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coronavirus

No new election admin yet

Hope this delay is brief.

Harris County’s top election position remains unfilled, after a Monday meeting of the county’s election commission to select a candidate was canceled due to a lack of quorum. Their final pick will face a narrowing time frame to prepare for his or her first test: Early voting for the November election begins Oct. 24, less than three months after the new administrator’s likely start date.

The tight schedule adds to an already daunting job in a sprawling county with more than 2.5 million voters, an adversarial political climate with frequent election lawsuits, and a startlingly high rejection rate of nearly one out of five mail ballots in this year’s March primaries under the state’s new voting laws.

Only two of the five members of the commission were able to attend the Monday meeting in person, a day after County Judge Lina Hidalgo announced she had tested positive for COVID-19. The commission has not yet rescheduled the meeting.

With outgoing Harris County Elections Administrator Isabel Longoria’s resignation going into effect Friday, Beth Stevens, chief director of voting for the county, will become the interim administrator until the new hire begins, which Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo said is likely to be Aug. 1. The new administrator’s appointment will be voted on at a later meeting after the selected candidate meets a residency requirement to become a voter under the Texas Election Code.

The commission was slated to hold a closed-door executive session to interview two finalists for the position and take “possible action” to name the administrator at Monday’s meeting. Both finalists have prior experience running elections and are located out of state, according to Hidalgo.

See here for some background. I agree with Campos, it would have been nice to know who besides Judge Hidalgo (who had a perfectly good excuse) didn’t show up and why. May have been valid reasons, but the clock is ticking and we deserve to know. I get the impression that there’s no real dissension on the committee, they just need to finish the job.

The target date to have the new admin in place is still August 1. That’s a brief time to get up and running, but if they are hiring an experienced person and the operational staff is in place – and hopefully we have a way forward on the ballot collection question for Election Day – then I think we’ll be fine. So with that in mind, let me comment on this:

At the commission’s most recent meeting on June 15, Rob Icsezen, deputy chair of the Harris County Democratic Party’s primary committee, presented a letter to the commission signed by around 100 members of the public, many of them current or former Democratic election workers, asking that Longoria be reinstated as elections administrator. One of the reasons they cited was the time frame left until the November election.

“Any new elections administrator would have the same challenges as Ms. Longoria, without the benefit of a year and a half of hands-on experience,” the letter stated. “In short, they would be starting from scratch. November is rapidly approaching. The voters of Harris County do not have time for this.”

This will not be the first time an administrator has overseen a major Harris County election on relatively short notice. In June 2020, Chris Hollins took over as county clerk shortly before the November election, after outgoing clerk Diane Trautman resigned her position, citing health concerns during the pandemic.

“On my first day as County Clerk in 2020, we had just four months to figure out how to administer an election in pandemic conditions for the first time in Texas history,” Hollins said in a statement. “That included acquiring the necessary protective equipment, recruiting the election workers we needed, and creating and training our team on new safety procedures.”

Hollins benefited from an unprecedented budget to administer the 2020 election, after Commissioners Court approved $27 million — much of that coming from federal CARES Act dollars — to fund his plan, which included additional polling locations, up to 12,000 election workers and an extra week of early voting.

“Many core planning items (e.g., number and location of voting centers) should be well under way by August, but the new EA will need to ensure that solutions are in place for issues that have arisen in recent elections, as well as problems created by the recent voter suppression law,” Hollins said. “These include record rejection rates for mail ballots, which we saw in March, and intentional disruption by partisan poll watchers, which will be something we face for the first time in November.”

I was contacted by Icsezen and a couple of other folks, all people I respect, with this pitch. I did not join them. I like Isabel Longoria and I totally get where Icsezen and the others are coming from, but I just think that ship has sailed. It didn’t work out. That’s unfortunate, but it is what it is. Let’s get the new person in there, give that person all of the support and financing they will need to run a successful election, and do everything we can to help. At least COVID ought to be a much smaller issue this time around. We can do this.

COVID vaccines for kids under 5 are now available

It’s been a long wait.

On Saturday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky signed off on Covid vaccines for the youngest Americans. Her endorsement means shots can begin immediately, finally ending the two-and-a-half year wait on the part of parents of children under 5.

Walenksy accepted the recommendation within hours after the CDC advisory committee voted unanimously in favor of the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines for children as young as 6 months. A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advisory committee on Saturday endorsed Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna’s Covid-19 vaccines for the youngest children, the last step before CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky could issue her final sign-off.

The unanimous recommendations from the CDC’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices followed the Food and Drug Administration’s authorization of the shots on Friday.

President Biden responded to the announcement Saturday hailing it as a “monumental step forward.”

“For parents all over the country, this is a day of relief and celebration,” Biden said. “As the first country to protect our youngest children with COVID-19 vaccines, my Administration has been planning and preparing for this moment for months, effectively securing doses and offering safe and highly effective mRNA vaccines for all children as young as six months old.”

Shortly before Saturday’s votes — one for Moderna and a separate one for Pfizer — many panel members celebrated the milestone, noting that parents will soon have two effective tools to protect their youngest children from Covid after more than two years of living with the virus.

“We want to say today that if you’re not going to immunize your children, we think that’s a misplaced concern and that you should immunize your children to save their lives,” said committee member Dr. Sarah Long, a pediatrician at St. Christopher’s Hospital for Children in Philadelphia.

While young children are generally less likely than adults to experience the most serious outcomes of the virus, some do. Among children 6 months old through age 4, there have been more than 2 million confirmed cases of Covid, more than 20,000 hospitalizations and more than 200 deaths, according to CDC data. Covid is the fifth most common cause of death in children younger than 5.

“This is an opportunity, which one doesn’t get very often, to participate in preventing the death of young children,” said committee member Dr. Beth Bell, a clinical professor in the department of global health at the University of Washington. “A death of a young child is an incredible tragedy, and we know that this disease is killing children.”

It’s a function of where we are now in this pandemic that this isn’t bigger and more exciting news than it is. The vaccination rate for kids in the 5 to 11 year old range remains disappointingly low, and the estimates I’ve seen suggest that maybe 20% of the under-five crowd will get their shots. We could of course mandate COVID vaccines for enrollment in schools, but, well, I think you know what would happen then. The best way forward, as even a modest number of kids getting their shots will help save lives, is for those of us who have kids in that age range to get them vaccinated, and for the rest of us to help persuade our family and friends who do to do the same. Your Local Epidemiologist, who has two young kids of her own, has some ideas on that front. COVID is still out there killing people, y’all. We should try to remember that.

Fifth Circuit upholds dismissal of Methodist vaccine mandate lawsuit

Good.

A federal appeals court on Monday upheld the dismissal of a lawsuit challenging Houston Methodist’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate, which last year thrust the hospital into the national spotlight as the first healthcare system in the U.S. to require the shots for its employees.

The lawsuit, filed on behalf of 117 Houston Methodist employees who refused to abide by the policy, was dismissed in June 2021 by U.S. District Judge Lynn Hughes, who at the time decried arguments comparing the requirement to those made under Nazi Germany.

In its opinion, the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals said it affirmed the original ruling “because plaintiffs do not demonstrate any error in the district court’s judgment on the arguments made in that court but instead make an entirely new argument on appeal.”

The plaintiffs’ attorney, Jared Woodfill, said “this battle is far from over.”

“We believe employment should not be conditioned on your willingness to take an experimental shot,” he said in an email to the Chronicle. “During oral argument, the court indicated that one way to potentially address this case of first impression is to take it back to state court. We will pursue every legal avenue available to our clients, including taking this case to the United States Supreme Court.”

Woodfill added that a “companion case” has been filed in Harris County, though records of that lawsuit could not be found by press time.

[…]

The lawsuit brought three separate claims of wrongful termination, alleging violations of state and federal law. In their appeal, the plaintiffs “pivoted” from focusing on the federal law violations to state law, the appeals court notes in its opinion.

The plaintiffs “now even equivocate on whether federal law supports their claim,” according to the opinion. “Federal law does not, and the district court did not err in dismissing plaintiffs’ claim.”

See here for the previous update. As noted at the time, Texas state law isn’t exactly employee-friendly, so the odds of a better result for the vaccine refuseniks seems quite low. But hey, they have Jared Woodfill, Super Genius, on their side. What could possibly go wrong?

Calling all lifeguards

The city needs you.

Lifeguard shortages are keeping most Houston community pools closed as summer arrives with scorching heat and near record-breaking temperatures.

Just 12 of 37 aquatic centers operated by the Parks and Recreation Department are scheduled to open for the season, and even fewer were welcoming swimmers Tuesday. The pools will each operate three days a week on a rotating basis as parks department officials seek lifeguards to fill vacancies.

That ratio marks a slight improvement on last year, when 10 aquatic centers opened amid widespread staffing shortages. City officials blamed the paucity of lifeguards on its inability to recruit high school and college students, who make up the majority of its summertime employees.

“Local high schools and colleges stayed closed to off-campus visitors” due to COVID-19 safety protocols, said Leroy Maura, the director of Houston Parks and Recreation Aquatics. “We were not able to get in and recruit and that put us in this bind.”

The 37 aquatics centers require about 180 lifeguards to operate at full capacity. For decades, Maura said, the department could expect up to 150 of those lifeguards to return for subsequent summers. That changed with the pandemic. In 2021, 40 lifeguards came back. This year, only 24 returned.

[…]

Maura, the aquatics director, asked Houstonians to remain patient as his department recruits more lifeguards. He said he hopes to gradually open more pools as the summer scorches on.

I sure hope so. As the story notes, it’s going to be a hot, hot summer – hell, it already is. The schedule for the city’s polls is here, and you can find information on how to apply for a lifeguard job there as well. If you know someone 16 or older who can meet the requirements, the pay starts at $13.66 an hour. I worked way worse jobs than that back in the day.

HISD approves its budget

First one for the new Superintendent.

