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On the campaign trail again

It’s good to be back.

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happy trails, y’all.

Back to Code Red

Hopefully not for too long.

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

The hospitals are getting slammed again

Take precautions, y’all.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Third Court of Appeals upholds Harris County mask mandate

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

Paxton and Abbott argued that the act:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Back to school

Sort of.

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

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

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

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

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

Meanwhile, on a tangential note:

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

Three comments about three vaccine mandate news stories

Item one:

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

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

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

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

Item two:

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

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

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

Item three:

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

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

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

My comments:

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

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

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

Any questions?

Back to school, kids

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Got to keep an eye on the hospitalizations

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

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

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

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

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

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

HISD will not lift its mask mandate

Seems like an easy call at this point.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Our year in COVID

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

Speaks for itself (Source: DSHS)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

Back to threat level orange

Thanks, omicron.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It sucks, but this is where we are now.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

HISD will keep its mask mandate

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Appeals court upholds Dallas mask mandate

There’s still mask mandate litigation going on, and Greg Abbott keeps getting his ass handed to him.

Clay Jenkins

Mask mandates will be allowed in the State of Texas. The Fifth Court of Appeals in Dallas issued the ruling during the late night on November 22.

The decision is the latest chapter in the fight between Governor Greg Abbott and Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins over how to handle the COVID-19 pandemic.

Jenkins had argued he had the right to issue a local mask mandate if it means protecting public health and that he had the power to do so under the Texas Disaster Act.

Abbott had asserted that he had the authority to issue a statewide order banning the mandates. His attorneys argued it was a matter of law and that the governor was given the power under the Texas Disaster Act.

On Monday, an appeals judge issued a temporary injunction against the governor’s ban saying, “…Abbott lacks legal authority to act as he attempted. Instead, by endeavoring to exercise power beyond that given to him in the Disaster Act, he attempted to infringe on Jenkins’s powers.”

[…]

After a district judge issued a temporary injunction supporting Jenkins in August, the governor’s office sought a higher ruling from the district court of appeals.

Neither the governor’s office nor the Texas Attorney General’s office have commented on the ruling, but they could choose to appeal it to the Supreme Court of Texas.

“We’ll have to see what the attorney general and the governor want to do, but I’m not tired and I will continue to stand for your public health against any other elected official,” said Jenkins.

In the meantime, Jenkins says, don’t let all the legal back and forth confuse you.

“Don’t listen to what people tell you is legal. Listen to what doctors tell you is safe,” he said.

See here for the previous entry, and here for the opinion. Note that this is a state lawsuit about what cities and counties can do, and has nothing to do with the federal lawsuit that the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals was meddling in. Different Fifth Courts – believe me, I know, it’s confusing.

Beyond that, not a whole lot of coverage when I went looking for stories, which I knew to do because I saw this tweet from Judge Jenkins. Maybe that’s a holiday week problem, I don’t know. As I said, there’s a ton of lawsuits out there over the Abbott executive order that banned mask mandates by cities and counties and school districts, and so far the plaintiffs have mostly won. That may all come crashing to a halt at the Supreme Court, but until then the leaders who have been bold and exercised actual leadership have been rewarded for it. Gotta enjoy those victories while you can.

Fifth Circuit puts school mask order on hold

This effing court.

A federal appeals court has reinstated Gov. Greg Abbott’s executive order banning mask mandates as it weighs a federal judge’s ruling that the ban violates the rights of disabled students.

U.S. District Judge Lee Yeakel previously ruled that the order violated the Americans with Disabilities Act and the American Rescue Plan, which gives discretion to school districts to follow Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance on the virus. Yeakel, an appointee of former President George W. Bush, had banned state Attorney General Ken Paxton from enforcing the order, including suing school districts that required masks.

Texas appealed the judge’s ruling to the Fifth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals in New Orleans, a court composed mostly of judges appointed by Republican presidents that has historically trended conservative in its legal decisions. Wednesday’s decision was made by a three-judge panel, two of whom were appointed by former President Donald Trump.

The lawsuit was brought by Disabled Rights Texas on behalf of a number of children with disabilities in Texas. Lawyers for those children argued the law banning mask mandates goes against CDC advice and that it doesn’t allow schools to consider mask mandates as an accommodation for kids with disabilities who are particularly vulnerable to COVID-19. They argued that it violates the ADA, which requires equal access to public goods for people with and without disabilities.

See here for the background. Other than the Bloomberg News story linked in the Chron piece, which says that the order was made by the court without any explanation, I can’t find any coverage of this, so this is what we know. But honestly, how much more do we need to know? As with the SB8 case and the detailed ruling given by the district court judge, the Fifth Circuit exists to enforce a partisan orthodoxy on whatever comes before it. When was the last time the state of Texas went running to them to ask for a stay on a ruling they didn’t like and got a No answer? All of the things that reformers want to do to the Supreme Court need to be done with even more urgency to this abomination.

HISD will consider lifting its mask mandate

After the holidays, depending on how things go.

Houston ISD will consider changing its mask mandate policy after the winter break in the wake of expanded vaccine eligibility for youngsters and improving pandemic conditions in the city, Superintendent Millard House II said Monday.

