Off the Kuff Rotating Header Image


Hospital systems have no excuse for not mandating COVID vaccines now

So get on with it already.

Local hospitals reacted Friday to President Joseph Biden’s sweeping vaccine mandates directed at the health care workers, who make up much of the Houston workforce.

In a move that overrides Gov. Greg Abbott’s executive order barring public institutions from issuing their own COVID-19 restrictions, the administration said it would require vaccinations for employees at health care facilities that accept Medicare and Medicaid reimbursement.

Baylor College of Medicine’s dean of clinical affairs, Dr. James McDeavitt, said Thursday he supported the new measures.

“It is the right thing to do,” he said.

Still, he wished the plan had come sooner. “It is not going to help us with the current delta surge,” he added.


Five Houston hospital systems already require a vaccine. In June, Houston Methodist became the first hospital in the nation to announce it would require its staff to be fully vaccinated, a move that met months of resistance, including a lawsuit by some employees. Memorial Hermann and Baylor College of Medicine enacted their own vaccine mandates in July; St. Luke’s Health and Texas Children’s Hospital announced similar plans in August.

Thursday’s executive order will bring similar mandates to the city’s remaining health systems.

Until now, Harris Health System and UTHealth had encouraged worker vaccinations but were unable to require it under the governor’s order.

But on Friday, Harris Health System said it “fully intends to embrace the vaccine mandate” for workers at its two hospitals, 18 community health centers and 10 clinics serving the greater Houston area. The system has not yet set a date.

UT Health said it would wait for guidance from the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Service, expected in October. It had not instituted a mandate as of Friday afternoon.

St. Joseph Medical Center and UTMB Galveston said they are still evaluating Biden’s plan.

While Kelsey-Seybold Clinic said in August it was waiting for full vaccine approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration before asking employees to provide proof of immunization, the clinic has not announced a mandate since the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine gained full U.S. Food and Drug Administration approval late last month.

See here for the background. I agree that the mandate coming out now will have little to no effect on the current surge, given that it takes a few weeks to get both shots and the full effect of them, and that it will take time for these hospital systems to get their programs going. It would still be nice if some of them had more of a sense of urgency about it. This is still by far the best thing we can do for the medium to longer term, and at the very least these hospital systems should be setting a better example. Get it done already, y’all. The Trib has more.

Houston Methodist tells its employees to get vaxxed or else

I’m okay with this.

Four out of five Houston Methodist employees are vaccinated against COVID-19. The sliver who are not will be suspended or fired if they refuse the shot, according to company policy.

The hospital required managers to be vaccinated by April 15 and all other employees — about 26,000 workers in total — by June 7, said Stefanie Asin, a Houston Methodist spokesperson.

With 84 percent of the staff vaccinated, the hospital is close to herd immunity, CEO Marc Boom wrote in a letter to employees this month.

“As health care workers we’ve taken a sacred oath to do everything possible to keep our patients safe and healthy — this includes getting vaccinated,” Boom wrote.

A little more than 4,100 employees have not received at least a first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine. The hospital does not know yet how many employees potentially will be suspended or terminated because of the mandatory vaccination policy.

Since 2009, a hospital policy has mandated its workers receive the flu vaccine each year, unless they have a medical or religious objection qualifying them for exemption.


Several nursing homes in Houston are requiring COVID-19 vaccinations of their workers, while other hospitals in the Texas Medical Center have not yet followed suit.

“UTMB is not mandating vaccination,” said Christopher Smith Gonzalez, senior communication specialist for the hospital. “But, in view of the high contagiousness of the some of the SARS-CoV-2 variants, UTMB has implemented enhanced respiratory precautions for all unvaccinated individuals caring for or evaluating patients for COVID.”

While 80 percent of Texas Children’s Hospital employees are vaccinated against COVID-19, the hospital does not require inoculation. St. Luke’s Health has vaccinated “thousands of our staff,” vaccinations are not mandatory, according to the health system.

But some are considering it to cut back on health hazards for employees and patients.

“As a provider of health care services, Baylor College of Medicine currently requires vaccination for employees for a variety of infectious diseases,” said Dr. James McDeavitt, senior vice president of Baylor College of Medicine. “For example, flu vaccination for employees has been mandatory for several years. With appropriately defined exemptions (medical contraindications, religious beliefs), we support mandatory vaccination for COVID-19. We do not yet have this requirement in place, but it is under active consideration.”

Memorial Hermann will make COVID-19 vaccines mandatory after it relaxes some of its COVID-19 protocols, such as mask-wearing and social distancing. However, it has not set a deadline for employees to receive the vaccine, said Drew Munhausen, a Memorial Hermann spokesperson.

This all makes sense to me. They’re health care workers, which not only makes them at high risk for catching COVID, it means they’re in very close contact with a lot of extremely vulnerable people as well. The story notes a recent incident in a Kentucky nursing home, where an unvaxxed worker was the cause of an outbreak. While most of the residents, who had been vaccinated, had only mild symptoms, one of them died. None of that should have happened. State law requires that health care facilities have a policy about vaccinations, but doesn’t require that they mandate them; federal law allows employers to require vaccinations, but also doesn’t mandate it. I for sure would want to know that the doctor or nurse or physician’s assistant who is giving me medical assistance, as well as all of the support staff, have been vaccinated for COVID. I understand that some of the employees may be hesitant about the vaccine, and I have some sympathy for them, but only so much.

There is also this:

Houston Methodist was one of several companies to offer incentives for its workers to get a COVID-19 vaccine. The hospital is granting $500 bonuses to anyone who worked during the pandemic and received the vaccine.

“Already we’re seeing positive results as the number of employee infections has dropped inversely with the number of employees receiving the vaccine,” Boom wrote.

