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The Hobby poll on ending COVID restrictions

A little while ago I blogged about the recent UH Hobby Center poll regarding the winter freeze and blackouts and responses to them. At the time I mentioned the poll had a separate section about Greg Abbott lifting the COVID restrictions on mask wearing and business capacity. I thought there might be another story that referenced those results, but if there was I never saw it. So, let’s go back and look at that part of the poll ourselves. Here’s the relevant data, and as before the landing page for the poll is here. From the poll data for the questions on the restrictions:

On March 2, 2021, Texas Governor Greg Abbott issued Executive Order GA-34, which lifted statewide COVID-19 restrictions. The order rescinded, beginning on March 10, the governor’s previous mandate (GA-29) that Texans wear face coverings (masks) and allowed all businesses to operate at 100% capacity as long as the area in which the businesses are located does not surpass a high hospitalization threshold. This threshold is defined by an area where COVID-19 patients as a percentage of total hospital capacity exceeds 15% for seven consecutive days.

The survey respondents were asked five questions related to Governor Abbott’s executive order regarding the lifting of COVID-19 restrictions, and the responses were cross-tabulated with ethnicity/race, age, gender, education, and partisanship.

37% of Texans support Governor Abbott’s decision to end the statewide mask mandate while 56% oppose the decision. The remaining 7% neither support nor oppose the decision.

42% of Texans support Governor Abbott’s decision to allow all businesses to operate at 100% capacity and 49% oppose it. The remaining 9% neither support nor oppose the decision.

When provided with the following information, “According to recent data, the daily counts of COVID-19 hospitalizations and deaths in Texas are trending downward, although the rates remain relatively high. The head of the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other medical experts say that while caseloads are flattening out, variants of the coronavirus could bring another wave of the pandemic and that mask and business capacity restrictions should stay in place at this point in time,” 37% support Governor Abbott’s decision to end Texas’s statewide mask mandate and to allow businesses to operate at 100% capacity in light of the recommendations of medical experts while 51% oppose the decision. The remaining 12% neither support nor oppose the decision.

[…]

When asked whether they agree or disagree with the statement that Governor Abbott’s ending the mask mandate and allowing businesses to operate at 100% capacity will help restore jobs and return a sense of normalcy to Texans’ lives, 44% of Texans agree with the statement and 37% disagree. The remaining one-fifth (19%) neither agrees nor disagrees with the statement.

[…]

When asked whether they agree or disagree with the statement that Governor Abbott’s ending the statewide mask mandate and allowing businesses to operate at 100% capacity will result in an increase in the number of COVID-19 infections, hospitalizations and fatalities in Texas, a slight majority (51%) of the respondents agree with the statement compared to slightly less than a third (30%) who disagree with it. The remaining one-fifth (19%) neither agrees nor disagrees with the statement.

I’ve noted the partisan numbers in the sample before, so go review my previous post for that discussion. I’d love to see more polling on the lifting of the mask mandate, and I’d be very interested to see if it changes over time, but I’m not expecting much on that front. We know that Texas’ COVID case rate has remained fairly low despite the dropping of the mandates, a result I mostly attribute to people continuing to wear masks anyway. It may well be that people wind up disagreeing less with Abbott’s actions if this continues, or it may mostly be a proxy for partisan feelings. I’m noting it here in case we do get more data down the line.

No flu

I would never say that there was any such thing as a silver lining to the COVID pandemic, but it is true that basically nobody died from the flu this year because of masking and social distancing.

What medical officials worried would be a “twindemic” at the end of last year — the concurrence of influenza and COVID-19 sicknesses overwhelming Houston’s hospitals — turned out surprisingly well.

At Memorial Hermann, just three patients tested positive for influenza during the 2020-2021 flu season, compared to 983 patients during the 2019-2020 flu season. Doctors test for both flu and COVID-19 as a precaution.

The same public health measures that prevent SARS-CoV-2 from spreading — masks, social distancing and regular hand-washing — kept influenza strains from sickening people.

“When we were looking internally, we just weren’t seeing flu,” said Dr. James McCarthy, chief executive physician at Memorial Hermann.

Flu infections are down nationwide, with a hospitalization rate of 0.7 per 100,000 people, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. During the last flu season, the rate was nearly 100 times higher — 66.1 per 100,000 patients. Pediatric deaths also decreased, from 189 last year to one this year.

[…]

Researchers wondered whether being infected with the coronavirus would wipe out the chances of getting the flu, and say it may be a factor that contributed equally to declining flu rates.

“Part of it is because we had a worse virus that was spreading faster,” McCarthy said.

Knowing to wear masks and get a flu vaccine could be a huge step toward eradicating deadly flu seasons. But will people continue to practice those public health measures? Doctors don’t know.

“We’re recognizing that not only can we protect our friends and loved ones from COVID, but we can also do it from influenza with precautions for medically vulnerable folks,” McCarthy said.

I’ve gotten a flu shot every year for as long as I can remember, and as far as I know I’ve never gotten the flu. I will certainly continue to get those vaccines as before, and I’d strongly consider wearing a mask during the flu season going forward when doing things like grocery shopping. Hard to see any reason why not to at this point.

More interesting questions from that Matthew McConaughey poll

Let’s try this again.

By 58% to 26%, Texans oppose a bill the House approved — and sent to the Senate Friday — that would allow people to carry handguns without a permit. Last month, opposition was greater — 64% to 23%.

[…]

In two polls by The News and UT-Tyler early last year, a majority of Texas registered voters endorsed a national ban on the sale of semiautomatic assault weapons. This month, that slipped to support by a plurality, 48% for and 33% against.

[…]

At the same time, confidence that elected officials are doing enough to prevent mass shootings has ebbed. In early 2020, not long after Trump, Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick mused publicly about possible gun law changes in the wake of the August 2019 slaughters in El Paso and Odessa-Midland, up to 47% of Texans agreed that elected officials were doing enough to avoid repetition of the tragedies.

This month, 38% agreed and 59% disagreed — including 86% of Black people, 65% of Hispanics and 46% of Republicans.

See here for yesterday’s post, here for my blogging on the March poll (I didn’t comment on the gun control aspects of it), here for the April poll data, and here for the March poll data. I cut out a couple of quotes from people about the gun question because I didn’t care about them. I don’t know if the change in the numbers from March are just normal float or perhaps the result of recent Republican messaging, but in either case that’s still a solid majority against the permitless carry bill. Maybe that should be a bigger campaign issue in 2022 than it has been in the past. Lots of other issues to talk about as well, to be sure, but there sure looks to be a lot of upside here.

Nearly half a century after the U.S. Supreme Court in Roe v. Wade established a woman’s right to an abortion, at least in the first three months of pregnancy, a majority of Texans — and Republicans, if barely — said the court should not overturn Roe.

Among all Texas registered voters, 61% said Roe should not be overturned, while 37% said it should be. Republicans split 51%-49% against overturning, as did women, 63%-35%. White evangelicals favored voiding the controversial ruling, 56%-43%

Both GOP-controlled chambers of the Legislature are advancing a half dozen measures to restrict abortion.

In The News and UT-Tyler’s poll, a plurality of Texas registered voters (42%-37%) supported a Senate-passed bill that would ban virtually all abortions once a fetal heartbeat is detected, usually about six weeks into pregnancy, except in medical emergencies. Texas law currently bans abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy — or up to 22 weeks from the last menstrual period.

Though about two-thirds of Republicans and white evangelicals support the so-called “heartbeat” bill, women narrowly oppose it, 40%-38%, as do Democrats, 47%-31%.

The problem here of course is that heartbeat bills, which have been passed in other states and blocked by the courts, are a direct challenge to Roe. The main point to take away from all this is that voters are often confused on this issue because there’s a lot of jargon and misdirection involved in bills like these.

While a plurality of Texans approve of the overall job Biden is doing as president (48%-41%), a slight majority — 52% — disapprove of his performance at handling immigration at the border. Just 30% approve.

Abbott enjoys a higher job-approval rating among Texans than does Biden: 50% approve, 36% disapprove. But it’s Abbott’s lowest showing in eight tests by The News/UT-Tyler poll since January 2020 — and down from a high of 61% in April 2020. That’s when, near the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, Texans appeared to rally around his shutdown orders.

Asked if they trusted the leaders to keep their communities healthy and safe during the public health crisis, Texans narrowly said they trust Biden, 51%-44%.

However, a narrow plurality now distrusts Abbott to protect their communities from COVID-19: 46% trust the Republican governor, 47% do not. It’s the first time in six polls that Abbott has sunk underwater on the question. In this month’s poll, he’s especially lost ground among independents (30% trust him, 59% distrust him) and Black people (20% trust, 71% distrust).

You can look at the baseline approve/disapprove numbers in the poll data, they’re on page 2 in each case. Not much has changed since March. The polls included the same questions for Dan Patrick and Ken Paxton, but so many people answered “Neither” to the approve/disapprove question for those two (37% for Patrick, 36% for Paxton), which I interpreted as mostly “don’t know”, that I don’t think there’s much value in those numbers. The main point here is that Biden continues to be above water in approval polling, and as long as that remains the case I believe Dems will have a more favorable climate in 2022 than they had in 2010 or 2014. Whether it’s as favorable as it was in 2018 is a different matter.

As for activities during the pandemic, Texans are more comfortable gathering with friends now: 44% are extremely comfortable, while only 23% felt that way in April 2020.

Texans are not as comfortable, though, being in crowds: 16% are extremely comfortable now, very close to the 15% who said they were extremely comfortable last April.

Sixty percent of Texans say they have been or definitely will be vaccinated against COVID-19, up from 57% last month. An additional 14% say they probably will get immunized. If they all do, as many as 74% could be inoculated, approaching the level many experts say is needed to achieve “herd immunity.” If all the state were Democrats, combining the three responses would produce an 89% acceptance rate, compared with 69% among Republicans and 66% among independents.

Could be worse. Given the data from some national polling, could be much worse. In the end, I think we’ll just have to see where we end up. If we get to over 70% in Texas, I’ll be pretty happy.

We are still managing to avoid a new COVID surge

It’s good news, whatever the reason for it may be.

More than a month has passed since Gov. Greg Abbott ended virtually all statewide restrictions related to the coronavirus pandemic. Nationwide, new coronavirus cases are on the rise as new variants of the virus spread. And about four-fifths of Texans are not yet fully vaccinated.

But at least for now, the most dire predictions of a new major wave of cases in Texas have not come true, prompting a mix of theories from public health experts.

Those experts caution that a major increase in cases could still come and it may still be too early to tell whether Abbott’s decisions to lift the statewide mask mandate and allow businesses to fully reopen could prompt a new wave of infections. Still, daily new cases and the positivity rate have leveled off over the past month, while deaths and hospitalization have gone down substantially.

Experts point out that vaccination is ramping up, many businesses are still requiring masks and there are unique factors impacting individual metrics — like a drop in demand for testing that is driving down raw case numbers.

They also emphasize that, especially at this point in the pandemic, a stabilization of such metrics, or even a modest decline, is not exactly cause for celebration.

“I think we could’ve been even lower at this point in time,” if not for Abbott’s latest decisions, said Dr. Luis Ostrosky, an infectious disease specialist at UTHealth’s McGovern Medical School in Houston. “The fact that we’re sort of stable is not necessarily good news — because we’re stable at a very high level. It’s like everybody saying you’re at a stable cruising speed — but at 100 miles per hour.”

Abbott’s decision to end most statewide restrictions went into effect 35 days ago, on March 10. The seven-day average for daily new confirmed cases was 3,020 on that day; it was 2,456 on Tuesday. The seven-day average of the state’s positivity rate — the ratio of cases to tests — was 6.24% on March 10; it was 5.89% on Monday. (The latest positivity-rate figures are considered preliminary and subject to recalculation as more test results come in from the date in question.)

Deaths and hospitalizations, which lag new cases, have seen steeper drops since March 10. The seven-day average of new daily deaths was 187 on March 10; it was 64 on Tuesday. There were 4,556 Texans hospitalized with the virus on March 10; there were 3,002 on Tuesday.

The four key metrics are way down from peaks earlier in the year, when the state was seeing daily new caseloads approaching 20,000, a positivity rate that went above 20%, hospitalizations that topped 14,000 and weeks of more than 300 deaths per day.

Like I said, it’s good news, and you should click over and look at the charts, which are a harrowing reminder of how bad it has been in past months. I continue to believe that the reason the numbers haven’t ticked back up is that enough people are staying masked up. We have some limited public opinion data to suggest that, but beyond that it’s mostly my own observations, which are not on a particularly representative sample of the population. Warmer weather, which allows for outdoor activities, may be helping, and in the end we may just be lucky. Whatever the case, let’s hope it continues.

And before you ask, no, we are nowhere near herd immunity. Given the continued resistance to getting vaccinated from large swaths of Republicans, getting there will be a challenge. Prioritizing older folks for the vaccine has no doubt helped reduce the hospitalization and death totals, and that’s no small thing, but we have to deliver a lot more shots into arms because we can begin to think about easing up on that.

Whither downtown?

Nobody really knows when or if Houston’s downtown will return to something like it was pre-COVID.

Few areas of the local economy were hit as hard by the pandemic as downtown and few face as much uncertainty as the service sector — shops, restaurants, dry cleaners, hair salons — that depends on people coming to work in the city’s center. Even as the pandemic’s end appears in sight and companies begin to bring workers back to the office, it remains unclear how fast employees might return downtown and whether they will come back in the same numbers.

Already, some companies are planning to continue the remote working arrangements forced by coronavirus and embraced by both employers and employees. The financial services company JP Morgan Chase, which has some 2,300 employees in two buildings downtown, recently said it will keep some positions remote and reduce the number of people in its U.S. offices, reconfiguring them to reduce the space it uses by up to 40 percent.