House noted there have been spikes of COVID-19 infections following holidays since the pandemic began and said he would like to get through the winter holidays before deciding whether to lift the face-covering rule.

The district will seek feedback from the community about whether it should modify its mandate before making a decision, he said.

“We would like to get through the holidays and then we will come back from the holidays and consider what the data is telling us at that particular point,” House said. “And if we are continuing to push forward in the right direction — like we are heading right now — there will be consideration around, you know, not making the mask mandate mandated.”

[…]

Earlier this month, County Judge Lina Hidalgo reduced the threat level of COVID from “severe” to “significant” due to a decrease in new cases and hospitalizations. She encouraged unvaccinated persons to avoid gatherings, wear a mask and get a vaccine while asking those fully vaccinated to wear masks indoors due to significant transmission.

The Texas Medical Center reported 43 new hospitalizations on Sunday. Approximately 56.7 percent of the county’s population is considered fully vaccinated, per county data; that reflects nearly 69 percent of population aged 12 and older who are eligible for the vaccine. Across Texas, 54 percent of the population is considered fully vaccinated, according to state data.

Dr. Omar Matuk-Villazon, a pediatrician and Chief Medical Officer at the UH College of Medicine, said he has heard from children who are excited to get a shot because they see it as a way to get rid of masks. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention still recommends universal masking in schools, but he said discussing paths to getting rid of mandates is a worthwhile conversation.

“Let’s have every kid who wants to be protected get protected and then let’s decide after that,” Matuk-Villazon said. “We may lose public health care trust. … We need to have a plan.”

At HISD, House has repeated since implementing the mandate less than two weeks before a full return to in-person instruction in August that it could be changed, depending on the circumstances of the pandemic. During recent town halls, he told some parents who asked him to consider changing it that it was his hope to, when the time is right.

Since the start of school, the district of nearly 195,000 students, has logged 3,569 cumulative cases among kids and 496 among staffers. As of Monday, it reported 241 active cases, 213 of which were students and 28 staffers.

As the story notes, some area districts have already lifted their mask mandates, while others haven’t made any plans to do away with theirs. HISD is also partnering with the Houston Health Department to provide vaccines for children ages 5 and up at select schools. I’m basically fine with this plan, and if you’ve listened to any of my HISD candidate interviews, you know this combination of “more vaccinations plus a sufficiently low case rate” was the consensus view for when the mask mandate should be eased up. I don’t think we need to be in any rush, so waiting to see if there are any post-holiday spikes is a good idea.

HISD really has done a good job of keeping everyone safe so far this semester. I can tell you, the number of calls and emails I’ve gotten about confirmed cases at my kids’ schools is far less than it was last spring. We should want to get to a point where it’s safe to let people go maskless. I hope this means that the vax rate among HISD teachers and staffers is sufficiently high to pursue this, and I would be very happy for them to continue to enforce masking among those who aren’t vaxxed. They’re the risky ones, after all. In the meantime, let’s set this goal, and then work to make it reachable. It’s worth doing.

Bexar mask mandate back on

Abbott and Paxton take another L.

A temporary order that allows the City of San Antonio and Bexar County to require masks in their buildings will stay in place until a lawsuit challenging an executive order goes to trial in December, the 4th Court of Appeals ruled Wednesday.

In another blow to Gov. Greg Abbott’s executive order, U.S. District Judge Lee Yeakel ruled Wednesday in Austin that the ban on mask mandates in schools violates the Americans with Disabilities Act — freeing local officials to again create their own rules, according to The Texas Tribune.

After San Antonio and Bexar County sued Abbott over his July executive order that prohibited local governments from issuing mask mandates, a Bexar County district judge issued a temporary injunction in August. That temporary injunction gave the city and county the ability to require masks inside city- and county-owned facilities as well as in public schools that teach pre-kindergarten through 12th grade.

The 4th Court of Appeals had already upheld the temporary injunction after Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton appealed the trial court’s decision and argued that his appeal automatically blocked the city and county’s mask mandate. That decision made in August was temporary until the appellate court could take up the matter and issue a more final decision, which occurred Wednesday, said Larry Roberson, civil division chief of the Bexar County District Attorney’s office.

“This is the opinion on the temporary injunction,” he said. “The earlier issues were just procedural.”

The city and county argued that the governor’s executive order exceeded his scope of authority by blocking local governments from creating public health prevention measures. They also argued that by not having the ability to enforce their own public health measures, coronavirus transmission would be more widespread without masks and cause irreparable harm.

Their arguments were enough to validate the need for a temporary injunction, three judges on the 4th Court of Appeals found.

“We conclude that the City and County have pled sufficient facts to establish that their injuries are ‘likely to be redressed by the requested relief,’” Chief Justice Rebeca C. Martinez wrote in the appellate court’s opinion issued Wednesday.

See here for the previous update and here for the court’s opinion. I will note that this is still a temporary restraining order and that the merits of the case will be heard at trial on December 13. That said, I will also note these sentences from the opinion, which addresses the question of whether Abbott had the power to forbid local governments from issuing mask mandates with the emergency powers granted to him under the Texas Disaster Act of 1975:

We hold Section 418.016(a) does not provide the Governor with the authority he claims to suspend statutes that concern local control over public health matters or to prohibit local restrictions on face coverings.

