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Houston

Bypass the GLO

Heck yeah.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nobody is voting by mail in the District G special election

Here’s the early voting report through Saturday for the District G special election. A total of 1,608 ballots have been cast in the first six days, of which 1,569 have been in person and thirty-nine (39) have been by mail. Yes, thirty-nine. That’s out of 260 total mail ballots that have been sent to voters who have requested them.

To put this in a bit of perspective, in the November 2021 election, the HISD District I race had the smallest number of mail ballots cast. In that election, 1,438 people voted by mail out of 9,480 total votes. That’s about fifteen percent of votes cast by mail – we’re at 2.4% mail ballots in this race so far. In the November 2019 District G election, there were 2,308 mail ballots cast out of 29,500 total. That’s a much smaller 7.8% of the total, but still more than three times the rate of what we’re seeing so far. Given the increase in voting by mail since 2020, it’s clear something is happening here.

As to what that is, you have to assume that voter suppression bill SB1 is largely to blame. People will vote by mail if it’s available to them, but with only 260 mail ballots being sent out, zero of which had been returned by the first day of early voting, it’s clearly not available to the vast majority of District G voters. The Harris County Elections Administrator’s office is not allowed to send ballot applications to eligible voters. The candidates are, but given the compressed timeline for this race and the likely lack of funds for them so far, I have to assume they haven’t done so. We don’t know how many, but we can assume that a larger than usual number of mail ballot applications are being rejected. The result speaks for itself.

I don’t want to overstate what is happening here. This is a weird election, and as noted it seems likely that none of the candidates has been sending VBM applications to people. That won’t be the case in the primaries or the 2022 general election, and the parties can send applications as well. It’s still shocking to see such low numbers. I should note that we have basically no data for city of Houston special elections – the last one we had was the May 2009 District H special election, which was pre-redistricting and for which there was a much longer lead-up – so I can’t begin to guess how this might affect turnout. A total of 4,141 people voted in that District H race, and we could easily exceed that here. Of course, G is a high-turnout district while H is not, and even with there being fewer districts in 2009 there are far more registered voters in G right now (over 129K in G in 2019 versus 93K in H in 2009), so just surpassing H’s raw total means nothing. Given all the weirdness of this election and the many factors that could be affecting it, who knows what effect what the lack of mail ballots might have. But surely there is some.

HCC seeks a new Board member

There’s a vacancy to fill now.

The Board of Trustees publicly and formally invites qualified members of the public to apply to be considered for appointment to the position of HCC Trustee District II. The Texas Education Code requires that the position for HCC Trustee, District II be up for election at the next regular trustee election in November 2023 for the unexpired term. The current term for HCC Trustee District II will expire on December 31, 2025.

​The proposed process the Board will undertake to fill the vacancy for the position of HCC Trustee District II is as follows:

An announcement regarding the position will be posted on the HCC website from Wednesday, January 12, 2022 through 12:00 p.m. on Tuesday, January 18, 2022. Interested, qualified applicants should apply by submitting a cover letter and resume to [email protected] no later than 12:00 p.m. on January 18, 2022. The Board may interview applicants and make a final selection at a Board meeting on Friday, January 21, 2022. Notice of the meeting to include the date, time, and location will be posted 72 hours prior to the scheduled meeting in accordance to the Open Meetings Act.

To be qualified, the applicant must meet the following criteria:

  1. Must be a U.S. citizen.
  2. Must be 18 years of age or older on the first day of the term to be filled on the date of appointment.
  3. Must not have been adjudged by a final judgment of a court exercising probate jurisdiction to be totally mentally incapacitated or partially mentally incapacitated without the right to vote.
  4. ​Must not have been finally convicted of a felony without a pardon or otherwise released from the resulting disabilities.
  5. Must have resided in HCC District II for at least six months and in the state of Texas for at least 12 months immediately preceding the appointment by the Board.
  6. Must be a registered voter on date the appointment is made and be registered to vote in HCC District II.

See here for the background. I’m told there’s a somewhat obscure provision in state law that would have allowed the Board to not name a replacement within 30 days of the vacancy and thus force a special election on the next uniform election date. That would have meant a May election in Harris County, and would have been the only thing on the ballot in Harris County at that time. (Yes, there will be primary runoffs in May, but those don’t happen on the May uniform election date and aren’t set up to accommodate a concurrent general election. It would have been messy and needlessly confusing.) It also might have meant that Rhonda Skillern-Jones would have continued to be Trustee for at least some period of time longer, even though she had resigned in December. The Board made the right choice here. Get your resume in if you qualify and are interested.

Why your recycling hasn’t been picked up yet

Short answer: Staffing shortages, exacerbated by COVID.

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

Feds halt Harvey relief funds over GLO error

The continuing saga.

The Department of Housing and Urban Development on Friday halted the distribution of $1.95 billion in aid awarded to Texas after Hurricane Harvey because it said the state has failed to send the federal agency required paperwork detailing its plans to spend it.

The delay is the latest in a series of hold-ups; almost four years after Congress approved $4.3 billion in HUD aid for Texas, about half of it remains unallocated.

HUD said in a statement its formal action gives the Texas General Land Office 45 days to submit the missing document, which the agency said is an analysis explaining how the state’s proposed list of disaster mitigation projects helps the most vulnerable residents.

“We look forward to receiving and reviewing Texas’s submission of the additional information needed for approval,” the HUD statement said. “We are hopeful that Texas will take the steps needed to begin much-needed, forward-looking mitigation projects in the state.”

The decision prevents Texas from distributing $1.2 billion in flood mitigation grants to local governments it had selected through a funding competition, as well as $750 million to Harris County, which was awarded nothing from that contest.

HUD in 2020 signed off on the GLO’s plan for the funding competition, which selected 81 projects, and said it welcomed the subsequent proposal for Harris County. The agency on Friday, however, said moving forward with those plans depends on whether GLO provides the missing report.

[…]

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo said she looked forward to GLO completing the paperwork. She said county staff are prepared to answer any questions from HUD about how its planned projects will help vulnerable residents. Hidalgo still is hoping for additional aid.