Houston ISD trustees on Thursday unanimously approved a $2.2 billion budget that will give teacher raises some have called long overdue and fund the upcoming school year when the district is expected to begin implementing a strategic plan aimed at making the state’s largest school system more equitable.

All nine trustees voted in favor of the proposed budget following a presentation from Superintendent Millard House II about how parts of the budget will meet board goals, which a few trustees had asked about. A roughly $100 million deficit will end up being reduced to some $30 million at year’s end through unspent funds, mostly from job vacancies, administrators have said they anticipate.

“We cannot hope to serve the needs of our children by being close-fisted on the most important determinant of their success: high-quality professional educators,” Trustee Elizabeth Santos, who frequently advocates for educators from the dais, said in a statement posted on Twitter after the vote. “This budget honors our kids by honoring our teachers, support staff and principals. It is past time for HISD to be the district that sets the standard in our region. I’m proud to be part of the team that gets us there.”

The compensation package, backed with the help of federal COVID-19 relief money the district received, will boost the salary of a starting teacher to $61,500 from the current annual pay of $56,869. Employees at the higher end of salary ranges will see about $3,000 more each year, those salaries reaching the mid- and high-$80,000s.

Other employees are also expected to receive raises as the district will update its master pay table.

The spending plan also set the financial framework for the first full year of House’s five-year strategic plan. Campuses will be required to staff librarians or media specialists, nurse or nurse assistants, and counselors.

In addition to the $2.2 billion operating budget, the district expects to pay another $374 million in debt service. Central administrators this spring cut $60 million in what House has called the first step toward financial sustainability. The cuts did not affect the police force, financial or legal services, House said.

See here and here for some background. HISD was known to pay its teachers less than other area districts, and it has seen some teachers leave as a result, so the pay raise was needed. We’ll see how those first pieces of the strategic plan go. I’m generally optimistic, but there are always some bumps in the road. Now that this has been settled and HISD appears to be in fairly stable shape for the near term, it’s probably time to start talking about the next capital bond issuance. The last one was in 2012, and there are surely numerous buildings that need work, and that’s without mentioning the urgency of better ventilation as a COVID mitigation. I don’t know if there’s time to get a bond item on the ballot this year, but if they wait until next year at least it’s a city election year and we’ll have an open Mayor’s race, so they won’t have to sweat as much to get their voters to the polls. Hope you’re working on a plan for this, HISD.

When we had more deaths than births in Texas

Seems like that would be a bad thing.

In the midst of the nation’s deadliest pandemic, Texas recorded more births than deaths every month since 2016 — with one exception.

Provisional data from the Texas Department of State Health Services shows that January 2021 was the only month when, statewide, the number of deaths was greater than the number of births.

Nine months before in April 2020, the world was one month into the COVID-19 pandemic. In January 2021, the seven-day average number of deaths from COVID-19 peaked in Texas, according to The New York Times, and vaccines had just become available to select groups of individuals.

Twenty counties — including Bexar County — recorded more births than deaths every month until the pandemic, when they began having months with more deaths than births.

The number of births for a county is determined by the mother’s residence.

Thirty one counties — including more populous ones like Harris, Dallas and Travis — always recorded more births than deaths, even during the pandemic.

Five counties — Bowie, Kerr, Potter, Smith, and Wichita — reported more deaths than births for all 22 months of pandemic data available.

There are charts and maps in the story, and they calculate the birth and death rates on a per 100K people basis to make everything more easily comparable. One thing the story doesn’t go into, which is a thing that has been widely reported on elsewhere, is differences in voting patterns across the counties. I’m not going to dive into all of the data here, but I will note this much about those five counties that had a net loss (not counting migrations) for each month:

Bowie – Trump 70.9%
Kerr – Trump 75.3%
Potter – Trump 68.5%
Smith – Trump 69.0%
Wichita – Trump 69.7%

You get the picture.

City passes its budget

Not too much drama.

Houston’s $5.7 billion budget for the next fiscal year includes a big jump in revenue from water bills, raises for all city employees and the largest unspent reserves in years.

City Council voted 15-2 to adopt Mayor Sylvester Turner’s proposed budget Wednesday after working through more than 100 amendments pitched by council members. Councilmembers Mike Knox and Michael Kubosh were the lone no votes. The budget takes effect when the new fiscal year begins July 1.

Dozens of amendments were ruled out of order after the mayor cracked down on proposals he said dealt with matters outside the budget. Only 16 amendments won approval, and just four actually moved money or enacted a practical change. The rest merely directed departments or the city to “study” or “explore” or “assess the opportunity” of new ideas, with no requirement to adopt or implement them.

“Over the last few years I’ve been very lenient. When I see that leniency being abused, I exercise my authority,” Turner said at the beginning of the meeting. “Now, I’m calling it as it should have been called…. I’m not going to be here all night on non-budgetary amendments.”

The approved budget relies on $130 million in federal COVID-19 relief money and a $100 million spike in sales tax revenue to close deficits and help the city pay for previously announced pay raises. It also reserves $311 million for the future, when the city may face larger deficits as the federal funding runs out.

The most notable consequence for residents will stem from water bill rate hikes previously passed by council last year. Revenue from water and wastewater bills increased by 9 and 20 percent from a September hike, and again by 7.5 and 11 percent from an increase in April.

The rates vary by customer type, meter size and usage, but the bill for a customer who uses 3,000 gallons of water went from $27.39 before the hikes to $37.18 after the April increase. The rates will continue to rise every April through 2026.

As a result, the budget passed Wednesday included a 23 percent increase in water revenue, from $1.2 billion to $1.5 billion. That $280 million accounts for much of the $487 million increase in this year’s overall budget. The bulk of Public Works’ budget comes from that water revenue, a so-called “dedicated fund” where the money must be spent on water infrastructure and service.

The $3 billion general fund, which is supported by property taxes and other fees and supports most core city services, marks a $240 million increase, or 9 percent, over last year. Most of that increase pays for raises for firefighters (6 percent), police officers (4 percent) and municipal employees (3 percent).

More than half of the general fund supports public safety, with the $989 million police budget taking the largest share of resources. The fire department’s budget is $559 million.

The budget does not include a property tax rate increase. Turner has said he also plans to increase the exemption for seniors and disabled residents, although such a measure has not yet reached City Council.

See here for the background. In regard to the water rates, I will remind you that the city is as of last year under a federal consent decree to “spend an estimated $2 billion over the next 15 years to upgrade its troubled sanitary sewer system”. The story doesn’t mention this, but the money is for that purpose, and if it’s not used for that purpose we’ll be dragged back into court. As for the rest, I’m glad we’re building the reserve back up, I suspect we will be needing it again soon.

Are we going to raise the COVID threat level again?

Maybe, but not yet.

Coronavirus infections are on the rise across Houston, wastewater tracking shows, even as fewer people seek testing two years into the pandemic.

Four months after the city saw record infection rates caused by the highly contagious omicron variant, new COVID-19 cases are once again climbing, according to data collected by Rice University and the Houston Health Department. The most recent sewage samples show increased viral loads at all but a few of the city’s three dozen wastewater treatment plants.

Citywide, the amount of virus particles detected in wastewater is up 242 percent above baseline, with an overall positivity rate of 14 percent. Both metrics increased by about a third over the previous samples, taken in early May. At the 69th street plant, serving much of the Inner Loop, officials said virus levels are 123 percent above baseline, with a 22 percent positivity rate.

Despite the uptick, health officials do not anticipate raising Harris County’s threat level to the highest level. The county’s threat level is currently set at moderate, signally a controlled level of COVID spread.

“Even though we see positivity rates going up, our hospital rates continue to remain low, said Dr. Erika Brown of the Harris County Health Department.

[…]

New of the rise in viral levels in the wastewater comes days after researchers at Houston Methodist reported new insight into how the omicron variant is mutating in Houston and across Texas.

Researchers demonstrated that two dominant sublineages of omicron have developed “unprecedented numbers” of spike protein mutations, leading to increased transmissibility. The mutations also enhance its ability to evade vaccines and the immune system.

This is a press release about the study in question; it’s from late April, which I’d classify as more than “days” ago, but whatever. The COVID levels in our wastewater continue to rise, but if the hospitals are still not seeing an increase in patients, then the threat level will stay where it is. I don’t know how long we can maintain this balance, but I sure hope it continues.

That press release is worth a read:

“One of the surprising findings in this study was that many mutations with critical roles in immune escape in previous variants of SARS-CoV-2 do not play the same roles in immune escape in omicron, and, in some cases, the effects of these mutations are completely reversed,” said Gollihar, who is the head of antibody discovery and accelerated protein therapeutics in Houston Methodist’s Center for Infectious Diseases. “The virus also appears to be stabilizing itself to allow for more mutations to evade our immune systems.”

He said this study is the first to systematically dissect each of the omicron mutations across the entirety of the spike protein. Previous studies miss contextual and long-range interactions across the protein.

“We developed a comprehensive map showing various mechanisms of immune escape by omicron that allows us to identify which antibodies retain neutralization activity against the virus,” Gollihar said. “This and future work will enable clinicians to make informed decisions about the use of monoclonal antibody therapy and aid in the development of next-generation vaccines.”

Having this new information about key features of omicron’s spike protein mutations and how they synergize, Gollihar and his team say it’s possible that the continuing accumulation of mutations may set the stage for greatly altering the equilibrium and stability of the spike protein in a way that allows for new, more virulent strains to develop. Understanding this evolution is critical, they say, to better inform future therapeutic targets and vaccine formulations, as the SARS-CoV-2 virus will continue to evolve with new variants inevitably arising and spreading.

Looking forward, they add, the strategy used in this study also will be applicable to future zoonotic outbreaks and other microbial pathogens, providing a powerful platform for investigating evolutionary trajectories of infectious agents and engineering appropriate and adaptable vaccines.