The chemical company LyondellBasell, which has about 2,300 employees in its downtown office, said it will consider flexible, remote alternatives to in-person work. The pipeline company Kinder Morgan, which has about 20 percent of its 2,100 working in its headquarters on Louisiana Street, said it has not determined when and how it will bring back other workers.

A recent survey by Central Houston, an organization that focuses on the redevelopment and revitalization of downtown, found that 75 percent of downtown employers expect at least 10 percent of their workforce will transition to a mix of in-person and remote work.

Only about 18 percent of employees are working from the office downtown, according to Central Houston’s survey. About half the companies said they expect to bring 50 percent of their workers back to the office by June and 70 percent said they expect to have half their workforce in the office by September.

[…]

It’s hard to say when the downtown workforce will return to pre-pandemic levels, said Bob Eury, president of Central Houston. The Houston utility CenterPoint Energy said it plans to bring all its employees who have been working remotely back to the offices at 1111 Louisiana St. in June.

Also in June, the University of Houston-Downtown, which has nearly 1,400 employees, said it will bring full-time staff on campus at least three days a week. By July, the staff should be working regular Monday-Friday schedules, the university said.

But some companies are still figuring out when they’ll bring employees back and how many might continue to work remotely. Porter Hedges, a law firm on Main Street, still has most of its 220 employees working at home, but has not set a timetable for their return to the office.

Employees at EOG Resources are working in the office roughly half the week, the other half at home as part of the company’s phased reopening strategy. A spokesperson could not say how long the policy would remain in place.

Developers and property managers, however, are confident that offices will eventually fill with workers again. Travis Overall, executive vice president for Brookfield Properties, which owns 10 buildings downtown, said he doesn’t believe the pandemic will lead to a major restructuring of the downtown workforce over the long term.

Nobody really knows what will happen, because we’ve never experienced anything like this. We don’t have any precedent to point to. I feel reasonably confident saying that the courts and government buildings will be returning to full in-person business soon, and that will bring a lot of people back, but a lot of other businesses are up in the air. I also think that if there is a relative glut in office space downtown, lower rents will lure in some new occupants. It may take three to five years to see how it has all shaken out.

Harris County drops its vaccine waitlist

Sign up and get a shot if you haven’t already.

Harris County Public Health has ended its waitlist for COVID-19 vaccinations, County Judge Lina Hidalgo said Friday.

The new portal at ReadyHarris.org allows residents to register, after which they can pick and choose their appointment time, according to the website.

Hidalgo said there’s currently “more vaccine supply than ever” and encouraged people to sign up for vaccines, which are free and do not require insurance to receive.

She added that the county has 55,000 doses of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines available for next week.

You can also call to schedule an appointment at 832-927-8787. There are equity issues to deal with, but making the vaccine more widely available, and to people who don’t have Internet access, will help.

On vaccine equity

This was predictable, but that doesn’t mean we have to accept it as such.

Black and Latino Harris County residents received the COVID-19 vaccine at lower rates than their white counterparts, according to a county analysis that also found a person’s likelihood of vaccination, to date, largely has depended on where they live.

The findings underscore what a Houston Chronicle analysis found last month: Even though African-American and Latino communities have been hit hardest by COVID-19 in Texas, they are being vaccinated at a much slower pace.

The gap exists despite a Harris County public health campaign crafted to convince residents of color to get the vaccine. And it is significant: In the highest-participation ZIP code, 77046 in Upper Kirby, 87 percent of residents have received at least one dose. Fourteen miles north in Greenspoint, 77060, 8 percent of residents have.

“That disparity is so disappointing, but it doesn’t surprise me,” said Rice University health economist Vivian Ho. “A large portion of the vaccines in the state went to the hospital systems, who just went through their electronic records — so if you’re insured, which means you’re more likely to be white, then it was easy for them to sign you up.”

Of the 20 Harris County ZIP codes with vaccination rates of at least 31 percent, 18 have predominantly white residents. Sixteen are in the so-called Houston Arrow, the section of Houston from Oak Forest southeast to downtown, southwest to Meyerland, north to the Galleria and west through the Energy Corridor that is significantly whiter and more affluent than other parts of the city.

Much of the data from 77030 likely is incorrect, the report notes, since the Texas Medical Center is located there and many hospitals appear to have listed that ZIP code as a way of expediting patient appointments.

Of the 20 county ZIP codes with the lowest vaccination rates, none of which exceed 15 percent, 18 are mostly nonwhite. None are in the Arrow.

[…]

The two commissioner precincts with the highest share of white residents, 3 and 4, had the highest vaccination rates, both above 16 percent. Precinct 1, which has the largest proportion of African Americans, was just below 16 percent. Just 13 percent of residents in [Commissioner Adrian] Garcia’s Precinct 2, which is mostly Latino, have received at least one dose.

Garcia said he asked for the study because he wanted to identify areas in Harris County that need greater vaccine outreach. He praised the county’s mass vaccination site at the NRG campus, but said many of his constituents lack access to public or private transportation to travel to the site or the Texas Medical Center, which are in Precinct 1.

“We want to make sure we’re being creative and thoughtful about where are the masses in the precinct that may be a way to help us move that needle in a better direction?

“The Medical Center, for most of the people in my precinct, doesn’t really exist because they can’t get to it,” Garcia continued. “We need to serve those tough, underserved areas of the precinct that have gone underserved for quite some time.”

Precinct 2 has partnered with unions and community groups to set up local vaccination sites. The portable SmartPod mobile medical units Garcia debuted last year to help with COVID-19 testing now are used also to assist with administering the shots.

Garcia said he also would urge the county health department to waive its requirement that residents register for appointments online. He predicted walk-in appointments would be popular among seniors who may not be technologically savvy, as well as undocumented residents wary of entering their personal information into a government database.

There are a lot of reasons for which, a primary one being that the state prioritized people over 65, who are disproportionately white, and not essential workers like grocery store employees or meatpackers or teachers or government employees. Not much we can do about that now other than try to catch up from here. Commissioner Garcia has the right idea, but it’s going to take time to make a difference.

Should Harris County lower its threat level?

Maybe?

According to Harris County’s COVID-19 guidance, residents should avoid all unnecessary contact with others. They should not go to bars or barbecues or ballgames. They should work from home if possible and leave only for errands, such as groceries or medicine.

Hardly any of the county’s 4.8 million residents appear to be following this advice now. Gov. Greg Abbott fully reopened Texas last month and nixed the mask mandate. Youth sports have resumed, houses of worship again welcome in-person parishioners and 21,765 fans attended the Astros home opener at Minute Maid Park.

Yet, for 42 consecutive weeks, Harris County has been at its highest COVID-19 threat level, red, even though the virus metrics here have improved significantly since January and other counties have relaxed their guidance for residents. Though local officials have no authority to issue COVID-19 restrictions, Harris appears to be the only of Texas’s 254 counties to still urge residents to remain at home.

The county’s two Republican commissioners, Jack Cagle and Tom Ramsey, this week urged Democratic County Judge Lina Hidalgo to reconsider the threat-level criteria. The pair also have resumed attending court meetings in person, which they say can be done safely, while the three Democrats join virtually and require members of the public to do so, as well.

[…]

Since moving to level red last June, Harris County never has met all the criteria to move to the second-highest level, orange, including 14-day averages of: A positivity rate below 5 percent, daily new cases below 400 and COVID-19 patients occupying less than 15 percent of hospital ICU capacity. As of Wednesday, those metrics stood at 8.7 percent, 434 and 15.1 percent.

The glass-half-full view of these numbers is that each has declined significantly from January’s post-holiday spike. Both the number of COVID-19 patients occupying ICU beds and positivity rate have dropped by more than half, and the daily new case average is down 83 percent.

The more cautious approach, which Hidalgo favors, considers that the governor fully reopened the state over the objection of one of his medical advisers, herd immunity that is still months away and the presence of several virus variants in Houston that are a wild card.

Commissioner Ramsey points out that multiple school districts in his precinct are back to mostly in-person classes, which Commissioner Cagle notes that if you’re at the highest threat level all the time, it’s hard to turn the volume up when things do get worse. (I like to think of it as the “These go to eleven” justification.) Judge Hidalgo points to the fact that less than twenty percent of the county is fully vaccinated (this is counting all residents, not just those sixteen and older who are able to get the vaccine) and there are major outbreaks in places like Michigan that stand as cautionary tales for easing up too quickly. I’ll get to all this in a minute, but first we should note the irony of this story appearing on the same day as this story.

The Astros will be without four key players — Jose Altuve, Alex Bregman, Yordan Alvarez and Martin Maldonado – indefinitely because of MLB’s COVID-19 health and safety protocols.

The loss of those four, plus infielder Robel Garcia, is a brutal blow for a team already in a mid-April funk and a reminder that baseball is still operating in a pandemic.

The fivesome went on the COVID-19 related injured list prior to Wednesday’s game against the Detroit Tigers. Astros general manager James Click could not confirm whether the team has had a positive test. Players or staff who test positive for the virus must give their team permission to disclose a diagnosis.

“It’s just a challenge for the rest of our guys to pick us up and get us back on the right track,” Click said before Wednesday’s game at Minute Maid Park. “We’ve obviously scuffled a little bit the past four games. When it rains it pours. It’s a difficult situation.”

Placement on the COVID-19 injured list does not automatically indicate a positive test. There is no minimum or maximum length of stay. The list is also reserved for players or staffers exposed to someone who has had a positive test, those experiencing COVID-19 symptoms, or those experiencing adverse effects of the COVID-19 vaccine. Manager Dusty Baker revealed that all five players “had at least their first shots.”

The Rice women’s volleyball team had to drop out of the NCAA tournament because of COVID protocols as well. Just a reminder, you’re not fully vaxxed until two weeks after the second shot. If it can happen to them, well…

Anyway. I don’t think Commissioners Ramsey and Cagle are making faulty or bad faith arguments. Their points are reasonable, and I’m sure a lot of people see it their way. Judge Hidalgo is also right, and the fact that Harris County hasn’t actually met any of the metrics to put it below the “red alert” threshold should mean something. To some extent this is a matter of risk tolerance, but I do find myself on the side of not redefining one’s own longstanding metrics for the sake of convenience. It seems likely to me that if everything continues along the same trends in the county, we should meet the standard for lowering the threat level soon. And if we don’t – if our caseloads continue to stay at the same level or tick back up, even if hospitalizations are down and even as we vaccinate more and more people – I think that should tell us something. Campos has more.

When the vaccine problem becomes more about demand than supply

Or to put it another way, what are we gonna do with the people who refuse to get vaccinated?

Low vaccination rates in counties that are whiter and more conservative could be impairing Texas’ ability to quickly reach herd immunity for COVID-19.

Texas counties that are poorer, whiter, less-educated and where former President Donald Trump won a larger than average share of the vote have vaccinated a smaller share of their population than the state average, a Houston Chronicle analysis found.

In the 144 Texas counties that meet these criteria, about 28.7 percent of people aged 16 and older have received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine. Statewide, the average is 32.2 percent.

In Liberty County, fewer than 20 percent of residents have received at least one dose of the vaccine, one of the lowest rates in the state. What’s more, as Harris County residents have begun flocking to rural counties for easier access to vaccines, state data shows that providers in Liberty County — a rural patch between Houston and Beaumont — have put 27 percent more shots in the arms of Harris County residents than they have in residents of their own county

Meanwhile, in the 22 counties where Joe Biden won a majority of the vote — places that tend to be both more diverse and educated — an average of about 44 percent of eligible Texans have received at least one dose of the vaccine.

The vaccination gap between whiter, more conservative counties and the state average may not be cause for concern for the state’s vaccination efforts yet, said Rice University health economist Vivian Ho, but there is a potential for it to widen over the next two to three months.

“As more vaccines become available, that gap is going to widen, because there’s still excess demand for vaccines in our cities, where the majority of the population lives,” she said. “If, for instance, only 50 percent of people in these outlier counties are vaccinated, they will continually be subject to superspreader events that will overwhelm the weakest components of the state’s healthcare infrastructure.”

[…]

Across the state, health officials are searching for ways to reach and vaccinate people who are reluctant to do so.

State health officials are trying to think through the “last mile”, said Dr. David Lakey, a member of the Texas COVID-19 Expert Vaccine Allocation Panel. People who are hesitant to get vaccinated may not go to mass vaccination sites or hubs, but may go to providers they trust.

In Public Health Region 4/5 North — a group of counties in the northeastern part of the state, around Tyler — officials are working with faith-based communities and hosting vaccine fairs to vaccinate more people in the region with the state’s lowest average rate. They have also been conducting home visits as part of these efforts to bring vaccines to homebound people.

Ron Nichols, emergency coordinator for Chambers County, said having well known, local paramedics dole out doses has helped assuage some residents’ concerns. Nichols said demand for vaccines was initially high, but has begun to plateau in recent months because people are either waiting on the single-shot vaccine from Johnson & Johnson, or because of distrust rooted in misinformation.

“There are a lot of people who just don’t understand, don’t know or don’t trust the process,” he said. “The Facebook misinformation machine has been running rampant.”

I suppose there may be fewer Houstonians taking vaccination road trips now that there’s more doses available. Be that as it may, the approach being outlined here makes sense. It’s largely the same strategy that has been advocated and used for communities of color and immigrants, and for the same reason – people trust people they know. It’s more arduous, but it has to be done. It would be nice if more of the state and federal elected officials who represent these areas stepped up and took some of the responsibility for convincing their constituents to get vaxxed, but I’m not holding out much hope for that.

