead and has led to dozens of arrests.

“This is my 19th session, and I don’t think I’ve ever felt the way I felt today when I recognized that we had to have all this security,” Rep. Harold Dutton, D-Houston, said in the minutes before the session began. “And my first question to myself was, How far have we come? I mean, have we come forward or have we gone backward?”

“I told the DPS officers and the military I felt safe,” Dutton added, “but I didn’t know I needed them to feel safe.”

[…]

Nothing remotely close to what happened in Washington, D.C., unfolded Tuesday in Austin. There was a small protest — appearing to number less than a dozen people — outside the Capitol’s north entrance, at least partly related to vaccines, about an hour before the session began, and a wall of DPS officers were lined up on the perimeter of it.

After the chambers let out around 1:30 p.m., DPS troopers were still in place on the outdoor perimeter of the Capitol, but there were no protests in sight.

Let’s hope it stays calm and sedate.

And there was also this.

Even as members of both parties came together for the opening remarks and swearing in of new members, they remained visibly at odds over proper health precautions amid the pandemic. In the Senate, masks were not required and at least half of lawmakers declined to wear them while seated at their desks.

Plexiglass barriers lined administrative desks at the front of the room, but only Sen. Borris Miles, a Houston Democrat, had a protective shield around his desk.

“We’re here to do the people’s business,” said Lt. Gov Dan Patrick, who heads the Senate and has been a vocal opponent of mandated restrictions. “We want our Capitol open this session, unlike many states,” he added. “We want the public to be here and have your voice heard in committee, to be able to visit your representative.”

Members and their guests were required to test negative for COVID-19 before entering the Capitol.

The new session arrives as infections in Austin have reached all-time highs. On Tuesday, state and local emergency officials opened a temporary facility for overflow hospital patients as the city’s hospitals continued to be overrun with coronavirus patients.

Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston, was among those who declined to wear a mask in the chamber. His spokesman said “everyone was tested prior to coming into the Capitol this morning, including all senators and guests that were sitting in the gallery today.”

Yeah, no one’s ever heard of a false negative test result. What do you think is the over/under on legislators who get COVID? Not counting the two (Drew Darby and Tracy King) who were not present because they already had a positive test. I’m at least as worried about the staffers and folks who work at the Capitol, but we’re much less likely to hear it when they get sick. Just please, let’s try not to turn this session into a superspreader event.

Here’s the official budget forecast

“Could be worse” remains the watchword.

Texas lawmakers will enter the legislative session this week with an estimated $112.5 billion available to allocate for general purpose spending in the next two-year state budget, a number that’s down slightly from the current budget but is significantly higher than what was estimated this summer when the coronavirus began to devastate the economy.

Texas Comptroller Glenn Hegar on Monday announced that number in his biennial revenue estimate, which sets the amount lawmakers can commit to spending when they write a new budget this year. But he acknowledged that Texas’ economic future remains “clouded in uncertainty” and that numbers could change in the coming months.

Hegar also announced a nearly $1 billion deficit for the current state budget that lawmakers must make up, a significantly smaller shortfall than Hegar expected over the summer. That number, however, doesn’t account for 5% cuts to state agencies’ budgets that Gov. Greg Abbott, House Speaker Dennis Bonnen and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick ordered this summer or any supplemental changes to the budget lawmakers will have to make.

Hegar’s estimates portend a difficult budget-writing session for lawmakers. But Hegar acknowledged that things could have been a lot worse. The $112.5 billion available is down from $112.96 billion for the current budget.

See here for the previous update. I continue to hope that Congress will throw a boatload of state and local aid our way in the coming months, which will also help, but at least we’re not in truly dire territory. And bizarrely enough, there may be a silver lining in all this.

But advocates hope the pandemic, combined with the revenue crunch, could lead to an unlikely bipartisan agreement. Before the pandemic hit, Democrats saw a takeover of the Texas House as key for advancing the prospects of Medicaid expansion in the state. But as COVID-19 has ravaged the state economy and thrown even more Texans into the ranks of the uninsured, Democrats are guardedly optimistic this could persuade enough Republicans to put aside their political hangups and support expansion—even as Republican Attorney General Ken Paxton leads a national lawsuit to eliminate the entire Affordable Care Act.

Texas is one of 12 remaining states that have refused the federally subsidized Medicaid expansion, despite having the highest rate and largest population of uninsured residents in the country. Expanding Medicaid would cover 1 million uninsured Texans and bring in as much as $5.4 billion to the state, according to a September report by researchers at Texas A&M University.