“We will continue to monitor the virus for changes in the spike protein and add new antibodies to test as they are discovered. Continuing to do so will allow us to design better probes for antibody discovery in hopes of engineering new therapeutics by finding potent neutralizing antibodies across all variants,” Gollihar said. “We have also recently expanded the platform to other pathogens where we hope to stay ahead of other potential outbreaks.”

I’m in awe of the work these folks have done and continue to do – I’m speaking of the researchers worldwide, not just these specific ones. We’re in a constant race with this virus, and so far we’ve been able to keep up. As above, I sure hope that continues, too. Stace has more.

The national trend is for less voting by mail

Of interest.

The great vote-by-mail wave appears to be receding just as quickly as it arrived.

After tens of millions of people in the United States opted for mail ballots during the pandemic election of 2020, voters in early primary states are returning in droves to in-person voting this year.

In Georgia, one of the mostly hotly contested states, about 85,000 voters had requested mail ballots for the May 24 primary, as of Thursday. That is a dramatic decrease from the nearly 1 million who cast mail ballots in the state’s 2020 primary at the height of the coronavirus pandemic.

The trend was similar in Ohio, Indiana and West Virginia, which held primaries this month; comparisons were not available for Nebraska, another early primary state.

A step back in mail balloting was expected given easing concerns about COVID-19, but some election officials and voting experts had predicted that far more voters would seek out the convenience of mail voting once they experienced it.

Helping drive the reversal is the rollback of temporary rules expanding mail ballots in 2020, combined with distrust of the process among Republicans and concerns about new voting restrictions among Democrats. And a year and a half of former President Donald Trump and his allies pushing false claims about mail voting to explain his loss to Democrat Joe Biden has also taken a toll on voter confidence.

“It’s unfortunate because our election system has been mischaracterized and the integrity of our elections questioned,” said Ben Hovland, a Democrat appointed by Trump to the U.S. Election Assistance Commission. “Mail ballots are a safe and secure method of voting used by millions of Americans, including myself.”

A record 43% of voters in the U.S. cast mail ballots in 2020, compared with 24.5% in 2016, according to the commission’s survey of local election officials. The number of voters who used in-person early voting also increased, although the jump was not quite as large as in mail ballots, the survey found.

Before the November 2020 election, 12 states expanded access to mail ballots by loosening certain requirements. Five more either mailed ballots to all eligible voters or allowed local officials to do so, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. This year, eight states will mail ballots to every eligible voter.

[…]

Requesting a mail ballot is significantly harder now in Georgia than in 2020, when voters could go online to request a ballot be sent to them without a printed request. Part of the 2021 voting law pushed by Republicans required voters to print or obtain a paper form, then sign it in ink before sending it in by mail, email or fax.

Voters also must include their driver’s license number or some other form of identification after Republicans decided that the process of matching voter signatures was no longer enough security for an absentee ballot application.

“I couldn’t even figure it out,” said Ursula Gruenewald, who lives in Cobb County, north of Atlanta. “Before, I used to just click a button on a website, and they’d send me my ballot. I don’t know what they want now.”

Gruenewald said she usually votes by mail but decided last week to seek out a nearby early voting center, recalling she had waited in line for two hours to vote in person in 2016.

I’m not surprised that voting by mail is down from 2020. Lots of people just like voting in person, I think. I know I do, though I’m a weirdo who actually knows a lot of the candidates and their campaign staffs. I’m also not surprised that it’s down this much given how much harder it is now to vote by mail and how much abuse and disinformation has been heaped on the practice. I think longer term it will tick back up, if only because a significant portion of the population is heading into senior citizen territory and those are the biggest mail ballot users, but who knows how long the Trump/GOP damage will last.

I would be remiss if I didn’t once again harp on the mail ballot rejection issue here in Texas, which wasn’t noted in that story. I have no doubt that there are now people who would have voted by mail, who may have tried to vote by mail in March, who will instead vote in person because of the significant risk of their mail ballot not being counted. I’m still waiting to see if voting by mail in May was any less messy than it was in March. Keep your fingers crossed.

Checking in again on the wastewater

COVID levels keep creeping up.

After the U.S. death toll from COVID-19 hit 1 million deaths on Monday, new data shows numbers on the rise again.

The latest Houston Health Department wastewater results from May 9 show levels are now higher than they were in July of 2020.

The viral load on May 9 was 127 percent higher in comparison to July 6, 2020.

The July 2020 readings serve as a baseline for wastewater testing, since that was during the summer surge of cases.

The positivity rate in Houston is also now at 8 percent. At the end of March, Houston’s wastewater positivity rate was 2 percent.

Since the results are delayed, levels are likely higher now.

Houston Methodist is also reporting a rise in cases over the last two weeks.

[…]

“We have also seen our first cases of BA.4 and BA.5, which we will continue to monitor, since literature suggests these variants escape immunity from previous Omicron infection,” [Dr. Wesley Long of Houston Methodist] tweeted. “Vaccines are still our best defense against COVID-19 along with masking and distancing.”

Long also says while the wastewater levels are nearly 30 percent higher than the July 2020 surge, that the public shouldn’t be fearful, but shouldn’t ignore the trend either.

“The bottom line is, the amount of virus in the community is going up,” Long said. “That’s one thing we know for sure. I wouldn’t be worried, but I would be paying attention.”

There was a story in the Sunday print edition of the Chron about the Houston wastewater tracking, with a byline from the NY Times, but I could not find it online. Note that this KHOU story reports on the May 9 virus level in two different ways, saying that the viral load is “127 percent higher” and also that it is “nearly 30 percent higher”. The latter is correct – the Houston COVID dashboard says that the COVID load is “127% in comparison to the July 2020 level”, which is to say up 27%. Pay attention in those math classes, people.

At this point, until there is a new type of vaccine, we have what we’re going to get. I heard on the CityCast Houston podcast that the vax level in Harris County is about 67%, which is better than it used to be but still too low to really slow things down. What we can do is whatever we can to get the unvaxxed people in our lives to get the shots, and we can get boosted – one if we’re under 50, two if we’re over. Get your kids boosted, which also very much means getting them vaxxed in the first place – only about 30% of kids in this range have had two shots, which is just madness to me. Wear your masks when in indoor public places again, and avoid needless indoor public gatherings. You have to take care of yourself now, so do it. Until it gets worse – and I still hope it won’t – this is the best you can do.

UPDATE: The May 16 numbers are now on the dashboard, and they show that we are at 170% of the July 6, 2020 level. Not great!

The STAAR is back

Missed this last week.

For the first time since the pandemic began, Texas public schools will be rated based on how students score on the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness — more commonly known as the annual STAAR test.

It’s the latest big step toward normalcy for the state’s 8,866 public schools — which includes 782 charter schools — since the COVID-19 pandemic forced school closures in early 2020.

But this year’s ratings come with a few changes. For this year only, schools will receive an A-C rating. Districts and schools that score D or F will receive a “Not Rated” label instead. Schools who fall in those bottom tiers will also evade possible sanctions from the Texas Education Agency during the 2022-2023 school year.

The news comes as thousands of students in grades 3 through 12 are taking the exam this spring. Last year, students had the option to take the STAAR test and results were not held against them or the district.

The ratings, those letter grades affixed on school buildings across the state, are typically released by the Texas Education Agency in August. But when the coronavirus began appearing in the United States more than two years ago, schools were shut down and as a result, standardized testing school testing was canceled for the year.

The new A-C rating this year will allow districts that still have a D or F from 2019 to have a shot of getting a better grade.

[…]

Last year, STAAR results showed that the pandemic had a significant impact on student learning with far lower scores than before the pandemic, especially when it came to math. Also, schools that relied more heavily on online class instruction had students who scored significantly lower than those school that were able to open and offer in-person instruction.

There’s fear that this year’s test scores may be impacted again because of pandemic-related school closures and teacher absences that occurred during surges in infection caused by the delta and omicron variants of the coronavirus.

Even though the rating system has been changed this year, not everyone is a fan of the school rating system to begin with.

Matthew Gutierrez, superintendent of the Seguin Independent School District, near San Antonio, believes the STAAR will be helpful to gauge students’ academic level, but the letter grades should’ve been postponed this school year as well because of the continued COVID-19 disruptions. Seguin, along with other districts, had teachers and substitutes out with COVID-19 during the omicron surge this past winter.

“We had students who went days without support from their certified teacher,” he said. “You had situations where you were combining classrooms and having really creative staffing, so it’s not optimal for learning.”

Gutierrez is also concerned about the “Not Rated” label. He said if a district scored an F in 2019 and then a D this school year, that district won’t get credit for that progress.

Yeah, last year’s STAAR results weren’t great. They might be better this year, but as a whole we’re likely still pulling ourselves out of the ditch caused by the pandemic. We could just do like last year and skip the grades, since we’re essentially giving the schools that don’t get good results a break. I’m not sure what the point of this halfway-accountable system is, and I’m also not sure that we missed anything by not going through this rigmarole the past couple of years. It’s been a hard year for everyone. Let’s accept that and make it a little easier on ourselves.

We really missed counting a lot of people in Texas

Over half a million, by the latest estimate.

Tripped up by politics and the pandemic — and with only a last-minute investment in promotion by the state — the 2020 census likely undercounted the Texas population by roughly 2%, the U.S. Census Bureau said Thursday.

The once-a-decade national count put Texas’ official population at 29,145,505 after it gained the most residents of any state in the last decade, earning two additional congressional seats. In a post-count analysis using survey results from households, the bureau estimated that the count for people living in Texas households — a slightly smaller population than the total population — failed to find more than half a million residents. That’s the equivalent of missing the entire populations of Lubbock, Laredo and then some.

The undercount means that many residents were missing from the data used by state lawmakers last year to redraw congressional and legislative districts to distribute political power. For the next decade, the undercount will also be baked into the data used by governments and industry to plan and provide for communities.