[…]

Applying the plain language of the Act, we conclude the City and County demonstrated a probable right to relief that the Governor’s power to suspend laws, orders, and rules under section 418.016(a) does not include the power to prohibit face-covering mandates that local governments may adopt to respond to public-health conditions or the power to suspend public-health statutes authorizing local governments to act for the benefit of public health.

[…]

Because the Governor possesses no inherent authority to suspend statutes under the Texas Constitution and he exceeded the scope of statutory authority granted to him by the Legislature, his actions in issuing Executive Order GA-38 were done without authority.

In between is a bunch of technical legal stuff that will make your eyes glaze over, but the bottom line is that this directly addresses the claim that the Governor’s emergency powers allow for him to suspend local orders that are intended to mitigate the disaster in question, an authority that would seem to contradict the whole purpose of a “Disaster Act”. We’ve discussed that several times here, and while that question will surely come up again in the trial court hearing and later on appeal, it’s good to see this basic idea affirmed here by the appellate court. May such common sense continue to prevail as this moves on to the trial stage. The Current has more.

Federal judge blocks Abbott’s ban on school mask mandates

Excellent news.

A federal judge ruled Wednesday that Gov. Greg Abbott’s executive order prohibiting mask mandates in schools violates the Americans with Disabilities Act — freeing local officials to again create their own rules.

The order comes after a monthslong legal dispute between parents, a disability rights organization and Texas officials over whether the state was violating the 1990 law, known as the ADA, by not allowing school districts to require masks. U.S. District Judge Lee Yeakel barred Attorney General Ken Paxton from enforcing Abbott’s order.

“The spread of COVID-19 poses an even greater risk for children with special health needs,” Yeakel said. “Children with certain underlying conditions who contract COVID-19 are more likely to experience severe acute biological effects and to require admission to a hospital and the hospital’s intensive-care unit.”

The judge said the governor’s order impedes children with disabilities from the benefits of public schools’ programs, services and activities to which they are entitled.

The advocacy group, Disability Rights Texas, filed the federal lawsuit on behalf of several Texan families in late August against Abbott, Paxton and Texas Education Agency Commissioner Mike Morath. It states that the governor’s order and the TEA’s enforcement of it deny children with disabilities access to public education as they are at high risk of illness and death from the virus.

Kym Davis Rogers, litigation attorney with Disability Rights Texas, said in a statement that the court found that Texas is not above federal law and state officials cannot prevent school districts from providing accommodations to students who are especially vulnerable to the risks of COVID-19.

“No student should be forced to make the choice of forfeiting their education or risking their health, and now they won’t have to,” Rogers said.

Rogers said she doesn’t rule out the state appealing the decision in the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals because the state has done so before, most recently with its new law that bans abortions after as early as six weeks.

[…]

In court documents, Ryan Kercher, the attorney representing the state, argued that neither the attorney general nor the state education agency were enforcing the executive order so they couldn’t be sued.

But Disability Rights Texas attorneys said the three were enforcing the order and provided the court with a letter that the TEA sent to the attorney general’s office. In it, the education agency listed school districts that appeared to be operating in violation of the governor’s order. The plaintiffs also noted how Paxton sued several school districts over requiring masks and sent “threatening” letters to districts telling them that they were violating the order.

This isn’t the first time state attorneys argued that Paxton and Abbott didn’t actually enforce the law. In an August lawsuit against the state over the mask order, Paxton made the same argument and indicated that it was up to local county prosecutors to enforce the order.

See here, here, and here for the background, and here for a copy of Judge Yeakel’s ruling. As the story notes, the US Department of Education is also doing an investigation into Texas’ mask mandate ban; it’s not clear to me what effect this ruling, if it stands, could have on that. Also as the story notes, Paxton had filed multiple lawsuits against school districts that had mask mandates, getting most if not all of them to stop. We’ll see what happens next with that.

I do expect the state to appeal to the Fifth Circuit, and why wouldn’t they? The Fifth Circuit gives them everything they ask for pretty much all of the time, whatever the facts or merits of the case in question. This is still a significant ruling, and we should always take the opportunity to revel in any defeat suffered by Greg Abbott and Ken Paxton. May this be the start of a very long losing streak. The DMN and the Chron have more.

People still support mask mandates

One more tidbit from the UT/Trib poll for October.

A majority of Texas voters support requiring masks at schools and indoor public places and allowing businesses to require their employees to be vaccinated, according to a new University of Texas/Texas Tribune poll.

This comes as Gov. Greg Abbott has banned vaccine requirements by all Texas entities, including private businesses and health care facilities, and mask mandates by local government and state agencies.

A survey of 1,200 registered voters in Texas showed that 57% of voters support mask requirements in indoor public spaces based on local conditions, while 58% support mask requirements for students and staff in public schools. Forty percent oppose the requirements at indoor public places and 39% oppose the requirements at schools.

Fifty-four percent of Texas voters also support allowing businesses to require employees to provide proof of vaccination or submit to frequent COVID-19 tests, compared to 43% who are opposed. Meanwhile, a slight plurality is opposed to the same requirements for customers: 47% support them, while 49% are against.

