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Bypass the GLO

Heck yeah.

All five members of Harris County Commissioners Court signed onto a letter Friday asking the local congressional delegation to ensure that future disaster relief bypasses the state government and goes directly to large counties.

The letter is the latest round of bipartisan outrage in Houston triggered by the Texas General Land Office’s decision last May to initially shut out the city and the county — the epicenter of flooding caused by Hurricane Harvey — from $1 billion in flood control dollars later awarded to Texas after the 2017 storm.

The letter suggests that Congress or a federal agency require future disaster relief go directly to counties with at least 500,000 residents, instead of being administered by state agencies.

The court’s two Republicans, Commissioners Jack Cagle and Tom Ramsey, joined the court’s Democratic majority — County Judge Lina Hidalgo and Commissioners Rodney Ellis and Adrian Garcia — in signing the letter. Cagle and Ramsey had been sharply critical of fellow Republican George P. Bush, who runs the GLO, after the agency declined to award any money to the city or county.

In the letter, the five court members wrote that a direct allocation of federal aid would “bypass potential bureaucratic delay caused by various Texas agencies and by other entities that will harm our ability to have quick and efficient implementation.”

They did not mention the GLO by name, though the letter was sent to Harris County’s nine-member congressional delegation one week after federal officials halted the distribution of nearly $2 billion in flood control funds to Texas because, they said, the GLO had failed to send in required paperwork detailing its plans to spend the money.

I mean, based on past experience, why would we want to do it any other way? The GLO isn’t just not adding value here, they’re actively reducing it. It’s not a surprise that even the Republican commissioners signed on to this.

On a more philosophical note, a lot of federal relief funds that are targeted at cities and counties and school districts and whatnot have had to go through the state first. For the most part, with COVID funds, the Lege mostly rubber stamped it without much fuss. I know there had been concerns with the pace at which Harvey recovery funds had been spent and homes were being repaired – indeed, there are still a lot of unrepaired homes after all this time – but it seems that a big part of that problem has been having multiple layers of government involved, which led to conflicts and delays and issues getting funds to the people who needed them the most. Indeed, that story also cites issues with the way the GLO interacted with the city of Houston. With COVID relief there were issues with unemployment funds having to go through rickety state systems, no direct way to get other relief funds to people who didn’t have bank accounts, and so forth. There are bigger issues, having to do with underlying infrastructure, that are a big part of this. But even factoring that out, putting states in charge of distributing federal relief funds to localities has been a problem. More so in some states than in others. I don’t know what we can do about that, given everything else going on right now. But we really should do something.

On the campaign trail again

It’s good to be back.

In the 2020 election cycle, many campaigns in Texas went fully virtual as the coronavirus pandemic, then a new and uncertain threat, bore down on the state. They held virtual rallies, phone banks and fundraisers, trading in clipboards and walking shoes for webcams and microphones.

As the weeks went on, though, Republicans resumed in-person campaigning and managed to stave off a massive Democratic offensive in November. Democrats later admitted that their decision to suspend door-knocking and other in-person activities hurt them.

Now, nearly two years later and with a new COVID-19 variant surging across the state, Democrats appear set on avoiding the same mistake. Few, if any, Democratic campaigns have gone fully virtual, and many are pressing forward with in-person campaigning while taking some precautions.

“Like everyone else across the globe, we are keeping a close eye on the Covid-19 Omicron Variant and assessing the risks associated with this surge,” Texas Democratic Party spokesperson Angelica Luna Kaufman said in a statement. “However, there is a lot at stake this midterm election and in-person campaigning will be a critical component to engaging voters and winning these races.”

She emphasized the country is “not in the same situation as we were in 2020.” Vaccines are widely available, and people are well-practiced in how to stay safe in public.

Still, the omicron variant looms large, and the campaign trail has not been immune to it. Some forums are still being held virtually, and candidates, staffers and volunteers are having to deal with the logistical challenges that come when one of them tests positive amid the fast-spreading variant.

[…]

Democrats’ most celebrated candidate this cycle, gubernatorial contender Beto O’Rourke, has been regularly campaigning in person since launching his bid in November. He has been holding larger events outside, and his campaign asks attendees to wear masks and encourages them to be vaccinated. The campaign has made rapid testing available to attendees at some events.

“Speaking with Texans one-on-one is at the heart of our campaign,” O’Rourke’s campaign manager, Nick Rathod, said in a statement. “After holding 70 events in 30 cities during the first weeks of our campaign, we remain committed to meeting Texans where they are and will continue to closely follow” public health guidelines.

O’Rourke’s first campaign event since omicron began surging in Texas was Saturday in El Paso. Attendees were told “masks are strongly encouraged regardless of vaccination status” and that they would be provided for those who need them. On event sign-up pages, attendees were also told that by attending, “you understand and accept the risks associated with COVID-19.”

O’Rourke’s campaign is already block walking, though those who volunteer to do so have to sign a “COVID-19 Block Walk Safety Agreement Form.” Among other things, the form requires volunteers to wear masks when not eating or drinking and maintain their distance from voters “at all times possible.”

O’Rourke was among the Democrats who lamented the party’s refusal to campaign in person ahead of the 2020 election. He had been deeply involved in the fight for the Texas House majority through his Powered by People group, which shifted virtually all its activities online because of the pandemic. Writing to supporters days after Republicans swept Texas in the election, O’Rourke said one of the lessons was “nothing beats” talking to voters “eyeball to eyeball” and that “there is a safe way to do this, even in a pandemic.”

Not much to add here. To whatever extent the virtual campaigning of 2020 led to lesser outcomes than we might have had otherwise, no one wants to do that again. Most in-person events right now are being done virtually, but that is temporary. I’m certainly ready to see a bunch of my political friends in person again, in our natural environment. To that, here’s a little song you might know:

Happy trails, y’all.

Why your recycling hasn’t been picked up yet

Short answer: Staffing shortages, exacerbated by COVID.

A staffing shortage in Houston’s solid waste management department is causing delayed and missed recycling pickups across the city, the agency confirmed.

The Solid Waste Management Department is trying to fill 45 vacancies for waste collectors, said department director Mark Wilfalk.

Wilfalk, who assumed the position two months ago, said he’s reevaluating staffing needs based on the city’s population growth and demand for services like recycling.

“I don’t know what that magic number is just yet,” he said.

In the meantime, the solid waste department has been skipping some recycling pickups to make up the difference from staffing shortages.

Recycling is skipped first. Then, yard waste is skipped if necessary. Garbage collection is prioritized for health and safety reasons, Wilfalk said.

[…]

In addition to the 45 driver vacancies that haven’t been filled, [Mayor Turner] said current municipal waste collectors are being recruited by private companies that offer higher pay for fewer hours of work. Houston waste collectors sometimes work six or seven days a week.

COVID-19 has also led to fewer drivers available to pick up waste. Turner said 370 or more solid waste management employees were out due to the virus on Monday.

“That number is increasing every day,” the mayor said.

The city is paying additional vendors to supplement solid waste operations. Turner said they’re offering overtime pay and retention bonuses in an effort to keep current employees. Waste collection was also put on a holiday schedule the last two weeks of December to give collectors some time off.

Ours was not picked up two weeks ago; it’s the second time in the last few months we’ve been skipped. I’m hopeful for today or tomorrow – where recycling was usually picked up on the same day as garbage, lately it’s been collected a day or two after. It is what it is.

Back to Code Red

Hopefully not for too long.

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo on Monday moved the county again to its highest COVID-19 threat level, her office said.

The announcement should be old hat for Hidalgo, who has moved to Level Red each of the past three calendar years.

“Unfortunately, today we find ourselves crossing a threshold we don’t want to cross,” Hidalgo said at Booker Elementary School in Spring ISD. “We are in the midst of another COVID-10 tsunami.”

She cited an explosion of new COVID-19 cases. She expounded on the dangers of the new Omicron variant. She pointed out that virus hospitalizations are increasing at a higher rate than ever.

Twenty-one months into the pandemic, a question looms: How many people are still listening?

Schools are back in session. Restaurants, bars, theatres and sports arenas are open to capacity. There are no county- or state-wide mask rules. Moving to Level Red does not change any of that; instead, it urges unvaccinated residents to stay home and avoid unnecessary contact with others. The decree is not enforceable.

[…]

Hidalgo has made warning the public about COVID-19 central to her messaging since the pandemic reached Texas in March 2020. For more than a year, she and county public health officials have cajoled, implored, exhorted, implored, advised, recommended, begged and even bribed residents to get vaccinated.

Hidalgo tried to remain optimistic, reasoning that getting more residents inoculated is the way to retreat from Level Red and never return.

“We can break that habit,” Hidalgo said. “I don’t want this always to be bad news.”

Growth of the county’s rate of vaccinated residents has slowed significantly. It now stands at 59.8 percent, up just 3.3 percent since before Thanksgiving. At this rate, 70 percent county of county residents would not be vaccinated until July.

See here for the previous time the threat level was raised. It’s a fair question whether anyone is still listening. I never really stopped wearing masks for indoor things like grocery shopping and ordering at restaurants – I eat outside if at all possible – but now I’m wearing KN95s instead of cloth masks. In my observation, we’re nowhere close to the levels of mask wearing we had a year ago, and few places are doing much about it. I guess we’re going to got for a low-rent version of herd immunity, at least for the short term. Better hope that the “milder” part of this strain holds up. More here from the Chron.

The hospitals are getting slammed again

Take precautions, y’all.

Pandemic forecasters in Texas say the state’s current surge of omicron infections and hospitalizations is likely to get much worse before it gets better, with hospitalizations expected to continue climbing for at least three weeks if social behaviors don’t change and slow the trend.

Across the nation, hospitalizations are already on the verge of breaking new pandemic records. In Texas on Thursday, according to state data, about 9,200 people were hospitalized with COVID-19 — far short of the record 14,218 hospitalizations from Jan. 11, 2021.

But with current numbers climbing exponentially each week, hospitalizations of Texans with COVID are likely to follow national trends and surpass previous levels in the state before they start to decline, said Anass Bouchnita, a researcher at the University of Texas COVID-19 Modeling Consortium, which uses data and research to project the path of the pandemic nationally.

The number of Texans testing positive for the virus every day is already at an all-time high, reaching a seven-day average of almost 44,000 confirmed cases on Friday. The seven-day average of new confirmed cases during the peak of the delta surge back in September was over 15,000.

That trend is likely to continue for at least another week, Bouchnita said.

“The situation in Texas is that it probably won’t reach the peak [for cases] until the second half of January,” he said.

Experts say the extremely high case count is why so many people are showing up in the hospital even as medical evidence suggests that the omicron variant — responsible for most new and active cases in Texas — is less severe than the previously dominant delta variant.

Bouchnita talked to The Texas Tribune on Friday, the same day the UT consortium released a report with the research team’s latest calculations about omicron’s projected path nationally. The report, which looked at eight scenarios in which omicron had varying degrees of severity, infectiousness and resistance to immunity, suggests the nation could see its new cases of this more contagious but less severe strain peak by mid-January before decreasing by half in early February.

The report called the current surge the largest COVID-19 wave in the United States to date.

[…]

Intensive care units at more than 50 hospitals are at 100% capacity, according to state reports, and some regions of the state, including El Paso, are reporting no ICU beds available in the area.

Already, the state’s children’s hospitals have more patients with COVID-19 in their beds than at any other time in the pandemic — 351 statewide on Thursday, which is higher than the last peak during the delta variant surge of 345 in early September.