Texas is just one of six states that the bureau determined had a statistically significant undercount. The others were Arkansas, Florida, Illinois, Mississippi and Tennessee.

[…]

Even as other states poured millions of dollars into census campaigns, Texas left local governments, nonprofits and even churches to try to reach the millions of Texans who fall into the categories of people that have been historically missed by the count — immigrants, people living in poverty and non-English speakers, to name a few.

Already without state funds, the local canvassing and outreach efforts relying on in-person contact were shut down by the coronavirus pandemic just as they were ramping up in the spring of 2020. The bureau extended time for counting by a few months, but the Trump administration later accelerated the deadline.

As Texas fell behind in the counting compared to other states, organizers struggled to reach groups at the highest risk of being missed as the pandemic continued to ravage their communities. It wasn’t until the 11th hour that Texas quietly launched a sudden pursuit of a multimillion-dollar advertising campaign to promote the count using federal COVID relief dollars.

By then, with just a month of counting to go, the self-response rate for Texas households had barely topped 60%. As census workers followed up in person with households that hadn’t responded, the share of households accounted rose, but Texas remained far behind several other states and several percentage points behind the national average.

[…]

Because it’s based on comparing the 2020 census to a followup population survey, the Texas undercount is more of a statistical guess and carries a margin of error. In the case of Texas, the bureau estimates the undercount could have been as large as 3.27% or as small as .57%. By limiting its analysis to people living in households, it leaves off people living in college dorms, prisons and other group quarters.

The bureau did not report any statistically significant undercounts after the 2010 census.

The bureau will not be providing more detailed undercount figures to determine which areas of the state or residents were missed in the census. But earlier this year, it reported the communities were not equally left off. Nationally, the census significantly undercounted communities of color, missing Hispanic residents at a rate of 4.99% — more than triple the rate from the 2010 census. Black residents were undercounted at a rate of 3.3% and Native Americans at a rate of 5.64%.

The 2020 Census also had a larger undercount of children under the age of 5 than every other census since 1970.

A previous estimate had the undercount at around 377K. That could still be accurate – note that this is a range, not a single number – but it is likely that it was higher. We certainly could have added one more Congressional district if the Republicans had given a damn, but since the undercount was mostly people of color, what did they care? Cities can still file a challenge to their official tally, but so far none have. It is what it is at this point. The Chron has more.

Treasury Department opens investigation into Abbott’s use of federal funds for border mission

Good, though I have a hard time believing there will be any real consequences.

Gov. Greg Abbott’s use of COVID-19 relief dollars to support his border security mission has come under scrutiny in Washington this week as questions grow about whether it’s the proper use of the federal funds.

The U.S. Treasury Department’s inspector general opened an inquiry into the spending on Tuesday, the Washington Post reported. The action came a day after a group of Texas Democrats in the U.S. House called on U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen to investigate.

Those steps followed a Post analysis of money intended to combat the effects of the pandemic, showing that Texas “leaders rerouted public health and safety funds to their border operations, while relying on federal pandemic funds to replace some of the money.”

Those border operations included Operation Lone Star, a state border security program that Abbott launched in March 2021 to deal with increased border crossings. The initiative involves the deployment of the Texas Department of Public Safety and the Texas Military Department to the border. Abbott has used state resources to patrol the border, build border barriers and arrest migrants for trespassing on private land and then turn them over to immigration authorities.

The state has spent around $4 billion on the operations; the Post has reported that around $1 billion in coronavirus aid was used.

The money came from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act, better known as the CARES Act, which had a key provision to support the medical response to the pandemic.

“In exercise of that responsibility … we are currently conducting a review of Texas’s uses of [Coronavirus Relief Fund] monies,” Richard K. Delmar, the U.S. Treasury Department’s deputy inspector general, said to the Washington Post.

[…]

Texas Democratic U.S. Reps. Joaquin Castro of San Antonio and Veronica Escobar of El Paso spearheaded the letter to Yellen asking for her department to investigate the matter.

“It is negligent and irresponsible for Governor [Abbott] to direct additional funding to Operation Lone Star, especially if the funding in question was intended to help Texans rebuild from the pandemic,” the Texas Democrats wrote.

U.S. Reps. Colin Allred of Dallas, Lloyd Doggett of Austin, Marc Veasey of Fort Worth and Sylvia R. Garcia, Al Green, Lizzie Pannill Fletcher and Sheila Jackson Lee of Houston joined in signing the letter.

“As you continue your oversight of the Coronavirus State Fiscal Recovery Funds, we urge you to ensure all states are using these crucial funds for the reasons they were meant to be used,” they continued. “Governor Abbott must not be allowed to use federal coronavirus relief funds to further his political theater at the expense of Texas families.”

I’m happy for this, but let’s be clear that there are no circumstances under which Greg Abbott will be chastened by the outcome of the investigation, and no circumstances under which he will admit to any wrongdoing or make any changes in his behavior, except for the worse. Voting him out is still the only real hope at this point. Daily Kos has more.

It’s city of Houston budget time again

That federal COVID relief money continues to be very nice.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Once again relying on federal money, Mayor Sylvester Turner’s proposed $5.7 billion budget for next year would pay for raises for all city employees, offer tax relief to seniors and disabled residents, and sock away the largest reserves in years for savings, according to an outline Turner shared Tuesday at City Hall.

The city often faces nine-figure budget deficits, forcing it to sell off land and defer costs to close gaps. For the third consecutive year, though, the city will rely on hundreds of millions of dollars in federal COVID-19 relief money to avoid a budget hole and free up other revenue for the mayor’s priorities.

The city is set to receive more than $300 million this year from the most recent stimulus package approved by Congress, and Turner has proposed using $160 million in the budget. The city has received more than $1 billion in such assistance over the last three years.

City Council is expected to propose amendments and vote to adopt the spending plan next month. The budget will take effect on July 1, the start of the next fiscal year.

With about $311 million in reserves, Turner is establishing the healthiest fund balance the city has seen in decades, which he called necessary given the uncertainty of rising inflation, the continuing COVID-19 pandemic and the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

The city budgeted $205 million in reserves last year, the first time it exceeded $200 million in reserves since 2009. The city’s financial policy calls for an unassigned reserve worth 7.5 percent of the general fund; this year’s amount is nearly double that, 13.5 percent.

That money also will help the next mayor and council confront budgets when the federal assistance runs dry and the city must fend for itself, Turner said. The relief funds must be obligated by 2024 and spent by 2026.

“I think what we all recognize is that some of the major cost-drivers will be driving this budget for the next several years… I don’t want to put future mayors and council members in a worse position,” Turner said. “As the city weans itself eventually off the (federal) funds, you’re going to be back with the fund balance.”

You can see a list of things in the proposed budget herer. HPD, HFD, Solid Waste, and Parks and Rec all get increases. We’ll see how spicy the amendments process is.

Time once again for Texas hospitals to struggle financially

I feel their pain, but…

More than $3 billion in federal money has flowed to Texas health care providers in recent months to help pay for COVID-19 treatments, tests and vaccines for patients without health insurance, according to national health officials.

Of that, a tiny fraction — some $2.2 million — went to the local independent hospital in rural Titus County for treating patients during wave after overwhelming wave of the devastating virus in an area where 1 in 3 residents are uninsured.

But the 174-bed Titus Regional Medical Center in northeast Texas needed every penny it could get as it struggled to cover the sudden, skyrocketing expenses of the pandemic: paying staff competitive wages to keep them on the job, keeping up with federal safety rules and managing record-breaking numbers of patients pouring into in the intensive care unit from a 150-mile radius, said CEO Terry Scoggin.

Now, after sending some $19 billion to hospitals and other health care providers nationwide, the fund known as the Health Resources and Services Administration COVID-19 Uninsured Program — created to help hospitals like Titus Regional pay for the care of uninsured COVID patients — has dried up.

While the halting of funds comes as Texas has seen infection numbers fall dramatically, the virus is still largely uncontrolled, causing surges and lockdowns in other countries. In the past, those surges abroad have always occurred before new cases rise again here in the United States, including Texas, which has more uninsured residents than any other state.

The failure to renew the program in time to continue reimbursing providers means that hospitals, clinics, private practices and others that don’t get public health funding from the state will have to “eat the cost” if they don’t charge for COVID-related services, Scoggin said.

“It’s a huge issue for us because we have so many adults who are uninsured,” Scoggin said. “And so it was kind of a kick in the gut for us when they shut that program off because I thought it was a good use of funds for the COVID piece.”

Refusing care to those patients who can’t pay is not an option, legally or morally, he said.

“We can’t turn people away, so we’re still going to pay for it,” Scoggin said. “It just shifted the expense of the uninsured from federal funds to individual hospitals.”

We’ve discussed the financial straits of rural hospitals in Texas before. I am once again pointing out that the locale in which this story is sited, Titus County, is yet another place that votes heavily Republican – Trump and Cornyn in 2020 and Abbott and Cruz in 2018 all topped 70% of the vote. I continue to have empathy for the employees of these hospitals, who for all I know may be habitually voting for politicians whose stated policy preferences are to help them. But I’m also saying it would be nice for these stories to include that easy-to-look-up data, because the simple fact is that if the likes of Greg Abbott or John Cornyn wanted to help the Titus Regional Medical Center, by expanding Medicaid or helping to push through more federal funds for the care of uninsured COVID payments, they could absolutely do so. The dots are just sitting there, waiting to be connected. We should do that.

Are we about to get more COVID in Houston?

We could be.

New data from the Texas Medical Center shows COVID-19 cases have leveled off over the past week, but some trends suggest the Greater Houston area could be on the verge of seeing higher virus spread.

TMC hospitals reported an average of 351 new cases per day during the week of April 18, the same number it reported during the previous seven-day period. The number of new cases does not include anyone who used an at-home test and did not report a positive result.