Similarly, 54% of voters support and 43% oppose allowing public schools to require staff to either provide proof of vaccination or submit to frequent testing. Texas voters are nearly split on requiring students to adhere to the same measures: 49% oppose the idea and 48% support it.

Texans also leaned in favor of requiring vaccinations for admission to large events or activities, with polls showing that 47% of voters favor the vaccine passports while 43% oppose them.

Voters were fairly evenly split on whether they supported allowing government entities to require vaccines or COVID-19 tests for employees. Just 50% supported the requirements while 46% opposed.

Overall, there is a wide partisan divide on the issue of mandates. While Democrats surveyed overwhelmingly support them, there is still significant opposition among Republicans.

“As a whole, the state looks more in favor of mitigation efforts than the policy, but amongst the majority party there’s really not much appetite for many of these mitigation efforts,” said Joshua Blank, research director at the Texas Politics Project.

That’s true, and it’s what I’d expect as that has been the general pattern on all things that have been politicized these days, but with a caveat. If you look at the bar charts they included to show the partisan breakdown for some of these questions, Democrats are more in favor than Republicans are opposed, and in general independents are in favor, though by modest margins. For example, on the question of whether businesses should be allowed to mandate vaccines for their employees, Democrats favor it by an 89-9 margin, independents favor it by 53-41, and Republicans oppose it by 72-26. That’s more than enough to give it a fairly solid majority overall.

You can see a few more examples in the story, some of which are closer calls, and you can see all of the crosstabs here. They hadn’t included that in previous poll stories, probably because they wanted to publish them all before they spoiled them by showing the data ahead of time. I’ve got another post in the works based on a couple of interesting bits I saw in there, but for now the takeaway is that a campaign that is harshly critical of Abbott and Paxton for their unrelenting obstruction on masking and vaccination will find some purchase. If nothing else, it will fire up the base, and for sure we’re going to need all of that we can get.

Runoffs will be on December 11

As is usually the case, the second Sunday in December for municipal and school board/community college runoffs.

Runoff elections will be held Dec. 11, the Harris County Elections Department announced Friday.

Four Houston ISD board seats, and individual council races for Bellaire and Missouri City, as well as a trustee race in the Houston Community College System will be decided in runoffs after none of those candidates won more than 50 percent of the votes cast.

Early voting is scheduled to begin Nov. 29 and end Dec. 7. Voters can cast ballots between 7 a.m. and 7 p.m. during early voting, except for Dec. 5 when polls will be open from noon to 5 p.m.

Election day voting hours will run from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., and permit individuals in line by the cutoff time to vote even if their ballot is not cast until later.

Elections officials said they must wait for a Nov. 8 deadline before completing a final canvass of results and officially announcing runoff races. Four of five open HISD board seats were forced into a runoff, per unofficial returns.

The runoffs include four HISD trustee races, one Houston Community College board seat, and a single city council race in Bellaire and Missouri City.

The HISD runoffs have the potential to bring significant change to the Board of Trustees, though I think in the end the effect is likely to be fairly small.

Three incumbents — Elizabeth Santos in District 1, Sue Deigaard in District 5, Holly Flynn Vilaseca in District 6 — all were the leading vote-getters in their races, but failed to garner at least 50 percent of the ballots cast. Trustee Anne Sung in District 7 finished about 4 percentage points, or 631 votes, behind challenger Bridget Wade in unofficial returns. Neither passed the 50 percent threshold.

The only HISD race decided by voters Tuesday was for District 9, where Trustee Myrna Guidry fended off two challengers with nearly 61 percent of the vote.

The outcome of the runoffs, which will be scheduled for next month, could alter the board just as the district has reached a sense of stability with new Superintendent Millard House II preparing a multi-year strategic plan and the district considering its first bond referendum in nearly a decade.

The district still faces a potential takeover threat by the Texas Education Agency, but that effort remains tied up in litigation.

Two paths led to runoffs, said Jasmine Jenkins, executive director of education nonprofit Houstonians For Great Public Schools.

First, she said, there have been national conversations led by conservatives to encourage people to run for local office, sometimes by playing to racial divides and appealing to grievances, such as those surrounding mask mandates to fight the spread of COVID-19.

At the same time, and more locally, Jenkins said there may be voters who are happy with the district’s direction and current stability but wary of any board members “steeped in the dysfunction of years past.”

[…]

“I am still cautiously optimistic about what is to come no matter what the results of the runoffs are,” Jenkins said. “I am hopeful not just for stability and improved governance, but I am hopeful that the bold ideas of a new superintendent will be really supported and will be given shape by the vision and direction that the board gives him.”

I’m the least worried about Sue Deigaard, who came very close to getting fifty percent. Elizabeth Santos is in a similar position as she was going into the 2017 runoff, except this time she’s facing a Latina instead of an Anglo opponent. I think she’s a favorite to win again, but it’s not a sure thing. This is the one race where the ideology of the Board member won’t change that much either way, at least on the current hot button issues like masking and whatever the “critical race theory” debate is supposed to be about.