Paying people to get vaxxed has its merits. One of the hesitant Methodist employees from the story says that some of her fellow hesitators are thinking about getting the shots to keep their jobs. Clearly, incentives work. Maybe that’s a lesson for us for the broader issue.

Ebola treatment progress

This is encouraging.

Texas scientists who developed an effective vaccine for the deadly Ebola virus are now reporting promising results with new medication to better treat full-blown cases of the disease.

In a laboratory study published this week, researchers at the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston showed a single injection of two antibodies successfully treated monkeys infected with all strains of the virus, a significant advance on current treatment options which only cover one strain and require multiple injections.

“This medication would give doctors an advantage in situations where we don’t know which strain of Ebola is going to pop up next,” said Thomas Geisbert, a UTMB professor of microbiology and immunology and the study’s primary investigator. “The fear now, with all our eggs in one basket, is we’ll get burned with the outbreak of a strain there’s no protection against.”

Geisbert said the study results, published Wednesday in Cell Host & Microbe, suggest the medication would be effective even if Ebola viruses evolve over time, and Larry Zeitlin, president of Mapp Biopharmaceutical Inc., the drug manufacturer, said it should “reduce the burden on health-care workers in the field during outbreaks.”


New medications are increasingly being used in the Congo to treat Ebola, most notably ZMapp, which was initially deployed late in the first outbreak. But those medications work only against the Zaire strain and require multiple injections, a challenge in Third World settings. ZMapp, for instance, must be given three times, each a few days apart, and by infusion which takes up to five hours. The single infusion of MBP134 only takes minutes.

“That’s a huge advantage in chaotic outbreaks or reactive settings where it’s often difficult to track down and identify patients to give them a second dose,” said Dr. Peter Hotez, founding dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine and Texas Children’s Hospital.

Hotez added that “of course, all of this needs to be confirmed in human clinical trials.” He said the current outbreak in the Congo “looks like a good time for such an evaluation.”

See here and here for some background. I don’t have anything to add here, I just thought we could all use a bit of positive news.

Galveston, ten years after Ike

Overall things are better now, but not for everyone, and nothing can ever truly be the same as before.

Galveston has a long and storied history dealing with epic storms, and the destruction Hurricane Ike wrought was no different — a Category 2 storm that battered the island and the Texas Gulf Coast with 100 mile-per-hour winds and 17-foot storm surges, killing 43 people across the state and causing nearly $30 billion worth of damage, the third-costliest storm in U.S. history.

A decade later, post-Ike Galveston looks a bit different. Island landmarks like the Flagship Hotel and Balinese Room, which sat perched on piers overlooking the Gulf of Mexico off of Seawall Boulevard, have been demolished, casualties of the storm surge that leveled parts of the island.

University of Texas Medical Branch, the island’s main hospital and a huge employer, underwent $1 billion worth of updgrades to make it more resilient to major storms, but also ceased providing indigent care.

Galveston’s beaches were restored with 500,000 cubic meters of sand, and tourism rebounded after a sluggish few years in Ike’s wake. In 2007, Galveston raked in $7.5 million dollars in hotel tax revenue from June through August. By 2012, the island exceeded that total with $8.3 million in hotel receipts.

Eighty percent of the city’s homes and much of its critical infrastructure were damaged by Ike’s high winds and devastating flooding, forcing building code changes that led many residents on Bolivar Peninsula and Galveston’s West End to raise their homes on stilts. The city’s population has about 50,550 residents today, per 2016 U.S. Census estimates, still shy of the 57,000 from before the storm.


And yet a vast swath of vacant land dotted with palm trees on the north side of Galveston, where the Oleander Homes, a public housing complex, used to sit, serves to remind that the legacy of Ike did not reach its most vulnerable populations.

The 10 to 15-foot waves that laid waste to single-family and vacation homes also damaged the island’s four public housing developments — located in low-income neighborhoods with high percentages of people of color. Four months after the storm, the Galveston Housing Authority decided to demolish all four developments — 569 housing units — due to extensive damage to the buildings.

Under a state and federal government mandate, the city is required to rebuild every unit, but fewer than half of the units have been reconstructed — delayed by a toxic combination of bureaucratic red tape, racially-tinged public outcry, political inaction and the housing authority’s lack of financial capital to manage and maintain the new housing.

“It’s just tragic that a decade after the disaster when the money has been available for all of that time that most of the public housing has not yet been rebuilt,” said John Henneberger, co-director of the Texas Low-Income Housing Information Service, a statewide housing advocacy group.

There were serious concerns about UTMB’s ability to exist after Ike. It’s a major employer for the city, so the fact that it’s still there is a big deal. I’d still be very concerned about Galveston’s future – not to mention the future of much of the rest of the Gulf Coast – until some form of the Ike Dike gets built. After Harvey and Maria and Irma and Florence I have to wonder what else needs to happen to get that approved, but here we are anyway. I’m rooting for Galveston, but in a very real sense we’re all in the same boat with them.

Plague vaccines


More than six centuries after the Black Death wiped out more than a third of the population of Europe, a University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston team has shown that in experiments with rodents, their three vaccines effectively protected against the infection that causes the disease. Just as important, they did not cause side effects.

“If this research is borne out, a vaccine like this could negate future epidemics and pandemics,” said Ashok Chopra, a UTMB professor of microbiology and immunology and the study’s principal investigator. “Given the increasing threat, the optimal strategy for protecting people is through vaccination.”

The plague, caused by the bacterium Yersinia pestis, can be cured with antibiotics if drugs are started soon after infection. Without prompt treatment – initial symptoms can resemble the flu – it is nearly always fatal.

In an online paper last month in the journal NPJ Vaccines, Chopra’s team reported on the vaccines’ use against pneumonic plague, the most virulent type of the disease and the one that spreads through airborne transmission. Chopra said they also work against bubonic plague, the type most associated with the 14th century pandemic that killed an estimated 50 million people.