State Representative Lyle Larson, a moderate Republican, voiced his support for expanding Medicaid soon after the election, pointing to six GOP-led states that have done so in the past three years. “It is a business decision,” Larson wrote on Twitter, noting that the move would help with the revenue shortfall and COVID-19 response, address rural hospital closures, and expand access to care. Dallas County Representatives Morgan Meyer and Angie Chen Button, both Republicans, pulled out razor-thin victories to keep their House seats after voicing support for some type of Medicaid expansion in their campaigns.

Even conservative state Senator Paul Bettencourt acknowledged that the fiscal crunch will force consideration of Medicaid expansion. “My back-of-the-napkin analysis shows that’s a $1.6 billion item, like that—boom!” he told the Dallas Morning News in September. “I’m pretty sure we don’t have that falling out of trees,” he said. “You can put Medicaid expansion up at the top of the list. There will be a debate.”

But there’s still plenty of staunch opposition. “For those that promote [expansion], I haven’t heard what they’re willing to cut,” state Senator Kelly Hancock, a Republican who chairs the Business and Commerce Committee, said in November. “It’s easy to talk about it until you have to pay for it, especially going into this budget cycle.”

As with casinos and marijuana, the smart money is always to bet against Medicaid expansion happening. But this is a bigger opening than I’ve seen in a long time, and while that’s still not saying much, it’s not nothing.

Abbott speaks about the vaccination effort

It’s going great! We swear!

More than 877,000 Texans have received a COVID-19 vaccine since they first began arriving in Texas nearly four weeks ago, and that number is expected to increase by at least 50,000 more per day, Gov. Greg Abbott said Monday.

“Never before in the history of this state has Texas vaccinated so many people so quickly, “ Abbott said during remarks at the Esports Stadium Arlington & Expo Center, a newly-designated “vaccination hub” that local health officials said can vaccinate thousands per day. “It’s stunning to see what we’ve accomplished.”

The Arlington center, home to the city’s mass vaccination effort since December, is among 28 sites designed by the state as hubs.

“Our goal is, by the end of the week, we have no vaccines left,” said Tarrant County Judge B. Glen Whitley. The county’s health district was allotted 9,000 doses in the most recent shipment this week.

The hubs are meant to streamline vaccinations at a time when the state is seeing an unprecedented surge in COVID-19 cases, deaths, and hospitalizations. Texas continues to prioritize vaccinating health care workers, people who are 65 and older, and those with medical conditions that increase their risk of hospitalization or death if they contract the virus.

The large sites will receive most of the state’s next shipment of 158,825 COVID-19 vaccine doses this week. Just over 38,000 doses will go to 206 additional providers across the state, including several in rural counties that until recently had not received an allotment.

Officials promise bigger allotments in the weeks and months to come, but a patchwork local system of vaccine distribution, among other issues, has created a tumultuous rollout to the long-awaited vaccine.

On Monday, Abbott said Texas expects to see an additional 310,000 first doses per week for the rest of January and up to 500,000 second doses earmarked for those who have already received the injection in Texas. Continued increases are expected, Abbott said, depending on the federal government allotments.

[…]

The data on the number of doses administered has a reporting lag of at least two days, Abbott said, but added that Texans will start to see a significant uptick in those numbers as this week’s vaccinations are reported.

“You are going to see those numbers increase, as it turns out, somewhere between 50,000 and 75,000 per day,” Abbott said.

Texas Health Commissioner John Hellerstedt said the rate and scale of the state’s rollout has been “a really amazing operation” and said the creation of the hubs would ratchet up the rate of administration.

“Through the kind of vaccination operation we see here, we’re very confident it’s going to accelerate here even more,” Hellerstedt said. “It is really the way forward.”

That’s a lot of number being thrown at us. For sure, 50K per day is a big improvement over the “100K per week” we were at earlier in the year. That was a six-years-to-full-vaccinations pace, whereas 50K per day will get everyone vaccinated in 20 months. At the promised high end of 75K per day, we’re at about 13 months. Still not great – we sure would like to finish this task before 2022, wouldn’t we? – but at least in a timeframe we can envision. Note though that we are not at that pace yet – the 310K first doses per week rate is less than 50K per day, and puts us back at an almost-two-years duration. Again, I do expect things will get better, assuming of course that Abbott and the rest of our state leaders don’t reject federal assistance in the name of stupid partisan politics, but every week it takes us to get up to speed is that much longer to get to where we want to be. The hub approach is a sensible model, but it’s going to take a lot of effort and resources to make it work.

The Minute Maid mega-vaccine center

More like this, please.

The city partnered with the Astros organization to transform [Minute Maid Park] into a site to provide the Moderna vaccine to up to 3,600 health care workers, residents ages 65 and older, and patients with underlying medical conditions. Vaccine distribution was moved from the Bayou City Event Center, which was needed for a different event, giving the city a sneak peek at how the stadium would operate as a mega-site when it officially opens in the coming week.