“It’s pretty crazy,” said Frisco pediatrician Dr. Seth Kaplan, immediate past president of the Texas Pediatrics Society. “Our volume is way up.”

It’s mostly omicron now, very little delta in Texas, though there’s still a fair amount of delta in other parts of the US. It is true that omicron is less severe than delta, but it’s also true that it’s far more transmissible, and it’s affecting far more vaccinated people. Even with less severity, the sheer number of people being infected is driving the higher number of hospitalizations.

And while more vaccinated people are being infected by COVID, there’s still a big difference in outcomes between the vaxxed and the unvaxxed.

Omicron is sending a larger share of vaccinated people to the hospital that any previous COVID-19 variant, but unvaccinated people are still more likely to need critical care, according to Houston-area hospital officials.

Twenty-two of the 27 COVID patients in Harris Health System’s intensive care units are unvaccinated. At Houston Methodist, roughly 60 percent of the 80 COVID patients in the ICU are unvaccinated, and a high percentage of the remaining patients have underlying health conditions, said Dr. Faisal Masud, the hospital’s medical director of critical care.

It’s a similar story at St. Luke’s Health and Memorial Hermann Health System, both of which say 70 percent of ICU patients are unvaccinated.

“The vast majority of the people who are critically ill are either unvaccinated or have significant comorbidities,” said Dr. James McCarthy, chief physician executive at Memorial Hermann. “We are not seeing middle-aged, healthy, vaccinated individuals in the ICU like we did in the previous wave.”

[…]

Statewide, the number of patients in the ICU has been steadily rising since Christmas Eve, from 1,030 to 1,711 on Wednesday, according to the Texas Department of State Health Services. That’s about half of the patients in the ICU at the peak of the delta wave, but some Houston hospitals are already seeing ICU rates double over the last week.

The number of incoming ICU patients could exceed all previous peaks, said Dr. Esmaeil Porsa, president and CEO of Harris Health System. While the vaccines may not be as effective as they were initially, the current ICU population indicates that “they are still extremely effective against severe disease,” he said.

“More and more breakthrough infections are going to happen,” Porsa said. “We’re going to get a higher percentage of people who are vaccinated, but that number is never going to be a big number. It’s always going to be minority of people.”

Overall, doctors say omicron is not damaging the lungs as much as earlier strains. Fewer COVID patients in the Harris Health ICU require mechanical ventilation compared to delta, said Porsa, but other health issues like kidney and heart failure are becoming more common.

At Methodist, Masud has observed a similar pattern. A large portion of ICU patients Masud has treated ended up in the unit because the virus exacerbated an existing disease. The risk of facing such complications is higher for unvaccinated people, he said.

“This is eliciting an immune response, which is not only limited to lungs but which makes the patients sicker, with existing disease becoming much worse,” he said.

Masud said that now is a critical time to wear a well-fitted mask in public, especially for people who are not vaccinated.

It’s the same as before, in that the things you can do to mitigate your risk haven’t changed. Get vaxxed, and get your booster. Wear an N95 or KN95 mask when out with people. Avoid large indoor events and gatherings. Stay home if you’re not feeling well. This will pass, but how bad it gets before it passes is still up in the air. For more on the national picture, see TPM, Mother Jones, and Daily Kos.

Third Court of Appeals upholds Harris County mask mandate

Savor the win, for it’s off to SCOTx next.

A state appeals court on Thursday upheld a lower-court injunction that allowed Harris County to impose mask requirements despite Gov. Greg Abbott’s executive order banning such mandates.

The Austin-based 3rd Court of Appeals rejected arguments by Abbott and Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, who claimed state law lets the governor overturn local health mandates imposed to mitigate the spread of a dangerous virus.

Abbott hasn’t budged:Texas parents pleaded for Gov. Abbott to allow mask mandates in schools

“The Governor does not possess absolute authority under the Texas Disaster Act to preempt orders issued by local governmental entities or officials that contradict his executive orders,” said the opinion, written by Justice Chari Kelly.

The appeals court also said the disaster act does not allow, as Abbott and Paxton argued, the governor to suspend state public health laws that give local leaders the power to impose safety rules during declared emergencies.

“(The disaster act) does not give the governor carte blanche to issue executive orders empowering him to rule the state in any way he wishes during a disaster,” Kelly said in an opinion joined by Chief Justice Darlene Byrne and Justice Gisela Triana. All three justices are Democrats.

[…]

The appeal before the 3rd Court hinged on whether language in the Texas Disaster Act empowered Abbott to ban local rules enacted to protect public health.

Paxton and Abbott argued that the act:

• Designates the governor as “commander in chief” when addressing statewide disasters.

• Says local officials act as the governor’s designated agents during emergencies.

• States that executive orders issued under the act have the “force and effect of law.”

The appeals court, however, said Paxton and Abbott took the act’s provisions out of context.

The disaster law designates the governor as commander in chief of “state agencies, boards and commissions having emergency responsibilities” — not counties, Kelly wrote. In addition, nothing in the law limits the authority of county and local officials to respond to local disasters or public health crises, Kelly said.

“Even a statewide disaster may have distinct and disproportionate impacts in each of the state’s 254 counties and that, as a result, some measures for addressing a disaster in some counties may not be necessary or even appropriate in other counties,” Kelly wrote.

What’s more, she wrote, the disaster act lets the governor suspend “regulatory” laws that pertain to conducting state business. But Abbott sought to suspend a state law that lets local officials set public health rules in emergencies, and that law is not regulatory, the appeals court concluded.

“The Act empowers and recognizes that the Governor may issue statewide disaster declarations and that certain local officials may also issue local disaster declarations,” Kelly wrote.

“Nothing in the Act, however, suggests that these authorities are mutually exclusive,” she added.

As noted, the Third Court upheld a ruling issued in August by a Travis County district court. Note that there’s a second case, involving HISD and some other school districts, that was not part of this appeal. In this case, the three justices made the same points in the opinion that plenty of people, myself included, have been making all along about the Governor’s powers. Those judges are Democrats, and the judges on the Supreme Court are not, so we can’t just expect them to employ such thinking. Maybe they will, you never know, but you sure can’t assume it. For now, at least, the good guys have won. And even if SCOTx reverses this opinion, it’s still the case that Abbott and Paxton, by their own admission, don’t have the power to enforce Abbott’s no-mask mandate. Let’s not forget that.

Back to school

Sort of.

Roughly one-quarter of Houston ISD students were absent Monday, the first day back following the district’s winter break, according to the district.

District officials released figures Tuesday that showed 45,515 students were absent on Monday and 26,259 on Tuesday, resulting in attendance rates of 76 percent and 85 percent, respectively. The district’s average daily attendance was 95 percent in the 2018-19 school year, the latest figures available from the Texas Education Agency.

While the data did not include reasons why students missed school, the absences offered a clue about the potential impact of the COVID-19 omicron variant surge on schools as they resumed instruction following breaks in the Houston region.

One possible reason for the high absenteeism on Monday: At least in my house, we all thought school didn’t start until Tuesday the 4th. Most years, the first Monday in January is a teacher in-service day, so schools are open but not for students. That was not the case this year, and it wasn’t until we saw an email from the Superintendent on Friday that we realized our error. I would not be surprised if some number of families had made travel plans that didn’t have them back in town until Monday. Obviously, COVID diagnoses and exposure and plain old fear played a role as well, but the difference between Monday and Tuesday is big enough that I think failure to understand the schedule was a factor. Just a thought.

Now that we’re a week into the school year, my kids, at two different HISD high schools, did not say anything about having a lot of substitute teachers or empty classrooms or anything like that. HISD does still have its mask mandate, so maybe that has allayed some fears, I don’t know. The younger kid has finals next week, so I am hoping for as much normality as the fates will grant us. Fingers crossed.

Meanwhile, on a tangential note:

Houston Independent School District is calling on students and alumni for help to address the loss of learning its elementary students suffered due to challenges from the pandemic.

The district announced Wednesday that it is hiring 500 HISD students and alumni for spring semester tutoring positions at elementary schools throughout the district. The district is seeking students ages 15 and up and alumni currently in college for the position which pays $12 an hour, according to a release.

[…]

Student tutors will work in-person with shifts available during the school day, after school and on Saturdays, according to the release, and will be paired with a certified teacher for up to 20 hours a week to help third to fifth-grade students with core subjects like English, Math and Science.

The program begins in January and runs through the end of June, according to the release. Those interested should apply by Jan. 12 at apply.ieducateusa.org. No experience is required and the district welcomes all majors.

The HISD press release is here. Go check this out if you’re interested.

Three comments about three vaccine mandate news stories

Item one:

A U.S. district judge in North Texas has blocked a mask mandate and vaccine requirement for staff and students in the Head Start program that was issued by President Joe Biden.

Head Start is a federal school readiness program for young kids in low-income families that is administered nationally by the federal Health and Human Services department, but run locally by nonprofits or schools. Biden previously ordered that staff running Head Start programs must be vaccinated and all students over the age of 2 had to wear masks. Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton and Lubbock ISD sued the Biden administration to stop enforcement of that order.

U.S. District Judge James Wesley Hendrix, a 2019 appointee of Republican President Donald Trump, ruled Friday that the Biden administration could not enforce its mask and vaccine mandates for the Head Start program in Texas, although the mandates would continue in other states.

Hendrix wrote that the process by which the Biden administration implemented the mask and vaccine rules was in violation of federal law because such rules could only be put in place through a detailed process or with the authorization of Congress. The order applies until the judge holds a trial and issues a final decision on the full merits of the case, or if it is lifted by a higher court.

Item two:

In the state’s latest push against federal vaccine mandates, Gov. Greg Abbott on Tuesday announced plans to sue the Biden administration for requiring Texas National Guard members to get vaccinated against COVID-19.

The suit would be the latest in what has been a slew of litigation against federal vaccine mandates that Texas has either brought forth or taken part in during the pandemic.

In a letter issued Tuesday to Maj. Gen. Tracy R. Norris, the adjutant general of the Texas National Guard, Abbott claimed authority to exempt Texas guard members from receiving the vaccine.

Item three:

A federal judge in Fort Worth granted an injunction Monday against the Department of Defense and the Biden Administration that temporarily halted the U.S. Navy’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate.

The mandate is challenged by a group of U.S. Navy SEALs and other Naval special warfare personnel who say the mandate violates their religious freedom and they have been denied religious exemptions from receiving the vaccine.

U.S. District Judge Reed O’Connor of the Northern District of Texas signed the injunction order after hearing testimony from several Navy SEALs in December as part of the group’s lawsuit. The suit is against President Joe Biden, the Department of Defense, the Secretary of Defense and the Secretary of the Navy Carlos Del Toro.

My comments:

1. It is impossible to overstate how much Greg Abbott and Ken Paxton are on the side of the COVID virus. They themselves are vaccinated, because they are not stupid and want to stay alive, but they absolutely do not care how many people die as a result of COVID. They see only political advantage in making the pandemic worse.

2. They will always be able to find Trumpy judges to plead their cases to, and will generally get favorable rulings from them as a result.

3. The only way to stop the state of Texas from filing these lawsuits is to elect a Democrat as Attorney General. Electing Beto O’Rourke as Governor would also help, as he would be less likely to impose pro-COVID executive orders.

Any questions?

Corbevax gets its approval

Kudos.

The Peoples Vaccine
Image courtesy of Texas Children’s Hospital

Texas Children’s Hospital and Baylor College of Medicine today announced Corbevax — a protein sub-unit COVID-19 vaccine — has received approval from the Drugs Controller General of India to launch in that nation.