“This $750 million is a start, but more is needed since Harris County and the city of Houston took over 50 percent of the damage from Hurricane Harvey, and because millions of residents remain vulnerable to natural disasters,” Hidalgo said.

Mayor Sylvester Turner raised the same point about the unequal distribution of aid. He said he was pleased with HUD’s action Friday, and awaits the response from the Land Office.

We’ve been down this road before. The reason this is a problem for the GLO, and why they reacted so bitterly to HUD’s letter, is that they don’t have a good explanation for why they did the funding formula that they did. It was designed to screw the big Democratic cities and counties in favor of the rural Republican counties. That’s not the explanation HUD is looking for, so here we are. Tune in later in February to see how they try to wriggle out of it.

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.

Early voting starts tomorrow for the District G special election

Yes, it’s time again for an election.

See here for the background. As noted, the interactive map for early voting locations is here. The PDF with locations and times is here. Early voting will run from Monday the 10th through Friday the 21st, except for Monday the 17th, as that is MLK Day. Hours are 7 AM to 7 PM each day except for Sunday the 16ht (noon to 7 PM) and Thursday the 20th (7 AM to 10 PM). Here are the four locations for early voting:

1. Harris County Administration Building – Conference Room; 4th Floor
1001 Preston Street
Houston, TX 77002
Directions
2. La Quinta Inn & Suites by Wyndham Houston Galleria Area – Small Meeting Room
1625 W Loop S
Houston, TX 77027
Directions
3. Terrace Banquet Hall – Terrace Room
2424 South Voss Road
Houston, TX 77057
Directions
4. Nottingham Park – Meeting Room
926 Country Place Drive
Houston, TX 77079
Directions

There are five candidates running, one of whom is Democrat Piper Madland. Gotta get her into the runoff, and then anything can happen. If you’re in District G, make sure you and your neighbors get out and vote.

UPDATE: Here’s a Chron story about the candidates.

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.

Get ready for more construction in 2022

Happy New Year! Here are the places you’ll want to avoid driving in 2022.

Flush with green, Houston area transportation officials have a whiteboard full of highway and transit projects poised to start in 2022, but rolling out all that blacktop will mean drivers see many more orange cones and construction zones, leaving some feeling blue.

Texas Department of Transportation construction spending is expected to top $2.2 billion for the Houston region for fiscal 2022, which began Sept. 1, nearly double the 2021 total. The projects that money pays for are spread across the region, said James Koch, director of transportation planning and development for TxDOT in Houston, during a discussion with local transportation officials.

“(2022) is going to be a very big year for our region, for the contractors and whatnot,” Koch told members of the Houston-Galveston Council’s transportation advisory committee on Dec. 9. “You will see a lot of barrels and cones out.”

Among the major projects set to break ground in the year are new bridges across Texas 288 to remove many at-grade crossings from the highway and transition more of it to a freeway-like form. Across five different projects, TxDOT has teed up $135.6 million worth of work on overpasses in Brazoria County, along with a $70.9 million planned widening of Texas 36.

[…]

Upcoming construction, meanwhile, does not reflect work spurred by the recently approved federal infrastructure bill. The federal framework, which continues many of the same methods for funding highways and transit, is likely to jump-start a litany of other projects, officials said. Tapping those federal dollars, however, will mean as drivers see more construction zones, local and state officials — along with the engineering and planning firms they hire — will be preparing for even more work.

Much of that work is already planned for Metro, which received voter approval for $7.5 billion in new projects and upgrades in 2019, weeks before COVID changed commuting patterns worldwide. Since, Metro officials have prepped for many of the projects to proceed, with some of the earliest work likely unveiled this year.

Metro is likely to choose a preferred route and potential station locations for a planned busway along Interstate 10 in the next two or three months, allowing transit officials to get in line for federal transit money by mid-2022 as they continue design.

The project is the linchpin in Metro’s expansion of rapid transit from downtown west into Uptown, which is crucial to park-and-ride service in western and northwestern parts of Harris County, officials said.

“The benefits extend beyond those seven miles,” said Amma Cobbinah, a senior transit planner with Metro overseeing the project, noting how the lanes connect downtown to the Northwest Transit Center at I-10 and Loop 610, a major stop for park and buses.

Now past the transit center, those commuter routes crawl along I-10 with car and truck traffic to and from downtown, making them far less efficient and timely.

Provided the project stays on pace, officials said they hope to begin construction by late 2023 and start service in 2027.

Work on the so-called Inner Katy is just one of two major bus rapid transit projects Metro is moving forward on in 2022. Transit officials in December unveiled an online open house outlining plans for the University Corridor project, a 25-mile BRT line planned from the Tidwell Transit Center north of Kashmere Gardens, south through Fifth Ward and the Eastside. The line then turns west through Third Ward and Midtown and then through Greenway Plaza and south of Uptown where it connects to the Silver Line that runs along Post Oak.

Eventually, the University Corridor will connect to the Westchase Park and Ride near Westpark and Beltway 8.

And all this also includes the ongoing projects like the 610/59 interchange and I-10 widening out west around Brookshire, not to mention some non-freeway zones. I’m excited about the two BRT projects, both of which will be with us for a couple of years. If we can live through it all, the end results should be well worth it. Drive safe, y’all.

Corbevax gets its approval

Kudos.

The Peoples Vaccine
Image courtesy of Texas Children’s Hospital

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

Back to school, kids

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Still no Metro redistricting

Check again in 2031.

Growth in western Harris County outside Houston’s boundaries was not enough to tip Metro’s board to 11 members during the 2020 Census, transit officials said

“It didn’t occur, so we have the same board composition,” said Carrin Patman, chair of the Metropolitan Transit Authority board.

Metro’s board seats are set by state law. Houston appoints five members to the board no matter the size of the board. As the area outside Houston grows, members are added. Currently, Harris County appoints two members, and the 14 smaller cities that are part of Metro appoint two members.