(I am going to attempt to exercise some grace about the hesitancy in these parts of the state, even as we know that lies and propaganda are the main reasons for the fears that many of these folks have, and the risk that their hesitancy may help give rise to a stronger and more vax-resistant strain of the virus. For now, at least. We’ll see where the numbers are in a few months.)

Our COVID numbers are staying down

Let’s keep this going.

While the East Coast struggles with a fourth wave of rising COVID-19 infections, Texas experts say the state is doing “reasonably well” as case rates stabilize across the state.

Case rates and hospitalizations have plateaued in the region in recent weeks, averaging roughly 3,500 new daily reported cases, the lowest it’s been since early-to-mid September. The decline in hospitalizations has been an even more welcome trend, with fewer than 3,000 patients hospitalized for COVID, the lowest it’s been since June.

Medical experts such as Dr. Carl Vartian, an infectious disease specialist and chief medical officer at HCA Houston Healthcare Clear Lake and Mainland hospitals, suspect the winter freeze, increasing vaccination rates and the prevalence of antibodies in Texas’ population have kept case rates low over the last month.

[…]

“Texas is doing better than most states, which are seeing a pretty sharp rise in the number of daily new cases,” said Ben Neuman, a virologist at Texas A&M University.

The lower rate of infections doesn’t mean that Texans can let their guard down, though. Fewer than 37 percent of state residents have received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, and just over 20 percent have been fully vaccinated.

“You have to plateau before you rise, and I think that’s where we’re headed,” Neuman said.

The flat line of case rates starts with a sharp drop-off in testing. According to data from the Department of State Health Services, results from PCR testing dropped sharply during the winter freeze in February, and have not rebounded. As of April, Texas is testing at just half the rate it was before the state iced over.

While the number of daily tests has declined heavily, so too has the positive test rate. It’s now under 5 percent, and the second-lowest it’s been since the start of the pandemic, according to state data. Even with the reduced number of tests being conducted, fewer people are testing positive for COVID.

The low number of tests mean there could be a lag before a potential surge, Neuman said.

In Houston, medical experts are cautiously optimistic there won’t be a rise.

Usually, case rates spike first, followed by hospitalizations the week after and ventilator demand and deaths after that. So far, all three have stayed low in Houston, Vartian said.

The freeze was basically a one-week lockdown in the middle of February, and that no doubt helped keep infections down. I don’t know what it’s like anywhere else, but at least in my little part of the world people are still masking up, despite the Governor’s order. I won’t extrapolate from such a limited data point, but I feel hopeful that at least in the big cities people are still inclined to be cautious.

And I take heart at the progress in getting shots into arms. The Astros are getting their shots. The Rockets are getting their shots. Judge Hidalgo has gotten her first shot. People are celebrating the ways that their lives have been improved by getting vaccinated. (Can confirm, by the way.) I’m hopeful. We still have to be careful, but I can see the road ahead, and it’s going someplace good.

Show me your vaccine papers!

Wiat, wrong papers. Forget I just said that.

Gov. Greg Abbot issued an executive order early Tuesday banning state agencies from requiring “vaccine passports” to enter public spaces or receive public services.

The passports, either digital or printed, would verify that a person has been fully immunized against COVID-19 and allow people to more freely travel and shop.

So far, they only exist in a limited capacity in New York. Still, the passports have emerged as the latest subject of political clashes over the virus, with GOP politicians decrying the passes as an infringement on individual rights.

“Government should not require any Texan to show proof of vaccination and reveal private health information just to go about their daily lives,” Abbott said in a news release. “We will continue to vaccinate more Texans and protect public health — and we will do so without treading on Texans’ personal freedoms.”

“Unless you want to get an abortion or cast a vote, in which case we’ll be all up in your grill,” he did not say. I’m not going to waste your time on this silliness, but I will leave you these two items to ponder:

You just can’t make this stuff up.

There are still a lot of students doing remote school

I’m actually a little surprised it’s this much.

Nathan is among 35,127 students in Cypress-Fairbanks ISD and hundreds of thousands of students across Greater Houston whose parents opted to keep at home for the fourth and final grading period of the 2020-21 school year. Many of those students have not been inside a classroom since schools closed last March to help slow the spread of COVID-19.

Nearly 250,000 students in 18 districts are learning from home in the final grading period, according to a Houston Chronicle analysis of school district attendance data. Twenty-one districts responded to a Chronicle request for data, but only 18 were able to provide specific numbers for each grading period.

About 475,000 students in the 18 districts are back in schools. Among the 21 districts that responded to the Chronicle’s request, an average of about 75 percent of students were learning in person on campuses.

Those numbers vary widely from district to district. Only about 42 percent of Houston ISD students were back on campus by the fourth grading period, for example, while nearly 97 percent of students in Deer Park ISD have returned.

Statewide data from the TEA shows that districts that serve larger shares of Black and Hispanic students had fewer coming back for in-person classes. In districts where 10 percent or less of students were Black or Hispanic, about 80 percent of students returned, but in districts where 90 to 100 percent of students were black, less than half came back for face-to-face instruction.

David DeMatthews, an associate professor of education leadership and policy at the University of Texas at Austin, said multiple studies have shown that Black and Hispanic communities have been disproportionately affected by COVID-19 infections and hospitalizations, which often makes families of color more fearful of sending their students back to campuses.

“They’re more likely to know someone who’s gotten the virus, gotten seriously ill from the virus or died from the virus,” he said. “A lot of parents are just concerned that if kids go back to school in those communities, the impact could be very real and immediate for those families.”

Despite the varying attendance rates, one trend was clear among the 21 districts: More parents opted to send their children back for in-person instruction every time they were given the chance. The Texas Education Agency requires districts to give parents that opportunity each grading period.

Maybe if we were three months ago where we are now with vaccinations it would be different. Maybe if Texas had prioritized vaccinating teachers and school staff as part of the first wave it would be different. Who knows? The fact that the in-person attendance has ticked up every grading period suggests a correlation with the vaccine rate, but we can’t say for sure. For what it’s worth, our kids have been back in school since January – in HISD, you have to make a selection every six weeks – and it’s been fine for them. The eighth grader informed us the other day that they can eat in the cafeteria now instead of having to have lunch at their desks – they’re limited to three at a table made for eight, but it’s still an improvement as far as she’s concerned.

I expect that the large majority of kids will be back in the classroom in the fall, but online learning will still be available to those who still want it. Most likely, anyway.

Houston ISD leaders plan to offer online-only classes to families that want them to start the 2021-22 school year — as long as state officials continue to provide funding for children enrolled in virtual instruction.

HISD Interim Superintendent Grenita Lathan, speaking Wednesday after her annual State of the Schools speech, said district leaders hope to bring as many students as possible back to classrooms by August while also remaining committed to an online-only option.

About 56 percent of HISD’s 197,000 students attended virtual classes as of February, largely due to health and safety concerns amid the novel coronavirus pandemic.

While Lathan pushed for choice Wednesday, she also warned that HISD families should expect one big change in 2021-22: educators no longer will be required to teach students in face-to-face and virtual classes at the same time. As a result, families should not expect to retain the same teacher if they switch between formats during the school year.

“Our teachers teaching simultaneously has been extremely difficult this year, and we cannot continue to go on in that manner for the next school year,” Lathan said. “That’s what will look different. The option will be there, but we need to have teachers teaching in one mode.”

As the story notes, this is dependent on the next Superintendent not deciding to change direction, and on the TEA being willing to continue funding schools for online learning at the same rate. I think this may be a mostly moot point if we’re at 70%+ vaccination rate by August, and even more so if kids start getting vaccinated, but we’ll see. I think basically everyone will benefit from getting back to the classroom, but people still have to feel safe about it. Things really would be different if we had prioritized safety from the beginning.

Get your shot at the airport

I applaud the creative thinking, which we will continue to need.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Parking lots at Bush and Hobby airports soon will be home to mass vaccination clinics for the Houston Health Department, as the supply of shots continues to ramp up.

City Council unanimously approved lease arrangements at the airports Wednesday.

The site at Bush’s The Parking Spot opened Tuesday under a short-term lease agreement, with some 6,665 people scheduled to get shots there this week. It is not clear yet when the Hobby location of The Parking Spot will open for vaccinations, although the request for council action said it is necessary “for this operation to begin immediately.”

[…]

Mayor Sylvester Turner said he hopes the number of doses coming to the city will “exponentially increase” since the state has opened the eligibility requirements. If that happens, he said the city can open “many more locations” for people to get a vaccine, along with mobile sites that move around the city to reach people who have trouble leaving their homes.

“Please go and get the vaccination where you can, or sign up to receive it,” Turner said. “The goal is to increase the number of sites.”

The request for council action on the airport leases said the Health Department anticipates receiving a large number of vaccines on a more routine basis.

The new sites would double the number of the city’s main vaccination sites, according to the Health Department. It also operates clinics at Delmar Stadium and the Bayou City Event Center. Those four sites are designed to ramp up to 3,000 doses per day, six days per week, when the supply allows. The clinics at Bush Airport, Delmar and Bayou City Event Center are giving out between 1,000 and 2,500 doses per day currently.

The city has also benefited from a federal vaccination site at NRG Stadium, capable of giving 6,000 shots per day. The Health Department said it will consider continuing that site when the Federal Emergency Management Agency demobilizes it, likely sometime in April.

The city also uses health centers, multi-service centers and partnerships with clinics, pharmacies, churches and other groups to distribute the vaccine.

As the story notes, the airport parking lots are a lot less busy now than they usually are, for all the obvious reasons. The city owns the airports, which minimizes the cost involved, which will be covered by federal grant money anyway. The city and Harris County have also asked FEMA to keep the NRG site open at least through the end of May. We’ll see how they respond.

Basically, the city of Houston and Harris County seem to be doing everything they reasonably can to get as many shots into arms as possible. Equity remains an issue, which County Judge Lina Hidalgo brings up.

As Harris County crossed the threshold of one million COVID-19 vaccine shots into the arms of local residents Thursday afternoon, Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo pleaded with local vaccine providers to do a better job of getting doses to the county’s hard-hit minority communities.

Even though she acknowledged that hitting the million dose mark is “wonderful news,” she said during a Thursday press conference that only 12.1 percent of Harris County residents have been fully vaccinated against the coronavirus, compared to the 11 percent of all Texans that were fully-vaccinated as of Tuesday.

Hidalgo also pointed out how Black and Hispanic residents still aren’t getting vaccinated at the same rate as white and Asian residents, and challenged other local vaccinators to follow Harris County’s lead by making a concerted effort to change those trends.

“We’ve been going door-to-door in the hardest hit communities to get folks to register for our waitlist, but we need other providers in Harris County to join the effort more forcefully,” Hidalgo said.

“Every organization that administers vaccines in this county has a moral responsibility to reach the hardest hit residents,” she continued.

Again, I think the city and the county have done pretty well here, and I’d bet we would not be above the state baseline for vaccinations if that were not the case. There’s always room for improvement, and since the Black and Latino populations tend to be younger than the Anglo population, the opening of vaccine eligibility to all should help even things out a bit as well. It is up to all providers to do their part.

Astros aim for half-full

To start out with.

The Astros are expanding their previously planned attendance numbers at Minute Maid Park to start the regular season but will not exceed 50 percent capacity during April, senior vice president for communication and marketing Anita Sehgal said on Monday.

Single-game tickets are scheduled to go on sale Wednesday for 14 home games in April, including the April 8 home opener against the Oakland A’s and the return of former manager A.J. Hinch with the Detroit Tigers from April 12-14.

Season-ticket holders had until March 18 to choose one of four options the ballclub presented them earlier this month in the wake of Gov. Greg Abbott’s orders to reopen the state. On the day Abbott’s executive order took effect, the Texas Rangers announced Globe Life Field would open at 100 percent capacity for opening day on April 1.

Before Abbott allowed all businesses to perform at 100 percent capacity, the Astros were preparing to start the regular season at around 25 percent capacity — 10 to 12,000 people — at the 41,168-seat stadium. Earlier this month, Sehgal said the Astros “were not planning” to fill Minute Maid Park to 100 percent capacity in April.

On Monday, Sehgal said “generally, about half” of the season-ticket holders opted to remain in their seats, where social distancing cannot be guaranteed. For April games, season-ticket holders had the option of remaining in their seats, relocating to a socially-distanced section in the ballpark, pausing their accounts or donating their tickets to front-line workers.

“It didn’t have a significant impact, it just validated our plan,” Sehgal said of the season-ticket holder response. “Our plan has always been to ensure we were responsible and to ensure we had an enjoyable and safe experience. Their response sort of helped validate that we didn’t want to exceed 50 percent capacity (in April).”

[…]

Even if April weather is ideal enough for the Astros to open Minute Maid Park’s retractable roof, the team is comfortable closing it despite the ongoing pandemic. Outdoor air is pumped into the ballpark even when the roof is closed, allaying any concern about a large gathering in an indoor facility.

See here for the background. It doesn’t matter to me because I have no plans at this time to attend large gatherings, but I would have counseled the Astros to keep the roof open as much as possible if the weather permitted. Maybe that’s a false sense of security, since the real risk is in the concourses, especially during entry and exit, but I’d still want to minimize where I could. I’ll be waiting till most of the people in attendance will have been vaxxed. We’ll see if there are enough people to make this higher attendance limit a relevant concern.

The vaccination eligibility list is about to be wide open

Go ahead and get on it, though be prepared to wait as the supply issues work themselves out.

Everyone age 16 and older, regardless of occupation or health status, will be eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine in Texas starting March 29, state health officials said Tuesday.

The Texas Department of State Health Services is still asking providers to prioritize appointments for people who are 80 and older, and to prioritize walk-ins from anyone in that age group who shows up without an appointment. The vaccines are not limited to Texas residents, and citizenship is not a requirement for the vaccine.