Divided into three sections, the stadium’s lower level was reserved for the elderly and those with mobility challenges. Volunteers first led participants to a section to complete additional paperwork for the vaccine, then to a waiting area and the official vaccination stations, and finally, an observation area, where health workers watched for any adverse or allergic reactions at least 15 minutes.

[…]

[Mayor Sylvester] Turner, who toured the site, greeting residents with fist and elbow bumps and encouraging volunteers and essential workers, said Minute Maid Park is the largest vaccination site that the city has hosted so far — inoculating 350 people an hour and tripling the total amount of people vaccinated last Saturday at the Bayou City Event Center.

U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, who attended an afternoon press conference at the ballpark, said it’s also the first model of a mega-site in the country, which could serve as an example for other major cities also looking to establish similar sites.

The outcome, however, was more than Turner and health officials had originally expected.

The city had around 1,000 doses of the vaccine as of Thursday and decided to scale back vaccinations for the weekend when a delivery was not received, but by Friday morning, the city unexpectedly received an additional 2,600 vaccines, Turner said. The city and the Houston Health Department quickly switched gears, scheduling appointments with people who had pre-registered to ensure that the vaccine was distributed and not sitting, wasted on shelves. They also opened up registration, receiving an additional 1,000 applicants within 20 minutes, Turner said.

Marcel Braithwaite, the Astros’ senior vice president of business operations, said the stadium had already begun preparing earlier in the week and officials were confident in the infrastructure.

“It was more about the logistical flow” and ensuring that there was enough physical space within the building to allow for social distancing in waiting areas and immunization pods, Braithwaite said.

This is great, and as a proof of concept it’s clear that this model can work well. I meant it literally when I said “more like this”, because we’re going to need to replicate this on a much bigger scale in order to make progress against COVID. Remember what I said about the scope of the problem. There’s nearly five million people in Harris County. If we want to get everyone vaccinated by the end of the year, we need to be doing over sixteen thousand inoculations per day, every day. That means we need the equivalent of five of these mega-centers, again operating every day. We need them to be accessible by public transit, we need them open at night so as to get people who can’t get off work (remember those 24-hour early voting centers we had last year? Like that), we need them to take all comers whether they have insurance or a personal physician or access to the Internet to make an appointment, we need people working at these locations who speak a broad variety of languages, and we need all of the personnel for this to be local, both to minimize COVID risk (so no one has to travel) and because literally everywhere else will be doing the same thing so we can’t expect to bring in volunteers from other places. Oh, and baseball season will start in April, so at some point Minute Maid becomes unavailable. How’s all that sound? It’s what we need. And we’re going to need a highly-functional federal government, as well as a much better response from the state government, to have a chance.

Assistance for renters coming

Good, but of course much more is needed.

Houston officials expect to get up to $70 million in federal stimulus funds to help renters in the city make their monthly payments and use toward other housing expenses.

The $900 billion federal stimulus package Congress approved late last year did not include more assistance for cities and states, but it did allot $25 billion in emergency relief for renters. Those funds will pass through states and local governments that represent more than 200,000 residents.

Mayor Sylvester Turner said Wednesday he expects Houston’s share of those funds will arrive soon. Bill Kelly, the city’s director of intergovernmental relations, said he estimates the city will get an allocation of $65 million to $70 million. The money will go through the Treasury Department, and the law calls for making the payments within 30 days of its passage, which would be Jan. 26.

“My personal goal is to make sure we have this thing done by February 1,” Kelly said of developing the city’s program.

[…]

To be eligible under the law, households must be renters and have at least one individual that qualifies for unemployment or has experienced financial hardship due to COVID-19; demonstrate a risk of homelessness or housing instability; and have a household income at or below 80 percent of the area median income. For a family of four in Houston, that would be $63,050.

The law prioritizes applicants who have been unemployed for 90 days and households below 50 percent of the median income, around $39,000 in Houston for a family of four. The city could adopt additional requirements and priorities.

The city previously used about $30 million of federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security, or CARES, Act funds to direct toward renters. It also used roughly $20 million for direct assistance, in which recipients can use the money as they see fit. BakerRipley, a community nonprofit, administered those funds.

The first round of $15 million was distributed on a first-come, first-served basis, but the city pivoted in the second round to distribute the money based on need.

I’m sure this will help a lot of people, and I’m sure the city will do everything it can to get the program up and running quickly. More is obviously needed, but I expect another, bigger relief package coming as soon as possible after January 20, so at least part of the problem should addressed. But look at all the qualifiers in the two paragraphs above, and ask yourself how many people might not know they’re eligible, or might not know how to apply for the funds, or who just need them faster than that to avoid eviction or other hardship. In normal times, it makes sense to make sure all the funds are used super-efficiently, and not wastefully. The cost of making it harder and take longer to get the funds is worth the tradeoff. We’re as far from normal times as we can get. Maybe we just need to make it easier to get as much money as is needed into the hands of everyone who might need it, and not worry too much if some of it goes to the “wrong” people. There’s got to be a better way to alleviate suffering in crisis times.

