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coronavirus

From the “ounce of prevention” department

What is that worth, again? It’s right on the tip of my tongue.

Accessing a critical COVID-19 therapy could soon be tougher in Texas as the federal government moves to ration the treatment amid the spread of new variants.

The Biden administration is taking over distribution of monoclonal antibodies, returning to the system that had been in place until vaccines became readily available and infections began to plummet this year. It also purchased 1.4 million additional doses.

Under the old system, the federal government had been doling out doses to states based on need, and states were then responsible for distributing them.

The administration had until recently been allowing hospitals and other health care centers to order directly from manufacturers, and the U.S. Health and Human Services Department would initiate a review of any individual site that ordered more than 50 doses to make sure none were hoarding.

But with the highly contagious delta variant continuing to spread nationally, demand for the treatment has soared, with concerns that it could soon outstrip supply. By last week, the vast majority of doses — 70 percent — were going to just seven Southern states where COVID cases are still high and vaccination rates are low, including Texas.

“The recent increase in the prevalence of the delta variant coupled with low vaccination rates in certain areas of the country resulted in a substantial (20-fold) increase in the ordering and utilization of (monoclonal antibodies) since mid-July,” the federal health services agency said in a statement. “Just seven states accounted for about 70 percent of our monoclonal antibody ordering. Given this reality, we must work to ensure our supply of these lifesaving therapies remains available for all states and territories, not just some.”

Under the new model — and a 50 percent bump in allocations that President Joe Biden ordered this month — Texas and Florida are still getting far more doses than other states. Texas received 23,640 doses this week, behind only Florida, which received 30,950. Georgia received the third most, 9,920.

There’s an extremely whiny quote in the story from Chip Roy, and y’all, if people like that put one tenth the effort they exert being crybabies into getting people vaccinated, we wouldn’t have these problems, because we’d have crushed COVID by now. My sense of empathy has been a major casualty of this pandemic, and I’d really like to get it back.

Looking for the missing students

More important than usual this year.

The state’s largest school district recorded a first-day enrollment of 172,091 students, a significant decrease compared with previous years. It is not uncommon for enrollment to lag, even to its lowest point of the year, in August.

While numbers reported later in the fall typically provide a more accurate depiction of a district’s student body, HISD’s enrollment in recent weeks has slowly risen to about 190,000 as of last week, according to House, but remains lower than the nearly 200,000 who finished last school year.

Still, [HISD Superintendent Millard House II] said before embarking on the home visits Saturday, the district is on pace to reach its target of about 197,000 students.

“Student reengagement efforts are ongoing, and it is our goal to facilitate outreach to the families of all students who have left HISD,” he said. “We are not here to judge, we are here to support. That is very important for us to understand. So, as we knock on doors this morning, we are here to ensure that we get these babies back in classrooms so that they can get the kind of support they need.”

HISD is not alone.

The Texas Education Agency registered a decrease last year of statewide enrollment from the previous year for the first time since it began collecting enrollment data.

There were roughly 5.37 million students enrolled in schools across Texas last year, a 2.2 percent decrease — about 122,354 students — from the prior year, agency officials wrote in a June report.

[…]

Such problems — having an outdated address or phone number as a student’s contact information — are par for the course for Burl Jones, a student outreach worker at HISD, who said he goes on “wild goose chases all the time” as he tries to get students back into classrooms.

COVID-19 made it worse. Some students did not have access to the internet early on, and some parents remain skeptical of vaccines or health protocols.

“Sometimes, people will be there, they won’t answer the door. Or you have an address on file for them and they don’t actually live there,” Jones said. “That is what it is out there, man, that is the real world. … I do what it takes to find them. It’s like, I am an investigator. I don’t give up. I get a joy out of recovering these kids.”

HISD also has held several phone banking sessions, including in partnership with Houston Federation of Teachers, the district’s largest employees union.

I’m sure there are more kids homeschooling this year than usual, but for sure there are kids who are simply missing from the rolls. We know there were many kids last year during remote schooling who never logged on, for whatever the reason. Kids have already lost a lot of ground, so it’s extra important to make sure no one gets left behind. I sure hope they can find everyone.

The COVID shot for kids is coming

Not a moment too soon.

On Monday, Pfizer released the initial trial results, showing that its vaccine is safe and effective for the 5-11 age group. The findings are a key step toward inoculating a younger population that so far has been unprotected from the virus.

“It’s good to hear the studies are paying off,” García said. “We are happy to be part of the process to help other people get more trust in the vaccine, so we can start getting back to normal as soon as possible.”

The announcement summarized results from 2,268 trial participants. The findings show that children develop an antibody response similar to the 16- to 25-year-old age group when given a lower dosage of the vaccine.

Pfizer and BioNTech, the company’s German partner, plan to include the data in a “near-term submission for Emergency Use Authorization” while safety research is ongoing. Dr. Bill Gruber, a Pfizer senior vice president, told The Associated Press that the company plans to apply for emergency use by the end of the month.

My kids are thankfully old enough to already be vaccinated, but I know a lot of people who have been eagerly awaiting this announcement. I expect there will be a surge of new vaccinations in the weeks following the emergency use grant, and while it will surely fall well short of the full total of eligible kids, it will make a decent dent in the overall vaccination rate. We’re going to need every bit of this. The 19th and Daily Kos have more.

Feds officially investigating Texas mask mandate ban

Good.

The U.S. Department of Education on Tuesday launched a civil rights investigation into Gov. Greg Abbott’s ban on mask mandates in schools, making Texas the sixth state to face a federal inquiry over mask rules.

The investigation will focus on whether Abbott’s order prevents students with disabilities who are at heightened risk for severe illness from COVID-19 from safely returning to in-person education, in violation of federal law, Suzanne B. Goldberg, the acting assistant secretary for civil rights wrote in a letter to Texas Commissioner of Education Mike Morath.

The investigation comes after the Texas Education Agency released guidance saying public school systems cannot require students or staff to wear masks to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in light of Abbott’s ban on mask mandates.

[…]

Goldberg wrote that the Office for Civil Rights will examine whether TEA “may be preventing school districts in the state from considering or meeting the individual educational needs of students with disabilities or otherwise enabling discrimination based on disability.”

The department previously opened similar investigations into mask policies in Iowa, South Carolina, Utah, Oklahoma and Tennessee. But the agency had not done so in Texas because of court orders preventing the state from enforcing Abbott’s order. The new TEA guidance changed that, however.

See here and here for the background. The TEA’s new directive made me scratch my head.

In newly released guidance, the Texas Education Agency says public school systems cannot require students or staff to wear masks to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

A statement released by the agency Friday says Gov. Greg Abbott’s May executive order banning mask mandates precludes districts from requiring face coverings.

“Per GA-38, school systems cannot require students or staff to wear a mask. GA-38 addresses government-mandated face coverings in response to the COVID-19 pandemic,” the statement reads. “Other authority to require protective equipment, including masks, in an employment setting is not necessarily affected by GA-38.”

The agency previously had said it would not enforce the governor’s ban until the issue was resolved in the courts.

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton has sued several school districts for imposing mask requirements on students and teachers, and some districts have sued the state over the governor’s order. The lawsuits have produced mixed results with some courts upholding districts’ mask mandates and some siding with the attorney general.

TEA officials on Tuesday did not immediately respond to requests for comment on the new guidelines and questions about how the agency would enforce the ban on mask mandates. The agency has not yet clarified what prompted the new guidelines, given that the legal battles regarding the order are ongoing.

Hard to know exactly what motivated this, but “pressure from Greg Abbott and Dan Patrick and Ken Paxton” would be high on my list of suspects. If I were to advise school districts that currently have mask mandates, as HISD does, or are thinking about imposing one, I would say go right ahead, and keep the mandates you have. This is a toothless threat, and the courts have not yet weighed in on the issue in a meaningful way. We know that having the mask mandates promotes safety, and if that isn’t the highest priority I don’t know what is. Do not waver.

Anyway. The Trib has an explainer about the state of mask mandates and lawsuits around them, but it doesn’t indicate when the legal cases may be having hearings, which admittedly would be a big task to track. The federal lawsuit will have a hearing on October 6, and we may get some clarity out of that. In the meantime, keep the mask mandates. We need them, and (a couple of district court judges aside) no one is stopping school districts from having them. The Trib has more.

El Paso is doing all right with Delta

Good for them, let’s hope it lasts.

While some other metro areas like Austin reported record high numbers of COVID-19 patients in their area hospitals just last month, and while statewide hospitalizations came close to eclipsing the January peak of 14,218, El Paso-area hospitals, which serve nearly a million West Texas residents, haven’t come close to their previous highs.

El Paso’s peak for COVID-19 hospitalizations was just over 1,100 in mid-November, said Wanda Helgesen, director of BorderRAC, the state’s regional advisory council for local hospitals.

On Thursday, the number of people hospitalized for COVID-19 in El Paso was 127.

In fact, the city’s daily hospitalization numbers haven’t broken 200 since March, according to the Texas Department of State Health Services. Hospitals are seeing an increase in patients, have occasionally seen their ICUs fill up and are having the same staffing problems as the rest of the state, she said, but have so far been able to handle the uptick.

Most of the pressure is related to non-COVID patients, many of whom had been waiting to get treatment for other problems, she said.

“We do have a surge of patients but not to the extent that other parts of Texas are having,” she said.

Helgesen and others say much of the credit can be attributed to the area’s high vaccination rate, widespread compliance with masking and social distancing, and a strong partnership among local community and health care leaders.

“It is amazing,” Helgesen said. “It is absolutely a credit to our community. I really think it was an all-out effort.”

The share of COVID-19 tests in El Paso that come back positive is hovering around 6%, while the statewide positivity rate is three times that at 18%.

And while COVID-19 patients, most of whom are unvaccinated, took up more than 30% of hospital capacity in some areas and more than 20% statewide last week, in El Paso they accounted for only 7% of patients in local hospitals.

For a city with one of the state’s highest per-capita COVID-19 death counts, the numbers present a rare glimmer of good news for the traumatized residents of this West Texas border city.

“Compared to the rest of Texas, we’re in heaven,” said Gabriel Ibarra-Mejia, assistant professor of public health at the University of Texas-El Paso. “That doesn’t mean we are free from COVID, but we’re doing much, much better than most of the rest of the state. The numbers don’t lie.”

Civic and health leaders say they aren’t ignoring one important fact: El Paso’s surges have been weeks behind the rest of the state throughout the pandemic, so it’s possible that the region’s own delta-fueled spike could still be ahead.

“We aren’t letting our guard down,” Helgesen said.

El Paso Mayor Oscar Leeser, who lost his mother and brother to COVID during the winter surge, said the reason the city and county have enacted recent mask mandates, in defiance of Gov. Greg Abbott’s ban on them and in spite of lower numbers, is because the potential for another surge is still real.

“We do worry and we want to make sure that we don’t have any spikes,” he said. “You always want to be proactive and you always want to be prepared.”

The story goes on to recount the huge spike in COVID cases that El Paso experienced last November, which put it in the national news. If you look at the included chart of COVID cases, which tracks El Paso and the state as a whole, the two were mostly in sync except for that giant surge in November, which came between the two big statewide surges, and now, when the statewide rate began to take off in May but El Paso’s stayed more or less where it had been. I’m sure the mask mandate and above-norm vaccination rates have helped with that, but it may also be that enough unvaccinated El Pasoans have had COVID that the overall rate of immunity is high enough to be something like herd immunity. Or maybe they’re just lucky right now, and the curve will begin to turn upward for them eventually. I very much hope that’s not the case, but I think we all know that this pandemic has been persistent and somewhat random about who gets it the worst at a given time. In the meantime, though, keep on keeping on, El Paso.

