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Making voting worse

I’ve spent a lot of time this year writing about how Republicans in the Legislature want to make it harder to vote. That’s undeniably true, but it doesn’t fully capture what’s going on. Voting is a thing that most of us do, and the process of voting is basically a service that your local government provides. The goal of the Republican bills in the Legislature, both the omnibus HB7 and SB6 but also the smaller and crazier bills that have garnered much less attention so far, is to make that service worse, now and in the future, and especially when external circumstances like a global pandemic make it harder to vote to begin with.

This Trib story is a straightforward analysis of what SB6 and HB7 do, and there’s also a good explainer in Vox, which I want to highlight.

The Senate bill imposes new rules limiting precinct placement that only apply to large urban counties. It punishes county registrars who don’t sufficiently purge the voter rolls, threatening a repeat of a 2019 fiasco in Texas in which nearly 100,000 recently naturalized citizens were pushed off the rolls. And it prohibits practices pioneered in Democratic-leaning counties designed to improve ballot access during the pandemic, like 24-hour voting.

The House bill, meanwhile, makes it nearly impossible to kick partisan poll watchers, who have historically been used to intimidate Black voters, out of precincts.

“SB 7 looks at what made it easier for people to vote in 2020, particularly communities of color — and then with a laser focus goes and removes those [rules],” says Thomas Buser-Clancy, a staff attorney at the Texas ACLU.

They weren’t rules (I don’t know what Buser-Clancy actually said), they were innovations. These innovations – 24-hour voting, curbside voting, multiple drop boxes for mail ballots, sending mail ballot applications to eligible voters – were things that were allowed in the sense that they weren’t explicitly forbidden. When election administrators, mostly but not exclusively in the big urban counties and exemplified by Chris Hollins, used their creativity and their desire to make it easier and safer to vote, that was the line in the sand that was crossed. Where their actions were upheld by the courts, it was because what they did was allowable under the law as it was. The point here is to remove any possibility of future innovations.

The Senate and House bills both contain a large number of revisions affecting different aspects of state election law — some trivial, others potentially significant.

One of the most notable, according to experts and activists, are the Senate bill’s new rules about the placement of voting precincts and the allocation of election resources, like staff and voting machines.

Under current law, Texas counties have significant discretion about where to set up precincts and where to put their resources. The Senate bill changes these rules, but only for counties with more than 1 million residents. There are five such counties in Texas, all of them urban Democratic strongholds: Harris County (Houston), Dallas County (Dallas), Tarrant County (Fort Worth), Bexar County (San Antonio), and Travis County (Austin).

In these five counties, SB 7 would require that precincts and resources be allocated proportional to the percentage of the county’s eligible voters living in specific areas. This method has two major features that are likely to make voting in Democratic-leaning areas harder.

First, any measure of “eligible voters” would have trouble accounting for very recent population change — likely undercounting younger, heavily minority areas with high growth rates while overcounting older, whiter ones. Second, many Texans vote near their place of work in the city center, so allocating resources by population would underserve urban areas with lots of offices.

The result? In the big Democratic-leaning counties, precincts will be less conveniently located and more likely to have long lines. This could have an effect on outcomes: Studies of elections in California and Texas have found that cutting the number of precincts in a county leads to a measurable decrease in local voter turnout.

“Harris County and Travis County did a good job at distributing polling places in areas where there was a high number of potential voters and where there was a likelihood of higher turnout among ethnic and racial minorities,” says Brandon Rottinghaus, a political scientist at the University of Houston. If SB 7 is passed, “that’s going to change.”

Another important provision of SB 7 requires county registrars to check their voter logs against state data on individuals “determined to be ineligible to vote because of citizenship status.” The registrar must remove voters on these lists from the voter registration lists; they would be personally fined $100 for each name they left on the voter rolls.

Voting rights activists worry that this is a backdoor effort to revive a 2019 voter purge struck down in court, an effort that tried to kick tens of thousands of recently naturalized voters off the rolls by using outdated citizenship status for them. The provision would also serve as a deterrent to people working as volunteer registrars — nobody wants to be fined hundreds of dollars for simple mistakes — which would significantly undermine the in-person voter registration drives that depend on their work.

“It’s kind of underrated but might be the biggest provision of SB 7,” says Joseph Fishkin, an election law expert at the University of Texas Austin. “There’s a real partisan skew as to who benefits from drying up the pool of new voters.”

wThe two bills would also significantly expand the powers of poll watchers, partisan operatives who observe the voting process to protect the party’s interests.

SB 7 allows poll watchers to film voters while they are getting assistance from poll workers, potentially intimidating voters with disabilities and non-English speakers. They are nominally prohibited from distributing their footage publicly, but there’s no enforcement mechanism or punishment — so there’s nothing really stopping them from sending misleading footage to fringe-right websites and claiming they prove “fraud.”

HB 6 makes matters worse by making it impossible to kick out poll watchers for any reason other than facilitating voter fraud, even if they are disrupting the voting process in other ways. The experts I spoke to said this applies even in extreme cases: a drunk and disorderly poll watcher, for example, or a jilted spouse who starts a fight when their ex shows up to vote.

It’s hard to say how these provisions would affect elections; poll watchers have had little impact on recent American elections. But the history of the practice gives us reasons to be skeptical about expanding their powers: Watchers have historically menaced Black voters trying to exercise their rights.

And there are many other notable aspects of the two laws.

Remember those ridiculously long lines at the TSU early voting location during the 2020 primaries? That was the result of having the same number of Republican and Democratic voting machines at a site that was heavily Democratic (remember, this was a primary). The effect of SB6 and HB7 will be to make more places have such lines. Really, that’s the idea in general: Fewer locations, shorter hours, longer lines, more disruption, and a total clampdown on any bright ideas that local officials may have to make the experience better. Make voting worse. That’s what it’s all about. Go read those stories and give it a thought in those terms. When I’ve said that Democrats in 2022 should campaign on making it easier and more convenient to vote, this is what they’d be campaigning against.

The Hobby poll on ending COVID restrictions

A little while ago I blogged about the recent UH Hobby Center poll regarding the winter freeze and blackouts and responses to them. At the time I mentioned the poll had a separate section about Greg Abbott lifting the COVID restrictions on mask wearing and business capacity. I thought there might be another story that referenced those results, but if there was I never saw it. So, let’s go back and look at that part of the poll ourselves. Here’s the relevant data, and as before the landing page for the poll is here. From the poll data for the questions on the restrictions:

On March 2, 2021, Texas Governor Greg Abbott issued Executive Order GA-34, which lifted statewide COVID-19 restrictions. The order rescinded, beginning on March 10, the governor’s previous mandate (GA-29) that Texans wear face coverings (masks) and allowed all businesses to operate at 100% capacity as long as the area in which the businesses are located does not surpass a high hospitalization threshold. This threshold is defined by an area where COVID-19 patients as a percentage of total hospital capacity exceeds 15% for seven consecutive days.

The survey respondents were asked five questions related to Governor Abbott’s executive order regarding the lifting of COVID-19 restrictions, and the responses were cross-tabulated with ethnicity/race, age, gender, education, and partisanship.

37% of Texans support Governor Abbott’s decision to end the statewide mask mandate while 56% oppose the decision. The remaining 7% neither support nor oppose the decision.

42% of Texans support Governor Abbott’s decision to allow all businesses to operate at 100% capacity and 49% oppose it. The remaining 9% neither support nor oppose the decision.

When provided with the following information, “According to recent data, the daily counts of COVID-19 hospitalizations and deaths in Texas are trending downward, although the rates remain relatively high. The head of the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other medical experts say that while caseloads are flattening out, variants of the coronavirus could bring another wave of the pandemic and that mask and business capacity restrictions should stay in place at this point in time,” 37% support Governor Abbott’s decision to end Texas’s statewide mask mandate and to allow businesses to operate at 100% capacity in light of the recommendations of medical experts while 51% oppose the decision. The remaining 12% neither support nor oppose the decision.

[…]

When asked whether they agree or disagree with the statement that Governor Abbott’s ending the mask mandate and allowing businesses to operate at 100% capacity will help restore jobs and return a sense of normalcy to Texans’ lives, 44% of Texans agree with the statement and 37% disagree. The remaining one-fifth (19%) neither agrees nor disagrees with the statement.

[…]

When asked whether they agree or disagree with the statement that Governor Abbott’s ending the statewide mask mandate and allowing businesses to operate at 100% capacity will result in an increase in the number of COVID-19 infections, hospitalizations and fatalities in Texas, a slight majority (51%) of the respondents agree with the statement compared to slightly less than a third (30%) who disagree with it. The remaining one-fifth (19%) neither agrees nor disagrees with the statement.

I’ve noted the partisan numbers in the sample before, so go review my previous post for that discussion. I’d love to see more polling on the lifting of the mask mandate, and I’d be very interested to see if it changes over time, but I’m not expecting much on that front. We know that Texas’ COVID case rate has remained fairly low despite the dropping of the mandates, a result I mostly attribute to people continuing to wear masks anyway. It may well be that people wind up disagreeing less with Abbott’s actions if this continues, or it may mostly be a proxy for partisan feelings. I’m noting it here in case we do get more data down the line.

No flu

I would never say that there was any such thing as a silver lining to the COVID pandemic, but it is true that basically nobody died from the flu this year because of masking and social distancing.

What medical officials worried would be a “twindemic” at the end of last year — the concurrence of influenza and COVID-19 sicknesses overwhelming Houston’s hospitals — turned out surprisingly well.

At Memorial Hermann, just three patients tested positive for influenza during the 2020-2021 flu season, compared to 983 patients during the 2019-2020 flu season. Doctors test for both flu and COVID-19 as a precaution.

The same public health measures that prevent SARS-CoV-2 from spreading — masks, social distancing and regular hand-washing — kept influenza strains from sickening people.

“When we were looking internally, we just weren’t seeing flu,” said Dr. James McCarthy, chief executive physician at Memorial Hermann.

Flu infections are down nationwide, with a hospitalization rate of 0.7 per 100,000 people, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. During the last flu season, the rate was nearly 100 times higher — 66.1 per 100,000 patients. Pediatric deaths also decreased, from 189 last year to one this year.

[…]

Researchers wondered whether being infected with the coronavirus would wipe out the chances of getting the flu, and say it may be a factor that contributed equally to declining flu rates.

“Part of it is because we had a worse virus that was spreading faster,” McCarthy said.

Knowing to wear masks and get a flu vaccine could be a huge step toward eradicating deadly flu seasons. But will people continue to practice those public health measures? Doctors don’t know.

“We’re recognizing that not only can we protect our friends and loved ones from COVID, but we can also do it from influenza with precautions for medically vulnerable folks,” McCarthy said.

I’ve gotten a flu shot every year for as long as I can remember, and as far as I know I’ve never gotten the flu. I will certainly continue to get those vaccines as before, and I’d strongly consider wearing a mask during the flu season going forward when doing things like grocery shopping. Hard to see any reason why not to at this point.

More interesting questions from that Matthew McConaughey poll

Let’s try this again.

By 58% to 26%, Texans oppose a bill the House approved — and sent to the Senate Friday — that would allow people to carry handguns without a permit. Last month, opposition was greater — 64% to 23%.

[…]

In two polls by The News and UT-Tyler early last year, a majority of Texas registered voters endorsed a national ban on the sale of semiautomatic assault weapons. This month, that slipped to support by a plurality, 48% for and 33% against.

[…]

At the same time, confidence that elected officials are doing enough to prevent mass shootings has ebbed. In early 2020, not long after Trump, Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick mused publicly about possible gun law changes in the wake of the August 2019 slaughters in El Paso and Odessa-Midland, up to 47% of Texans agreed that elected officials were doing enough to avoid repetition of the tragedies.