Those numbers represent a significant decline from last month, when the hospitals were reporting an average of 2,592 new cases per day.

However, the effective reproduction rate – or the average number of people who will be infected by someone with COVID – increased to 1.0 last week, up from 0.82 one week earlier. The rate essentially measures how well collective behaviors like wearing masks and social distancing are slowing the spread of the virus, with any rate higher than 1.0 meaning that spread is increasing.

The amount of virus being detected at the city of Houston’s wastewater treatment plants has also increased to the highest rate since Feb. 7, according to data from the Houston Health Department. Twenty-one of the city’s 39 wastewater treatment plants saw an increase in viral load in samples that were collected and analyzed April 18. By comparison, 16 plants saw in increase in samples collected and analyzed one week earlier.

The TMC’s weekly update also shows new hospitalizations have increased to an average of 59 admissions per day during the week of April 18, up from 42 the week before. TMC hospitals admitted an average of 89 new patients per day last month.

The data isn’t strongly conclusive, but it’s also early in what could be a trend, and as we know with this virus once you really start to see an uptick, it’s already too late. On the other hand, lots of people have COVID antibodies now, and that plus the number of vaxxed people who haven’t had COVID is probably enough to mitigate any crazy spread, or at least to make it less harmful, at this time. But of course there are still plenty of high-risk people out there, and lots of kids haven’t been vaxxed, and no one wants to get even a mild case of COVID. So, you know, stay cautious. You can still wear a mask even if you don’t have to, and you can get that second booster if you’re eligible. It’s never a bad idea to minimize your exposure to this thing. Stace has more.

Looks like Texas didn’t even have to sue to keep Title 42 from ending

A different Trump judge already put it in the bag for them.

A federal judge in Louisiana plans to temporarily block the Biden administration from ending Title 42, a pandemic-era health order used by federal immigration officials to expel migrants, including asylum-seekers, at the U.S.-Mexico border.

The temporary restraining order is expected in a lawsuit brought by Louisiana, Arizona and Missouri after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced it would let the order expire May 23. The details of such a restraining order were not available late Monday.

“The parties will confer regarding the specific terms to be contained in the Temporary Restraining Order and attempt to reach agreement,” according to minutes from a Monday status conference in the case.

See here for the background. Sure is convenient to have a Trump judge for all purposes, isn’t it? Daily Kos has more.

Texas sues to stop the end of Title 42

Just another day at the office of destruction for Ken Paxton.

Best mugshot ever

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton filed a lawsuit against the Biden administration on Friday to halt the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from lifting Title 42, a pandemic-era health order used by federal immigration officials to expel migrants, including asylum-seekers, at the U.S.-Mexico border.

Title 42, which was enacted in March 2020 by the Trump administration, has been used 1.7 million times to expel migrants. Many of them have been removed multiple times after making repeated attempts to enter the U.S.

The CDC has the authority to enact orders like Title 42 under the 1944 Public Health Service Act, which gives federal officials the authority to stop the entry of people and products into the U.S. to limit the spread of communicable diseases. Part of the reason the agency is planning to lift the order soon is that COVID-19 cases have been decreasing and vaccinations have become widely available. The order is set to expire on May 23.

Paxton’s lawsuit argues that the Biden administration didn’t follow the administrative procedure laws needed to halt Title 42. The suit adds that if the Biden administration follows through with lifting the order, Texas will have to pay for social services for the migrants who enter the country.

“The Biden Administration’s disastrous open border policies and its confusing and haphazard COVID-19 response have combined to create a humanitarian and public safety crisis on our southern border,” the lawsuit says, which was filed in the Southern District of Texas in Victoria.

U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra, who is named as a defendant in the lawsuit, said on Thursday during a virtual event with the Council on Foreign Relations that health orders are not immigration policies.

“You don’t use a health law to deal with a migration challenge. You use migration laws to deal with migration challenges. You can’t use the cover of health to try to deal with a migration challenge,” he said.

[…]

The state has filed at least 20 other lawsuits in Texas-based federal courts, most of them led by Paxton, against the Biden administration over everything from federal mask mandates to halting the long-disputed Keystone XL pipeline. Judges appointed by former President Donald Trump have heard 16 of the cases and ruled in favor of Texas in seven. The other nine are pending, as of last month.

A majority of these lawsuits have been filed in courts in which the judge was appointed by Trump.

I mean, we could just wait until the combination of Democratic cold feet and empty both-siderism appeals forces Biden to back off anyway, but Paxton has never been one to wait for things to happen when he can find a friendly Trump judge to make them happen for him. Looks like I picked a bad day to quit sniffing glue. The Chron has more.

Our deadly roads

It was a bad year last year.

Last year was the second deadliest on record for vehicle fatalities on Texas roads, reflecting a lethal trend here and throughout the nation, especially in large urban areas.

In 2021, 4,480 people died in collisions on Texas highways, the most since 1981, and a 15 percent increase in fatalities over the previous year, according to the Texas Department of Transportation, which has tracked vehicle deaths since 1940.

Nationwide, fatal vehicle crashes in the first half of 2021 were up 18.4 percent over 2020. These statistics include crashes in which pedestrians are killed.

Traffic safety engineers say there are a multitude of reasons for the increase – some obvious, some almost counterintuitive, and some embedded in drivers’ habits and attitudes, making them harder to measure.

Driving under the influence of alcohol continues to be the second most common factor in deadly highway collisions in Texas, just behind “failed to stay in single lane” and ahead of speeding.

Robert Wunderlich, director of the Center for Transportation Safety at the Texas A&M Transportation Institute, is one of many experts who noticed an alarming trend in transportation safety during the coronavirus pandemic. As more people stayed home and roads emptied, lonely highways became more enticing for those who like to speed.

When vehicles collide, “just a ten percent increase in speed, say from 60 mph to 70 mph, results in a 38 percent increase in fatal crashes,” he said.

“It’s just physics and the dissipation of energy and what that does to the human brain in a crash,” he said. “People have simply got to slow down. People should enjoy the journey more and not try to arrive five to 10 minutes earlier.”

Put another way, some cities may have experienced the same number of crashes year over year, but during the pandemic many of the crashes occurred at significantly higher speeds, making them more deadly, both for vehicle occupants and, obviously, for any pedestrians involved.

In 2021, at least 821 pedestrians died in auto collisons in Texas, up 15 percent over 2020 totals — the same increase seen in auto-bicycle deaths — though both years were influenced by the pandemic.

Freeway crashes are not the biggest problem, and researchers often wryly point out that urban traffic jams at rush hour slow down traffic and demonstrably save lives.

Rush hour or not, city expressways have the best safety performance per vehicle mile primarily because people are traveling in the same direction and freeways usually have more safety features in place, Wunderlich said.

“What we’re more concerned about is that person driving 70 on a two-lane, undivided rural road with no shoulders,” said Wunderlich, adding that single car collisions under those conditions result in a “disproportionately high number” of deaths in Texas.

[…]

A more surprising development in the recent increase in road fatalities is that fewer drivers are wearing seat belts. Wunderlich and his researchers have confirmed this with “observational studies” in the field, not just surveys.

One theory suggested by some researchers is that the people who have stayed at home during the pandemic are generally better educated, more risk-averse and less likely to reject government-imposed safety protocols, such as face masks and seatbelts.

Wunderlich isn’t saying that the state’s increase in fatal car crashes has been driven by unmasked, blue collar guys in pickups speeding to their jobs, but he suggests it’s a hypothesis that might deserve some study.

“There are definitely more risk-takers on the road, more people, perhaps, who said, `I don’t need to wear a mask, I don’t need to wear a seatbelt, to hell with all that,’” he said.

Can’t say I’m surprised by that last observation. Texas’ population increase, which is fueled by people moving here at least as much as the birth rate, is also a factor, as a lot of the new people are also drivers. Vehicle size isn’t cited in the story, but we know that bigger vehicles are more deadly – again, it’s a simple matter of physics – and we have a lot of those in the state. That may be more of a perennial factor than a reason for the recent increase, though. I don’t have a good prescription here. Cities like Houston have taken and are taking steps to lower speeds within their limits and to encourage walking and biking and transit, but there’s an awful lot to do to make a dent in the car culture here, and non-car transportation options are vastly outspent and out-prioritized overall. Be careful out there.

Biden administration to appeal airplane mask mandate order

Good.

U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration said on Tuesday it would appeal a judge’s ruling ending a mask mandate on airplanes if public health officials deem it necessary to stem the spread of COVID-19.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, to whom the administration was deferring, said that it would continue to study whether the mandates were still needed. The mandates apply to planes, trains and other public transportation and, prior to Monday’s ruling, had been due to expire on May 3.

“We will continue to assess the need for a mask requirement in those settings, based on several factors, including the U.S. COVID-19 community levels, risk of circulating and novel variants, and trends in cases and disease severity,” a CDC spokesperson said in a statement on Tuesday.

The Justice Department said it would appeal Monday’s ruling by U.S. District Judge Kathryn Kimball Mizelle that the 14-month-old directive was unlawful, if the CDC determined the mandate was needed to protect public health.

See here for the background. For what it’s worth, the public still supports masking on airplanes. Airlines and their employees have not been very fond of it, which is understandable given the amount of petulance and rage they have had to deal with from unhinged mask-haters. Maybe they shouldn’t be so quick to let any of those folks back on board, but that’s just my opinion. It’s true that airplanes have excellent filtration and ventilation, which make them pretty safe from a COVID transmission perspective, though not entirely. And getting on and off the airplane, not to mention being in the airport, is much riskier. Masking up is still your best bet. Slate and Vox have more.

Mask mandate lifted for planes and trains

And other forms of mass transportation.

The Biden administration will no longer enforce a U.S. mask mandate on public transportation, after a federal judge in Florida on Monday ruled that the 14-month-old directive was unlawful, overturning a key White House effort to reduce the spread of COVID-19.

