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The great state of Texas

More on the Abbott max anti-vaxx order

Businesses will face a choice that they would rather not have to face.

Companies doing business in Texas face new and complicated challenges after Gov. Greg Abbott this week banned COVID-19 vaccine mandates for all entities in the state — including private businesses — for employees or customers.

The ramifications for businesses could begin as soon as Friday, when companies that enter into contract work with the federal government will be required to have all employees vaccinated under orders from the White House.

This conflicts with Abbott’s ban on vaccine mandates, putting the many Texas businesses that receive federal contracts in a tough position: Comply with federal law and violate Abbott’s ban, or comply with Abbott and turn down business from the federal government.

[…]

“This harms Texans directly,” Karen Vladeck, an employment lawyer in Austin, said of the new order from Abbott. “I just think it wasn’t well thought out.”

Abbott’s office did not reply to a request for comment.

On top of prohibiting any entity in Texas from requiring vaccinations, Abbott’s order also lists several expanded exemptions. Vladeck and other employment lawyers said that this adds to the vaccine dilemma facing businesses in Texas. Under Abbott’s new rule, people may opt out of a vaccine requirement for medical reasons, including if they prove they have had COVID-19 in the past, despite scientists widely agreeing that this does not protect people against contracting the virus.

“The executive order’s medical reason language is a bit strange because usually you exempt people for medical reasons if they have a severe allergic reaction to a vaccine,” said Elizabeth Sepper, a law professor at the University of Texas at Austin. Abbott’s order is “meant to cover people who don’t want to get the vaccine because they believe, quite wrongly, that they’re completely protected by already having COVID.”

Abbott’s rule also allows people to opt out of a vaccine requirement if they prove they hold a deep personal belief against getting jabbed.

Any entity that fails to comply with Abbott’s rule could receive up to a $1,000 fine.

Abbott’s Monday order is a reversal from his position in August, when the Pfizer vaccine received final approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. At the time, Abbott’s spokesperson said that businesses had the option of mandating vaccination for employees and “private businesses don’t need government running their business.”

“It’s all about company choice in Texas, except now it’s come to something that they don’t like what the companies are choosing,” Vladeck said. “It puts a big burden on employers.”

See here for the background. So far, businesses that are also federal contractors, including airlines and companies like IBM, will ignore Abbott’s order, while others are awaiting the OSHA rules before making a decision. Multiple business groups, the same organizations that often turn to the state for a legislative solution to local ordinances they don’t like, harshly criticized Abbott’s order for making their lives more difficult. Harris County Attorney Christian Menefee released a statement encouraging businesses that want to be able to get their employees vaccinated to file a lawsuit against Abbott over the order. And in the end, even wingnut talk radio hosts weren’t impressed by Abbott’s order. It’s almost as if he were a weak, gutless leader.

Abbott goes max anti-vaxx

He really wants us dead.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott on Monday issued another executive order cracking down on COVID-19 vaccine mandates — this time banning any entity in Texas, including private businesses, from requiring vaccinations for employees or customers.

Abbott also called on the Legislature to pass a law with the same effect. The Legislature is in its third special legislative session, which ends Oct. 19.

“The COVID-19 vaccine is safe, effective, & our best defense against the virus, but should always remain voluntary & never forced,” he said in a tweet announcing his latest order.

The order marks a significant reversal after Abbott previously gave private businesses the choice to mandate vaccines for workers. An Abbott spokesperson said in late August that “private businesses don’t need government running their business.”

For weeks, Abbott has been under pressure from some on his right to go further in prohibiting vaccine requirements, and one of his primary challengers, Don Huffines, celebrated the latest order.

[…]

The latest move appears to be at least partly motivated by President Joe Biden’s actions in September that require all employers with more than 100 workers to mandate vaccines for workers or test weekly for the virus. Biden also required all federal government workers and contractors to get vaccinated, leading nearly all the major airlines — including American Airlines and Southwest Airlines headquartered in Texas — to announce they’d abide by the mandate.

See here for more on his previous order, which as noted explicitly avoided including private companies. There’s no question that this is one part a toddler’s response to the Biden executive order, but also a coward’s response to the toxic ravings of his primary opponents. Abbott’s weakness and ineffectuality are just embarrassing. Whether it’s enough to get a plurality of voters to turn against him, that’s the zillion dollar question.

As noted in the story, big employers like airlines are going to comply with the Biden order, which applies to companies with at least 100 employees. The Abbott order, to whatever extent it has an effect, will affect smaller companies.

Experts agree Abbott’s order — which says even private companies in Texas cannot “compel receipt of a COVID-19 vaccine by any individual” — would likely be trumped by President Joe Biden’s requirements that federal contractors and businesses with 100 or more employees require vaccines. Major corporations based in Texas, including Southwest Airlines and American Airlines, said Tuesday they would abide by Biden’s rules over Abbott’s.

The federal rules are still in the works, but even after they’re enacted they won’t affect the majority of the state’s workforce. The big businesses affected by Biden’s rule employ 44 percent of Texas workers.

How much protection the governor’s latest order provides to those 56 percent of workers employed by the smaller companies, however, is another question. Legal experts were split on whether those fired for refusing to get a shot could start collecting unemployment, for instance. Some attorneys believe Abbott has clearly opened the door for those workers to get benefits, while others argued the order stops well short of making such a guarantee.

And the order is likely to prompt conflicting rulings from judges at various levels of the court system, as has Abbott’s effort to stop schools and local governments from enacting mask mandates. Repeatedly, the state has admitted in court that it has no plans to enforce the ban on mask requirements, saying that is up to local district attorneys.

“You have these orders coming down at various levels. I think if you’re a consumer or even an employee, you’re kind of in a tough spot if you’re choosing to not be vaccinated,” said Alfonso Kennard, Jr., a Texas-based employment attorney. “The path of least resistance would be to be vaccinated.

“At a minimum, all it does is give some entity the ability to point to something and say, ‘The governor said this, so I should be OK,’” Kennard said. “But a week from now, a judge could say it isn’t lawful.”

The Texas Workforce Commission would not say whether the order impacts unemployment claims, saying only that each is handled on a case-by-case basis with the “totality of the job separation” taken into consideration.

Kalandra Wheeler, an employment attorney based in Houston, said Abbott’s order would appear to make it easier for unvaccinated workers to argue they deserve unemployment.

“What they have to establish for you not to get benefits is that you either resigned and there was no good cause connected to the work, or that you were terminated for misconduct,” Wheeler said. “I think there’s less of an argument you’ve done those things when the governor issues a ban that says you’re not required to get the vaccine.”

Randall Erben, a law professor at the University of Texas who previously worked as Abbott’s legislative director, said he believes the order was “very carefully drafted, very thoughtfully drafted, and drafted in a way that makes it harder to challenge and more easily enforceable.” Importantly, it doesn’t mention anything about unemployment eligibility.

“The executive order doesn’t really get into that,” he said. “What it says is a private employer can’t compel an employee to get a vaccine. What an employer does after that is not addressed in the order. It’s not even really contemplated.”

If there’s one thing that is clear, it’s that this will be a busy time for the lawyers. Actually, it’s also clear that Abbott has no qualms about contradicting himself:

OK, it’s also clear that we are already living in Don Huffines’ Texas. Abbott is just blowing in the wind. If you like this and want it to continue, you know what to do. Same for if you don’t. The Chron and the Trib, in a truly brutal analysis that includes observations such as how Abbott is “so overwhelmed by politics that he’s become a Random Policy Generator, throwing out edicts that make sense only if you forget everything he said before”, have more.

An overview of abortion attitudes in Texas

From the Texas Politics Project:

Since the political rise of the pro-life movement in the 1990s, it’s often been suggested that elected Republicans were less seriously committed to banning abortion than their public pronouncements may have conveyed. The rationale behind this logic was purely political: such a change to health, reproductive, and women’s rights would upend normal politics, resulting in a not-wholly, but largely, gendered political revolt against the GOP. But with Texas’ passage of one of, if not the, most restrictive sets of abortion laws in the country, impacting 85% of abortions in the state and sending women to Oklahoma (!), it would appear that this particular theory of a just-below-the-surface political equilibrium on abortion policy is about to face a serious test.

The reasons for the Texas GOP’s leap forward on abortion restrictions after a decade of chipping away at access are likely many, and worthy of their own piece of analysis (but the partisan sorting of college and non-college educated voters; the change in composition of the supreme court; the recent fending off of Democratic challenges in the state; and the chance to reinforce existing electoral advantages through redistricting in an increasingly competitive state are some possibilities that come to mind), but looking directly ahead to the next set of Texas elections in 2022, the sudden change in the reproductive health landscape begs the question: where do Texas voters stand on abortion?

Below, we collect some observations to answer this question based on a decade of relevant University of Texas polling.

Go read the rest, but to do the spoilers: Texas is pretty evenly divided between those who call themselves “pro-choice” and “pro-life”, very few people actually want to ban all abortions as SB8 did, the more restrictive the anti-abortion law from the Lege in recent years, the greater the opposition to them, and maybe – just maybe – this could come back to bite the Republicans, if not in 2022 then soon. Check it out.

Climate change is bad for Texas

In case you were wondering.

Climate change has made the Texas heat worse, with less relief as nighttime temperatures warm, a report from the state’s climatologist published Thursday found.

Climate data also show that the state is experiencing extreme rainfall — especially in eastern Texas — bigger storm surges as seas rise along the Gulf Coast and more flooding from hurricanes strengthened by a warming ocean, the report says.

Those trends are expected to accelerate in the next 15 years, according to the report, which analyzes extreme weather risks for the state and was last updated in 2019. The report was funded in part by Texas 2036, a nonpartisan economic policy nonprofit group named for the state’s upcoming bicentennial.

The average annual temperature in Texas is expected to be 3 degrees warmer by 2036 than the average of the 1950s, the report found. The number of 100-degree days is expected to nearly double compared with 2000-2018, especially in urban areas.

“From here on out, it’s going to be very unusual that we ever have a year as mild as a typical year during the 20th century,” said John Nielsen-Gammon, the Texas state climatologist who authored the report. “Just about all of them are going to be warmer.”

A hotter Texas will threaten public health, squeeze the state’s water supply, strain the electric grid and push more species toward extinction, experts told The Texas Tribune.

Read the rest, or see the Texas 2036 page for more. I don’t have anything useful to add here. Either you see this as an existential problem and there’s very little time to take the necessary action to make it less bad, or you’re part of the problem. Up to you.

More proof that vaccine mandates work

In the end, most people just get the damn shots. The rest is sound and fury.

Protests, lawsuits and national media coverage surrounded Houston Methodist Hospital in June when it became the country’s first major health system to require a COVID-19 vaccine as a condition of employment.

Now, as other Houston healthcare providers begin to enforce similar mandates, the drama has faded into the background. Hospitals are not facing the same pushback, officials say, and only a small portion of employees are holding out on the vaccine.

“There is a lot of noise around (mandates), and the anti-vaxx movement has been vociferous, but this is more of an outcry from the community rather than when it comes down to the brass tacks in facilities,” said Carrie Kroll, vice president of advocacy, quality and public health at the Texas Hospital Association.

Texas Children’s Hospital and Baylor College of Medicine were the first to reach their vaccine mandate deadlines following Methodist.

Baylor required its roughly 9,000 faculty and staff members to be fully vaccinated by Sept. 15. Those who did not attest to receiving their vaccine were subject to “progressive discipline,” which includes a series of warnings that ends in firing, according to a statement. The vast majority of employees complied, while about 3 percent were granted an exemption, according to numbers provided by the school.

One employee resigned. Another five will be fired after facing warnings.

[…]

Texas Children’s Hospital also passed its first-dose deadline on Sept. 21. Its doctors are employed by Baylor and already covered by the school’s mandate. In a statement, the hospital said “a very small number of employees did not receive the vaccine and therefore chose to leave the organization.”

Texas Children’s spokesperson Natasha Barrett said the hospital could not disclose a specific number of people who left or whether any exemptions were granted.

See here, here, and here for some background. A lawsuit by the (very small number of) fired Methodist employees was dismissed, though it is being appealed. There’s growing evidence from around the country that this is what happens pretty much everywhere that there’s a vaccine mandate – lots of loud whining and complaining and threats to quit, followed by near-universal compliance. This is why I’m happy for the San Antonio ISD vaccine mandate fight to move slowly through the courts, because regardless of outcome it’s going to cause people to get the damn vaccine. And don’t anyone tell Greg Abbott, but Southwest Airlines is doing a mandate now, too. The more, the very much better.

The Delta surge is killing younger people

So many avoidable deaths.

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Our latest wake-up call about our power grid

Same song, next verse.