“We are closing in on 10 million doses administered in Texas, and we want to keep up the momentum as the vaccine supply increases,” said Imelda Garcia, DSHS associate commissioner for laboratory and infectious disease services and the chair of the state’s Expert Vaccine Allocation Panel.

Until now, eligibility for the vaccine was mainly restricted to a few groups: health care workers, people ages 50 and older, those with certain underlying health conditions who are 16 or older, and employees of schools and day care centers. Texas began receiving vaccines in mid-December.

The vaccine is still in short supply as the announcement makes about 22 million people eligible on Monday. The state has been allocated more than 14 million doses since distribution began in December — far short of the supply needed to fully vaccinate everyone right away.

[…]

The state is also launching a website next week for people to sign up for vaccines at public health centers and state-run clinics. The Texas Public Health Vaccine Scheduler will alert participants to upcoming events and available appointments. For those who do not have access to the internet, the state will also be creating a hotline for appointments by phone, officials said.

The DSHS has more on Twitter. Great news for those who have not yet been eligible, though as we have previously discussed it’s not necessarily great for the distribution effort or for vaccine equity. All states were mandated by President Biden to make the vaccine generally available by May 1, so this is just getting a one-month head start on that.

County Judge Lina Hidalgo calls this a milestone moment.

“Opening vaccine eligibility vaccines to every adult is a key milestone in our fight against COVID-19,” Hidalgo said. “The onus is now on each adult to do their part. This vaccine is safe and effective, and the faster we all get a vaccine the sooner we’ll be able to pull through this crisis, get our economy running at full speed, and get life back to normal.”

Many experts have continued to raise concerns about unequal access to vaccines, particularly among low-income communities.

Rice University health economist Vivian Ho said the opened eligibility could help on that front because public health agencies will be able to, for example, vaccinate all workers at a grocery store.

“Now you can say we are going to go to workplaces, because there’s no age limit,” she said.

Conversely, Ho said, the announcement will do little to convince people who have already decided not to get vaccines, namely in communities outside of major cities.

Opening eligibility criteria will clear confusion for many communities who have hesitated to get a COVID-19 vaccine because of constantly changing age and medical condition restrictions, said Luis Torres-Hostos, dean of the University of Texas – Rio Grande Valley School of Social Work.

Torres-Hostos, who has worked with his university to get the message out to Latino communities, is hopeful public health officials will have more luck with immunization with these changes.

“Where are the vaccine deserts? Where are the places where it’s really hard for members of the community to get their vaccine?” he said. “We’ve got to do something to make sure that the vaccine is being given there.”

However, even his optimism comes with a caveat. Expanded criteria will only fix inequities if it comes with increased vaccine supply.

Communities of color and low-income communities are not hesitant to get the vaccine; a recent poll by the Kaiser Family Foundation finds 7 in 10 Hispanic people surveyed have received or want to book an appointment for a COVID-19 vaccine.

“If we build it, they will come,” Torres-Hostos said.

I sure hope this will help with the inequity issue, and I agree it will clear up any lingering confusion. We’ll look for that DSHS website when it’s up (and hopefully doesn’t crash). Y’all get yourself – and anyone you know who might need some assistance – in line for the vaccine.

“Normal” bus service is on the horizon

Isn’t it great to imagine the return of “normal”? It’s coming for Metro riders.

Having sharply reduced service and staffing during the pandemic, Metro officials now are readying for higher demand when school populations return to normal and downtown businesses call workers into the office.

“They are expecting a major return in August,” said Jim Archer, director of service planning and scheduling for Metropolitan Transit Authority.

That means Metro will spend the spring and early summer hiring bus operators and mechanics as it prepares to resume full service even as many realities of mass transit remain uncertain.

One looming concern is how to meet rising demand as daily trips increase from about 125,000, based on February numbers, to the 280,000 or more Metro carried prior to the COVID pandemic, while still providing for social distancing.

The issue is one of space on buses, if existing distancing requirements remain. Buses that could ferry 40 seated riders now have available space for 16.

As a result, meeting pre-pandemic demand under COVID conditions would be impossible with Metro’s fleet of approximately 700 40-foot buses and 90 60-foot articulated buses.

“There is a point at which we run out of buses and run out of operators,” Archer said.

Metro officials said it remains unknown how many drivers and mechanics the agency would have to hire and when they would be needed.

“Our operations team is still evaluating what ‘normal’ service will look like in August, given the many public health protocols that will, no doubt, still be in place,” Metro spokeswoman Tracy Jackson said.

August is targeted both as a reasonable point at which to expect a significant level of vaccinations, and thus maybe offices opening again, and also because it’s when school starts up. It’s hard to say exactly how much bus service will be needed – Metro has basically been running weekend schedules for the past year – but it’s safe to say that it will be more than what is needed now. No matter how you look at it, it sure is nice to think about.

How fast was too fast?

When it came to COVID vaccine eligibility, states that took their time expanding the pool of people who could get the shots have done a better job actually getting shots into arms than the states who rushed to broaden their list.

Despite the clamor to speed up the U.S. vaccination drive against COVID-19 and get the country back to normal, the first three months of the rollout suggest faster is not necessarily better.

A surprising new analysis found that states such as South Carolina, Florida and Missouri that raced ahead of others to offer the vaccine to ever-larger groups of people have vaccinated smaller shares of their population than those that moved more slowly and methodically, such as Hawaii and Connecticut.

The explanation, as experts see it, is that the rapid expansion of eligibility caused a surge in demand too big for some states to handle and led to serious disarray. Vaccine supplies proved insufficient or unpredictable, websites crashed and phone lines became jammed, spreading confusion, frustration and resignation among many people.

“The infrastructure just wasn’t ready. It kind of backfired,” said Dr. Rebecca Wurtz, an infectious disease physician and health data specialist at the University of Minnesota’s School of Public Health. She added: “In the rush to satisfy everyone, governors satisfied few and frustrated many.”

The findings could contain an important go-slow lesson for the nation’s governors, many of whom have announced dramatic expansions in their rollouts over the past few days after being challenged by President Joe Biden to make all adults eligible for vaccination by May 1.

[…]

In retrospect, health workers and nursing home residents were the easy groups to vaccinate. Doses could be delivered to them where they lived and worked.

“We knew where they were and we knew who they were,” Wurtz said. As soon as states went beyond those populations, it got harder to find the right people. Nursing home residents live in nursing homes. People 65 and older live everywhere.

West Virginia bucked the trend with both high numbers of eligible residents and high vaccination rates in early March, but the state started slow and built its capacity before expanding eligibility.

Similarly, Alaska maintained a high vaccination rate with a smaller eligible population, then threw shots open to everyone 16 and older March 9. This big increase in eligible adults near the end of the period studied led the AP and Surgo Ventures to omit Alaska from the analysis.

The analysis found that as of March 10, Hawaii had the lowest percentage of its adult population eligible for vaccination, at about 26%. Yet Hawaii had administered 42,614 doses per 100,000 adults, the eighth-highest rate in the country.

Thirty percent of Connecticut’s adult population was eligible as of the same date, and it had administered doses at the fourth-highest rate in the country.

In contrast, Missouri had the largest percentage of its adult population eligible at about 92%. Yet Missouri had dispensed 35,341 doses per 100,000 adults, ranking 41st among the states.

Seven states in the bottom 10 for overall vaccination performance — Georgia, Tennessee, Texas, Florida, Mississippi, South Carolina and Missouri — had larger-than-average shares of their residents eligible for shots.

Among high-performing states, five in the top 10 for high vaccination rates — New Mexico, North Dakota, Connecticut, Wyoming and Hawaii — stuck with more restrictive eligibility. Another two high-performing states from the top 10 — South Dakota and Massachusetts — were about average in how many residents were eligible for vaccine.

I’m sure we’re all shocked to see Texas at the wrong end of the list. Focusing on older people made sense in that they are at a higher risk of death, but a lot of them also had issues with the online tools they had to use to get an appointment. I still think that an approach of putting grocery workers and restaurant employees and school staff in Group 1B would not only have been a better prioritization of the risks, but also would have resulted in a higher percentage of people getting vaccinated, for the same reason as with the health care workers and nursing home patients: We know where they are, and we can deliver it to them via their workplace. That’s not the approach that Texas and many other states took, and the end result was that people with better Internet skills and/or more robust health care providers wound up getting ahead of everyone else. Not much we can do about what has already happened, but we really should keep it in mind as we move forward. Otherwise, we’ll just get more of the same.

COVID vaccination road trips

It’s a thing that happens.

With more vaccine supply flowing into Texas, the statewide mask mandate rollback and businesses reopening at 100 percent capacity, some Houstonians unable to get a COVID-19 vaccine close to home are making the drive two hours east to get their doses. More than 2.3 million people live in Houston, but the city and Texas Medical Center are only able to administer 232,000 doses a week.

And demand is only growing: Starting Monday, those 50 and older are eligible for a COVID-19 vaccine in Texas.

While Hardin, Orange and Jefferson counties are still prioritizing residents 65 and older, they’re now accepting vaccine appointments for anyone, even out-of-towners, according to county officials. While interest has dropped off from locals, they sought to keep their tens of thousands of doses from going to waste.

Dr. Jana Winberg, the Hardin County Health Authority, said people come from surrounding areas, like Houston, to get their shot in Hardin County. But that doesn’t take away vaccines from county residents.

“We are still finding ways for people who want to get the shot to get in those slots,” she said.

[…]

As of March 1, Hardin County opened registration to the public regardless of eligibility criteria, telling the Beaumont Enterprise that they had an “extremely low” turnout for vaccine appointments, said Hardin County Judge Wayne McDaniel.

The Hardin County Health Department manages Orange County’s vaccines, but both are part of the Southeast Texas Regional Emergency Operations Center (SETROC) vaccine distribution hub, Winberg said.

Divvying up the area’s vaccines between Jefferson, Hardin, Jasper, Newton and Orange counties depends on which location can give the shots in a timely fashion, she said.

Hardin County has fewer than 60,000 people, and neighboring Jasper County is smaller at 35,500, Winberg said. One week in February, the county received 300 doses and fewer than 100 people made appointments.

Rather than have the Moderna vaccines sit in refrigerators, Winberg said they would prefer to bring doses to those who want them.

I know a couple of people who have done this, and I have no problem with it. If anything, it shows that there should be more vaccines distributed to the larger counties. Hopefully the supply will continue to ramp up so that fewer people will feel the need to do this. (Especially now that everyone will be eligible for a shot starting on Monday.) Until then, everyone getting a vaccine who seeks one out is a good thing, however it’s done.

The vaccination rate keeps inching up

Making progress.

A quarter of Texas residents 16 and older have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine as of Wednesday afternoon, state data shows.

A Chronicle analysis found that the first dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech or Moderna vaccines, or a Johnson & Johnson vaccine, has been administered to more than 5.6 million people, accounting for 25.4 percent of adults over 16.

About 2.9 million Texans have been fully immunized against COVID-19, according to the data. More than 8.4 million doses have been administered.

Harris County is at 23.98 percent as of Wednesday afternoon, which means the area is poised to hit the 1-in-4 milestone this week as well.

As the story notes, greater supply of the vaccine (thanks to the authorization of the Johnson & Johnson one-shot vax) and more vaccination centers being opened have contributed to the steady rise in people getting the shot. More people will be officially eligible for it on Monday, so hopefully that trend will accelerate even more. Get your appointment and your shot at your first opportunity to do so.

What the American Rescue Plan means to Houston

First and foremost, no layoffs.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Houston and Harris County are expected to receive more than $1.5 billion through the stimulus bill approved by Congress Wednesday, providing a massive cash injection that city officials say will help close a budget shortfall widened by the pandemic for the second year in a row.

The measure provides local governments with their most generous round of COVID-related funding yet, and it comes with fewer spending restrictions than last year’s aid. Houston will receive an estimated $615 million, putting the city at more than $1 billion in direct federal relief during the pandemic, while Harris County is projected to receive $914 million — more than double its allotment from the first round of local aid last March.

“I’m hopeful and optimistic that we will be able to use this money to, essentially, bail the city out of a very dire financial situation,” said City Controller Chris Brown, who monitors the spending of Houston’s more than $5 billion city budget.

[…]

Local governments will receive half their federal aid within 60 days of Friday, when President Joe Biden will sign the bill into law, according to White House press secretary Jen Psaki. They will receive the second half of the funds at least a year later.

That means Houston will receive more than $300 million to offset its revenue losses next fiscal year, along with any potential shortfall before the current fiscal year ends June 30. [COVID recovery czar Marvin] Odum said the city finance department is projecting a budget gap of between $160 and $200 million next year, while Brown — whose office generates its own estimates separate from Turner’s administration — said he expects the shortfall to be even higher.

Brown noted that while finance department projections assume the city will see a less-than-1 percent reduction in sales tax revenue this year, the actual decrease has been 7 percent.

“The (Turner) administration, I don’t think, has properly evaluated the reductions in sales and property tax,” Brown said. “There’s a $40 million variance between us and (the) finance (department) in sales tax alone.”

Brown estimated city officials will have to lay off about a dozen city employees for every $1 million trimmed from the budget, meaning Houston could have been looking at more than 2,000 layoffs without any federal aid.

Instead, Houston’s relief will far exceed its budget deficit. The city also is expected to devote a chunk of the aid to direct COVID relief, such as testing and vaccinations. Turner’s administration exhausted the previous round of aid, totaling $405 million, in December. Those funds covered contact tracing efforts, city workers whose jobs were consumed by COVID, and relief to renters and small businesses, among other areas.