Soon after the announcement, all major carriers including American Airlines AAL.O, United Airlines UAL.O and Delta Air Lines DAL.N, as well as national train line Amtrak relaxed the restrictions effective immediately. Read full story

Last week, U.S. health officials had extended the mandate to May 3 requiring travelers to wear masks on airplanes, trains, and in taxis, ride-share vehicles or transit hubs, saying they needed time to assess the impact of a recent rise in COVID-19 cases caused by the airborne coronavirus. Read full story

Industry groups and Republican lawmakers balked and wanted the administration to end the 14-month-old mask mandate permanently.

The ruling by U.S. District Judge Kathryn Kimball Mizelle, an appointee of President Donald Trump, came in a lawsuit filed last year in Tampa, Florida, by a group called the Health Freedom Defense Fund. It follows a string of rulings against Biden administration directives to fight the infectious disease that has killed nearly one million Americans, including vaccine or testmandates for employers.

Judge Mizelle said the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) had exceeded its authority with the mandate, had not sought public comment and did not adequately explain its decisions.

A U.S. administration official said while the agencies were assessing potential next steps, the court’s decision meant CDC’s public transportation masking order was no longer in effect. The administration could still opt to appeal the order or seek an emergency delay in the order’s enforcement.

“Therefore, TSA will not enforce its Security Directives and Emergency Amendment requiring mask use on public transportation and transportation hubs at this time,” the official said in a statement.

“CDC recommends that people continue to wear masks in indoor public transportation settings.”

The ruling came down on Monday, issued by one of the lesser Trump judges, which is honestly saying something. For us in Houston, this also means that masking at IAH and Hobby airports and on Metro buses and trains is no longer required. It continues to be “encouraged”, which means that some vaccinated people and immunocompromised people who can’t avoid being in that situation will wear them. We’ll be flying a couple of times this summer, including the trip to take daughter #1 to college, and we’ll have our KN-95s on because honestly, why wouldn’t we? It is what it is at this point. Protect yourself and hope for the best.

We don’t have enough garbage truck drivers

We don’t pay them enough, it would seem.

For the last few months, Juan Sorto and his neighbors have looked toward the curb on Thursdays and asked themselves the same uneasy question: Did the garbage trucks come?

Last week, they had. The week before, they had not, according to Sorto. What is supposed to be a routine, weekly service has turned into a more haphazard enterprise in Sorto’s corner of northeast Houston, near Tidwell and Mesa. Sorto said his subdivision’s black bins often have been skipped entirely this year. His neighbors have started storing garbage in their recycling carts, with some spilling out into drainage ditches.

“There’s been times where we’ve gone more than a week without it getting picked up,” said Sorto, a former chair of the city’s Super Neighborhood Alliance. The Solid Waste Management Department said it checked its records and confirmed trucks had been through the neighborhood, but it would monitor the neighborhood more carefully in the future.

The reason for the uneven service, city officials say, is Solid Waste does not have enough drivers.

The department’s workforce has reached its lowest point in decades, and the department rarely is able to assign drivers to all of its routes. It often has to pull employees off recycling, yard waste and heavy trash routes to pick up garbage bins, which must be collected weekly, per state law.

The maneuvering leads to extensive and almost chronic backlogs in recycling and bulk collections, and it burns out drivers, who have been required to work six-day schedules since 2018. Drivers often tally 60 hours a week on Houston’s streets. The department is running nearly double its overtime budget for the year, and it has incurred overruns every year since 2014, often doubling or tripling the budgeted amount. It spent $6.3 million on overtime last year, $7.5 million the year before.

[…]

Solid Waste has struggled for years with collection delays, a scarcity of trucks and other fleet issuesmounting 311 complaints and frustration among residents and their elected leaders. Its workforce, though, is at its lowest point in years.

The department fell below 400 workers last September for the first time in at least two decades. As of December, the department had about 394 employees, down from 439 at the beginning of Turner’s first term, according to the city’s monthly financial reports. It had been treading water for years, with roughly the same number of workers in 2012. Meanwhile, the department has added more than 13,000 residential customers and picked up another 200,000 annual tons of waste in the last decade, budget documents show.

Facing a dwindling staff and a nationwide shortage of commercial drivers, the city last June announced $3,000 signing bonuses for up to 100 new drivers, who make an average base salary of $41,550. It did not stop the attrition; in fact, the department has lost more drivers than it has gained since then.

[Solid Waste Director Mark] Wilfalk called the dropping personnel numbers “scary.”

Private employers, he and the mayor said, simply are able to pay more than the city. Walmart recently announced commercial drivers can make up to $110,000 in their first year with the company.

Solid Waste’s personnel issues come down to basic math. The department has 181 routes that must be picked up each day. Yard waste collection routes require at least two people each, as do heavy trash routes. That means the department needs a minimum of 234 people a day.

Even though the department has 245 drivers and collection workers, some of those work at dump sites or spend their day delivering truck parts. Add in the 10 or so workers who are out sick or on vacation each day, and Solid Waste starts struggling to find enough drivers to cover its routes.

And because trash collection is the top priority, daily staff shortages usually mean recycling and bulk pickup routes get delayed.

See here for some background. That $41K starting salary is probably not going to cut it in this market, and is likely a threat of further departures given the crazy hours these guys are now having to work to keep up, though perhaps the overtime helps a bit. However you look at it, this is a problem that’s going to need some money to solve, and as such our old friend the trash pickup fee is being brought out again. Last seen in 2019 as a (dumb) proposal to pay for the firefighter pay parity measure that is currently blocked, the idea of charging something for solid waste pickup (as many Texas cities do) instead of paying for it all out of general revenue has been around since at least 2007 but has never gotten enough support in any form to be adopted. Will the current situation change that and allow for a fee to be implemented? Maybe, but betting on the status quo is usually the odds-on call. If it does come up again, this is the reason why.

Paxton threatens HISD over its COVID sick leave policy

We live in such stupid times.

Best mugshot ever

Attorney General Ken Paxton and Republicans in the Legislature are taking aim at Houston ISD, arguing that the district’s COVID sick day policy violates state law.

This academic year, Houston ISD is offering 10 additional days of paid sick leave to employees who are vaccinated against the coronavirus but test positive during the school year. Unvaccinated staff, however, must use personal leave time if they are infected.

In a nonbinding opinion last week, Paxton said the policy likely constitutes a “vaccine passport,” the documentation certifying a person’s vaccination status shown in exchange for “entry or services.” The GOP-led Texas Legislature last year outlawed such requirements for both private businesses and public agencies, and Gov. Greg Abbott issued a similar executive order banning the practice last summer.

“A court would likely conclude that, by offering additional paid leave only to those employees showing proof of COVID-19 vaccination or a medical exemption, the Houston Independent School District’s COVID-19 paid leave policy violates” the executive order, Paxton wrote.

Tejal Patel, a spokesperson for Houston ISD, said Paxton’s opinion “does not change the implementation” of the district’s paid leave policy. The last day of classes is just about seven weeks away.

“No court has ruled that the district’s policy of awarding additional leave days to vaccinated employees violates” the executive order, Patel said. “The district continues to evaluate its COVID protocols in our efforts to maintain a safe learning and working environment.”

The point of this was that since HISD couldn’t mandate that employees get vaccinated, they took the approach of incentivizing it by offering a reward to those who did. And it worked pretty well, as the story notes – over 20,000 of the district’s 24,000 employees have been vaccinated. In practice, this is no different than a million corporate wellness programs out there. The one I’m most familiar with offered a discount on your health insurance premium if you jumped through certain hoops, which ranged from things like taking a dumb survey to getting a blood test. If you participated – it was completely voluntary – you got a couple hundred bucks off the cost of your insurance for the year. This made sense for the insurer as well, as it (supposedly, at least) led people towards healthier lifestyles, which meant they’d pay out fewer claims.

So I struggle to see how one differs from the other. Except of course that we’re dealing with the extremely whiny snowflakes who refuse to get a COVID shot and who therefore must be catered to at every turn by politicians like Ken Paxton and Paul Bettencourt, who requested the opinion. God knows, we cannot deprive these special delicate flowers of anything. I approve of HISD’s response. So far, the school districts have done pretty well for themselves ignoring Paxton and Abbott. No guarantees here, and of course the Lege can deal with this next year if the Republicans remain in control, but for now I’d say keep on keeping on and hope for the best.

New variants being detected

Got to keep an eye on that.

Two new omicron subvariants that health officials say are contributing to a COVID uptick in New York State have been identified in Houston, according to researchers at Houston Methodist.

Genome sequencing efforts within the hospital system have detected 83 cases of BA.2.12 and three cases of BA.2.12.1 — two sub-lineages of the dominant variant BA.2 — since the start of the year.

Local case numbers, however, are sitting at their lowest point in nearly a year, according to the Harris County Public Health COVID dashboard, which reports an average of 20 new cases per 100,000 people over the last seven days. That number was as high as 1,256 in mid-January, during the height of the omicron surge.

It’s a different story in New York, which has seen a 70 percent increase in new cases over the two weeks, from a daily average of 3,231 on March 13 to 5,467 on Thursday, according to the New York Times virus tracker.

[…]

Houston wastewater surveillance data show an increasing viral load at a growing number of the city’s treatment plants as of April 4, when samples were last collected.

The city’s wastewater dashboard shows 14 out of 39 total wastewater treatment plants experiencing an increase from the week before, compared to eight on March 28.

The wastewater data is here. As of April 4, the virus level was at 38% of where it was on July 6, 2020, which is the date when this collection project started and is used as the baseline. We’ll have to keep an eye on that of course, but we also have to consider infections versus hospitalizations and deaths. It makes sense to wear a mask in most indoor settings – I do, and plan to continue doing so for the foreseeable future – but it’s not clear yet that we need to do more than that. Other than get vaxxed and boosted, of course, which if you haven’t by now I don’t know what to say to you.