The vaccine has been developed in Houston by Dr. Peter Hotez, the dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine and co-director of the Center for Vaccine Development at Texas Children’s Hospital and Dr. Maria Elena Bottazzi.

Hotez called the approval “an important first step in vaccinating the world and halting the pandemic.”

[…]

Bottazzi and Hotez led efforts at Texas Children’s Hospital to develop the “initial construct and production process of the vaccine antigen.” After the vaccine was found to be “safe, well tolerated and immunogenic,” the Drugs Controller General of India granted emergency use authorization.

Corbevax completed two Phase III clinical trials with more than 3,000 subjects. The trials suggested a better immune response to the Ancestral-Wuhan strain of the virus as well as the delta variant compared to Covishield, which was developed by Oxford-AstraZeneca. None of the subjects showed severe adverse reactions to the vaccine; and adverse effects in the study were half of those from Covishield.

See here for the background. Vaccine supply isn’t a problem in the US and Europe but it is a problem in many parts of the world. We know very well that the more opportunities this virus gets to spread and mutate, the more chances it has to turn into something worse and more dangerous. Hopefully Corbevax can help close that gap. Kudos to all involved. Here’s the Texas Children’s Hospital page about Corbevax and its development, and CultureMap has more.

Back to school, kids

It’ll probably be fine. And honestly, there’s no appetite for anything else.

Most of Texas’ roughly 1,200 school districts will welcome students and staff back within the next week, even as other states debate whether to mandate vaccines for teachers and staff or even return to remote learning. Almost 1 in 4 COVID tests in Texan are coming back positive for the virus, and hospitalizations have increased by 1,613 patients compared with a week ago. As of Dec. 28, 4,917 Texans were hospitalized for the coronavirus.

As of Wednesday, there were 220 Texans under the age of 18 hospitalized for COVID-19, according to data from the Texas Department of State Health Services. That number has been increasing since Christmas. Texas saw the highest number of people under the age of 18 hospitalized for COVID-19 in early September, when it was at 345.

The omicron variant has been surging across the United States. So far, it has generally been less severe and deadly than the earlier delta variant. However, the federal government recommends that all children 5 or older get the vaccine.

At Cook Children’s Health Care System in Tarrant County, positive cases among children have climbed sharply since Dec. 21 — going from a 5.7% positivity rate to 22.1%. “We are seeing upwards of 400 positive COVID-19 cases among children per day,” Dr. Mary Suzanne Whitworth said in a statement. “This is similar to where we were in early September when delta was spreading rapidly in our area.”

Despite those numbers, education leaders have largely urged a return to regular in-person instruction, with precautions in place.

Superintendent Millard House II of the Houston Independent School District, the state’s largest, announced Wednesday that it will maintain its mask mandate and will start to offer free COVID-19 testing for students and staff.

“We are looking forward to adding this layer of protection to our COVID-19 mitigation strategies,” House said in a statement. “We remain committed to keeping our students and staff safe and working toward implementing strategies that can help us continue offering safe and sustainable in-person instruction.”

In Austin, the school district will continue to require masks on campus and will offer testing to students and staff and vaccination clinics for anyone 5 and older.

In an email sent to Austin parents, district administrators said they were keeping schools open because they were confident that mitigation strategies were working and because vaccines are now widely available.

“Our layered protocols work! We have been here before. We can do this. Our kids need the schools to stay open,” Superintendent Stephanie Elizalde wrote in the email.

She added that the Austin ISD would continue social distancing, serving lunches outdoors and using its advanced air filtration system to slow the spread.

HISD’s mask mandate has been a big success, though it hasn’t really been tested by omicron yet. If people are properly wearing appropriate masks, they can protect themselves pretty well. Better ventilation and doing whatever possible outside is helpful. I’d feel a lot better if a whole lot more kids were getting vaccinated, but maybe getting them back into schools will nudge a few more in that direction. Some universities have pushed back the start of in person classes for their spring semester in favor of online learning, but I just don’t see that as viable for the independent school districts, at least not at this time. Mask, ventilate, vax, test, and isolate as needed, and we can get through this. I’m hoping for the best.

Got to keep an eye on the hospitalizations

They’re up, but for now we’re still in reasonably decent shape.

More than 1,200 people were hospitalized for COVID-19 in the Houston area on Monday, according to data released by the state Tuesday afternoon. The Department of State Health Services reported that 1,224 people were hospitalized for COVID-19 in the nine-county region around Houston.

The figure comes one day after the state reported topping 1,000 hospitalizations for the first time since October as the delta wave tapered off.

The hospitalization rate represents a 93 percent increase over last Monday, when DSHS recorded 636 COVID hospitalizations in the Houston area. The surge corresponds with the rapid spread of the highly-transmissible omicron variant, which first appeared in South Africa in late November, and has swelled to account for more than 90 percent of local cases in recent weeks.

Houston’s hospitalizations are still well below their delta peak, which reached 3,500 on Aug. 24. But less than a week after Houston  logged its 300,000th case of COVID, data from the Texas Medical Center shows that local transmission is increasing at a steady rate.

The current transmission rate is high – basically, on average everyone who gets the omicron variant will pass it on to another two people – and our vaccination rates remain pathetically mediocre. Harris County is better than the state overall, but not by much. There’s still a lot of room for this thing to find vulnerable people. Use rapid tests, isolate if you get a positive result, and wear good quality masks. We really can get through this if we’re not too dumb about it.

HISD will not lift its mask mandate

Seems like an easy call at this point.

The Houston Independent School District will maintain its mask mandate and offer free COVID testing at campuses for students and staff in 2022, Superintendent Millard House II announced last week.

House previously said the district would review the mandate after the holidays. The largest public school district in the state, HISD remains one of the few school systems regionally with a mask requirement.

“In light of the surge of COVID-19 cases in Houston and the surrounding areas, HISD continues to prioritize safety, including providing additional vaccination and COVID testing opportunities,” House said in an email to parents.

The ongoing spread of the omicron variant, which has proven capable of evading some immunity from vaccines, has triggered a steep surge in cases nationwide. The average number of daily cases has more than doubled since Nov. 29, from 80,680 to 201,330, according to the New York Times COVID data tracker. The numbers are also climbing in Texas, which reported 10,600 confirmed new cases last Thursday, the highest total since Oct. 6.

HISD data only shows confirmed cases up to Dec. 17. The district reported 143 positive cases on that day, up from 22 on Dec. 10.

Starting in January 2022, the district will offer free COVID-19 PCR tests on campuses to HISD students and staff. A one-time consent is required for testing and can be filled out at the following link https://bit.ly/HISDC19Test.

See here and here for some background, and here for a copy of Superintendent House’s email. It was reasonable, back in November when things were looking good and Harris County was lowering its threat level to consider whether the mask mandate was still needed after the holidays. For obvious reasons, things have changed since then, and it would be more than a little unwise to take other action. If omicron burns itself out quickly, if the kid vaccination rate skyrockets, the district can consider the question again later. For now, there was no other call to make.

And by the way, isn’t it nice how HISD called Greg Abbott and Ken Paxton’s bluff on their mask mandate ban and threats to sue over HISD’s totally correct action? That has paid off in spades, and brings with it the extra zest of knowing we beat them fair and square. A whole lot more districts should have followed this path.

We need to get more kids vaccinated

C’mon, y’all. Now is very much not the time to be hesitant.

Most Houston parents have not rushed out to inoculate their children against COVID-19, new data show, the latest indication that achieving widespread immunity among the young may be a faraway prospect, even as case counts explode across the region.

Overall, about 85 percent of 5- to 11-year-olds in the nine-county Houston area have not yet received a COVID vaccine, according to tallies compiled by Texas Children’s Hospital. The remaining 15 percent have had at least one dose, the lowest rate among any eligible age range.

The figures are far below what health officials hoped to see nearly two months ago when the shots became available. In promoting the shots, public officials — including First Lady Jill Biden, who visited Texas Children’s Hospital in November to plug the pediatric vaccine — have struggled to reach the broad swath of parents who remain reluctant to vaccinate their children.

Dr. James Versalovic, the hospital’s pathologist-in-chief, said he hopes the arrival of the highly contagious omicron variant gives hesitant parents a renewed sense of urgency.

The doses are tailored for children and have a “tremendous safety record,” he said.

[…]

It is unclear whether the low rate of childhood vaccinations means the region has reached a saturation point, or whether harried parents simply have not had time to vaccinate their little ones.

“There’s not one specific reason why some parents haven’t vaccinated their kids,” said Jermaine Monroe, co-chair of Texas Children’s COVID Task Force. “We are trying to meet people where they are to help parents overcome their concerns.”

I’m sure the holiday season is a contributing factor, though you’d think it would also be an incentive, and there would be more opportunities with people off work. I hope this picks up in January, we really need to do everything we can to resist omicron. In my particular bubble, it seemed like most of the folks I know with kids in that age range got them vaxxed as soon as they could, but those I know who haven’t done that yet aren’t posting about it on social media, so I don’t have a full picture. Just, please, let’s get this going.

Simply having a COVIDful Christmastime

Sorry not sorry.

Houston has surpassed 300,000 COVID-19 cases, just days after the highly contagious omicron variant leapfrogged delta to become the dominant viral strain circulating in the region and around the United States.

The staggering milestone reached Thursday, when the Houston Health Department reported 2,397 new cases for a cumulative total of 302,460, underscores the virus’s ability to evade all attempts at containment nearly two years into a global pandemic few predicted would be this persistent or deadly.

“Twenty-one months ago I never imagined our cases would get anywhere close to this big,” Houston’s Chief Medical Officer Dr. David Persse said. “If you had told me 300,000 I would have politely told you, ‘I think you’re crazy.”

Yet the easily transmitted omicron variant, first detected last month in South Africa, appears poised to sweep the Houston area and is already fueling outbreaks and scuttling holiday plans across the region.

The milestone is almost certainly an undercount, Persse said. Prevalence studies have found between 20 and 25 percent of Houston residents carry the antibodies that indicated a previous COVID infection. Accounting for those who contracted the virus but were never tested could put the city’s true COVID case count closer to half a million people.

“It’s a lot of suffering,” Persse said.

Extrapolating out to Harris County, that’s something like 1.2 million people who have had COVID, maybe a bit more. Obviously, for a lot of those people the consequences have been fairly small so far, but who knows what the longer term effect may be. And of course, we’re in the early stages of the omicron surge. So check back again later to see where these numbers go.

This says a lot, too.

As the omicron variant of COVID-19 threatens to fuel another surge of infections this winter, the state’s vaccination data shows demand for booster shots has outpaced the demand for first doses of the vaccine in the last few months — even as millions of Texans remain unvaccinated.

The average number of people getting boosters in Texas every day has surpassed those getting their first shots since late September, according to the state’s data. As of Dec. 21, the daily average of Texans who received their booster shots over the last week was about 52,000 — compared with the approximately 20,000 who received their first doses.

So far this month, at least 1.2 million Texans have gotten booster shots — nearly triple the number of people who received their first doses of the vaccine during the same time.

Meanwhile, the number of people getting their first shot of the vaccine over the last few months has remained far below people getting boosters, though the rate of first shots slightly increased in November and December.

[…]

Booster rates have gone up as the Food and Drug Administration has gradually authorized their use among different age groups. Adults 18 and older are allowed to get booster shots, and this month, the FDA authorized emergency use for 16- and 17-year-olds who had the Pfizer vaccine as their initial two-dose treatment, making them eligible to receive the same vaccine as a booster.