Federal energy officials vowed to ensure that Texas improves its electricity grid and natural gas system after widespread blackouts during the February freeze led to more than 200 deaths and billions of dollars in property damage.

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and the North American Reliability Corp. on Thursday presented their preliminary findings from the winter storm and outlined a series of familiar recommendations to prevent another catastrophic power failure as climate change brings about more severe weather that threatens the nation’s power grids.

These recommendations, similar to the ones FERC issued in the aftermath of the 2011 Texas blackouts, would require power plants and natural gas producers to protect critical equipment from freezing temperatures, to update power generators that experience freeze-related outages and provide compensation for generators to recoup weatherization costs.

“This is a wake-up call for all of us,” FERC Chairman Rich Glick said. “We must take these recommendations seriously, and act decisively, to ensure the bulk power system doesn’t fail the next time extreme weather hits. I cannot, and will not, allow this to become yet another report that serves no purpose other than to gather dust on the shelf.”

Glick said he was “extremely frustrated” that Texas energy regulators and the state’s grid manager ERCOT failed to heed FERC’s recommendations after a February 2011 winter storm left more than 3 million Texans without power as the Super Bowl was played outside Dallas.

You and me both, buddy. You and me both.

Had Texas followed FERC’s guidance a decade ago, the state could have avoided February’s deadly and devastating blackouts, he said.

“In this day and age, we have people that froze to death because of power outages. That’s beyond unacceptable,” Glick said. “The worst part about this, one of the points that frustrates me the most, is that some of it was avoidable.”

[…]

In a 31-page report published Thursday, FERC said the February winter storm caused the largest forced power outages in the nation’s history, and was the third largest blackout after the Northeast blackout in 2003 and the West Coast blackout in 1996. The February freeze was the fourth severe winter event over the past decade, knocking out 61,800 megawatts of power across the Midwest and South, including Texas and Louisiana.

The Texas power grid managed by ERCOT received the harshest effects of the freeze. The storm knocked out an average of 34,000 megawatts of power on ERCOT’s grid, nearly half of its record winter demand load of 69,871 megawatts.

FERC said the biggest factors contributing to power plants failing were the lack of weatherization of critical equipment and natural gas supply issues at power plants. Nearly 58 percent of the power generators that went offline during the storm were natural gas plants.

You can find the FERC report here and their press release here. If you want to find any plan that Greg Abbott has to take action on this report, you’re going to have to look a lot harder.

There will probably be another freeze this winter

Hopefully not as bad, but, well, you know.

Savor the rest of the summer and all of fall because this winter in Texas is going to be “frigid and flaky” similar to February’s deadly storm, according to the Farmers’ Almanac.

The Almanac, which has been predicting the weather outlook for farmers and gardeners for over 200 years, says to expect a “frosty flip-flop winter” for the United States. For most of the country, there will be near-normal amounts of snow with some notable month-to-month variations, the Alamanc says.

In late January, Texas and Oklahoma may be in for icy weather “like you experienced last winter,” according to the Almanac’s report.

The Farmers’ Almanac previously predicted Texas’ winter storm Uri in which heavy snowfall, ice storms and bitter temperatures brought an enormous strain on the state’s power grid, leaving millions without electricity. Over 200 people died.

[…]

Before Texans start booking resort days in Cancun, the almanac is hoping the conditions will not be as bad as Uri.

“Hopefully, it won’t be as robust, but it doesn’t hurt to be prepared,” the Almanac said.

We can talk about Greg Abbott’s approval ratings right now all we want. If we have another freeze that’s anything like this past February, especially if people lose power like they did this year, forget it. After all his claims about how everything was fixed now, he better damn well hope so.

El Paso is doing all right with Delta

Good for them, let’s hope it lasts.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

COVID rate slows a bit, but ICUs still full

The good news.

So far, the delta variant has fueled a month of Houston-area COVID hospitalizations over 3,000, according to the Texas Department of State Health Services.

But Texas Medical Center records show positive case rates may be slowly declining. According to TMC’s daily report, 1,939 people tested positive Tuesday in the Greater Houston area, a decline that may be related to COVID testing site closures as a precaution before Hurricane Nicholas.

Also Tuesday, the medical center admitted 310 new COVID-19 patients compared to the average 328 per day last week. Hospitals in the TMC remain at 90 percent capacity.

Dr. Wesley Long, a microbiologist and medical director of diagnostic microbiology at Houston Methodist, has been tracking and analyzing the virus and its variants through the hospital’s COVID-19 genome sequencing operation.

While Long sees the increase slowing, he hesitates to say Houston is passed the peak of the surge.

“It’s like cresting the top of the wave, you don’t know what the backside of the wave is going to look like,” Long said. “In the beginning of this fourth wave, there were some people hopeful it would go up quickly and come down quickly. That’s not the case.”

The fourth wave’s peak has been broader than previous waves, which spiked and declined within about 25-30 days, Long explained. The big question with the delta wave is whether it will plateau at a high rate of hospitalizations or have a slow decline.

“It’s hard to know how other things like holidays and school will affect the case count,” he said. “It’s really important to keep masking, social distancing and staying home if you’re sick because it’s important to bring the fourth wave under control.”

Another way to look at it:

The not so good news.

COVID-19 hospitalizations have been declining across Texas and the Houston region, but the virus is still keeping a high number of people in ICUs, prolonging the strain on patients waiting for critical care beds.

Last week, the number of available adult ICU beds in Texas sunk below 300 for the first time in the pandemic, with 270 beds available on Sept. 8 and 279 available on Sept. 9, according to the Texas Department of State Health Services. There were 326 beds available this Wednesday, including 65 in the nine-county region surrounding Houston, the data show.

Texas Medical Center ICUs for weeks have been hovering around 90 percent full with “Phase 2” surge plans — which add 373 ICU beds to the 1,330 available in Phase 1 — activated.

[…]

ICU data is a lagging indicator of the virus’s impact, [Dr. Syed Raza, vice president of medical operations at CHI St. Luke’s Health-The Woodlands Hospital] said, because the sickest patients need care for a longer period of time. He said it is the “natural course of the pandemic” for ICUs to remain high after hospitalizations decline.

Dr. James McDeavitt, executive vice president and dean of clinical affairs at Baylor College of Medicine, said the hospital strain appears to be easing overall. The number of COVID patients in ICU beds likely peaked at the end of August, when they took up 49 percent of all critical care beds, he said. As of Wednesday, that number dropped to 45 percent.

He said he is cautiously optimistic that “we’ll continue to see this trend move in right direction.” He compared the current ICU situation to flooding during hurricane.

“We are no longer stuffing towels under the door” to stop the water, he said. “But the water is still over our threshold.”

I mean, it could be worse. It’s still not good, and it’s going to continue to not be good for awhile, but it could be worse. Keep up with the precautions, they’re our best hope in the short term as more people get vaccinated.

The wrong track

Interesting, but there are some key questions left unasked.

According to a poll conducted by Texas 2036, at least 92 percent of Texas voters said they were concerned about the future of the state, with 58 percent also stating they felt extremely concerned about it.

The Texas 2036 is a nonprofit organization that aims to build long-term, data-driven strategies to secure Texas’ prosperity. They recently commissioned a poll to longtime GOP pollster Mike Baselice’s firm, and who has worked with both Trump and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick in the past.

The poll results, which were released on Tuesday, paint a grim picture of what Texans feel right now and their hopes for the future. It had 1,001 participants and was made 43% by cell phone, 23% by landline, and 34% through the web. It has a margin of error of +/- 3.1%.

The report shows that for the first time in the six years the question has been asked, more Texas voters (26%) said they feel financially worse off than they did the year before. Only 20 percent of the people being polled said they believe they are better off.

52 percent of voters said they believe that Texas is worse off than it was this time last year, a truly concerning fact considering last year the pandemic was at a considerable height and vaccines were not yet released. Only 13 percent said they thought the state was headed in a better direction.

The overwhelming majority of Texas voters agree with using federal COVID-19 relief money to fund large-scale projects and promote the state’s economy. This is something that state lawmakers can actually do in the upcoming third special session of the legislature.

The poll landing page is here, the press release for it is here, and all the data provided can be found here and here. It’s interesting and easy to read, so go check them out. The main thing that I came away thinking is “but who will the voters blame for their negative feelings?” I’ve noted the flip side of this question before, when I’ve asserted that the best hope for Democrats in general and Texas Democrats in particular is a strong performance by President Biden and a good economy to go with it. That works to a point, but only to the extent that the President gets the lion’s share of the credit for those good things. You can be sure Greg Abbott and his minions will do everything they can to grab that credit, and it will be up to the voters to decide who deserves it. The same is true for the blame – do you pin it on the Governor or the President? I can’t answer that question, and the pollsters don’t ask.

There are no electoral questions, and this is the first poll of its kind, so we don’t have any bases for comparison. One can certainly argue that this is a tricky spot for statewide Republican incumbents to be in, since they’re the closest ones to the situation and the ones that voters can take out their frustrations on in 2022. But again, they get to have a say in that, and they will do what they can to redirect and distract, as anyone in their position would. This is the kind of place where having a gubernatorial candidate would really help, since there would be a natural conduit for the message that the blame should apply to the guys in charge of the state. We don’t have that yet, so that task needs to be diffused outward for the time being. The point here is that this kind of data can be used by anyone, and so there needs to be a coherent message and a recognized messenger to get the viewpoint you like out into the discourse. For now at least, that’s on all of us. Robert Rivard has more.

Our COVID failures and our economy

Remember when the goal was to get the economy going again?

The recent surge in COVID-19 cases is not only hitting the state in terms of lives lost, but it’s taking its toll on the Texas economy. That’s according to a new report from the Perryman Group, an economic research and analysis firm in Waco.

They estimate the state’s failure to contain the disease has led to nearly 72,000 job losses. The analysis also found on average, the state loses roughly $187,000 for every employee unable to return to work because of the pandemic. That amounts to total potential losses of about $13 billion per year, the firm found.

But they argue many of these potential losses are preventable.

“What we need to do right now is do everything we can to make it safer for people to return to work. That includes masks where appropriate. That includes safety in schools so people that have issues with their children in childcare and things like that that prevent people from returning to work,” said Ray Perryman, president and CEO of the Perryman Group. “These are what we call preventable [economic] losses.”

Perryman said certain industries are being hit harder than others.

“In terms of dollar impacts, obviously a worker in a tech industry per worker has a much bigger impact than say a worker in a restaurant. But from an industry perspective, the ones being hit the hardest are the ones you’ve been hearing about since the beginning of the pandemic that deal in interpersonal relationships – retail, particularly restaurants, salons, airlines,” he said.

He says getting more people vaccinated is also key to avoid future economic losses.

The full report is here if you want to read it, and there’s video of an interview with Perryman about this at the first link. Honestly, in the context of Texas’ economy, $13 billion is pretty small, as is 72,000 jobs. Not nothing, especially if you’re in one of the more affected sectors, but not so much that you’d notice it on a graph. The point that all of this was preventable, with more aggressive vaccination promotion and distribution, and a continued reliance on masks while allowing local governments to have the discretion they need to respond as they see fit, is still true. There’s no good reason why we have to be going through what we are going through now. It was all the result of Greg Abbott’s actions.

The final Ike Dike plan

It’s taken a long time to get to this point.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has released the final version of its Coastal Texas Study, which examines a proposed coastal barrier to protect the Houston region against storm surge. The report’s completion marks a significant step for a concept that has taken years to develop. It began with the early imaginings of a Texas A&M professor, who designed a so-called “Ike Dike” to protect against devastating surge such as that seen on Bolivar Peninsula from Hurricane Ike in 2008.

Environmental advocates, regional planners and concerned residents are among those who have offered feedback on various project drafts. The details and big picture have been argued every which way. Now begins a years-long process before it can be built, leaving the region and the Houston Ship Channel still vulnerable to hurricanes as the design is sorted out and funding secured.

Here’s what you need to know now:

You can click over to read the report itself and the Chron summary. A few things have changed along the way, but the basics are still all there. The study also includes a final environmental impact statement, if you want to know more about that. The Army Corps of Engineers will sign off on the plan and send it on to Congress on or before October 12, at which point the question of funding this project, which has a $29 billion price tag, can begin in earnest. I have no idea at this point if Ike Dike funding will be part of the budget reconciliation process – I don’t think it was in the Senate’s infrastructure bill, but I could be wrong about that. I can’t wait to hear what excuse Ted Cruz will come up with to vote against this.

Going after the snitch sites

I approve of this.

When an anti-abortion group last week created a “pro-life whistleblower” website encouraging people to anonymously report violations of Texas’ new six-week abortion ban, a group of politically active Texans noticed one potentially fatal flaw.