I think Holly Maria Flynn Vilaseca is also the favorite to win in District VI, mostly because her opponent is a clueless perennial candidate, but the margin in round one was a lot closer than I would have liked. She’s going to need to work it to win, and I really hope she does because Kendall Baker would be a disaster on the Board. As for Anne Sung, she’s clearly in trouble. Running behind a candidate who has more money than you is never a good spot to be in. This is the one race in which the Chron will have to redo their endorsement, and I’ll be very interested to see if they care more about Bridget Wade’s opinions on those hot button issues or the quality of Anne Sung’s apology in the Saavedra/Lathan open meetings fiasco. They either overlooked or didn’t notice the “critical race theory” issue with their initial endorsement, so we’ll see.

As for HCC, we’re stuck with Dave Wilson again sigh but at least the runoff in District 8 between incumbent Eva Loredo and challenger Jharrett Bryantt isn’t a threat to the board’s functioning. Please remember that these elections are as important as the November elections, and make a plan to vote if you live in one of these districts.

NAACP tells athletes to steer clear of Texas

At least someone is willing to take a stand.

The NAACP is urging professional athletes who are free agents to boycott Texas over recent restrictive voting and abortion laws as well as policies stopping local governments from enacting coronavirus containment measures, all of which the civil rights organization says “isn’t safe for anyone.”

“From abortion to voting rights and mask mandates, Texas has become a blueprint by legislators to violate constitutional rights for all, especially for women, children and marginalized communities,” wrote NAACP President and CEO Derrick Johnson in a letter to all major players’ associations.

The letter specifically called out the GOP elections bill that Gov. Greg Abbott signed last month; the virtual ban on abortions Abbott signed in May that’s being challenged at the U.S. Supreme Court; and Abbott’s executive orders blocking school districts from enforcing mask mandates.

“Texas lawmakers have destroyed the state’s moral compass by passing these laws. In return, we are asking that you seek employment with sports teams located in states that will protect, honor and serve your families with integrity,” Johnson wrote in the letter to the NFL, NBA, WNBA, MLB and NHL Players’ Associations.

You can see the letter here. On the one hand, we’re going to need as many people who oppose these things as we can get if we want to be able to vote these bastards out, and anyone who might heed this warning would presumably be on our side for that. On the other hand, people have to do what’s best for themselves and their families. I can’t blame anyone for not wanting to have to deal with this crap when they have other, better choices available to them. So thank you to the NAACP for calling attention to these issues. I’m still waiting for the NCAA to do its part.

The culture wars always come for the school boards

Everything old is new again.

Across Texas this year, school board meetings have burst into heated ideological fights over mask mandates, vaccines, and lessons on racism labeled as “critical race theory,” bringing a new level of rancor to volunteer boards chosen in nonpartisan elections.

Just north of Houston, Ginger Russell took a turn at the mic in July at a Conroe ISD school board meeting. Before she started on her speech, she said it “wouldn’t be loving to you” to not tell the previous speaker he was living in sin as a gay person.

She turned from there to critical race theory, saying the superintendent was lying when he denied that the district teaches it. She described the district’s diversity, equity and inclusion efforts as “Marxism.”

Russell is not a parent of a child in the district. She homeschooled her two daughters years earlier. A right-leaning Montgomery County online publication that has has promoted her speeches at Conroe ISD meetings throughout this year described Russell as “a conservative Republican political leader.”

In late August, high emotions were in evidence when trustees of the Schertz-Cibolo-Universal City Independent School District in northeast San Antonio met to decide whether masks should be mandatory or optional in schools.

As they debated, trustees were heckled by members of the audience, some of whom were removed by security officers after ignoring warnings not to interrupt the discussion.

“I think we’ve lost some civility here. This has become so contentious and so polarizing in this district, it’s crazy,” said trustee Robert Westbrook, who joined a 6-1 majority that voted to make masks optional.

[…]

“We certainly have seen the board room becoming kind of the center of the culture wars, right?” said Dax Gonzalez, spokesperson for the Texas Association of School Boards. “Really just a lot of really hyperbolic discussion, not even discussion just hyperbolic accusations and statements are being made. What’s funny is that behavior we wouldn’t tolerate in the classroom is now happening in the board room.”

The newfound politicization and hostility of school boards seems to be an extension of heightened polarization over the last decade in the federal government and state governments. Even on a personal level, recent research suggests Americans are more unwilling than in the past to date those who do not share their political beliefs.

National groups such as the 1776 Project are raising money to organize conservatives against lessons labeled as critical race theory in school districts, and Turning Point USA is maintaining a “school board watchlist” to fight against “leftist indoctrination.” Included on the list are Forth Worth and Houston ISDs.

Across Texas, conservative Facebook groups and blogs are cropping up for school board issues. Local parties have weighed in, such as when the Travis County GOP accused Round Rock ISD of violating the Open Meetings Act after a contentious board meeting. And in El Paso, local groups have paid for activists to travel around to different board meetings to speak out against critical race theory, often in vitriolic and angry terms, Spectrum News reported.

Conservative activists have been targeting school boards, for electoral takeover and other chaos, since at least the 70s and probably well before that. I’m old enough to have attended a talk by some progressive activist speaker in the 90s about the conservative “stealth” candidates running for and winning school board seats around the country, as part of a larger effort to build a bench for higher offices. I’m not trying to dismiss or minimize any of this, just noting that it’s a tale as old as time. The particulars of what is being shouted about this time are different, and the threats of violence are more credible and fearsome (mostly because there are so many more guns out there), but the basics are the same. I think the best things we can do in response are take the threats seriously and support efforts to hold miscreants accountable, and to be engaged with and participate in every election. We still have the electoral advantage in a lot of these places, we need to make sure we use it.