Meanwhile, the amount of people getting their first vaccine doses has waned in the last few months as vaccines have become more widely available and more people take the next steps in their vaccination regime. The state’s data shows a slight bump in first doses in November as Thanksgiving approached.

Even so, 10 million Texans remain unvaccinated.

And while there isn’t one specific reason why first-dose rates lag behind booster shots, Dr. Emily Briggs, who specializes in family medicine and has seen the split in the demand for the vaccine from a private practice in New Braunfels, largely credits ideology.

“We are at that point of anybody who believes in science acknowledges that we have had benefit from this vaccine. Those who are politically motivated or have been given fear and are focused on that fear are not vaccinated,” she said.

The people who have taken this pandemic seriously and have done what they can to minimize their risk and protect their communities are continuing to do so. The people who have not done so are still not doing so. Same as it ever was.

Same as it ever was.

As other states are mobilizing to respond to the rapidly spreading omicron variant, Gov. Greg Abbott is not budging on his hands-off approach to the coronavirus pandemic that was cemented months ago.

In March, Abbott ended the statewide mask mandate, marking the beginning of a sharp shift toward preaching “personal responsibility” and an outright rejection of any government mandate — whether state or local — to curb the pandemic. That philosophy carried the state through the delta variant this fall, even as hospitals were overrun and deaths climbed. Now as the state stares down the latest variant, Abbott remains unmoved, continuing to rule out any mask or vaccine mandates and business shutdowns.

“We’re moving forward with life as we know it,” Abbott said Tuesday in a radio interview when asked about omicron.

[…]

Asked Tuesday what the state is doing to address omicron, Abbott’s spokesperson Renae Eze said in a statement that the governor recently got a briefing on the state response to the variant by John Hellerstedt, the commissioner of the Department of State Health Services, and Nim Kidd, chief of the Texas Division of Emergency Management. Eze otherwise gave no indication the state was doing anything differently, saying it was continuing to respond to the pandemic by “setting up therapeutic infusion centers, ramping up COVID vaccination efforts, and providing surge staffing and medical equipment to hospitals and nursing homes.”

Eze ended by calling vaccination the “best defense” against COVID-19 and encouraging Texans to get immunized.

Even as Abbott’s office says it’s prioritizing vaccines as the best defense against COVID-19, the state’s vaccination rate lags nationally. As of Monday, 56% of Texans were fully vaccinated, placing Texas in the back half of the 50 states when ranked by vaccination rates.

Abbott got vaccinated on camera late last year and has encouraged Texans to get the shot. But he does not go out of his way to promote vaccinations and he has expended much more energy in recent months fighting vaccine requirements by local and federal officials.

Abbott has been virtually silent on the booster, which the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said last month every qualifying adult should receive. The word “booster” has never appeared on Abbott’s personal Twitter account, and a spokesperson did not respond when asked whether the governor has received a booster.

I’m sure he has been boosted. Abbott is not an idiot. He’s a coward, but he’s not going to risk his own health and well-being. Same as it ever was.

The COVID College Football Playoffs

Wow.

If a team is unavailable to play in College Football Playoff semifinals on New Year’s Eve because of COVID-19 issues, the game will be forfeited and the available team will advance to the championship.

With COVID-19 cases spiking across the country due to the omicron variant, the CFP announced Wednesday contingency plans for the semifinals and national championship game, which is scheduled for Jan. 10 in Indianapolis but could be delayed as much as four days.

No. 1 Alabama is scheduled to face No. 4 Cincinnati in the Cotton Bowl in one Dec. 31 semifinal and No. 2 Michigan is set to play No. 3 Georgia in the Orange Bowl in the nightcap of the CFP doubleheader.

[…]

As college basketball faced a wave of cancellations and postponements due to the omicron surge over the last week, it seemed only a matter of time before it impacted bowl season.

“As we prepare for the Playoff, it’s wise and necessary to put into place additional precautions to protect those who will play and coach the games,” College Football Playoff Executive Director Bill Hancock said in a statement. “These policies will better protect our students and staffs while providing clarity in the event worst-case scenarios result.”

The contingency plans were agreed to by the CFP management committee, comprised of the 10 FBS conference commissioners and Notre Dame’s athletic director.

The CFP said each school will be responsible for determining whether it has a sufficient number of available players.

While there will be no rescheduling of either semifinal, the championship game could be delayed until as late as Jan. 14.

If a team cannot play in the title game, the available team will be declared national champion. If neither team has enough available players by Jan. 14, the championship will be considered vacated.

For the semifinals, if both teams scheduled to play each other are unavailable, that game shall be declared a no contest and the winner of the the other semifinal will be declared national champion.

If three semifinal teams are unavailable to play on Dec. 31, the team that is able to play will be declared national champion.

On the one hand, that’s the sober and safe and responsible thing to do. Much better to cancel the game than to put the athletes at risk, which includes a greater risk of injury if their team is especially short-handed. On the other hand, it’s completely bonkers, and I have a hard time imagining that the people with zillions of dollars at stake – the TV networks, the NCAA itself, the schools and conferences involved – will just let any of these games be canceled, whatever the consequences for playing them may be. As the story notes, the teams are working to get their players boosted, and are trying to keep them sufficiently isolated from outside contact, but all it takes is one guy getting sick to put it all at risk. ESPN and CBS Sports have more.

And just a reminder that this is a thing that could happen.

Texas A&M became the first college football team to be sidelined by COVID-19 and the recent omicron surge.

The Aggies will not play in the Gator Bowl on New Year’s Eve because of an outbreak that left the team without enough players, the school announced on Wednesday.

Texas A&M’s decision to withdraw from the game against Wake Forest comes amid a coronavirus surge across the nation and is the first impact on the college bowl season.

“It is unfortunate, but we just don’t have enough scholarship players available to field a team,” A&M coach Jimbo Fisher said.

I applaud Texas A&M for making the right choice, which I’m sure was not easy for them to make. But let’s not kid ourselves, the stakes are lower here than they would be in the CFP. Remember the “oh, shit” moment we all had when the NBA paused its season following Rudy Gobert’s positive test, and the NCAA tournament was canceled, and MLB spring training got postponed? That’s what we’re on the edge of here. Hope for the best, for everyone involved.

Our year in COVID

It was bad. How it is next year is at least partially up to us.

Speaks for itself (Source: DSHS)

Texas recorded a 35 percent increase in COVID-19 deaths in 2021, compared to the first year of the pandemic, even though vaccines have been available for all adults since March.

The climbing toll, public health experts said, is almost entirely driven by people who are unvaccinated. From mid-January through October, just 8 percent of Texas virus deaths were among inoculated residents.

Memorial Hermann Chief Physician Dr. James McCarthy said it makes sense there would be more virus deaths in 2021, the first full year of the pandemic, though the highly transmissible delta variant coupled with a low vaccination rate and the decline of safe practices made fatalities worse than they otherwise would have been. And as the ultra-contagious omicron variant spreads rapidly in Houston, the pattern could continue.

“The real reason it’s worse this year is we stopped all the mask-wearing protection activities we had with a large portion of the population still unvaccinated and vulnerable to infection, hospitalization and death,” McCarthy said.

Texas this year had recorded 42,100 virus deaths through Dec. 13, according to data from the state health department, compared to 31,309 in 2020. The pandemic was declared in March 2020.

The share of fully vaccinated Texans is 56 percent, the 29th-highest rate in the country. Its large population means Texas has more unvaccinated residents — 12.8 million — than any state except California.

Four of the six deadliest months of the pandemic in Texas were in 2021. The most populous cities and counties have had the most virus deaths.

[…]

At this pace, Texas would not reach 70 percent until late May of 2022, the Centers For Disease Control and Prevention projects.

Harris County is outperforming the state average vaccine rate. Through Dec. 16, 59 percent of county residents were fully inoculated.

In other words, there’s still a lot of room for the next surge to rip through and infect, hospitalize, and kill unvaccinated people. Vaccinated people will also get sick, but they will be far less likely to get sick enough to be in danger.

We’re not going to get any help from the state government. The federal government is making more tests available and has ordered vaccine mandates, which really will do a lot to improve things, but of course our state leaders are fighting them as if they had stock in COVID itself. I don’t have anything original to say, but do go read the Department of State Health Services report that provided a lot of these numbers. And do what you need to do to protect yourself and your family.

COVID puts NHL on pause

A bit of an ominous throwback.

The NHL is beginning a leaguewide shutdown Wednesday amid a rise in positive COVID-19 test results among players, and with 10 of the league’s 32 teams’ schedules already paused and their facilities closed.

The league announced Monday night that it will open its annual holiday break two days earlier than scheduled and have it run through Saturday. The decision, reached in coordination with the NHL Players’ Association, means five additional games scheduled for Thursday will be postponed, bringing the total this season to 49.

Two games slated for Tuesday are still set to go on as scheduled. Teams will then report back for COVID-19 testing and practice on Sunday, a day before games are set to resume. Players and members of each team’s traveling party will be required to test negative before being allowed back in their respective facilities.

The decision to begin the break early comes a day after the NHL and NHLPA issued a joint statement announcing they were attempting to avoid a leaguewide shutdown by making decisions on a team-by-team basis. The holiday break was previously supposed to run from Friday to Sunday.

Of the 49 games postponed, 44 have occurred over the past two weeks with the delta and omicron variants spreading across North America.

The story notes that about 15% of players are in virus protocol, which is a lot! Of course, when one player gets exposed, it’s easy for many others to be exposed as well. It’s big enough that NHL players will withdraw from the Olympics, which is a smart move for the league and bad news for anyone looking forward to Olympic hockey.

Meanwhile, the NBA is hoping to avoid a similar fate.

NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said Tuesday that there are “no plans” to pause the season, even as numbers of players entering the league’s health and safety protocols related to the coronavirus continues to rise.

Silver, in an interview with ESPN, said the league has examined multiple options but does not yet see a reason to stop play. Through early Tuesday evening, at least 84 players from 20 teams — not including some coaches and staffers — were believed to be in the protocols, though those numbers tend to change almost on an hourly basis. The count is largely based on what teams have disclosed on their most recent injury report.

“Frankly, we’re having trouble coming up with what the logic would be behind pausing right now,” Silver said. “As we look through these cases literally ripping through the country right now, putting aside the rest of the world, I think we’re finding ourselves where we sort of knew we were going to get to for the past several months — and that is that this virus will not be eradicated and we’re going to have to learn to live with it. That’s what we’re experiencing in the league right now.”

[…]

The NBA has postponed seven games so far this season, but none from Wednesday onward yet. Some of the teams scheduled to play on Saturday have numerous players and coaches in the league’s health and safety protocols right now; the Nets currently have 10 players on that list, which is the highest known figure for any team.

The league is allowing teams to sign replacements to hardship contracts when a player tests positive for the virus, with hopes such moves can minimize the need for postponements.

They have been shifting some game times around and may do more of that on Saturday – if your Christmas tradition involves a daylong basketball binge, you might want to check nba.com for the latest updates before tuning in.

Even with the games going on, there’s a real effect on the teams, as new players are being shuffled in to replace those who are sidelined. The NFL had two Tuesday night games yesterday, both COVID postponements, but with the Washington team starting a quarterback who had been signed off of the Patriots’ practice squad three days before. At a macro level, they’re making it work, but on a team-by-team and game-by-game basis, there’s more than a little ridiculousness to it all.