“They’re trying to use the internet to retaliate against people who were raised on the internet,” said Olivia Julianna, an 18-year-old student and activist from Sugar Land who is among the leadership of a group called “Gen Z For Change.” The group was formerly known as “TikTok for Biden.”

Olivia, who goes by only her first and middle names on social media due to safety concerns, said the goal was clear: “This website, if we can mess with them in any way, if we can stop even one woman from having a lawsuit filed against her or waste even a second of their time, we need to do it.”

The tip site was meant to help enforce Senate Bill 8, the Texas law that went into effect at the start of this month that prohibits abortions after six weeks of pregnancy, before most women know they’re pregnant.

The law has so far avoided being blocked by the courts because the government does not enforce it. Instead, it puts enforcement in the hands of any private citizen who wishes to sue an abortion provider or others who “aid or abet” someone getting an illegal abortion, with a possible reward of at least $10,000 per successful suit.

Olivia was one of several young left-leaning activists who immediately took to social media to sabotage the site by flooding it with false reports and other information — some suggested anti-Gov. Greg Abbott sayings. Others recommended off-the-wall responses or nonsense.

She and other members of Gen Z For Change — Generation Z is typically defined as those who are now 18 to 24 — quickly got to work.

“It would be really, really bad and morally wrong of all of you to go to ProLifeWhistleblower.com and send in an anonymous tip that is fake,” Olivia sarcastically told her more than 137,000 followers in an Aug. 23 video she posted on TikTok. “It would be even worse if your anonymous tip was about Greg Abbott.”

Another popular content creator and Deputy Executive Director of Gen Z for Change, Victoria Hammett, 22, saw her video and found it “absolutely brilliant” and encouraged her followers to do the same.

“Wouldn’t it be so awful if we send in a bunch of fake tips and crashed the site?” she said in a TikTok that’s been liked over 240,000 times.

Create a morally reprehensible website, you’re going to face some consequences. Three cheers for the activists who are giving them the response they deserve.

And it’s not just the Gen Z activists, too.

After a Texas law restricting abortion went into effect Wednesday, an antiabortion organization had hoped to out those involved in unlawful procedures by collecting anonymous tips online.

But Texas Right to Life’s website, ProLifeWhistleblower.com, which invited people to inform on those obtaining or facilitating abortions, has not stayed up for long, as website registration providers have said the online form to submit “whistleblower” reports violates their rules. On Monday, the organization confirmed that the website redirects to its main page as it seeks to find a new digital home for the form.

“We’re exploring various long-term plans for the domain registration,” the group’s spokeswoman, Kimberlyn Schwartz, told The Washington Post. “For now, ProLifeWhistleblower.com is redirecting to TexasRightToLife.com only while we move hosts.”

After hosting provider GoDaddy booted the group from its platform last week, the site’s registration changed to list Epik, a Web hosting company that has supported other websites that tech companies have rejected, such as Gab and 8chan. The site went offline Saturday, however, after the domain registrar told the Texas organization that lobbied for the abortion ban that it had violated the company’s terms of service.

After speaking with Epik, which never hosted the site, Texas Right to Life agreed to remove the form, Epik general counsel Daniel Prince said Monday. By late Saturday, the website had redirected to Texas Right to Life’s main page.

But Schwartz said the group still hopes to solicit tips.

“It will be back up soon to continue collecting anonymous tips,” she said, adding that the group is reviewing its options, including seeking another company to register the site’s domain.

Prince said Epik would no longer offer its services if the group continues to collect private information about third parties through its digital tip line.

I’m sure they will eventually find a hosting company that is sleazy enough to allow them to use their services. Putting all of the politics aside for a moment, however, that bit about “[collecting] private information about third parties” should raise some serious data privacy red flags. I guarantee you, the owners of the snitch site have no plan to protect any of that data, and any information they do get will be at serious risk of being abused. Merrick Garland, as you formulate your response, please take note of that as well. The Current has more.

The contract health worker surge

Don’t know how sustainable this is.

Dr. Esmaeil Porsa, president and CEO of Harris Health System, said the hospitals in the system were at a breaking point when he learned that 100 temporary medical workers were being sent to help.

As cases surged, the hospitals were admitting more children and pregnant women with complications from COVID-19, and patients who needed intensive care waited in emergency rooms for ICU beds to become available.

The nurses, respiratory therapists and other contract staff “definitely arrived here at a pivotal moment,” Porsa said. “They did exactly what I had hoped that they would do, which is allowing us the opportunity of a couple of things: to provide a little bit of relief for front-line staff who have been running around ragged, but also created an opportunity for us to expand our capacity.”

[…]

Gov. Greg Abbott announced the Texas Department of State Health Services would deploy state-funded relief workers to hospitals, and 8,100 have either arrived from other states or are expected soon.

It’s the second time the state has taken such action. At the height of the state’s winter surge, almost 14,000 medical workers were deployed across the state, according to DSHS. From July 2020 to early August of this year, the state spent more than $5 billion in federal disaster funds and coronavirus relief funds on medical personnel.

Abbott’s move came after hospitals and local health officials complained that they were having to outbid each other to hire contract nurses amid a statewide shortage of hospital staff.

W. Stephen Love, president and CEO of the Dallas-Fort Worth Hospital Council, said that competition among hospitals meant “they’re going to take from Peter to give to Paul, so to speak. That’s why using the state with their purchasing power [is important].”

The new push to bring more health workers to Texas comes as many have reached their limits, said Carrie Williams, spokesperson for the Texas Hospital Association.

“This surge has come faster and stronger than previous surges, and it comes at a time when the frontline [worker] is burned out,” Williams said in a statement. “We were already starting from behind when this surge hit.”

According to DSHS, the state’s hospitals requested more than 15,000 temporary staffers between Aug. 12 and Aug. 25. As of Aug. 25, almost 4,000 have been deployed, with most going to regions with the state’s most populous counties and metro areas.

[…]

Health officials continue to stress that the main way to reduce the need for additional staff is clear: more vaccinations. As of Aug. 25, about 47% of Texans were fully vaccinated.

Since Jan. 1, Porsa said, everyone who has died at LBJ Hospital and Ben Taub Hospital from COVID-19 has been unvaccinated.

“Space is not unlimited, resources are not unlimited,” Porsa said. “At some point it doesn’t matter how many nurses you throw at the problem, we are going to arrive at a situation where we’re not going to have enough clinicians, we’re not going to have enough doctors, we’re not going to have enough something else.

“We will run out of options at some point, and this is really really important for people to realize that this cannot go on forever, and they know what the solution is.”

It’s still not clear to me how there could even be that many not currently working medical staff out there to be brought in, but they do exist in some number, for which we are grateful and lucky. It’s also not clear at what point demand will outstrip supply, and as noted above, we may run into other limits even sooner than that.

How long can we last? There’s actually a tiny bit of cause for optimism in the most recent data.

The average number of daily COVID hospitalizations in the Texas Medical Center dropped for the first time since early July from a record 390 patients to 388, the medical center reported Monday.

The metric reflects the daily average of hospitalized patients over the previous week. The drop comes amid declining COVID hospitalizations both nationally and statewide.
A three-day decline in total COVID hospitalizations in Texas brought the number to 13,557 on Saturday, the most recent day for which data is available. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also reported a drop in the average number of new daily hospitalizations nationwide, from 12,354 on Thursday to 12,051 on Friday. More recent national data is not yet available.

Dr. James McDeavitt, executive vice president and dean of clinical affairs at Baylor College of Medicine, said the decline is part of the natural course of the pandemic.

“When you see an outbreak like this, the virus kind of runs through the population until it gets to the point where it starts running out of people to infect,” he said, adding, “That does not mean herd immunity.”

He warned that the virus still has room to spread, especially as schools reopen. In an interview last week, McDeavitt said hospitals will continue to feel the strain of the current surge as cases decline.

Burnout among nurses, lingering staffing shortages and the record number of hospitalizations all factor into a longer recovery period.

“From the peak, we’re probably still a month-and-a-half to getting to something that feels like business as usual,” he said last week. “So best case, we’re into October now before we start to get some relief.”

So don’t get too cocky. It’s good that maybe we’ve peaked and will start to see a decline, but we’re still a long way out from where we were in May and June, and we could easily reverse course again. We need to keep getting people vaccinated, because the alternative is more of what we’re going through now.

Zombie trees

We are still experiencing the effects of the freeze.

Never turn down an opportunity to reference a Rush song

Zombies are in your yard, in parks and along roadsides and other green spaces throughout Texas.

They’re trees that are partly dead and partly alive, struggling to move forward and waiting for the next big thing — even hotter temperatures, a drought, a hurricane — to seal their fate.

Count zombie trees as one more lingering effect of February’s winter storm.

Arborists and other tree experts say that in the months to come, the state could lose thousands if not millions of trees ranging from tall Mexican or California fan palms to a wide range of hardwoods such as lace bark elm, Chinese tallow and water oak. This would be the most dangerous threat to Texas’s tree inventory since the 2011 drought.

Trees with lots of dead branches and new green sprouts shooting out of the center are likely zombie trees. Even tall palms with new green fronds on top could be zombies, because you can’t see the potential damage inside of their lanky trunks.

Matt Petty, assistant district manager and a certified arborist at the Davey Tree Expert Co., said that the International Society of Arboriculture is calling for a two-year watch on trees damaged in the freeze.

“The zombie tree concept comes from trees that, from a distance, appear to be normal or healthy and as you get closer, you see the differences. They’re dead and we don’t know it yet,” Petty said, noting that the trees could have been struggling before the freeze. “Trees that lost their leaves from the freeze have sprouted out and, in many cases, look like they have recovered. As temperatures heat up, though, we’ll have trees that die.”

Petty said that he’s seen sycamores, rain trees, Chinese tallow, elms and water oaks suffering damage, but live oaks and magnolia trees — both popular shade trees in the Houston area — are doing well.

[…]

David N. Appel, a Texas A&M professor and a specialist in tree pathology noted that “zombie tree” isn’t a horticultural or agricultural term and showed restraint in using it.

He said that most trees with dead-looking branches and new shoots coming from the center could be zombie trees, but not all are. They’re certainly damaged trees, some of which will live and some of which will die, and it’s fairly obvious which branches should be pruned back.

“I’ve been from the Rio Grande all the way up to Wichita Falls, and I have talked to a lot of arborists and one thing is clear: The damage was remarkably similar, it’s just that the species were different depending on where you are,” Appel said. “In one place you hear a lot about lace bark elms, but in another place it might be some of the oak species. In Wichita Falls it was the Japanese black pine and Mondell pine.”

Appel said Texas will lose hundreds of thousands, possibly millions, of trees.

“The picture has become much clearer than it was two months ago, but we still (won’t know the fate of) a lot of these trees for a long while,” he said. “We aren’t out of the woods yet, and that’s not a tree joke.”

The story references the 2011 drought, which was hell on trees in Houston and around the state, and Hurricane Harvey, neither of which is a great comparison for arborial life. Some trees, like palms, were recognizably dead following the February freeze, but for others it may not be certain for another year or two. For those of us who live in neighborhoods with older trees, it is worth the time and expense to have an arborist look at the trees around your house, because dead branches are a real threat in a big storm. Hope for the best, and do what you can to take care of the trees on your property.

Please enjoy the higher natural gas prices you’ll soon be paying

And by “enjoy”, I mean “blame Greg Abbott”.

Texans are on the hook for $3.6 billion in natural gas costs incurred by utilities during one freezing week in February — a burden consumers will bear for a decade or longer.

During that same winter week, several natural gas pipeline companies and traders made billions of dollars as they transported and sold natural gas at sky-high prices when supplies were short.

Pipeline companies Energy Transfer of Dallas and Kinder Morgan of Houston made $2.4 billion and $1.1 billion, respectively, while British oil major BP made more than $1 billion from its natural-gas trading business during the deadly, historic storm, according to company filings and analyst estimates. Houston pipeline company Enterprise Products Partners said it made $250 million for transporting and selling natural gas at high prices to utilities, industrial customers and power generators during the storm.

Ultimately, Texans will fund these companies’ profits, said Jim Krane, an energy fellow at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy.

“It’s pretty clear this is a wealth transfer from the public to investors and traders who could capitalize on the high prices,” Krane said. “The frustrating thing is, even though people were shivering in their homes, their (natural gas) bills are going up anyway. They’re still going to have to pay for this. It’s really a slap in the face.”

More than 1.8 million CenterPoint Energy customers in the Houston area are responsible for the $1.14 billion natural gas bill incurred by the Houston utility when it had to quickly buy natural gas at sky-high prices after demand soared and supplies plunged during the storm.