NCAA finalizes single-site March Madness

Welcome to Indianapolis, assuming anyone is allowed to attend, which honestly they shouldn’t as things are right now.

The NCAA will host its entire postseason men’s basketball tournament in Indianapolis and surrounding areas with a bubble-like format, officials announced on Monday.

All 68 teams will come to compete for the national championship and play most of the games at multiple venues in Indianapolis, with some games in Bloomington and West Lafayette. The bulk of the teams will stay in hotels connected to the Indiana Convention Center, which will be used as a practice facility, the NCAA said.

Selection Sunday is still scheduled for March 14, and the Final Four is set to be held April 3 and 5 at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis.

In Indianapolis, Bankers Life Fieldhouse, Hinkle Fieldhouse and Indiana Farmers Coliseum will be used for tournament games. Mackey Arena in West Lafayette and Assembly Hall in Bloomington will also be used, the NCAA said.

“This is a historic moment for NCAA members and the state of Indiana,” NCAA president Mark Emmert said in a statement. “We have worked tirelessly to reimagine a tournament structure that maintains our unique championship opportunity for college athletes. The reality of today’s announcement was possible thanks to the tremendous leadership of our membership, local authorities and staff.”

The monumental effort will include the largest bubble-like attempt by any major sport during the pandemic.

A local health partner in Indianapolis will handle testing for all players, coaches, staffers, officials and others connected to the event. The announcement did not specify the frequency of testing in what NCAA officials are calling a “controlled environment,” but Marion County officials have approved the NCAA’s plan and protocols.

Teams will stay on “dedicated hotel floors” and abide by social distancing throughout their time in the tournament. And a “limited number of family members” will be permitted to watch games, while other details about fans remain undetermined.

See here for the background. As the story notes, the Division II and III championships will also be held in Indiana, in other cities. This is all happening as various teams are missing and postponing games due to virus concerns, and one major women’s team canceled their season. Speaking of the women, no word that I know of what they will do with their tournament. I feel pretty confident that some form of March Madness, as big as they can make it (who knows, maybe even bigger this year), will happen. If all the other sports can be played to completion, and with all the money at stake, it pretty much has to.

Coronavirus 2.0

Happy New Year.

The first known case of a new and possibly more contagious coronavirus strain has been reported in Texas, in an adult male resident of Harris County who had no history of travel, according to the state health services department and County Judge Lina Hidalgo.

The variant known as B.1.1.7 was first identified in the United Kingdom, where it has spread quickly, and cases have been found in several U.S. states, including California and Colorado. It does not cause a more severe disease, and vaccines “are expected to be effective against it,” the health services department said, citing the existing scientific evidence.

“The fact that this person had no travel history suggests this variant is already circulating in Texas,” said Dr. John Hellerstedt, commissioner of the state’s health services department. “Genetic variations are the norm among viruses, and it’s not surprising that it arrived here given how rapidly it spreads.”

While this variant doesn’t appear to be any nastier, as far as we know, and should still be covered by the vaccines, it is apparently capable of spreading faster. Really makes you want to stay away from people, doesn’t it?

On the plus side, maybe.

State officials will start distributing most of Texas’ vaccine doses next week to a handful of large pharmacies and hospitals, creating “vaccination hubs” where more people can get a shot quickly, the Department of State Health Services announced Thursday.

“As the vaccination effort continues to expand to people who are at a greater risk of hospitalization and death, in addition to frontline health care workers, these vaccination hubs will provide people in those priority populations with identifiable sites where vaccination is occurring and a simpler way to sign up for an appointment with each provider,” the department said.

Those hubs could vaccinate more than 100,000 people next week, officials said.

DSHS issued a survey earlier this month to vaccine providers gauging their ability to operate community vaccination sites. The state will release the final list of large-scale providers later this week, after the federal government decides how many doses Texas will receive next week.

We expect another 200K total doses next week as part of this preparation. That’s good, but as we’ve discussed before, the numbers remain daunting. Texas has almost 30 million people in it. At 100K shots a week, you’re looking at six years to get everyone vaccinated. The optimistic interpretation of this story is that 100K per week is a starting point, and we’ll accelerate from there. Great, I sure hope so, but if we want to get enough of the state done to get close to herd immunity this year, we need to get to 500K per week, and every week we operate at less than that makes the target number have to be a little higher. (A better and more organized federal response will surely help.) I know, it’s a hard problem, everyone’s doing the best they can (well, not really, but let’s be generous for these purposes), and so on, but this is the math. As someone once said, the stars may lie but the numbers never do.