[…]

When 75 percent of the county population not covered by Houston is in Metro’s coverage area, then the county is entitled to another seat on the transit agency board. Also at that time, the rules shift from Houston’s mayor appointing the chairperson, to the ten-member board — five by the city, three county appointees and the two smaller city designees — picking an 11th member to act as chair.

Using 2020 Census population data, transit agency staff and consultants concluded 2.4 million people live outside Houston in Harris County, with 1.6 million of those within the Metro service area.

The story pegs that at 66.3% for the ratio, so assume there’s some rounding in the total population numbers given. I was pretty sure that I had blogged about this topic before, and sure enough, I did. If anything, the “portion of non-Houston Harris County that is within Metro’s service area” has declined at bit since 2011; at best, it stayed about the same as before. Harris County is growing faster than the city of Houston, but apparently more of that growth is in the non-Metro parts of the county.

I noted back in 2019 that Harris County provides some transit services for the non-Metro parts of the county. This is a subject I feel like I want to know more about, and one that I feel deserves more attention. I realize that right now is not a great time for any transit agency, but we will eventually get past that. To me, all of Harris County should be part of Metro’s service area, including the cities like Pasadena that have not wanted to be included in the past. Indeed, and I have mentioned this before, the longer term goal should be to expand Metro out into Fort Bend and Montgomery and other places where there’s a need, or failing that to ensure better integration between the differing transit agencies and their services. Given the number of governments that would need to be involved, including the Legislature if we want to change what Metro covers, that’s a huge and unwieldy task. All I’m saying here is that the greater region would be much better served with more comprehensive access to transit. Whatever the best way is to get there, let’s start moving in that direction.

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.

The Shepherd and Durham Major Investment Project

Get ready for some major construction, but the end result will be well worth it.

Beginning next month, those who travel along North Shepherd Drive and Durham Drive in the Heights are going to have to cope with road construction – for at least the next five years.

For decades after that, though, driving down the parallel, one-way thoroughfares figures to be smooth sailing. And the same goes for walking and cycling.

Construction is expected to start in late January on the Shepherd and Durham Major Investment Project, which will overhaul the two north-and-south streets between North Loop 610 and Interstate 10 to the south while adding bicycle lanes, new and wider sidewalks, landscaping and new underground infrastructure for water, wastewater and stormwater drainage. The project could take at least five years to complete, according to president Sherry Weesner of the Memorial Heights Redevelopment Authority, which is spearheading the $115 million initiative and providing a significant portion of the funding for it.

“It’s going to take a lot of patience from all of us, but it’s going to be worth it,” said Houston City Council member Abbie Kamin, who serves the Heights as part of District C.

[…]

Protected bike lanes have been part of the plan for the TIRZ 5 project between 610 and I-10, where they will be on the east side of both Shepherd and Durham, according to Weesner. METRO bus stops on Shepherd also will be on the east side of the street because there is room to accommodate both, she said, while the bus stops on Durham will be on the west side.

New, wider sidewalks will be installed on both sides of Shepherd and Durham, where vehicular traffic lanes will be reduced from four to three on both streets with the addition of designated turning lanes at select intersections with typically heavy traffic, such as West 11th Street. Weesner said two different traffic studies showed that congestion on Shepherd and Durham was caused mostly by the absence of turn lanes at busy intersections, so there does not figure to be a negative impact on traffic flow even with the overall reduction in lanes, she said.

In addition to the work on Shepherd and Durham, the project also calls for improvements on several of the cross streets that connect them – 11th, 12th, 14th, 15th, 16th, 18th, 19th, 20th and 24th streets.

Weesner said two other features of the project are city-owned street lights and an underground bio-retention system – called the Silva Cell Tree and Stormwater Management System – that will be beneath the trees planted on each side of Shepherd and Durham. The idea is to capture stormwater to help drainage and promote the growth of large trees.

“This is a really great project, because it can do so much,” Weesner said. “The area is really changing. The area has lots of new restaurants and other facilities, and people want to be able to walk there. People need to be able to walk from one business to the next business. Improving all modes of transportation is very important.”

I like this a lot. There’s been a ton of mostly residential construction in the area, and there are now a lot of places to eat along both Durham and Shepherd. Making it easier to get around by non-car means will be a big difference maker, and will be a boost for bus riders as well. I hope they figure out a way to connect the bike lanes directly to the Heights bike trail as it passes underneath. It will be a pain going through five years of construction, but I can’t wait to see what the result looks like.

Another look at the Aguirre/Hotze debacle

Man, do I ever want this to be the end of Steven Hotze as a political force.

A well-funded far-right group—that made inroads with Stop The Steal organizations, paid a former police captain more than $200,000 to hunt ballots, and became entangled in a roadside stickup—was making war plans for Election Day 2020 months ahead of time, documents reveal.

The fringe group, the Liberty Center for God and Country (LCGC), led a lucrative fundraising blitz in the run-up to the election and quietly networked with now-notorious election denialists. Their work came to light in October of that year when former Houston Police captain Mark Aguirre allegedly rammed his SUV into a man’s truck, forced the man onto the ground at gunpoint, and accused him of transporting 750,000 fraudulent ballots. Aguirre’s claims were baseless—his victim was an innocent air conditioner technician—and no widespread voter fraud has been found in the 2020 election. Aguirre was indicted this week for aggravated assault with a deadly weapon.

The criminal charges outed the LCGC, which had quietly moved hundreds of thousands of dollars in the name of preventing voter fraud in the months before the election, launching a website and fundraisers in the months before Nov. 3.

In the fall of 2020, as Donald Trump trailed Joe Biden in the polls, Republican activists sought ways to sow doubt in the event of a possible Trump loss. Aguirre and LCGC were among them.

Aguirre’s description of himself as a “retired” police captain (he’d actually been fired for a disastrous raid) was the least of the fundraiser’s lies. Although the fundraiser shed little light on Aguirre’s “team,” the fundraiser was launched one day after Aguirre signed an affidavit in a lawsuit accusing Houston-area Democrats of widespread voter fraud.

The lawsuit, filed by Republican activist Steven Hotze, accused Texas Democrats of a plot to defraud voters, in part by offering early voting and more voting locations. Some of its claims rested on supposed evidence collected by Aguirre and a former FBI agent who, like Aguirre, later became a private investigator.