Not yet on the menu, as the Hang Up And Listen podcast discussed: Playing before empty stadia again. All these leagues have very highly vaccinated teams and team staffs, but for sure the same is not true for the fans. I seriously doubt there’s much appetite for this step, especially after the revenue losses from last season, but big crowds are exactly what we don’t need right now. Unless local governments do something, that’s what we’re going to get. Make better decisions, y’all. ESPN has more.

UPDATE: I should have also mentioned that European soccer leagues, especially the English Premier League, are also dealing with major COVID issues right now.

Back to threat level orange

Thanks, omicron.

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo raised Harris County’s COVID-19 threat level to “significant” Monday, as the number of infections rise sharply, sparked by the spread of the omicron variant.

“Level 2: Orange,” is the second-highest threat level in the county. While it falls short of suggesting that residents stay home under all circumstances, Threat Level 2 recommends that people minimize all uneccessary contacts in order to stem the flow of the virus.

“Unfortunately, the Omicron variant has arrived in Harris County in full force,” Hidalgo said in a statement. “These trends are understandably frustrating — especially as we close out the year with friends and family. But we can still blunt the force of this latest wave if we take action.”

New cases in the area have nearly tripled in the last week, with the Texas Medical Center reporting about 2,094 cases per day compared to about 721 the week before.

The COVID-19 testing positivity rate has jumped from 2.7 percent to 6.2 percent in that span, and hospitalizations at the medical center have grown from about 68 people per day to about 110.

As noted, it was less than one month ago that the threat level had been lowered to yellow. Those were the days, huh? And now we’re back to this.

Jayne Johnston broke the bad news on Saturday to her 6-year-old daughter: Theater Under the Stars’ production of “The Little Mermaid” was canceled.

“She was crushed because she was so excited,” Johnston says. “I made this big deal about her getting vaccinated. I’d told her, ‘You’ll get to go inside places again, but you’ll still have to wear a mask.’”

The mother-daughter duo had planned to see the 2 p.m. performance at the Hobby Center. At the time, another show was also scheduled for 7:30 p.m., but it was canceled, too.

“While we had hoped to resume performances on Sunday, we have confirmed a positive COVID case among our performing company,” said TUTS artistic director Dan Knechtges in a statement. “Our paramount concerns are for the health and safety of our artists and audiences. It does, regrettably, put us in the position of making hard decisions and cancelling performances this weekend. Performances will resume on Tuesday, December 21.”

The spread of the omicron COVID variant and the recent spike in cases is beginning to affect live theater, sports and other public gatherings in Houston.

[…]

Similar to TUTS, Alley Theatre’s guest services team alerted patrons on Saturday a person working on ‘A Christmas Carol’ tested positive for coronavirus. Ticket-holders can requests seats to a future show date through Dec. 29, or any future Alley production. Refunds are available, too.

“It’s disappointing because we’ve done so well this whole run of ‘A Christmas Carol,’” says Dean R. Gladden, Alley Theatre Managing Director. “We’ve done a lot to prepare, but the biggest thing you can’t prepare for is when it happens to you — you just have to deal with it.”

Gladden explains that his actors are already kept separate in respective bubbles. When someone tests positive for COVID, everyone — including production — has to provide negative results. That didn’t happen in time for Sunday’s performance. “A Christmas Carol” is expected to return to the stage on Tuesday.

“Patrons have been so understanding to know that it’s nobody’s fault. This is a very active variant,” he says. “We’re seeing this across the country. Performing arts are taking a hit, sports are taking a hit.”.

On Sunday, Rice University postponed a men’s basketball home game against University of St. Thomas due to COVID-related issues within the Owl’s program according to a statement. The women’s basketball team canceled Sunday’s game at Texas A&M University due to COVID issues, as well.

“With contract tracing, we didn’t have enough players to play the games. Basketball is a smaller team,” says Chuck Pool, Sports Information Director at Rice. There’s a slim chance both games could be rescheduled if the dates work out. “I can’t really speculate. These would’ve been our last games before Christmas.”

Not just colleges, and of course not just live theater:

Yesterday, a little after noon, the Dandelion Cafe posted a notice to its Facebook page. It echoed the sign newly posted on the door of this Bellaire breakfast staple: “Due to a rise in COVID cases, including several among our staff, we feel it is in the best interest of our staff, customers and everyone’s families to close until everyone can work and be in a safe and healthy environment.”

This unwelcome news was the leading edge of what is likely to be a spate of restaurant and bar closures over the holidays and into January, as the highly transmissible Omicron variant of COVID begins traveling through Houston on top of our current Delta wave.

COVID “seems to be picking up in the industry again,” bartender and diner-about-town Chris Frankel posted on Dandelion Cafe’s Facebook page today. “I’ve recently noticed a number of responsible, vaccinated colleagues testing positive and being stuck in quarantine.” Omicron’s ability to break through vaccine defenses is complicating the situation.

It sucks, but this is where we are now.

Houston doctors worry omicron could sweep the city just as families gather for the holidays. Omicron accounted for 82 percent of new symptomatic Houston Methodist COVID cases as of earlier this week, hospital officials said, and is on track to overtake delta as the dominant strain.

“This virus is better able to evade better the immune response we have developed through vaccination and natural immunity,” said Dr. Pedro A. Piedra, a virologist at Baylor College of Medicine.

Piedra estimates omicron will replace delta in the months to come. He is not alone in predicting an omicron wave, even as its severity remains a question mark.

Three weeks ago, Houston’s rate of transmission for coronavirus — a key indicator health officials use to gauge community spread — was 0.67, according to the Texas Medical Center. That means each person with the virus was likely to spread it to 0.67 people – nonviral, essentially. That rate has more than doubled as of last week, with a 1.58 rate of transmission.

The number of COVID-19 tests coming back positive in Houston has quadrupled since last week. Hospitalizations among children have doubled in four days.

The reason for omicron’s rapid ascent is written in its spike proteins, found on the surface of the virus that causes COVID. The variant contains a high number of previously unseen mutations that account for its ability to infect people faster and more efficiently than any previous iteration of the virus.

While scientists hurry to understand its properties, one thing is certain: its astonishing rise was months faster than that of delta.

“We have seen a rather dramatic shift,” said Dr. James Versalovic, pathologist-in-chief at the Texas Children’s Hospital.

You know the drill by now. Get your booster shot. Avoid large indoor crowds. Wear your mask – N95s are cheap and readily available now. Ventilate well. Use rapid tests and for God’s sake isolate if you’re positive. Minimize your risk and do what you can to protect others. We’re very much in a better place to avoid severe consequences, but we still have to be cautious. Yes, it sucks. The alternative is worse. Stace and the Press have more.

Biden employer vaccine mandate back on

For now, at least.

A federal appeals court panel on Friday allowed President Joe Biden’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate for larger private employers to move ahead, reversing a previous decision on a requirement that could affect some 84 million U.S workers.

The 2-1 decision by a panel of the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati overrules a decision by a federal judge in a separate court that had paused the mandate nationwide.

The mandate from the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration was to take effect Jan. 4. With Friday’s ruling, it’s not clear when the requirement might be put in place, but the White House said in a statement that it will protect workers: “Especially as the U.S. faces the highly transmissible Omicron variant, it’s critical we move forward with vaccination requirements and protections for workers with the urgency needed in this moment.”

[…]

“Given OSHA’s clear and exercised authority to regulate viruses, OSHA necessarily has the authority to regulate infectious diseases that are not unique to the workplace,” Judge Julia Smith Gibbons, who was nominated to the court by former President George W. Bush, a Republican, wrote in her majority opinion.

“Vaccination and medical examinations are both tools that OSHA historically employed to contain illness in the workplace,” she wrote.

Gibbons noted that the agency’s authority extends beyond just regulating “hard hats and safety goggles.” She said the vaccine requirement “is not a novel expansion of OSHA’s power; it is an existing application of authority to a novel and dangerous worldwide pandemic.”

She was joined in the majority decision by Judge Jane Branstetter Stranch, an appointee of former President Barrack Obama, a Democrat.

The case was consolidated in the 6th circuit, which is dominated by Republican-appointed judges. Earlier this week, the circuit’s active judges rejected a move to have the entire panel consider the case, on an 8-8 vote.

The dissent in Friday’s ruling came from Judge Joan Larsen, an appointee of former President Donald Trump, who said Congress did not authorize OSHA to make this sort of rule and that it did not qualify as a necessity to use the emergency procedures the agency followed to put it in place.

Larsen also argued that vaccinated workers “do not face ‘grave danger’ from working with those who are not vaccinated.”

Arkansas Attorney General Leslie Rutledge, a Republican, said she would ask the U.S. Supreme Court to block the order. At least two conservative advocacy groups said they had already appealed to the nation’s highest court.

“The Sixth Circuit’s decision is extremely disappointing for Arkansans because it will force them to get the shot or lose their jobs,” Rutledge said.

See here, here, and here for the background. Who even knew that it was possible to get a decent result from an appeals court? It appears the Sixth Circuit, or at least the two justices in the majority opinion, were perhaps not all that impressed by the ruling handed down by their Fifth Circuit colleagues.

Spicy. As noted, in the story, the death eaters among the Attorneys General, including our own, will be appealing to SCOTUS, so keep a firm grip on your expectations. For now at least, there’s a bit of sanity. Happy holidays and all that. Slate has more.

Mayor Turner tests positive for COVID

Get well soon.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner announced Friday he has COVID 19, putting him among a rising number of infections as the omicron strain of the virus begins to sweep the country.

“I was not feeling well overnight and thought I was suffering from allergies or a sinus infection, so I decided to get tested before starting my daily schedule,” Turner said in a statement released by his office.

[…]

Turner said he received his confirmation of the infection Friday afternoon. The specific strain of the virus infecting the mayor was not released. As with other recent cases among people less at risk, Turner reported his symptoms were mild.

“I will spend the next several days isolating myself at home and getting some rest,” he said.

Turner is vaccinated, received a booster in late October or early November and has spoken repeatedly about the value of the vaccines and the need for Houston residents to get vaccinated.

“Mayor Turner has been a steadfast partner in our work to address COVID-19 and to educate our community about the urgency of getting vaccinated,” Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo said in a statement. “I’m happy to hear his symptoms are mild and am looking forward to seeing him back out and about soon.”

Turner will follow Centers for Disease Control and Prevention protocols for isolating after a positive test, city officials said. CDC recommends anyone who tests positive — even those who are vaccinated — should isolate for 10 days, using the first full day of symptoms as a starting point. For Turner, that means if his mild symptoms do not worsen or go away entirely, Dec. 27.

“The mayor is a living example of the way to manage this,” [city of Houston chief medical officer Dr. David] Persse said.

Maybe this is omicron and maybe it’s not, but the reality is that with omicron more people who have been vaccinated will still catch COVID. The difference is that they will be much more likely to have a mild case that won’t require anything more than rest at home. The one bit of good news so far from Europe and South Africa is that while the case rates are skyrocketing, the hospitalization and death rates are not. The vaccine, especially when coupled with a booster or a previous infection, really makes the difference. Get your booster if you haven’t yet, y’all.

Here comes omicron

Ready or not.

Houston is seeing early signs of another wave of COVID-19 infections, fueled in part by a fast-spreading omicron variant, as public health officials warn of a nationwide spike in cases as early as next month.

The daily average of positive cases in the Texas Medical Center more than tripled last week, from 232 to 721, and Houston Methodist on Tuesday recorded nearly five times the number of positive cases in its system compared to the previous week. Harris County Public Health on Tuesday reported 483 new cases, the highest single-day total in more than two months.