A copy of the study is here. The good news is that the plague is relatively rare – only a few thousand cases worldwide per year – but it’s very nasty and fatal if untreated in time. It’s also the case that a resistant strain of this bacteria can be weaponized, so yeah, an effective vaccine would be nice. Keep up the good work, y’all.

UTMB continues to do well post-Ike

Good to see.

Ashbel Smith building at UTMB

The morning after Hurricane Ike crashed into Galveston Island six years ago, David Callender surveyed the sea of mud coating the 84-acre University of Texas Medical Branch campus.

The UTMB president saw oak tree limbs blocking the doors to John Sealy Hospital, which would be knocked out of service for the rest of the year. The 13-foot storm surge caused $1 billion in damage, plunging UTMB’s finances into the red and prompting the layoffs of nearly 3,000 workers. A consultant even recommended that the hospital be moved off the island, an idea that found favor with the University of Texas Board of Regents and a few legislators.

Six years later, UTMB is not only off life support, it appears to have made a full recovery.

The university is close to completing more than $1 billion in improvements and repairs to protect against future hurricanes, ranging from moving essential functions to a higher level to adding protective walls that can rise around certain buildings.

It is building a 13-story hospital in Galveston and a smaller medical center in League City. Last week, UTMB officially announced its takeover of the Angleton-Danbury Medical Center in Brazoria County.


While struggling to operate after the storm, UTMB officials made a discovery that would fuel eventual expansion, said Donna K. Sollenberger, CEO of UTMB Health Systems. With UTMB’s hospital shut down, patients were sent to Texas Medical Center and other hospitals. Meanwhile, UTMB rented offices in Texas City and other mainland cities to treat outpatients.

“In doing that” Sollenberger said, “we found we had a whole subset of patients who preferred or liked being seen closer to home.”

Galveston County, especially the League City area, was growing rapidly and suffered a doctor shortage. Within the next six years, Sollenberger said, the area will be short by about 1,000 doctors of what it needs.

UTMB opened clinics that were close to people who were going without primary care either because doctors were too far away or because they faced waits of as long as six months for an appointment. Patients normally will forgo primary care if they have to drive more than 15 or 20 minutes, Sollenberger said.

“If you have primary care services within that radius, they will come to you,” she said.

UTMB now operates 40 clinics at 30 sites in Galveston and Brazoria counties and 34 regional child and maternal clinics, including clinics outside the Galveston-Brazoria region in Orange, New Caney and McAllen.

Read the whole thing, it’s a good overview of what’s happened with UTMB and its environs over the past 6 years. I’ve had a few things to say about it as well, not all of it positive. More recently, UTMB was in the news for its Ebola-related work. Hurricane Ike was a tremendous disaster for Galveston, and recovery from it would have been a lot tougher had the island lost UTMB and all the services and jobs it provides. It’s good to see them thrive.

Ebola treatment progress

Some good news.

A study out [recently] shows that an experimental treatment for Marburg virus – a close cousin to Ebola – can be given after symptoms of the terrible disease have started to appear.


One experimental drug – given to two Americans and several Liberians who showed signs of the disease – appears to have been helpful, though it is not clear whether the victims would have survived anyway or what other treatments they received. The drug, ZMapp, includes proteins that interfere with the way Ebola attaches and enters a host cell.

[Wednesday]’s study, published in Science Translational Medicine, looks at a different drug that takes a genetic approach to fighting the disease. The drug uses bits of genetic material to block Ebola genes from acting, the way sticking gum in a lock would prevent a key from slipping in.

The research team from the University of Texas Medical Branch-Galveston and Canadian drug company Tekmira Pharmaceuticals injected the Marburg virus into four groups of four rhesus monkeys. The first group got the drug 30-45 minutes after infection; the second one day after infection; the third two days later; and the last group three days later. All of the treated animals lived, regardless of when they received the drug.

Although the study was on the Marburg virus, not Ebola, senior researcher Thomas Geisbert said he thinks the results mean that a related Ebola treatment, called TKM-Ebola, will also work once symptoms appear.

As we know, the Galveston National Lab is where the action is for Ebola research in the US. I don’t have anything to add here, I’m just glad to see them make things happen.

Working on Ebola in Galveston

Given what’s been going on lately I thought this would be of interest.

As the worst recorded Ebola outbreak in history sweeps across West Africa, hope for a cure is centering on scientists thousands of miles away at the Galveston National Laboratory, where researchers are working on three of the most promising potential cures.

The National Lab, on the campus of the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston, has been awarded $6 million from the National Institutes of Health and the U.S. Department of Defense to develop cures for Ebola and the equally deadly Marburg virus, UTMB said this week.

The Ebola virus that has infected more than 1,000 people in West Africa and killed more than 700 is a new strain, which could complicate efforts to develop a cure, said Scott Weaver, the National Lab’s scientific director.

The outbreak is the longest-lasting and most widespread Ebola outbreak ever recorded, Weaver said, and cases are being reported for the first time in highly populated cities.

The National Laboratory is the only academic lab in the country to be rated Level 4, meaning it is equipped to research the deadliest biological agents known because of the sophisticated safeguards in place. Weaver said scientists at the National Laboratory have been working with the Ebola virus for 10 years, making them a natural choice to pursue the cures.


Even if an infected person arrives in the U.S., there is little chance that Ebola could get a foothold here, said T.G. Ksiazek, a pathology professor at UTMB. Ebola can only be transmitted through contact with bodily fluids and is easily controlled with modern medical techniques, said Ksiazek, who will leave for Africa this month to assist in efforts to halt the spread of Ebola.

“We do occasionally have diseases like this imported into the U.S. and we fare well,” he said.