UT-Tyler/DMN: Abbott loses ground

A well-timed poll result.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) may be feeling the pressure, the latest poll from The Dallas Morning News and the University of Texas at Tyler shows.

Abbott’s approval rating has dropped to 45 percent in the aftermath of controversial legislation such as a ban on mask mandates amid the COVID-19 pandemic and a ban on most abortions after six weeks. It’s far too early to tell how things will play out in next year’s election, but two well-known potential candidates look like they could give Abbott a serious run if they do wind up entering the race.

Actor Matthew McConaughey, who has hinted that he’s entertaining the idea (though it’s unclear what party, if any, he would represent), led Abbott by nine points in a hypothetical matchup in the new poll, while former Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-Tex.), who ran against Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) for a spot in the upper chamber and later took a shot at the Democratic presidential nomination, cut a previous 12-point head-to-head deficit against Abbott down to five in the survey. Abbott does have a more comfortable lead against Republican primary challengers, however.

The DMN story is here, and the poll data is here. I’ve covered the McConaughey matter before, and you can refer to those previous entries because the issue remains the same. For what it’s worth, the UT-Tyler poll doesn’t mention Beto’s party either, but I think we can safely assume that a decent number of poll respondents correctly identify him as a Democrat.

The headline result here is that Abbott leads Beto 42-37 in this poll after having led him 45-33 in the July poll. We will surely start to get a lot more head-to-head data now that Beto is semi-officially in the race. We do have some previous results we can look at to provide some context, so let’s do that. First, here are the approval/disapproval numbers for Joe Biden and Greg Abbott, plus the favorable/unfavorable numbers for Beto:


April

Name     App  Disapp  Neither
=============================
Biden     48      41       12  
Abbott    50      36       15
Beto      35      37       27

June

Name      App  Disapp  Neither
==============================
Biden      47      41       11
Abbott     50      36       14
Beto       31      40       29

September

Name      App  Disapp  Neither
==============================
Biden      42      50        9
Abbott     45      44       11
Beto       34      42       24

I’ve combined the strong/somewhat approve/disapprove numbers for Abbott and Biden, and the strong/somewhat favorable/unfavorable numbers for Beto; there was also a “don’t know enough” option for Beto, which I added into the “Neither” column. Biden’s approval drop is expected given the national numbers, and honestly they’re better than I might have expected given that. Abbott is doing better here than in the recent Texas Politics Project and Morning Consult polls, but the direction is the same. Again, it’s hard to say how the various factors will play into the 2022 election, so for now let’s just note that this is where we are.

Two other data points of interest. Both were asked for the first time in the September poll, so there’s nothing to compare them to from this source, but we do have some data from elsewhere. First, this poll included a “right direction/wrong direction” question for Texas, with the result being 44/54 wrong/right. Dems were 40/59 for “wrong”, Republicans were 59/39 for “right”, and indies were interestingly 33/64 for “wrong”. Make of that what you will, and compare to the recent Texas 2036 survey of people’s “right/wrong direction” attitudes.

Finally, this poll gets into mask and vaccine mandates and the bans on same:

Do you support or oppose Governor Abbott’s ban on mask mandates?


        Total    Dem  Ind  Rep
==============================
Support   44%    33%  32%  67%
Oppose    55%    66%  67%  33%

Do you support or oppose Governor Abbott’s ban on vaccine mandates?


        Total    Dem  Ind  Rep
==============================
Support   49%    37%  38%  72%
Oppose    49%    62%  60%  28%

There’s also a question about mask mandates in schools, with 50% saying masks should be required in all K-12 classrooms, 26% saying schools should be allowed to decide, and 20% saying no mandates. There’s national data showing that the public is broadly in favor of how Democrats and President Biden have responded to COVID (and also of mask and vaccine mandates) and opposed to the Republican response. This is the sort of thing that can certainly change over time, but for now, and for a nascent Beto campaign, coming in hot on a platform that strongly criticizes Abbott on this issue would seem to have some traction. Again, more polling will surely follow, but this is very much an issue to watch.

COVID rate slows a bit, but ICUs still full

The good news.

So far, the delta variant has fueled a month of Houston-area COVID hospitalizations over 3,000, according to the Texas Department of State Health Services.

But Texas Medical Center records show positive case rates may be slowly declining. According to TMC’s daily report, 1,939 people tested positive Tuesday in the Greater Houston area, a decline that may be related to COVID testing site closures as a precaution before Hurricane Nicholas.

Also Tuesday, the medical center admitted 310 new COVID-19 patients compared to the average 328 per day last week. Hospitals in the TMC remain at 90 percent capacity.

Dr. Wesley Long, a microbiologist and medical director of diagnostic microbiology at Houston Methodist, has been tracking and analyzing the virus and its variants through the hospital’s COVID-19 genome sequencing operation.

While Long sees the increase slowing, he hesitates to say Houston is passed the peak of the surge.

“It’s like cresting the top of the wave, you don’t know what the backside of the wave is going to look like,” Long said. “In the beginning of this fourth wave, there were some people hopeful it would go up quickly and come down quickly. That’s not the case.”

The fourth wave’s peak has been broader than previous waves, which spiked and declined within about 25-30 days, Long explained. The big question with the delta wave is whether it will plateau at a high rate of hospitalizations or have a slow decline.

“It’s hard to know how other things like holidays and school will affect the case count,” he said. “It’s really important to keep masking, social distancing and staying home if you’re sick because it’s important to bring the fourth wave under control.”

Another way to look at it:

The not so good news.

COVID-19 hospitalizations have been declining across Texas and the Houston region, but the virus is still keeping a high number of people in ICUs, prolonging the strain on patients waiting for critical care beds.

Last week, the number of available adult ICU beds in Texas sunk below 300 for the first time in the pandemic, with 270 beds available on Sept. 8 and 279 available on Sept. 9, according to the Texas Department of State Health Services. There were 326 beds available this Wednesday, including 65 in the nine-county region surrounding Houston, the data show.

Texas Medical Center ICUs for weeks have been hovering around 90 percent full with “Phase 2” surge plans — which add 373 ICU beds to the 1,330 available in Phase 1 — activated.

[…]

ICU data is a lagging indicator of the virus’s impact, [Dr. Syed Raza, vice president of medical operations at CHI St. Luke’s Health-The Woodlands Hospital] said, because the sickest patients need care for a longer period of time. He said it is the “natural course of the pandemic” for ICUs to remain high after hospitalizations decline.

Dr. James McDeavitt, executive vice president and dean of clinical affairs at Baylor College of Medicine, said the hospital strain appears to be easing overall. The number of COVID patients in ICU beds likely peaked at the end of August, when they took up 49 percent of all critical care beds, he said. As of Wednesday, that number dropped to 45 percent.

He said he is cautiously optimistic that “we’ll continue to see this trend move in right direction.” He compared the current ICU situation to flooding during hurricane.

“We are no longer stuffing towels under the door” to stop the water, he said. “But the water is still over our threshold.”

I mean, it could be worse. It’s still not good, and it’s going to continue to not be good for awhile, but it could be worse. Keep up with the precautions, they’re our best hope in the short term as more people get vaccinated.

The wrong track

Interesting, but there are some key questions left unasked.

According to a poll conducted by Texas 2036, at least 92 percent of Texas voters said they were concerned about the future of the state, with 58 percent also stating they felt extremely concerned about it.

The Texas 2036 is a nonprofit organization that aims to build long-term, data-driven strategies to secure Texas’ prosperity. They recently commissioned a poll to longtime GOP pollster Mike Baselice’s firm, and who has worked with both Trump and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick in the past.

The poll results, which were released on Tuesday, paint a grim picture of what Texans feel right now and their hopes for the future. It had 1,001 participants and was made 43% by cell phone, 23% by landline, and 34% through the web. It has a margin of error of +/- 3.1%.

The report shows that for the first time in the six years the question has been asked, more Texas voters (26%) said they feel financially worse off than they did the year before. Only 20 percent of the people being polled said they believe they are better off.

52 percent of voters said they believe that Texas is worse off than it was this time last year, a truly concerning fact considering last year the pandemic was at a considerable height and vaccines were not yet released. Only 13 percent said they thought the state was headed in a better direction.

The overwhelming majority of Texas voters agree with using federal COVID-19 relief money to fund large-scale projects and promote the state’s economy. This is something that state lawmakers can actually do in the upcoming third special session of the legislature.

The poll landing page is here, the press release for it is here, and all the data provided can be found here and here. It’s interesting and easy to read, so go check them out. The main thing that I came away thinking is “but who will the voters blame for their negative feelings?” I’ve noted the flip side of this question before, when I’ve asserted that the best hope for Democrats in general and Texas Democrats in particular is a strong performance by President Biden and a good economy to go with it. That works to a point, but only to the extent that the President gets the lion’s share of the credit for those good things. You can be sure Greg Abbott and his minions will do everything they can to grab that credit, and it will be up to the voters to decide who deserves it. The same is true for the blame – do you pin it on the Governor or the President? I can’t answer that question, and the pollsters don’t ask.

There are no electoral questions, and this is the first poll of its kind, so we don’t have any bases for comparison. One can certainly argue that this is a tricky spot for statewide Republican incumbents to be in, since they’re the closest ones to the situation and the ones that voters can take out their frustrations on in 2022. But again, they get to have a say in that, and they will do what they can to redirect and distract, as anyone in their position would. This is the kind of place where having a gubernatorial candidate would really help, since there would be a natural conduit for the message that the blame should apply to the guys in charge of the state. We don’t have that yet, so that task needs to be diffused outward for the time being. The point here is that this kind of data can be used by anyone, and so there needs to be a coherent message and a recognized messenger to get the viewpoint you like out into the discourse. For now at least, that’s on all of us. Robert Rivard has more.

Galveston ISD mask mandate remains, Round Rock gets halted

Good.

A Galveston County judge Thursday denied an attempt by Attorney General Ken Paxton to stop Galveston ISD from requiring masks, according to a court document.

Judge Kerry Neves ruled against Texas’ request for a temporary restraining order on mask mandates in the district.

According to court documents, a hearing on the matter is set for Sept. 28.

See here for the background. That’s the whole Chron story – the Galveston County News covered this as well, but they’re behind a paywall so I can’t see it. Paxton scored an initial win against Paris ISD in his second round of lawsuits, though that happened without Paris ISD being in the courtroom. It would seem he used that same tactic in Round Rock.

A state district judge in Williamson County has temporarily blocked the Round Rock school district from enforcing its mask mandate, according to Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, who sued the school district.

In a tweet Thursday night, Paxton’s office declared “Another WIN!” in its legal fight against school districts that have defied Gov. Greg Abbott’s executive orders banning schools from requiring masks. Paxton sued Round Rock along with Elgin and other school districts with mask mandates last Friday.

[…]

In a statement, Round Rock school district leaders said they had not been officially served or notified by Paxton’s office of the order. District officials also said they were not given the opportunity attend any court proceedings to oppose the order, but they said they would “comply with any lawfully issued court order.”

“We will also use all proper and available legal proceedings to challenge this order and vigorously defend its long-established lawful authority to provide a safe and healthy learning environment for Round Rock ISD students and staff, including during this pandemic,” the statement said. “The district continues to strongly encourage and recommend the use of masks in accordance with guidance from our local health authorities.”

I totally get Paxton playing dirty, but what is up with these judges letting it happen? Do they have no responsibility to at least inquire why there’s no opposing counsel? I’m puzzled, to say the least.