More COVID restrictions are about to happen in Harris County

Blame Greg Abbott and the virus, in whatever order you prefer.

Houston and its surrounding communities on Tuesday became the latest region to require new emergency restrictions after seven straight days of ballooning coronavirus hospitalizations.

The rollback, mandated under Gov. Greg Abbott’s emergency protocols, includes restaurants dropping to 50 percent occupancy from 75 percent, and bars that have not reclassified as restaurants closing immediately. The restrictions remain in place until the region drops below 15 percent COVID-19 hospitalizations for seven straight days.

As of Monday, the latest day of available data, the Houston region was at 19.9 percent, up from just over 13 percent a week earlier. Infections and hospitalizations have been rising steadily in recent weeks, following spikes in other parts of the state and amid holiday gatherings.

All but four of the state’s 22 hospital regions were over 15 percent as of Monday.

Texas Medical Center Hospitals in Houston announced earlier Tuesday that they were putting a hold on certain elective surgeries to save resources for coronavirus patients. Under the governor’s protocols, hospitals are required to postpone elective surgeries that would deplete COVID-19 resources.

“The best thing we can do is take this threshold as a wakeup call,” Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo said in a news conference Tuesday afternoon. “This is the time to take this for the red alert that it is. We are only going to get through this if we are able to quickly stem the tide of hospitalizations.”

More here.

The rollback comes as Texas Medical Center hospitals already had begun deferring certain elective procedures or readying such a managed reduction strategy, the same one they deployed during the summer when patient censuses spiked. The reduction is not the wholesale delay of elective procedures all Texas hospitals invoked in the spring.

Hospital leaders said Tuesday their systems will continue some elective procedures but suspend those non-urgent cases whose demands on staff and space detract from resources better used to treat COVID-19 patients. Procedures such as mammography and colonoscopy will continue because they don’t tax needed hospital resources, for instance, but some procedures like heart catheterizations might be better delayed.

[…]

The surge of COVID-19 hospitalizations has been relentless. The number of admitted COVID-19 patients in the Houston region has increased for 13 straight weeks, and the 25-county area anchored by Harris County had more than 3,100 hospitalizations on Monday, the highest since July, the peak of the first wave in Texas.

Houston Methodist was just short of 700 COVID-19 patients on Monday. Methodist CEO Dr. Marc Boom emailed employees that if this trend holds the system will surpass its peak July numbers in a matter of days.

“This may well be among the most challenging few weeks we’ve experienced during this pandemic,” Boom wrote in the email to employees Monday. “Together, we will get through this, but it will be difficult.”

Dr. James McCarthy, chief physician executive at Memorial Hermann, said his system exceeded 800 patients and should eclipse July numbers by the third week in January. The system’s number of patients has increased three-fold over the last month, he said.

[…]

The COVID-19 positive test rate statewide is now at 20.53 percent. Methodist’s is nearly 32 percent.

Porsa said said Harris Health is about to enter Phase 3 of its surge plans, which involves closing some of its clinics in order to deploy its nurses and other staff at Ben Taub and Lyndon B. Johnson hospitals, both of which are near capacity. He said the leadership is currently determining which clinics to start with.

Hospital officials said they are encouraged that ICUs aren’t being overloaded with COVID-19. They said their staffs have gotten much better, thanks to better treatment options and nine months of experience with the disease, at getting patients discharged faster now compared to early summer.

But with the Houston area now averaging more than 3,300 new COVID-19 cases a day — compared to roughly 2,330 such cases at the pandemic’s height in July — it appears the peak won’t come before late January or February, hospital officials said. They also worry a more contagious strain — not yet identified in Houston but maybe already here — poses an even greater threat ahead.

“January and February are shaping up to be our darkest days, given these record numbers,” said William McKeon, CEO of the TMC. “Hospitals lag behind in feeling the effects of increases in cases so expect the numbers to keep going in the wrong direction before things get better.”

We’re already passing the levels we had seen at the worst of it in July, and we’re probably a few weeks out from hitting the peak this time around. Remember all this next year, when it’s time to vote for our state government.

The Senate outlines its opening plans

Seems inadequate to me, but what do I know?

All Texas senators attending the opening day of the 2021 legislative session will be tested for the coronavirus and media and public access to the chamber will be limited, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick announced Monday morning.

In a public memo, Patrick outlined a list of protocols for the Texas Senate’s Jan. 12 opening day, which typically sees the Texas Capitol packed with members, guests and families.

“Senators have agreed to a much shorter opening day ceremony to reduce the time spent in a large gathering,” he wrote. “The Senate is reducing all ceremonial events and gatherings this session to focus solely on their constitutional legislative duties.”