Good to know. I don’t even want to think about the panic and overreaction that would occur here if there ever was such an outbreak, even though there’s not that much danger of actually catching it. This is one of those times when being – how shall I put this? – less scientifically literate that we might be as a society would be a major negative. The politics of ignorance and fearmongering that we already have are quite enough, thanks.

One more thing:

The bulk of the research on Ebola is being done in the U.S. because the federal government has been willing to fund research into cures of what are known as “emerging diseases,” such as the Ebola and West Nile viruses. Private companies are reluctant to invest the millions – or hundreds of millions – of dollars needed to develop a cure for a disease like Ebola because there is little chance of making a profit.

“There is really no market for this in a typical sense,” Weaver said. “There is no company that thinks they can market this in West Africa for a profit.”

Sarah Kliff explored that question in more detail a few days ago. Keep that in your back pocket the next time a debate about the role of government comes up in your vicinity. I wish the scientists working on this problem and others like it all the success in the world.

Who wants to live in Galveston?

Galveston would like to know.

Although the city is still rebuilding with new private investment and hundreds of millions in federal disaster money, Galveston finds itself at a crossroads and confronting fundamental questions: Will its population continue to shrink until it becomes nothing more than a husk of tourist attractions? Will the city attract new industry?

The city’s population was declining for decades before Ike reduced it from 57,000 to about 48,000. Restoring the city’s population is crucial to establishing a stable tax base, especially as the University of Texas Medical Branch and Texas A&M-Galveston pay no property taxes on the large tracts they occupy.

“The biggest problem is not the creation of industry, it’s getting people who work here to come back to live here,” said Harris “Shrub” Kempner, head of Kempner Capital Management and a member of the city finance advisory committee.

Although the Island’s 8.1 percent unemployment rate mirrors the nation’s, it’s higher than Houston’s at 6.5 percent and masks an unusually high ratio of population to jobs because so many people who work in Galveston live off the island, Kempner said.


The city needs a population of at least 50,000 to continue getting the level of federal aid it received before the storm. Restoring the population is a priority for both of the mayoral candidates preparing for a June 23 runoff, incumbent Joe Jaworski and challenger Lewis Rosen. Both say they want the population eventually to grow to 70,000.

A perception of low-performing schools once contributed to flight from the island, but that perception has changed, said Galveston school district Superintendent Larry Nichols. Discipline and test scores have improved, he said, and affluent residents like [UTMB president Dr. David] Callender are sending their children to public schools despite the availability of two charter academies and a Catholic school.

To entice people to live on the island, the city must overcome significant hurdles.

The scattered lots available for building don’t lend themselves to the same cost efficiencies developers can realize on the mainland, where large tracts are available. The potential for hurricanes is frightening to some. High insurance costs and stricter building codes on the coast make housing more expensive. Galveston lacks large retail outlets, forcing residents to leave the island to shop.

And the island, despite its natural attractions of sun, sand and surf, has a reputation for shabbiness.

Barton Smith, a University of Houston economics professor emeritus, said efforts to attract population and new business won’t be successful until Galveston overcomes the blight that motorists see coming in on Broadway Boulevard, and the industrial ambience of Harborside Drive that greets cruise ship passengers.

Really, this is a marketing question. What is it about Galveston that would make someone want to live there? That’s what they need to figure out. Is there an Island version of ttweak that can come up with a snappy catch phrase and a campaign to back it up? I know what draws people to a city like Houston, and I know what draws people to the various suburbs, and I know what draws people to small towns and the country. What is it about Galveston that makes people want to live there? Not everyone, of course, just that subset of people who would live there if given a reason that made sense to them. I wish them the best in figuring it out.

Trauma centers feel the pinch, too

Like everything else in the state, trauma centers at hospitals will see their funding get cut, and they are warning about the consequences.

The officials from Memorial Hermann, Ben Taub and the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston came together to say the Legislature’s proposal to allot trauma centers nearly 20 percent less than usual from the state’s dedicated fund will have tragic consequences.

“When we don’t have enough funding, we have to divert patients to other hospital ERs,” said Dr. John Holcomb, chief of trauma surgery at Memorial Hermann. “Studies show that when diversion goes up, delaying care, mortality goes up.”

There’s a dedicated fund that was created in 2003 to help trauma centers offset the cost of their care. It has $120 million in it, but like pretty much every dedicated fund in the budget, some of that routinely gets diverted to other things, because it’s easier to do that than it is to properly fund the budget through taxation. This particular fund gets its money from traffic citations (including, as of 2007, red light camera tickets), and the fund itself has the money it’s supposed to, it’s just that the Lege doesn’t let the trauma centers have all of it. Previously, they got $70 million of the $120 million; this time, it’s $57.5 million. Keep that in mind when you read about an accident victim dying en route to a trauma center miles away from where they were injured.

Rep. John Zerwas, R-Richmond, a member of the House appropriations and public health committees, called it “very frustrating” to have funding dedicated for trauma care and not be able to distribute it. Zerwas added that he’s looking for a long-term solution.

But he also noted that the trauma money is hardly alone among dedicated funds, and said the big question is still how the Legislature balances its budget with all its needs.

Of course, as Rep. Zerwas fails to note, the Republicans in the Legislature have steadfastly refused to use the Rainy Day Fund, which could provide billions of dollars to offset a chunk of the shortfall. The Republicans have also steadfastly refused to address the structural deficit, in which the business margins tax and other revenue sources created in 2006 to pay for the massive property tax cut that was passed then has consistently fallen short and has by now accumulated billions more in unfunded needs. To put it simply, the Republicans didn’t even try to solve these problems in their budget deal, they mostly spent their time moving money around from one need to another and making ludicrous statements about “living within our means”. Tell that to the trauma centers, y’all.

Prison health care

Just another dimension to the complex budget picture.

An early casualty of impending state budget cuts could be the health care contract that serves most of Texas’ 154,000 prison convicts.