[…]

Utilities such as CenterPoint pass along the cost of natural gas to customers without any markup and instead make money on its natural gas business through state-regulated distribution fees.

CenterPoint on Friday filed a request with regulators to finance the billions of dollars in excess gas costs. The paperwork submitted to the Railroad Commission outlined how much the financing would cost Houstonians in the coming years, reflected in their monthly bill.

The average natural gas bill in the Houston area — about $30 — could go up by $2 to $5 a month starting next year if CenterPoint is allowed to use state-issued bonds to finance what it owes for that high-priced gas. That means Houstonians could pay as much as $60 more a year for their natural gas over the next decade.

If CenterPoint’s request is rejected, it would levy a fee of $15 to $40 a month over the next year, pushing the average gas bill to almost $80 during summer and to more than $100 in winter. That means Houstonians could pay as much as $480 more for their natural gas over the next year.

The cost would hit everyone in CenterPoint’s territory, even if they couldn’t turn on their natural-gas heating systems because of rolling blackouts, Krane said.

“You either buy your local bill collector a six-pack or a gym membership,” Krane said. “It’s not insubstantial. For some people, it’s going to be pretty tough news if you’re just hanging on.”

See here for some background. As a reminder, this is how the system was designed to work. And of course, Greg Abbott benefited from that transfer of wealth, because that too is how the system is designed to work.

Readin’ and writin’ and gettin’ COVID

Welcome back to school, kids.

Positive COVID-19 cases among Texas public school students rose by more than 9,000 last week, the highest number ever recorded in a seven-day period, state data shows.

As of Aug. 22, there were 14,033 reports of positive COVID cases in students across the state, according to data released by Texas Health and Human Services on Friday. The number represents a 182 percent increase from the 4,976 student cases reported through Aug. 15.

There were another 3,425 positive cases reported in school staff across the state, an increase of 712 from the previous week.

In some districts, more than half the new infections are among elementary school students, who are not eligible for any of the available vaccines.

“This school year is gonna look a whole lot different than last year,” said Dr. Katelyn Jetelina, an assistant professor of epidemiology at UTHealth School of Public Health in Dallas. “We have a whole lot more transmission now in the community and we have the delta variant.”

The cumulative number of cases in students since the 2021-2022 school year began is 20,256. The total staff cases so far this school year is 7,488.

In case you were wondering why so many parents are pissed about the fight against mask mandates. Now that all schools are open I would hope we won’t see any more big jumps like that, but we are going to see the case levels rise for now. I hope that at some point, when there’s enough data to be reasonably confident in the results, we can get a comparison of COVID rates in districts that have mandated masks versus those that have not.

On a related note:

People under 50 are being admitted to hospitals with COVID-19 in larger numbers than at any point during the pandemic as the latest surge of the coronavirus continues to tighten its grip on Texas.

According to data released by the Texas Department of State Health Services, as of Aug. 22, adults 30 to 49 now account for roughly 29% of all COVID-19 hospital admissions in Texas, up from 15% on Jan. 11 during the height of the winter surge.

The data shows that people in the 18-29 age group increased their share of admissions during that period from 5% to 7%, while the percentage of children under 18 admitted to hospitals with COVID-19 increased by 1 percentage point — an average of 46 children each day were hospitalized during the week ending Aug 22.

Meanwhile, fewer people over 70 are landing in hospitals with COVID-19. During the winter peak, about 41% of hospitalized COVID patients were over 70. As of Aug. 22, that dropped by almost half, to 23%.

The data confirmed what many doctors have been saying in recent weeks about the delta variant sending younger people into hospitals at a higher rate than earlier in the pandemic.

“We are seeing certainly younger patients hospitalized and younger patients on ventilators where we haven’t seen that before,” said Dr. Ron Cook, chief health officer at the Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center.

This variant has spread faster among unvaccinated Texans of all ages. As of last week, between 93% and 98% of hospitalizations have been unvaccinated people, depending on the area of Texas, officials said.

More than 70% of Texans over the age of 50 are fully vaccinated, compared to only about half of Texans between the ages of 16 and 49 and one-third of those ages 12-15. Children under age 12 are not eligible for vaccination.

And as the hospitals fill up with COVID patients, people who have other serious but treatable conditions are put in jeopardy. No amount of horse de-wormer is gonna fix that.

More teenagers are getting vaccinated

Good, but not enough in itself.

As a third COVID wave coincides with the back-to-school season, more Texas teenagers are getting the vaccine — but health experts say they need to see shots increase in even larger numbers to protect children from the delta variant.

Vaccinations have gone up recently among all Texas age groups, especially for those under 50, and they’ve more than doubled over the past six weeks for 12- to 17-year-olds.

In the last week of June, about 36,000 Texans under 18 got a shot — the lowest point to date — but that number shot up to 86,000 two weeks ago and remained there last week, according to new data from the state health department.

The jump is promising for public health experts, who stress that vaccines are the best way to avoid severe illness and slow the spread of the coronavirus. Still, youth vaccination rates are the lowest of all age groups in Texas, with just 49 percent of those under 18 getting at least one shot, compared to much higher rates for their elders.

“The percent of adolescents that are eligible for vaccination and have been vaccinated, certainly in Houston and in Texas, is still quite low,” said Dr. Stan Spinner, the vice president and chief medical officer for Texas Children’s Pediatrics and Texas Children’s Urgent Care in Houston. “Yes, the numbers are going up. That’s encouraging. But they’re not going up fast enough.”

About 46 percent of 12- to 15-year-olds, who have been eligible for the Pfizer vaccine since May, have received a shot. Roughly 55 percent of 16- and 17-year-olds have gotten the shot, according to the health department data.

Meanwhile, the number of pediatric COVID cases and hospitalizations has exploded — more than 500 children are currently hospitalized with the virus in Texas. Children account for about 20 percent of all positive COVID tests at Texas Medical Center, Spinner said.

“They are the major component of the population that’s vulnerable,” he said. “They have not been able to get vaccinated, and we know kids get it. We’re seeing it. It’s not a myth. We’re seeing it in larger numbers than ever.”

The increase in vaccinations is unequivocally good, I want to be clear about that. But there are still two concerns. One is that the rate of increase is not enough. About one-fourth of all Texans are under 18, which means in absolute terms between seven and eight million people. Not all of them are currently eligible for the vaccine, but at a rough guess it’s probably two to three million. Even at 100K shots a week, it’ll take us months and months to get to a sufficient level of immunization. We need to increase that 86K figure by a factor of at least five, maybe even ten.

And two, as we well know, while even the first shot conveys some extra level of protection from COVID from the get-go, it takes a month from the first shot to be really protected. We need to be doing more in the here and now to help mitigate the spread of this plague. We all know the drill – masking, avoiding indoor gatherings, social distancing – but as long as our malicious Governor and malignant Attorney General are doing everything in their power to prevent those things, we’re going to continue putting everyone in a maximal amount of jeopardy. We’ve already seen high infection rates in school districts that have been open, and several districts forced to close down in person instruction in the short term. We know what needs to be done. It’s Greg Abbott and Ken Paxton and Dan Patrick who want to stop us from doing them. We can’t let them put our kids, and ourselves, in such danger.

The approval and the mandates

As I’m sure you’ve heard by now, the FDA has given its final approval to the Pfizer vaccine for COVID-19. That should mean a lot of good things, but among them it should mean broader vaccine mandates are now in play.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s full approval of the Pfizer vaccine Monday is cracking open the door for Texas cities, counties and school districts to compel their employees to get vaccinated against COVID-19 — moves previously blocked by Gov. Greg Abbott.

Abbott had banned public schools and local governments from enacting their own vaccine mandates. But the governor’s executive order specifies that the ban on mandates applies to COVID-19 vaccines that are under emergency authorization — a designation that no longer applies to the Pfizer two-dose vaccination.

Already, one major school district is pressing forward with its plan to require vaccinations for teachers and staff.

Pedro Martinez, superintendent for San Antonio Independent School District, called for mandatory employee vaccinations last week — drawing a lawsuit from Attorney General Ken Paxton, who accused the district and Martinez of breaching Abbott’s ban on vaccine mandates.

But with the FDA’s approval, San Antonio school officials are moving forward with their vaccine requirement for district employees.

In a statement, Martinez called the FDA approval “a positive step forward in the fight against COVID-19 nationwide and a step forward in helping keep schools safe for learning here at home.”

Here’s Superintendent Martinez on CNN discussing his fight against Greg Abbott over this. Most of the fights so far have been about mask mandates, but as we noted recently, San Antonio ISD has notified its employees that they must get vaccinated, which has drawn a lawsuit from Ken Paxton. Which, apparently, has been withdrawn now, as the executive order against vaccine mandates only covered “vaccines administered under an emergency use authorization”.

Here’s more from the Chron.

The Pfizer vaccine’s change in status appears to give cities, school districts and universities a way around the governor’s ban.

“Receiving a COVID-19 vaccine under an emergency use authorization is always voluntary in Texas and will never be mandated by the government, but it is strongly encouraged for those eligible to receive one,” Abbott’s most recent executive order reads.

A spokeswoman for Abbott did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Monday.

The update means San Antonio Independent School District, which was sued by the state after requiring its employees to get the shots by Oct. 15, is still moving forward with its mandate. The district had clarified late last week that it would not compel workers to get a vaccine that wasn’t fully approved by the FDA.

Attorney General Ken Paxton touted that as a win in a news release Monday, distributed less than an hour after the FDA granted full approval.

“State law could not be clearer: ‘No governmental entity can compel any individual to receive a COVID-19 vaccine administered under an emergency use authorization,’” Paxton said in the release. “But San Antonio ISD tried to play by its own set of rules. Thankfully, we stopped them.”

San Antonio school officials say the full authorization now allows the district to go ahead with its requirement that all employees get the shots by mid-October, they say. In his clarification statement last week, Superintendent Pedro Martinez had stipulated that the timeline would only change if the FDA hadn’t fully authorized the vaccine by Sept. 10.

Hey, if you want to declare victory while you’re surrendering and retreating, it’s fine by me. Just keep on surrendering and retreating, that’s all I ask.

The remaining questions are 1) What about Moderna and J&J; 2) What will other government entities do about this new ability; and 3) What about the mask mandates? In short,

1) “In May, Pfizer and BioNTech submitted their license application. Moderna began its application in June, and Johnson & Johnson said it will begin the process later this year.” As such, I’d assume the Moderna approval will come sometime in September or October, and J&J will be later than that. But most people have Pfizer or Moderna shots, so that’s the main thing.

2) My guess is they will move more slowly, but once the first domino falls I’d expect others to follow quickly. Note that this will be about mandates for local government employees, not residents. It’ll help, but it won’t apply to everyone.

3) Not the same thing, so we’re still waiting for the lawsuits to play out.

In the meantime, go tell all your vax-hesitant family, friends, neighbors, co-workers, acquaintances, and whoever else that now is the time for them to get their shots. It’s all officially approved, there’s no need to wait any longer.

The mask rebellion

Sweet, sweet music to the ears.

The local mask rebellion, coupled with the fresh threat of legal action from President Joe Biden’s administration, poses the most serious challenge yet to [Gov. Greg] Abbott’s emergency powers, which he has wielded in unprecedented ways that have drawn intense criticism both from Democrats and from some conservatives.

[…]

Many school boards and superintendents are stuck between conflicting requirements from the governor and their local health departments, while others feel that masks are essential and that they have the authority to control their own schools, regardless of the governor’s wishes.

“I don’t think the governor has an MD next to his name,” said Conrado Garcia, superintendent of West Oso Independent School District in Corpus Christi. “We’re just trying to help our kids, and maybe what’s missing is some of that kind of thinking.”

West Oso is one of 58 school districts deemed “noncompliant” with Abbott’s order by Attorney General Ken Paxton, who is publishing a list of the rogue government entities.

At last count, the list also included three charter school groups, one city and eight counties — Bexar, Cameron, Dallas, Harris, Hays, Hidalgo, Nueces and Travis — for a total of 70 entities. Paxton, who is also suing to overturn some of the local mandates, encouraged the public to notify his office of any “violator” that was not included on the list.

Garcia said he hopes Abbott will come around on the local mask mandates.

“Our intention is not to fight the governor, our intentions are that he will realize that there’s so many parents, and the list is growing of the number of school districts that are passing more and more resolutions,” Garcia said. “So I think eventually, somewhere, somehow, common sense dictates to me that if you’re hearing from that many people, I hope that he will compromise and let us continue with our work.”

The cases pose a new legal test for Abbott, whose emergency orders withstood early challenges from the right, filed by conservative groups that argued against business closures and the governor’s own mask mandate.