The number of omicron cases in Houston detected through genome sequencing is small but rising, with Houston Methodist reporting 54 samples of the new strain Wednesday, compared to 31 four days earlier. The variant now makes up roughly 32 percent of cases in the hospital system, up from 13 percent on Saturday. Traces of omicron are also being detected at a growing number of city’s wastewater treatment plants.

With little data available in what is considered the early stages of the new variant’s spread, experts are uncertain about the degree to which it could overwhelm the healthcare system — a critical question in the months ahead. They are, however, growing more confident of an imminent swell of sickness.

“We’re going to have a wave. I don’t doubt it at all,” said Dr. Rodrigo Hasbun, professor of infectious diseases with McGovern Medical School at UTHealth Houston. “It’s just the magnitude of it and the duration that’s in question.”

[…]

Throughout the pandemic, Houston’s wastewater treatment plants have been a reliable indicator of future local spread, usually preceding new infections by about two weeks. During the week starting Nov. 29, the city found traces of omicron in seven treatment plants. By the following week — the most recently available data — that number jumped to 25.

“We can see how quickly this variant is going to spread,” said Hasbun.

Early findings from South Africa suggest that omicron causes less severe disease than earlier strains, though several factors, such as the country’s younger population, cloud the data.

Some experts offer cautious optimism despite the bleak outlook.

Dr. Annamaria Macaluso Davidson, associate vice president of medical operations for Memorial Hermann Medical Group, is hopeful that pockets of highly vaccinated areas in the city and new COVID treatments arriving on the market will stave off a dire situation at hospitals.

Two new pills to treat less severe COVID infections could receive emergency use authorization by early 2022.

“We’ve got more tools at our disposal that I think are really promising, even if we’re facing another surge,” she said.

The latest developments highlight the urgent need for vaccinations and booster shots ahead of the Christmas holiday.

Well, we know about the wastewater data. There’s been an uptick in demand for the booster, but the total number of people who have had a third shot is still pretty small. What we know so far suggests that omicron can evade the immunity response better than delta can, and so even fully vaxxed people, or people with two shots who have also had COVID, can still get the omicron variant. But if they do, it will very likely be mild. Even lesser-strength immunization seems to mitigate the severity of omicron, and that plus the Pfizer pill is the reason for guarded optimism. You should still take all reasonable precautions. Get that booster, avoid large indoor gatherings, that sort of thing. We’re in a much better place than we were last spring. Just don’t be dumb about it.

A broader look at the Houston project to track COVID in wastewater

The DMN tells me things I did not know about my current favorite public works project.

The [Houston] health department is conducting the wastewater surveillance for COVID-19 in partnership with researchers at Rice University and Baylor College of Medicine. Wastewater testing cannot identify individual people who have COVID-19, but it can identify neighborhoods with particular virus variants or relatively high virus loads.

Dallas County is not participating in similar wastewater surveillance to track the virus, said Dr. Philip Huang, director of Dallas County Health and Human Services. He said he doesn’t know of any other organizations or municipalities in North Texas that are operating similar programs.

While Dallas County previously considered using wastewater surveillance, the price of creating such a system was too high. “It’s actually quite expensive to set that up,” Huang said.

“After the 10-week survey, [the water district] discontinued its participation in the study due to inconsistent data that required continuous interpretation by local and state public health officials,” said Kathleen Vaught, public relations specialist at the water district.

Public health experts have long used wastewater samples to track the growth and spread of bacteria and viruses, like the poliovirus.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention began discussing the use of the tool to study COVID-19 in February 2020.

By September of that same year, the CDC and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services launched the National Wastewater Surveillance System, also known as NWSS, to help state, tribal and local health departments track and respond to COVID-19.

[…]

Houston is the only Texas city to participate in the NWSS, although that could change as the program grows in the next month, said NWSS team lead and CDC microbiologist Dr. Amy Kirby. Data taken from Houston wastewater samples is submitted to a national database tracking similar data from nearly 400 utilities across the country.

The University of California, Merced’s Naughton Lab created and maintains a dashboard, called COVIDPoops19, to track global wastewater testing for the virus.

I just want to say that learning of the existence of a dashboard called COVIDPoops19 has improved my life in ways I could not have imagined. You can zoom in on Houston in this dashboard and click on the various icons to learn more; clicking on the icon for Baylor College of Medicine led me to the actual Houston dashboard for this, which I had not seen before. If you play around with the slider, which shows you what the viral levels were for past weeks, you can see that the inflection point for this year was the week of June 21 – levels had been dropping through June 7, then you saw a few upticks on June 14, and on the 21st it was all increases, and it got worse for the next few weeks. We’re on more of an upward trend right now (December 6 is the most recent date), but there are increases and decreases in the various locations. I’m going to be bookmarking this page. Anyway, if you want to know more about this project, there you go.

Corbevax

Very cool.

A Houston-made COVID-19 vaccine will likely be approved for use in India by the end of the year, said Dr. Peter Hotez, co-director of Texas Children’s Hospitals Center for Vaccine Development.

Hotez and his co-director, Dr. Maria Elena Bottazzi, created the vaccine as a cheap and easy-to-produce option to fill global gaps in vaccine coverage. Dubbed Corbevax, it uses a safe and traditional vaccine technology, called recombinant protein subunit, that has been used for decades in the hepatitis B vaccine and is therefore easier for other countries to make themselves.

Drug maker Biological E has agreed to manufacture 300 million doses in India, where 36 percent of the population is fully vaccinated and 59 percent have at least one dose. Efficacy data has been submitted to the Drugs Controller General of India for authorization.

The vaccine does not have a patent, and Hotez hopes manufacturers in other low- or middle-income countries will take advantage of its availability.

“If you leave large populations unvaccinated, that’s where the greatest concerns of variants arise,” he said, referring to the current spread of the omicron variant from the largely unvaccinated South African population. “So this vaccine is therefore needed not only for global health but also economic development.”

Bottazzi, who is from Honduras, is especially interested in the vaccine’s proliferation throughout Latin America. Less than 40 percent of the population is fully vaccinated in several countries there, according to the New York Times global virus tracker.

“Corbevax is gong to be a trailblazer,” she said.

The work is based on research they had done for a SARS virus but never took to a human trial because the virus had receded by then. Anything we can do to get more shots in arms is absolutely a good thing. Kudos to all for the achievement.

Yes, omicron was found in the wastewater

In case you missed it.

Houston has detected the omicron variant of the virus that causes COVID-19 in eight of its wastewater treatment facilities, confirming the new strain is spreading in the city.

A Harris County resident was the first person in Texas to test positive for the variant Monday. She was fully vaccinated and did not report any recent travel history, officials have said.

City officials have been sampling wastewater facilities since last year, another metric to help the Health Department gauge the virus’s spread in Houston. People shed the virus through feces even if they are not symptomatic or have not tested positive, providing a truer picture than test results. It is also an early indicator, often presaging positivity rate and hospitalizations by weeks.

[…]

The city said the wastewater findings renew the need to get fully vaccinated and are cause for concern, but not panic.

“The Houston Health Department and Houston Water continue to do an exceptional job tracking the impact of the virus in our community,” Mayor Sylvester Turner said. “Vaccines help protect us, our loved ones, friends, and colleagues in the work environment. As the holidays approach, I encourage everyone to remain vigilant about their health and safety.”

See here and here for the background, and here for the Houston Health Department press release. I find it comforting to know that when all else fails, you can count on the wastewater treatment plants.

Here comes omicron

It was always just a matter of time.

Texas has identified its first case of the omicron COVID-19 variant, a strain flagged as potentially more infectious than any that has come before it, including the delta variant responsible for surges still happening across the country, state health officials said on Monday.

The variant was identified in Texas in a Harris County woman in her 40s, according to the Texas Department of State Health Services and county Judge Lina Hidalgo.

Many questions still surround omicron, even as it remains high on the radar of state and federal health officials.

While early indicators suggest the variant is very contagious, it’s still unknown whether it will infect people at a faster rate or cause more hospitalizations than the delta variant, which currently represents nearly all the active cases in Texas.

It could also take another month, experts say, to figure out how effective vaccines or natural immunity will be against the omicron variant.

Other unknowns include how sick it will make those infected and whether it will be milder or more aggressive than the delta variant.

Hidalgo said the woman in whom the variant was detected has no recent history of travel.

You can hear Dr. Peter Hotez talk about omicron and delta on CityCast Houston’s Monday podcast episode. I don’t have to tell you to get your shots and your booster, do I? There’s one way out of this, and that’s it.

UPDATE: Yeah, we detected it in the wastewater. A week ago. So, yeah.

How’s that city push to get its employees vaccinated going?

Not bad, actually.

Nearly three months after Mayor Sylvester Turner signed an executive order requiring Houston’s 21,000 city employees to get the COVID-19 vaccine, receive a medical or religious exemption, or submit COVID-19 test results every two weeks, compliance with the order varies widely among departments.

Just over 60% of Houston firefighters had either been vaccinated, submitted test results or received an exemption as of Nov. 15 — the lowest rate of any city department.

That’s according to city data released to Houston Public Media, which also revealed Houston police, waste management and health staff at the bottom of the list of those who have complied with Turner’s order.

Just 74% of police officers were in compliance with the mandate, along with 74% of Solid Waste Management employees and 74% of Health and Human Services employees.

The city secretary’s office, which has just seven employees, is 100% compliant with the mayor’s order. The legal department with 185 employees and the city I.T. department’s 180 are next on the list with about 98% compliance each as of Nov. 15.

The mayor’s own office is 90% compliant with his executive order as of Nov. 15, 13th on the list of 25 departments.

[…]

The city’s Nov. 15 compliance data was the most recent available. Houston Public Media has requested a more recent report, which was not available as of Thursday afternoon.

On Sept. 8, the date Turner issued his order, 342 city employees had active cases of COVID-19, including 129 police officers.

Fourteen city employees have died of COVID-19 since the start of the pandemic, according to the mayor’s office.

Turner had previously mandated face coverings for all city employees in August, after Gov. Greg Abbott’s executive order prohibiting local governments from such mandates. Abbott then banned COVID-19 vaccine mandates statewide on Oct. 11, preventing any employer from requiring vaccination. That order is still making its way through state courts, but his mandate ban could nonetheless stymie the mayor’s efforts.

But Turner’s executive order doesn’t require workers to get vaccinated. Instead, it offers unvaccinated employees two alternatives: Either submit COVID-19 test results every two weeks or file a medical or religious exemption.

Under the order, employees were required to submit test results on the first and 15th of each month, beginning on Oct. 15. Employees who don’t comply could be subject to “corrective action up to and including indefinite suspension or termination,” the order states.

“A failure to adhere to the policy will result in disciplinary action and could even cost you your job,” Turner told city council at a meeting where he announced the order.

In a statement Thursday, the mayor’s office didn’t specify how Turner plans to address employees who aren’t complying with the order, but said the city’s Human Resources department is continuing to educate employees on the requirements.

“By implementing the executive order, our goal is save more lives, prevent illness throughout city departments and reduce costs for everyone,” the mayor’s office wrote. “The City intends to enforce the Executive Order and follow the steps outlined to ensure compliance.”