“Based on interviews, review of documents, and other information, I have identified the individuals in charge of the ballot harvesting scheme,” Aguirre wrote. Aguirre’s involvement with Hotze went deeper than the lawsuit suggested. In late August, according to business records, Hotze formed the LCGC. The group’s earliest web presence called on Trump to designate three days “for national repentance, fasting, and prayer.”

[…]

In order to crack down on alleged fraud pre-election, the LCGC allegedly hired Aguirre to investigate people it suspected of running fake ballot rings. According to charging documents, Aguirre admitted to surveilling the home of air-conditioning technician David Lopez-Zuniga, on the suspicion that the Houston man was running a scheme to force children to sign 750,000 fraudulent ballots. Aguirre allegedly rammed Lopez-Zuniga’s car off the road, forced him onto the ground at gunpoint, and knelt on his back before an actual police officer was able to intervene. The day after the incident, the LCGC sent $211,400 to Aguirre’s bank account.

The LCGC was pulling in big money, its fundraisers suggest. In addition to Aguirre’s GoFundMe, which earned at least $2,600, the group operated its own GoFundMe, which raised nearly $70,000 from mid-October to mid-December.

The LCGC also registered as a nonprofit—a status that would be useful when networking with a burgeoning movement of voter fraud hoaxers.

See here, here, and here for a bit of background; there’s more if you go looking for the bogus and universally losing lawsuits Hotze filed in 2020. The Washington Post did a deep dive on this about a year ago, and I’m glad to see others are continuing that quest. The possible key to ending this little piece of madness is the lawsuit filed by AC repairman David Lopez, which has survived a motion to dismiss and will surely provide a lot more evidence of wrongdoings as it proceeds. All I want for Christmas for the next 20 years or so is for a verdict to come down that absolutely bankrupts Steven Hotze. Link via Daily Kos.

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.

Congressional committee has some questions for Live Nation

Interesting.

A congressional committee is investigating the promoter of the Astroworld music festival, where 10 people were killed in a crowd surge as rapper Travis Scott performed last month.

The House Oversight and Reform Committee sent a letter Wednesday to Live Nation Entertainment Inc. President and CEO Michael Rapino requesting information on preparation and safety measures for the Nov. 5 event.

[…]

“Recent reports raise serious concerns about whether your company took adequate steps to ensure the safety of the 50,000 concertgoers who attended Astroworld Festival,” the top Democrat and Republican on the committee wrote in a letter also signed by U.S. Reps. Al Green, D-Houston, and Kevin Brady, R-The Woodlands.

“For instance, reports indicate that security and medical staff were inexperienced or ill-equipped to deal with mass injuries,” they wrote. “Some attendees stated that the placement of barricades made it difficult to escape. Experts have stated that Astroworld Festival organizers failed to heed warning signs.”

[…]

The committee is requesting information about venue security, crowd control, mass casualty planning, emergency communications and medical care. The panel also wants to know at what time Live Nation Entertainment was first made aware of casualties, and what steps were taken in response.

The letter says the committee is also looking into reports that Live Nation withheld pay until part-time employees who worked the festival signed a revised employment contract that includes a broad provision releasing the company from liability in the 2021 festival.

The committee wants Rapino to address members during a briefing on the issue on Jan. 12, the letter says.

Hard to know how to evaluate this right now. This kind of action can often be more of an opportunity to grandstand than to uncover truth. Even with that in mind, we may learn things that might have stayed hidden or unnoticed otherwise. Let’s see what they can find out.

We need to get more kids vaccinated

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

Saint Arnold whiskey

For those of you that like spirits.

Houston’s oldest craft brewery has quietly launched a new venture that could bear some tasty results. Speaking on this week’s episode of CultureMap’s “What’s Eric Eating” podcast, Saint Arnold Brewing Company founder Brock Wagner and brewmaster Aaron Inkrott shared news that the company has been testing recipes for its first-ever whiskey.

Working on a still at Gulf Coast Distilling, Inkrott and the Saint Arnold brewers have been slowly developing recipes by experimenting with different grain bills, yeast strains, and other elements necessary to make Saint Arnold’s whiskey. Currently, the barrels are aging at Gulf Coast’s facility in East Houston.

“We’ve been working on different washes that we make at the brewery and take over there,” Wagner says. “We’ve been very focused on fermentation and the basic wash recipe, plus playing with different barrels, chars, and toasts. We seem to be zeroing on what we really like and starting to do a little bit of scaling on that.”

“The amount of variables we came up with were dozens,” Inkrott adds. “We’d get encouraged as we made big steps, [such as] determining what yeast strain we want to use. Then picking three or four recipes that had potential on the small scale and scaling them up. Finally, tasting the shine that’s coming off the still. It’s all very exciting.”

Wagner says that Saint Arnold has product that’s been aging for about a year. Saint Arnold has yet to determine how much time the whiskey needs to age before it will be released.

“Like I’ve always said with beer, we don’t tell the beer when it’s done, it tells us. It’s going to be the same with whiskey,” Wagner says. “It’s not ready yet, but I can easily see it being ready in two years from when it was put in the barrel. We’re not planning on selling it or marketing anything until we’re really excited about what we have.”

I’ve never developed a taste for liquor, so the product doesn’t interest me, but I’m a longtime fan of Saint Arnold’s, so it does interest me to see them continue branching out. They already make cider and hard seltzer, and their restaurant is quite nice, so I would expect this latest venture to do well. If you like this sort of thing, it will almost certainly be a thing that you like.

Simply having a COVIDful Christmastime

Sorry not sorry.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This says a lot, too.

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

Even so, 10 million Texans remain unvaccinated.

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

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

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

Same as it ever was.

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here comes that Universities BRT map

Show me the route!

The largest and most-sought segment of Metro’s planned bus rapid transit expansion in Houston is poised next week to officially move from being just lines on a map to the starting line — even if construction remains years away.