We don’t have to treat political performance art as news

This is a story in the Chronicle about one of our Senators, who made some whiny petulant statements on social media about a celebrity best known for work in the 1980s who had posted about getting his second booster but is still wearing a mask in public because COVID is still a thing. I’m not naming names but I’m sure you know who and what I’m talking about. I’m just here to say that we don’t have to treat this sort of thing as news, even if it does happen on an otherwise slow news day. The senator in question is first and foremost an attention whore, and while one can argue that there is news value in the public statements of such an individual, this really is little more than egging on a toddler who’s having a meltdown because you turned off “Peppa Pig”. Our professional news gathering organizations could choose not to engage with this kind of ridiculous content, or they could choose to engage with them by calling them what they are, narcissistic ploys for attention by politicians who do nothing to serve the public. Reporting on it in the same way as one reports on a new bill being introduced or a committee hearing or a piece of critical analysis of legislation or a campaign does nothing but waste everyone’s time and degrade the political process by rewarding this kind of bad behavior. And now I’m going to stop wasting your time and mine on this.

Grand jury indicts three Hidalgo aides

Not great.

Three Harris County staffers at the center of a mounting investigation into a since-canceled vaccine outreach contract have been indicted with misuse of official information and tampering, according to district clerk records.

Aaron Dunn, Wallis Nader and Alex Triantaphyllis face one felony count on each of the charges. Warrants for their arrest have been issued. Documents elaborating on the charges were not yet available on the district clerk’s website.

Lawyers for at least two of the defendants professed their innocence Monday as the charges were made public.

“Aaron Dunn is innocent — he has been an honest public servant,” attorney Dane Ball said.

A lawyer for Triantaphyllis said she believes upcoming court proceedings will “shine a light” on the lack of wrongdoing.

“These charges against my client are unsupported by a full and objective review of the facts and the voluminous evidence in this case,” lawyer Marla Poirot said in a statement. “In his service to Harris County, Alex has made the people the top priority and worked to ensure that taxpayer resources are utilized as effectively and efficiently as possible.”

Nader’s lawyer could not be reached for comment. The three defendants are expected Tuesday in the 351st District Court.

In the months leading up to the indictments — the Texas Rangers, at the request of the Harris County District Attorney’s Office, identified the three staffers in search warrants as having a role in potentially steering a vaccine outreach contract in 2021 to a vendor by giving them early access.

The three worked under County Judge Lina Hidalgo at the time of the $11 million contract, which she canceled in September amid accusations that her office manipulated the procurement process.

Dunn has since left the office, while Triantaphyllis is the judge’s chief of staff and Nader is her policy director. According to lawyers for Hidalgo and the aides, the three did not view Elevate Strategies, owned by Democratic political consultant Felicity Pererya, as a potential vendor while planning the contract, their lawyers have said. Pererya’s company ultimately won the bid.

The lawyers have argued that one of the documents outlining the outreach contract’s scope of work were sent by mistake. Another was sent as part of an unrelated project.

There are reasons to be dubious of the evidence, but once there’s a headline like this, it’s hard to shake no matter what happens next. I certainly have my doubts about these indictments. We’ll know more soon enough. That’s all I’ve got to say at this time.

COVID hospitalizations at a low in the state

Good news (say it with me) for now.

Texas hospitals are treating fewer than 1,000 patients with COVID-19 for the first time in two years. According to the Texas Department of State Health Services, hospitalizations totaled 993 on Sunday. The last time COVID-19 patients in Texas numbered less than a thousand was April 4, 2020, before the state’s initial surge in hospitalizations, which rose to nearly 11,000 by late July that year.

“Less than a thousand [hospitalizations] is a good place to be and this is what we’ve kind of been waiting for and watching really closely,” said Chief State Epidemiologist Dr. Jennifer Shuford.

Fewer people are getting severely ill and needing medical care, said Dr. Shuford, because nearly the entire Texas population has now developed at least some immune response to SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19.

“We expect, based on some antibody studies that we’ve done, that about 99% of our population has some antibodies to COVID-19, either from vaccination or from prior infection.”

Other infectious disease experts are also cautiously optimistic that vaccinations, combined with four waves of widespread infections – the most recent of which was driven by the omicron variant – will help minimize future surges in cases and hospitalizations.

“I do think that the antibody seroprevalence does have something to do with the declining severity of the illness that we’re seeing in terms of decreased hospitalizations,” said Dr. Robert Atmar, an infectious disease expert who teaches at Baylor College of Medicine.

Dr. Atmar said while he was not aware of how DSHS estimated Texas’ overall immune response, the high rate is possible, especially if infection rates for the virus have been under reported.

“It wouldn’t be surprising if a large percentage of the population had been infected and/or vaccinated. 99% just seems high, but it’s certainly not unreasonable that that might be the case,” he said.

I’m just some guy on the Internet, and I also think 99% is a little high. I do agree that between our mediocre vaccination rate and our undoubtedly high infection rate that a lot of people have at least some immunity at this point, and that is keeping the rate low for now. To some extent, as I understand it, this is how a pandemic becomes endemic – there’s enough residual immunity out there to keep infection rates modest and generally tamp down on larger outbreaks. But that surely comes with no guarantees, and the next bad mutation could happen at any time. If we’re lucky, that will either be relatively mild or be mostly stopped by vaccinations, but at this point who knows what could happen. I’ll be getting booster #2 in the near future, and you should be getting whichever booster you can if you haven’t already. It’s still your best bet.

When is an emergency no longer an emergency?

I don’t know, but not yet.

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo still has emergency powers to handle COVID, after a proposal to end her authority failed at commissioners’ court this week.

The proposal, by Precinct Four Commissioner Jack Cagle, failed on a 3-2 vote Tuesday, with the three Democratic members voting against.

Cagle sought to end the emergency powers granted to Hidalgo, citing the major improvement in pandemic realities and the court’s ability to frequently and quickly convene.

Precinct 1 Commissioner Rodney Ellis called the idea “ridiculous.”

“The mayor will still have emergency powers, the county judges around us would still have emergency powers,” Ellis said.

[…]

Since March 2020, Hidalgo and every county judge in Texas — along with mayors — have had extraordinary ability because of the public health risks of the pandemic to close and open public places, approve contracts and establish emergency shelters, testing sites and vaccine distribution locations. When a disaster is declared by the state — in this case across all 254 counties — county judges are considered the top health official and assume emergency powers similar to those of the governor.

The difference, Cagle argued, is the governor needs them because it would take weeks to reconvene the legislature. Commissioners court can call a meeting in 72 hours.

I don’t want to spend too much time on this, as it was basically a stunt by Commissioner Cagle. It’s not even clear that Commissioners Court could have rescinded the emergency powers, as the preview story notes.

Numerous elected officials continue to have authority under the disaster declaration, including Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner and all county judges across Texas. Under the state’s disaster declaration procedures, county judges in an affected area — in this case all of Texas — have emergency authority. Absent Abbott removing Harris County from the state’s disaster declaration, it is unclear whether Hidalgo would retain that authority with or without the support of local officials.

County judges typically need commissioners’ court approval, but their powers expand greatly as the head of county emergency management. Much of that comes from a 1975 state law that gave special responsibility to mayors, county judges and county health officials.

Exercising the powers, however, is different than having them, some officials said.

“We used common sense, but as the emergency has dragged on I think we have used that authority less and less because we didn’t need to,” said Jason Millsaps, chief of staff to Montgomery County Judge Mark Keough.

Still, Millsaps said Keough maintains the authority.

If literally every other county has retained emergency powers for their Judge, it makes no sense at all for Harris County to do otherwise. When the state and the country are no longer on emergency footing, which is to say no longer feels the need to act quickly in the event of another variant or other crisis, then we can talk.

City Council to return to in-person meetings

I feel like I should always append a “For now” onto commentary about things like this. You know, for all the obvious reasons.

Mayor Sylvester Turner said Wednesday he wants all City Council members to return to the chamber next week for meetings, the first such requirement since May 2020.

City Council went virtual after its first member tested positive for COVID-19, about two months after the pandemic began to upend life in Houston. The body met digitally until the summer of 2021, when it began holding joint meetings that gave council members the choice of joining in person or on Microsoft Teams.

Attendance has varied, but several members typically join the meeting online. On Wednesday, eight of the body’s 16 members attended in person.

“I want you back around the horseshoe,” Turner said Wednesday, referring to City Hall’s arc-shaped table in the second-floor council chamber. “The technology has been fine, but I want you back around the horseshoe next week.”

Still feels a little weird to me to have things going back to full-on in-person as before. You can fill in your own proverb about COVID not being done with us if you want. That said, we are right now in a period of low transmission, and many people do want to get back out into the world. It’s hard to justify high-alert requirements under these conditions. I figure the only way to get people to respond the way we’ll need them to when the virus does come back is to ease up now so we can say “hey, we backed off when the science said we could, now we have to tighten up again”. I can’t say that will work, but at least it feels like it has a chance.

Here comes BA.2 in Houston

But don’t panic, it’s just a change in the virus composition, not an increase in viral load.

Houston is seeing an uptick in the number of BA.2 cases, with genome sequencing and wastewater testing picking up higher levels this week compared to last week.

The more contagious omicron subvariant was identified in 24 percent of patients who were sequenced at Houston Methodist, a jump from the 1 to 3 percent previously reported. BA.2 was also detected at six wastewater treatment plants on March 21 — the most recent day for which data is available — after the Houston Health Department last week said it had not been detected at any plants.

“Previously, we saw some indications of mutations consistent with BA.2 but were not confident in the determination at the time,” health department spokesman Scott Packard said in an email. “Retrospective analysis indicates BA.2 was likely in the wastewater in low levels starting in mid-to-late January.”

The recent data is the first indication of a significant rise in BA.2 in the Houston-area. Eventually, the subvariant is expected to become the dominant strain here, lining up with the nationwide rate, according to the health department.