This month, 38% agreed and 59% disagreed — including 86% of Black people, 65% of Hispanics and 46% of Republicans.

See here for yesterday’s post, here for my blogging on the March poll (I didn’t comment on the gun control aspects of it), here for the April poll data, and here for the March poll data. I cut out a couple of quotes from people about the gun question because I didn’t care about them. I don’t know if the change in the numbers from March are just normal float or perhaps the result of recent Republican messaging, but in either case that’s still a solid majority against the permitless carry bill. Maybe that should be a bigger campaign issue in 2022 than it has been in the past. Lots of other issues to talk about as well, to be sure, but there sure looks to be a lot of upside here.

Nearly half a century after the U.S. Supreme Court in Roe v. Wade established a woman’s right to an abortion, at least in the first three months of pregnancy, a majority of Texans — and Republicans, if barely — said the court should not overturn Roe.

Among all Texas registered voters, 61% said Roe should not be overturned, while 37% said it should be. Republicans split 51%-49% against overturning, as did women, 63%-35%. White evangelicals favored voiding the controversial ruling, 56%-43%

Both GOP-controlled chambers of the Legislature are advancing a half dozen measures to restrict abortion.

In The News and UT-Tyler’s poll, a plurality of Texas registered voters (42%-37%) supported a Senate-passed bill that would ban virtually all abortions once a fetal heartbeat is detected, usually about six weeks into pregnancy, except in medical emergencies. Texas law currently bans abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy — or up to 22 weeks from the last menstrual period.

Though about two-thirds of Republicans and white evangelicals support the so-called “heartbeat” bill, women narrowly oppose it, 40%-38%, as do Democrats, 47%-31%.

The problem here of course is that heartbeat bills, which have been passed in other states and blocked by the courts, are a direct challenge to Roe. The main point to take away from all this is that voters are often confused on this issue because there’s a lot of jargon and misdirection involved in bills like these.

While a plurality of Texans approve of the overall job Biden is doing as president (48%-41%), a slight majority — 52% — disapprove of his performance at handling immigration at the border. Just 30% approve.

Abbott enjoys a higher job-approval rating among Texans than does Biden: 50% approve, 36% disapprove. But it’s Abbott’s lowest showing in eight tests by The News/UT-Tyler poll since January 2020 — and down from a high of 61% in April 2020. That’s when, near the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, Texans appeared to rally around his shutdown orders.

Asked if they trusted the leaders to keep their communities healthy and safe during the public health crisis, Texans narrowly said they trust Biden, 51%-44%.

However, a narrow plurality now distrusts Abbott to protect their communities from COVID-19: 46% trust the Republican governor, 47% do not. It’s the first time in six polls that Abbott has sunk underwater on the question. In this month’s poll, he’s especially lost ground among independents (30% trust him, 59% distrust him) and Black people (20% trust, 71% distrust).

You can look at the baseline approve/disapprove numbers in the poll data, they’re on page 2 in each case. Not much has changed since March. The polls included the same questions for Dan Patrick and Ken Paxton, but so many people answered “Neither” to the approve/disapprove question for those two (37% for Patrick, 36% for Paxton), which I interpreted as mostly “don’t know”, that I don’t think there’s much value in those numbers. The main point here is that Biden continues to be above water in approval polling, and as long as that remains the case I believe Dems will have a more favorable climate in 2022 than they had in 2010 or 2014. Whether it’s as favorable as it was in 2018 is a different matter.

As for activities during the pandemic, Texans are more comfortable gathering with friends now: 44% are extremely comfortable, while only 23% felt that way in April 2020.

Texans are not as comfortable, though, being in crowds: 16% are extremely comfortable now, very close to the 15% who said they were extremely comfortable last April.

Sixty percent of Texans say they have been or definitely will be vaccinated against COVID-19, up from 57% last month. An additional 14% say they probably will get immunized. If they all do, as many as 74% could be inoculated, approaching the level many experts say is needed to achieve “herd immunity.” If all the state were Democrats, combining the three responses would produce an 89% acceptance rate, compared with 69% among Republicans and 66% among independents.

Could be worse. Given the data from some national polling, could be much worse. In the end, I think we’ll just have to see where we end up. If we get to over 70% in Texas, I’ll be pretty happy.

We are still managing to avoid a new COVID surge

It’s good news, whatever the reason for it may be.

More than a month has passed since Gov. Greg Abbott ended virtually all statewide restrictions related to the coronavirus pandemic. Nationwide, new coronavirus cases are on the rise as new variants of the virus spread. And about four-fifths of Texans are not yet fully vaccinated.

But at least for now, the most dire predictions of a new major wave of cases in Texas have not come true, prompting a mix of theories from public health experts.

Those experts caution that a major increase in cases could still come and it may still be too early to tell whether Abbott’s decisions to lift the statewide mask mandate and allow businesses to fully reopen could prompt a new wave of infections. Still, daily new cases and the positivity rate have leveled off over the past month, while deaths and hospitalization have gone down substantially.

Experts point out that vaccination is ramping up, many businesses are still requiring masks and there are unique factors impacting individual metrics — like a drop in demand for testing that is driving down raw case numbers.

They also emphasize that, especially at this point in the pandemic, a stabilization of such metrics, or even a modest decline, is not exactly cause for celebration.

“I think we could’ve been even lower at this point in time,” if not for Abbott’s latest decisions, said Dr. Luis Ostrosky, an infectious disease specialist at UTHealth’s McGovern Medical School in Houston. “The fact that we’re sort of stable is not necessarily good news — because we’re stable at a very high level. It’s like everybody saying you’re at a stable cruising speed — but at 100 miles per hour.”

Abbott’s decision to end most statewide restrictions went into effect 35 days ago, on March 10. The seven-day average for daily new confirmed cases was 3,020 on that day; it was 2,456 on Tuesday. The seven-day average of the state’s positivity rate — the ratio of cases to tests — was 6.24% on March 10; it was 5.89% on Monday. (The latest positivity-rate figures are considered preliminary and subject to recalculation as more test results come in from the date in question.)

Deaths and hospitalizations, which lag new cases, have seen steeper drops since March 10. The seven-day average of new daily deaths was 187 on March 10; it was 64 on Tuesday. There were 4,556 Texans hospitalized with the virus on March 10; there were 3,002 on Tuesday.

The four key metrics are way down from peaks earlier in the year, when the state was seeing daily new caseloads approaching 20,000, a positivity rate that went above 20%, hospitalizations that topped 14,000 and weeks of more than 300 deaths per day.

Like I said, it’s good news, and you should click over and look at the charts, which are a harrowing reminder of how bad it has been in past months. I continue to believe that the reason the numbers haven’t ticked back up is that enough people are staying masked up. We have some limited public opinion data to suggest that, but beyond that it’s mostly my own observations, which are not on a particularly representative sample of the population. Warmer weather, which allows for outdoor activities, may be helping, and in the end we may just be lucky. Whatever the case, let’s hope it continues.

And before you ask, no, we are nowhere near herd immunity. Given the continued resistance to getting vaccinated from large swaths of Republicans, getting there will be a challenge. Prioritizing older folks for the vaccine has no doubt helped reduce the hospitalization and death totals, and that’s no small thing, but we have to deliver a lot more shots into arms because we can begin to think about easing up on that.

Whither downtown?

Nobody really knows when or if Houston’s downtown will return to something like it was pre-COVID.

Few areas of the local economy were hit as hard by the pandemic as downtown and few face as much uncertainty as the service sector — shops, restaurants, dry cleaners, hair salons — that depends on people coming to work in the city’s center. Even as the pandemic’s end appears in sight and companies begin to bring workers back to the office, it remains unclear how fast employees might return downtown and whether they will come back in the same numbers.

Already, some companies are planning to continue the remote working arrangements forced by coronavirus and embraced by both employers and employees. The financial services company JP Morgan Chase, which has some 2,300 employees in two buildings downtown, recently said it will keep some positions remote and reduce the number of people in its U.S. offices, reconfiguring them to reduce the space it uses by up to 40 percent.

The chemical company LyondellBasell, which has about 2,300 employees in its downtown office, said it will consider flexible, remote alternatives to in-person work. The pipeline company Kinder Morgan, which has about 20 percent of its 2,100 working in its headquarters on Louisiana Street, said it has not determined when and how it will bring back other workers.

A recent survey by Central Houston, an organization that focuses on the redevelopment and revitalization of downtown, found that 75 percent of downtown employers expect at least 10 percent of their workforce will transition to a mix of in-person and remote work.

Only about 18 percent of employees are working from the office downtown, according to Central Houston’s survey. About half the companies said they expect to bring 50 percent of their workers back to the office by June and 70 percent said they expect to have half their workforce in the office by September.

[…]

It’s hard to say when the downtown workforce will return to pre-pandemic levels, said Bob Eury, president of Central Houston. The Houston utility CenterPoint Energy said it plans to bring all its employees who have been working remotely back to the offices at 1111 Louisiana St. in June.

Also in June, the University of Houston-Downtown, which has nearly 1,400 employees, said it will bring full-time staff on campus at least three days a week. By July, the staff should be working regular Monday-Friday schedules, the university said.

But some companies are still figuring out when they’ll bring employees back and how many might continue to work remotely. Porter Hedges, a law firm on Main Street, still has most of its 220 employees working at home, but has not set a timetable for their return to the office.

Employees at EOG Resources are working in the office roughly half the week, the other half at home as part of the company’s phased reopening strategy. A spokesperson could not say how long the policy would remain in place.

Developers and property managers, however, are confident that offices will eventually fill with workers again. Travis Overall, executive vice president for Brookfield Properties, which owns 10 buildings downtown, said he doesn’t believe the pandemic will lead to a major restructuring of the downtown workforce over the long term.

Nobody really knows what will happen, because we’ve never experienced anything like this. We don’t have any precedent to point to. I feel reasonably confident saying that the courts and government buildings will be returning to full in-person business soon, and that will bring a lot of people back, but a lot of other businesses are up in the air. I also think that if there is a relative glut in office space downtown, lower rents will lure in some new occupants. It may take three to five years to see how it has all shaken out.

Harris County drops its vaccine waitlist

Sign up and get a shot if you haven’t already.

Harris County Public Health has ended its waitlist for COVID-19 vaccinations, County Judge Lina Hidalgo said Friday.

The new portal at ReadyHarris.org allows residents to register, after which they can pick and choose their appointment time, according to the website.

Hidalgo said there’s currently “more vaccine supply than ever” and encouraged people to sign up for vaccines, which are free and do not require insurance to receive.

She added that the county has 55,000 doses of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines available for next week.

You can also call to schedule an appointment at 832-927-8787. There are equity issues to deal with, but making the vaccine more widely available, and to people who don’t have Internet access, will help.

On vaccine equity

This was predictable, but that doesn’t mean we have to accept it as such.

Black and Latino Harris County residents received the COVID-19 vaccine at lower rates than their white counterparts, according to a county analysis that also found a person’s likelihood of vaccination, to date, largely has depended on where they live.

The findings underscore what a Houston Chronicle analysis found last month: Even though African-American and Latino communities have been hit hardest by COVID-19 in Texas, they are being vaccinated at a much slower pace.

The gap exists despite a Harris County public health campaign crafted to convince residents of color to get the vaccine. And it is significant: In the highest-participation ZIP code, 77046 in Upper Kirby, 87 percent of residents have received at least one dose. Fourteen miles north in Greenspoint, 77060, 8 percent of residents have.

“That disparity is so disappointing, but it doesn’t surprise me,” said Rice University health economist Vivian Ho. “A large portion of the vaccines in the state went to the hospital systems, who just went through their electronic records — so if you’re insured, which means you’re more likely to be white, then it was easy for them to sign you up.”