Federal lawsuit over mask mandate ban in schools has its hearing

A big case with potential national implications.

School district leaders should have the right to make decisions about mask mandates based on the needs of their students and local coronavirus spread data, attorneys argued Wednesday in federal court.

Lawyers with Disability Rights Texas, who filed the first federal lawsuit over the ban in mid-August, allege that Gov. Greg Abbott’s prohibition on mask mandates puts students with disabilities at risk.

The organization claims that Abbott’s executive order violates federal anti-discrimination law, which prohibits the exclusion of students with disabilities from public education programs and activities.

Disability Rights Texas represents students mostly younger than 12 with disabilities and underlying medical conditions “which carry an increased risk of serious complications or death in the event that they contract COVID-19″ including children who have Down syndrome, moderate to severe asthma, and chronic lung or heart conditions.

“Doctors that treat the plaintiffs told them to avoid places without universal masking,” attorney Scott Thomas said.

Their parents submitted testimony outlining their difficult choices about whether to prioritize their vulnerable children’s educational needs or their health.

“No parent should be forced to make a decision like this,” one said.

Ryan Kercher, arguing on behalf of the state, stressed that the lawsuit hinged on data, pointing to the relatively low number of COVID-19 cases in the schools of the students suing.

Judge Lee Yeakel interrupted Kercher, asking why the data mattered. If the odds of contracting COVID-19 were 10,000-1, it would matter to the one person, he said.

Kercher pushed back, saying it is important to examine the number of cases to see if a real risk existed should masks not be mandated. Holding up Fort Bend Independent School District, which does not require masks, as an example, Kercher said the district near Houston had case totals that are on par with districts that do not require masks.

But Yeakel also questioned why not search for the most safe option to prevent the spread of coronavirus.

“That’s not a choice anyone gets,” Kercher said, noting that the speed limit isn’t 5 miles per hour everywhere. He and his co-counsel did not wear face coverings during the hearing.

Yeakel did not rule on the case Wednesday but said he would work to do so as quickly as possible. He alluded to the national interest and impact such a decision could have as states across the country are also in the midst of their own mask battles. No matter what he decides, appeals appear likely.

See here, here, and here for the background. The Justice Department got involved in the case on the side of the plaintiffs earlier this week. I think they have a strong case, and of course I’m rooting for Greg Abbott to be handed a loss, but we’ll see. I do think this one will eventually make its way to SCOTUS, perhaps quickly if there’s a question about staying a favorable ruling for the plaintiffs. KVUE has more.

No vax needed to see a Rockets game

No, thanks.

The Rockets will not have any entry or seating restrictions beyond those required by NBA health and safety rules this season, according to Rockets president of business operations Gretchen Sheirr. The team does provide an option for fans to purchase seats in sections with social distancing provided in a variety of areas in Toyota Center.

The NBA requires that all those within 15 feet of the court be able to show proof that they are fully vaccinated or can provide a negative test for COVID.

The Dallas Mavericks last week announced that all fans be fully vaccinated or provide a negative test, joining Chicago Bulls and Oklahoma City Thunder, along with teams in New York (the Brooklyn Nets and New York Knicks) and in San Francisco (the Golden State Warriors) where local guidelines require it.

The Rockets’ policy for Toyota Center is in line with policies for Texans games at NRG Stadium and Astros games at Minute Maid Park.

But those are at least generally held outdoors, and even if the roof is closed on those stadia there’s still a lot more open space. The Rockets play in a much more enclosed space, and while they do have some limited “socially distanced” seating available, this sure seems like a recipe for transmission. It’s also quite different from last season, when face masks were required and attendance was capped at about 20% of capacity. I don’t begrudge them wanting to have fuller crowds – they gotta make money – but if the Mavericks can require proof of vaccination or a negative test in order to attend a game, I don’t see why the Rockets can’t. You can do better than that, y’all.

El Paso mask mandate blocked

This is a city mask mandate. It does not affect the El Paso ISD mask mandate.

El Paso’s mandate requiring masks in indoor spaces, including schools, was ended on Thursday by the 8th Court of Appeals. The ruling does not apply to the El Paso Independent School District, which is involved in a separate court case.

The appeals court said the city’s mask mandate had to be lifted while it hears an appeal by the Texas Attorney General’s Office of a lower court ruling upholding the mandate. The ruling was based on Texas Supreme Court orders on similar mask mandates in San Antonio and Bexar County, the city said in a news release.

The mask mandate by Dr. Hector Ocaranza, the El Paso health authority, has been in effect since Aug. 17. The city’s rate of newly reported COVID-19 cases has declined in that time.

[…]

Despite Thursday’s ruling, the county’s largest district can continue to require students, teachers and staff to wear masks because it is part of a multiple school district lawsuit challenging Abbott’s executive order.

The El Paso ISD Board of Trustees voted on Aug. 17 to join a suit join a suit La Joya ISD and five other districts filed against Abbott days earlier in Travis County. The lawsuit now includes nearly two dozen districts, including a community college. EPISD was the only El Paso area district to join.