As the story notes, the ARP aid comes with fewer restrictions on how the money can be used than the CARES Act did, though the city was able to plug its deficit last year with those funds as well. The need for more funding has been known for a long time, and it’s only happening now because of the Presidential election and those two Georgia Senate runoffs. Elections have consequences, y’all.

Vaccine progress

Good news.

Texas will surpass more than 7 million COVID-19 vaccination doses administered today, top public health officials told the Texas Senate as Gov. Greg Abbott lifted all capacity limits for businesses and ended government-imposed mask mandates in the state.

At the same time, the health officials also offered a strong defense of the previous mask mandates, saying they reduced the chance of asymptomatic people spreading the virus and resulted in a record low year for influenza in Texas.

The speed with which vaccinations are being distributed is one of the keys to Abbott’s new order removing all mask mandates and allowing all businesses to re-open to 100 percent of their occupancy. Still, Texas has one of the lowest vaccination rates in the country, with 15.8 percent of residents having received at least one shot.

“We have come a long way in a very short period of time,” said Imelda Garcia, a top official with the Department of State Health Services, as she testified before a committee in the Texas Senate on Wednesday morning.

Garcia reminded lawmakers that Texas didn’t get its first vaccine shipments until Dec. 14. She lauded vaccine providers around the state for stepping up to administer so many shots in such a small window.

“They have been busting their butts in order to get shots in arms as fast as they physically and possibly can,” Garcia said.

Harris County alone topped 1 million doses on Tuesday.

Because the majority of vaccines in Texas require two doses, the number of people fully vaccinated is just over 2 million statewide.

Yes, there has been a lot of great work done, and everyone involved should be praised and thanked for it. There have been plenty of obstacles to overcome, that’s for sure. Because I’m a numbers nerd, I feel like I have to say something about the totals and percentages cited in this story, because as is they’re making me twitch. Seven million people would represent about 23% of the total state population. Given that the vaccines are only being given to those 16 and up, that makes the denominator in that fraction smaller, and thus would make the percentage higher. The only way this works if that total of “seven million doses administered” counts all shots given, both first and second. That would put the number of people that have had at least one shot at almost five million, which is closer to that 15.8% (it’s now higher on that NYT page, as it updates in real time). I’m just a little annoyed that I had to think it through like this to make sense of it all.

Not so good news.

The Texas Medical Center, in partnership with the city, is now administering 232,000 COVID-19 vaccine doses per week, and experts expect that number to ramp up as more vaccines are shipped to the state.

While vaccination rates are increasing and COVID-19 cases are trending downward again, medical officials said the public shouldn’t get too comfortable. Texas Medical Center leaders said there is currently no strong correlation between vaccination and hospitalization rates.

Experts are anxious that there could be another surge as students go on spring break this month. There’s more virus in Houston, and it’s spreading faster as more infectious variants circulate in the area.

“We’re not seeing the rapid decline we want to see,” Bill McKeon, president of the Texas Medical Center, said at a Wednesday webinar on the state of COVID-19 in Houston.

Part of the reason for this is that it takes time for the vaccine to take full effect – this is true of both the one-shot J&J vaccine and the two-dose Pfizer and Moderna vaccines – and it is eminently possible to continue to carry the disease after getting your shots. You will be much less likely to get sick, but you can pass it on to others, who may not be so lucky. This is why everyone who cares about keeping people alive and healthy are continuing to urge everyone to wear masks and maintain social distancing. We are approaching a point where those things will not be vital, but we are not there yet.

Good news for some, just news for others.

Texans ages 50 and older will be eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine starting March 15, state health officials announced Wednesday.

“We’ve seen a remarkable decrease in the number of hospitalizations and deaths since people 65 and older started becoming fully vaccinated in January,” said Imelda Garcia, the chair of the state’s Expert Vaccine Allocation Panel. “Expanding to ages 50 to 64 will continue the state’s priorities of protecting those at the greatest risk of severe outcomes and preserving the state’s health care system.”

Currently, the state is vaccinating members of priority groups 1A and 1B, which include health care workers, Texans 65 and older, and anyone over age 15 who has a pre-existing condition. Last week, state officials also made educators and child care employees eligible for a dose.

Those 50 and older will be included in priority group 1C. More than 93 percent of Texans who have died from the virus have been at least 50 years old, health officials said in a press release.

One can certainly argue that some other folks should have been next in line, but this is where we are. On the plus side, thanks to President Biden, everyone will be eligible for the shot in a few weeks. Until then, get yourself signed up at your first opportunity. And keep that mask on until someone other than Greg Abbott tells you to take it off. The Trib has more.

More storm polling

Not sure things are as negative as this story makes it sound.

Two out of three Texans lost electricity, water or both in last month’s devastating winter storm, though it’s unclear their harrowing experiences will have lasting political consequences, according to a poll released Sunday by The Dallas Morning News and the University of Texas at Tyler.

By a 2-1 margin, Texas registered voters say state and local leaders failed to adequately alert the public about the deadly punch the storm could deliver to power and water services so residents could prepare. Leaders underestimated the threat, a majority of Republicans and more than 70% of independents and Democrats believe.

Gov. Greg Abbott’s response to the arctic blast and prolonged blackouts and water outages divides Texans. The poll found 53% say the Republican governor did well or very well, while 46% say he performed either not well or not well at all.

“Memories of what leaders could have done may fade, because it is not clear that one entity is to blame,” said UT-Tyler political scientist Mark Owens, who directed the survey.

The poll, taken Feb. 22 to March 2, was conducted after the ice melted, power was restored and most residents regained water service, though some boil-water notices remained in effect. The poll surveyed 1,210 registered voters. The margin of error is plus or minus 2.84 percentage points.

Interviews ended the same day Abbott lifted his July requirement of face coverings in public spaces and rolled back COVID-19 restrictions on businesses and public venues, so the poll was unable to gauge Texans’ reactions.

Before Abbott’s surprise announcement, though, the poll found 92% of registered voters wore a mask in the previous week.

Of those, 34% reported masking up because of the governor’s order — and half said they donned face coverings because local businesses posted signs requiring them.

“Mask-wearing increased after the statewide mandate, compared with 68% in April 2020, so I expect many will continue with the habit,” Owens said. He noted that 83% of respondents say their choice to wear a mask is personal and not affected by the state’s or local businesses’ requirements.

[…]

By a 3-1 margin, registered voters say they already have received one dose or are definitely or probably going to get vaccinated when more shots become available. Though 16% say they have decided they will not take the vaccine and 10% are unlikely to do so, the results should hearten those hoping for the state to achieve herd immunity.

The poll results are here, and the UT-Tyler polling homepage is here. They had some goofy numbers for the Presidential race in 2020, so I’m not going to take this as anything but another data point. The vaccination-willingness numbers are better than the ones in the UT/Trib poll, for what it’s worth. I think we’ll have a much clearer picture of that in a month or two.

They did give us some approval numbers as well:

The poll also was taken shortly after U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz said he regretted and had changed his mind about slipping off with his family to Cancún, Mexico, amid the power outages that affected more than 4 million Texans and inflicted widespread damage and hardship.

While in October, 44% of Texas’ registered voters had a favorable impression of Cruz and 37% did not, his numbers dipped last month to 42% favorable, 45% unfavorable.

[…]

Despite COVID-19, a recession and the double whammy of blackouts and water outages, Abbott’s job approval has dipped only slightly and remains the most favorable among top state Republicans. By 53%-42%, voters say they trust Abbott to keep their communities safe and healthy during the virus outbreak.

The poll found 52% approve or strongly approve of the way Abbott is handling his job, while 31% disapprove or strongly disapprove. In October, his job rating was 54%-34% — just slightly more robust.

Though former President Donald Trump carried Texas in November by 6 percentage points, new President Joe Biden is more trusted by Texans to keep their communities safe from COVID-19. By a narrow margin of 51%-46%, state voters express confidence in Biden’s handling of the pandemic. In October, just 44% trusted Trump to handle it, while 54% did not.

By a plurality, state voters approve of Biden’s performance as president, 47%-40%. Owens, the pollster, noted that before Biden’s Feb. 26 visit to Houston to witness post-storm relief efforts and COVID-19 vaccinations, his job rating was almost even — 43%-42% in this poll.

As the poll by The News and UT-Tyler went into the field, Attorney General Ken Paxton was dogged by negative publicity, such as accusations by former employees that he swapped political favors for a donor’s help with a home remodel and job for his alleged “mistress.”

Though he flew to the snowy intermountain West and not a tropical beach as Cruz did, and had some official business, Paxton’s trip to Utah during the recent storm, first disclosed by The News, raised questions about why he, too, chose to leave the state as many constituents shivered amid outages and frontier-style living conditions.

When poll respondents were asked if Paxton has the integrity to be the state’s top lawyer, 32% agreed he does, 29% disagreed and 39% were unsure.

As before, ignore the Cruz numbers, at least until we have a more consistent trail. Again, Abbott just seems to defy gravity. It’s going to take a lot of work to knock him down, and as we see later in the story, the various items on the Republican legislative to do list poll pretty well, too. This is also a reminder that many people have not paid all that much attention to the Paxton saga, so don’t take anything for granted there. I’d say it’s highly likely that Paxton would run well behind Abbott, as he did in 2018, but that may not be enough. The good news is the good approval numbers for President Biden, which are better than those in the UT/Trib poll, and also the Data for Progress poll. As noted, if Biden can stay up there, it can only help the Dems’ efforts next year. Not mentioned in the poll were the numbers for Beto (37 favorable, 42 unfavorable) or Donald Trump (43 favorable, 47 unfavorable). That’s a lot better for Beto than in that DfP poll, and about the same for Trump. He won’t be on the ballot, but we know he’ll be a presence, one way or another.

What to expect when you’re fully vaccinated

The CDC has released some guidance that will help people understand what is safe to do and what precautions they will still need to take once they are fully vaccinated.

Fully vaccinated Americans can gather with other vaccinated people indoors without wearing a mask or social distancing, according to long-awaited guidance from federal health officials.

The recommendations also say that vaccinated people can come together in the same way — in a single household — with people considered at low-risk for severe disease, such as in the case of vaccinated grandparents visiting healthy children and grandchildren.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced the guidance Monday.

The guidance is designed to address a growing demand, as more adults have been getting vaccinated and wondering if it gives them greater freedom to visit family members, travel, or do other things like they did before the COVID-19 pandemic swept the world last year.

“With more and more people vaccinated each day, we are starting to turn a corner,” said CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky.

During a press briefing Monday, she called the guidance a “first step” toward restoring normalcy in how people come together. She said more activities would be ok’d for vaccinated individuals once caseloads and deaths decline, more Americans are vaccinated, and as more science emerges on the ability of those who have been vaccinated to get and spread the virus.

You can see their guidance here. Among other things, this should make a lot of grandparents happy:

A lot more people will get those vaccines in the coming weeks. The need for continued mask-wearing is simply because you can still get and carry the SARS-CoV2 virus after being vaccinated, you are just much less likely to become sick if you do. Basically, you can still be an asymptomatic carrier, and so for the safety of the not-yet-vaccinated, especially in public places, your mask is still needed at this time. But that will eventually decrease, as the vaccination numbers swell. We just had to wait a little longer. We can and must still do the right thing in the meantime. Vox, the Chron, and Daily Kos have more.

What can we expect from the maskless mandate?

More COVID, obviously.

The Centers for Disease Control is increasing pressure on Republican leaders in states like Texas that have eased COVID restrictions, publishing a study on Friday showing evidence that the measures — such as the mask requirement that Gov. Greg Abbott rescinded this week — clearly decrease COVID cases and deaths, while opening up restaurants causes them to spike.

“We have seen this movie before: When prevention measures like mask mandates are rolled back, cases go up,” CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said. “I know the idea of relaxing mask wearing and getting back to everyday activities is appealing, but we’re not there yet.”

[…]

On Friday, Walensky continued to sound the alarm. She said that COVID cases and deaths have started to plateau for more than a week at levels similar to the late summer surge — just as some states are easing restrictions that helped drive those cases down.

White House officials said Friday the trend is concerning, especially as progress has been made on vaccinations. Nearly 55 percent of people 65 and older have received at least one vaccine dose, up from just 8 percent six weeks ago, senior White House COVID-19 adviser Andy Slavitt said.

More than 3.5 million Texans have received at least one dose of the vaccine, and nearly 2 million have been fully vaccinated, out of a population of 29 million. Still, the state ranks among the lowest for the percentage of people vaccinated, at 13 percent.

“It’s better to spike the football once you’re safely in the end zone, not once you’ve made a couple of completions,” Slavitt said.

The CDC released a new report on Friday that showed COVID cases and death rates decreased within 20 days of the implementation of state mask mandates. That progress was quickly reversed with the opening of restaurants, however, the report said. COVID cases rose between 41 and 100 days after states allowed dining in restaurants and daily death rates rose between 61 and 100 days after.

“Policies that require universal mask use and restrict any on-premises restaurant dining are important components of a comprehensive strategy to reduce exposure to and transmission of SARS-CoV-2,” the study said. “Such efforts are increasingly important given the emergence of highly transmissible SARS-CoV-2 variants in the United States.”

I think what’s so infuriating about this is that we really are in the home stretch now. Texas is at the back of the pack in terms of vaccination rate (though Harris County is doing reasonably well), but we are making steady progress. Anecdotally, I know so many more people now who have gotten at least their first shot compared to just a month ago. It would have been so easy to say that we just need to hold on until (say) Memorial Day or something like that, when we can expect to have a significant number of people who have been vaccinated, then we can really begin to ease up. We can emphasize outdoor events first, and be clear about when masks aren’t needed (when everyone involved has been vaccinated) versus when they should still be worn. We’ve come this far, we can see where we want to be, we just need to finish the job. Why was that so hard?