Metropolitan Transit Authority board members are scheduled Thursday to approve a preferred alternative for the 25-mile University Line, the mammoth route that acts somewhat as an east-west spine of the region’s future transit plans. Setting the preferred route does not lock the agency into that exact path, but instead acts as the goal as design continues, leading to eventual public response to a proposal.

Though preliminary, officials said the approval is a major step for luring federal funding, as well as building the route as soon as possible.

“This is the crown jewel of MetroNext,” Metro board member Jim Robinson said of the line, referring to the agency’s $7.5 billion long-range plan.

Central portions of the line, mostly along Richmond and Westpark, represent the most sought-after but controversial connections in the Metro system. When voters approved Metro’s long-range plan and $3.5 billion in bond authority in November 2019, Metro chairwoman Carrin Patman said closing the gap in frequent, fast transit between downtown and Uptown was the “most logical” major project in the plan.

Construction, however, likely would not begin until 2024 at the earliest, after community meetings and Federal Transit Administration approval. Work likely will happen in sections.

See here for the previous update. I reiterate everything I said then about my mixed feelings, but I remain excited about finally getting this off the ground. We’ve needed this for a long time.

Federal complaint filed over I-45 project

Missed this in the barrage of news from the last few days.

Critics of the plan to remake Interstate 45 north of downtown Houston filed a nearly 100-page complaint to federal officials Thursday, urging even greater scrutiny of the project’s effects on minority communities, an analysis they say state highway officials consistently have avoided.

In the complaint, filed with the Federal Highway Administration, opponents of the current project accuse the Texas Department of Transportation of spending years promoting and designing a project that residents consistently told them would tear the fabric of nearby neighborhoods. Many of those neighborhoods are majority Black and Latino communities, the complaint notes, which TxDOT failed to adequately consider.

“Throughout the… planning process, which has gone on for almost 20 years, less-discriminatory alternatives have been raised by multiple stakeholders, but TxDOT has repeatedly rejected those alternatives and clung to a project that imposes highly disproportionate and adverse effects on Black and Hispanic/Latinx neighborhoods, compounding its previous discriminatory actions and the disproportionate effects of bulldozing highways through these neighborhoods originally,” the complaint stated.

The complaint was filed by Air Alliance Houston, LINK Houston, Stop TxDOT I-45, Texas Housers and Texas Appleseed. All have been active with residents in opposing the I-45 project, estimated to cost at least $10 billion.

In a statement, TxDOT Chief Communications Officer Bob Kaufman said officials were “continuing to work with FHWA to resolve any areas of concern that they may have.”

“That said,” Kaufman continued in an emailed statement, “most people who have been following this project know that the I-45 improvement project will create major safety and operational improvements to an old and congested corridor along with quality of life enhancements for residents, businesses and others.”

In addition to halting the project and asking for reconsideration of many of TxDOT’s findings and proposals to remedy the environmental effects of the project — including its effect on minority communities — the complaint asks for the Department of Justice to “play an active role in coordinating this federal investigation and any enforcement actions.”

See here and here for some background, and here for a copy of the complaint. I had wondered what the purpose of this was, given that the FHWA is already doing an investigation, and my questions were answered in the press release.

This additional complaint is necessary because TxDOT has continued to discriminate on the basis of race, color, and national origin — even after FHWA initiated a Title VI investigation — and has retaliated against persons and groups for filing previous civil rights complaints by threatening to remove funding from the Houston-Galveston region altogether if the agency is not allowed to construct its preferred version of the NHHIP.

“TxDOT has known for more than a decade that this project would severely and disproportionately harm Black and Hispanic-Latinx communities,” said Madison Sloan, Director of Disaster Recovery and Fair Housing at Texas Appleseed, “yet it has deliberately continued to approve this discriminatory project over and over. Now TxDOT is threatening to reallocate billions of dollars because local communities dared to push back.”

TxDOT’s planned expansion will demolish thousands of homes and businesses, and displace thousands of families. “It’s racially unjust,” said Susan Graham, co-founder of Stop TxDOT I-45. “Families have worked for generations to own their homes, and TxDOT is just going to strip away the wealth they worked so hard for. You can’t find affordable housing in Houston as it is. Where are people going to go?”

“The health impact of increased traffic air pollution will last for generations,” Harrison Humphreys, Transportation Program Manager with Air Alliance Houston, said. “Children are particularly vulnerable to negative health effects like asthma, and the expansion of I-45 will increase the number of cars on the road while moving the highway closer to schools and day care centers. In addition to deeply affecting the lived environment of adjacent communities, TxDOT’s designs are antithetical to the City’s and the country’s climate change mitigation goals.”

Those are some serious allegations. I have no idea how this will be handled, what the timeline might be, whether there have been similar complaints lodged against transportation agencies with other projects, or how this may affect this project. It sure would be nice to know more about those and other questions.

Mayor Turner tests positive for COVID

Get well soon.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

New details about the Deshaun Watson criminal investigation

All sorts of bad things from the search warrants.

Houston police have at least nine reports accusing Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson of sexual misconduct during massage therapy sessions, with search warrant records showing that investigators are eyeing indecent assault — a misdemeanor crime — as a possible criminal charge.

The three search warrants — signed in October by a judge to collect data from Watson’s Instagram and Cash App usage — shed light on the Houston Police Department’s criminal investigation into the athlete, who has not been charged with a crime, amid months of litigation from nearly two dozen lawsuits. The search warrants detail accounts from nine women who say their encounters with Watson devolved from massages to misconduct.

The women reported receiving Cash App payments after the sessions, with some amounts ranging from $100 to $300, according to court records.

In two incidents at The Houstonian Hotel, the football player pressured the women into performing felatio, court records show. One licensed massage therapist said Watson contacted her on Instagram and that they met in June 2020 for a massage without incident. During a second appointment at the Memorial-area hotel, he asked her for oral sex.

The woman “felt as if she had no choice,” the investigator wrote.

[…]

Much of the accusations outlined in the search warrants were already detailed in civil lawsuits against Watson but investigators also revealed aspects of the case not previously made public using interviews that the Forensic Center of Excellence — a Houston group of forensic nurses who specializes in trauma — conducted with the accusers.