A Travis County judge granted the parties a temporary injunction against Abbott, allowing the districts to continue requiring masks. The governor is contesting that ruling with the 8th Court of Appeals. State and the districts’ attorneys are still submitting briefs before the court makes a final ruling in the case.

See here for some background. As noted, El Paso has been doing all right with the Delta outbreak. One has to assume that the mask mandate has helped with that. Hopefully the lifting of it now doesn’t set them back too far.

The Delta surge is killing younger people

So many avoidable deaths.

About two weeks later, sometime in August, the [woman in the San Antonio intensive care bed] died. She was in her mid-40s.

She is among more than 9,000 Texans who have died from COVID-19 in August and September, nearly 40% of them under the age of 60, part of an alarming upswing in reported daily deaths that threatens to overtake last summer’s deadly surge in average weekly numbers.

The dramatic and sudden increase in deaths — which jumped nearly tenfold over two months this summer — comes in spite of tens of thousands of vaccine doses being administered to Texans every day.

[…]

Of the nearly 19,000 Texas deaths attributed to COVID-19 since early February, 119 were fully vaccinated according to preliminary data from the state health department.

Scientists are still researching whether the delta variant is more deadly than earlier versions of the virus, but it is known to be much more contagious, and some data suggest that it makes people much sicker, much faster than the previous versions. The COVID-19 vaccines are extremely effective in preventing serious illness or death, scientists say.

“We shouldn’t be surprised,” Dr. David Lakey, vice chancellor for health affairs, chief medical officer at the University of Texas System and a member of the Texas Medical Association’s COVID-19 task force, said of the death numbers. “The main reason the fatality rates are as high as they are is there’s a lot of COVID in a lot of people that have underlying conditions and are not immunized.”

[…]

The deadliest month of the pandemic so far was January — before vaccines were widely available — when 9,914 people died from COVID-19, according to state data. That month only 15% of the COVID-19 deaths were among Texans under age 60. Last month during the height of the delta surge, they accounted for 38% of deaths.

More Texans younger than 60 died in August than at any other point in the pandemic. Deaths of Texans in their 40s, for example, jumped to 679 — nearly double the previous peak for that age group in January 2021. For Texans in their 30s, deaths in August were 33% higher than the winter peak, while deaths of those younger than 30 — 124 in August — were 77% higher than the previous peak for that age group, which was 70 in July 2020.

Older people are still dying in the largest numbers, even as their vaccination rate has reached 98% in some areas and 79% of Texans ages 65 and older are fully vaccinated statewide. That’s because they are still more vulnerable to the illness and much more likely to die from an infection than their younger counterparts, said Spencer Fox, associate director of the University of Texas COVID-19 Modeling Consortium.

While deaths in that age group also increased in August, they were far below their peaks over the winter and last summer.

Hospitalizations peaked in August statewide — nearly reaching the record numbers from the January surge — and more hospitals reported ICUs at or over capacity than at any other time in the pandemic. Those numbers are starting to level off or decline, along with the positivity rate, which measures the percentage of COVID tests that are positive.

It’s an encouraging sign that the delta surge may finally be cresting, although that’s not a certainty, Fox said.

National models are saying the same thing, though everyone remains worried about the winter. That’s actually less of a concern here, at least for much of the state, because our winters tend to be mild, the occasional deadly freeze aside, and that means people can continue to be outdoors. Given how high our overall death rate has been, we can use all the help we can get. We’re sure not getting any from our state government.

Justice Department gets involved in federal lawsuit over mask mandate ban

Missed this over the weekend.

The Justice Department signaled its support on Wednesday for the families of children with disabilities in Texas who are suing to overturn Gov. Greg Abbott’s ban on mask mandates in the state’s schools.

The department filed a formal statement on Wednesday with the federal district court in Austin that is hearing one of the lawsuits, saying that the ban violates the rights of students with disabilities if it prevents the students from safely attending public schools in person, “even if their local school districts offered them the option of virtual learning.”

The move signals a willingness by the federal government to intervene in states where governors and other policymakers have opposed mask mandates, using federal anti-discrimination laws like the Americans with Disabilities Act. The Justice Department has often used similar statements of interest to step in to cases involving civil rights.

“Frankly I’m thrilled,” said Juliana Longoria, 38, of San Antonio. Her daughter, Juliana Ramirez, 8, is one of the plaintiffs in a suit against the ban filed in August by the advocacy group Disability Rights Texas. “It gives me a lot more hope that the federal government is serious about protecting our children,” Ms. Longoria said.

[…]

Dustin Rynders, a lawyer for Disability Rights Texas, said the department’s position put schools in Texas and beyond on notice that they had an obligation to accommodate people with disabilities, including through the wearing of masks.

“It would be discrimination for a state to prohibit ramps to enter in the school,” Mr. Rynders said. “And for many of our clients, people wearing masks to protect our clients’ health is what is required for our clients to be able to safely enter the school.”

Because masks are not required at her school, Juliana Graves, 7, has not been back to school in Sugar Land this year, according to her mother, Ricki Graves. The Lamar Consolidated Independent School District did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Juliana has had a heart transplant, and the medication she takes to prevent rejection suppresses her immune system, her mother said. As a result, respiratory infections as simple as the common cold have landed Juliana in the hospital more than a dozen times, Ms. Graves said, adding that she worries that Covid-19 could kill her daughter.