Top officials at the University of Texas System, whose Galveston medical branch provides the health services, are threatening to cancel the contract because legislative budget-writers will not fully cover a projected $82 million shortfall.


Squeezing out enough additional money to make a significant difference in an $18 billion budget gap will mean that very little will be completely spared the knife, said Dale Craymer, president of the Texas Taxpayers and Research Association , a business-backed research group.

That includes public education, which makes up nearly half of the state’s $81 billion general fund, even though many lawmakers consistently declare education is top priority.

“The magnitude of the budget problem is so great that it is difficult to get from here to there when you take half the budget off the table,” Craymer said.

But cutting school funding and prison funding comes with legal land mines because any changes will need to abide by past court orders, Craymer said.

If your initial reaction to this story is one of indifference – “Who cares if these guys get health care or not? They’re in prison!” – I can understand where you’re coming from. I could remind you that there’s a higher authority that speaks to that question, but I’ll simply note that this is one of those places in which the state’s hands will be tied by federal law and litigation. Dropping this simply isn’t an option, and I suspect there aren’t any cheaper solutions. Which means that other budget items will be targeted instead. It doesn’t take long from there to get into stuff you really don’t want to cut, like public education. To paraphrase Dale Craymer, the magnitude of the budget problem is so great that it is difficult to get from here to there when you take half your options for how to deal with it off the table. Grits has more.

AAUP criticizes UTMB for post-Ike layoffs


The University of Texas Medical Branch (UTMB) in Galveston and the University of Texas System (UTS) violated established and widely accepted guidelines on academic freedom and tenure when it laid off more than 2,400 faculty and staff in the wake of 2008’s Hurricane Ike, according to a report released today by the American Association of University Professors (AAUP).

More than 120 faculty members, 43 of whom were tenured or tenure-track, fell under the axe in late 2008, after Ike ripped through UTMB’s island campus, visiting destruction on hospitals, labs, and teaching facilities. Administrators at the UTS declared financial exigency, claiming that the hurricane damage put the facility in such dire economic straits that severe cuts to the faculty were necessary for it to remain solvent.

Critics have claimed that the declaration of financial exigency and decisions about who and where to cut the faculty were made behind closed doors with no broad-scale faculty input.

UTMB administrators may have been justified in declaring financial exigency when the hurricane hit, the AAUP’s Associate General Secretary Jordan Kurland told The Scientist. “But in a remarkably short time, monies were found, facilities were put back into operation, the worst case scenario never really materialized, and by the end of the winter, they were already hiring new people.”

Kurland, who supervised the staffing of the investigative committee that compiled the report, stressed this last point — the UTMB’s hiring of new faculty members mere months after firing others — as a key disappointment to the AAUP. “Those in charge took advantage of the ‘flexibility’ that had come from the initial lay-offs to move as soon as it was clear to do so to engage new people who would best meet current desires at the medical branch.”

The AAUP report is here. The reason this is a big deal is because the AAUP is considering adding UTMB to its censure list, which as a brief Chron story notes would make it a lot harder for UTMB to hire top faculty in the future. There will be a committee meeting before the AAUP’s annual meeting in June to formalize a statement about this. UT says it has proposed some revisions to its process that may address the AAUP’s concerns. We’ll see what happens.

Better days ahead for UTMB

The University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston is not only coming back, it’s growing.

Although the UT Board of Regents authorized 3,800 layoffs, UTMB officials announced that about 3,000 jobs would be cut. The actual number turned out to be about 2,400, but it was widely interpreted as a step toward dismantling Texas’ oldest medical school. The Legislature forced the regents to reverse policy, a stunning change of fortune that is slowly beginning to benefit the local economy.

UTMB has already filled more than half of the jobs left vacant by the layoffs and eventually will have nearly 1,000 more employees than before the storm, said Cindy Stanton, UTMB director of recruitment services.

The UTMB expansion offers economic hope to a city whose population shrank an estimated 20 percent after the Sept. 13, 2008, hurricane. “Galveston will benefit from the economic impact of more workers crossing the causeway,” Galveston spokeswoman Alicia Cahill said. “We will likely see gains in sales tax, hotel-motel tax, and possibly property tax,” Cahill said.

That’s just great to hear. May there be a lot more good news like this to come.

Shriners Hospital reopens next month

Back in July, delegates at the national Shriners convention voted to reopen the burn hospital for children in Galveston. The date to reopen has now been set for November.

The hospital, a world leader in burn research and source of the foremost textbook on burn treatment, is tentatively scheduled to reopen Nov. 8, said Tommy Lambright of the hospital’s governing board.

“It’s been a long journey,” said Lambright, a leader in a rank-and-file revolt that overturned a decision by the combined boards of the International Shriners and Shriners Hospitals for Children to keep the hospital closed after the Sept. 13, 2008, storm.


The newly reopened hospital will be smaller and leaner, Lambright said. If fully staffed by the end of the year as expected, Shriners will have 200 employees compared with the 333 it had before Ike, he said. The national boards are expected to approve a budget that is about three-fourths of the $33 million pre-Ike budget, he said.

The two national Shriners boards decided to close the burn hospital, one of 22 Shriners hospitals nationwide, after the 2008 stock market decline caused the organization’s trust fund to shrink from $8 billion to $5 billion.

Douglas Maxwell, Shriners Hospitals for Children President and CEO, said the fund has recovered along with the stock market and now is worth about $6.5 billion.

Perhaps someday it will be as big as it once was, but that’s a small concern for now. Just getting it back is huge, and a win for children, Galveston, and UTMB. I hope they have a big celebration to go along with the grand reopening.

UTMB’s comeback

This is great to see.

A bigger and better University of Texas Medical Branch is rising from the debris of Hurricane Ike, with more than $1 billion in repair, refurbishing and new construction under way or being planned.