Of the 20 Harris County ZIP codes with vaccination rates of at least 31 percent, 18 have predominantly white residents. Sixteen are in the so-called Houston Arrow, the section of Houston from Oak Forest southeast to downtown, southwest to Meyerland, north to the Galleria and west through the Energy Corridor that is significantly whiter and more affluent than other parts of the city.

Much of the data from 77030 likely is incorrect, the report notes, since the Texas Medical Center is located there and many hospitals appear to have listed that ZIP code as a way of expediting patient appointments.

Of the 20 county ZIP codes with the lowest vaccination rates, none of which exceed 15 percent, 18 are mostly nonwhite. None are in the Arrow.

[…]

The two commissioner precincts with the highest share of white residents, 3 and 4, had the highest vaccination rates, both above 16 percent. Precinct 1, which has the largest proportion of African Americans, was just below 16 percent. Just 13 percent of residents in [Commissioner Adrian] Garcia’s Precinct 2, which is mostly Latino, have received at least one dose.

Garcia said he asked for the study because he wanted to identify areas in Harris County that need greater vaccine outreach. He praised the county’s mass vaccination site at the NRG campus, but said many of his constituents lack access to public or private transportation to travel to the site or the Texas Medical Center, which are in Precinct 1.

“We want to make sure we’re being creative and thoughtful about where are the masses in the precinct that may be a way to help us move that needle in a better direction?

“The Medical Center, for most of the people in my precinct, doesn’t really exist because they can’t get to it,” Garcia continued. “We need to serve those tough, underserved areas of the precinct that have gone underserved for quite some time.”

Precinct 2 has partnered with unions and community groups to set up local vaccination sites. The portable SmartPod mobile medical units Garcia debuted last year to help with COVID-19 testing now are used also to assist with administering the shots.

Garcia said he also would urge the county health department to waive its requirement that residents register for appointments online. He predicted walk-in appointments would be popular among seniors who may not be technologically savvy, as well as undocumented residents wary of entering their personal information into a government database.

There are a lot of reasons for which, a primary one being that the state prioritized people over 65, who are disproportionately white, and not essential workers like grocery store employees or meatpackers or teachers or government employees. Not much we can do about that now other than try to catch up from here. Commissioner Garcia has the right idea, but it’s going to take time to make a difference.

Should Harris County lower its threat level?

Maybe?

According to Harris County’s COVID-19 guidance, residents should avoid all unnecessary contact with others. They should not go to bars or barbecues or ballgames. They should work from home if possible and leave only for errands, such as groceries or medicine.

Hardly any of the county’s 4.8 million residents appear to be following this advice now. Gov. Greg Abbott fully reopened Texas last month and nixed the mask mandate. Youth sports have resumed, houses of worship again welcome in-person parishioners and 21,765 fans attended the Astros home opener at Minute Maid Park.

Yet, for 42 consecutive weeks, Harris County has been at its highest COVID-19 threat level, red, even though the virus metrics here have improved significantly since January and other counties have relaxed their guidance for residents. Though local officials have no authority to issue COVID-19 restrictions, Harris appears to be the only of Texas’s 254 counties to still urge residents to remain at home.

The county’s two Republican commissioners, Jack Cagle and Tom Ramsey, this week urged Democratic County Judge Lina Hidalgo to reconsider the threat-level criteria. The pair also have resumed attending court meetings in person, which they say can be done safely, while the three Democrats join virtually and require members of the public to do so, as well.

[…]

Since moving to level red last June, Harris County never has met all the criteria to move to the second-highest level, orange, including 14-day averages of: A positivity rate below 5 percent, daily new cases below 400 and COVID-19 patients occupying less than 15 percent of hospital ICU capacity. As of Wednesday, those metrics stood at 8.7 percent, 434 and 15.1 percent.

The glass-half-full view of these numbers is that each has declined significantly from January’s post-holiday spike. Both the number of COVID-19 patients occupying ICU beds and positivity rate have dropped by more than half, and the daily new case average is down 83 percent.

The more cautious approach, which Hidalgo favors, considers that the governor fully reopened the state over the objection of one of his medical advisers, herd immunity that is still months away and the presence of several virus variants in Houston that are a wild card.

Commissioner Ramsey points out that multiple school districts in his precinct are back to mostly in-person classes, which Commissioner Cagle notes that if you’re at the highest threat level all the time, it’s hard to turn the volume up when things do get worse. (I like to think of it as the “These go to eleven” justification.) Judge Hidalgo points to the fact that less than twenty percent of the county is fully vaccinated (this is counting all residents, not just those sixteen and older who are able to get the vaccine) and there are major outbreaks in places like Michigan that stand as cautionary tales for easing up too quickly. I’ll get to all this in a minute, but first we should note the irony of this story appearing on the same day as this story.

The Astros will be without four key players — Jose Altuve, Alex Bregman, Yordan Alvarez and Martin Maldonado – indefinitely because of MLB’s COVID-19 health and safety protocols.

The loss of those four, plus infielder Robel Garcia, is a brutal blow for a team already in a mid-April funk and a reminder that baseball is still operating in a pandemic.

The fivesome went on the COVID-19 related injured list prior to Wednesday’s game against the Detroit Tigers. Astros general manager James Click could not confirm whether the team has had a positive test. Players or staff who test positive for the virus must give their team permission to disclose a diagnosis.

“It’s just a challenge for the rest of our guys to pick us up and get us back on the right track,” Click said before Wednesday’s game at Minute Maid Park. “We’ve obviously scuffled a little bit the past four games. When it rains it pours. It’s a difficult situation.”

Placement on the COVID-19 injured list does not automatically indicate a positive test. There is no minimum or maximum length of stay. The list is also reserved for players or staffers exposed to someone who has had a positive test, those experiencing COVID-19 symptoms, or those experiencing adverse effects of the COVID-19 vaccine. Manager Dusty Baker revealed that all five players “had at least their first shots.”

The Rice women’s volleyball team had to drop out of the NCAA tournament because of COVID protocols as well. Just a reminder, you’re not fully vaxxed until two weeks after the second shot. If it can happen to them, well…

Anyway. I don’t think Commissioners Ramsey and Cagle are making faulty or bad faith arguments. Their points are reasonable, and I’m sure a lot of people see it their way. Judge Hidalgo is also right, and the fact that Harris County hasn’t actually met any of the metrics to put it below the “red alert” threshold should mean something. To some extent this is a matter of risk tolerance, but I do find myself on the side of not redefining one’s own longstanding metrics for the sake of convenience. It seems likely to me that if everything continues along the same trends in the county, we should meet the standard for lowering the threat level soon. And if we don’t – if our caseloads continue to stay at the same level or tick back up, even if hospitalizations are down and even as we vaccinate more and more people – I think that should tell us something. Campos has more.

First attempt to redefine the governor’s powers in an emergency

I’m still conflicted about this.

The Texas Senate backed a potential constitutional amendment Tuesday that would substantially rein in the power of the governor during emergencies like this past year’s coronavirus pandemic.

Texas voters would have to approve the amendment Nov. 2 for it to take effect. And before it could get on a ballot, the Senate action must still be approved by the House.

The amendment would require the governor to call a special session in order to declare a state emergency that lasts more than 30 days. The special session would give lawmakers the chance to terminate or adjust executive actions taken by the governor, or pass new laws related to the disaster or emergency.

The Legislature did not meet last year as the pandemic swept the state, so Gov. Greg Abbott addressed the largely unprecedented situation with executive orders and declarations spanning several months, citing the Texas Disaster Act of 1975.

Abbott issued what essentially amounted to a statewide shutdown order last year, and he kept in place some level of capacity limitations for businesses until early March of this year. In July, he mandated that Texans wear masks in public. He also used executive authority to lift other state regulations to help businesses struggling during the pandemic, such as allowing restaurants to sell groceries and mixed drinks to go.

But many state lawmakers say the Legislature should be the government body to make decisions that affect businesses and livelihood of Texans.

“Early on, people understood [business closures] because they’re like, ‘we don’t know what this is,’” Sen. Brian Birdwell, R-Granbury, said on the Senate floor. But as the pandemic and business closures wore on, Birdwell said the anger grew as the mandates continued.

Birdwell said if the governor believes the situation is dire enough that businesses need to close, then he needs to get the Legislature involved.

[…]

“I don’t see this Legislature being able to convene fast enough to answer … in the kind of disasters I have seen and expect the state to see in the future,” said Sen. Sarah Eckhardt, D-Austin, who used to serve as Travis County judge.

Meanwhile, a priority bill filed in the House would carve out future pandemics from how the state responds to other disasters.

That bill, HB 3, has not yet made it out of committee, but would allow the governor to suspend state laws and require local jurisdictions to get approval from the secretary of state before altering voting procedures during a pandemic.

Rep. Dustin Burrows, R-Lubbock, previously told the Texas Tribune that the proposal was meant as a starting point to map out responses in the event of another pandemic.

“HB 3 was trying to set structures, predicting the disaster or the emergency,” Birdwell said. “What I did was set a baseline…It is impossible to predict the disaster.”

As I’ve said before, I think the Legislature should have a say in these matters, and that calling a special session last year would have cleared some things up and maybe prevented a lawsuit or two. I think Sen. Birdwell’s proposed resolution is more or less okay, though I don’t trust his motives and I agree with Sen. Eckhardt about the Lege’s lack of ability to move quickly in times of crisis. Hell, unless we’re willing to allow a Zoom legislative session, having that special session I mentioned could have been a superspreader event. HB3 is completely off the rails – again with the fixation on preventing counties from making it easier to vote – so if I had to choose between the two I’d take the Senate’s version, but I’m a very qualified and uncertain supporter. The system we had now wasn’t great. My fear is that we’ll make it worse.

When the vaccine problem becomes more about demand than supply

Or to put it another way, what are we gonna do with the people who refuse to get vaccinated?

Low vaccination rates in counties that are whiter and more conservative could be impairing Texas’ ability to quickly reach herd immunity for COVID-19.

Texas counties that are poorer, whiter, less-educated and where former President Donald Trump won a larger than average share of the vote have vaccinated a smaller share of their population than the state average, a Houston Chronicle analysis found.

In the 144 Texas counties that meet these criteria, about 28.7 percent of people aged 16 and older have received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine. Statewide, the average is 32.2 percent.

In Liberty County, fewer than 20 percent of residents have received at least one dose of the vaccine, one of the lowest rates in the state. What’s more, as Harris County residents have begun flocking to rural counties for easier access to vaccines, state data shows that providers in Liberty County — a rural patch between Houston and Beaumont — have put 27 percent more shots in the arms of Harris County residents than they have in residents of their own county

Meanwhile, in the 22 counties where Joe Biden won a majority of the vote — places that tend to be both more diverse and educated — an average of about 44 percent of eligible Texans have received at least one dose of the vaccine.

The vaccination gap between whiter, more conservative counties and the state average may not be cause for concern for the state’s vaccination efforts yet, said Rice University health economist Vivian Ho, but there is a potential for it to widen over the next two to three months.

“As more vaccines become available, that gap is going to widen, because there’s still excess demand for vaccines in our cities, where the majority of the population lives,” she said. “If, for instance, only 50 percent of people in these outlier counties are vaccinated, they will continually be subject to superspreader events that will overwhelm the weakest components of the state’s healthcare infrastructure.”

[…]

Across the state, health officials are searching for ways to reach and vaccinate people who are reluctant to do so.

State health officials are trying to think through the “last mile”, said Dr. David Lakey, a member of the Texas COVID-19 Expert Vaccine Allocation Panel. People who are hesitant to get vaccinated may not go to mass vaccination sites or hubs, but may go to providers they trust.