The Houston Police Department acknowledged in April their investigation into Watson but have declined to comment since. The civil litigation, meanwhile, is still pending.

Investigations by the FBI into Watson’s alleged behavior and the NFL are also happening. Watson’s lawyer, Rusty Hardin, has denied wrongdoing by the quarterback, saying any sexual encounters with massage therapists were consensual.

On Wednesday, Hardin said he welcomed the police department’s investigation into his client’s records.

I’ve skipped over most of the more graphic stuff. The HPD investigation is still ongoing, the civil litigation is awaiting the first court dates, and Watson is still a non-playing member of the Texans. Not much else to say at this point.

Indictments and guilty pleas in FBI investigation of former HISD officials

Woof.

A former top Houston ISD official and vendor were indicted Thursday in connection with an alleged bribery scheme over the last decade that federal prosecutors estimate cost the district millions of dollars and resulted in plea agreements with at least five other former district officials, including a former president of the district’s Board of Education.

Federal authorities arrested former Chief Operating Officer Brian Busby, 43, and contract vendor Anthony Hutchison, 60, both of Houston, on Thursday, hours before their initial court appearance. Both men pleaded not guilty to all counts and were expected to be released under conditions that include no contact with current and former HISD employees with the exception of Busby’s wife, who prosecutors said has filed for divorce.

Prosecutors accused Busby of helping award HISD construction and grounds maintenance contracts to Hutchison in return for cash bribes and hundreds of thousands of dollars in home remodeling, according to a 26-count indictment unsealed Thursday.

“This investigation and resulting indictments reflect my office’s commitment to rooting out public corruption,” Acting U.S. Attorney Jennifer B. Lowery said in a statement. “We will not stand idly by when there are people in positions of trust who are suspected of such wrongdoing.”

Dick DeGuerin, Busby’s lawyer, denied any wrongdoing by his client.

“For most of his adult life, Brian Busby has been a loyal employee of HISD, rising from the lowest employment to chief operating officer,” DeGuerin said. “He has never taken a penny from any contractors or any illegal money — ever. I am sure that a fair jury will find him innocent.”

[…]

Rhonda Skillern-Jones, who served two terms as HISD trustee between 2012 and 2019, and as board president in 2015 and 2018, was among the former officials charged in connection with the alleged bribery scheme and pleaded guilty to conspiracy charges. She currently serves as a Houston Community College Trustee. It was not clear Thursday whether she would have to resign or be fired. A spokesman for the college did not respond to a request for comment.

She also worked for Harris County Precinct 1 Commissioner Rodney Ellis’ community and government affairs team until Thursday.

“The news today came as a shock to us, and we never had any indication of such inexcusable wrongdoing during her time at Precinct One,” Ellis’ office said in a statement. “Upon learning of this news today, her employment was immediately ended.”

Attempts by the Chronicle to contact Skillern-Jones, as well as the other former officials who entered plea agreements, were unsuccessful Thursday.

Those other former employees were identified by prosecutors as Derrick Sanders, 50, Missouri City, officer of construction services; Alfred Hoskins, 58, Missouri City, general manager of facilities, maintenance and operations; Gerron Hall, 47, Missouri City, area manager for maintenance; and Luis Tovar, 39, Huffman, area manager for maintenance.

Sanders had joined Aldine ISD in September 2020 and voluntarily resigned Oct. 22, school officials there said.

Saying he was “extremely outraged,” HISD Superintendent Millard House II, who began leading the largest public school district in Texas in July, told the Chronicle he had ordered a review of the internal team and systems for contracting and vendors, as well as an external review of the district’s procurement procedures before he was even made aware of the charges. He said he had made changes “to make sure everyone on my staff knows it is a new day inside HISD.

“I am outraged. Outraged that we’re talking about this. Outraged how adults who are supposed to be working for the public trust may have taken money from children,” House said. “In my 26 years as an educator — in Oklahoma, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Tennessee — I have never seen such a failure. As a parent, as a teacher, as a taxpayer, I promise you – HISD will do everything in its power to never be vulnerable to this kind of alleged misconduct again.”

He added: “I will not be deterred by 10 years of corruption, waste, and fraud that came before me. My team did not create this problem, but we will solve it. Permanently.”

See here for the background. The Chron’s editorial board ripped into Skillern-Jones for her role in this debacle. I wish Superintendent House all the best in cleaning up whatever remains of this mess. And a note to the other HCC Board members: You should probably try to get Trustee Skillern-Jones to resign from that position.

On a completely tangential note, the story that the FBI raided Brian Busby’s house was in late February of 2021, so about 21 months ago. There’s another FBI probe of interest happening in this state, and it began in November/December of last year, or about 12-13 months ago. Just offering that data point as some perspective on how long it can take for these things to go from beginning to indictment, in case your mind works like mine does.

UPDATE: Rhonda Skillern-Jones has resigned as HCC Trustee. Good. The HCC Board will name a replacement for her, with that person having to run again in 2023.

District G special election lineup set

Hey, did you know there was another filing deadline this week? It’s true!

Greg Travis

Five candidates are running to represent west Houston as the next City Council member for District G.

Councilmember Greg Travis resigned the post in October to run for a seat in the Texas House of Representatives. He will remain in the seat until his successor is elected.

Candidates had until 5 p.m. Thursday to put their name on the ballot.

The candidates are: Mary Nan Huffman, a lawyer and the former GOP candidate for Harris County district attorney; Piper Madland, a community organizer and nonprofit worker; Roy Reyes Jr., a retired firefighter; Duke Millard, a former federal prosecutor; and Hank Taghizadeh, who works in construction.

The special election will be Tuesday, Jan. 25. Early voting will run from Monday, Jan. 10, through Friday, Jan. 21, except for Martin Luther King Jr. Day on Jan. 17. The polls will be open 7 a.m. through 7 p.m. except for Sundays, when the open at noon. The city still is finalizing the list of voting sites.