Access to the Senate floor will be restricted to lawmakers and one family member at each senator’s desk. There will be no floor seating outside the brass rail or anywhere else on the Senate floor — a stark difference from past years when the chamber floor was fully in use for family and guest seating.

A pool of four members of the media who have been granted credentials will be allowed in the second-floor gallery on opening day. In normal times, credentialed members of the media are allowed to sit at a table on the Senate floor.

Each lawmaker or incoming member will have three guest seats for family, friends or constituents in the gallery, a move Patrick said will limit the gallery to fewer than 100 guests and ensure space for social distancing. Patrick’s memo made no mention of masks and it was not immediately clear whether masks would be required in the chamber. The state House has announced that it will require them on opening day.

See here and here for the background. Visitors to the Capitol are required to wear masks, but Senators are special, so you know. They’re also, you know, old: Bob Hall, Chuy Hinojosa, Eddie Lucio, Robert Nichols, John Whitmire, and Judith Zaffirini – not to mention our very own Dan Patrick – are all over 70, and at least five others are over 60. I hate to be morbid, but just in the past week we’ve learned of two state legislators and one incoming member of Congress who died from COVID, and all of them were younger than that. Maybe everyone will show up wearing masks and it won’t be a big deal, but I cannot get over the casualness. Even worse, I’m not sure that someone in the Lege dying of COVID will change anyone’s behavior or beliefs. All I know is, I’m glad I don’t have to be there, and I fear for everyone who does.

There is a website for COVID vaccine signups in Houston

You can’t use it right now, but it’s there.

Houston’s Health Department launched an online portal for residents to apply for an appointment at its COVID-19 vaccine clinic Monday but quickly ran out of available slots for the remainder of the month.

“The response to Houston’s first COVID-19 vaccine clinic was massive, quickly filling the appointment slots for the department’s current vaccine allocation,” Mayor Sylvester Turner said at a City Hall news conference where he was about to get his own shot in the arm.

“The vaccine clinic appointments are booked for the rest of this month, and the department is not taking additional appointments at this time.”

Turner said the city is working to set up additional sites and create additional capacity, although it is unclear when new appointments will be available. Turner said the city hopes to open a “mega site” on Saturday.

The portal, available at houstonemergency.org/covid-19-vaccines, added another way for qualifying residents to book for an appointment. A hotline also is available at 832-393-4220.

The city clinic vaccinated nearly 2,000 residents with the Moderna vaccine in two days. It is accepting residents from the first two phases of the state’s distribution plan, which include front-line emergency workers, people 65 and older, and those over 16 with certain high-risk health conditions.

It’s a good start, but at 2K shots a day, we’re talking two years to get to 75% distribution in the city. We’d like to go a little faster than that. Obviously, the city is limited by how much vaccine it can get, as well as the state regulations. Harris County had its own rough rollout thanks to confusion over who was allowed to sign up. On that first front at least, help is on the way, so maybe in another month or two we’ll see much higher numbers. And at least there is now a central location for this for Houston residents, something that had been sorely lacking before.

There’s some more vaccine coming to Texas, but it’s still not a lot.

On Monday, state health officials announced that 325,000 additional vaccine doses would be getting into the hands of 949 providers in 158 Texas counties over the next week, part of the first round of vaccinations for front-line health workers as well as nursing home residents, Texans over 65 and those with certain medical conditions, among others. Some 121,875 doses are earmarked for long-term care facilities such as nursing homes and assisted-living centers.

But with the number of vaccine doses available still falling far short of what’s needed to cover those who are eligible — and with state officials pushing hospitals and other providers to administer vaccine doses that the providers say they don’t have, aren’t sure are coming or have already administered — confusion and frustration have surrounded the initial few weeks of the vaccination rollout.

Providers have 24 hours to report their vaccination statistics to the Department of State Health Services, and the agency updates its numbers each afternoon with data reported by midnight the day before, so the state’s numbers could lag up to two days behind the reality on the ground.

Officials from the White House down to local doctors have warned that it would take months to have vaccine doses available to everyone who wants one.

“The problem is unrealistic expectations based on the reality on the ground,” said Marshall Cothran, CEO of the Travis County Medical Society, which received 700 doses through a local partnership and had them all scheduled within 48 hours for physicians and staff who are not affiliated with hospitals or other care organizations.

With the new shipments this week, the state has been allotted a total of 1.5 million doses through the first four weeks of distribution, officials said Monday. Providers in 214 of the state’s 254 counties will have received shipments by the end of the week, health officials said.

Some 793,625 doses had been received by providers by midnight Sunday, according to the Texas Department of Health Services.

Of those, 414,211 — just over half of those delivered — had been administered, according to the agency’s dashboard.

Hardesty said the nearly 16,000 doses his facility received are being administered “fast and furiously,” and about 10,000 people have gotten their first dose, with second doses to start in the next week.