In Public Health Region 4/5 North — a group of counties in the northeastern part of the state, around Tyler — officials are working with faith-based communities and hosting vaccine fairs to vaccinate more people in the region with the state’s lowest average rate. They have also been conducting home visits as part of these efforts to bring vaccines to homebound people.

Ron Nichols, emergency coordinator for Chambers County, said having well known, local paramedics dole out doses has helped assuage some residents’ concerns. Nichols said demand for vaccines was initially high, but has begun to plateau in recent months because people are either waiting on the single-shot vaccine from Johnson & Johnson, or because of distrust rooted in misinformation.

“There are a lot of people who just don’t understand, don’t know or don’t trust the process,” he said. “The Facebook misinformation machine has been running rampant.”

I suppose there may be fewer Houstonians taking vaccination road trips now that there’s more doses available. Be that as it may, the approach being outlined here makes sense. It’s largely the same strategy that has been advocated and used for communities of color and immigrants, and for the same reason – people trust people they know. It’s more arduous, but it has to be done. It would be nice if more of the state and federal elected officials who represent these areas stepped up and took some of the responsibility for convincing their constituents to get vaxxed, but I’m not holding out much hope for that.

(I am going to attempt to exercise some grace about the hesitancy in these parts of the state, even as we know that lies and propaganda are the main reasons for the fears that many of these folks have, and the risk that their hesitancy may help give rise to a stronger and more vax-resistant strain of the virus. For now, at least. We’ll see where the numbers are in a few months.)

Where HISD stands today

In a holding pattern, waiting for direction.

In the winter of 2019, two committees composed of Houston ISD employees, parents and advocates issued recommendations for how the district should tackle two of its thorniest issues: campus funding practices and access to magnet programs.

Some of the proposals would require sacrifice, committee members warned, including the potential closure of low-enrollment campuses and the elimination of magnet funding to elementary schools. Yet other recommendations, such as staffing all schools with essential support personnel and expanding magnet programs to all neighborhood middle and high schools, would offer more opportunities to students with the greatest needs, they said.

Two years later, HISD administrators and school board members have implemented few of the proposals, let alone discussed them at length publicly.

The inaction, local leaders and advocates said, speaks to a pattern in the Houston Independent School District of avoiding difficult but potentially consequential reforms in recent years, leaving the state’s largest school system mired in a status quo that holds back lower-income children of color.

Despite receiving numerous studies, investigative reports and committee proposals, HISD administrators and board members have not moved swiftly to address multiple challenges. The festering issues include inequitable distribution of resources and programs, declining student enrollment, inadequate support of students with disabilities, lagging employee pay and the long-term viability of small campuses.

The reasons for the paralysis are numerous — a fractured school board, a reticent administration, the ever-present threat of a state takeover, and once-in-a-generation natural and public health disasters — but each reflect how a $2-billion bureaucracy can become stagnant in the face of calls for reform.

“It feels like HISD has been in a holding pattern, and any type of substantive change hits a wall pretty quickly,” said Jaison Oliver, a community advocate who has urged HISD to implement multiple educational and social justice reforms.

The article delves into the reasons and the prognoses from there, and you can read the rest. Broadly speaking, while the district continues to perform well overall, racial and economic gaps exist, special education is still a mess, the magnet program remains controversial, and the school board is still divided. Harvey, coronavirus, and now the freeze have caused enough disruption to make anything beyond crisis management nearly impossible to attain, and oh yeah, there’s no Superintendent but there is a continuing threat of state takeover. In some ways it’s a miracle the district is performing at all. Maybe there’s some light in the tunnel now, we’ll see. Read the story and see what you think.

Our COVID numbers are staying down

Let’s keep this going.

While the East Coast struggles with a fourth wave of rising COVID-19 infections, Texas experts say the state is doing “reasonably well” as case rates stabilize across the state.

Case rates and hospitalizations have plateaued in the region in recent weeks, averaging roughly 3,500 new daily reported cases, the lowest it’s been since early-to-mid September. The decline in hospitalizations has been an even more welcome trend, with fewer than 3,000 patients hospitalized for COVID, the lowest it’s been since June.

Medical experts such as Dr. Carl Vartian, an infectious disease specialist and chief medical officer at HCA Houston Healthcare Clear Lake and Mainland hospitals, suspect the winter freeze, increasing vaccination rates and the prevalence of antibodies in Texas’ population have kept case rates low over the last month.

[…]

“Texas is doing better than most states, which are seeing a pretty sharp rise in the number of daily new cases,” said Ben Neuman, a virologist at Texas A&M University.

The lower rate of infections doesn’t mean that Texans can let their guard down, though. Fewer than 37 percent of state residents have received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, and just over 20 percent have been fully vaccinated.

“You have to plateau before you rise, and I think that’s where we’re headed,” Neuman said.

The flat line of case rates starts with a sharp drop-off in testing. According to data from the Department of State Health Services, results from PCR testing dropped sharply during the winter freeze in February, and have not rebounded. As of April, Texas is testing at just half the rate it was before the state iced over.

While the number of daily tests has declined heavily, so too has the positive test rate. It’s now under 5 percent, and the second-lowest it’s been since the start of the pandemic, according to state data. Even with the reduced number of tests being conducted, fewer people are testing positive for COVID.

The low number of tests mean there could be a lag before a potential surge, Neuman said.

In Houston, medical experts are cautiously optimistic there won’t be a rise.

Usually, case rates spike first, followed by hospitalizations the week after and ventilator demand and deaths after that. So far, all three have stayed low in Houston, Vartian said.

The freeze was basically a one-week lockdown in the middle of February, and that no doubt helped keep infections down. I don’t know what it’s like anywhere else, but at least in my little part of the world people are still masking up, despite the Governor’s order. I won’t extrapolate from such a limited data point, but I feel hopeful that at least in the big cities people are still inclined to be cautious.

And I take heart at the progress in getting shots into arms. The Astros are getting their shots. The Rockets are getting their shots. Judge Hidalgo has gotten her first shot. People are celebrating the ways that their lives have been improved by getting vaccinated. (Can confirm, by the way.) I’m hopeful. We still have to be careful, but I can see the road ahead, and it’s going someplace good.

Show me your vaccine papers!

Wiat, wrong papers. Forget I just said that.

Gov. Greg Abbot issued an executive order early Tuesday banning state agencies from requiring “vaccine passports” to enter public spaces or receive public services.

The passports, either digital or printed, would verify that a person has been fully immunized against COVID-19 and allow people to more freely travel and shop.

So far, they only exist in a limited capacity in New York. Still, the passports have emerged as the latest subject of political clashes over the virus, with GOP politicians decrying the passes as an infringement on individual rights.

“Government should not require any Texan to show proof of vaccination and reveal private health information just to go about their daily lives,” Abbott said in a news release. “We will continue to vaccinate more Texans and protect public health — and we will do so without treading on Texans’ personal freedoms.”

“Unless you want to get an abortion or cast a vote, in which case we’ll be all up in your grill,” he did not say. I’m not going to waste your time on this silliness, but I will leave you these two items to ponder:

You just can’t make this stuff up.

Parents sue Katy ISD over its mask mandate

Someday, these dumb stories will stop happening. Others will replace them, to be sure, but this type of dumb story will eventually fade away.

A group of parents are suing the Katy Independent School District, calling its continued requirement for masks in schools unconstitutional and a violation of Gov. Greg Abbott’s executive order from last month that lifted the statewide mask mandate, among other COVID-19 safety restrictions.

The lawsuit, filed Thursday by a Houston attorney for parents Bonnie Anderson, Jenny Alexander, Doug Alexander, Heather Calhoun and Stephen Calhoun, takes issue with the district’s current safety protocols for in-person schooling, specifically its requirement that students wear masks in hallways, buses, and other common areas.

When Abbott announced his executive order, he did not address the ways rescinding the mask mandate affected public schools. In a later interview with radio host Chad Hasty, Abbott said he expected the Texas Education Agency to leave the decision to require masks up to local school boards.

The agency’s updated mask policy has allowed “local school boards have full authority to determine their local mask policy,” according to its website. In public planning guidance, the agency also recommends the use of masks.

Under Katy ISD’s policies, students who don’t comply with the mask policy will be moved to online school and aren’t allowed to participate in other student activities. Those who have medical conditions that preclude them from wearing a mask must notify the school nurse and have documentation from their medical provider, according to the policy.

The lawsuit also argues under the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision Brown v. Board of Education that forcing students to switch to virtual school is a form of “separate but equal” discrimination.

The Supreme Court case’s ruling focused on segregation between Black and white students in public schools and discrimination on the basis of race.

[…]

Katy ISD responded to the lawsuit with a statement that it is complying with the agency’s public planning recommendations.

“Katy ISD continues to follow the Governor’s Executive Order GA-34 and comply with the Texas Education Agency’s Public Health Planning Guidance,” said the statement, obtained by Fox 26 Houston.

If you guessed that only Jared Woodfill would be dumb and obnoxious enough to cite Brown v Board of Education as a precedent for this silly lawsuit, congratulations. You don’t win a prize but you do get to live with the knowledge that you are familiar enough with Jared Woodfill to recognize his handiwork. It sure seems to me like this lawsuit is unlikely to win, but the part of my brain that tries to make sense of the world around me is convinced there must be some merit to this, however hard it may be to find. I don’t think my analysis can get any deeper than that, so let’s wrap this up. The Chron has more.

Space City Safe

I wholeheartedly endorse this.

A new crowdsourced website that allows Houstonians to vet a business or restaurant to see if they are following COVID-19 guidelines has exploded with responses.

The website, Space City Safe, is the brainchild of 25-year-old Heights resident Chris Haseler. Haseler, who works as an engineer, created the website the weekend after Texas Gov. Greg Abbott lifted the statewide mask mandate and opened Texas back up 100%.

“I think a lot of Houston was caught off guard by the governor’s announcement,” Haseler said. “A lot of people don’t feel safe quite yet.”

Haseler’s website allows users to input information about a Houston business or restaurant, including if they are requiring masks, social distancing and their capacity level. It also lets users leave comments about their experiences, link to where they got their information (such as a restaurant’s Instagram page), and make corrections.

“One of the integral parts of the website is being able to specify the information source, it sort of adds a level of accuracy,” Haseler said. “So you’ll notice for a lot of the website, it’s the business owner themselves who have put up their COVID restrictions.”

The site has grown to house just over 600 businesses. The boom in responses is not something Haseler expected – he created the website as a challenge for himself, “just for fun to learn about something new.”

“I certainly was not expecting this to take off at all,” Haseler said. “The fact that it has garnered so much attention and so many users has been a surprise and a lot of fun to deal with.”

Hey, if it’s up to businesses to decide how they want to handle it, then it’s up to the rest of us to decide what kind of response from businesses we want to support. I’d much rather know this ahead of time. The one piece of data on the site that I’d have included is whether there’s an outdoor option, but this is fine. I applaud the effort. If you don’t see your favorite place there, you can send its info to Space City Safe yourself. At some point we’ll need websites like this less, but we’re not at that point just yet. In the meantime, keep yourself informed so you can keep yourself safe.

There are still a lot of students doing remote school

I’m actually a little surprised it’s this much.

Nathan is among 35,127 students in Cypress-Fairbanks ISD and hundreds of thousands of students across Greater Houston whose parents opted to keep at home for the fourth and final grading period of the 2020-21 school year. Many of those students have not been inside a classroom since schools closed last March to help slow the spread of COVID-19.

Nearly 250,000 students in 18 districts are learning from home in the final grading period, according to a Houston Chronicle analysis of school district attendance data. Twenty-one districts responded to a Chronicle request for data, but only 18 were able to provide specific numbers for each grading period.

About 475,000 students in the 18 districts are back in schools. Among the 21 districts that responded to the Chronicle’s request, an average of about 75 percent of students were learning in person on campuses.