As for the other affected districts, I did a quick Google News search and didn’t see any news for them. I would assume there will be more rulings in the coming days, but for now as far as I can tell this is where we are.

Federal judge will fast-track mask mandate ban lawsuit

I’m ready.

Federal District Judge Lee Yeakel said Wednesday morning he intends to fast-track a lawsuit filed on behalf of 14 Texas schoolchildren with disabilities who allege that Gov. Greg Abbott’s ban on mask mandates breaks federal law by discriminating against them because they are particularly vulnerable to COVID-19.

In Wednesday’s hearing, Yeakel denied a request for a temporary restraining order that would have barred Texas from enforcing Abbott’s order until Oct. 6, when the case is scheduled for trial.

Yeakel said he needs more information about the case before he will be ready to make a ruling.

The delay will allow the judge to hear from witnesses and see other evidence in the case. No matter what his decision on the case, Yeakel said he expects it to be appealed to higher courts — possibly as far as the U.S. Supreme Court.

“I think the issues in this case are extremely important,” Yeakel said.

In legal filings and in court, lawyers for the 14 children argued that Texas’ mask mandate prevents school districts from making reasonable accommodations for children with disabilities, in violation of the federal Americans with Disabilities Act. They also said it preempts the federal American Rescue Plan, the COVID-19 relief package signed into law by the president earlier this year, which they said provides discretion for school districts to follow federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendations.

[…]

The lawsuit is against Attorney General Ken Paxton, Abbott and Abbott’s Texas Education Agency. The order was defended in court Wednesday by lawyers from Paxton’s office.

The crux of their defense was that the lawsuit was improper because none of the defendants are the right people to sue over Abbott’s mask order. They said the proper people to sue would be those who are enforcing the law, but no one is actually enforcing it, so there’s no one to sue.

“(Abbott’s order) doesn’t stop the plaintiffs from doing anything. They can say, think, do whatever they want. It does not regulate their conduct, it regulates the conduct of local officials,” said Todd Dickerson, an assistant attorney general, adding that there is “no credible threat of enforcement” from the local district attorneys who are supposed to enforce it.

See here and here for the background. The “you can’t sue me” dodge was a key component of Abbott’s claim/admission that he has no power to enforce the mask mandate ban, and has been a part of the defense that he and Ken Paxton have put forward in the various lawsuits against them over the ban. As such, it’s not a surprise to see it turn up here – this is becoming a foundational piece of their governance, which is that no one can hold them accountable for anything. But as the plaintiffs point out, for a guy who claims he can’t enforce Abbott’s mask mandate ban order, he sure is suing a lot of people to do just exactly that. So which one is true? We’ll see what the judge makes of it.

Paxton sues more school districts

Another rampage by the morally bankrupt felon in the AG’s office.

Best mugshot ever

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton has unleashed another wave of lawsuits against school districts over their masking policies — but one of them says it doesn’t even require face coverings.

Midway Independent School District is a Waco-area district that sits on a list compiled by the attorney general’s office of school districts and counties that have flouted Gov. Greg Abbott’s ban and put in place their own mask-wearing orders.

The hitch? Midway ISD doesn’t mandate that students, teachers, school staff or visitors don masks while on school premises, a district spokesperson said Wednesday. Midway officials have tried to convince the attorney general’s office the district doesn’t have a mandate — but to no avail.

“We have not received information of why or how we are considered out of compliance or considered for a lawsuit,” district spokesperson Traci Marlin said in an email.

The Midway school district is among nine that Paxton announced on Tuesday that he is suing for allegedly defying Abbott’s executive order banning public schools and local governments from enacting local mask mandates.

Under Midway’s virus protocol, campuses can issue 10-day “mask directives” that encourage mask-wearing on the premises if virus transmission reaches a certain level — but doesn’t require it. The attorney general’s office pointed to that protocol as the basis of its lawsuit against the district but declined to answer other questions from The Texas Tribune.

Those directives are not the same as mandates, Marlin said — and in one case, such a directive successfully cut down the number of active cases on a campus.

“Directives are not enforced,” she said. “There are no punishments or repercussions.”

McGregor Independent School District, another district near Waco, did require mask-wearing if virus transmission became too severe but, at Paxton’s request, did not enforce the mandate, Superintendent James Lenamon said in a statement.

Nonetheless, Paxton sued the district.

“The district is disappointed that the AG has decided to sue anyway,” Lenamon said.

[…]

In addition to McGregor and Midway, Paxton announced lawsuits against seven other districts Tuesday: Diboll, Honey Grove, La Vega, Longview, Lufkin, Paris and Waco school districts.

See here for the previous story. The fact that neither Ken Paxton nor Greg Abbott has the power to enforce the mask mandate ban isn’t stopping him. Given that, we should not be surprised that he isn’t particularly concerned about the details in these districts. This is all about throwing his weight around. And by the way, for anyone who might have thought that P Bush or Eva Guzman would present a more moderate, less “burn the witch!” alternative to Paxton in the Republican primary, I’m not seeing any statements from them in which they question the wisdom of this effort. I’m just saying. (There is one candidate who has spoken about it.)

Ironically, the one win Paxton has chalked up so far has come against the one school district that appeared to have found a silver bullet.

Paris schools announced Tuesday they are no longer requiring masks on campus. This comes a month after the Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton sent the district a cease and desist letter telling them to stop requiring masks. Paxton listed Paris ISD, the school board and the superintendent in a lawsuit over the same mandate.

According to a temporary restraining order signed by a Lamar County district judge Monday, Paris Independent School District is no longer able to enforce their mask mandate and, they backed down. But despite the order Paris ISD says they will continue to strongly encourage everyone on campus to wear one.

“It was a rather cowardly act on the Attorney Generals office’s part,” said General Counsel for the district, Dennis Eichelbaum.

[…]

In August, the district included masks as a part of their dress code citing Chapter 11 of Texas Education Code, which states the school board has the right to set the dress code.

“There’s absolutely no reason why if we want to have a dress code, there’s no justification for the government office without having suspended the laws that give us the authority to run the district, to allow us to do our job,” said Eichelbaum.

According to court documents, a district judge signed a temporary restraining order against the district on Monday making it against the law for them to require masks on campus.

“We are still encouraging everyone to wear masks even if it’s not mandated, Paris ISD has seen a significant drop compared to other communities in the area with regard to children being sent home for COVID-19. we believe there’s a connection with the mask mandate., and we encourage everyone to continue to wear a mask to keep everyone safe,” Eichelbaum said. “We’re now set for a hearing next week in district court, and at that time, we will be defending our board policy which permits mask mandates.”

Eichelbaum says they will be defending the district’s right to enforce safety measures during the COVID-19 pandemic.

A hearing is set for Tuesday, September 21. This will determine whether the temporary restraining order will be overturned.

See here and here for the background. You got a raw deal, Paris. I’m rooting for you at the hearing. KVUE has more.

UPDATE: Wait, this detail wasn’t in that last story for some reason.

Dennis Eichelbaum, lawyer for Paris ISD, said Paxton’s office — despite the fact Paxton had sent multiple letters threatening lawsuits beforehand — didn’t notify the district of the lawsuit until after the hearing was over, and the restraining order had been granted. Paris ISD didn’t get to make its case against the restraining order as a result, Eichelbaum said, describing it as “a cowardly move” from Paxton.

“First, it’s against the rules of civil procedure. So he doesn’t care about the law when it applies to him,” Eichelbaum said. “He’s very brave to go to court when you’re not there to defend yourselves.”

“A lot of times attorneys will get sanctioned for it if they do something like this,” he added, saying he will ask the district’s trustees if they want to pursue the matter with the judge.

Emphasis mine, and wow. What a sniveling coward Ken Paxton is. Please, please, pursue this matter with the judge.

Paxton sues again over SAISD’s vaccine mandate

Yes, vaccine mandate. For teachers and staff.

Best mugshot ever

For the second time in a month, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton sued San Antonio Independent School District and Superintendent Pedro Martinez for requiring all staff to be vaccinated against COVID-19.

Martinez issued a staff vaccine mandate and mask mandate Aug. 16 for everyone inside school buildings. Three days later, Paxton sued Martinez and SAISD over both mandates, stating in the lawsuit that the superintendent and the district were “deliberately violating state law,” as a July executive order from Gov. Greg Abbott prohibits any entity that receives public funds from mandating COVID-19 vaccines that had received only emergency approval from the federal government.

But the federal Food and Drug Administration granted full approval for the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine on Aug. 23, and the lawsuit was dropped. Two days later, Abbott issued a new executive order, banning governmental entities from requiring any COVID-19 vaccine, regardless of FDA approval status.

Paxton filed the second lawsuit against SAISD in Bexar County on Sept. 9, seeking a temporary restraining order barring the school district from mandating vaccines. In the petition, Paxton claims SAISD and Martinez are again violating state law by “flouting” the August executive order.

“The decision to openly violate state law and devote district resources to defending Superintendent Martinez’s unlawful actions is irresponsible,” Paxton said in a statement. “But if school districts decide to use their limited funding to try to get away with breaking the law, my office will oppose them and uphold the rule of law in Texas.”

See here and here for some background. My reaction when Paxton filed the first lawsuit was that he was likely to prevail, and despite the FDA approval and Biden mandate (which has been announced but not yet fully implemented), I don’t see any reason why that would change. I will of course be happy to be wrong, and if it is the case that some people have gotten vaccinated as a result of the SAISD mandate then it’s a win no matter what happens in court. The main thing to remember here is that Ken Paxton, like Greg Abbott, is objectively pro-COVID, and we need to make them pay at the ballot box for it.

Our COVID failures and our economy

Remember when the goal was to get the economy going again?

The recent surge in COVID-19 cases is not only hitting the state in terms of lives lost, but it’s taking its toll on the Texas economy. That’s according to a new report from the Perryman Group, an economic research and analysis firm in Waco.

They estimate the state’s failure to contain the disease has led to nearly 72,000 job losses. The analysis also found on average, the state loses roughly $187,000 for every employee unable to return to work because of the pandemic. That amounts to total potential losses of about $13 billion per year, the firm found.

But they argue many of these potential losses are preventable.

“What we need to do right now is do everything we can to make it safer for people to return to work. That includes masks where appropriate. That includes safety in schools so people that have issues with their children in childcare and things like that that prevent people from returning to work,” said Ray Perryman, president and CEO of the Perryman Group. “These are what we call preventable [economic] losses.”

Perryman said certain industries are being hit harder than others.

“In terms of dollar impacts, obviously a worker in a tech industry per worker has a much bigger impact than say a worker in a restaurant. But from an industry perspective, the ones being hit the hardest are the ones you’ve been hearing about since the beginning of the pandemic that deal in interpersonal relationships – retail, particularly restaurants, salons, airlines,” he said.

He says getting more people vaccinated is also key to avoid future economic losses.

The full report is here if you want to read it, and there’s video of an interview with Perryman about this at the first link. Honestly, in the context of Texas’ economy, $13 billion is pretty small, as is 72,000 jobs. Not nothing, especially if you’re in one of the more affected sectors, but not so much that you’d notice it on a graph. The point that all of this was preventable, with more aggressive vaccination promotion and distribution, and a continued reliance on masks while allowing local governments to have the discretion they need to respond as they see fit, is still true. There’s no good reason why we have to be going through what we are going through now. It was all the result of Greg Abbott’s actions.

COVID and college football

We sure these sellout crowds are a good idea?

At Virginia Tech last Friday, the packed crowd bounced to “Enter Sandman.” At the University of Wisconsin the next day, fans jumped around to “Jump Around.”