Instead of going to school, Juliana has been receiving four hours a week of instruction from a teacher through homebound school services, Ms. Graves said. Her daughter is repeating first grade, she said, and might now be falling even further behind.

“She’s missing all her social interaction, she’s not able to go to school in person and be with her teachers and have recess and go to lunch,” Ms. Graves said. “It’s hard for her.”

See here, here, and here for the background. The story says that a hearing for the lawsuit is scheduled for this week, but I couldn’t find what the date of that hearing is, so I guess I’ll know when I see a story about that. I would like to think that an injunction barring Abbott from banning mask mandates would be in the offing, but I think a narrower ruling that would require schools that have a student that meets some definition of “disabled” to have a mandate is more likely. But I Am Not A Lawyer, so what do I know? ABC News and the Trib have more.

COVID continues to run amuck at the schools

This is our reality.

Students in Texas public schools are facing another year upturned by COVID-19 as the highly contagious delta variant spreads, mask mandates are inconsistent and children under 12 cannot yet be vaccinated against the virus.

Less than two months into this school year, the number of reported coronavirus cases among students has surpassed the total from the entire 2020-21 school year. Schools are prohibited from taking precautions such as requiring masks, though some are fighting the governor’s order banning mask mandates. Far more students are on campus, since most districts do not have a remote learning option.

[…]

State data on school cases is incomplete and likely an undercount. TEA suppresses some districts’ case counts to protect student privacy, and not all districts report student and staff cases to the state, despite agency guidance requiring otherwise. The agency also retroactively updates its data from previous weeks as more districts report cases.

Some large districts, such as Houston and Dallas, have not consistently reported cases to the state since TEA started tracking COVID-19 data on Aug. 2 for this school year. Many districts publish a COVID-19 dashboard that shows cases, and TEA recommends families check for the latest data there.

Entire districts, including Angleton and Lumberton, have closed temporarily without reporting cases to the state. These districts don’t necessarily report their closures, either, since they are not required to do so. TEA informally tracks closures based on media and district reports, said Frank Ward, an agency spokesperson.

I don’t quite understand the embedded table that this story has about school districts with the most reported COVID cases, as the numbers they report for HISD don’t match up with the ones on the HISD site. I guess they’re showing active cases and not cumulative ones, but it doesn’t sound like that from their description. In any event, the point is there’s a lot of COVID in the schools, and the schools have few options right now to mitigate it other than defying Greg Abbott’s mask mandate ban and hoping for the best in the courts. The forthcoming EUA for the Pfizer shot for kids will help eventually, though that will take time as even pro-vaxx parents may wait a bit before giving it to their kids.. And that is our reality.

Yes, mask mandates work

Not a surprise, but data is always nice.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released new studies Friday that show enforcing masks in schools helps reduce the spread of COVID-19.

One study looked at data from schools in Arizona’s Maricopa and Pima Counties after they resumed in-person learning in late July for the 2021-22 academic year. The two counties account for roughly 75% of the state’s population.

The CDC found that the K-12 schools that did not have mask requirements at the beginning of the school year were 3.5 times more likely to have COVID outbreaks than schools that required all people, regardless of vaccination status, to wear a mask indoors from the first day of school.Of the 999 schools analyzed in the study, 21% had an early mask requirement, 30.9% enacted a mask requirement between nine and 17 days after the school year began, and 48% had no mask requirement. Of the 191 COVID outbreaks that occurred in those schools from July 15 to August 31, 113 were in schools that did not enforce masks at all. Schools with early mask requirements had the lowest number of outbreaks.

During that time frame, Arizona was experiencing an upward trend of weekly COVID cases, according to Johns Hopkins University.

Another study from the CDC looked at the impact of school mask mandates across the U.S.

Authors looked at data from 520 counties that started school between July 1 and September 4 this year and had at least a full week of case data from the school year. They only looked at counties where all the schools had the same mask policies. Of the 520 counties, 198 had a school mask requirement and 322 did not.

Researchers found that counties that had no mask requirements in their schools had a higher rate of pediatric COVID cases after the school year began than those schools that did have requirements. Schools that required masks, the study found, had 16.32 cases per 100,000 children in the first week of classes; schools without had 34.85 cases per 100,000 children.

Authors did note, however, that all children in the counties were included in the data and not just those who are school-age. They also noted that teacher vaccinate rates and school testing data were not controlled in the analyses, and that the sample size of counties is small.

Here’s the CDC press release for the studies. I’m sure you can guess why I posted about this. The data speaks for itself, so I’ll just leave it here.

Feds officially investigating Texas mask mandate ban

Good.

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

El Paso is doing all right with Delta

Good for them, let’s hope it lasts.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

UT-Tyler/DMN: Abbott loses ground

A well-timed poll result.

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

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

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

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

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


April

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

June

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

September

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

Galveston ISD mask mandate remains, Round Rock gets halted

Good.

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

Federal judge will fast-track mask mandate ban lawsuit

I’m ready.

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

Paxton sues more school districts

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

Best mugshot ever

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nonetheless, Paxton sued the district.

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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