“We’re giving them as quickly as we can,” he said.

I don’t doubt that, but let’s be clear that 1.5 million doses is five percent of the state’s population, and that 414K is just a bit more than one percent. Seven hundred doses for Travis County, with 1.3 million people, is a drop in the bucket. If you vaccinated 700 people a day in Travis County, it would take you six years to get everyone. In the end, this won’t take anywhere near that long, but we are talking months, and in the meantime the hospitals are also dealing with an insane surge in new cases. I can’t emphasize enough how much we needed to keep a lid on this, and how badly we failed at that.

Anyway. Here was the Harris County website for vaccine registration, which is still up but doesn’t have any method for signing up for a COVID shot at this time. Dallas County has its own website, while Bexar County had a similar experience as Houston did. It will get better, I’m sure, but the early days are going to be chaotic.

It still looks grim in the Houston area

Brace yourselves.

As Houston left 2020 in the rearview mirror, the coronavirus continued to spread throughout the region unchecked, with some of the highest positivity rates since the start of the pandemic.

And that spike will only continue to climb, experts warn, because the numbers do not take into account additional surges tied to holiday gatherings from Christmas and New Year’s celebrations. The pandemic has already claimed the lives of more than 4,600 people from Greater Houston.

The positive test rate statewide hit a record Friday at 21.15 percent, according to a Houston Chronicle review — surpassing the previous high mark, 20.55 percent, in July.

“It’s looking bad,” said Dr. Peter Hotez, a professor and dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine. “We still haven’t seen the full impact of what’s happened after Christmas and New Year’s, so you know it won’t get better — it’s only going to get worse.”

The positivity rate and hospitalization capacity data are such that more businesses will have to shut down, and others will have to reduce capacity, under Greg Abbott’s executive order. You’d think, given how much he hates the idea of shutting anything down, that Abbott would be working extra hard to get people to wear masks and observe social distancing and so on, but you’d be wrong.

As for the vaccination effort, that remains its own challenge.

Mayor Sylvester Turner on Friday announced the opening of a public clinic that will administer doses of the Moderna vaccine. Health care workers, people over 65 and people with serious underlying health conditions are eligible and must make an appointment by calling 832-393-4220 between 7:30 a.m. and 4:30 p.m. starting Saturday.

But Hotez warned that Harris County and others across Texas face a “daunting” challenge to vaccinate enough people to neutralize the virus’ danger.

In Harris County, public health authorities will have to ramp up a vaccine distribution program to administer the medicine to some 500,000 residents a month, he said — a volume that the Texas Medical Center and other hospitals, clinics and medical practices aren’t equipped to handle.

“We’re not anywhere close to that,” he said.

Instead, the county should consider opening vaccination centers at places such as NRG Stadium or the George R. Brown Convention Center, he said.

“If we can just gear up to get people vaccinated, then nobody has to lose their lives from COVID-19,” he said.

Understand that even at 500K a month, it will take nearly ten months to vaccinate everyone in Harris County. Even if all we “need” is 75% of the people to be vaccinated, we’re still looking at seven months. This is going to take awhile, and we need to stay on the defensive until then.

State Capitol reopens to the public today

From Twitter:

The Capitol grounds had reopened three weeks ago, but the building itself remained closed until today. This doesn’t address how the Legislature will operate – note the last paragraph for how that is deferred to the two chambers – so you will almost certainly be free to remove your mask and breathe in Rep. Briscoe Cain’s face at your discretion. We’ll know what the Lege has in mind for its own operations next Tuesday.

Census Bureau will miss deadline that would allow for apportionment shenanigans

Good.

The Census Bureau will miss a year-end deadline for handing in numbers used for divvying up congressional seats, a delay that could undermine President Donald Trump’s efforts to exclude people in the country illegally from the count if the figures aren’t submitted before President-elect Joe Biden takes office.

The Census Bureau plans to deliver a population count of each state in early 2021, as close to the missed deadline as possible, the statistical agency said in a statement late Wednesday.

“As issues that could affect the accuracy of the data are detected, they are corrected,” the statement said. “The schedule for reporting this data is not static. Projected dates are fluid.”

It will be the first time that the Dec. 31 target date is missed since the deadline was implemented more than four decades ago by Congress.

Internal documents obtained earlier this month by the House Committee on Oversight and Reform show that Census Bureau officials don’t expect the apportionment numbers to be ready until days after Biden is inaugurated on Jan. 20.

Once in office, Biden could rescind Trump’s presidential memorandum directing the Census Bureau to exclude people in the country illegally from numbers used for divvying up congressional seats among the states. An influential GOP adviser had advocated excluding them from the apportionment process in order to favor Republicans and non-Hispanic whites.