Those numbers vary widely from district to district. Only about 42 percent of Houston ISD students were back on campus by the fourth grading period, for example, while nearly 97 percent of students in Deer Park ISD have returned.

Statewide data from the TEA shows that districts that serve larger shares of Black and Hispanic students had fewer coming back for in-person classes. In districts where 10 percent or less of students were Black or Hispanic, about 80 percent of students returned, but in districts where 90 to 100 percent of students were black, less than half came back for face-to-face instruction.

David DeMatthews, an associate professor of education leadership and policy at the University of Texas at Austin, said multiple studies have shown that Black and Hispanic communities have been disproportionately affected by COVID-19 infections and hospitalizations, which often makes families of color more fearful of sending their students back to campuses.

“They’re more likely to know someone who’s gotten the virus, gotten seriously ill from the virus or died from the virus,” he said. “A lot of parents are just concerned that if kids go back to school in those communities, the impact could be very real and immediate for those families.”

Despite the varying attendance rates, one trend was clear among the 21 districts: More parents opted to send their children back for in-person instruction every time they were given the chance. The Texas Education Agency requires districts to give parents that opportunity each grading period.

Maybe if we were three months ago where we are now with vaccinations it would be different. Maybe if Texas had prioritized vaccinating teachers and school staff as part of the first wave it would be different. Who knows? The fact that the in-person attendance has ticked up every grading period suggests a correlation with the vaccine rate, but we can’t say for sure. For what it’s worth, our kids have been back in school since January – in HISD, you have to make a selection every six weeks – and it’s been fine for them. The eighth grader informed us the other day that they can eat in the cafeteria now instead of having to have lunch at their desks – they’re limited to three at a table made for eight, but it’s still an improvement as far as she’s concerned.

I expect that the large majority of kids will be back in the classroom in the fall, but online learning will still be available to those who still want it. Most likely, anyway.

Houston ISD leaders plan to offer online-only classes to families that want them to start the 2021-22 school year — as long as state officials continue to provide funding for children enrolled in virtual instruction.

HISD Interim Superintendent Grenita Lathan, speaking Wednesday after her annual State of the Schools speech, said district leaders hope to bring as many students as possible back to classrooms by August while also remaining committed to an online-only option.

About 56 percent of HISD’s 197,000 students attended virtual classes as of February, largely due to health and safety concerns amid the novel coronavirus pandemic.

While Lathan pushed for choice Wednesday, she also warned that HISD families should expect one big change in 2021-22: educators no longer will be required to teach students in face-to-face and virtual classes at the same time. As a result, families should not expect to retain the same teacher if they switch between formats during the school year.

“Our teachers teaching simultaneously has been extremely difficult this year, and we cannot continue to go on in that manner for the next school year,” Lathan said. “That’s what will look different. The option will be there, but we need to have teachers teaching in one mode.”

As the story notes, this is dependent on the next Superintendent not deciding to change direction, and on the TEA being willing to continue funding schools for online learning at the same rate. I think this may be a mostly moot point if we’re at 70%+ vaccination rate by August, and even more so if kids start getting vaccinated, but we’ll see. I think basically everyone will benefit from getting back to the classroom, but people still have to feel safe about it. Things really would be different if we had prioritized safety from the beginning.

Expanding telemedicine

Seems like a good idea.

Last year, rules temporarily changed in Texas allowing for additional types of doctor appointments to happen virtually.

As the state returns to more normalcy, there are questions about whether that broader use of telemedicine will continue.

Patterson said he hopes so but was recently surprised to find out he couldn’t schedule a virtual appointment with Advanced Pain Care.

“When Gov. Greg Abbott lifted his emergency order in early March, it was widely thought that the Medical Board also rescinded their rule on telemedicine, but it turns out there was a separate rule allowing us to continue with telemedicine,” said Dr. Mark Malone, president of Advanced Pain Care.

Malone explained they stopped telemedicine for about two weeks, because there was some confusion but offered curbside appointments as another option to patients concerned about COVID-19.

[…]

According to a spokesperson with the Texas Medical Board (TMB), the board’s emergency rule expanding the use of telemedicine is still in effect.

The board’s emergency rule regarding prescriptions was renewed earlier this month and will continue until May 1.

“The emergency rule continues to allow for telephone refill of certain prescriptions to established chronic pain patients as long as the patient has been seen by the prescribing physician, or health professional… in the last 90 days either in-person or via telemedicine using audio and video two-way communication,” said the rule on TMB’s website.

Abbott said during his State of the State address last month that he wants to permanently expand access to telemedicine services.

A number of bills have been introduced this legislative session regarding telemedicine. Several have already been heard in committee hearings.

Those bills would include a pilot project to provide emergency telemedicine medical services in rural areas and reimbursement and payment of claims for telemedicine medical services and telehealth services under certain health benefit plans.

A recent study showed that as many physician offices closed last February to April, the use of telehealth quickly escalated.

This makes sense, in the same way that lifting the rules about drinks to go made sense. And as is often the case, Texas had been a laggard compared to other states. Telemedicine was only legalized by the Legislature in 2017, following a federal anti-trust lawsuit that forced the issue. I wouldn’t want telemedicine to become the default, but that’s not what’s on the table here. Having it be part of the mix is valuable, and allowing it to grow and change as the needs of the patients demand it is what should happen. If one of those bills can be passed it would be a good thing.

Another report on the South Texas vote in 2020

Some interesting stuff in here.

Cambio Texas, a progressive organization whose mission is to increase voter turnout and elect leaders that reflect the community, has released a post-election report that relies on extensive interviews with elected officials, campaign workers, consultants, and most importantly, voters in the Rio Grande Valley.

In an interview with Texas Signal, the Executive Director of Cambio Texas, Abel Prado, walked us through some of the big takeaways from their post-election report. One of his first points from the report was that many of the voters who came out in the Rio Grande Valley were specifically Donald Trump voters, and not necessarily Republican voters.

Many of Trump’s traits, including his brashness, a self-styled Hollywood pedigree, his experience as a businessman, and his billionaire status, resonated with many voters in the Rio Grande Valley. “The increase in Republican vote share were Donald Trump votes, not conservative votes, and there’s a difference,” said Prado. With the caveat that Trump is a unique figure, there are still plenty of lessons the Democratic party should take from 2020.

The first is that Republicans up and down the ballot were highly effective in using local vendors. “Every single Republican candidate that was on the ballot purchased locally,” said Prado. Many Democratic campaigns abide by a well-intentioned edict to use union printers. The closest union printer to the Rio Grande Valley is in San Antonio.

Local printers worked with many Republican campaigns, including Monica de la Cruz, who came within three points of defeating incumbent Rep. Gonzalez. The report from Cambio Texas highlights the goodwill that the Republican Party of Hidalgo County fostered with several local vendors, which had no Democratic counterpart.

Prado even recounted a story from an interview with a vendor in the Rio Grande Valley, a proud Democrat and a Biden voter, who nevertheless reveled in the “Trump trains” that county Republican parties put on during the weekends. The liberal vendor was able to set up shop next to the vocal Trump supporters and sold merchandise like Trump flags..

The report also pinpoints where “investment in the Valley” went awry. According to Prado, that “investment” included parachuting national campaign operatives into the Rio Grande Valley, where they had no attachment to the local community. When there was high spending in the Rio Grande Valley, it often went towards outside groups or PACs. For Prado, that investment “depriv[ed] a lot of local vendors to earn a slice of that through their services and local input.”

Though many post-election autopsies around Texas have focused on the lack of in-person campaigning from Democratic candidates due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Cambio Texas conducted a survey of Trump voters to distill where they received the bulk of their messaging. A majority of those Trump voters were actually reached by television and radio. Less than 14 percent of the Trump voters received a home visit from a canvasser from the campaign.

The report also notes that Republicans in the Rio Grande Valley invested heavily in texting. About 38 percent of Trump voters surveyed received a text message from the Trump campaign or an organization supporting the Trump campaign.

The whole report is here and it’s not very long, so give it a read. The bit about “investment” and purchasing locally resonated with me, and I hope will spark some discussion within the party. It’s not a consideration I had seen before, but it makes a lot of sense. The main takeaway for me is that there are a lot of dimensions to this issue, and anyone who says they have the one sure trick to solve the problem is almost certainly overstating things.

The Trb also had a long piece on the same question, spurred in part by the Filemon Vela retirement, and its broader and contains a lot of quotes from various political types, but didn’t make me feel like I learned anything. Still a good perspective, and a clear indicator that the 2022 and likely 2024 campaigns in South Texas and the Valley will be very different from the ones we have been used to seeing, so go read it as well.

At this point we’ve seen numerous analyses of the 2020 election, from the TDP to David Beard to Evan Scrimshaw (more here) and now these two. The big challenge is trying to extrapolate from limited data – in some sense, just from the 2020 election – and in the (so far) absence of the main factor that caused all of the disruption in 2020. Which is all a fancy way of saying what are things going to be like without Donald Trump on the scene, if indeed he remains mostly off camera like he is now? I’ll tell you: Nobody knows, and we’re all guessing. We’ll know a little bit more in a year, and more than that in a year and a half, but until then – and remember, we don’t know what our districts or our candidates will look like next year yet – it’s all up in the air. Look at the data, keep an open mind, and pay attention to what’s happening now.

Austin mask mandate somehow still in effect

I admit, I did not expect this.

Best mugshot ever

Austin and Travis County can keep requiring masks for at least a bit longer after a district judge denied Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton’s request for a temporary block of the local mandate.

Paxton sued the local officials for refusing to end the mandate after Gov. Greg Abbott lifted state restrictions earlier this month. Paxton will likely appeal the decision.

District Judge Lora Livingston has yet to issue a final ruling on the merits of the case, meaning Austin and Travis officials may later be told to comply with state officials.

But in the meantime, County Judge Andy Brown said Friday’s ruling at least prolongs the amount of time masks are required in their communities — which gives them more time to vaccinate their residents.

“I’ve been doing everything that I can to protect the health and safety of people in Travis County,” Brown said in an interview. “And Judge Livingston’s ruling today allows us to keep doing that.”

[…]

The final outcome of the case could have implications for other Texas cities and counties on how local governments can enforce their own public health mandates, even after the state ordered them to end.

During Friday’s hearing, discussion broadly centered around the question: What powers do local public health departments have, and how do the governor’s emergency powers affect them?

Austin and Travis attorneys said public health officials have the authority to implement health measures — like mask mandates — outside of the context of the pandemic, and therefore should not be affected by Texas’ latest order.

State attorneys argued that Abbott’s emergency powers because of the pandemic trump any local orders.

Livingston pushed back on some of the state attorney’s arguments that not requiring masks allows for individual freedom.

“I’m trying to understand why the person with the deadly virus should have more power than the person trying to stay alive and not catch the deadly virus,” Livingston said.

See here and here for the background. Note that the judge still has not issued a ruling, she just hasn’t granted the state’s motion for an injunction while she makes her decision. The usual trajectory in this sort of thing has been for the good guys (i.e., whoever is on the opposite side of Ken Paxton, whether as plaintiff or defendant) to win in round one and sometimes in round two, but to ultimately lose. Since the legal question at hand in these matters is the imposition of a restraining order or injunction, and since Paxton loves filing emergency appeals, the outcome that matters in the short term – that is, whether or not the good guys get to do what they want to do or force their opponents to do or not do something – is decided quickly, and often renders the actual litigation moot. In this case, the judge has taken her sweet time issuing a decision, so there’s been nothing for Paxton to appeal. Plus, even if all they get out of it is a couple of weeks’ extra time, that extra time is consequential in terms of slowing the spread of COVID. I just did not see it playing out this way. So, whatever happens in the end, good for Austin and Travis County for finding a way to do something in the short term. I don’t know how replicable this is, but it worked this time and that did matter.