College football and its crowd traditions are back to their full glory like they were in 2019, before Covid-19 restrictions sharply limited fan attendance in 2020.

Some of the country’s biggest powerhouses — including Georgia, Alabama, Ohio State and Oklahoma, to name a few — are hosting games to full capacity on Saturday. And fans who attend these games won’t have to prove their vaccination status, won’t be required to social distance and won’t have to wear masks in their seats.

The return of college football and its unique cultures, which began in earnest last week, are a source of communal bonding for sports fans, yet they also represent a source of anxiety for others.

[…]

Both the SEC and NCAA deferred to schools to make their own decisions — based on local and state requirements — when asked what each was doing to mitigate the spread of Covid-19 at football games. Both do have Covid-19 protocols for student-athletes.

“My ask of our fans is to try to take advantage of what science has done,” Greg Sankey, SEC commissioner, said last month.

Georgia’s plan to host such a large crowd comes as the state has fully vaccinated about half of its residents 12 and older, one of the 10 lowest vaccination rates among all states, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Athens-Clarke County, where the Bulldogs play, has a “high” rate of Covid-19 community transmission, the CDC says.

Last week marked the full opening of the college football season, and stadiums across the country were packed with fans eager to rejoin the communal sports experience.

In Georgia, the Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta hosted nearly 72,000 fans for an Alabama-Miami game on Saturday and hosted about 31,000 fans for the Louisville-Ole Miss game on Monday. At both games, the stadium roof was open and masks were required in enclosed spaces but not in open-air areas, and there were no vaccine requirements.

A number of the universities that have packed fans into seats this season require students to be vaccinated, including at large Big Ten schools Michigan (109,000 in attendance), Maryland (44,000) and Illinois (41,000).

These schools are hardly breaking new ground by holding packed games. The National Basketball Association and Major League Baseball have similarly held full capacity events this summer, and the National Football League will do so when the season begins later this week.

This story was published Saturday morning, before this week’s games were played. Those other sports aren’t a great comparison because they have smaller crowds and their gamedays aren’t all-day party affairs. The SEC and some other conferences put an emphasis on getting players and coaches vaccinated, but getting fans vaccinated is not on their agenda. I can hardly blame them, because I can imagine the pushback they’d get if they tried. There’s evidence to suggest that limited-seating football games did not help spread COVID, but we are not doing limited seating any more – these are full stadia, with 80K to 100K people in attendance. Don’t be surprised if that has a negative effect.

Hospital systems have no excuse for not mandating COVID vaccines now

So get on with it already.

Local hospitals reacted Friday to President Joseph Biden’s sweeping vaccine mandates directed at the health care workers, who make up much of the Houston workforce.

In a move that overrides Gov. Greg Abbott’s executive order barring public institutions from issuing their own COVID-19 restrictions, the administration said it would require vaccinations for employees at health care facilities that accept Medicare and Medicaid reimbursement.

Baylor College of Medicine’s dean of clinical affairs, Dr. James McDeavitt, said Thursday he supported the new measures.

“It is the right thing to do,” he said.

Still, he wished the plan had come sooner. “It is not going to help us with the current delta surge,” he added.

[…]

Five Houston hospital systems already require a vaccine. In June, Houston Methodist became the first hospital in the nation to announce it would require its staff to be fully vaccinated, a move that met months of resistance, including a lawsuit by some employees. Memorial Hermann and Baylor College of Medicine enacted their own vaccine mandates in July; St. Luke’s Health and Texas Children’s Hospital announced similar plans in August.

Thursday’s executive order will bring similar mandates to the city’s remaining health systems.

Until now, Harris Health System and UTHealth had encouraged worker vaccinations but were unable to require it under the governor’s order.

But on Friday, Harris Health System said it “fully intends to embrace the vaccine mandate” for workers at its two hospitals, 18 community health centers and 10 clinics serving the greater Houston area. The system has not yet set a date.

UT Health said it would wait for guidance from the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Service, expected in October. It had not instituted a mandate as of Friday afternoon.

St. Joseph Medical Center and UTMB Galveston said they are still evaluating Biden’s plan.

While Kelsey-Seybold Clinic said in August it was waiting for full vaccine approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration before asking employees to provide proof of immunization, the clinic has not announced a mandate since the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine gained full U.S. Food and Drug Administration approval late last month.

See here for the background. I agree that the mandate coming out now will have little to no effect on the current surge, given that it takes a few weeks to get both shots and the full effect of them, and that it will take time for these hospital systems to get their programs going. It would still be nice if some of them had more of a sense of urgency about it. This is still by far the best thing we can do for the medium to longer term, and at the very least these hospital systems should be setting a better example. Get it done already, y’all. The Trib has more.

A bit of good news in the wastewater

I’ll take it where I can get it.

Community spread of coronavirus is on the decline from its recent summertime high, but experts warn that Labor Day gatherings and kids’ return to classrooms could bring a rash of new infections in the coming weeks.

The latest samples of Houston’s wastewater — a highly sensitive method for tracking coronavirus — show diminishing traces of the virus across the region, said Loren Hopkins, the Houston Health Department’s chief environmental science officer. The results indicate a slight drop in person-to-person spread.

“The positivity rates are still alarmingly high, the wastewater rates are still alarmingly high, but it may be trending down,” Hopkins said Wednesday.

The decline could be short-lived.

The holiday weekend and the start of school, which spurred record infections among children, will likely keep the Houston area in “plateau mode” for the foreseeable future, said Bill McKeon, CEO of the Texas Medical Center.

On Tuesday, the Texas Medical Center reported that the rate of transmission across the Houston area was 0.87; the average for the previous week was 0.99. Both figures landing below 1.0 is a good sign; any number above 1.0 means the virus is spreading through the community.

Still, McKeon urged caution. Tuesday’s low daily transmission rate of 0.87 could be artificially deflated due to low testing rates, he said, which commonly occur over holiday weekends.

“We are just coming out of the Labor Day weekend and we typically do not see the impact of holidays for one to two weeks,” McKeon said.

[…]

Houston’s coronavirus hospitalizations slowed by 2.3 percent in the past week, but remained only slightly lower than August’s record peak. As of Tuesday, 3,370 people were in area hospitals for COVID-19, down from the record high of 3,500 on Aug. 24, according to the Texas Department of State Health Services.

Ballooning school transmissions are another concern, experts said, especially in districts that do not have mask mandates. Student infections are rapidly rising across the state, with the total number of positive cases among public school students surging by 90 percent just a few weeks into the new school year.

“We need mask mandates to protect our school children from getting infected and bringing it home to Mom and Dad,” said Catherine Troisi, an epidemiologist at Texas Medical Center’s School of Public Health.

The wastewater had documented to surge, and it will be the leading indicator when there is a real decline. I hope people were cautious over the Labor Day weekend, but we’ll know soon enough what if any effect that had. As for mask mandates in the schools, it seems to be working pretty well for HISD. I keep saying, none of this is a mystery, we know what we need to do, we just have to do it.

Paxton sues several school districts over mask mandates

Whatever, dude.

Best mugshot ever

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton announced Friday that he filed a lawsuit against Richardson ISD, following through on his pledge to sue school districts who mandate masks.

The district defied Gov. Greg Abbott’s executive order prohibiting local entities from requiring masks. The RISD trustees voted last week to affirm Superintendent Jeannie Stone’s decision to require face coverings, after they were forced to close an elementary school because of a spike in COVID-19 cases and a sixth grader was admitted into the intensive care unit.

Paxton noted in a release that the office anticipates filing additional lawsuits against the districts flouting the governor’s order. This could include Dallas ISD — the first to openly defy Abbott.

“Not only are superintendents across Texas openly violating state law, but they are using district resources—that ought to be used for teacher merit raises or other educational benefits—to defend their unlawful political maneuvering,” Paxton said in a statement.

[…]

Richardson is among the first Texas districts to be sued by Paxton. Friday he also filed suit against the Galveston, Elgin, Spring and Sherman school districts, according to his office.

He has railed against the dozens of school districts and counties who stood firm on mask mandates, repeatedly posting on social media that he would sue them all. Paxton’s office maintains an ever-evolving list of local entities that are mandating masks.

Meanwhile, Abbott’s order is tied up in both state and federal courts as districts and advocates push for mask mandates to be local decisions.

Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins is locked in a legal fight with the state over his decision to impose a local mask mandate for businesses and schools.

Disability Rights Texas recently escalated the legal battle, filing a federal lawsuit against Abbott, alleging his order unfairly harms children with disabilities.

Richardson trustees also recently voted to join an existing multi-district lawsuit challenging Abbott’s ban, which argues the governor’s executive order exceeds his authority and infringes on local control.

Paxton’s move could have federal implications, as well. The U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights recently opened investigations into five states that prohibit mask mandates, saying such bans may violate the federal law meant to protect students with disabilities.

Department officials indicated they had not opened an investigation into Texas because its ban isn’t currently being enforced because of court orders.

Again, neither Ken Paxton nor Greg Abbott has the power to enforce mask mandate bans. Even if Paxton gets a judge to rule in his favor – the score so far is tilted pretty heavily against him – local DAs can and should thumb their noses at him. It’s not clear to me where these lawsuits have been filed – in this press release he said there were three of them, but didn’t get more specific than that. There may be more coming, so eventually we’ll sort it all out. In the meantime, Paxton can go pound sand. The Chron, Reform Austin, and KXAN have more.

UPDATE: Here’s the Trib story, which notes that the lawsuit against Galveston ISD was brought in Galveston County, as one might expect. That’s probably true of the others, each filed in their home county, but it would still be nice to have that confirmed.

Now that’s a vaccine mandate

Good.

President Joe Biden on Thursday imposed stringent new vaccine rules on federal workers, large employers and health care staff in a sweeping attempt to contain the latest surge of Covid-19.

The new requirements could apply to as many as 100 million Americans — close to two-thirds of the American workforce — and amount to Biden’s strongest push yet to require vaccines for much of the country.

“We’ve been patient, but our patience is wearing thin, and your refusal has cost all of us,” Biden said, his tone hardening toward Americans who still refuse to receive a vaccine despite ample evidence of their safety and full approval of one — the Pfizer-BioNTech Covid-19 vaccine — from the US Food and Drug Administration.

He said vaccinated America was growing “frustrated” with the 80 million people who have not received shots and are fueling the spread of the virus. And he acknowledged the new steps would not provide a quick fix.

“While America is in much better shape than it was seven months ago when I took office, I need to tell you a second fact: We’re in a tough stretch and it could last for awhile,” Biden said in an early evening speech from the White House.

At the center of Biden’s new plan is directing the Labor Department to require all businesses with 100 or more employees ensure their workers are either vaccinated or tested once a week, an expansive step the President took after consultation with administration health officials and lawyers. Companies could face thousands of dollars in fines per employee if they don’t comply.

Biden also signed an executive order requiring all government employees be vaccinated against Covid-19, with no option of being regularly tested to opt out. The President signed an accompanying order directing the same standard be applied to employees of contractors who do business with the federal government.

He also said 300,000 educators in federal Head Start programs must be vaccinated and called on governors to require vaccinations for schoolteachers and staff.

And Biden announced he would require the 17 million health care workers at facilities receiving funds from Medicare and Medicaid to be fully vaccinated, expanding the mandate to hospitals, home care facilities and dialysis centers around the country.

“We have the tools to combat the virus if we come together to use those tools,” Biden said at the outset of what was billed as a major speech to tackle the latest phase of the Covid-19 pandemic.