See here for the background. This is of course one of the Republican districts in the city, and there’s every reason to expect it will stay that way following this election. Piper Madland is the lone Democrat running, which should at least give her a decent shot at making it into a runoff. I’ve got a whole lot of primary interviews to do, and there’s a very short runway for this election, so I may defer doing interviews for this race until we go to overtime. Whoever wins will have to run again in 2023, as that is when outgoing CM Travis’ term is set to end.

Here comes omicron

Ready or not.

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

Some experts offer cautious optimism despite the bleak outlook.

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

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

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

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

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

Maybe flood tunnels really are the answer

Time for another study.

Japanese flood tunnel

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is revisiting the idea of constructing a large, underground tunnel beneath the city of Houston — part of its efforts since Hurricane Harvey to alleviate the potential for flooding around the Addicks and Barker reservoirs and along Buffalo Bayou.

Engineers plan to spend two more years studying the possibility and other alternatives, the agency announced Wednesday. It will use $1.8 million in federal funds to do so; an additional $3.4 million from two Harris County county commissioners will further local study of the concept, which community advocates have supported.

The project extension and potential re-imagining of how flood control works here comes after earlier possibilities that the Corps proposed elicited major public backlash. Engineers in an interim report last year suggested digging Buffalo Bayou wider and deeper, or building a third dam and reservoir on the Katy Prairie.

Local advocates have long fought to protect the bayou in its natural form. And environmentalists rallied around the prairie, which supporters consider a necessary, natural way to address flooding and improve water quality.

The agency announced Wednesday that engineers will spend two more years analyzing the tunnel option and other alternatives. The Corps will use $1.8 million in federal funds to continue the study.

An additional $3.4 million from two Harris County commissioners will support complementary research at the county level.

The Corps previously considered tunneling floodwater under the city to be too expensive, with an estimated cost of $6.5 to $12 billion. Engineers envisioned a tunnel some 150 feet below ground, starting at the reservoirs to the west and perhaps following the bayou’s path to the Houston Ship Channel.

Yet the agency noted Wednesday that it had received “substantial” community input. The Corps now hopes to release a draft report and environmental impact statement for what it calls the Buffalo Bayou and Tributaries Resiliency Study next fall. It would then accept more input and issue a final report, aiming to complete the study by December 2023.

“We are very committed to this important, monumental project,” Commander Col. Tim Vail of the Galveston District said in a prepared statement, “and we have heard the public’s feedback.”

See here, here, here, and here for the background. As the story notes, and which I don’t think I realized, Austin and San Antonio have similar tunnels, though they are much shorter than Houston’s would be. Look at the map in the story – these suckers would go all the way from the Addicks and Barker reservoirs to either Buffalo Bayou or the Ship Channel. Honestly, that price tag is not really that high, if there’s federal investment in the project. I say study away and let’s see where it takes us.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

Aguirre indicted

Gotta admit, I had thought this happened long ago.

A Harris County grand jury on Tuesday indicted former Houston police captain Mark Aguirre on an assault charge after he was accused of running a man off the road and pointing to a gun to his head because he thought he was committing voter fraud in the run-up to the 2020 election.

Aguirre will face a charge of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon, a second-degree felony punishable by up to 20 years in prison. The trial currently is scheduled to begin in February.

Prosecutors allege Aguirre slammed into the back of an air conditioning repairman’s truck at about 5:30 a.m. on Oct. 19 of last year. He pulled a gun, forced the repairman to the ground and put a knee on his back. He ordered another person to search the truck. A police officer happened upon the scene shortly after.

Aguirre, who was fired by the police department in 2003, would later tell investigators he was conducting a “citizens investigation” into an alleged ballot harvesting scheme he thought was orchestrated by local Democrats. He told police they would find hundreds of thousands of ballots in the repairman’s truck.

They found only air conditioning parts and tools. Aguirre said he had been following the repairman for four days.

Aguirre, a licensed private investigator at the time, was hired to investigate fraud claims and paid about $266,400 by the Liberty Center for God and Country around the time of the incident. That group is led by Steven Hotze, the local conservative activist, and Jared Woodfill, the former Harris County Republican Party chairman.

See here, here, and here for some background. Aguirre was arraigned almost exactly a year ago – I genuinely have no idea why it took so long for there to be a grand jury and an indictment. I mean, sure, COVID likely didn’t help, but he was arraigned in peak COVID times, so I don’t know what the effect would be. With the trial scheduled for February, maybe things will move a little faster now, but if you want to explain to me why this all just happened now, please feel free. In the meantime, at least the lawsuit against Steven Hotze is proceeding apace.

Why do driverless trucks love I-45?

For a combination of reasons.

Texas, particularly the stretch of highway between Houston and Dallas, has emerged as one of the nation’s main proving grounds for autonomous trucking, with freight trucks driving themselves from pickup destinations to shipping warehouses hundreds of miles away. It’s a part of what transportation experts say will be an automated vehicle revolution, with passenger cars, local delivery vehicles and freight trucks driving themselves around towns and across states.

Since late 2020, 18-wheelers operated by software and hardware created by Aurora have driven tons of freight from the Dallas area to Houston, often without the intervention of a human driver. The company partnered with FedEx in September to affix its hardware to some of the shipping giant’s Paccar trucks for its first real-world test of its autonomous trucking systems.

And in November, Waymo, owned by Google parent Alphabet, announced its trucking division would partner with UPS to begin testing autonomous big rigs along the same stretch of I-45. The company has already tested its technology along most of the journey, but the deal with UPS is its first public partnership with a freight company.

Officials with Aurora and Waymo say the combination of stable weather along the stretch, a relatively flat drive and the amount of freight driven between the two population hubs made the interstate a good choice. Statewide regulations about driverless vehicles also help, said Pablo Abad, a product manager with Waymo.

“Whenever we go to a particular market or think about implementing the Waymo driver, we have to look at the regulations to see how favorably they view autonomous tech,” he said. “Texas has been very helpful on that side — it’s part of the reason why we’re commercializing in Texas.”