See here for the background. There’s a table in the story showing compliance rates for each department, though it should be noted that the actual numbers may be higher for at least some of them. The president of the Houston Police Officers Union was quoted saying their numbers are better than what was represented, for one. Even without that, the city’s efforts have nudged the vax numbers upward, which is exactly what you want. I thought at the time that Abbott and Paxton would not stand for this workaround on the city’s part, and I’m delighted to be proven wrong. Now let’s see what enforcement there is for the holdouts. No excuses at this point, get on board or say goodbye.

Omicron may be coming, but delta is still here

It’s still a big problem, in case we haven’t forgotten.

Omicron’s arrival in the U.S. came as no surprise to federal health officials and will be met with similar anticipation in Texas, where experts believe it could show up in state and local sequencing efforts as soon as this week.

“It’s almost certainly here,” said Dr. Benjamin Neuman, a Texas A&M University professor and chief virologist at its Global Health Research Complex, which does sequencing for COVID-19 variants.

On Monday, federal health officials concerned about omicron urged eligible vaccinated adults to get their booster shots to increase their protection from COVID-19, in whatever form it might take over the winter, and to keep masking, hand-washing and social distancing when possible.

In Texas, state health officials say they are ready to assist hospitals should another surge happen over the holidays and they are ramping up their own efforts to identify more variants in more parts of the state.

But their largest push, at least publicly, is for vaccination and booster shots. About 55% of Texans were fully vaccinated as of Dec. 1. Some 18.7% of fully vaccinated Texans have had boosters, according to state health numbers.

“Prevention is important, and vaccination remains our best prevention tool,” said Chris Van Deusen, spokesperson for the Texas Department of State Health Services.

[…]

Texas hospitals are still in the throes of a staffing shortage after almost two years of deadly surges and a summer wave of deaths and hospitalizations that saw record numbers of ICUs filled to capacity.

With more than 13 million Texans still not fully vaccinated, the fear of the medical community here is that another wave will further strain a health care system that is already exhausted and depleted.

At the moment, without more data about omicron, delta is still the variant likely to cause the most problems this winter, Neuman said.

“Today, it’s the delta wave that worries me. Not omicron yet,” Neuman said. “We’ve got to wait and see what omicron does, if anything. But with cases rising across the country — that’s entirely being driven by delta.”

There’s some interesting stuff in the article about how scientists in Texas are tracking different variants here – did you know there was such a thing as the Texas Variant Partnership? I didn’t – so read on. Everything I’ve read about omicron so far suggests it will be a couple of weeks before we have some real data on it, which will help us understand basic questions about how transmissible it is, how deadly it is, and so on. A huge question, especially in a still largely unvaccinated state like Texas is how much protection is natural immunity versus vaccination. I’m betting on the latter, but it’s certainly a possibility that another booster may need to be developed. Which, thanks to the nature of mRNA vaccines, can be done quickly, like three to four months. In the meantime, stay cautious and for crying out loud get your shots.

How Houston has handled homelessness

We’ve done pretty well, actually.

Since more than $65 million in COVID-related funding has poured into Houston and Harris County’s coffers, they have worked in tandem with a number of partners to ramp up the housing units available to move people out of homelessness. As they’ve done so, they’ve picked up the pace at which homeless encampments are being “decommissioned” — the group’s term for offering the residents of a camp permanent housing, then clearing the site, usually with fencing, to prevent the camp from reforming. The process provides a way out of chronic homelessness to the many who choose housing and the services that go with it, a dislocation to the smaller group who do not.

The ultimate success of Houston’s encampment strategy could have rippling effects across the country. Cities including Austin and Dallas are seeking to emulate Houston’s program, said Marc Eichenbaum, special assistant to the mayor for homeless initiatives; others, including Denver and Spokane, Wash. are watching closely.

[…]

Out of the 35 people who were living in the encampment when outreach began, 22 decided to take the offer of housing, according to the Coalition for the Homeless of Houston and Harris County’s data. The others simply moved elsewhere. That ratio was a bit unusual, said James Gonzalez, the director overseeing the coalition’s work at the site. The other encampments where the Houston-Harris County Homeless Encampment Response Strategy has been carried out since the beginning of the pandemic saw between 85 and 90 percent of people choose housing, he said.

Houston, the coalition and their partners began moving people out of encampments in 2018 and has since distilled the process into a manual that has attracted the attention of cities across the nation. Houston, once called out in 2011 by the Department of Housing and Urban Development for the size of its homeless population, has since more than halved the number of people without homes in Harris and Fort Bend counties to 3,800 in 2020 from 8,500, even as the overall population in those two counties grew 16 percent. For every person housed, taxpayers save approximately $4,800 because the unhoused population’s emergency medical and incarceration costs are so high compared to the cost of housing and supportive services, according to a 2017 study from the National Alliance to End Homelessness.

But since 2016, the homeless count in the counties has plateaued. People were becoming homeless as quickly as the Houston area could house them.

Then came COVID — and with it, a sudden influx in funding to help battle the pandemic’s health risks to the homeless population. Part of the funds went toward a program renting units from landlords searching for a secure stream of income. The new units, where residents have access to case workers and other services, allowed partnered groups to pick up the pace of moving people out of camps.

[…]

Eichenbaum said the city plans to clear all of its encampments, but the current bottleneck is housing. “We don’t do this if we don’t have places to put them,” said Ana Rausch, vice president of program operations for the coalition. “There’s no point.”

While the city was able to quickly secure apartments for its program while the need to social distance lowered demand for dense living arrangements, it is now competing with an influx of renters who entered the market as vaccines became widely available this summer. The coalition employs a landlord engagement team which is calling landlords and trying to sell them on the program, in part by dispelling fears of perceived risks (Gonzalez argues that having rent guaranteed and a case worker on hand offers more of a safety net than a landlord has with a normal tenant). Nonetheless, the number of units joining the program have slowed.

In response, the city contracted with a hotel to turn it into what it’s calling a navigation center — a place where people moved out of an encampment can live, along with pets and loved ones, while they await their permanent housing. (San Francisco pioneered the strategy in 2015.) While the current navigation center is temporary, the city has a plan to build a long-term one in Fifth Ward west of U.S. 59.

Before the coalition and its partners began using COVID funding to move people into housing, it had decommissioned two camps in four years. Since December 2020, they’ve decommissioned about eight, Rausch said. As of Tuesday, she said the coalition and its partners had moved 134 people into housing out of encampments with COVID funding. The funds have also been used to help more than 5,000 less visible homeless individuals, including people living in shelters or cars.

I don’t have anything to add here, it’s just a good story and a great use of the COVID relief funds. I’m rooting for the coalition to meet its goal of decommissioning all of the camps.

HISD will keep its mask mandate

This is in response to that recent Fifth Circuit ruling about mask mandates in schools and whether Greg Abbott’s ban on them violated the Americans with Disabilities Act.

The Houston Independent School District will keep its mask mandate in place, district officials said Thursday, despite a federal appeals court ruling halting an injunction on Gov. Greg Abbott’s order prohibiting such requirements.

“The ruling does not impact the requirement that students, staff, and visitors must wear masks while on HISD property. This mandate remains in place for HISD schools,” the district said in a statement. “While we are heartened that we have maintained the lowest rate of active COVID-19 cases in the state and vaccinations are now available for our youngest students, HISD’s mask mandate will remain in place for students, staff, and visitors in all HISD schools, buildings, and buses regardless of vaccination status.”

HISD plans to review the mandate at the end of its semester after the holidays, Superintendent Millard House II said last month.

House implemented HISD’s mandate shortly before the start of the school year and the board of trustees voted to express support for it.

The district, by and large, has avoided significant backlash from individuals opposing the mandate, outside of a handful of parents who have addressed House and trustees at board meetings and during a recent series of community forums.

The district’s statement noted that HISD and other districts sued over the governor’s order in state district court. The lawsuit, it said, is based on state law regarding the authority of Texas school districts to make health and safety decisions for their students. It remains in litigation.

See here for more on the Fifth Circuit ruling. As noted, Superintendent House did say that HISD would consider lifting its mask mandate after the holidays if conditions continue to improve; who knows what will happen now that the omicron variant is out there. The federal lawsuit really didn’t have much bearing on HISD anyway, since they were among the plaintiffs that had sued Abbott in state court over his mandate ban, and won an injunction that as far as I know is still in place; besides, Abbott and Paxton don’t have any authority to enforce it anyway. The district and the Superintendent are doing the right thing. Keep on keeping on. The Press has more.

Our wastewater treatment plant is ready for omicron

One small bit of reassurance in these uncertain times.

The Houston Health Department is testing the city’s wastewater for the new COVID variant, omicron, which experts say could soon be found in the U.S.

The department tests the city’s wastewater weekly for COVID strains. The most recent samples collected the week of November 22 show no trace of the omicron variant, officials said.

“Although our team has not detected Omicron in Houston, we should anticipate it arriving, and the health department is prepared to scale its operations as needed to respond,” Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said in a release. “In the meantime, I encourage eligible Houstonians to get fully vaccinated.”

Much is still unknown about the new variant, including if it’s more transmissible, deadly or more bypasses vaccines.

“While we await data to show the level of threat from Omicron, it’s important to remember that vaccination is our best tool to reduce cases, prevent serious illness and death, and slow the emergence of new variants,” Dr. David Persse, chief medical officer for the City of Houston said. “If you are not fully vaccinated or if you are eligible for a booster, please do it now to protect yourself, your family, and our community.”

Note that the omicron variant is already here in the US, and it’s just a matter of time before it’s detected everywhere. The wastewater tracking project here has been a big success, and since the latest variant is detectable via PCR testing, it’s no surprise that we’ll have this method to track it. Let’s please all do our part to keep it at a low level.

Vaccine mandate for health care workers blocked

I’d say this is getting ridiculous, but we’re well past that point.

A federal judge on Monday blocked President Joe Biden’s administration from enforcing a coronavirus vaccine mandate on thousands of health care workers in 10 states that had brought the first legal challenge against the requirement.

The court order said that the federal Centers for Medicare & Medicaid had no clear authority from Congress to enact the vaccine mandate for providers participating in the two government health care programs for the elderly, disabled and poor.

The preliminary injunction by St. Louis-based U.S. District Judge Matthew Schelp applies to a coalition of suing states that includes Alaska, Arkansas, Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska, New Hampshire, North Dakota, South Dakota and Wyoming. All those states have either a Republican attorney general or governor. Similar lawsuits also are pending in other states.

The federal rule requires COVID-19 vaccinations for more than 17 million workers nationwide in about 76,000 health care facilities and home health care providers that get funding from the government health programs. Workers are to receive their first dose by Dec. 6 and their second shot by Jan. 4.

The court order against the health care vaccine mandate comes after Biden’s administration suffered a similar setback for a broader policy. A federal court previously placed a hold on a separate rule requiring businesses with more than 100 employees to ensure their workers get vaccinated or else wear masks and get tested weekly for the coronavirus.

Biden’s administration contends federal rules supersede state policies prohibiting vaccine mandates and are essential to slowing the pandemic, which has killed more than 775,000 people in the U.S. About three-fifths of the U.S. population already is fully vaccinated.

But the judge in the health care provider case wrote that federal officials likely overstepped their legal powers.

“CMS seeks to overtake an area of traditional state authority by imposing an unprecedented demand to federally dictate the private medical decisions of millions of Americans. Such action challenges traditional notions of federalism,” Schelp wrote in his order.

That ruling doesn’t affect Texas, but this one does.

A federal judge on Tuesday blocked the Biden administration’s COVID-19 vaccination mandate for health care workers from going into effect nationwide next week after Texas and other states challenged the order.