I mean, I’d have ordered the FAA to issue a vaccine mandate for getting on an airplane as well while I was at it, but maybe that’s still to come. To the extent that this is allowed, and based on a lot of public polling, this will move the needle significantly in the vaccination rates. Still won’t get us to 100%, but it will get us a lot closer. There will be wailing and gnashing of teeth and lawsuits – you can already hear Greg Abbott caterwauling – but it is going to have an effect. (And by the way, none of this would have been necessary if it hadn’t been for the likes of Greg Abbott.)

I have no idea what the legal status is of any of this. I’ve seen a few people I trust on Twitter suggest that the President has the authority to impose this kind of rule on large businesses in the name of public safety, especially via his emergency powers, but for sure there will be a broad array of opinion on that. Most of the rest of us are at most barely aware than it’s the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) that will be doing the work on this, or that it will take some time for the rule to be developed. But as you can see, it has already had an effect:

The more you know…The Trib and the Chron have more.

Mayor Turner orders unvaxxed city employees to get tested twice a week

So maybe get vaccinated, and avoid all the hassle.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Unvaccinated city workers must get tested for COVID-19 twice a month and report their results to the human resources department, Mayor Sylvester Turner announced Wednesday.

Turner signed an executive order implementing the policy,which takes effect Oct 8. It will allow some exemptions for religious and medical reasons.

The plans come as the city regularly has had more than 300 active cases of the virus among its workforce, Turner said. The latest numbers showed 342 workers with the virus, including 129 police, 161 municipal and 52 fire department employees.

Those cases hamper city operations, the mayor said.

“When you have 129 police officers with COVID, they’re not able to perform their jobs. Same thing with municipal workers, and, for example, permitting, that slows things down,” Turner said. “Simply don’t want them to get sick and don’t want anybody, anybody to die.”

[…]

The policy will apply to all police, fire and municipal staff who have not been fully vaccinated. It will not apply to elected officials or appointed members to the city’s boards and commissions.

The fire, police and municipal workers unions did not respond to requests for comment on Turner’s plan.

Turner said staff will face disciplinary action if they do not comply.

“It could even cost you your job,” the mayor said.

The mayor in recent weeks had teased a policy to encourage vaccinations, saying many city workers have not gotten their shots.

Mayor Turner implemented a mask mandate for city employees in early August. As far as I know, that executive order has not been involved in any of the lawsuits over mandates and Greg Abbott’s ban on them. This is a step up from that – it’s not a vaccine mandate per se, but it’s pretty close and I doubt Greg Abbott or Ken Paxton will split hairs. (They already have a reason to be whipped into a frenzy about this.) Whether or not cities can issue vaccine mandates is on the agenda for the next special session. What I’m saying is, I don’t know how long I expect this policy to last. And that’s before we hear of the inevitable resistance from the police and firefighter unions – police unions around the country have been staunch resisters of vaccine mandates, and we know how well the Mayor and the HPFFA get along. I support what the Mayor is doing here – if anything, I’d want to see the testing be more frequent – I just doubt he’ll be able to fully implement it. I’ll be happy to be proven wrong.

We really need a mask mandate at every school district

Or we can just accept a lot more hospitalized kids. Easy choice if you ask me.

The number of Texas children hospitalized with COVID-19 hit an all-time high over the weekend, with 345 on Saturday and 307 on Sunday, the highest two-day stretch recorded during the pandemic, according to data from the Texas Department of State Health Services.

The data follows a national trend of rising pediatric COVID hospitalization rates. A study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released Friday shows the highest rate of increase among teenagers and children 0-4 years old. The study also found unvaccinated adolescents were 10 times more likely to need hospitalization compared to their vaccinated peers.

Children under 12 are ineligible for any of the available COVID-19 vaccines.

School reopenings and “pandemic fatigue” are two primary reasons for the statewide increase, said Dr. Katelyn Jetelina, an epidemiologist at UTHealth School of Public Health in Dallas and author of the popular blog “Your Local Epidemiologist.”

“The more that kids interact with each other, the more this is going to transmit,” she said, adding, “We really need to step up our mask game. Parents really need to invest in good masks to wear for their school.”

She urged parents to buy N95 masks for their children and to “lead by example” with their own mask-wearing habits.

Multiple studies have shown masks help reduce COVID transmission indoors. The CDC study also recommends universal masking in schools, where cases are soaring in Texas. The state health department on Aug. 29 recorded 51,904 COVID cases among Texas students since the 2021-22 school year began.

I mean, we’re a year and a half into this pandemic. We do know all this stuff already. I get that some people are tired of doing pandemic things, but 1) if said person is not vaccinated then they can just STFU right now, as this is all their fault, and 2) as the kids say, we may be done with the pandemic but it’s not done with us.

Thankfully, HISD is doing it right.

While outbreaks have forced some districts to close schools already, Houston ISD has fared comparatively well two weeks into its school year.

By midday Friday, the state’s largest district of nearly 200,000 students had confirmed 1,085 active cases among students and staffers, according to its dashboard.

The most important mitigation strategy the district could implement is one it already has in place — ensuring people wear masks, Superintendent Millard House II said Thursday.

“As we look at the data in our schools, yes we have COVID cases,” House said during an agenda review meeting. “But if we look at the percentage of spread in our schools in comparison to the number of kids that we have, it looks — it does not look bad in comparison to some of the other schools that don’t have mandates in place.”

Health professionals agree the mask mandate may be helping HISD reduce the risk transmission inside its classrooms, even as kids younger than 12 remain ineligible to be inoculated and the delta variant continues to spread mostly unchecked in the Houston area.

“I attribute it to that,” said Dr. Quianta Moore, Huffington Fellow in child health policy at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy. “There are some schools that the parents and the community are wearing masks and they are also having low transmission.”

As I said before, I don’t want to get overconfident, but again, we know that masking helps. Given the risks, the current legal status, and the complete lack of consequences for defiance, I can’t think of any good reason for a school district to not have a mask mandate in place. We’re either trying or we’ve given up.

Special session 3.0

Yeah, we knew it was coming. Still too soon.

Gov. Greg Abbott on Tuesday announced a third special legislative session that will begin on Sept. 20 and tackle redistrictingrestrictions on transgender student athletes and the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

“The Texas Legislature now has the opportunity to redraw legislative and congressional districts in accordance with the new census numbers,” Abbott said in a statement. “In addition to redistricting, there are still issues remaining that are critical to building a stronger and brighter future for all Texans.”

Lawmakers, who will meet in Austin for the fourth time this year, will also be tasked with allocating $16 billion in federal COVID-19 relief funds and with deciding whether state or local governments can mandate COVID-19 vaccines. Abbott also included on his five-item agenda a bill that would ban the tethering of dogs outside with heavy chains, which he had vetoed earlier this year. Abbott asked lawmakers to address concerns he had about the specificity of the bill and “over-criminalization.”

The Legislature just wrapped its second overtime round on Thursday, delivering on major conservative priorities like an elections law that restricts how and when voters cast ballots, a ban on how teachers can talk about race and history in classroomsbillions of dollars in additional border security funding and further restricting abortion access.

But lawmakers failed to deliver on two issues pushed by the GOP base: requiring transgender student athletes to play on teams based on the gender assigned to them at or near birth, and banning COVID-19 mandates.

Abbott had asked lawmakers to ban mask mandates in schools during the second special session but lawmakers could not get that proposal over the hump. Now, Abbott is asking the Legislature to decide whether state or local governments can mandate COVID-19 vaccines.

The bills about transgender student athletes and COVID-19 mandates will likely turn up the heat on an already contentious 30-day session. Lawmakers will take up their decennial redrawing of the state’s political maps, meaning some legislators will be fighting for their political lives. (Redistricting usually takes place during the first legislative session after the census, but it was delayed this year because of setbacks spurred by the coronavirus and the Trump administration’s handling of the census data.)

Like I said, we knew it was coming. I don’t know if the lawsuit that was filed by two State Senators to stop legislative redistricting will be successful, but I have to assume there will be a ruling of some kind before this session gets underway. The continued assault on trans kids is sadly unsurprising; the lack of a fraudit item is at least temporarily hopeful. I mean look, none of us want another special session. I’m sure that wearing us all down is part of the plan. But here we are anyway. Oh, and Abbott et al will try to do a bit of cleanup on the so-called “heartbeat bill” since none of them know how to talk about the lack of a rape or incest exemption. So we have that to look forward to as well.

Just a reminder, no one is enforcing Abbott’s mask mandate ban

In case you had forgotten.

While Republican Gov. Greg Abbott is speaking out against mask mandates in schools and suing to stop some Texas school districts from enacting them, in reality his order banning such mandates has gone largely unenforced — so much so that the federal government doesn’t consider it active.

Abbott threatened $1,000 fines for officials who try to impose mask mandates, although no such fines have been handed down. And if he wanted to, Abbott could send state troopers or deputize the Texas National Guard to enforce his order, as he has done on the border, but he hasn’t. Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, meanwhile, has a published list of 71 non complying cities, counties and school districts; is fighting in court with at least six of them and sent letters threatening more legal action to others.

But in the court filings from the lawsuits, Paxton has acknowledged that neither he nor Abbott will directly enforce the ban on mask mandates, instead leaving it to local district attorneys, some of whom are already on-record saying that they don’t intend to prosecute.

Abbott’s own Texas Education Agency on Aug. 19 said that the ban on mask mandates would not be enforced until the courts have resolved legal challenges to his authority to do it. And the federal Department of Education chose Monday not to open an investigation into the matter in Texas, even as it launched probes of five other states with active bans.

[…]

The five largest counties in the state are Harris, Dallas, Tarrant, Bexar and Travis. The district attorneys for Harris and Bexar counties have already announced they don’t intend to prosecute school districts over mask rules, and a prosecutor with Travis County said the office would remain focused on violent crime, although they would evaluate the situation on a case-by-case basis.

Tarrant County did not respond to a request for comment, and a spokeswoman for Dallas County said: “This issue is working its way through the civil courts. At this point in time — until that’s concluded and depending on how that’s concluded — there’s no reason to consider a position on that.”

On Monday at a House Public Education Committee hearing, Rep. Steve Allison, a San Antonio-area Republican, acknowledged there’s “an appearance of dysfunction” in government right now over the mask orders and Abbott’s ban.

See here and here for the background. I’m not sure why the Travis and Dallas DAs are being so equivocal, but it doesn’t really matter. There’s no way they’ll prosecute anyone over this, not if they want to avoid having their asses handed to them in the next primary election. We all know this is about Greg Abbott trying to look macho for the Republican primary voters. There’s no need to help him with that in any way.

The contract health worker surge

Don’t know how sustainable this is.

Dr. Esmaeil Porsa, president and CEO of Harris Health System, said the hospitals in the system were at a breaking point when he learned that 100 temporary medical workers were being sent to help.

As cases surged, the hospitals were admitting more children and pregnant women with complications from COVID-19, and patients who needed intensive care waited in emergency rooms for ICU beds to become available.

The nurses, respiratory therapists and other contract staff “definitely arrived here at a pivotal moment,” Porsa said. “They did exactly what I had hoped that they would do, which is allowing us the opportunity of a couple of things: to provide a little bit of relief for front-line staff who have been running around ragged, but also created an opportunity for us to expand our capacity.”

[…]

Gov. Greg Abbott announced the Texas Department of State Health Services would deploy state-funded relief workers to hospitals, and 8,100 have either arrived from other states or are expected soon.

It’s the second time the state has taken such action. At the height of the state’s winter surge, almost 14,000 medical workers were deployed across the state, according to DSHS. From July 2020 to early August of this year, the state spent more than $5 billion in federal disaster funds and coronavirus relief funds on medical personnel.