The UT Board of Regents recently authorized $667 million worth of new projects at UTMB, an amount that doesn’t include a proposed $400 million hospital tower. When completed, the tower will restore the medical school to the 550 hospital beds it had before the storm slammed into its Galveston Island campus Sept. 13, 2008.

The burst of construction is in remarkable contrast to the gloom over UTMB’s future only a few months ago. Earlier this year, a consultant recommended moving the UTMB hospital off the island. Last November, UTMB announced it was laying off a third of its work force.

But Dr. Ben Raimer, UTMB senior vice president, said the branch had an obligation to rebuild a better campus. “We would be very culpable if we put things back the way they were,” he said. “UTMB has a once in a lifetime chance to build for the future.”

That’s awesome, not just as a symbol of recovery, but also as an economic engine going forward. Galveston is doing all right economically, all things considered, but having a large employer like UTMB, with the types of jobs it provides, is crucial to its long-term success. I couldn’t be happier to read about this.

A year after Ike

One year after Hurricane Ike made landfall over Galveston, the news is surprisingly positive for the island, though many challenges still remain. The Lege helped Galveston in a number of ways for this year, such as requiring UT to reopen the Medical Branch and allowing the school district to use its 2008 count of students for funding purposes. Businesses are coming back, people are buying beachfront property, and tourism is about where you’d expect it to be, maybe a little better, given the economy. But there’s still a lot of people who aren’t back, most of them still waiting for their homes to be rebuilt, property tax revenues are significantly down, and the reduced population count will affect the Census as well as next year’s state allocation for schools. There is hope, though, and that counts for a lot. Read the story, as well as the previous entries in the look-back series and this week’s Houston Press cover story, and get a feel for it.

Shriners Hospital in Galveston to reopen

Good news.

Delegates at the national Shriners convention meeting in San Antonio voted Monday to reopen a world-renowned burn hospital for children in Galveston, closed since it was damaged by Hurricane Ike in September.

Convention delegates voted to keep open all of the 22 hospitals nationwide in the Shriners system and, in a separate decision, voted 756 to 482 to reopen the Shriners Hospital for Children-Galveston.


The vote followed months of lobbying by the 1,000-member El Mina Shrine, based in Galveston. Tommy Lambright, the Shriners Hospital for Children Galveston board member who led the lobbying effort, said every one of the 1,500 delegates to the convention was contacted by phone.

The Galveston hospital, known for its advances in burn treatment, was kept closed after the storm by the combined boards of the International Shriners and Shriners Hospitals for Children after the endowment for the hospital system shrank from $8 billion to $5 billion because of the economic downturn.


The vote was welcomed by the hospital’s chief of staff, Dr. David Herndon, a celebrated burn surgeon.

“I’m immensely gratified,” said Herndon, who also is head of the University of Texas Medical Branch’s Blocker Burn unit, in a telephone interview from San Antonio.

“Very few hospitals can take care of the massive burns we can anywhere in the world,” Herndon said. “This is vitally important to our area.”

That’s good news for Galveston, good news for UTMB, and good news for everyone who has been or will be helped by their services. Well done, y’all.

UTMB to open emergency room


The University of Texas Medical Branch is scheduled to open a full-service emergency room Aug. 1 for the first time since Hurricane Ike inundated its campus more than eight months ago, relieving pressure on overburdened emergency rooms throughout the region.

“I don’t think it’s a secret that a smaller UTMB has had an impact all over southeast Texas,” said David Marshall, UTMB chief operating officer.

UTMB’s Level 1 trauma center, a rating given to emergency rooms that provide the most services, was ranked among the best nationwide before the storm.

The emergency room has been closed since then, forcing emergency medical crews to drive patients long distances and be out of service for extended periods.

Marshall said UTMB is trying to get the emergency room open as soon as possible after talks with other hospitals in the region that are overwhelmed with patients that otherwise would have gone to the medical school.

Great news for the region and for the Island. I just hope they can hire, or rehire enough people in time for the opening.

Joe for Galveston

From my inbox, some good news from Joe Jaworski:

Galveston matters, and the Island’s next Mayor must ensure this message is clearly understood: Galveston is more than a storm ravaged Island with a history; it is an iconic Texas coastal community with a future!

It’s time to make it official: I announce my candidacy to become Galveston’s next Mayor. The election is one year away on May 8, 2010, and I’m looking forward to leading a robust, positive campaign for Galveston’s future.

The Joe Jaworski for Galveston Mayor Campaign believes that Galveston matters, and it’s our intention to broadcast that message positively and often. We begin by announcing the launch of our campaign website Please visit our website, review the issues, email me your views, sign up to volunteer, add your name to our list of supporters and help us raise the money we need to reach every voter by making a secure contribution online via credit card. The website will be our primary communication tool, and we’ll maximize our campaign’s presence on social networking sites such as Facebook, Youtube and the like, so stay tuned.

Our campaign proudly acknowledges support from both on and off the Island; that’s one of our strengths. Galveston is coming back, and whatever your zipcode – especially after Ike – we are all Galvestonians! So join our campaign to show your support for Galveston’s brightest future.

Ultimately, this campaign is about Galveston’s future and the Galveston voters who will step up and make this campaign something we can all be proud of. Here’s my pledge to you: We’ll campaign the same way we’ll lead: expect a clear, positive and thoughtful campaign where we will adress issues, determine priorities and draft an action plan. The election is a year away, but Galveston’s future begins now.

I’m asking for your vote and your support. I’m running to be Galveston’s next Mayor because I’m ready to work for you every day to show the world that Galveston’s best days are ahead.

Jaworski is a heck of a guy who ran a strong campaign for SD11 under some tough circumstances last year and who recently helped force a settlement with UTMB over the faculty and staff it laid off after Hurricane Ike. He’ll make an excellent Mayor for Galveston, and I heartily support his candidacy.