The Texas Supreme Court decided last year that it didn’t have standing to take up those cases, though Justice John Devine nonetheless issued an opinion in which he critiqued a portion of state law that allows the governor to suspend certain laws and rules during emergencies.

“I find it difficult to square this statute, and the orders made under it, with the Texas Constitution,” Devine wrote, noting that only the Legislature — not the judiciary or executive branches — has constitutional power to suspend laws.

In the latest mask challenges, local officials are citing the same portion of state law, but with the opposite intent: to stop Abbott from blocking local action aimed at blunting the spread of COVID. In cases involving San Antonio’s and Dallas’ mask mandates, local officials have argued that Abbott may suspend only local orders that would “in any way prevent, hinder or delay necessary action in coping with a disaster.”

Ron Beal, an attorney and former administrative law professor at Baylor University, sided with the local officials in an amicus brief submitted to the state Supreme Court on Monday.

“It is wholly inconsistent with the legislative intent for the governor to consciously and knowingly not meet or prevent the dangers, but to enhance them,” Beal said. “There is simply no language in the statute that empowers the governor to give citizens permission to prolong the disaster. It is thereby void.”

[Dale Carpenter, a constitutional law professor at Southern Methodist University], said the case raises difficult constitutional questions for the conservative jurists on the court.

“That cuts a number of ways in this case, both for and against the governor, because he’s acting in a way that many conservatives believe is reinforcing individual rights to choice, choice about wearing masks specifically,” Carpenter said. “But I think the court certainly doesn’t want to issue an opinion that says the governor’s the commander-in-chief and he can do what he wants, and not qualify that opinion a lot.”

[…]

Paris ISD, in Northeast Texas, has taken a novel approach to its own mask mandate. While other districts have argued that health data or conflicting local requirements required them to ignore Abbott’s order, Paris ISD’s board simply amended its dress code to include a mask.

The lawyer for the district, Dennis Eichelbaum, argues that so long as the state’s education law remains in place, school districts have the exclusive right to govern themselves. Unless Abbott decides to use his emergency powers to suspend that law, Eichelbaum argues, school districts can institute mask mandates.

“We’ve always had dress codes. It’s very common in Texas. And this is no different, really, than saying we’re requiring our students to wear shoes,” he said. “I can’t explain why other law firms weren’t as creative, but it seems pretty simple to me.”

Eichelbaum argued that Abbott’s executive order is vague and inconsistently enforced, pointing to requirements that students wear face masks during welding class or that baseball catchers and football players wear face protection. Amending a dress code to include masks to protect against COVID is no different, Eichelbaum said.

Obviously, I am delighted by the resistance to Abbott’s shameful demagoguery on this issue. Abbott, who has made a career out of defying federal laws and directives he doesn’t like, deserves no sympathy for any of this. I don’t know what the Supreme Court will do, though their refusal to just call an end to all the litigation is moderately heartening, and I appreciate the legal analysis in this story. There’s at least a chance that common sense can prevail, and that’s more than we’ve had around here in awhile.

I will say, it’s been this kind of resistance to Abbott’s anti-mask mandate, which as noted has come from some red areas as well as the cities, that makes me give some credence to that Spectrum/Ipsos poll. Abbott may only care about the most fervid of Republican primary voters, but mayors and school boards have to answer to a broader electorate, and some of them will be facing that music this year. Maybe one of the HISD Trustee candidates, especially one in a district formerly held by a Republican, will base their campaign on an anti-mask platform, but if so I haven’t seen any evidence of it yet. If nothing else, this is a big campaign issue for next year, when we finally get a candidate for Governor out there.

I don’t know what to make of these Spectrum/Ipsos polls about COVID and mask mandates

I’m going to present to you three Spectrum News stories about a poll they commissioned regarding COVID issues, and then I’m going to tell you what I think about them. (Spoiler alert: The post title more or less sums it up, but I will go into more detail.)

Spectrum News/Ipsos poll finds Texas parents want common-sense precautions against COVID in schools.

Most Texans are not aligned with Gov. Greg Abbott when it comes to mask mandates and requiring vaccinations for teachers, students and staff at schools, according to an exclusive Spectrum News/Ipsos poll released this week.

The poll, which comprised more than 1,300 people, including more than 400 parents of school-aged children, was intended to gauge the pulse of how Texans are feeling about state policies, specific politicians and a few hot-button issues.

Generally speaking, the survey suggests, parents’ attitudes toward how the state is handling various issues related to education and schools are all over the place, said Mallory Newall, vice president of public affairs for Ipsos, a French-based analytics company. For example, about two-thirds of parents said they feel their child would be safe returning to school, yet two-thirds also fear their child will catch COVID-19.

“On one hand, a majority of parents are confident that their child will be able to make up lost ground [from missed time],” she said. “They feel that their child would be safe attending school, but there is this concern in the back of their mind about them catching COVID at school.

“So, I would say that in all of that together, parents’ concern isn’t necessarily outweighing their desire for their kids to return to in-person schools,” she continued. “However, most parents want to see common-sense policies in place to protect their kids and to keep them safe. And for those that want them, they feel that virtual options should still be made available.”

[…]

The Spectrum News/Ipsos poll showed Texans generally disapprove of Abbott’s handling of COVID-19, and when it comes to certain proposals around COVID-19 and back to school, the public is also misaligned with the governor. For example, only 17% of all Texans, and 22% of parents with a school-aged child, believe students who test positive for COVID-19 should not have to quarantine. In another example of Texans disagreeing with Abbott’s orders, nine in 10 believe schools should be required to notify parents if a child or teacher tests positive — regardless of whether it’s in their classroom (92% support) or in the school as a whole (89% support).

Around half of the people surveyed said they are worried about their children’s mental health (49%), and roughly the same number said their children suffered during the pandemic (47%).

Also, breaking with the governor’s actions, the poll showed broad support for requiring vaccines for teachers and students and providing virtual learning in schools. Support for these proposals is significantly different by party. Though there is low support among Republicans, significant majorities of Democrats and independents favor these policies, leading to overall high levels of support.

Spectrum News/Ipsos poll finds COVID is a major factor in back-to-school concerns.

Parents feel safe allowing their children to return to in-school learning, but, at the same time, most fear their child will catch COVID-19. This seemingly contradictory revelation is part of an exclusive Spectrum News/Ipsos poll released this week.

As the debate about how to handle getting children safely back to school continues nationwide, Ipsos, a global research insight and analytics company, gathered data on this and other current news topics from more than 1,300 Texans, including more than 400 parents of school-aged children.

The poll found that two-thirds of parents (64%) said they feel their child would be safe returning to school, yet two-thirds (66%) also fear their child will catch COVID-19.

The poll revealed that Texans’ feelings toward COVID-19 don’t generally align with Gov. Greg Abbott’s orders, but they are still supportive of classrooms being open — for those who want it.

[…]

Around half of parents, 49%, approve of Abbott’s plans for sending children back to school, and parents do not differ from the general public on this (47% of parents with kids 4-17 approve). Notably, just 39% of Texans agree that policymakers in the state are making decisions about COVID-19 that are based on science. Republican parents are the only demographic group in the survey in which a majority agree with this statement.

The survey found about half of Texas parents say they are worried about their child right now (49%), that their mental health has suffered during the pandemic (47%), and that they do not/would not have enough time to help with remote learning (49%).

Spectrum News/Ipsos Poll finds Texans are leery of policymakers when it comes to COVID.

As Texans are left to fend for themselves against COVID, Abbott’s popularity has taken a hit. The Spectrum News/Ipsos Poll found that only 46% of Texans approve of the job he’s doing overall, compared to just over half last year. Most (53%) disapprove.

Overwhelmingly, the pandemic is the issue most Texans are focused on, the poll found, and it’s also the issue Abbott is doing worst on. Now, just 43% approve of the job he’s doing on COVID-19, compared to 49-58% for other issues in the survey. Last year, his approval rating on the coronavirus was more evenly split (48% approved, 43% disapproved in 2020).

The only person Texans trust less than Abbott on COVID is former president Donald Trump. Exactly half, on the other hand, trust President Joe Biden to provide them accurate information on COVID-19.

One demographic that appears to struggle with Abbott’s decisions related to COVID is parents, who are left to grapple with the prospect of sending their children back to schools that offer little state-mandated protection against the deadly virus.

The Spectrum News/Ipsos Poll found 72% of parents support mask requirements in K-12 schools. The data showed significant differences of opinion by race, ethnicity and political party. However, even half or more Republicans support mask requirements in offices, grocery and retail stores, transit hubs and sports stadiums.

When it comes to certain proposals around COVID-19 and back to school, the public is once again misaligned with the governor. For example, just 17% of all Texans, and 22% of parents with a school-aged child, support the following proposal: “Students who test positive for COVID-19 should not have to quarantine.” On the other hand, nine in 10 believe schools should be required to notify parents if a child or teacher tests positive — regardless of whether it’s in their classroom (92% support) or in the school as a whole (89% support).

There is broad support for requiring vaccines for teachers and students alike. Support for these proposals is significantly different by political party. Though there is low support among Republicans, significant majorities of Democrats and independents favor these policies, leading to overall high levels of support.

I found the first link via Reform Austin. The other two I found via Google search, though as you can see there’s some overlap among them.

This is normally where I would link to the poll data, and that is my first and biggest problem with this: I can’t find any link to poll data, in any of these stories. That means I know nothing about the sample used – it seems clear this is a poll of all adults, but it doesn’t say how many are registered to vote, and of course there’s no breakdown by age, race and ethnicity, gender, partisanship, etc – or whether it was a phone or online poll or a hybrid, or what the question wording was, etc etc etc.

Note how inexact some of the data points cited in the stories are – “significant majorities of Democrats and independents favor these policies”, “even half or more Republicans support mask requirements”, “he only person Texans trust less than Abbott on COVID is former president Donald Trump”, and so on. What does any of that mean? How wide are the partisan splits? Especially for the approval questions, the partisan makeup of the sample, and how they voted in 2020 – and how many of them didn’t vote in 2020 – is a big deal. All I have here is vague gestures.

I mean, none of these results strike me as outlandish. The national polling data we have (see here for an example, and I just now noticed that’s also an Ipsos poll, released at the same time as this poll, which makes me wonder) suggests that Abbott’s extreme stances are out of line with what normal people think, and I can believe/absolutely want to believe that his approval rating has dipped as a result. But you know the mantra: It’s just one poll, and it has no data that I can parse. I can only go so far with that.

If we’re lucky, this means that there’s about to be some more polling to come. It’s been a couple of months since the last round of polls, and so maybe the usual suspects will be out in the field soon. Lord knows, there’s plenty for them to ask about. I’ll be keeping an eye out as always.

A few words from the CEO of the Medical Center

From an interview he did with Lisa Gray.

What we’re seeing, sadly, is more of the same, only with more intense numbers. The number of people who are testing positive in our community continues to escalate month over month. The test positivity rate is now at 15.1 percent.

But probably the most accurate reflection is our hospitalizations. We just reached an all-time high: 421 people were admitted to our hospitals for COVID yesterday.

Step back for a second and look at that relative to the entire pandemic. Back in June and July, we had two weeks where the average number of hospital admissions was over 300. That was in the second wave.

Fast forward to wave three: We had four weeks that averaged over 300.

Now we are into our second week with no slowing the pace. At 421 today, we are seeing the highest peak of all of the pandemic going back 18 months now.

It’s largely a pandemic of the unwilling — people unwilling to be vaccinated. Now 44% of Houstonians are unvaccinated. Those are the vast majority of the people that are showing up in our emergency rooms and and in our ICUs. They’re very sick.

Many people thought that they were young, and therefore their immune system would be strong enough to protect them. That is not the case with this deadly delta variant, which is three times more transmissible than the earlier alpha variant.

Our hospitals’ staffs are 18 months into this. They’re exhausted.

And we have far fewer nurses than we used to have. They’re being recruited to other states, like Florida, that are even worse off than Texas.

The saddest fact is, 18 percent of all the new cases so far in August are children.

With the alpha variant, everyone thought, “OK, it’s 65 and older.” So we went after the nursing homes, and we did a brilliant job at protecting the elderly population and those who are immunocompromised.

But now, that vulnerable population is children under 12, who are not able to be vaccinated. We are predicting a mess in our schools. With nearly 20 percent of new cases being children, now we’re going to huddle them together in schools? Some may have masks. Some may not. It’s a recipe for disaster.