Abbott’s move came after hospitals and local health officials complained that they were having to outbid each other to hire contract nurses amid a statewide shortage of hospital staff.

W. Stephen Love, president and CEO of the Dallas-Fort Worth Hospital Council, said that competition among hospitals meant “they’re going to take from Peter to give to Paul, so to speak. That’s why using the state with their purchasing power [is important].”

The new push to bring more health workers to Texas comes as many have reached their limits, said Carrie Williams, spokesperson for the Texas Hospital Association.

“This surge has come faster and stronger than previous surges, and it comes at a time when the frontline [worker] is burned out,” Williams said in a statement. “We were already starting from behind when this surge hit.”

According to DSHS, the state’s hospitals requested more than 15,000 temporary staffers between Aug. 12 and Aug. 25. As of Aug. 25, almost 4,000 have been deployed, with most going to regions with the state’s most populous counties and metro areas.

[…]

Health officials continue to stress that the main way to reduce the need for additional staff is clear: more vaccinations. As of Aug. 25, about 47% of Texans were fully vaccinated.

Since Jan. 1, Porsa said, everyone who has died at LBJ Hospital and Ben Taub Hospital from COVID-19 has been unvaccinated.

“Space is not unlimited, resources are not unlimited,” Porsa said. “At some point it doesn’t matter how many nurses you throw at the problem, we are going to arrive at a situation where we’re not going to have enough clinicians, we’re not going to have enough doctors, we’re not going to have enough something else.

“We will run out of options at some point, and this is really really important for people to realize that this cannot go on forever, and they know what the solution is.”

It’s still not clear to me how there could even be that many not currently working medical staff out there to be brought in, but they do exist in some number, for which we are grateful and lucky. It’s also not clear at what point demand will outstrip supply, and as noted above, we may run into other limits even sooner than that.

How long can we last? There’s actually a tiny bit of cause for optimism in the most recent data.

The average number of daily COVID hospitalizations in the Texas Medical Center dropped for the first time since early July from a record 390 patients to 388, the medical center reported Monday.

The metric reflects the daily average of hospitalized patients over the previous week. The drop comes amid declining COVID hospitalizations both nationally and statewide.
A three-day decline in total COVID hospitalizations in Texas brought the number to 13,557 on Saturday, the most recent day for which data is available. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also reported a drop in the average number of new daily hospitalizations nationwide, from 12,354 on Thursday to 12,051 on Friday. More recent national data is not yet available.

Dr. James McDeavitt, executive vice president and dean of clinical affairs at Baylor College of Medicine, said the decline is part of the natural course of the pandemic.

“When you see an outbreak like this, the virus kind of runs through the population until it gets to the point where it starts running out of people to infect,” he said, adding, “That does not mean herd immunity.”

He warned that the virus still has room to spread, especially as schools reopen. In an interview last week, McDeavitt said hospitals will continue to feel the strain of the current surge as cases decline.

Burnout among nurses, lingering staffing shortages and the record number of hospitalizations all factor into a longer recovery period.

“From the peak, we’re probably still a month-and-a-half to getting to something that feels like business as usual,” he said last week. “So best case, we’re into October now before we start to get some relief.”

So don’t get too cocky. It’s good that maybe we’ve peaked and will start to see a decline, but we’re still a long way out from where we were in May and June, and we could easily reverse course again. We need to keep getting people vaccinated, because the alternative is more of what we’re going through now.

Morning Consult also finds a decline in Abbott’s approval rating

Now we have two points.

Two Republican governors famed for their antagonistic approach to some COVID-19 safety measures have seen their popularity decline this summer as they presided over some of the country’s worst COVID-19 spikes. But for Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, the virus’s toll has hardly hurt either of them with their party’s base as they look toward their political futures.

According to Morning Consult Political Intelligence polling conducted Aug. 21-30, 48 percent of voters in Florida and Texas approve of their governor’s job performance, while similar shares disapprove. The downturn since daily polling that concluded on July 1, before COVID-19’s delta variant spread rapidly across their states and prompted concerns about accessibility of hospital beds and oxygen, has been especially stark for DeSantis.

The first-term Florida governor’s net approval rating – the share of voters who approve of his job performance minus the share who disapprove – has fallen 14 percentage points since the beginning of July, larger than the 7-point drop in sentiment about Abbott over the same time period.

[…]

Roughly 4 in 5 GOP voters in Florida and Texas approve of their Republican governors. The figure has dropped slightly for DeSantis (from 87 percent to 83 percent) since July 1, while it went virtually unchanged for Abbott (from 80 percent to 79 percent).

Most Republican voters in Florida (59 percent) still “strongly” approve of DeSantis — down 7 points over the course of two months but more than 10 points above where he began the year.

In Texas, where Abbott is facing at least two major conservative challengers for re-election next year, the incumbent is a bit weaker with the GOP base compared with DeSantis: 42 percent of Republicans strongly approve of his job performance, compared with 47 percent who did so at the beginning of July.

Abbott’s numbers in this poll are 48 approve, 47 disapprove. That’s better than in the Texas Politics Project poll, but as with that one it represents a decline from the months before. The trend graph shows a steady decline, and in the accompanying table, Abbott was at 51-43 in the July 1 poll. The specific numbers aren’t what’s of interest, it’s the direction they’ve been going. As noted, that can certainly change, and two data points aren’t that much better than one. But so far at least we’re getting a consistent story. Via Harvey Kronberg.

The silence of the businesses

What if they passed a law that effectively nullified Roe v Wade and no one reacted? And by “no one”, I mean the businesses that had previously stood up for abortion rights in 2019 when multiple state legislatures were trying to pass other onerous restrictions?

In 2019, almost 200 corporate leaders stood up for abortion rights. Amid a rash of antiabortion legislation throughout the U.S. South, they said: no more. Abortion restrictions are bad for business.

On Wednesday, Texas enacted an abortion ban stricter than the ones that proliferated two years ago, thanks to its unprecedented “bounty hunting” clause that allows private citizens to sue anyone who “aids and abets” an abortion conducted after six weeks of pregnancy. And yet this time around, the business backlash is missing.

“Their silence is shameful,” says Shelley Alpern, director of shareholder advocacy for Rhia Ventures who has worked to galvanize companies around reproductive rights. “Their very integrity is at stake.”

So why aren’t companies speaking up?

[…]

One reason companies have stayed silent is that—like their employees—firms have a lot on their plate in 2021. Their workforces are scattered remotely; the Delta variant is delaying return-to-office plans; COVID cases continue to rise. News about abortion bans didn’t dominate the news cycle leading up to this law in a way that pressured corporate leaders to respond. Texas’s abortion ban going into effect at midnight Wednesday—and the Supreme Court’s official decision not to intervene almost 24 hours later—took many people by surprise. “The overall level of corporate awareness around Texas is very slim,” says Jen Stark, senior director of corporate strategy for the Tara Health Foundation, an organization that advocates for gender equity and access to reproductive health care. “Some of this is pure bandwidth and capacity.”

But now that the Texas law is in effect, will companies finally speak up? Fortune reached out to about a dozen companies—from startups to Fortune 500 businesses—with a significant employee presence in Texas, including those that moved operations to the state over the past year. Most did not respond to a request for comment.

Bumble, the dating app business based in Austin, declined to comment but posted on Instagram that the company had created a “relief fund” to support people who seek abortions in Texas amid what the company called a “regressive law.” Bumble, led by CEO Whitney Wolfe Herd, is known for its outspokenness on issues of gender equity and has engaged in the Texas political process in the past, lobbying for legislation to penalize the unsolicited sending of lewd images.

The strongest Texas corporate response came from dating app competitor Match Group, which is headquartered in Dallas. Tinder, a Match company, signed the 2019 letter advocating against abortion restrictions. Match CEO Shar Dubey told employees on Wednesday that she would “set up a fund to ensure that if any of our Texas-based employees or a dependent find themselves impacted by this legislation and need to seek care outside of Texas, the fund will help cover the additional costs incurred.”

“The company generally does not take political stands unless it is relevant to our business,” Dubey wrote in a note to employees. “But in this instance, I personally, as a woman in Texas, could not keep silent.”

Employers are engaged on issues of gender equity; the challenge ahead for reproductive rights activists is to get companies to see abortion rights as part of their gender equity commitments. That’s a view already shared by large shares of their workforces; according to a new survey conducted in August by research firm PerryUndem, two-thirds of the college-educated workforce says Texas’s SB 8 would discourage them from taking a job in the state.

Companies that spoke out in favor of abortion rights in 2019 said that restricting access “threatens the health, independence, and economic stability of our employees and customers.”

Stark, of Tara Health, rallied companies to sign the 2019 letter on abortion bans but has had mixed success in the years since getting businesses to speak up for reproductive rights at subsequent junctures. “If they don’t feel the squeeze, they try to run out the clock as long as they can,” Stark said of the challenges of getting companies to join these efforts.

There’s a Times story along the same lines. Companies respond to pressure, and right now they’re not feeling enough of it. There’s a lot of other news out there – 2019 was before COVID, after all, so the environment was different – and people are dealing with a lot. But we could also talk about the lack of response following the passage of the voter suppression bill, whose introduction earlier this year generated a lot of pushback as well but nary a peep this time around. (Same for the various anti-trans bills, though at least they still have not passed.) It’s hard to maintain energy and focus against an enemy that never quits. It’s never too late to start responding – we will have elections next year, remember – and of course the federal government could respond as well – like the business community, they also act when they feel the heat. But we do need to put that heat on all of them, because the next thing you know we’ll be onto whatever the next thing is. Daily Kos has more.

A rough start to the school year

For some districts more than others.

Angleton and Livingston ISDs announced this week they temporarily were shutting down their schools, the first Houston-area districts to halt all in-person learning amid rising numbers of COVID-19 cases among students and staff, but possibly not the last.

With reported cases increasing rapidly since schools in the Houston region reopened last month, some districts are discussing contingency plans for closing campuses and, in some cases, shifting to online learning.

Already a handful of districts temporarily have shuttered individual classrooms or entire schools, prompted by the number of student infections, the number of kids having to quarantine or staff shortages caused by illness or quarantines.

With little guidance from the Texas Education Agency on metrics and thresholds that should trigger closures, school districts are making those calls on their own or relying on local health authorities. Among the factors being considered are rates of infection, teacher staffing — including the availability of substitutes — and student absences.

According to TEA, many districts have built time into their calendars in “anticipation that a temporary shutdown due to COVID” may be necessary.

“The agency has been coordinating with (districts) experiencing the need to close to ensure they have the information necessary to plan, adjust, and prepare to provide the required minimum of 75,600 operational minutes,” the agency said in an emailed statement.

[…]

Elsewhere in the state, Connally ISD in central Texas closed its five campuses near Waco for the week after two teachers died of COVID, as have a handful of east Texas districts and others in rural areas of the state.

Area districts that are mandating the use of face masks by students and staff, including Houston, Spring and Texas City ISDs, said they are not in talks about shutting down schools and are focusing on keeping in-person learning safe.

“We do not anticipate school closures,” reads Houston ISD’s COVID protocols. “However, should conditions change and an HISD school or building need to close, the determination will be made on a case-by-case basis by the superintendent in consultation with HISD Health and Medical Services and the Houston Health Department.”