[…]

In Houston, the average positivity rate over the last two weeks is 1.8 percent, down from the high 30s in the early January. Wastewater testing shows an increasing viral load at nine wastewater plants, while the remaining 30 are plateaued or decreasing.

“Although BA.2 appears to be more contagious than BA.1, the good news is that countries experiencing a spike in cases are not seeing a proportionate spikes in hospitalizations,” Packard said. “That means being up to date on vaccines (initial shots plus boosters) remains highly effective against serious illness, even with BA.2.”

As a reminder, you can see the Houston wastewater dashboard here. I don’t know how long we will be in this trough, but at least in the short term our vax level plus the sheer number of people who contracted the BA.1 version of omicron should help.

In the longer term, as immunity wanes and new variants pop up, it will be time for more shots. A fourth shot has now been authorized by the FDA for us old folks.

A second round of booster shots was greenlighted for everyone over the age of 50 by public health officials on Tuesday, kicking off the regulatory process for shots to likely be available in pharmacies this week.

Everyone 12 and older is already eligible for a booster shot five months after their initial vaccine series if they received an mRNA vaccine like Pfizer or Moderna, or two months after getting the Johnson & Johnson vaccine.

But for those over 50, determined to be a vulnerable age group, officials at the Food and Drug Administration and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have decided the data on waning immunity justifies making another shot available four months after the first boost. And while anyone who meets that criteria can now get another booster, CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said it was “especially important” for those 65 and older and those 50 and older with underlying medical conditions.

“This is especially important for those 65 and older and those 50 and older with underlying medical conditions that increase their risk for severe disease from COVID-19 as they are the most likely to benefit from receiving an additional booster dose at this time,” Walensky said in a statement on Tuesday.

My niece is getting married in June in Washington state. I expect all of us who will be there for it and who are eligible for that booster will have gotten it by then. I ain’t messing around.

More eating outdoors downtown

This is a good idea, and I’m glad it’s being continued.

DINING IN DOWNTOWN HOUSTON CAN be a hassle, what with the limited parking and COVD-19 restrictions affecting seating space at so many eateries. Fortunately, the city of Houston is helping to alleviate some of the restaurant seating issues by encouraging businesses to set up space outside on the street, through the program More Space: Main Street.

Downtown Houston lost about a dozen street-level bars and restaurants because of thinned-out crowds during the pandemic, according to the Downtown District. And the Texas Restaurant Association estimates that the state lost 9,000-10,000 restaurants since the start of the pandemic.

First announced in 2020, More Space: Main Street was created as a way to encourage social distancing. Now, the program has expanded another year, allowing restaurants to continue using makeshift patios that take up street space outside the restaurants. The program temporarily closes off select parts of a seven-block stretch of Main Street to automobile traffic to make it safe.

[…]

David Fields, chief transportation planner for the city, says the program has been a boon for Downtown businesses and city officials received positive feedback from the community. Closing off traffic to this vibrant section of Downtown, he says, has made “a more active and interesting Main Street.”

The program was slated to run until the end of this month, but after its latest evaluation by city officials 一 who found that the program’s participants saw an increase in revenue, and customer and employee retention 一 the Houston City Council voted for More Space: Main Street to be extended until 2023.

See here for the background, and here for the city’s More Space: Main Street page. As I said at the time, this makes a lot of sense to me. Houston is pretty amenable to outdoor dining most of the year, and with some added shade or portable heaters as needed it’s almost always viable. Why wouldn’t we want to take advantage of that? I’m at the point where I’d rather eat outside at most restaurants, and will likely continue to be that way well after COVID becomes part of the background. Kudos to the city for a little innovative thinking when it was really needed.

Studying COVID in cats and dogs

Seems like a reasonable thing to look at.

Brushing a dog’s teeth is hard enough. The dog looks at you plaintively, eyes wide with betrayal, as you insert the toothbrush and perform a quick pantomime of a tooth cleaning in the seconds before it closes its jaws—and heart—to you.

Researchers at the lab of Texas A&M veterinary epidemiologist Sarah A. Hamer have a more difficult task: they must get pets to submit to a nasal swab, something which even many humans have to be cajoled into doing. Their aim is to better understand how COVID-19 spreads from humans to their pets, and how a pet’s behavior, such as whether it shares an owner’s bed or whether it is a prolific face licker, affects that transmission.

The testing has involved more than six hundred animals—mostly in Central Texas—who live in households where at least one human has COVID. Only about a quarter of the pets from which Hamer’s team has taken samples since June 2020 have tested positive for SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID, and just one quarter of those infected pets were symptomatic. Some suffered sneezing, diarrhea, runny noses, and irritated eyes, but the most common symptom owners reported was lethargy: their dogs and cats simply seemed lazier than usual.

“It was all very mild illness, and it all sort of resolved without veterinary interventions,” Hamer said. “From our study, we have no evidence that the virus is killing pets.” (She noted, however, that there have been reports of animals with comorbidities experiencing more severe illness, just as humans might.)

Despite this relatively low threat to cats and dogs, the lab’s work is crucial for surveilling, and understanding, the coronavirus—especially because the pandemic is thought to have originated from an animal-to-human transmission event. (Hamer’s team identified the first known UK variant of the coronavirus in an animal, in March 2021.) Casey Barton Behravesh, an A&M grad who’s now an expert on zoonotic diseases with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, explained that when viruses jump from species to species, there is an increased risk of mutations creating new variants. The CDC has consequently funded much of Hamer’s research, providing about $225,000.

“It’s important to look at both people and animals, tracking mutations and the possible formation of variants, so we can keep a close eye on what might be happening,” Barton Behravesh said. “We don’t want to see a strain emerge that becomes more serious in terms of illness in people or animals. We don’t want a strain to emerge that can’t be detected by the diagnostic tests that we have available, or that might impact the therapeutics that are becoming available, or impact the vaccine.”

Read the rest, it’s good stuff. We know that deer can carry COVID, and since most of us will come in much closer contact with pets than with deer, it’s good to know what the risks may be. The good news is that they seem to be low, but best to stay on top of it.

Yeah, ivermectin is useless against COVID

Hardly a surprise.

Antiparasitic drug Ivermectin became a partisan battleground during the Covid-19 pandemic, as anti-vaccine influencers and Republican politicians hawked it as a miracle cure, to the widespread skepticism of infectious disease experts.

A peer-reviewed study recently presented by Dr. Edward Mills, a professor of health sciences at McMaster University in Canada, offered significant new evidence that ivermectin was coronavirus snake oil all along.

In the largest trial yet analyzing the effectiveness of ivermectin on treating the coronavirus, Mills and his fellow researchers found that Covid-19 patients at risk of severe illness who received ivermectin did no better than those prescribed a placebo, the Wall Street Journal reported on Friday.

“This is the first large, prospective study that should really help put to rest ivermectin and not give any credibility to the use of it for Covid-19,” Peter Hotez, dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine, told the Journal.

Of the 1,358 patients, researchers prescribed half a three-day course of ivermectin pills, and the other half with a placebo. They then tracked how many patients were hospitalized over the course of four weeks, how quickly the patients rid the virus from their bodies, and death rates, among other variables. The researchers parsed the data in a variety of different ways and found no instances where ivermectin impacted patient outcomes.

There’s another study of ivermectin going on in Texas, which I expect will yield similar results. What it might take to convince those who have been humping ivermectin as a cure-all to see reality, I have no idea. For those of us who want to maximize our chances of surviving this pandemic, get vaxxed and boosted, keep wearing masks where it makes sense to do so, and get a real treatment regimen if you need one. It’s pretty simple, honestly.

Iconic Heights church for sale

Some neighborhood news that has us all a little worried.

Photo by Djmaschek, Creative Commons license

Heights Christian Church, a community gathering place for more than a century, is selling its historic property and merging with another congregation.

Rev. Amber Mattingly, the pastor at the church at 1703 Heights Blvd., said Tuesday that dwindling membership and financial resources prompted church leaders to vote in early February to merge with First Christian Church, which operates across from Rice University at 1601 Sunset Blvd. Mattingly said the decision also was made to move out of the property on Heights Boulevard, which includes educational buildings as well as Lambert Hall, a 95-year-old performing arts venue that is on the National Register of Historic Places.

The 42,600-square foot property, which covers the block between 17th and 18th streets on the west side of Heights Boulevard, was listed for sale about two weeks ago, according to Mattingly, who said the church brought in a grief counselor to help its 14 members cope with the development.

“Even though it was a good decision, there’s a lot to be mourned,” she said.

Leonard Wilkin, the board chair for Heights Christian Church, did not immediately respond to a Tuesday voicemail seeking comment. Mattingly said the leadership at the church, founded in 1912, intends to find a buyer that will continue to use the property in service to the community.

As for the fate of the tenants of the property, including a Spanish-speaking congregation, an art studio, a ballet studio and a nonprofit opera company, that remains unclear. Mattingly said the organizations that rent space at Heights Christian Church have been asked to vacate by the end of July.

Opera in the Heights, which has conducted performances at Lambert Hall since 1996, said in a statement released Friday that it is in “ongoing conversations with several venue operators in Houston to explore our options for next season.” The nonprofit opera company said it also is considering organizing a town hall meeting among its supporters, either in person or virtually, to discuss its next steps.

Lambert Hall is one of those places that makes the Heights what it is. We’re not regular opera-goers, but we’ve seen several Opera in the Height performances there. Both of our girls attended the Art on the Boulevard after school program with the delightful Miss Naomi for years – quite a few of the works they produced are still on display in our house. I don’t know what’s in store for this location, and I totally understand why the church, which suffered greatly during the pandemic, felt the need to do what it’s doing, but it’s hard to see this news and not feel a bit anxious about what comes next. I wish everyone involved all the best, and I hope that whoever buys this property has an appropriate amount of respect for it.