You can read the rest or give it a listen, but his answer to the first question tells you most of what you need to know. Hospitals around the state have been facing a similar crisis. I keep harping on this because it needs to be harped on, as we have a governor who can’t follow his own dictum about “responsible behavior”, a felonious Attorney General who’s soliciting snitches so he can go after rogue mask mandates, and a Legislature that wants to ban mask mandates forever. This is what we’re up against.

I don’t know if I’d call this “good news”, but the projections say we can see the beginning of the end from here.

While hospitalization numbers are nearing the heights they reached during the state’s most fatal surge in January, public health projections indicate that the latest wave will result in fewer deaths — mostly because senior citizens are widely vaccinated and hospital patients are now much younger. Still, state health officials are preparing for the worst, preemptively ordering a fleet of five mortuary trailers from the federal government in case infections spiral.

Public health experts still expect at least some increase in coronavirus deaths over the coming weeks, as fatalities are a lagging indicator — cases rise first, then hospitalizations, then intensive care usage, then deaths.

Now, the state is averaging about 100 daily deaths, a number not expected to exceed 150 over the next month before tapering off. That’s nowhere near the 350 COVID deaths per day that the state saw in January.

“We’ll go up some, but again, not to the levels that we saw back in January,” said Dr. David Lakey, the vice chancellor for health affairs and chief medical officer at the University of Texas system, referencing the forecasts.

Still, the precipitous rise in hospitalizations is a cause for concern. More than 12,000 Texans were in the hospital with the virus on Wednesday, with dozens of Texas hospitals running out of ICU beds (during the winter surge, hospitalizations peaked at just over 14,000). Patients are younger than they were in the first two waves of the virus, and almost everyone facing severe illness is unvaccinated.

[…]

Projection models following Texas’ daily COVID case and hospitalization counts anticipate a rise in deaths in the near future. By mid-September, a model offered by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that the Lone Star State will see about 790 deaths per week, or roughly 113 per day.

Another model, produced by researchers at the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington, projects about 125 deaths per day by mid-September in a worst-case scenario. In both forecasts, it appears that the state has already seen the brunt of its COVID deaths.

That’s largely because the vast majority of Texas’ over-65 population — those most vulnerable to the coronavirus — have received at least one dose of the vaccine, experts said.

“Those that were most at risk of having severe disease have some protection, and that’s good protection because of the vaccine,” Lakey said.

While a spike in hospitalizations and ICU bed usage does portend fatalities, the relationship between those data points will be less “linear” during the third wave, he said. It remains to be seen whether young patients will have other, long-term side effects of the virus — what some are calling “long COVID.”

Deaths will also decrease as more people become vaccinated or recover from the illness, said Dr. Ali Mokdad, a professor of health metric science at the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation. The institute’s researchers estimate that about 74 percent of Texans will be immune to the delta variant, either through infection or vaccination, by Dec. 1.

“The virus is running out of people to infect,” he said.

The forecasts should not be interpreted as an assured outcome, though. Public buy-in on safety precautions, including mask-wearing, will ultimately determine the trajectory of the third wave.

In other words, don’t expect a best-case outcome, because we’re not allowed to do the things we need to do to make this less awful. Note also that while extensive vaccinations among older folks will help to limit fatalities, there will still be an excess of deaths in the coming weeks because of the overfilled hospitals – people with other serious conditions will die as a result, as was the case in the previous waves. Now is a very bad time to have a heart attack or be in a car crash.

At least there is a rise in the rate of people getting vaccinated, now that the threat is so much higher. Some of that is the result of mandates and restrictions on unvaccinated people, some is due to pressures and enticements from employers, and some is due to straight up financial rewards. Whatever it takes, whatever it takes.

The abortion ban chaos is coming

It’s already ugly.

Right there with them

The National Abortion Federation has told doctors in Texas it will stop referring patients and sending money to clinics that offer abortions after about six weeks of pregnancy.

In North Texas, the Texas Equal Action Fund will likely “pause” its ride share program that helps women reach abortion appointments.

Dr. Bhavik Kumar, an abortion provider for Planned Parenthood, has cleared his schedule to fit in as many patients as he can before the end of the month.

And online, the group Texas Right to Life has launched a website for whistleblowers who want to potentially help sue Kumar and doctors just like him, beginning Sept. 1.

With only days left until the country’s first six-week abortion ban rolls out in Texas, abortion clinics and their supporters are bracing for a virtual shutdown of legal access to the procedure, at least for several weeks. Some clinics in the state are preparing not only to abide by the new guidelines, but to go beyond them, shuttering their abortion offerings entirely.

“This law is senseless, it’s not in the best interest of the people of Texas,” said Kumar. “But it is the law, and if it passes, we have to comply.”

What unfolds over the coming weeks could have broad ripple effects. Even a brief pause in access in Texas, the second most populous state, could affect thousands of pregnant women and encourage similar laws across much of the South and Midwest, where abortion care is already limited.

[…]

“I have one physician who’s for sure willing to provide abortions and comply with S.B. 8,” said Amy Hagstrom Miller, the chief executive of Whole Woman’s Health. “But the rest of my 16 physicians are still trying to figure out where their risks stop and start, and if they’re willing to provide.”

There is a lawsuit against the “heartbeat” law, but I presume there won’t be any action on it until right around September 1, when the law begins to take effect. There’s also no particular reason to believe that the law will get put on hold, given the nature of the Fifth Circuit. We could moot laws like this via federal legislation, but if we can’t get a voting rights bill passed due to the filibuster, then there’s no reason to think other things that are not able to be shoved through the reconciliation process will get passed, either. I do believe that at some point there will be a way to go on offense against this sort of atrocity, but I don’t know when that may happen. In the meantime, it’s the same prescription as it’s ever been: We need to win more elections, and now that laws like this are in place that bar is even higher, because now we have to repeal existing laws and not just block new ones. It’s a crap job, but we have no other choice.

It’s a bad time to go to a rural hospital

Only gonna get worse, too, at least in the short term.

For the past week, Brooke Hale has been told “no” about 80 times a day. The executive assistant at Altus Lumberton Hospital has spent her shifts on the phone in a windowless office, repeatedly asking other facilities within an 800-mile radius the same question: Can you take one of our critical COVID-19 patients?

On Thursday, there were three. They needed intensive care, and without it they could die. Hale tried hospitals in Texarkana and Tyler, Lubbock and Lufkin, Oklahoma, Louisiana and Mississippi. None had room.

“I feel helpless,” Hale said through her green N95 mask. “I feel like I can’t help patients like I need to.”

The same scene is being repeated throughout Southeast Texas, as rural hospitals and freestanding emergency rooms are scrambling to send critical patients to other regions and states because Houston medical centers, full with COVID-19 patients, refuse to accept transfers.

For small facilities, what once was a routine transport to local hospitals has become a frantic process of cold calling and cajoling health care providers in hopes of securing an open bed. In the meantime, patients who must receive intensive care languish in places that are unable to provide it.

By Thursday afternoon, 543 patients in the 25-county hospital region anchored by Houston were waiting for staffed hospital beds, according to the SouthEast Texas Regional Advisory Council; 62 more waited to be admitted to an ICU. The gridlock also extends to ambulance crews, who wait longer outside of crowded ERs to admit patients.

And health officials predict the region’s COVID-19 hospitalizations, which have grown for three straight weeks to more than 2,500, will swell further through August.

The result is a strained health care system that is more dangerous for anyone in need of acute care, from a critically ill COVID-19 patient to a car accident victim who requires surgery. And like last summer’s surge, researchers fear this wave will bring an increase in non-COVID deaths, attributable to delays in care caused by the pandemic.

“Typically, it takes less than an hour to find a bed,” said Dr. Swapan Dubey, chief medical officer at Texas Emergency Care Center, which has two Houston-area freestanding ERs. “Nowadays in my own centers, we’re hearing cases that are taking 30 to even 50 hours.”

I mean, this is the same song we’ve been singing for the past few weeks. We experienced this before, in previous COVID waves, and at least at some level the lesson never took, because here we are again. We know exactly what we need to do to make this better, and we have a much better tool available to us this time with the vaccines, and yet here we are again. I don’t know what else to say, but I do know who to blame, and that’s Greg Abbott. Even in this part of the state, which includes some of the reddest counties around, we need to make more people see it that way, too.

Census data is out

Get ready, there’s about to be a whole lot more legislative activity.

Setting the stage for what is expected to be a bruising battle over political representation, the results of the 2020 census released Thursday showed that Texas’ explosive growth over the past decade was again powered by people of color.

And it is the state’s cities and suburbs that are booming, with Texas home to three of the country’s 10 largest cities and four of the fastest-growing.

Texas gained the most residents of any state since 2010, and its Hispanic population is now nearly as large as the non-Hispanic white population, with just half a percentage point separating them. Texas gained nearly 11 Hispanic residents for every additional white resident since 2010.

Texans of color accounted for 95% of the state’s population growth. The 2020 census puts the state’s population at 29,145,505 — a 16% jump from 25.1 million in 2010. Hispanic Texans were responsible for half of that increase.

Non-Hispanic white Texans now make up just 39.8% of the state’s population — down from 45% in 2010. Meanwhile, the share of Hispanic Texans has grown to 39.3%.

The Hispanic population’s approach to becoming Texas’ largest demographic group marks a significant milestone ahead of this year’s redistricting, during which state lawmakers will draw new political maps divvying up seats in Congress and the state House and Senate in what will no doubt be an intense and protracted fight over political control of the state for the next decade.

Texas Republicans hold every lever of power to try to lock in or even expand their majorities at the state Capitol and in Congress. But they will be working to redraw the state’s political maps while confronting the demographic reality that the state is growing in ways that put the party’s stranglehold in question.

[…]

The state’s growth has been concentrated in diverse urban centers that serve as Democratic strongholds and suburban communities, several of which have either already turned blue or are trending in that direction. Since 2010, 44% of the state’s growth took place in its five largest counties — Harris, Dallas, Tarrant, Bexar and Travis. All 10 of the state’s fastest-growing counties in the last decade were suburban.

Hays County — between Austin and San Antonio — experienced the most growth, doubling its population in the last decade.

You can click over and look at the charts and the interactive map, but the key to all this is the growth in the cities and suburbs, which have been the drivers of Democratic strength as well. I have no doubt the Republicans will have some tricks up their sleeves, but this is the big challenge for them. Remember, even as 2020 is cast as a Democratic failure for not gaining more seats, the map went from 95-55 in 2012, with a lot of stability over the first three elections of the decade, to a big shift in 2018 and a realistic vision of Democratic control, even if that turned out to be illusory.

I’ve said before, I don’t know yet what the Republicans’ risk appetite will be. The more they are comfortable with drawing themselves 53-47 districts instead of 60-40 districts, the more seats they can draw for themselves. The downside to that strategy is obvious, but that’s the decision they have to make.

Meanwhile, Houston did some growing this past decade as well.

Houston’s population grew nearly 10 percent in the last decade, fueled by large gains in the number of Latino and Asian residents that will shape the political future of Texas for years to come.

With 2,304,580 residents as of April 1, 2020, Houston remains the fourth-largest city, still lagging behind Chicago’s 2,746,388, according to 2020 census data released Thursday after a grueling, unprecedented effort to collect comprehensive data on the nation’s population in the midst of a global pandemic.

Houston’s 9.8 percent growth rate from 2,099,451 residents in 2010, however, was only second only to Phoenix’s 11.2 percent among the top 10 largest cities in the U.S. The Bayou City was also second in terms of raw population growth, adding 205,129 residents in the last decade. Only New York City ranked higher, adding 629,057 people.

One of the only areas in the region that shrank was the white population. Notably, Houston’s white population fell about 30 percent in the last decade, from 1,060,492 people in 2010 to 739,873 in 2020. The decline was smaller —5 percent — in Harris County as a whole.

“There’s a net out-migration of non-Hispanic whites from urban cores like Houston and Dallas and moving out into suburban rings, and at the same time you have this international migration occurring, and a lot of that is going to be people who are Hispanic and also Asian,” Texas Demographer Lloyd Potter said.

The story didn’t cite numbers for Harris County, but the map in that Trib piece tells me that it increased by 15.6%, from just under 4.1 million to over 4.7 million. Among other things, we will see if Harris County gets its 25th legislative seat back. We will have some answers soon:

T-minus 18 days and counting. The San Antonio Report has more.

Fort Bend joins the lawsuit parade

Come on in, the water’s fine.

As the Delta variant drives a pandemic surge, Fort Bend County officials on Wednesday filed a lawsuit against Gov. Greg Abbott’s executive order banning local government from implementing public health mandates.

“I’ll do all I can to protect the public health, and the people of Fort Bend County,” Judge KP George tweeted. “I hope others will join me in following the science and listening to local doctors and the CDC to act swiftly and decisively.”