You may say, as Abbott was quoted in the story, that we haven’t actually enforced the mask mandate in Texas that just urging people to wear them while explicitly not requiring it isn’t all that different. I’d say first that the reason we haven’t enforced it is because Greg Abbott was so frightened by the likes of Shelley Luther that he cowardly backed down from any kind of official enforcement. What that has meant in practice is that responsibility for mask requirements falls squarely on the shoulders of frontline workers, who at least had the backup of an executive order when confronting some maskhole. But now even that is going away, which means we’ll have a lot more of this:

Fidel Minor, a Houston Metro bus driver, said Gov. Greg Abbott’s mask rollback will incite “mass chaos” on city buses as drivers like him try to enforce federal mask requirements for transit.

“It’s already a hard enough job as it is without having conflicting directives,” said Minor, a driver for Houston Metro.

Abbott relaxed requirements on businesses Tuesday, lifting statewide mask mandates and reducing capacity restrictions on restaurants and retailers. The order, effective March 10, sent chills through frontline workers across the region who say they still face risks on the job.

Asking customers to wear masks means being met with a daily dose of attitude, said Stacy Brown, bakery manager at Phoenicia Specialty Foods, a grocery store on the ground floor of One Park Place downtown. Now she fears that attitude will spread.

“We’re gonna have people come into the store, not wanting to comply just because of what (Abbott) says,” she said, noting she feels it’s especially important that her customers wear masks because as a diabetic she’s in a high-risk group.

[…]

David Lee, a deli manager at Kroger in Galveston who got sick with the virus in December, said it’s scary to know he and his colleagues will be surrounded by more of the maskless customers he believes exposed him to the virus in the first place. “I think (Abbott) should wait at least two more months,” he said. “It’s going to be scary now.”

For its part, the family-run Phoenicia will keep its mask mandate at its two Houston stores and restaurants, said owner Haig Tcholakian. Requiring masks inside his stores is about health and safety for staff and customers, first and foremost, he said. But also because when workers get sick or exposed, it affects business, too.

“It disrupts operations quite a bit, and if there are multiple (illnesses) across all businesses that would probably limit us and make us scramble to make up for that,” he said.

Tcholakian said he and his employees have to ask people to leave a handful of times a week. Like Brown, his bakery manager, he’s concerned that enforcement will get more difficult now. “We’ll have to prepare for it.”

For Teresa McClatchie, an escalator monitor at Bush Intercontinental Airport, the governor’s policy change seems at odds with the facts on the ground. She said her coworkers are still ill with the virus — one may need to stay on oxygen on an ongoing basis because of damage the virus did to her lungs.

“We still have some employees out,” she said, “and some, they may not be back.”

The number of restaurants and other businesses that will continue to require masks is inspiring and may just help blunt the effect of Abbott’s foolishness, but it still shouldn’t fall on these people to ensure that the jackasses out there don’t endanger them or others.

And for those of you who may be mad at HEB for urging but not requiring masks at their stores, it’s exactly with this in mind that they made this call.

H-E-B President Scott McClelland has the explanation why the store won’t require customers to wear masks in light of Gov. Greg Abbott’s Tuesday announcement.

While it has the power to require customers to wear masks before entering, McClelland said H-E-B won’t take that step – in part because of belligerent customers who have caused nearly 2,000 in-store incidents surrounding masks at Houston stores alone.

If a customer walks into the store without a mask, a worker will ask them to put one on, McClelland said. If they don’t have one, they will be offered a mask.

If they still refuse to put one on, McClelland said “we are not going to escalate.”

“What’s important to me is, I’ve got to ensure for the physical safety of both my employees and customers in the store,” McClelland said. “That’s what we have been doing, and frankly it’s the same thing we’ll continue to do.”

I confess, I recently yelled at one dipshit at HEB who was walking around with his mask on his chin. It wasn’t smart, and it wasn’t considerate of the other customers in the yogurt aisle who had to be wondering if something was about to go down, but I was so mad and I felt like someone needed to do something. McClelland is right about not escalating, and I will just have to keep that in mind. And I have already spent more time and energy thinking about this than Greg Abbott ever will.

More maskless mandate stuff

A bit of a roundup, because there’s so much out there.

Three of Gov. Greg Abbott’s four coronavirus medical advisers say they weren’t directly consulted prior to lifting mask mandate

In April 2020, an optimistic Gov. Greg Abbott announced at the Texas Capitol that he would soon take initial steps to allow businesses to reopen during the coronavirus pandemic.

The loosening of restrictions, his team said, would be informed by a statewide “strike force,” composed of business leaders and four medical experts who would advise the governor on a safe, phased plan.

“Every recommendation, every action by the governor will be informed and based on hard data and the expertise of our chief medical advisers,” James Huffines, a lobbyist who Abbott named as chair of the strike force, said at the time. “Everything we do will be medically sound. These nationally recognized advisers are leading experts in their fields and we will rely on their knowledge and expertise every step of the way.”

Since then, Texas has suffered through two major case surges and thousands of deaths. Abbott imposed a mask order in July, and vaccine distribution has begun to give residents a reason for hope. On Tuesday, Abbott made waves again by announcing the repeal of his mask order and declaring “it is now time to open Texas 100%.”

This time, however, Abbott’s team of medical advisers appeared to play a minimal role in the decision. Three of the four said on Wednesday that Abbott did not directly consult with them prior to the drastic shift in policy. The fourth said he couldn’t say whether the move was a good idea.

One such adviser expressed overt reservations about the move.

“I don’t think this is the right time,” Dr. Mark McClellan, a former commissioner of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and director of the Duke-Margolis Center for Health Policy at Duke University, said in a statement. “Texas has been making some real progress, but it’s too soon for full reopening and to stop masking around others.”

McClellan said that he was “not consulted before the announcement.”

Hey, remember the Strike Force? Yeah, no, nobody does. Either you’re going to tell Greg Abbott what he wants to hear, or he won’t listen. What’s the point?

Texas’ largest cities will keep requiring masks in municipal buildings even after statewide mandate ends

Mayors in some of Texas’ biggest cities announced that they will still mandate the use of masks in municipal buildings, even after the statewide mask order ends next week.

Austin, Dallas, Houston, San Antonio and El Paso’s leaders announced Wednesday and Thursday that masks will be required to enter city-owned indoor spaces like libraries, police and fire department headquarters, convention centers and transportation hubs.

“I am going to issue an order mandating masks at all city-owned buildings. We have to do what we are legally allowed to do to get people to wear masks,” Dallas Mayor Eric Johnson said on Twitter Thursday morning. “We also still need to practice social distancing. And we still need to avoid taking unnecessary risks. The pandemic is not over.”

[…]

In an email, Abbott spokesperson Renae Eze confirmed that cities are allowed to take this measure “just like private companies can with their property.”

I’m sure he’ll get the Legislature right on that, though.

Speaking of private companies, Texas businesses must decide whether to require face masks. Some worry they could lose customers either way.

“I do feel that we’ll probably lose guests based on whatever decision we do make, but I guess that’s just part of the environment that we are in now,” said Jessica Johnson, general manager of Sichuan House in San Antonio. “It’s either you wear masks and piss a couple people off, or you don’t wear masks and you piss a couple people off.”

At least one business owner, Macy Moore of HopFusion Ale Works in Fort Worth, said Wednesday on CNN that he had not slept since Abbott’s announcement because he’s so worried about the health and safety of his staff. Others, like Anne Ng of Bakery Lorraine in San Antonio, have decided to keep mask requirements in place for staff and customers regardless of what Abbott and the state government say.

“By repealing the mandate, the government is putting everyone at risk, and foodservice workers are sadly at the front lines in facing potential hostility from folks who will refuse to respect our mask policy,” Ng said. “We don’t deserve that.”

[…]

Christine Ha, a partner and co-executive chef at Xin Chao in Houston, sent out a notice to her whole staff Wednesday afternoon that the restaurant would continue requiring masks and operating at a reduced capacity. She expressed concern about enforcing those policies, though, because local agencies and law enforcement no longer have to support her restaurant’s safety requirements.

“This leaves it up to my team to enforce these policies, and they are in the business of hospitality, not policing,” Ha said.

There are many ways in this world to be an asshole. Yelling at a retail or restaurant worker who asks you to please observe their mask-wearing policy is one of the most effective ways to identify yourself as among the world’s biggest assholes.

For some Texans who lost loved ones to the coronavirus, lifting the mask mandate is a “slap in the face”.

What confuses Delia Ramos about Gov. Greg Abbott’s recent decision to cast off coronavirus restrictions in Texas isn’t his order to let more people into restaurants. The Brownsville school counselor knows people are hurting economically.

But with more than 43,000 dead in Texas — including her husband — is wearing a mask in public too much to ask? At the least, it could take pressure off the medical systems and help prevent more people from dying, she said.

“It’s not about taking away anybody’s job or making anybody else suffer financially because everybody has their families to take care of,” said Ramos, who lost her husband Ricardo to the coronavirus last year.

“People can go pick up groceries, people can go into a restaurant and people can shop around the mall in masks,” she said.

[…]

In nearby McAllen, Ana Flores watched Abbott’s announcement in disbelief on Tuesday. For the 39-year-old, who works at an adult day care, it immediately brought back memories of when Abbott loosened COVID-19 rules in May — weeks before infections surged and devastated the predominantly Hispanic or Latino communities along the U.S.-Mexico border.

She got severely sick with the virus. Her husband of ten years, a truck driver, who was cautious and “knew a little bit about everything,” was hospitalized and died at age 45.

“For [those of] us who lost a loved one, for us who survived — because I got pretty sick as well … it’s like a slap in the face,” Flores said of Abbott’s announcement, noting his “happy” tone and the “clapping” people around him.

For Abbott to say “it’s time for us to get on with our lives, everything to go back to normal,” she said, “normal is not going to happen for us ever again.”

She said it felt like Abbott “doesn’t care” that counties in the border are “still struggling” even if other parts of Texas are doing better.

Mandy Vair, whose father, a hospice chaplain, died with the virus last summer, saw the order and wondered: Did his death not matter? She and other family members were limiting social activities and wearing masks, but were infected in November and Vair was sick for weeks. Her family still hasn’t had a memorial ceremony for her late father because they don’t feel it’s safe to gather.

She said Abbott’s decision made her think, “He got his immunization and maybe all of those that are important to him already got the immunization. So [now] the rest have to kind of fend for themselves until their turn comes up,” she said. “We have to be responsible for ourselves — well, haven’t we been trying to be responsible for ourselves the whole time?”

Though I have to admit, Greg Abbott’s method is pretty effective as well. For more stories, if you’re not fully rounded up yet, here’s a collection from the Chron.

President Biden disagrees with the maskless mandate

I mean, duh.

President Joe Biden

President Joe Biden said Wednesday that Texas made a “big mistake” by removing its statewide mask mandate and suggested the decision reflected “Neanderthal thinking.”

The comments by the Democratic president came a day after Republican Gov. Greg Abbott announced he was not only ending the mask requirement but also allowing businesses to reopen at full capacity. A small fraction of Texans have been fully vaccinated, and while coronavirus numbers have been generally declining in the state, they remain substantial.

“Texas — I think it’s a big mistake,” Biden said at the White House. “We are on the cusp of being able to fundamentally change the nature of this disease because the way in which are are able to get vaccines in people’s arms. The last thing — the last thing — we need is Neanderthal thinking in the meantime.”

Biden’s administration has urged states not to let up on restrictions as vaccinations pick up. Rochelle Walensky, Biden’s director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, reiterated that earlier Wednesday during a White House coronavirus briefing when asked about Abbott’s announcement.

“I think we at the CDC have been very clear that now is not the time to release all restrictions,” Walensky said.

Asked about the Texas news a short time later, White House press secretary Jen Psaki did not directly address Abbott’s actions but said “the entire country has paid the price for political leaders who ignored the science when it comes to the pandemic.”

Abbott’s announcement came four days after he joined Biden for a tour of Houston that was partly about the state’s vaccination efforts. In remarks at the end of the trip, Biden stressed it was “not the time to relax” practices to curb the spread of the virus.

“We have to keep washing our hands, staying socially distanced,” Biden said. “And for God’s sake, wear your mask.”

See here and here for the background. I’m sure we can all surmise what Abbott’s opinion of Biden’s opinion is, but then Abbott only cares about what a few people think. He won’t be unhappy if Biden gets mad at him.

Vaccination hesitation blues

This is the next thing we will have to really focus on.

Most Texas voters believe vaccines are safe and effective, but 28% do not plan to get a COVID-19 vaccine when it’s available to them, according to the latest University of Texas/Texas Tribune Poll.

A solid majority (61%) agree that “in general … vaccines are safe.” That includes majorities of both Democrats (74%) and Republicans (54%). Asked whether vaccines are generally effective, 63% said yes, including 78% of Democrats and 56% of Republicans. More than half (56%) said that vaccines are both safe and effective, including 71% of Democrats and 48% of Republicans.

Even so, 36% said they’ll get vaccinated against COVID-19 as soon as it’s available to them, 28% said they will not, and 16% said they’re not sure. Another 15% said they’ve already been vaccinated, meaning just over half have either been vaccinated or are planning to be when they can. In a poll last June, 59% said they would get a COVID-19 vaccine if it was available at low cost; in the October 2020 UT/TT Poll, that number fell to 42%.

Polling data is here. These numbers trail the national numbers that I can find, but the most recent national polling was from at least three weeks ago. The two most recent results I saw, from the second week of February, had national willingness to take the shot (plus those who had already received it) at around 65%. There will be some core group that will be extremely resistant, but I believe there are still quite a few who just want to take it more slowly and will get there in their own time. We have some work to do to meet them where they are and get them where they need to be.