The state’s autonomous-friendly business environment is by design, said Kara Kockelman, a professor of transportation engineering at UT Austin. The Texas Legislature passed a law in 2017 allowing autonomous vehicles to drive in the state without a driver present, and that same year, the entire state was designated by the U.S. Department of Transportation as one of 10 proving grounds for autonomous vehicle testing.

“Texas wants to be on the lead on this,” she said. “Texas has a lot of crossroads for a state, with at least five or six major population centers. That’s a great set up for moving freight.”

Whether by accident or design, it’s working. There have been multiple trials of driverless trucks in Texas over the past few years, mostly on I-45. It’s the same combination of moderate distance, flatness, relative emptiness, and big population centers on either end that was attractive for high speed rail, too. There’s some interesting stuff in the story about the different kinds of automated vehicles and how the addition of driverless trucks could be good both for business and for truck drivers, especially in this time of supply chain issues, so go read the rest.

Corbevax

Very cool.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Travis Scott speaks

Really not sure this was his best move.

Amid countless lawsuits against him, Travis Scott sat down with The Breakfast Club radio personality, Charlamagne tha God, for his first public interview since a dangerous crowd surge injured hundreds and left 10 people dead during his Astroworld Festival performance on Nov. 5.

In a one-hour discussion shared to Charlamagne’s YouTube channel on Thursday, Scott, whose real name is Jacques Berman Webster II, shared that he’s been experiencing a range of emotions, largely grief, trying to wrap his head around the tragedy and remained consistent to previous statements denying his knowledge of the severity of the mass casualty incident until the press conference that occurred after his set.

“Even after the show you’re just kind of hearing things, but I didn’t know the exact details until minutes before the press conference,” he said, adding, “And even at that moment you’re like, ‘Wait, what?’”

“People pass out, things happen at concerts, but something like that… it’s just like,” he added before trailing off.

[…]

In response to criticism that the event was poorly planned and understaffed, Scott pointed to the responsibilities for all involved. An artist is responsible for the creative side of the show, he said while he trusts the “professionals” to control what they can in the crowd and “make sure that people are taken care of and leaving safely.”

“You can only help what you can see and whatever you’re told,” Scott said responding to a question about the responsibility an artist has to help in that type of situation. “Whenever somebody tell you to stop you just stop.”

James Lassiter, a Houston attorney representing the family of Bharti Shahani, a 22-year-old Texas A&M University student who died, and other injured festival attendees, responded to Scott’s interview Thursday afternoon.

“Travis Scott’s attempt to escape responsibility for creating a deadly situation from which his fans could not escape is shameful and, sadly, true to form,” he said in a statement.

Houston’s NRG Park, where the festival was held, occupied up to 50,000 guests that night, a crowd size that Houston Police Chief Troy Finner said he had enough officers onsite to handle. But he also said he could not have abruptly ended the show for fear of sparking a riot his department could not control.

Finner said the “ultimate authority” to end the show resided with LiveNation and with Scott. The two parties have largely taken the hit for the continuation of the concert for an additional 37 minutes after local authorities declared the event a mass casualty.

But in the interview, Scott said that part was never communicated with him directly.

Scott also denied the tragedy having anything to do with the crowd size as there have been festivities “way bigger,” he said.

“It’s not about the maximum of it, I think it’s about the attention to what’s going on and how it’s going on, and as long as that’s handled then I think things will be okay,” he said. “But as you look at it through the history of festivals, this isn’t the first time happening. It’s been a long history of this.”

The Astroworld Festival tragedy already ranks among deadliest U.S. concerts ever.

Scott said he believes he did everything he could possibly do to help. While he’s not surprised to be at the epicenter of the blame since he’s the “face of the festival,” he said he thinks the responsibility should be a shared load for everybody collectively to “just figure out the bottom line solution” to the problem to make sure this never happens again.

I dunno, man. I Am Not A Lawyer, but I’m pretty sure the right move in this kind of situation is to keep your mouth shut and limit any public remarks to “I can’t comment on pending litigation”. I feel very confident that all of the lawyers suing him – as well as counsel for the various co-defendants – will be listening to this interview very closely, and will be ready to pounce on any inconsistency that arises from future statements given under oath. I understand where he’s coming from, and whatever else happens I have empathy for him, but I can feel his lawyers cringing from here.

2021 runoff results

Here are the vote totals, and here’s an early Chron story which has the results right but was just before the last batch came in. To summarize:

– Sue Deigaard had the only easy night – she led by 30+ points early on and cruised to a 64-36 win.

– Bridget Wade had a modest early lead, which stretched out to a 54-46 win.

– The next closest race was in HCC, where Eva Loredo had a small lead all the way, eventually winning by five points.

– Elizabeth Santos held on by 41 votes, and unfortunately Kendall Baker finally managed to get elected to something, by 78 votes. It would not surprise me if there are recounts in either or both of these, though as we know, those seldom make any difference.

– The HISD board has Republicans on it again, for the first time since the 2017 election that put Deigaard and Holly Maria Flynn Vilaseca on and gave Anne Sung a full term. Democrats now hold a 7-2 advantage on the board. I fully expect Wade and Baker to make trouble, but they’re not going to be able to get anything passed unless they can convince at least three other members to go along with them.

– So is this a portent of Bad Things to come for Democrats? Eh, maybe, but I wouldn’t read too much into it. These were pretty solidly Republican districts – as was Deigaard’s – before 2017, and both Sung and Vilaseca were caught up in the Abe Saavedra fiasco. For what it’s worth, Harvin Moore beat Anne Sung by a similar 53-47 margin in the 2013 race, while Mike Lunceford in V and Greg Meyers in VI were unopposed. In fact, the last election in District VI before 2017 that wasn’t unopposed was in 1997.

– Total turnout in the four HISD district was about 35K, which is right about where I thought it would be.

– Election results came in at normal times, with the first Election Day numbers coming in at 8:15 and the final tallies being posted three hours later. Isabel Longoria tweeted that it was a wrap at 11:27. I saw some concerns about slowness at the voting sites related to the processing of the paper receipt, but I think that can be ameliorated by having more scanners at voting locations for future, higher-turnout elections.