Settlement in UTMB lawsuit

Hot off the presses.

University of Texas regents today settled an open records lawsuit, agreeing to give hiring priority to 2,400 employees laid off at UTMB in December, one of the plaintiffs said.

In return for dropping the lawsuit, the regents also agreed to allow a Harris County judge to act as an arbitrator in disputes over rehiring, said Tom Johnson, Texas Faculty Association executive director.

The association and three Galveston residents filed the lawsuit last month saying that the firings were illegal because they were done in violation of the open meetings act. The suit accused the regents of convening four closed meetings, three by conference calls.

Barry Burgdorf, UT system vice chancellor and general counsel, said that the agreement to give fired employees priority was already policy at the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston.

I’m sure there will be a longer version of this story in the morning. Given that this lawsuit was only filed in December, I have to think that the quickness of this settlement is indicative of UTMB deciding that its position was not tenable. The first ruling, over venue, went for the plaintiffs. Given that UTMB was going to be staying in Galveston and was already rehiring laid-off workers, you have to wonder what there was left for them to go to the mat over. Be that as it may, kudos to the winners for forcing the issue. I’ve got a press release from the Texas Faculty Association, which has some related news on its blog, beneath the fold.


UTMB versus Shriners

Well, this might help keep Shiners Galveston Hospital open.

The University of Texas Medical Branch on Friday asked a judge to stop Shriners Hospital for Children Galveston from locking its doors and imperiling millions of dollars in shared burn research.

UTMB asked Galveston County District Judge Wayne Mallia for a temporary restraining order and an injunction preventing Shriners from padlocking its hospital and its world-renowned burn center by a Tuesday deadline.

Ralph Semb, chairman and CEO of Shriners Hospitals for Children, said he was puzzled by the lawsuit because Shriners was prepared to give UTMB two more weeks to vacate the hospital.


UTMB was given only two weeks notice to move all laboratories and researchers out of the Shriners hospital, which is across the street from UTMB’s John Sealy Hospital and is connected by a walkway to UTMB’s Blocker Burn Center, Dr. Garland Anderson, UTMB executive vice president and provost, said at a news conference.

Anderson said it would take at least six months to a year to move all the equipment and researchers to a condemned building that had been slated for destruction. He said UTMB had tried to negotiate with Shriners headquarters but was unable to make any headway.

Nearly $14 million in ongoing research is at stake, officials said.

“If the laboratories and burn units were forced out in only a few days time, the damage would be catastrophic and irreparable,” according to the lawsuit.

The lawsuit says that an affiliation agreement between UTMB and Shriners requires a five-year notice of termination.

Sure does seem like keeping the hospital open would solve a lot of problems, wouldn’t it? Let’s hope the national Shriners see it that way. There’s a hearing for April 6, so perhaps we’ll get an answer by then.

A setback for Shriners


Local Shriners vowed Wednesday to take their case for reopening the storm-damaged Shriners Hospital for Children in Galveston to convention delegates after the national leadership again decided to keep it closed.

Officials of the 1,000-member Galveston-based El Mina Shrine were notified Tuesday that their plea to reopen the hospital and its world famous burn center had been denied for the second time.


“Myself and the local Shriners from the El Mina Shrine, we are definitely going to take it forward to the national membership,” said Tommy Lambright, Shriners Hospital for Children Galveston board member.

Packets of information arguing for reopening the facility have already been sent to the 1,163 Shriners delegates who will meet in San Antonio on July 23.

The delegates can vote to overturn the leadership’s decision and have done so at least twice before.

Delegates prevented the leadership from closing the Minneapolis Shriners Hospital for Children in 2003 and last year stripped the leadership’s authority to close any hospital, a rule that does not affect its power to forbid the Galveston hospital from reopening.

Lambright said El Mina Shriners would be lobbying delegates.

“We fully expect to get a positive vote to overturn the board’s action,” Lambright said.

I hope he’s right. As I said before, your best bet to affect that outcome is probably to contact the national organization and any Shriners you happen to know personally. And hope for the best.

If UTMB, why not Shriners?

The recent news that the UTMB Hospital will remain in Galveston and is now rehiring laid off workers was great to hear not just for Galveston but for the larger region, which really needed the facilities. Now that this one is back, perhaps we can get similar news for the another Island hospital.

The national Shriners leadership may vote this week on a proposal to keep open the storm-damaged Galveston Shriners Hospital for Children and its world-renowned burn center.

The vote will come at the insistence of local Shriners, who ask for a financial review of the organization’s entire 22-hospital system to find places to cut or consolidate services “and preserve the most acclaimed burn care facility in the world.”

If the leadership fails to open the hospital, closed since Hurricane Ike damaged the first floor, local Shriners have vowed to take the issue to the national convention this summer.

“We are just trying to get our hospital reopened,” said Shriner Tommy Lambright, a member of the Galveston hospital’s governing board.

Shriners Galveston is the only burn hospital in the Houston region verified by the American Burn Association and the American College of Surgeons.

The failure to open the burn center puts the lives of children at risk, said Shriner Duncan McDowell of Beaumont. “How many children will die in the future if we fail to get it back in service?” McDowell asked.

Pete blogged about this back in January when the national Shriners leadership made the initial decision to close this hospital. The question is whether they may reconsider now that things have changed for the better in the area.

An important reason for closing the Shriners Galveston hospital was the initial decision by the University of Texas Regents to downsize the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston, Lambright said.

Shriners was staffed by UTMB doctors who devoted a percentage of their time to Shriners’ patients and were reimbursed by the Children’s Hospital. Herndon, chief of staff at Shriners Childrens Hospital, also heads UTMB’s Blocker Burn Unit.

Shriners and UTMB researchers often share multimillion dollar research grants.