Reactions to the maskless mandate

Let’s start with the doctors, since clearly they weren’t consulted.

Houston-area doctors and medical professionals reacted with dismay to Gov. Greg Abbott’s Tuesday decision to roll back the state’s mask mandate and other precautions against COVID-19.

“I had a pretty strong visceral reaction — like PTSD,” said Dr. Matt Dacso, an internist at the University of Texas Medical Branch. “I can think of no other word but incomprehensible… Everybody is hurting, but gosh, man. The masks were doing a lot for us.”

Dacso said the order was a huge hit to morale, coming almost exactly one year after the first recorded case in New York. His team had been celebrating the progress made since then — until they heard about Abbott’s order.

[…]

“It’s true that Texas has been vaccinating people,” said Peter Hotez, vaccine researcher at Texas Children’s Hospital Center for Vaccine Development. “But after the recent freeze, we rank at the bottom of states in the percentage of people we’ve vaccinated: Only 13 percent of Texans have had their first dose.

“I would have preferred to wait a couple of weeks to reopen while we see how these new variants play out here, and so that we could catch up to the rest of the country in terms of vaccinations,” Hotez continued.

While people who have been vaccinated may feel tempted to go out without their masks, they shouldn’t, said Dr. Diana Fite, president of the Texas Medical Association.

A vaccination means they’re less likely to face severe complications from COVID-19, not that they’re less likely to catch it and infect others. COVID-19 vaccine manufacturers are still studying the rate of transmission and infection in people who have been immunized, and trial data may not be available until the spring.

“Fully vaccinating 1.8 million people is still a huge number, but it’s far from getting anywhere near where we say things are going to be contained,” Fite said.

Local hospitals say they are not planning to change their masking requirements.

“The COVID-19 virus and its effects will be with us for a long time,” St. Luke’s Health officials said in a Tuesday afternoon statement. To ensure the safety and health of our communities, we urge people to continue to wear masks and practice other precautions like hand washing and social distancing, in addition to getting vaccinated. Wearing a mask is one of the most effective ways to limit the spread of the virus, which is why masks are still required at all St Luke’s Health facilities.”

See here for the background. Local health officials were equally vehement.

Keep wearing your mask and taking COVID-19 safety precautions, local health experts said Tuesday, after Gov. Greg Abbott announced he was lifting the statewide mask mandate and restrictions on businesses.

“Despite the impending removal of the state mask mandate, we must continue our vigilance with masking, distancing, and hand washing,” said Dr. Mark Escott, Travis County Interim Health Authority. “These remain critical in our ongoing fight against COVID-19.”

Expressing concerns about highly contagious variants of the virus and the need for local health officials to maintain some authority over their local situations — which vary widely from county to county — doctors and health officials cautioned that Texans should not take Abbott’s announcement as a signal to relax the behavior that has lead to a recent decrease in coronavirus case rates and hospitalizations.

[…]

Dr. Ivan Melendez, Hidalgo County Health Authority, said it’s premature to abandon safety precautions and hopes Texans can stay patient even in the absence of statewide rules.

“I think that people have a lot more common sense than we give them credit for, but … it’s very hard for human beings not to start socializing and to stop wearing masks,” he said.”I understand they are looking for any sign they can go back to the old ways, but I would just remind them that we’re in the bottom of the ninth, two runs out, and we’re almost there. This isn’t the time to put the bench in. This is the time to continue with the A-Team. Very soon, we’ll be there.”

Others said that while they’re glad Abbott did stress that Texans should stay cautious, the mandate provided an important function that the state may not be ready for yet.

“I think it’s a little bit early, in my opinion, to be removing the masking requirement,” said Dr. James McDeavitt, senior vice president and dean of clinical affairs at Baylor College of Medicine. “I would have preferred to see our numbers lower, and I would have preferred to see more people vaccinated before we took that leap.”

Dr. John Carlo, CEO of Prism Health North Texas and a member of the state medical association’s COVID-19 task force, agreed it was too soon for Texans to relax their safety practices, adding he is especially concerned about the increasing spread of the U.K. variant of COVID-19, which is thought to be more contagious and perhaps more deadly.

None of this should be a surprise. I’m sure there are some doctors out there who are Team No Mask, but as a group this is obvious. The Texas Medical Association took a diplomatic path:

Restaurants were also cautious, though they have clear reasons to be happy about the full reopening stuff.

Operators wondered if they would be ready to return so quickly to full service; if they could hire workers fast enough to accommodate full capacity; if their purveyors would be ready to service increased orders for food and other goods. And, most crucially, how mask wearing would be handled by workers and a dining public no longer required to cover up.

There were no clear answers Tuesday.

“Personally, I didn’t expect him to say that today. I thought we wouldn’t see it until sometime in the summertime,” said [Levi] Goode, whose restaurant portfolio also includes Goode Co. Seafood, Goode Co. Kitchen & Cantina and Armadillo Palace. “We’ve adopted some great practice from the safety standpoint during the pandemic, and many of those will remain intact until we feel comfortable we can move in another direction.”

But without a state mandate that masks are required, next Wednesday will bring uncertainty.

Ricardo Molina, president and co-owner of Molina’s Cantina restaurants, said that he probably will not enforce masks for his servers, but that those who choose to wear one will be able to do so. He added that customers will ultimately dictate how the staff will come down on masks.

“We’re probably going to find the vast majority (of customers) are ready to see masks go away,” Molina said. “If people are ready to go all-out business as usual, we’re ready to do that as well.”

Paul Miller, owner of Gr8 Plate Hospitality which includes The Union Kitchen and Jax Grill restaurants, anticipates a gradual return to practices that existed before COVID-19.

“Our primary concern is for our staff and our guests, and while we certainly appreciate the opportunity to go back to 100 percent and the governor has removed the mask mandate, we are going to continue to uphold our safety and sanitation protocols as we slowly but surely move into this new phase of our business,” he said.

How the restaurant industry will negotiate that new phase wasn’t clear on Tuesday. While the Texas Restaurant Association celebrated Abbott’s announcement, it was quick to say that Texas restaurants must “remain vigilant so we do not slide backward.”

“Consumers will only go where they feel safe, and so restaurants must continue to be very thoughtful and implement the safety protocols that will enable them to maintain and build trust with their consumers and employees,” the association stated.

Yeah, that. It’s a thing I’ve been saying for months – you have to beat the virus if you really want to reopen. People will not want to patronize businesses if they don’t feel safe doing so. That as much as anything is why I would have expected a more gradual reopening, one that takes into account the fact that we still have a lot of vaccinations to administer, and still have a lot of people getting sick and going to the hospital. Just declare your intention to take the victory lap. What was the rush?

Personally, I’ve been eating at a couple of places that have outdoor seating, and also doing takeout. I will continue to do that for at least the next few months. The Chron’s Alison Cook is surveying restaurants around town to see what their response is; her initial story on that is here. Quite a few are currently planning to stay with what they’re doing now, which surprises me a little, but in a good way. I’ll be very interested to see how the wider public reacts. For the record, the subset of barbecue joint owners and brewery owners were not impressed and seem to be determined to keep doing what they’ve been doing for now.

School districts have a choice to make.

Local school boards will have the authority to decide whether to require students over the age of 10 to wear masks under current Texas Education Agency health guidance, after Gov. Greg Abbott announced Tuesday he was lifting the state’s mask mandate and reopening businesses at 100 percent capacity.

In the governor’s executive order, which takes effect March 10, he wrote that public schools “may operate” under minimum health protocols found in Texas Education Agency guidance, and that private schools and colleges are “encouraged to establish similar standards.”

Under the previous mask mandate, all students older than 10 were required to wear masks on school property.

TEA’s most recent guidance, issued in December, says that outside the soon-to-expire mask mandate, school systems “may require the use of masks or face shields for adults or students for whom it is developmentally appropriate.”

Houston and Fort Bend ISDs issued statements Tuesday afternoon saying they would continue to require masks and face coverings at all schools and district facilities.

“This requirement is consistent with the advice of health professional and guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention,” HISD officials said in a statement.

We got a robocall from HISD Tuesday afternoon informing us of this. It’s the clear and obviously correct call, and as someone whose kids are attending school in person, I’d have been massively pissed if they had done otherwise.

Metro riders will need to keep their masks on.

Despite state officials loosening restrictions related to COVID, Metropolitan Transit Authority officials said requirements for face coverings on riders and employees will continue.

“Metro has no plans at this time to drop the mask requirement for people riding our system,” transit agency spokesman Jerome Gray said.

Since June, Metro has required masks for anyone using the system. Last month, the Federal Transit Administration issued guidance that all transportation providers — buses, trains, ferries and planes — prohibit anyone from riding without a mask.

For those who do not have a face covering and want to hop on a bus, Metro drivers will offer them a mask. Bus drivers and others have handed out 2 million masks along the Metro system, agency officials said.

Good call. This, not so much.

H-E-B will urge, but not require, customers to wear masks inside its grocery stores in Texas after Gov. Greg Abbott rescinded his statewide mask mandate Tuesday, the company said.

The grocer and retailer, however, will still require employees and vendors to wear masks in the stores.

“Although there is no longer a statewide mask order, H-E-B believes it is important that masks be worn in public spaces until more Texans and our Partners have access to the Covid-19 vaccine,” Lisa Helfman, the retailer’s local public affairs director, said in a statement.

I’ve already seen a few people react negatively to this on Twitter. I try to do my HEB shopping early in the morning, to avoid larger crowds. I may need to push it a little earlier now. Yes, we could order curbside – we have done it a couple of times – but I like the in store experience. Or at least, I have liked it. Don’t make me regret my choices, HEB.

What are your expectations? Will you avoid or patronize places that lift their mask requirements? The Texas Signal and Dos Centavos have more.

Teachers can get the COVID vaccine now

About time.

Texas teachers are now eligible for COVID-19 vaccines, health officials announced Wednesday.

Effective immediately, all Texas vaccine providers should include all school staff, Head Start program staff, and child care staff in their vaccine administration programs, according to a notice the Texas Department of State Health services sent to providers.

The notice comes after the Biden administration Tuesday urged all states to prioritize vaccinating teachers and school staff. Texas had not previously prioritized teachers. Texas received a letter from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Tuesday night directing it to expand eligibility, according to a DSHS news release.

Those eligible are “those who work in pre-primary, primary, and secondary schools, as well as Head Start and Early Head Start programs (including teachers, staff, and bus drivers) and those who work as or for licensed child care providers, including center-based and family care providers,” according to the federal directive.

State health officials said earlier this week that they expected to finish vaccinating older and most vulnerable Texans in the next few weeks and broaden eligibility to include more Texans by the end of the month.

That new group was expected to include teachers before Wednesday’s announcement, but officials have not said who else would be in that new “1C” group.

[…]

Educators and advocates have been begging the state to include teachers as it rolled out its vaccination program this winter and spring. After Abbott’s announcement Tuesday, several educator groups chastised him for removing the mask requirement without prioritizing teachers for vaccines.

“Abbott has shirked his responsibility to stick with medical advice and clarify what needs to happen to keep our schools safe. Every top health official has stressed that even with vaccinations we need to keep using the most simple tools to stop the spread,” said Zeph Capo, president of the Texas American Federation of Teachers, in a statement Tuesday.

If you want schools to be open – and you should want schools to be open, if they can open safely – then you need to make sure that everyone who works at those schools can get vaccinated. It’s pretty simple. Naturally, this took a nudge from the federal government for it to happen.

Dr. John Hellerstedt, who serves as commissioner for the Department of State Health Services, told the the Texas House of Representatives’ Committee on Public Health moments before the release was published that the change came after President Joe Biden announced Tuesday that he will direct states to prioritize teachers and school-based staff for vaccines.

“Right now we’re planning in Texas to see how we will bring that to functioning operation,” he said. “We are actively engaged in that as a priority item.”

About 30 states currently allow teachers to get earlier access to vaccines than the general public, Biden said Tuesday. Biden added that he was “directing” the remaining states to follow suit — though he did not specify what power he planned to employ to force the change — and announced he would use a federal pharmacy program to deliver vaccines to school employees and childcare workers.

“Not every educator will be able to get their appointment in the first week, but our goal is to do everything we can to help every educator receive a shot this month, the month of March,” Biden said.

The federal directive defined the people now eligible as “those who work in pre-primary, primary, and secondary schools, as well as Head Start and Early Head Start programs (including teachers, staff, and bus drivers) and those who work as or for licensed child care providers, including center-based and family care providers.”

Good thing the vaccine supply is increasing. It would be nice if most school districts continued to require masks for everyone, so that the teachers who can’t get a vaccine in the next week or so still have some protection. The Press has more.

We’ve got all kinds

Not the kind of distinction you want.

Houston is the nation’s first city to record every major variant of the novel coronavirus — many of which are more contagious than the original strain.

“The numbers of the major variants we have identified in our large sequencing study are disquieting,” said Dr. James Musser, who leads the team of experts at Houston Methodist Hospital behind the new finding. “The genome data indicate that these important variants are now geographically widely distributed in the Houston metropolitan region.”

It comes barely a week after the ever-evolving virus’ death toll in the United States passed the half-million mark, a grim figure that Musser and other experts believe will continue to increase unless Americans double-down on social distancing, masks and vaccination efforts.

Since the virus was first detected in the Houston region nearly a year ago, Musser’s team has sequenced more than 20,000 genomes of COVID-19. The most recent batch of roughly 3,000 genomes sequenced from patients who had tested positive for COVID-19 included variants from the United Kingdom, South Africa and Brazil.

Experts are still researching the new strains and the effectiveness of the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines. But there’s no reason to panic, said Dr. Wesley Long, a Methodist infectious disease expert who assisted with the study.