Get your shot at the airport

I applaud the creative thinking, which we will continue to need.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Parking lots at Bush and Hobby airports soon will be home to mass vaccination clinics for the Houston Health Department, as the supply of shots continues to ramp up.

City Council unanimously approved lease arrangements at the airports Wednesday.

The site at Bush’s The Parking Spot opened Tuesday under a short-term lease agreement, with some 6,665 people scheduled to get shots there this week. It is not clear yet when the Hobby location of The Parking Spot will open for vaccinations, although the request for council action said it is necessary “for this operation to begin immediately.”

[…]

Mayor Sylvester Turner said he hopes the number of doses coming to the city will “exponentially increase” since the state has opened the eligibility requirements. If that happens, he said the city can open “many more locations” for people to get a vaccine, along with mobile sites that move around the city to reach people who have trouble leaving their homes.

“Please go and get the vaccination where you can, or sign up to receive it,” Turner said. “The goal is to increase the number of sites.”

The request for council action on the airport leases said the Health Department anticipates receiving a large number of vaccines on a more routine basis.

The new sites would double the number of the city’s main vaccination sites, according to the Health Department. It also operates clinics at Delmar Stadium and the Bayou City Event Center. Those four sites are designed to ramp up to 3,000 doses per day, six days per week, when the supply allows. The clinics at Bush Airport, Delmar and Bayou City Event Center are giving out between 1,000 and 2,500 doses per day currently.

The city has also benefited from a federal vaccination site at NRG Stadium, capable of giving 6,000 shots per day. The Health Department said it will consider continuing that site when the Federal Emergency Management Agency demobilizes it, likely sometime in April.

The city also uses health centers, multi-service centers and partnerships with clinics, pharmacies, churches and other groups to distribute the vaccine.

As the story notes, the airport parking lots are a lot less busy now than they usually are, for all the obvious reasons. The city owns the airports, which minimizes the cost involved, which will be covered by federal grant money anyway. The city and Harris County have also asked FEMA to keep the NRG site open at least through the end of May. We’ll see how they respond.

Basically, the city of Houston and Harris County seem to be doing everything they reasonably can to get as many shots into arms as possible. Equity remains an issue, which County Judge Lina Hidalgo brings up.

As Harris County crossed the threshold of one million COVID-19 vaccine shots into the arms of local residents Thursday afternoon, Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo pleaded with local vaccine providers to do a better job of getting doses to the county’s hard-hit minority communities.

Even though she acknowledged that hitting the million dose mark is “wonderful news,” she said during a Thursday press conference that only 12.1 percent of Harris County residents have been fully vaccinated against the coronavirus, compared to the 11 percent of all Texans that were fully-vaccinated as of Tuesday.

Hidalgo also pointed out how Black and Hispanic residents still aren’t getting vaccinated at the same rate as white and Asian residents, and challenged other local vaccinators to follow Harris County’s lead by making a concerted effort to change those trends.

“We’ve been going door-to-door in the hardest hit communities to get folks to register for our waitlist, but we need other providers in Harris County to join the effort more forcefully,” Hidalgo said.

“Every organization that administers vaccines in this county has a moral responsibility to reach the hardest hit residents,” she continued.

Again, I think the city and the county have done pretty well here, and I’d bet we would not be above the state baseline for vaccinations if that were not the case. There’s always room for improvement, and since the Black and Latino populations tend to be younger than the Anglo population, the opening of vaccine eligibility to all should help even things out a bit as well. It is up to all providers to do their part.

Booze to go set to go

Good.

The Texas House has passed legislation that would allow restaurants to sell alcohol to go beyond the coronavirus pandemic.

The chamber signed off on House Bill 1024 to permanently allow beer, wine and mixed drinks to be included in pickup and delivery food orders and secure a revenue stream made available to restaurants in the last year in an effort to help those businesses when they closed their dining areas.

Initial approval of the bill came Wednesday, and a formal approval came a day later by a 144-1 vote. The legislation will now head to the Senate, where a version of the measure must still be approved by a committee before it can be considered by the full chamber.

Gov. Greg Abbott originally signed a waiver last March to allow to-go alcohol sales. The waiver was originally to last until last May, but it was extended indefinitely. As lawmakers began their work during the current legislative session, expanding Texans’ access to booze picked up rare bipartisan support.

[…]

The new, permanent alcohol-to-go option could benefit the restaurant industry after it has faced an excruciating year during the coronavirus pandemic. According to the Texas Restaurant Association, 700,000 restaurant employees in Texas lost their jobs in the early days of the pandemic, and thousands of Texas restaurants have closed.

“The TRA is thrilled that restaurants are one step closer to offering alcoholic drinks to-go on a permanent basis,” the association said in a statement following the House vote. “Texans overwhelmingly support alcohol to-go, and the entire industry has rallied around the practice to ensure it is implemented safely.”

See here for the previous update. While nothing is ever certain, I expect this to breeze through the Senate, and we already know Greg Abbott supports it. I saw someone say on Twitter that we may not be able to get other things done but at least we’ll have drinks to go. I’m more upbeat about that – I think this will be a needed boon for the restaurants, and anything that brings us a step closer to dismantling the ridiculous tangle of alcohol laws we have in this state is a positive – but I do recognize that this is likely one of the few laws we’re going to get this session that’s actually worth celebrating. May as well enjoy the wins where you can, there ain’t gonna be many of them.

Astros aim for half-full

To start out with.

The Astros are expanding their previously planned attendance numbers at Minute Maid Park to start the regular season but will not exceed 50 percent capacity during April, senior vice president for communication and marketing Anita Sehgal said on Monday.

Single-game tickets are scheduled to go on sale Wednesday for 14 home games in April, including the April 8 home opener against the Oakland A’s and the return of former manager A.J. Hinch with the Detroit Tigers from April 12-14.

Season-ticket holders had until March 18 to choose one of four options the ballclub presented them earlier this month in the wake of Gov. Greg Abbott’s orders to reopen the state. On the day Abbott’s executive order took effect, the Texas Rangers announced Globe Life Field would open at 100 percent capacity for opening day on April 1.

Before Abbott allowed all businesses to perform at 100 percent capacity, the Astros were preparing to start the regular season at around 25 percent capacity — 10 to 12,000 people — at the 41,168-seat stadium. Earlier this month, Sehgal said the Astros “were not planning” to fill Minute Maid Park to 100 percent capacity in April.

On Monday, Sehgal said “generally, about half” of the season-ticket holders opted to remain in their seats, where social distancing cannot be guaranteed. For April games, season-ticket holders had the option of remaining in their seats, relocating to a socially-distanced section in the ballpark, pausing their accounts or donating their tickets to front-line workers.

“It didn’t have a significant impact, it just validated our plan,” Sehgal said of the season-ticket holder response. “Our plan has always been to ensure we were responsible and to ensure we had an enjoyable and safe experience. Their response sort of helped validate that we didn’t want to exceed 50 percent capacity (in April).”

[…]

Even if April weather is ideal enough for the Astros to open Minute Maid Park’s retractable roof, the team is comfortable closing it despite the ongoing pandemic. Outdoor air is pumped into the ballpark even when the roof is closed, allaying any concern about a large gathering in an indoor facility.

See here for the background. It doesn’t matter to me because I have no plans at this time to attend large gatherings, but I would have counseled the Astros to keep the roof open as much as possible if the weather permitted. Maybe that’s a false sense of security, since the real risk is in the concourses, especially during entry and exit, but I’d still want to minimize where I could. I’ll be waiting till most of the people in attendance will have been vaxxed. We’ll see if there are enough people to make this higher attendance limit a relevant concern.

The vaccination eligibility list is about to be wide open

Go ahead and get on it, though be prepared to wait as the supply issues work themselves out.

Everyone age 16 and older, regardless of occupation or health status, will be eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine in Texas starting March 29, state health officials said Tuesday.

The Texas Department of State Health Services is still asking providers to prioritize appointments for people who are 80 and older, and to prioritize walk-ins from anyone in that age group who shows up without an appointment. The vaccines are not limited to Texas residents, and citizenship is not a requirement for the vaccine.

“We are closing in on 10 million doses administered in Texas, and we want to keep up the momentum as the vaccine supply increases,” said Imelda Garcia, DSHS associate commissioner for laboratory and infectious disease services and the chair of the state’s Expert Vaccine Allocation Panel.

Until now, eligibility for the vaccine was mainly restricted to a few groups: health care workers, people ages 50 and older, those with certain underlying health conditions who are 16 or older, and employees of schools and day care centers. Texas began receiving vaccines in mid-December.

The vaccine is still in short supply as the announcement makes about 22 million people eligible on Monday. The state has been allocated more than 14 million doses since distribution began in December — far short of the supply needed to fully vaccinate everyone right away.

[…]

The state is also launching a website next week for people to sign up for vaccines at public health centers and state-run clinics. The Texas Public Health Vaccine Scheduler will alert participants to upcoming events and available appointments. For those who do not have access to the internet, the state will also be creating a hotline for appointments by phone, officials said.

The DSHS has more on Twitter. Great news for those who have not yet been eligible, though as we have previously discussed it’s not necessarily great for the distribution effort or for vaccine equity. All states were mandated by President Biden to make the vaccine generally available by May 1, so this is just getting a one-month head start on that.

County Judge Lina Hidalgo calls this a milestone moment.

“Opening vaccine eligibility vaccines to every adult is a key milestone in our fight against COVID-19,” Hidalgo said. “The onus is now on each adult to do their part. This vaccine is safe and effective, and the faster we all get a vaccine the sooner we’ll be able to pull through this crisis, get our economy running at full speed, and get life back to normal.”

Many experts have continued to raise concerns about unequal access to vaccines, particularly among low-income communities.

Rice University health economist Vivian Ho said the opened eligibility could help on that front because public health agencies will be able to, for example, vaccinate all workers at a grocery store.

“Now you can say we are going to go to workplaces, because there’s no age limit,” she said.

Conversely, Ho said, the announcement will do little to convince people who have already decided not to get vaccines, namely in communities outside of major cities.

Opening eligibility criteria will clear confusion for many communities who have hesitated to get a COVID-19 vaccine because of constantly changing age and medical condition restrictions, said Luis Torres-Hostos, dean of the University of Texas – Rio Grande Valley School of Social Work.

Torres-Hostos, who has worked with his university to get the message out to Latino communities, is hopeful public health officials will have more luck with immunization with these changes.

“Where are the vaccine deserts? Where are the places where it’s really hard for members of the community to get their vaccine?” he said. “We’ve got to do something to make sure that the vaccine is being given there.”

However, even his optimism comes with a caveat. Expanded criteria will only fix inequities if it comes with increased vaccine supply.

Communities of color and low-income communities are not hesitant to get the vaccine; a recent poll by the Kaiser Family Foundation finds 7 in 10 Hispanic people surveyed have received or want to book an appointment for a COVID-19 vaccine.

“If we build it, they will come,” Torres-Hostos said.

I sure hope this will help with the inequity issue, and I agree it will clear up any lingering confusion. We’ll look for that DSHS website when it’s up (and hopefully doesn’t crash). Y’all get yourself – and anyone you know who might need some assistance – in line for the vaccine.

“Normal” bus service is on the horizon

Isn’t it great to imagine the return of “normal”? It’s coming for Metro riders.

Having sharply reduced service and staffing during the pandemic, Metro officials now are readying for higher demand when school populations return to normal and downtown businesses call workers into the office.

“They are expecting a major return in August,” said Jim Archer, director of service planning and scheduling for Metropolitan Transit Authority.