Well, HISD still has a mask mandate, and I figure that has to be helping. I don’t want to get obnoxious about it since the Delta variant is terrible and pride goeth before a fall, but I’ll put better odds on HISD than on a district that isn’t taking the minimal steps to protect its students and teachers and staffers. According to the Trib, “At least 45 small school districts across Texas have been forced to temporarily stop offering in-person classes as a result of COVID-19 cases in the first few weeks of the new school year”. I’m willing to bet none of them had a mask mandate; the story didn’t specify but it did say at the end that at least one of these small districts is thinking about it in defiance of Abbott. The total number of student COVID cases that have been reported is up 90% over the previous week, which needless to say is a trend that needs to stop quickly or else. I don’t know how long we can go on like this, but I do know that whatever happens it’s on Greg Abbott. Keep all of these folks in your thoughts.

Now we look to see what happens with Greg Abbott’s approval ratings

The first data point is bad for him. Which means it’s good for the rest of us.

Gov. Greg Abbott had the lowest approval rating since February 2016 and his highest disapproval numbers during his tenure as governor, The Texas Politics Project’s August polling found.

The poll queried 1,200 registered voters in Texas, finding that 50 percent disapproved of Abbott’s job performance and 41 percent approved. Nine percent didn’t know or did not have an opinion, the lowest such number of Abbott’s time in office. The margin of error was 2.83 percent, and the poll was conducted from Aug. 20 through Monday, Aug. 30.

The Texas Politics Project, which is housed at the University of Texas-Austin, has been conducting surveys since 2008, and has measured Abbott’s approval since November of 2015. Abbott’s previous high for disapproval was April 2021, at 45 percent.

The poll also found that 52 percent of respondents said Texas was “headed in the wrong direction,” the highest such number it has posted. A spokeswoman for Abbott did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

“Everywhere you look in the poll there’s just signs that the mood here is very dour. And when you have one party that owns the policy environment, that’s not good news,” said James Henson, director of the poll. “The Republicans have had a pretty easy ride for the two-decades-plus they’ve been in power in the state. And there’s now a convergence of factors that’s really going to test their ability to govern. And we’ve seen a very clear approach to that in this last legislative session, and it doesn’t seem to going over very well.”

[…]

The poll also asked whether respondents approved of Abbott’s handling of COVID-19 specifically, and the findings closely mirrored his overall approval numbers: 53 percent disapproved, 39 percent approved and the rest didn’t know or had no opinion.

“The election isn’t tomorrow, it’s not until next year, but it’s been a long time since there was a widespread sense in the state that things aren’t going well, and I think we’re seeing more indications of that,” Henson said.

The usual caveat about this being one data point applies. It’s also important to remember, as we have seen in UT/Trib polls (among others) that Abbott’s numbers tend to be the best among the officials whose ratings are being checked, with President Biden being the closest competition. This poll only tracks Abbott, so we lack that context. Given the dip in Biden’s poll numbers (which I think will be at least somewhat transitory, but I am an optimist), it’s reasonable to think that he may still compare well to others. We won’t know until we see more data.

Just looking at these numbers, the two things that stand out are just how far Abbott has fallen from his early COVID peak, and how the number of “don’t know/no answer” respondents have fallen. He was still in solidly positive territory as recently as February, and was at even levels in June, when we were still thinking we’d get a hot vax summer and everyone was feeling good. It’s not unreasonable to think that the right wing legislative onslaught has eroded his numbers a bit – remember, as we have discussed before, he used to poll decently for a Republican among Democrats – and my guess that the numbers now reflect his intransigence on COVID mitigations. Moreover, with more people having an opinion on him now, it’s likely the case that the fence-sitters have been making up their minds, and what they have decided is they don’t like him.

Again, this is one poll, and as Prof. Henson says, we’re a long way out from next November. Abbott also doesn’t have a Democratic opponent yet, and as we know that matters a lot. Intensity of feeling matters as well, especially in an off year election when turnout is critical. Abbott has been focusing exclusively on the hardcore base, mostly because he wants to win his primary but also because he wants to have a lot of “victories” to crow about to keep them engaged. Maybe this means Abbott’s stature will suffer. There’s plenty of reasons why that should be the case. It’s still too soon to tell for sure, that’s all I’m saying.

Feds take first steps in the mask mandate fight

Coming attractions.

The U.S. Department of Education is opening civil rights investigations to determine whether five states that have banned schools from requiring masks are discriminating against students with disabilities, the agency said on Monday.

The department is targeting Iowa, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee and Utah, all Republican-led states, in its investigations. It said it was concerned that their bans on mandatory masking could leave students with disabilities and underlying health conditions more vulnerable to COVID-19, limiting their access to in-person learning opportunities.

“It’s simply unacceptable that state leaders are putting politics over the health and education of the students they took an oath to serve,” U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona said in a statement.

“The Department will fight to protect every student’s right to access in-person learning safely and the rights of local educators to put in place policies that allow all students to return to the classroom full-time in-person safely this fall.”

[…]

Florida, Texas, Arkansas and Arizona are four other Republican-led states that have banned mandatory masking orders in schools. The Education Department left those states out of its inquiry because court orders or other actions have paused their enforcement, it said in a news release.

The department says it is monitoring those states and would take action if local mask-wearing policies are later barred from going into effect.

See here for the background, and here for the press release. It’s too early to say how this might go, and that’s before we get a resolution in the reams of mask mandate-related lawsuits that are still working their way through our system. Suffice it to say that the good guys have a lot of fight left in them.

Readin’ and writin’ and gettin’ COVID

Welcome back to school, kids.

Positive COVID-19 cases among Texas public school students rose by more than 9,000 last week, the highest number ever recorded in a seven-day period, state data shows.

As of Aug. 22, there were 14,033 reports of positive COVID cases in students across the state, according to data released by Texas Health and Human Services on Friday. The number represents a 182 percent increase from the 4,976 student cases reported through Aug. 15.

There were another 3,425 positive cases reported in school staff across the state, an increase of 712 from the previous week.

In some districts, more than half the new infections are among elementary school students, who are not eligible for any of the available vaccines.

“This school year is gonna look a whole lot different than last year,” said Dr. Katelyn Jetelina, an assistant professor of epidemiology at UTHealth School of Public Health in Dallas. “We have a whole lot more transmission now in the community and we have the delta variant.”

The cumulative number of cases in students since the 2021-2022 school year began is 20,256. The total staff cases so far this school year is 7,488.

In case you were wondering why so many parents are pissed about the fight against mask mandates. Now that all schools are open I would hope we won’t see any more big jumps like that, but we are going to see the case levels rise for now. I hope that at some point, when there’s enough data to be reasonably confident in the results, we can get a comparison of COVID rates in districts that have mandated masks versus those that have not.

On a related note:

People under 50 are being admitted to hospitals with COVID-19 in larger numbers than at any point during the pandemic as the latest surge of the coronavirus continues to tighten its grip on Texas.

According to data released by the Texas Department of State Health Services, as of Aug. 22, adults 30 to 49 now account for roughly 29% of all COVID-19 hospital admissions in Texas, up from 15% on Jan. 11 during the height of the winter surge.

The data shows that people in the 18-29 age group increased their share of admissions during that period from 5% to 7%, while the percentage of children under 18 admitted to hospitals with COVID-19 increased by 1 percentage point — an average of 46 children each day were hospitalized during the week ending Aug 22.

Meanwhile, fewer people over 70 are landing in hospitals with COVID-19. During the winter peak, about 41% of hospitalized COVID patients were over 70. As of Aug. 22, that dropped by almost half, to 23%.

The data confirmed what many doctors have been saying in recent weeks about the delta variant sending younger people into hospitals at a higher rate than earlier in the pandemic.

“We are seeing certainly younger patients hospitalized and younger patients on ventilators where we haven’t seen that before,” said Dr. Ron Cook, chief health officer at the Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center.

This variant has spread faster among unvaccinated Texans of all ages. As of last week, between 93% and 98% of hospitalizations have been unvaccinated people, depending on the area of Texas, officials said.

More than 70% of Texans over the age of 50 are fully vaccinated, compared to only about half of Texans between the ages of 16 and 49 and one-third of those ages 12-15. Children under age 12 are not eligible for vaccination.

And as the hospitals fill up with COVID patients, people who have other serious but treatable conditions are put in jeopardy. No amount of horse de-wormer is gonna fix that.

More injunctions against the mask mandate bans

Keep ’em coming.

Concluding that Gov. Greg Abbott exceeded his authority by banning mask mandates in Texas, an Austin judge ruled Friday that school districts in Travis County can enforce face coverings as a COVID-19 precaution.

State District Judge Catherine Mauzy’s order also applied to 19 school districts that represent about 1 million students — including Austin, Dallas, El Paso, Fort Worth and Houston — as well as Austin Community College, which also sued Abbott.

However, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton quickly appealed, automatically blocking enforcement of Mauzy’s temporary injunction — though the Austin-based 3rd Court of Appeals can be asked to reinstate the judge’s order while Paxton’s challenge proceeds.

In her ruling, Mauzy concluded Abbott’s ban on mandatory masks — contained in a July 29 executive order — was unlawful and exceeded his authority in violation of the Texas Constitution.

Mauzy found that the school officials and parents who challenged Abbott’s order made “a sufficient showing” to establish that Abbott was not authorized to declare “by executive fiat” that school districts are prohibited from requiring masks to be worn.

Without court intervention, Mauzy added, Abbott’s ban leaves school officials unable to mandate masks to control the spread of COVID-19, “which threatens to overwhelm public schools and could result in more extreme measures such as the school closures that have already begun in several Texas school districts.”

In a separate ruling, Mauzy also granted an injunction sought by Harris County to allow a mask mandate to continue for Houston-area school districts, said Christian Menefee, county attorney.

“Gov. Abbott is misusing the Texas Disaster Act to make this pandemic worse,” Menefee said, calling the ruling an important step in reining in the governor.

But in a third challenge, the judge declined to issue a statewide injunction, requested by the Southern Center for Child Advocacy, that would have allowed mask mandates in all Texas school districts. Mauzy’s one-page order gave no reason for the denial.

It’s hard to keep track of all of these, but see here for the original ruling in the Harris County case, and here for the original ruling in the SCCA case; the filing of their lawsuit was noted here. I have so many of these posts, some of which combine stories from multiple lawsuits, so I can’t find (and may not have) a post about the original Austin lawsuit, but the famous SCOTx demurral of the emergency request by Paxton and Abbott to block a TRO was related to the Austin/Travis County lawsuit. I note that the Harris County case and the SCCA case were originally in Judge Jan Soifer’s courtroom, so I am assuming that a bunch of similar lawsuits were combined into one and that’s how they all wound up before Judge Mauzy.

The injunction may be on hold because of the appeal (there’s some fancy legal term for this that I have encountered before but forgotten by now), but the plaintiffs can and surely will ask for it to be reinstated by the Third Court of Appeals. That will force another reckoning with the Supreme Court, thanks to the recent order in the Bexar County case. In a sense all of this is just sound and fury since Abbott and Paxton can’t enforce the mask mandate bans anyway, but the ritual must be observed. I feel like I should get a CLE credit for all of this blogging. HISD Superintendent Millard House’s statement about the ruling is here, and KXAN and the Trib have more.

Other things the Lege has been up to

A brief roundup, to clear some tabs…

Bad Bail Bill 2.0 moves forward.

A sweeping revision of the process for releasing accused criminals on bail won initial approval from the Texas House on Friday night, nearly three months after the GOP-priority legislation stalled in the regular legislative session.

Senate Bill 6, which would require people accused of violent crimes to put up cash to get out of jail, tentatively passed the House on an 82-37 party line vote. The Senate passed the legislation earlier this month on a 27-2 vote.