There is evidence that the Brazilian strain is more contagious and can infect those who have received the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines, Musser said.

But Long said the variations in vaccine effectiveness are minor and don’t detract from the overall goal of vaccines: to prevent severe illness, hospitalization or death.

“It doesn’t mean that (current vaccines) are useless,” he said. “That doesn’t mean that (the new strains) go through walls or defeat masks or that they change the way they are transmitted. All of the rules that we’ve used against COVID still apply.”

His advice: Continue to social distance and wear masks and get vaccinated as soon as possible — regardless of which brand is available.

Go tell that to Greg Abbott. He won’t listen, but at least you can say you tried.

Abbott lifts statewide mask mandate

Unbelievable.

Gov. Greg Abbott announced Tuesday that he is ending Texas’ statewide mask mandate next week and will allow all businesses to operate at full capacity.

“It is now time to open Texas 100%,” Abbott said from a Mexican restaurant in Lubbock, arguing that Texas has fought the coronavirus pandemic to the point that “people and businesses don’t need the state telling them how to operate” any longer.

Abbott said he was rescinding “most of the earlier executive orders” he has issued over the past year to stem the spread of the virus. He said starting next Wednesday, “all businesses of any type are allowed to open 100%” and masks will no longer be required in public. The mask requirement has been in effect since last summer.

Meanwhile, the spread of the virus remains substantial across the state, with Texas averaging over 200 reported deaths a day over the last week. And while Abbott has voiced optimism that vaccinations will accelerate soon, less than 7% of Texans had been fully vaccinated as of this weekend.

Texas will become the most populous state in the country not to have a mask mandate. More than 30 states currently have one in place.

Abbott urged Texans to still exercise “personal vigilance” in navigating the pandemic. “It’s just that now state mandates are no longer needed,” he said.

Currently, most businesses are permitted to operate at 75% capacity unless their region is seeing a jump in COVID-19 hospitalizations. While he was allowing businesses to fully reopen, Abbott said that people still have the right to operate how they want and can “limit capacity or implement additional safety protocols.” Abbott’s executive order said there was nothing stopping businesses from requiring employees or customers to wear masks.

[…]

Texans have been under a statewide mask mandate since July of last year — and they have grown widely comfortable with it, according to polling. The latest survey from the University of Texas and Texas Tribune found that 88% of the state’s voters wear masks when they’re in close contact with people outside of their households. That group includes 98% of Democrats and 81% of Republicans.

The absence of statewide restrictions should not be a signal to Texans to stop wearing masks, social distancing, washing their hands or doing other things to keep the virus from spreading, said Dr. John Carlo, CEO of Prism Health North Texas and a member of the Texas Medical Association’s COVID-19 task force.

Carlo declined to react specifically to Abbott’s order, saying he had not had a chance to read it. He also expressed concern that new virus variants, specifically the U.K. variant, could still turn back the positive trends cited by Abbott.

“We’re facing unacceptably high rates, and we still hear every day about more and more people becoming sick. And it may be less than before, but it’s still too many,” Carlo said. “Even if businesses open up and even if we loosen restrictions, that does not mean we should stop what we’re doing because we’re not there yet.”

It was clear from what Abbott said during President Biden’s visit that he was planning to take action to loosen restrictions. I was prepared for him to announce a step-down or a schedule or something more gradual. I did not expect him to just rip the bandage right off. I don’t know what to say, but Judge Hidalgo does, so let’s listen to her.

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo and Mayor Sylvester Turner slammed Gov. Greg Abbott Tuesday for allowing all businesses in Texas to fully reopen next week and lifting his statewide mask mandate, suggesting the governor timed the move to distract angry Texans from the widespread power outages during the recent winter storm.

“At best, today’s decision is wishful thinking,” Hidalgo said. “At worst, it is a cynical attempt to distract Texans from the failures of state oversight of our power grid.”

Turner said Abbott’s decision to rescind the COVID measures marked “the third time the governor has stepped in when things were going in the right direction,” a reference to the surges in cases, hospitalizations and deaths that ensued after Abbott implemented reopening guidelines last year.

“It makes no sense,” Turner said. “Unless the governor is trying to deflect from what happened a little less than two weeks ago with the winter storm.”

[…]

Before Abbott’s announcement, Hidalgo and Turner sent the governor a letter urging him not to lift his statewide mask mandate.

“Supported by our public health professionals, we believe it would be premature and harmful to do anything to lose widespread adoption of this preventative measure,” Hidalgo and Turner wrote, arguing the mandate has allowed small businesses to remain open by keeping cases down.

The disparity between Hidalgo and Turner’s concerns — that Abbott would simply lift the mask order but keep other restrictions intact — and his decision to fully reopen the state puts on full display the diverging messages Houstonians are receiving from their local Democratic leaders and the Republicans who run the state. While Hidalgo is telling residents to stay home and buckle down, Abbott is giving the green light for a return to normal life, albeit one where Texans govern themselves using “personal responsibility,” he said Tuesday.

We know how well that’s worked so far. The irony is that other parts of state government still understand what’s at stake:

I’d love to say that Abbott will suffer political blowback for this, but polling data is mixed and inconsistent.

Texas voters’ concerns about the spread of coronavirus are higher now than they were in October, before a winter surge in caseloads and hospitalizations, according to the latest University of Texas/Texas Tribune Poll.

Almost half of Texas voters (49%) said that they are either extremely or very concerned about the spread of the pandemic in their communities — up from 40% in October. Their apprehension matches the spread of the coronavirus. As cases were rising in June, 47% had high levels of concern.

Caseloads were at a low point in October, as was voter concern about spread. And sharp increases through the holidays and into the new year were matched by a rise in public unease.

Voters’ concern about “you or someone you know” getting infected followed that pattern, too. In the current poll, 50% said they were extremely or very concerned, up from 44% in October, and close to the 48% who responded that way in the June poll.

“The second, bigger surge seems to have had an impact on people’s attitudes,” said James Henson, co-director of the poll and head of the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas at Austin. “In October, there was a trend of Republicans being less concerned, but this does reflect what a hard period the state went through from October to February.”

While their personal concerns have risen, voters’ overall assessment of the pandemic hasn’t changed much. In the latest survey, 53% called it “a significant crisis,” while 32% called it “a serious problem but not a crisis.” In October, 53% called it significant and 29% called it serious.

Economic concerns during the pandemic remain high. Asked whether it’s more important to help control the spread of the coronavirus or to help the economy, 47% pointed to the coronavirus and 43% said it’s more important to help the economy. In a June poll, 53% of Texans wanted to control the spread and 38% wanted to focus on the economy.

“The economy/COVID number is 2-to-1 in other parts of the country. Here, it’s almost even,” said Daron Shaw, a UT-Austin government professor and co-director of the poll. “What was a 15-point spread is now a 4-point spread.

So people are concerned about the pandemic, but also about the economy. Some of that may just be a reflection of the partisan split, but I have no doubt that Abbott thinks the politics of this are good for him, and that’s even before we take into account the distraction from the freeze. The scenario where he’s most likely to take a hit is one in which the numbers spike and a lot more people die. Nobody wants that to happen, yet here we are at a higher risk of it because of Abbott’s actions. It’s just enraging. So please keep wearing your damn mask, even after you get your shots. Wait for someone with more credibility than Greg Abbott to tell you it’s safe to do otherwise.

One more thing:

We both know how plausible that is. Texas Monthly, Reform Austin, the San Antonio Report, the Texas Signal, and the Chron has more.

More vaccines coming

Bring ’em.

The Food and Drug Administration approved Johnson & Johnson’s COVID-19 vaccine on Saturday for use in the U.S., the third vaccine to be approved since the pandemic began.

Texas could initially receive more than 200,000 doses, according to the Texas Department of State Health Services, but the agency hasn’t received a timeline for when they would arrive. The company has said it plans to ship 20 million shots in the U.S. by the end of March and an additional 80 million doses before the end of June.

Texas received about 1.5 million vaccine doses by Pfizer and Moderna this week, including doses that had been undelivered earlier in the month because of the winter storm.

Unlike those vaccines, Johnson & Johnson’s formulation is the first to only require one dose, and it can be stored at regular refrigeration temperatures. The others require two doses, and Pfizer doses must be stored at below-freezing temperatures.

[…]

Five million vaccine doses have been administered overall in Texas as of Feb. 25. That equals about 5.8% of the state’s population — a long way from the 70% to 80% that experts estimate is necessary to achieve herd immunity. It would require nearly 100% of adults to be vaccinated to reach those figures, according to census numbers.

Scientists are still monitoring how well vaccines prevent the spread of the coronavirus, and health officials advise those who are vaccinated to continue wearing masks, social distance and follow other COVID-19 safety guidelines.

Hopefully, the J&J vaccine will really kick this up a notch, since it only requires the one shot. But as always, it’s first a matter of supply, and just having another supplier should help. If J&J is delivering 80 million doses nationally by the end of June, that should be six or seven million for Texas. It’s all about the numbers.

Please don’t take your mask off yet

Seriously, what’s the rush?

Gov. Greg Abbott said Thursday that Texas is looking at when it will be able to lift all statewide orders related to the coronavirus pandemic and that an announcement is forthcoming.

Abbott made the comments at a Corpus Christi news conference where he was asked when the statewide mask mandate would end as Texans continue to get vaccinated. That requirement has been in effect since July.

Abbott called it a “great question.”

“We’re working right now on evaluating when we’re gonna be able to remove all statewide orders, and we will be making announcements about that pretty soon,” Abbott said, without giving a specific time frame.

[…]

The Centers for Disease Control recommends that people who have received two doses of the vaccine continue to avoid crowds, stay at least 6 feet away from people who live outside their households, and wear masks to cover their nose and mouth.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious-disease doctor, has repeatedly said that he does not know when Americans will be able to return to normal, but that they may still need to continue wearing face masks into 2022.

Note that at this point about five percent of Texans total have been fully vaccinated. We need to get to over 70% to achieve something like herd immunity. Maybe Abbott is speaking of some hypothetical date well into the future to lift the mask mandate, but he deserves no benefit of the doubt. Why do we always have to learn these lessons the hard way? There’s absolutely no reason to rush this. The Chron and the San Antonio Report have more.

Biden’s visit to Houston

It’s so nice to have a normal, functional person as President, isn’t it?

President Joe Biden

President Joe Biden, in his first trip to Texas since taking office, toured Houston on Friday to size up the aftermath of the state’s recent winter weather crisis and promote the national coronavirus vaccination campaign.

“We will be true partners to help you recover and rebuild from the storm and this pandemic and economic crisis,” Biden said during a late afternoon speech outside NRG Stadium, the site of a vaccination mega-center. He promised his administration is in it “for the long haul.”

Biden hailed the mega-center — one of three federally backed mass vaccination clinics in Texas — as a key part of his strategy to have 100 million vaccine doses administered in his first 100 days in office. The country reached the halfway mark Thursday.

“The more people get vaccinated the faster we’ll beat this pandemic,” Biden said, reassuring Americans that the vaccines are “safe and effective” and cautioning that it is still “not the time to relax” measures such as social distancing and mask-wearing.

Gov. Greg Abbott, who joined Biden in Houston, said Thursday his office is looking at when it could lift all statewide orders related to the pandemic. That would include the statewide mask mandate that Abbott issued last summer. He said an announcement could be coming “pretty soon.”

Biden on Friday spoke from a parking lot outside the stadium, in front of a FEMA trailer and a row of health care workers who administer vaccines.

[…]

On the flight to Houston, Elizabeth Sherwood-Randall, Biden’s deputy national security adviser, told reporters there is a need going forward for the federal government, states and the private sector to incentivize building the “kind of resilient infrastructure that we can truly depend on in the future.” Sherwood-Randall avoided prescribing specific proposals for Texas but noted the state made the decision to have its own grid and that meant that it lacked the “kind of backup in terms of supply or generation capability that they needed to have in this crisis.”

Before Biden spoke near the vaccination facility, he toured the Harris County Emergency Operations Center, where the county judge, Lina Hidalgo, explained how the building “has been our home away from home for five months” — first due to the pandemic and then during the winter freeze. Biden told officials they have a “hell of an operation here.”

“It’s probably the best one in the country,” the president said, according to a pool report. “You’re saving peoples’ lives. As my mother would say, you’re doing God’s work.”

As Biden saw the Emergency Operations Center, First Lady Jill Biden and Cecilia Abbott volunteered at the Houston Food Bank, packing bags for a program that provides food to students on weekends who depend on school meals during the week. After the president was done at the Emergency Operations Center, he met up with his wife to tour the food bank and meet with volunteers.

Politically, the trip marked Texas Republican leaders’ first face-to-face encounter at home with a new Democratic president whose policies they have vowed to resist. And Biden is aware — during a virtual meeting with a group of governors Thursday, he told Abbott, “I don’t want to ruin your reputation, but I look forward to coming down tomorrow, to Houston, to be with you.”

See here for the background. As noted in the story, Sen. Cornyn was with Biden and Abbott in Houston, while Sen. Cruz was not, as he did not ask to be. I think we can all agree that that was for the best. I don’t know what President Biden would have said if someone had asked him about Abbott’s eagerness to lift the statewide mask mandate, but allow me to roll me eyes and heave a sigh of despair in his stead. Biden’s willingness to be a partner in the recovery is admirable and welcome and of course should be exactly what we expect, but it appears to be a one-way street. I’ll get to that in another post. I will say this much: Someone needs to be spending a few million dollars here in Texas highlighting what the President is doing to help not only the COVID vaccination effort but also the freeze recovery effort, to make sure that the credit goes where it belongs. Those approval ratings aren’t going to maintain themselves. The Chron has more.