That means Metro will spend the spring and early summer hiring bus operators and mechanics as it prepares to resume full service even as many realities of mass transit remain uncertain.

One looming concern is how to meet rising demand as daily trips increase from about 125,000, based on February numbers, to the 280,000 or more Metro carried prior to the COVID pandemic, while still providing for social distancing.

The issue is one of space on buses, if existing distancing requirements remain. Buses that could ferry 40 seated riders now have available space for 16.

As a result, meeting pre-pandemic demand under COVID conditions would be impossible with Metro’s fleet of approximately 700 40-foot buses and 90 60-foot articulated buses.

“There is a point at which we run out of buses and run out of operators,” Archer said.

Metro officials said it remains unknown how many drivers and mechanics the agency would have to hire and when they would be needed.

“Our operations team is still evaluating what ‘normal’ service will look like in August, given the many public health protocols that will, no doubt, still be in place,” Metro spokeswoman Tracy Jackson said.

August is targeted both as a reasonable point at which to expect a significant level of vaccinations, and thus maybe offices opening again, and also because it’s when school starts up. It’s hard to say exactly how much bus service will be needed – Metro has basically been running weekend schedules for the past year – but it’s safe to say that it will be more than what is needed now. No matter how you look at it, it sure is nice to think about.

Have you been pining for another Hotze/Woodfill lawsuit?

Well, then today is your lucky day.

Not that kind of face mask

Texas Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller and conservative activist Dr. Steven Hotze, a prolific litigant, are suing Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick for requiring COVID-19 tests for entry into the Texas Senate gallery and committee hearings.

In the 18-page suit filed in Travis County court, Miller and Hotze argue the Senate rule violates the Texas Constitution and Open Meetings Act and ask the court to block the rule. Patrick’s spokesman did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

“Gov. Abbott is opening up businesses while Patrick is shutting down the people’s access to their government,” the plaintiffs’ attorney Jared Woodfill said in a statement.

Members of the public wishing to view proceedings must receive a wristband that indicates a negative COVID-19 test. The rule was established to prevent the spread of the virus at the statehouse, which proved to be hotspots in other states.

[…]

The lawsuit says the Senate rule “unreasonably restricts speech” by mandating a “medical procedure as a prerequisite” and violates the right to free speech guaranteed by the Texas Constitution.

“The constitutional mandate that the legislative session be ‘open’ supersedes any statutory emergency authority that may otherwise apply to the Senate,” the suit reads, noting Hotze had tried to enter on March 2 but was denied entry when he refused a COVID-19 test.

See here for some background. I couldn’t find a copy of the lawsuit online, but Jasper Scherer has an image of the first four pages. In the name of preserving my sanity, I did not read them. One does not have to be a lawyer to think that the “free speech” argument here is a stretch, though maybe there’s something to the open meetings claim. I’ve got better things to worry about, so we’ll see what the courts make of it. We know what their recent track record is, I’ll just leave it at that.

How fast was too fast?

When it came to COVID vaccine eligibility, states that took their time expanding the pool of people who could get the shots have done a better job actually getting shots into arms than the states who rushed to broaden their list.

Despite the clamor to speed up the U.S. vaccination drive against COVID-19 and get the country back to normal, the first three months of the rollout suggest faster is not necessarily better.

A surprising new analysis found that states such as South Carolina, Florida and Missouri that raced ahead of others to offer the vaccine to ever-larger groups of people have vaccinated smaller shares of their population than those that moved more slowly and methodically, such as Hawaii and Connecticut.

The explanation, as experts see it, is that the rapid expansion of eligibility caused a surge in demand too big for some states to handle and led to serious disarray. Vaccine supplies proved insufficient or unpredictable, websites crashed and phone lines became jammed, spreading confusion, frustration and resignation among many people.

“The infrastructure just wasn’t ready. It kind of backfired,” said Dr. Rebecca Wurtz, an infectious disease physician and health data specialist at the University of Minnesota’s School of Public Health. She added: “In the rush to satisfy everyone, governors satisfied few and frustrated many.”

The findings could contain an important go-slow lesson for the nation’s governors, many of whom have announced dramatic expansions in their rollouts over the past few days after being challenged by President Joe Biden to make all adults eligible for vaccination by May 1.

[…]

In retrospect, health workers and nursing home residents were the easy groups to vaccinate. Doses could be delivered to them where they lived and worked.

“We knew where they were and we knew who they were,” Wurtz said. As soon as states went beyond those populations, it got harder to find the right people. Nursing home residents live in nursing homes. People 65 and older live everywhere.

West Virginia bucked the trend with both high numbers of eligible residents and high vaccination rates in early March, but the state started slow and built its capacity before expanding eligibility.

Similarly, Alaska maintained a high vaccination rate with a smaller eligible population, then threw shots open to everyone 16 and older March 9. This big increase in eligible adults near the end of the period studied led the AP and Surgo Ventures to omit Alaska from the analysis.

The analysis found that as of March 10, Hawaii had the lowest percentage of its adult population eligible for vaccination, at about 26%. Yet Hawaii had administered 42,614 doses per 100,000 adults, the eighth-highest rate in the country.

Thirty percent of Connecticut’s adult population was eligible as of the same date, and it had administered doses at the fourth-highest rate in the country.

In contrast, Missouri had the largest percentage of its adult population eligible at about 92%. Yet Missouri had dispensed 35,341 doses per 100,000 adults, ranking 41st among the states.

Seven states in the bottom 10 for overall vaccination performance — Georgia, Tennessee, Texas, Florida, Mississippi, South Carolina and Missouri — had larger-than-average shares of their residents eligible for shots.

Among high-performing states, five in the top 10 for high vaccination rates — New Mexico, North Dakota, Connecticut, Wyoming and Hawaii — stuck with more restrictive eligibility. Another two high-performing states from the top 10 — South Dakota and Massachusetts — were about average in how many residents were eligible for vaccine.

I’m sure we’re all shocked to see Texas at the wrong end of the list. Focusing on older people made sense in that they are at a higher risk of death, but a lot of them also had issues with the online tools they had to use to get an appointment. I still think that an approach of putting grocery workers and restaurant employees and school staff in Group 1B would not only have been a better prioritization of the risks, but also would have resulted in a higher percentage of people getting vaccinated, for the same reason as with the health care workers and nursing home patients: We know where they are, and we can deliver it to them via their workplace. That’s not the approach that Texas and many other states took, and the end result was that people with better Internet skills and/or more robust health care providers wound up getting ahead of everyone else. Not much we can do about what has already happened, but we really should keep it in mind as we move forward. Otherwise, we’ll just get more of the same.

COVID vaccination road trips

It’s a thing that happens.

With more vaccine supply flowing into Texas, the statewide mask mandate rollback and businesses reopening at 100 percent capacity, some Houstonians unable to get a COVID-19 vaccine close to home are making the drive two hours east to get their doses. More than 2.3 million people live in Houston, but the city and Texas Medical Center are only able to administer 232,000 doses a week.

And demand is only growing: Starting Monday, those 50 and older are eligible for a COVID-19 vaccine in Texas.

While Hardin, Orange and Jefferson counties are still prioritizing residents 65 and older, they’re now accepting vaccine appointments for anyone, even out-of-towners, according to county officials. While interest has dropped off from locals, they sought to keep their tens of thousands of doses from going to waste.

Dr. Jana Winberg, the Hardin County Health Authority, said people come from surrounding areas, like Houston, to get their shot in Hardin County. But that doesn’t take away vaccines from county residents.

“We are still finding ways for people who want to get the shot to get in those slots,” she said.

[…]

As of March 1, Hardin County opened registration to the public regardless of eligibility criteria, telling the Beaumont Enterprise that they had an “extremely low” turnout for vaccine appointments, said Hardin County Judge Wayne McDaniel.

The Hardin County Health Department manages Orange County’s vaccines, but both are part of the Southeast Texas Regional Emergency Operations Center (SETROC) vaccine distribution hub, Winberg said.

Divvying up the area’s vaccines between Jefferson, Hardin, Jasper, Newton and Orange counties depends on which location can give the shots in a timely fashion, she said.

Hardin County has fewer than 60,000 people, and neighboring Jasper County is smaller at 35,500, Winberg said. One week in February, the county received 300 doses and fewer than 100 people made appointments.

Rather than have the Moderna vaccines sit in refrigerators, Winberg said they would prefer to bring doses to those who want them.

I know a couple of people who have done this, and I have no problem with it. If anything, it shows that there should be more vaccines distributed to the larger counties. Hopefully the supply will continue to ramp up so that fewer people will feel the need to do this. (Especially now that everyone will be eligible for a shot starting on Monday.) Until then, everyone getting a vaccine who seeks one out is a good thing, however it’s done.

The vaccination rate keeps inching up

Making progress.

A quarter of Texas residents 16 and older have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine as of Wednesday afternoon, state data shows.

A Chronicle analysis found that the first dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech or Moderna vaccines, or a Johnson & Johnson vaccine, has been administered to more than 5.6 million people, accounting for 25.4 percent of adults over 16.

About 2.9 million Texans have been fully immunized against COVID-19, according to the data. More than 8.4 million doses have been administered.

Harris County is at 23.98 percent as of Wednesday afternoon, which means the area is poised to hit the 1-in-4 milestone this week as well.

As the story notes, greater supply of the vaccine (thanks to the authorization of the Johnson & Johnson one-shot vax) and more vaccination centers being opened have contributed to the steady rise in people getting the shot. More people will be officially eligible for it on Monday, so hopefully that trend will accelerate even more. Get your appointment and your shot at your first opportunity to do so.

Austin mask mandate enforcement still in place for now

No ruling, just a delay for a fuller hearing.

Best mugshot ever

Austin and Travis County officials can continue enforcing their mask mandates after a district judge delayed action on the Texas attorney general’s request to immediately stop the mandates.

That means city and county officials can continue to require masks until at least March 26, when District Judge Lora Livingston will hold a trial.

“People have been wearing masks for a year. I don’t know that two more weeks is going to matter one way or the other,” Livingston said during a Friday hearing, according to the Austin-American Statesman, which first reported the news.

[…]

Paxton’s lawyers pushed for an injunction hearing Friday, but Livingston said it wouldn’t be fair to give the defendants only a day to prepare, the Statesman reported. Livingston said after she hears arguments March 26, she’ll rule the same day.

Travis County Judge Andy Brown counts the two-week delay as a win. It buys the area some time to keep requiring masks while residents get vaccinated. It will also keep the mandate through most schools’ spring break holidays.

Abbott’s latest order states “no jurisdiction” can implement local restrictions, except a county judge and only when hospitalizations in a region exceed 15%.

“This case raises a pressing question: who is ultimately responsible for responding to the COVID-19 pandemic and other emergencies?” Paxton’s attorneys wrote in the lawsuit. “The Texas Disaster Act charges the Governor—not an assortment of thousands of county judges, city mayors, and local health officials—with leading the State’s response to a statewide emergency.”

But Brown and Adler argue that local public health officials maintain the authority to create orders on the local level to protect their community from pandemics. It’s different, they argued, from using emergency powers.

Brown said if the judge rules differently, it will have “huge ramifications” on local government moving forward.

Local government needs to be able to move quickly on issues of public health, he said, emphasizing that it’s “the whole point of the way our state government is set up.”

See here for the background. I certainly agree with Andy Brown about the ramifications for local governments, but it’s not like this is a surprise. Our Republican-dominated state government has been very clear about its priorities with respect to cities and (Democratic) counties. This is and will be just another example of that.

In the comments to the earlier post I was asked what would I have Austin and Travis County do about this. My deeply unsatisfying answer is that there isn’t anything they could do right now. The law and the courts are against them, and there isn’t even a symbolic win available. Paxton will prevail in court, very likely in swift fashion, and he’ll gloat about it. The only thing that can be done is to work extra hard to elect a better state government in 2022. Nothing will change until that happens. Believe me, I wish there were a better answer.