“The delay suggests that the census bureau needs more time to ensure the accuracy of census numbers for all states,” said Terri Ann Lowenthal, a former congressional staffer who specializes in census issues.

[…]

Former Census Bureau director John Thompson said the quality of the data is “the overarching issue” facing the Census Bureau.

“If these are not addressed, then it is very possible that stakeholders including the Congress may not accept the results for various purposes including apportionment,” said Thompson, who oversaw 2020 census preparation as the agency’s leader during the Obama administration.

He said in an email that missing the Dec. 31 target date “means that the Census Bureau is choosing to remove known errors from the 2020 Census instead of meeting the legal deadline.”

See here and here for some background. It’s one less way for Trump to screw things up beyond his own administration’s reign, and we should all be happy for it. There’s also a bill in the Senate to extend the deadline for Census results by four months, which the Census Bureau had asked for back in April but which got sidelined by (among other things) the usual Trump indifference. I presume that will have a much better chance of passing if the Dem candidates can win in Georgia, but we’ll see.

Astrodome renovation officially on hold

Not a surprise, given everything that is going on right now.

Still here

The COVID-19 pandemic upended most aspects of normal life, but this year has clutched dearly to one bit of normalcy for Houston residents: inaction on the Astrodome.

For 12 years, the architectural triumph that put Houston on the map — or the past-its-prime hunk of steel and cement, depending on who you ask — has sat, largely abandoned off Loop 610. Harris County Commissioners Court in 2018 approved a $105 million plan to transform the facility into a parking garage and event venue.

Two years later, work has barely begun. The project is on hold indefinitely and its funding sources have dried up. Fans of the dome must face a hard truth: This plan to renovate the building appears doomed.

“The only construction we’ve done is removal of asbestos and demolition work to enable that,” County Engineer John Blount said. “There’s been no real construction toward building the parking structure.”

There are two reasons for what elected officials do or not do: money and politics. The current Astrodome plan strikes out on both, the county’s current leaders say.

Former County Judge Ed Emmett was one of the most vocal proponents of renovating the dome, which the Republican argued would be ludicrous to demolish since it is structurally sound and already paid for by the county.

Even though voters in 2013 rejected a $217 million bond proposal to convert the 55-year-old structure into event and exhibit space, Emmett convinced his colleagues to support the current, pared-down version in 2018, which he hoped to see through to its completion.

Nine months later, however, his re-election bid was denied in a stunning upset by Lina Hidalgo, who helped Democrats flip Harris County Commissioners Court for the first time in a generation. She immediately put the project on hold, concerned the project did not make fiscal sense.

Hidalgo, who was in middle school the last time the Dome hosted an event in the early 2000s, does not share the same enthusiasm for revitalizing the landmark as her predecessor. With an agenda to radically change how county government interacts with residents, through increased spending on social programs and infrastructure, Hidalgo has never seen the Astrodome as a pressing issue.

Hidalgo recognizes the Dome’s place in history but looks at the issue through the lens of what is best for the community, spokesman Rafael Lemaitre said.

“She’s not opposed to working to find ways to bring it to life, and we’ve been in touch with nonprofits on that,” Lemaitre said. “But right now, we can’t justify prioritizing putting public dollars or governing on it.”

[…]

Beth Wiedower Jackson, president of the Astrodome Conservancy, acknowledges there is little chance construction resumes on the 2018 plan. She said Hidalgo has said she is open to a new proposal, and agrees with the nonprofit that a repurposed Dome should produce a revenue stream for Harris County.

Jackson said that while the conservancy does not yet have a budget in mind, the group has begun searching for private funding partners and hopes to present a more expansive plan to Commissioners Court in 18 to 24 months. While frustrating to start over, she said the group instead views it as an opportunity.

“It is prudent to stop and push pause and re-center this project as many times as we need to,” Jackson said. “Do we have an opportunity now to think bigger, and more holistically, and greener and smarter about what it looks like? Hell yes. That’s exciting for us.”

The last mention I had of the Astrodome was September 2019 (“on hold for now”), and before that was January 2019 and October 2018, when Ed Emmett was still County Judge and we were looking at a March 2019 start to further construction. I wasn’t born here and don’t have the emotional connection to the Dome that some people do, but I support the Emmett-produced 2018 plan for the Dome, and agree with the assessment that the best thing to do is to find some use for it. I also agree that the county has much bigger priorities right now than this, and it won’t hurt anything to put it all on the back burner for the next year or so, when we are hopefully out of the current pandemic hole we are now in. If the plan has shifted by then from the Emmett plan to something that offloads most of the funding and responsibility to non-profits, that’s fine too. Even if we’d been working on the Emmett plan all along, it’s not like we’d have been doing anything with the Dome this year anyway. We’ll get back to it when it makes more sense to do so.