A House committee advanced the bill Monday after taking out a controversial provision that would have restricted charitable groups from posting bail for defendants, a practice that gained popularity last summer when groups posted bail to release people arrested while protesting the death of George Floyd, a Black man murdered by a white Minneapolis police officer.

On Friday, House members added a related provision back into the bill that does not limit the ability of such groups to post bail. Instead, the amendment would require charitable bail funds to be certified by county officials as nonprofit organizations and file reports on who they bond out of jail.

“The original bill that came over [from the Senate] was essentially going to outlaw … the charitable bail process,” said state Rep. Travis Clardy, R-Nacogdoches, on his amendment. “We made it very clear to the other side of the building that this would not stand.”

The bill still needs to pass the House a final time before it is sent back to the Senate, which can either accept the House changes or enter into closed-door negotiations. State Sen. Joan Huffman, the Houston Republican who authored the bill, did not respond to questions about House changes this week.

See here and here for some background. This is bad, and there’s a decent chance parts if not all of it will eventually be found unconstitutional, but in the short term it will do some damage. Go read Grits for Breakfast or follow him on Twitter for a deeper dive.

Some virtual learning gets funded.

After months in limbo, Texas lawmakers took a step toward expanding and funding virtual learning as the pandemic still proves a threat to families not yet comfortable sending their children back to classrooms.

The Texas House approved Senate Bill 15 on Friday night in a 115-3 vote. The bill will go to a final reading and vote in the House before making its way to Gov. Greg Abbott’s desk.

The House’s initial approval of the bill will give some parents a measure of relief that there could be more virtual learning options as the pandemic once again strains the state’s resources. Hospitalizations and cases are surging due to the more transmissible delta variant of the coronavirus.

Necessary, albeit regrettable. We wouldn’t be revisiting this topic if we had a better handle on COVID, but given that we are not we need to acknowledge reality where we can. This is one reasonable place to do so.

More border boondoggling.

The Texas House approved nearly $2 billion in additional funding for border security operations, giving Gov. Greg Abbott more state dollars to implement his plans to build a border wall and incarcerate migrants for state criminal offenses in an effort to deter migrants from coming to the state.

Lawmakers gave initial approval Friday to a funding bill by a vote of 81-38 that would triple what the state allocated for border security during the last biennium. The $1.88 billion appropriated by House Bill 9 is in addition to the $1.05 billion lawmakers approved for border security this spring.

“There’s a crisis on our southern border with serious consequences extending throughout our state,” said Rep. Greg Bonnen, R-Friendswood, who authored the bill. “Texas must respond to the crisis that has been brought to our doorstep.”

In June, Abbott announced Texas would build a state-funded border wall to decrease the number of migrants entering through its border with Mexico. Earlier this year, the two-term Republican governor launched Operation Lone Star, an effort that directed state military and police resources to the border to aid local and federal authorities fighting the smuggling of people and drugs across the border.

Abbott, who is seeking reelection next year, had previously said he expects the state to build hundreds of miles of wall along the state’s 1,254-mile border with Mexico, but had not specified where the wall would be or how much it would cost.

This message has been paid for by the Greg Abbott campaign.

More money for “temporary” hospital workers.

Gov. Greg Abbott announced Thursday that for the second time amid a recent surge in COVID-19 hospitalizations that Texas will increase the number of state-funded relief workers it will be sending to Texas hospitals, bringing the total to 8,100.

The Texas Department of State Health Services had previously authorized contracting 5,600 medical personnel, and Thursday’s announcement adds 2,500 more.

During the state’s winter COVID-19 surge, more than 13,500 temporary medical workers were deployed across the state, according to DSHS. Those numbers began to dwindle once cases started to decrease and vaccinations became more widely available.

Now, the highly-contagious delta variant has pushed the state to reverse course and again take the lead in alleviating staffing shortages as hospitals are inundated with COVID-19 patients and intensive care unit beds are becoming scarce. On Aug. 9, Abbott directed DSHS to use staffing agencies to secure out-of-state medical personnel for Texas hospitals and asked hospitals to voluntarily halt elective medical procedures.

The state will fully fund the temporary health workers through Sept. 30.

Not technically a Lege thing, but Lege-adjacent. See my previous point about things we wouldn’t need to be doing if we had handled COVID better. I have no idea where we will find all these relief workers, but that’s yet another mess Greg Abbott will have to clean up for himself.

And finally, one thing the Lege hasn’t been doing:

And yet here we are. Still not too late, I suppose, but with every passing day this becomes more and more true.

Abbott admits he can’t enforce his mask mandate ban

So what are we even doing here? Just make your mandate and move on.

Gov. Greg Abbott has been embroiled in court battles with Texas cities, counties and public schools that have defied his ban on local mask mandates. But in the urban areas where those battles are being waged, the local officials Abbott needs to enforce his ban aren’t playing ball.

Even as Abbott and Attorney General Ken Paxton vow to punish local government and school district officials who flout the governor’s executive order, they conceded in court documents that they actually have no power to enforce the ban.

“Neither Governor Abbott nor Attorney General Paxton will be enforcing” the order, Paxton argued in a Monday court filing in Dallas.

Since the pandemic began, Abbott has issued a flurry of executive orders, the most prominent of which have limited cities and counties from enacting measures intended to slow the spread of COVID-19, like mask mandates and occupancy restrictions on businesses like restaurants and retailers.

Cities, counties and school districts in the state’s major urban areas have responded with a flood of lawsuits challenging Abbott’s executive order prohibiting them from enacting mask mandates amid a surge of COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations.

In a bid to convince judges to toss out those legal challenges, Abbott and Paxton claim in recent court filings that they’re not the right target because it’s up to local prosecutors to enforce Abbott’s orders.

“The Governor’s executive orders, having the full force and effect of law, are enforceable by state and local law enforcement,” spokesperson Renae Eze said in a statement.

But in the state’s urban counties, those district attorneys are mostly Democrats who are unlikely to sue fellow local officials for violating Abbott’s order banning mask mandates.

“[Abbott is] saying, ‘Well, it’s not enforceable, only the DA can do it,” said Randall Erben, an adjunct law professor at the University of Texas at Austin. “Well, the DAs in Travis, Harris and Dallas are not going to prosecute anybody for violation of the executive order.”

In the state’s most populous county, Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg doesn’t anticipate enforcing Abbott’s executive order because it’s not a criminal matter, a spokesperson said.

Abbott’s legal argument — tucked into court documents in at least five lawsuits challenging his order — has prompted some lawyers representing local governments and public schools to call out the governor and Paxton for saying one thing in public and another in the courtroom.

Yeah, Harris County Attorney Christian Menefee was one of those people. This is, as the article notes later on, one hundred percent Abbott and Paxton beating their chests for the rubes. Again, never believe a word Ken Paxton says.

Two points to consider. One is that while those of us fortunate enough to live in a sufficiently enlightened county can now put whatever pressure we want on our mayors and county judges and school boards to move forward with their mask mandates, since there won’t be any criminal consequences for them and in that sense all of the ongoing litigation doesn’t really matter. But if your city or school district is not in such a place, then you really do care about what the Supreme Court will ultimately say, because your Mayor or Superintendent will be in the crosshairs otherwise. Even with a favorable SCOTx ruling, Abbott has ratcheted up the political pressure enough that it may not be worth it to them regardless. The harm they’re doing for the sake of winning the support of a depraved bunch of Republican primary voters is incalculable.

And two, this is now another example of Abbott and Paxton making “you can’t sue me” a key point of their governance. The “heartbeat” abortion ban atrocity is perhaps the highest-profile example, but Paxton’s claims that he’s exempt from the state’s whistleblower laws because he’s not a “public employee” are another, and it’s just as pernicious. It’s all about wielding power without responsibility or constraint. If trends hold to form, look for bills introduced by Republicans in the next Lege to include clauses about why the state can’t be sued by anyone who claims to have been harmed. At least, that will be the case until we have Democrats in the executive offices. At that point, it will be game on for limiting what they can do. But for now, we’re not supposed to sue them for anything because…well, just because.

Metro moving forward on new BRT line

As they should.

Even with fewer riders hopping aboard and a more dour financial outlook, Metro officials say the agency is full steam ahead on a host of projects aimed at adding buses to scores of routes and neighborhoods.

That includes an approval scheduled for Thursday by the Metropolitan Transit Authority board to commit $40 million to development of a planned bus rapid transit line from around Tidwell and Interstate 69 to Westchase, via Denver Harbor, downtown, Midtown, Greenway Plaza and Uptown.

The project, similar to the Silver Line along Post Oak that opened a year ago and uses dedicated bus lanes to deliver service to stations akin to light rail, is one of dozens in Metro’s $7.5 billion long-range plan. That plan, approved by voters in November 2019, relies heavily on federal grants, which could come quickly if Washington lawmakers approve budget and infrastructure bills in the coming weeks or months.

“If we can get our ducks in a row on as many corridors as we can, that is good for the agency,” said Metro board member Sanjay Ramabhadran.

Metro submitted a preliminary application for funding related to the so-called University Line bus rapid transit project to the Federal Transit Administration in late July. Houston transit officials heard back from their federal counterparts in one week, a quick turnaround for a first series of questions, said Shri Reddy, executive vice-president of planning, engineering, and construction at Metro. Among the issues raised by federal officials was more assurance that Metro had committed money for developing the project, prompting Thursday’s vote.

That story was published on Wednesday; on Thursday, the board approved the money as planned, while giving me a bizarre sense of deja vu.

Seriously, Afton Oaks? After all this time? I mean, it’s all residential on that stretch of Richmond, so I doubt any stops there would be busy, but geez. Anyway, Metro is projecting less revenue now than it had originally planned for and that could lead to some uncomfortable decisions about service levels down the line if actual revenue is in line with that, but that’s a concern for later. For now, this is a good start.

Bexar mask mandate put on hold again

SCOTx has entered the chat, again.

The Texas Supreme Court has temporarily blocked San Antonio and Bexar County’s mask mandate, marking the latest update in a flurry of court battles over mask requirements statewide.

The decision comes after an appellate court earlier this month allowed the local mask mandate to stand, despite Gov. Greg Abbott’s executive order barring public entities from instituting such requirements. The new ruling is a win for the governor and Attorney General Ken Paxton, who had asked the high court earlier this week to step in and stop local officials.

[…]

In the order, the high court noted that the lawsuit does not consider whether people should wear masks or whether government officials should compel them to do so. Rather, the justices said, the case concerns which levels of government can make those decisions.

“The status quo, for many months, has been gubernatorial oversight of such decisions at both the state and local levels,” they wrote. “That status quo should remain in place while the court of appeals, and potentially this court, examine the parties’ merits arguments to determine whether plaintiffs have demonstrated a probable right to the relief sought.”

The court has yet to make a final decision on the matter, which could take weeks or months. Several similar but separate lawsuits, including two in Dallas and Houston, are also currently being litigated.

See here, here, and here for some background. This only affects the Bexar County case – the litigation in Harris and Dallas and other places have not yet been taken to the Supreme Court. It seems likely that they would go the same way, but as noted so far SCOTx is not inclined to let Abbott and Paxton jump the line on this, so they have to go through the process first. Also, this is a stay of the temporary restraining order, which means that if and when the judge in Bexar County issues a temporary injunction, as the judge in Dallas County just did, the SCOTx stay will become moot and Abbott and Paxton will have to go through the process again, to get another stay while that ruling is appealed. Isn’t this fun?

Also, as a friendly reminder, never believe a thing Ken Paxton says:

I know you didn’t need to be told that, but it never hurts to say. The Trib and the Current have more.