Take me out to the ballgame?

I don’t know about you, but I’m not ready for this.

The Texas Rangers plan to open Globe Life Field to a full-capacity crowd of 40,518 for their final two exhibition games and their regular-season home opener on April 5.

Masks will be required for all fans when not eating or drinking, the team said. Distancing will be enforced at concession lines and retail locations.

Certain locations of Globe Life Field will be designated “distanced seating” sections for other home games to allow for more space between seats, the team said.

Rangers president of business operations and chief operating officer Neil Liebman repeatedly referenced Texas Governor Greg Abbott’s decision last month to open the state to full capacity. Executive vice president of ballpark operations Rob Matwick pointed to the fact that Globe Life Field has been hosting events since last May, including the NLCS, World Series, National Finals Rodeo and multiple local graduations.

As to the scalability from those limited-attendance events to full capacity, Matwick said the team will rely on “voluntary compliance” from fans to adhere to social distancing and mask-wearing requirements, and that the roof would be open, barring rain.

Yeah, that would be a No from me. Having the roof open makes it a little better, but “capacity crowd” and “social distancing” do not go together, and that’s even without considering how many folks will be maskless. The college football experience has not taught some people anything, it would seem. Look, I understand why MLB teams want to have fans in the stands, and when your governor says that anything goes, it’s hard to resist. I’ll wait till the national vaccination rate is above fifty percent, maybe higher.

Our hometown nine is being slightly more cautious, at least for now.

Although Texas’ relaxed coronavirus regulations now allow it and the Rangers are planning for a full stadium on opening day, the Astros are currently “not planning” to fill Minute Maid Park at 100 percent capacity in April, senior vice president of marketing and communications Anita Sehgal said Wednesday.

In an email sent to their season ticket holders Wednesday, the Astros introduced a phased approach that, depending on demand, could increase their originally planned 25 percent capacity for the April 8 home opener against the Oakland A’s. Phase 1, the only phase described in the email, covers Houston’s 14 home games in April.

At almost the same time the Astros sent their email to season ticket holders, the Rangers stunned many people inside and outside baseball by announcing Globe Life Field will operate at 100 percent capacity for their two March exhibition games and April 1 season opener.

“Our focus was never to operate the building at 100 percent in April,” Sehgal said. “At this point in time, we are not planning for 100 percent in April.”

[…]

For their 14 home games in April, the Astros presented season ticket holders four options: keeping their existing seats, relocating elsewhere in the ballpark to ensure social distancing, pausing their accounts for April or donating their April tickets to health care workers or first responders.

If season ticket holders keep their existing seats, the Astros cannot ensure social distancing around them. Socially distant seating locations will be placed around the ballpark, but demand will dictate how many seats are available.

“It will be somewhat dependent on what our season ticket holders decide to do,” Sehgal said. “We got input from our season ticket holders in order to come up with this plan, and as they choose whether to move to a socially distanced area or stay in their seat, if we have a high demand for the socially distanced area, we will adjust accordingly.”

The team surveyed its season ticket holders about their attendance preferences earlier this month and received one of the largest responses in recent franchise history. Before Abbott reopened the state, the Astros were prepared to have “around 25 percent” capacity inside the 44,000-seat stadium for their home opener April 8.

“We really do not know what our capacity will be for April,” Sehgal said. “We know that our No. 1 priority is to make sure people come to Minute Maid Park and have an enjoyable, safe experience.”

Campos is a season ticket holder, and he chose the “Pause” option, which is what I’d do in that situation. It’s fine for them to gradually increase capacity over time, as more people get vaccinated, and the Astros are still requiring masks (again, at least for now; the Rangers are also requiring masks), which helps. As with the maskless mandate, all that was needed here was to wait a little longer. I don’t get what the Rangers are doing. I just hope they don’t cause another spike in the COVID rate up there. Texas Monthly, which notes that the Rangers are an outlier among pro teams in Texas (and in MLB), has more.

What the American Rescue Plan means to Houston

First and foremost, no layoffs.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Houston and Harris County are expected to receive more than $1.5 billion through the stimulus bill approved by Congress Wednesday, providing a massive cash injection that city officials say will help close a budget shortfall widened by the pandemic for the second year in a row.

The measure provides local governments with their most generous round of COVID-related funding yet, and it comes with fewer spending restrictions than last year’s aid. Houston will receive an estimated $615 million, putting the city at more than $1 billion in direct federal relief during the pandemic, while Harris County is projected to receive $914 million — more than double its allotment from the first round of local aid last March.

“I’m hopeful and optimistic that we will be able to use this money to, essentially, bail the city out of a very dire financial situation,” said City Controller Chris Brown, who monitors the spending of Houston’s more than $5 billion city budget.

[…]

Local governments will receive half their federal aid within 60 days of Friday, when President Joe Biden will sign the bill into law, according to White House press secretary Jen Psaki. They will receive the second half of the funds at least a year later.

That means Houston will receive more than $300 million to offset its revenue losses next fiscal year, along with any potential shortfall before the current fiscal year ends June 30. [COVID recovery czar Marvin] Odum said the city finance department is projecting a budget gap of between $160 and $200 million next year, while Brown — whose office generates its own estimates separate from Turner’s administration — said he expects the shortfall to be even higher.

Brown noted that while finance department projections assume the city will see a less-than-1 percent reduction in sales tax revenue this year, the actual decrease has been 7 percent.

“The (Turner) administration, I don’t think, has properly evaluated the reductions in sales and property tax,” Brown said. “There’s a $40 million variance between us and (the) finance (department) in sales tax alone.”

Brown estimated city officials will have to lay off about a dozen city employees for every $1 million trimmed from the budget, meaning Houston could have been looking at more than 2,000 layoffs without any federal aid.

Instead, Houston’s relief will far exceed its budget deficit. The city also is expected to devote a chunk of the aid to direct COVID relief, such as testing and vaccinations. Turner’s administration exhausted the previous round of aid, totaling $405 million, in December. Those funds covered contact tracing efforts, city workers whose jobs were consumed by COVID, and relief to renters and small businesses, among other areas.

As the story notes, the ARP aid comes with fewer restrictions on how the money can be used than the CARES Act did, though the city was able to plug its deficit last year with those funds as well. The need for more funding has been known for a long time, and it’s only happening now because of the Presidential election and those two Georgia Senate runoffs. Elections have consequences, y’all.

Is there really a primary threat to Abbott?

Maybe, but it’s not a serious one.

As Gov. Greg Abbott races to reopen all businesses and end mask mandates this week, it hasn’t been fast enough to defuse escalating political pressure from fellow Republicans who see Texas lagging behind other states in dropping COVID-19 restrictions.

For months, Abbott has taken barbs from conservatives who have held up Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis as a measuring stick to show Texas is reopening too slowly, fueling talk that Abbott will face something he’s never seen: a real primary battle.

“We are glad Governor Abbott is following the example of Governor Ron DeSantis of FL & Governor Kristi Noem of South Dakota & opening up Texas,” Texas Republican Party Chairman Allen West said last week on his social media accounts after Abbott announced that all businesses would be allowed to reopen to 100 percent this week.

That came days after DeSantis blew Abbott away in an early 2024 presidential primary test ballot at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Orlando, Fla. Asked who their top choice would be if Donald Trump doesn’t run, 43 percent in the straw poll picked DeSantis. Noem finished second with 11 percent. Abbott was the choice of less than 1 percent, finishing 21st among 22 potential candidates.

And then there was January when DeSantis himself was in Austin, less than a mile from the governor’s mansion, touting how he kept his state open despite criticism from the media.

“Florida is open,” said DeSantis, a guest at the Texas Public Policy Foundation at a time businesses in the region were barred from operating at more than 50 percent. “No restriction and mandates from the state of Florida whatsoever. We trust individuals.”

DeSantis lifted Florida’s restrictions in September — a full six months before Abbott made his move in Lubbock last week.

“Greg Abbott certainly is no Ron DeSantis,” former state Sen. Don Huffines, a Republican, said Saturday while standing in front of the Alamo to mark the 185th anniversary of that battle.

Huffines said between Abbott’s handling of the mass statewide power outages and his pandemic response, it is long past time for someone to challenge Abbott in a GOP primary.

“There’s a lot of issues that are going to be discussed in a primary, and those are just two of them,” Huffines said just before delivering a speech before almost 300 people in which he decried governments taking away people’s liberties.

Huffines isn’t ready to declare for the race but said he’s keeping his options open.

Just for clarity, Don Huffines is a one-term State Senator who lost his first re-election bid in 2018 by double digits. Others mentioned in the story include hair salon owner Shelley Luther, who lost her one election in the special for SD30, one of the reddest districts in the state; Jonathan Stickland, widely loathed State Rep who did not run for re-election in 2020; and Florida Man Allen West, a former one-term Congressman who is now somehow the state GOP Chair. If these are the potential opponents, then as someone once said, they’re not sending their best. I seriously doubt Greg Abbott is living in fear of any of these folks.

This story mentions three other potential candidates: Dan Patrick, George P. Bush, and Sid Miller. Patrick, who would be a legitimate threat to Abbott, has said he’s running for re-election. Bush, who would be a lesser threat, has been encouraged by some to run for AG instead. Miller is hard to take seriously in any context, but he’d be a greater threat than the first three. I’d be surprised at this point if any of them ran against Abbott, but I can’t rule it out completely.

I’ll say what I always say in these situations: No one is running until they actually say they’re running. I’m not a Republican and I claim no insight into what their base wants, but there’s no polling evidence at this time to suggest that Abbott is in any trouble with his base. As we have discussed, he is annoyingly popular. Dan Patrick could beat him – it would be a hell of a fight – but I doubt anyone else has a chance. I just don’t think anyone who could make a fight out of it will try. We’ll see.

Paxton sues Austin and Travis County over its mask mandate

Completely expected.

Best mugshot ever

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton is suing Travis County and Austin officials in an effort to force them to rescind their local mask orders, he announced Thursday.

“I told Travis County & The City of Austin to comply with state mask law,” Paxton tweeted. “They blew me off. So, once again, I’m dragging them to court.”

Texas on Wednesday lifted nearly all coronavirus restrictions, including Gov. Greg Abbott’s statewide mask mandate and occupancy restrictions. Abbott’s order said that “no jurisdiction” can require a person to wear a mask in public if the area doesn’t meet a certain number hospitalizations for the coronavirus. But Austin and Travis County health officials have said they will continue to enforce the safety protocols, setting the stage for yet another fight over pandemic response between state and local officials.

“[Travis County] Judge Brown and I will fight to defend and enforce our local health officials’ rules for as long as possible using all the power and tools available to us,” Austin Mayor Steve Adler said Thursday in a statement. “We promised to be guided by the doctors, science and data as concerns the pandemic and we do everything we can to keep that promise.”

[…]

Travis County Judge Andy Brown, who presides over the county government, said the authority to impose the local mask mandate comes from the county health authority, not from Brown’s emergency powers. Brown told The Texas Tribune on Wednesday that means the order should hold up in court.

“I listen to doctors, not to politicians like our attorney general,” Brown said.

As noted, Travis County and Austin extended their mandates on Wednesday, then Paxton sent them a letter saying basically “take that back or I’ll sue”. When they didn’t, he did. And look, no one holds Ken Paxton in greater contempt than I do, but he’s going to win this case. He may have to appeal it up a level or two to get there, but there’s just no way this story ends with the locals winning. I get the urge to defy the dumb order from Greg Abbott and to take a stand, but you gotta have a strategy and some reasonable expectation of achieving the outcome you want. This is not going to help.