Louisiana Western District U.S. Judge Terry Doughty’s ruling follows the same decision on Monday from Missouri U.S. District Judge Matthew Schelp. However, Schelp’s ruling applied for only 10 states.

Doughty wrote in his decision that the mandate exceeds the Biden administration’s authority.

“If human nature and history teach anything, it is that civil liberties face grave risks when governments proclaim indefinite states of emergency,” Doughty wrote.

I Am Not A Lawyer, and I couldn’t find any commentary out there about this, but just knowing that it was two Trump-appointed judges who made these rulings makes me look at them with extreme skepticism. (There are some other reasons for that, as the Daily Kos story indicates. I still want to see some serious lawyers weigh in on it.) The willingness of so many people to put the lives of so many other people in danger just boggles my mind.

On the moderately positive side, there was this.

A judge in Galveston has denied a bid from a group of federal workers seeking an injunction to halt enforcement of the White House’s COVID-19 vaccination mandate, saying they had natural immunity from having been infected with the virus.

John J. Vecchione, senior litigation counsel for the New Civil Liberties Alliance in Washington, D.C., said his team argued it was “arbitrary and capricious” to require vaccinations across the board for all federal employees, because this particular group of workers was not any more dangerous to others than people who have been fully vaccinated. Vecchione says in court documents his clients’ immunity is “at least as robust and durable as that attained through the most effective vaccines.”

[…]

The 11 litigants include a high ranking lawyer at U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement from Frisco, a Navy technician from Robstown, an air traffic controller from St. Cloud, Fla. , a Georgia-based veterinary specialist from the Department of Agriculture, a special agent with the Secret Service from Springfield, Va. and a supervisory air marshal with Transportation Security Administration in Palos Verdes, Calif. .

The suit is directed at Dr. Anthony Fauci, others on the COVID response task force and representatives of other federal agencies tasked with enforcement or supervision of the mandate. The deadline for vaccinations was Nov. 22 and enforcement was set to begin some time after Nov. 29.

U.S. District Judge Jeffrey V. Brown denied the workers request for a temporary injunction, saying they did not face irreparable harm if they complied with the mandate and they were unlikely to win their case on the merits. He noted that all but one of the plaintiffs were pursuing religious exemptions that would allow them to avoid the vaccine. The worker who did not seek an exemption works for ICE; the judge said the civil liberties lawyers had probably erred in failing to sue that agency.

Any win for sanity at the district court level feels like it’s written on sand these days, but I’ll take what I can get. Roy Edroso has more.

Harris County at “moderate” threat level again

For now. As with all things, for now.

The COVID-19 threat level in Harris County was reduced Friday to moderate from significant as the local number of hospitalized patients and new cases met thresholds that guide the meter while a new variant raised concerns that prompted countries across the world to once again restrict travel.

County Judge Lina Hidalgo’s office announced the change in the threat level after new data indicators turned yellow, the color designated to the level that calls for unvaccinated residents to remain vigilant, wear masks and continue practicing physical distancing, although can resume leaving home. Under the level, fully vaccinated individuals can resume activities without masking except where required.

The 14-day average positivity rate in the county reached 4.6 percent. As of Friday, 66.5 percent of the county’s population had received at least one dose of a vaccine and 57.2 percent were fully vaccinated.

The risks of the new variant, named Omicron by a World Health Organization panel, were not yet fully understood, according to the Associated Press.

The same panel that named the variant also classified it as a highly transmissible virus of concern. Numerous countries, including the United States, Canada and Russia, announced travel restrictions for visitors from southern Africa, where the variant was discovered, according to the AP.

In a tweet Friday evening, Hidalgo said she lowered the level “due to improved indicators” but cautioned “winter COVID spike is still possible.”

“Judge Hidalgo remains concerned about Omicron and the potential for a winter surge as we’re seeing in some other areas in the US,” spokesperson Rafael Lemaitre said Friday. “She is strongly encouraging residents who haven’t been vaccinated to do so — vaccines and boosters are widely available for free.”

I see from my archives that the threat level had been reduced to “Moderate” in late May, back when we all thought it was going to be a hot vaxx summer. Hopefully this time that will last a bit longer, but as before that will depend on getting enough people vaccinated. We’re making progress, and I remain hopeful that the vax’s availability for 5-11 year olds will help, but we still have a long way to go.

As for that new variant:

As global governments, scientists and health experts track the new omicron variant of COVID-19, Dr. Peter Hotez is encouraging people not to “push the panic button,” before we know more about it.

Hotez, who serves as co-director of the Center for Vaccine Development at Texas Children’s Hospital, said transmissibility is king in determining if omicron will impact the globe the way previous variants alpha and delta did. More data is necessary, he said.

“Before we press the panic button I think there’s a few things to consider,” Hotez said during an appearance on MSNBC. “Yes, it does have some immune escape properties, or at least it looks like it might, but that’s that’s not what’s associated with high transmissibility. We’ve had other immune-escape variants before that have not really taken off… That’s what I’m looking out for, the level of transmissibility.”

The good news, as I understand it from scanning Twitter, is that it was detected early on, and that PCR tests work to find it, which means that testing for it will be quicker and more effective. The vax makers say they can make a new batch for this in short order, it will mostly be a matter of getting it approved. So yeah, don’t panic yet, wait to see what the data says, and if necessary get yourself another booster. We’re much better placed for this now, if we’re not stupid about it.

Yeah, traffic is worse than before

You’re not surprised, are you?

By most measures, traffic is back to pre-COVID congestion levels — or even more clogged in some cases. What seems to have changed, based on a handful of studies that looked at different facets of how drivers moved around American cities and locally, is who is logging all those miles.

“There are still a lot of people who are not driving like they used to, but those that are driving are driving more miles,” said Jeff Schlitt, director of sales engineering for Arity, which tracks driver behavior.

As they log more miles, however, drivers are not letting up on the gas pedal, not keeping their eyes on the road and often not driving safely.

“Our trend is definitely going in the wrong direction,” Texas Transportation Commissioner Laura Ryan said during a Sept. 30 update on road safety at the commission’s monthly meeting.

Arity, a spinoff business of insurance giant Allstate, follows drivers via smartphone apps that meticulously track location, allowing the company to measure numerous patterns, including trip routes, speed of travel, mobile phone use and sudden stops. Through data from third-party apps — the company says it receives data from 60 percent of U.S. drivers — the company then studies changes in trends.

In its latest report, released last month, Arity said overall U.S. vehicle travel is 8 percent higher than 2019 levels before the pandemic. Travel varies by state, however, with Texas up 10 percent and Massachusetts up 1 percent.

In Houston, COVID dropped freeway traffic volumes by about 45 percent in the earliest weeks of the pandemic, before congestion crept back up and remained about 10 percent below 2019 averages for most of last year, according to data compiled by Houston TranStar.

When fears of a winter surge in COVID cases sent many back into isolation last December, traffic volumes dipped again, then eased. By March, when the first wave of Texans were fully vaccinated, traffic volumes had risen above pre-pandemic levels.

Traffic dropped off in the summer, as is common when schools are out of session, something Schlitt and others said was a sign of normalcy.

“I think what we are seeing is a return to seasonality patterns,” Schlitt said.

Drivers said they are also seeing people moving back into their old habits of going to stores rather than relying on deliveries or choosing to eat in restaurants rather than cook at home.

[…]

With roughly three months left in the year, 3,278 people have died on Texas roadways, according to the state’s crash reporting system. Typically some reports can take weeks to appear in the system, and Ryan recently said the daily average of deaths has increased to 13 per day for September.

Unless the roadway carnage rapidly slows, Texas is on pace for more than 4,000 deaths. That would be the highest since 1982, when the per-mile fatality rate was three times higher, cars lacked airbags, drivers and passengers were far less likely to wear seat belts and aggressive enforcement of drunken driving was rare.

During the early months of the pandemic, highway and traffic safety officials said fewer drivers on the road left more room for unsafe motorists, who used less-congested lanes to accelerate. That meant that even though Texas had fewer collisions, they were happening at faster speeds, leading to tragic results.

Now, safety observers said with drivers accustomed to those 75 mph and 80 mph speeds, freeways are more crowded and collisions are increasing. For the first nine months of 2020, Texas police logged 393,919 crashes. From Jan. 1 to Sept. 30 of this year, at least 459,972 crashes have occurred, a roughly 15 percent jump.

I have done so much less driving over the past 18 months, thanks to working from home. It’s contributed to a significant reduction in stress for me, and I’m not a nervous driver. I’m just much happier not having to drive on our miserable freeways day in and day out. Some number of commuters are taking advantage of more flexible or hybrid work schedules these days to be on the road more in the middle of the day, which is better for them but maybe not as good for the people who are normally on the road at those times. All I know is, the longer I can go as a mostly non-driver, the better.

COVID hospitalizations are (generally) down in (most of) Texas

For now. I think you always have to add “for now” to this sort of thing.

As Texans head into the holiday season, there is much to celebrate when it comes to addressing the pandemic. But health experts say the state is not out of the woods just yet.

First, the good news. The number of residents here hospitalized with COVID-19 is at one of its lowest points since the beginning of the pandemic, while average daily deaths from the virus are also dropping and vaccines are finally — after a year of parents anxiously waiting for approval — flowing into the arms of the state’s elementary age children.

After a miserable summer when the delta variant caused a surge that rivaled the worst moments of the coronavirus pandemic, state health officials and experts say they are grateful for signs of relief. But they’re wary of being too optimistic about a pandemic that has, more than once, had this state in a stranglehold.

“People are just kind of happy or relieved that the most recent surge is done with, but I don’t think anybody’s celebrating anything yet,” said Dr. James Castillo, public health authority in Cameron County. In that county, the share of hospital beds occupied by COVID-19 patients has dropped to 3% percent, down from over 25% during the summer surge.

Still, health officials are now watching a recent increase in the number of new confirmed COVID-19 cases and a small uptick in the rate of COVID-19 tests coming back positive as potential warning signs.

They’re also keeping an eye on a troubling new surge in the nation’s Western states that has hit El Paso, a region that was spared the deadly delta surge that rocked the rest of the state in August and September.

“We’re certainly in a better place right now than we have been in quite a while,” said Chris Van Deusen, spokesperson for the Texas Department of State Health Services. “But we are sort of starting to see things change again. And you know, if there’s one thing we know about this pandemic, it’s that it’s going to keep changing.”

[…]

Every day of good news, it seems, carries with it a note of caution.

At highest risk, officials say, are the millions of Texans who have not been vaccinated. During the month of September, at the height of the surge when about half of Texans had been fully vaccinated, unvaccinated people were 20 times more likely to die from the virus than those who had been vaccinated.

What that means, scientists say, is that a surge among the unvaccinated could still happen.

“Overall, our projections right now are fairly optimistic for the state of Texas,” said Spencer Fox, associate director of the University of Texas COVID-19 Modeling Consortium. “But when we look at the winter, we’re still fairly concerned about what might happen in the future. … Our models suggest that there’s still enough susceptibility in our population to see another pandemic surge if we remove all precautions. I think Thanksgiving will be a lead indicator of what’s to come.”

As one of the graphics in this story shows, only 54.3% of the state’s population is fully vaccinated. So yeah, there’s a huge reservoir of vulnerable targets for the virus. And all of this is before we consider the possibility of new variants reaching our shores. If you’re fully vaxxed, you’re as safe as you’re going to be, but the old standbys of wearing masks and avoiding crowded indoor spaces are still in vogue. Don’t let your guard down.