Under pressure from the Texas Legislature, the regents reversed policy two weeks ago and committed to rebuilding UTMB. A letter from UTMB Provost Dr. Garland Anderson reassured the national Shriners leadership of UTMB’s continued support and pointed to research offices supplied to Shriners researchers at no cost.


Local Shriners sent their proposal last week to the national leadership and to all 1,163 Shriners delegates to the July 5 convention. A vote by the delegates would overturn a decision by the board.

Raoul Frevel Sr., a member of the national hospital board and a supporter of opening the Galveston hospital, will put the proposal forward for a vote during a three-day joint meeting of the two Shriner boards that begins today, Lambright said.

Repairs to the first floor of the hospital are also basically complete. I wish them the best in getting the initial decision overturned. There’s a website dedicated to saving the Galveston Shriners Hospital, but it doesn’t appear to have been updated recently. I guess if you want to express your support, you could still leave a comment there, or you could contact the national organization. If you happen to know someone who is a Shriner, that’s probably your best bet.

UTMB rehiring

This is good news, though it does make you wonder what the point of all the initial layoffs was.

The University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston, which laid off more than 2,400 employees last fall because of damage caused by Hurricane Ike, has begun rehiring in earnest.

School officials said Monday they’ve rehired about 500 people since January and will continue hiring in large numbers in coming months, action that has caused some to question whether last November’s cuts were rash.

“It’s easy to Monday morning quarterback, but in October and November there was no crystal ball available to tell us what our fate was going to be,” said Karen Sexton, executive vice president and CEO of the medical branch’s health systems. “We didn’t know how quickly we could get clinical facilities up and running and whether we’d be getting legislative support.”

Sexton added that the expenses reduced by fall’s workforce reduction enabled UTMB to get through the period during which it had no clinical revenue and be in a position to start hiring again this year.


Joe Jaworski, a lawyer in an ongoing lawsuit challenging the layoffs, cited the rehirings as evidence that many of last fall’s “pink slips were premature.”

“I think it’s reasonable to ask whether UTMB had to let employees go in such huge numbers if it was able to turn around and rehire them months later,” said Jaworski. “But I’m happy to see many coming back and hope the rehiring continues.”

Jaworski added that the rehires and the regents’ decision to remain in Galveston seem to be “an effort to recapture what was lost.”

Recent news about that lawsuit is here. I’m glad UTMB is rehiring, too, I just can’t help but feel that much of this could have been avoided. There should have been a stronger commitment from Governor Perry and the Legislature from the beginning, and a stronger push for such a commitment from UTMB.

UTMB hopsital to stay in Galveston

This is a pleasant surprise.

The University of Texas Medical Branch hospital, still recovering from the devastation of Hurricane Ike, will remain on Galveston Island under a plan approved today.

The decision by the University of Texas Board of Regents not to move patient beds, teaching and research facilities inland should be positive news to area elected officials and local citizens who wanted to the damaged operation to remain. The plan, however, depends on new funding from the Legislature over time.

“This board, by this vote, is deeply committed to the future of keeping UTMB on Galveston Island, but this decision is not our decision alone,” said board chairman Scott Caven Jr., referring to the need for recovery money from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, philanthropic sources and the state.


The regents had been considering a consultant’s recommendation that some beds be moved off the island to compensate for the as much as $710 million in damage and losses caused by the hurricane, which came ashore in Galveston in September, destroying lower floors at UTMB’s John Sealy Hospital.

The $285,000 consultant’s report recommended that the hospital be rebuilt in League City, saying it had a better chance there of making a profit by competing for paying patients.

So they rejected the KSA report after all. I’ll be darned.

State Rep. Craig Eiland, D-Galveston, applauded the regents’ decision to rebuild the island campus. He said the effort, including the renovation of a damaged hospital and the construction of a new medical tower, could cost as much as $1 billion over time.

“We’ve come a long way, and we’re on the right path, and we’re all moving in the same direction,” he said. “We’ve still got to get to May. We’ve got to make sure that the Legislature funds the plan.”

Well, yeah, comparatively speaking that will be the hard work. But at least now there’s a tangible reason to fight for that funding, and I think this will make it harder to oppose it. Assuming we ever finish up with the single most important issue facing Texas today and get on to the lesser matters, we’ll see how that goes. Hair Balls has more.

UTMB layoff lawsuit update

Missed this last week.

A lawsuit challenging the layoffs of nearly 3,000 employees at the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston will be fought on home turf, a state district judge ruled Wednesday.

The courtroom audience applauded as Galveston County District Judge Wayne Mallia rejected an attempt by attorneys for the University of Texas Board of Regents to move the lawsuit to El Paso.

Alistair Dawson, an attorney for the regents, had argued that El Paso was neutral ground.

The lawsuit was filed in December and it alleges that the regents violated state open records laws in making the decision to lay off these employees.

Galveston attorney Joe Jaworski, interviewed after the ruling, said a move to El Paso would have stripped the plaintiffs of the advantage of trying the case in the area most affected by the layoffs.

“The fact that UT would as a matter of first action try to get the case out of the city shows how important it is,” Jaworski said.


Both sides were given 30 minutes to convince Mallia where the proper venue should be. Dawson argued that the law required the case be tried where the meetings were held, in Austin or El Paso. He acknowledged that Austin would be favorable to the regents, but said El Paso was neutral.

But Mallia sided with Jaworski, ruling that the lawsuit sought to reverse the layoff of UTMB employees and therefore Galveston was the proper venue.

The next hearing is scheduled for October 19. In the meantime, regents will be meeting today to discuss the suit and the future of UTMB clinical enterprise, which is to say whether or not to accept the report by Kurt Salmon Associates that recommends moving those operations to League City. The Texas Faculty Association has more – if you really want to get into detail, start here and work your way through.