The county filed a lawsuit in district court requesting a temporary restraining order to challenge the Republican governor’s order. George, a Democrat, and other county leaders had scheduled a news conference for Wednesday afternoon.

County commissioners met in a closed special session at 3 p.m. Wednesday to deliberate with an attorney and discuss potential responses to rising COVID-19 infections, according to the meeting agenda.

The story has no further detail, so I will just assume this is along similar lines as the others so far.

We now have our first official response from the powers that be, and as one might expect, it’s arrogant and jerky.

Attorney General Ken Paxton said Wednesday he plans to appeal a pair of rulings by judges in Dallas and San Antonio that allow local officials in those cities to issue mask mandates, with possible decisions from the Texas Supreme Court by the end of the week.

The temporary rulings override Gov. Greg Abbott’s May executive order that bars local officials from requiring face coverings. They came in response to legal challenges from top elected officials in the Dallas and San Antonio areas, who argued Abbott overstepped his emergency powers by preventing the local mandates. The rulings also pointed to a rapid ongoing rise in COVID hospitalizations across the state, particularly in large cities.

Paxton said Wednesday he expects a quick ruling in his favor from the state’s top civil court.

“I’m hopeful by the end of the week or at least early next week we’ll have a response from the Texas Supreme Court,” Paxton told conservative radio host Dana Loesch. “I’m going to tell you right now, I’m pretty confident we’re going to win that.”

[…]

Paxton argued on the talk show Wednesday that the Texas Legislature had granted Abbott the power to ban local COVID restrictions, including mask mandates, through the sweeping Texas Disaster Act of 1975. He also downplayed the early court win by Jenkins.

“The reality is, he’s going to lose,” Paxton said. “He may get a liberal judge in Dallas County to rule in his favor, but ultimately I think we have a Texas Supreme Court that will follow the law. They have in the past.”

We’ll see about that. For what it’s worth, there was one Republican district court judge in Fort Bend who wasn’t challenged in 2018, so there’s at least a chance that he could preside over this case. The crux of the argument here is that it’s Greg Abbott who isn’t following the law. I agree with Paxton that the Supreme Court is going to be very inclined to see it Abbott’s way, but I’d like to think they’ll at least take the plaintiffs’ arguments into account.

Later in the day, we got the first words from Abbott as well.

“The rebellion is spreading across the state,” Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff said.

Abbott — under intense pressure from some on his right to hold the line against local officials who want to require masks — now is trying to quell that rebellion.

Hours after Jenkins signed his mandate, Abbott and Attorney General Ken Paxton announced they would go to court to block Dallas County’s top official — asking the 5th Court of Appeals to overturn the state district judge’s decision that allowed Jenkins to move forward. The two men threatened to sue any government official who defies Abbott’s order.

“The path forward relies on personal responsibility — not government mandates,” Abbott said in a statement.

Yeah, that’s what has gotten us to this situation in the first place. I will confess that I’m surprised it has taken this long for Abbott to speak up. He’s never been shy about quashing dissent, and as this story notes the right wing scream machine has been fulminating about his lack of action. Those days are clearly now over.

We got another peek at the state’s response in this story about the larger revolt by cities and school districts against Abbott’s mask mandate ban.

At a hearing Tuesday afternoon before state District Judge Antonia “Toni” Arteaga, a city attorney argued that Abbott had exceeded the bounds of the Texas Disaster Act of 1975, which the governor cited in suspending local authority to impose COVID restrictions.

“The Texas Legislature has given cities and counties broad authority within the Texas Health and Safety Act,” said Assistant City Attorney Bill Christian. “Only the Legislature has the authority to suspend laws.”

Kimberly Gdula, a lawyer with the Texas Attorney General’s Office, pointed to an appellate court ruling last November that upheld Abbott’s ban on local business restrictions. She also argued that the city and county were asking the court to improperly “throw out” parts of the Disaster Act.

Interesting, but I don’t know how to evaluate it. When there are some actual opinions and not just temporary restraining orders pending the injunction hearings, we’ll know more.

It’s possible there may be another avenue to explore in all this.

President Joe Biden says the White House is “checking” on whether he has the power to intervene in states like Texas where Republican leaders have banned mask mandates.

Asked whether he has the power to step in, Biden responded: “I don’t believe that I do thus far. We’re checking that.”

“I think that people should understand, seeing little kids — I mean, four, five, six years old — in hospitals, on ventilators, and some of them passing — not many, but some of them passing — it’s almost, I mean, it’s just — well, I should not characterize beyond that,” Biden said.

[…]

White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said Wednesday the administration is “looking into ways we can help the leaders at the local level who are putting public health first continue to do their jobs.” She said those include efforts to “keep students safe and keep students in school” and that the U.S. Department of Education “and others” are working on it.

Insert shrug emoji here. I don’t know what this might look like, but I believe they will be creative in looking for a possible point of leverage.

Finally, on a side note, Fort Worth ISD implemented a mask mandate on Tuesday. We are still waiting for HISD to vote on the request by Superintendent Millard House to implement one for our district. The Board meeting is today, I expect this to be done with little fuss from the trustees.

Abbott flails about on the COVID surge

He remains committed to the bit.

Gov. Greg Abbott announced new moves Monday to fight the coronavirus pandemic as it rages again in Texas, including asking hospitals to again put off certain elective procedures to free up space for COVID-19 patients.

Still, the governor did not back down on his refusal to institute any new statewide restrictions on businesses or to let local governments and schools mandate masks or vaccines.

Instead, Abbott announced he had written to the Texas Hospital Association asking hospitals to “voluntarily postpone medical procedures for which delay will not result in loss of life or a deterioration in the patient’s condition.” As coronavirus was consuming the state last summer, Abbott took a more restrictive approach and banned elective surgeries in over 100 counties before ending the prohibition in September.

Abbott also announced Monday he was asking state agencies to open additional COVID-19 antibody infusion centers that aim to treat COVID-19 patients with therapeutic drugs and keep them from requiring hospitalization. And he said the Department of State Health Services “will be utilizing staffing agencies to provide medical personnel from out-of-state to Texas health care facilities to assist in COVID-19 operations.”

That is a reversal for the state. In July, the state told cities and counties it would not send additional health care workers to aid hospitals with the latest surge of COVID-19 patients, like it had earlier in the pandemic. Instead, state officials said, city and county leaders should dip into $10.5 billion worth of federal stimulus dollars to pay for those workers should hospitals need them.

[…]

As part of Monday’s announcement, Abbott’s office said he was directing state agencies to “increase vaccination availability across the state” but did not provide further details.

“Texans can help bolster our efforts by getting vaccinated against COVID-19,” Abbott said in the news release. “The COVID-19 vaccine is safe and effective, and it is our best defense against this virus.”

Well, some hospitals had already taken the step of halting elective procedures, so way to be out in front on that, bro. Part of this “plan” includes recruiting more nurses from out of state to help us with the shortage we are now experiencing. I presume this means he’ll be trying to lure them from states that have COVID under a greater degree of control, probably places where the Governors in question made an actual effort to get people vaccinated and didn’t kneecap local leaders’ attempts to keep their people safe. I have no idea why any of them would want to come here now, but God bless ’em if they do. I guess we should be thankful that Abbott is doing something other than literally fiddling while the state burns, but color me a little too grumpy to care about such crumbs.

Overflow COVID tents

This is fine.

Harris Health System’s intensive care units are nearly full as the delta variant sends more COVID-19 patients into hospitals, prompting the safety-net health system for the county’s indigent communities to construct tents for triaging patients.

As of Monday afternoon, Lyndon B. Johnson Hospital’s ICU was 100 percent full, and 63 percent of patients were being treated for COVID-19 complications. Ben Taub Hospital’s ICU was 95 percent full, with 27 percent of patients sickened by the virus.

“The trend line is vertical,” said Bryan McLeod, a spokesperson for Harris Health.

The tents apparent outside the hospital in northeast Houston could be used for COVID-19 overflow patients, but officials may also choose to use it for patients who come in with other illnesses. Last summer, they were used to diagnose coronavirus cases, McLeod said.

This year, they may just be used to treat non-COVID patients, or those with less severe infections. Staff are still installing operational and diagnostic equipment in the overflow area, which will take patients from the emergency room.

While LBJ is the only hospital currently using such tents, Memorial Hermann is creating additional space for overflow patients by converting beds in their pre- and post-anesthesia units into ICU beds.

[…]

Statewide, hospitalizations have been increasing rapidly; on Saturday 9,462 people were hospitalized, an increase of 30 percent over the previous Saturday, according to the Texas Department of State Health Services. This weekend’s hospitalization figures were the highest Texas has seen since Feb. 6.

Not just in Houston.

Dozens of Texas hospitals have run out of intensive care unit beds as COVID-19 surges faster than any other time during the pandemic, propelled by the new delta variant.

The state is divided into 22 trauma service areas, and half of them reported 10 or fewer available ICU beds on Sunday. As more than 9,400 COVID-19 patients fill the state’s ICUs, which are reserved for the patients who are the sickest or most injured, the trauma service area that includes Laredo reported no available ICU beds, while the area that includes Abilene reported having one.

At least 53 Texas hospitals have no available ICU capacity, according to numbers reported to the federal government during the week ending Aug. 5. In Austin, five hospitals were at or above 90% of their ICU capacity during the same period, with two reporting no available ICU beds.

“This surge is by far the fastest and most aggressive that we’ve seen. Almost all of our hospitalizations are due to unvaccinated patients developing severe illness,” Dr. Desmar Walkes, Austin-Travis County’s health authority, told reporters last week. “ICU staff are seeing a younger population in our hospitals. Patients in the ICU are sicker and stay in the hospital longer than with prior surges, putting more strain on hospital resources.”

Around 87.1% of all hospital beds in Texas are in use — the highest level since the start of the pandemic — with 14.1% of those beds occupied by COVID-19 patients. When Gov. Greg Abbott began to relax some COVID-19 restrictions on businesses in October, his order maintained reduced restaurant capacity and kept bars closed in regions in which 15% or more of hospital beds were filled with COVID-19 patients.

This week, COVID-19 hospitalizations reached higher levels across the state than when Abbott imposed a statewide mask mandate in July 2020. Abbott has maintained that he will not be reviving the mask mandate and has barred local authorities from issuing their own.

No, really, NBD.

More than 10,000 Texans are hospitalized for COVID-19, according to data released by the Texas Department of State Health Services Tuesday afternoon.

According to Tuesday’s report, 10,041 people were hospitalized with COVID-19 across the state of Texas on Monday, the highest rate since Feb. 4, as the delta variant continues to dominate new COVID-19 infections.

[…]

Monday’s figure represents a 37 percent increase over the number of hospitalizations one week prior.

But don’t worry, Abbott has asked for more nurses to move to Texas, so we’re going to be fine. Really, what more do you need him to do?

A timeline of the blackout

Of interest.

A new report from University of Texas at Austin energy experts lays much of the blame for power outages during the state’s deadly February freeze on the failure of natural gas producers to fully weatherize their facilities.”

The natural gas system could not meet demand,” the authors of the 101-page study wrote. “The production losses stemmed principally from freeze-offs, icy roads and electric outages to the equipment used in the natural gas industry.”

UT issued the study Tuesday, the same day the state’s health department revised its official death toll from the disaster, raising it to 210 from 151. However, at least one data-driven report suggests the actual number may exceed 700.

[…]

For the study, UT researchers looked at the performance of 27 natural gas facilities during the freeze and found that as temperatures dropped, the operators’ pipelines and equipment ceased to function, resulting in an 85% falloff when power companies needed the fuel.

Indeed, 18 of the natural gas facilities it studied had “zero output” on February 17, the peak of the storm.

In addition to their human cost, the failures resulted in massive charges for the state’s power generators, according to the report. CPS Energy, for example, tallied losses on natural gas fuel purchases of as much as $850 million, and losses on purchased power costs of as much as $250 million.

The 101 page report is here. Neither of us is likely to read through the whole thing, but the Findings section of the Executive Summary give you the main points:

The failure of the electricity and natural gas systems serving Texas before and during Winter Storm Uri in February 2021 had no single cause. While the 2021 storm did not set records for the lowest recorded temperatures in many parts of the state, it caused generation outages and a loss of electricity service to Texas customers several times more severe than winter events leading to electric service disruptions in December 1989 and February 2011. The 2021 event exceeded prior events with respect to both the number and capacity of generation unit outages, the maximum load shed (power demand reduction) and number of customers affected, the lowest experienced grid frequency (indicating a high level of grid instability), the amount of natural gas generation experiencing fuel shortages, and the duration of electric grid operations under emergency conditions associated with load shed and blackout for customers. The financial ramifications of the 2021 event are in the billions of dollars, likely orders of magnitude larger than the financial impacts of the 1989 and 2011 blackouts.

Factors contributing to the electricity blackouts of February 15-18, 2021, include the following:

  • All types of generation technologies failed. All types of power plants were impacted by the winter storm. Certain power plants within each category of technologies (natural gas-fired power plants, coal power plants, nuclear reactors, wind generation, and solar generation facilities) failed to operate at their expected electricity generation output levels.
  • Demand forecasts for severe winter storms were too low. ERCOT’s most extreme winter scenario underestimated demand relative to what actually happened by about 9,600 MW, about 14%.
  • Weather forecasts failed to appreciate the severity of the storm. Weather models were unable to accurately forecast the timing (within one to two days) and severity of extreme cold weather, including that from a polar vortex.
  • Planned generator outages were high, but not much higher than assumed in planning scenarios. Total planned outage capacity was about 4,930 MW, or about 900 MW higher than in ERCOT’s “Forecasted Season Peak Load” scenario.
  • Grid conditions deteriorated rapidly early in February 15 leading to blackouts. So much power plant capacity was lost relative to the record electricity demand that ERCOT was forced to shed load to avoid a catastrophic failure. From noon on February 14 to noon on February 15, the amount of offline wind capacity increased from 14,600 MW to 18,300 MW (+3,700 MW).2 Offline natural gas capacity increased from 12,000 MW to 25,000 MW (+13,000 MW). Offline coal capacity increased from 1,500 MW to 4,500 MW (+3,000 MW). Offline nuclear capacity increased from 0 MW to 1,300 MW, and offline solar capacity increased from 500 MW to 1100 MW (+600 MW), for a total loss of 24,600 MW in a single 24-hour period.
  • Power plants listed a wide variety of reasons for going offline throughout the event. 3 Reasons for power plant failures include “weather-related” issues (30,000 MW, ~167 units), “equipment issues” (5,600 MW, 146 units), “fuel limitations” (6,700 MW, 131 units), “transmission and substation outages” (1,900 MW, 18 units), and “frequency issues” (1,800 MW, 8 units). 4
  • Some power generators were inadequately weatherized; they reported a level of winter preparedness that turned out to be inadequate to the actual conditions experienced. The outage, or derating, of several power plants occurred at temperatures above their stated minimum temperature ratings.
  • Failures within the natural gas system exacerbated electricity problems. Natural gas production, storage, and distribution facilities failed to provide the full amount of fuel demanded by natural gas power plants. Failures included direct freezing of natural gas equipment and failing to inform their electric utilities of critical electrically-driven components. Dry gas production dropped 85% from early February to February 16, with up to 2/3 of processing plants in the Permian Basin experiencing an outage.5
  • Failures within the natural gas system began prior to electrical outages. Days before ERCOT called for blackouts, natural gas was already being curtailed to some natural gas consumers, including power plants.
  • Some critical natural gas infrastructure was enrolled in ERCOT’s emergency response program. Data from market participants indicates that 67 locations (meters) were in both the generator fuel supply chain and enrolled in ERCOT’s voluntary Emergency Response Service program (ERS), which would have cut power to them when those programs were called upon on February 15. At least five locations that later identified themselves to the electric utility as critical natural gas infrastructure were enrolled in the ERS program.
  • Natural gas in storage was limited. Underground natural gas storage facilities were operating at maximum withdrawal rates and reached unprecedently-low levels of working gas, indicating that the storage system was pushed to its maximum capability.

The ERCOT system operator managed to avoid a catastrophic failure of the electric grid despite the loss of almost half of its generation capacity, including some black start units that would have been needed to jump-start the grid had it gone into a complete collapse.

Just as a reminder, the grid was not on the first special session agenda, and as of today isn’t on the second session’s agenda. I have heard it suggested that Abbott could add grid items to the agenda, or put them on but near the bottom of the agenda for this special session, to make it harder for the Dems to be away. The main problem with that analysis is that Abbott has been busy telling everyone in sight that the grid has been totally fixed. What’s to put on the agenda if that’s really the case? His problem for now, all of ours the next time the words “rolling blackouts” get mentioned.

There needs to be more defiance of Greg Abbott and his no-mandates mandate

I find a bit of a pattern in this story and wonder if there may be something to it.

School districts, local officials and hospitals are pushing back on Gov. Greg Abbott’s executive order barring mask and vaccine mandates, setting the stage for legal showdowns over coronavirus safety measures just as cases are surging in Texas and hospitals are filling up.

Houston ISD signaled its intention to require face coverings when students return this month. The University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston requested an exemption to mandate COVID-19 vaccinations for staff, but was denied. Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins required face masks at a meeting this week; he’s now being sued.

[…]

Dr. Mark McClellan, who advised Abbott earlier in the pandemic, said local officials need flexibility based on conditions in their area.

“There is evidence that wearing a mask, especially at times of high community transmission which Texas has right now, does help significantly,” said McClellan, former commissioner of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and director of the Duke-Margolis Center for Health Policy at Duke University.

“I appreciate that wearing a mask is inconvenient, I would rather not do it,” he said. “But if there are high rates of transmission in the community I think it’s important for local authorities to have the ability to make a decision that works best for their students and their population.”

Early last year, Abbott said he would rely on data and doctors in making decisions to promote public health. McClellan was one of Abbott’s four original medical advisors, but is no longer playing that role.

Abbott has remained in regular contact with one of the original advisors, Department of State Health Services head Dr. John Hellerstedt, since the beginning of the pandemic, according to spokeswoman Renae Eze. Hellerstedt did not answer questions about whether he agreed with Abbott’s executive order.

[…]

It remains to be seen whether other school districts follow suit in defying Abbott’s order. El Paso officials wrote to Abbott this week urging him to give school districts a choice in whether to require masks or not. Dallas ISD did not respond to a request for comment.

Violations of Abbott’s order can result in a fine of up to $1,000. Georgina Pérez, a State Board of Education member from El Paso, volunteered to raise money to help pay fines for school districts that defy the governor’s order by mandating masks.

“Knowingly not protecting children from harm goes against everything that teachers stand for,” she said.

Abbott’s office did not immediately respond to questions about whether any fines have been levied to date. Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner has faced no pushback since he told the city’s roughly 20,000 workers on Monday to resume wearing masks at work, according to a spokesperson.

[…]

Some institutions that sought exemptions from Abbott’s order have been rejected. The latest version blocks a wide swath of government entities, including cities, counties, universities and publicly funded hospitals, from requiring staff get the vaccine while full FDA approval is pending.

The University of Texas Medical Branch would want to require vaccination of its frontline clinical staff and requested an exemption, but was told to abide by the governor’s order, according to Dr. Janak A. Patel, director of the Department of Infection Control & Healthcare Epidemiology.

Dr. John Zerwas, the UT system’s vice chancellor for health affairs, raised the exemption request with Abbott recently, who was not willing to change his position, he said.

Parkland Hospital, a publicly funded organization that falls under Abbott’s order, plans to require its employees get vaccinated as soon as the FDA fully approves the shot. In anticipation, Parkland alerted staff this week that the first dose will be required by Sept. 24 and the second — or single Johnson & Johnson dose — by Oct. 15. Approximately 71% of staff are already vaccinated against COVID-19.

“These steps are necessary to protect Parkland’s complex patient population who, due to their socio-economic status, often have no choice in where they receive care,” said Michael Malaise, senior vice president of communications and external relations for Parkland, in an email.

The main thing I notice is that for the most part, the entities that have just gone ahead and done the thing they wanted to do that was in violation of Abbott’s executive orders have – so far – not received any pushback for doing so. The exception is Dallas County Commissioners Court, which got a stern letter from Ken Paxton after barring one of the commissioners from entering without a mask, but even that letter didn’t spell out any particular actions Paxton would take. The difference between UT Medical Branch hospital and Parkland Hospital is particularly instructive. Moreover, even if a cease-and-desist letter or some other legal action comes down on Parkland, by the time the dust settles they probably will have gotten some number of previously unvaxxed employees to get their shots, and that’s all that matters.

So, my advice to El Paso ISD and austin ISD, which may be considering its own mask mandate, is to just do it. Mask mandates are something that a lot of parents want, especially parents of medically fragile children or who have immunocompromised family members at home, and especially given the limited remote learning opportunities that exist now. The thousand-dollar fine, which doesn’t appear to have a clear mechanism for enforcement, isn’t very much even if it’s a thousand dollars a day, and that may be challenged in court on the grounds that it is discriminatory against students with health issues. But really, it’s the right thing to do, and maybe – just maybe – Abbott has gotten out a bit over his skis here. For sure, asking is going to get you nowhere. Take action and take it now, if all else fails it should be something that can be taken back. Do what you must to protect the kids.

UPDATE: Someone agrees with me:

Who favors a vaccine mandate?

A lot of people, apparently. Don’t expect it to make much difference, though.

Most Texans support measures requiring all eligible people to get vaccinated against COVID-19, according to a recent survey.

More than 65 percent of Texans said they would support vaccine mandates issued by federal, state or local governments; the national average was 64 percent. More than 70 percent of Texans would support vaccine requirements to board an airplane; more than 62 percent would support vaccine mandates for children returning to schools; and 67 percent would support them for students returning to universities.

The findings come as some private businesses begin requiring vaccines, but government leaders have resisted such mandates as they’ve struggled to convince large numbers of Americans to get vaccinated, even as the more contagious delta variant spreads. Less than 53 percent of Texans are fully vaccinated, according to state data.

President Joe Biden last week announced that federal workers will have to sign forms attesting they’ve been vaccinated or else be required to wear masks, take weekly tests and more.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, meanwhile, issued an executive order last week barring local governments from limiting the capacity of restaurants and other businesses or requiring facial coverings, even if they are located in a hospital region with a high level of COVID-19 patients.

Abbott and other Texas Republicans have vocally opposed the idea of mandating vaccines.

The national poll was conducted in June and July by the COVID States Project, a group of researchers at Northeastern University, Harvard University, Rutgers University and Northwestern University. It included a survey of 707 Texans and findings in the state carried a margin of error of 4.7 percentage points.

The survey found Americans strongly support vaccine mandates, but there big gaps between Democrats and Republicans, and urban and rural residents.

The poll is here, and here’s the description: “Between June 9and July 7,2021, we surveyed 20,669 individuals across all 50 states plus the District of Columbia. The survey was conducted by PureSpectrum via an online, nonprobability sample, with state-level representative quotas for race/ethnicity, age, and gender (for methodological details on the other waves, see covidstates.org). In addition to balancing on these dimensions, we reweighted our data using demographic characteristics to match the U.S. population with respect to race/ethnicity, age, gender, education, and living in urban, suburban, or rural areas. This was the latest in a series of surveys we have been conducting since April 2020, examining attitudes and behaviors regarding COVID-19 in the United States.” In other words, a poll of adults, not registered voters, which tends to produce results more favorable to my preferred position. There was greater support, overall and in Texas, for requiring a vaccine to get on a plane, and varying levels for requiring a vaccine to go to school or college.

Like I said, I don’t know how much difference this makes. There are mandates of varying aggressiveness going out now for federal employees, some big private companies like WalMart and Disney, and some hospital systems here in Houston. I think a mandate for getting on an airplane is doable, and I hope that happens in the next week or so. Beyond that, it’s hard to say. It’s incredibly crappy that our malevolent governor refuses to let local governments mandate it for their employees, but maybe more private companies will step up. And hopefully soon we’ll get the final FDA approval, as well as initial approval for kids under the age of 12. Vax numbers are trending up a bit nationally now, especially in the hardest-hit states as some of the holdouts there are starting to get the message. It’s not fast enough and of course we never should have been in this position in the first place, but it’s better than what had been happening before. It’s going to be a rough month or two, so hold on and stay safe. Vox has more.

The data for the “fourth wave” looks so, so bad

Yikes.

Fueled by the delta variant, a surge in Houston COVID-19 hospitalizations is growing as fast as at any time during the pandemic so far, and is projected to pass previous records by mid-August — even though roughly half of all eligible Houstonians are fully vaccinated.

“We’re heading into dark times,” said Texas Medical Center CEO Bill McKeon. Already, he said, “our ICUs are filled with unvaccinated people.”

On Tuesday, Texas Medical Center hospitals listed 1,372 people in intensive care — more than the number of regular ICU beds. The hospitals are now in Phase II of the medical center’s surge plan, opening unused wards to accommodate the gravely ill patients expected to need them.

The Texas Department of State Health Services reported 7,305 people were hospitalized statewide for COVID-19 as of Tuesday — more than four times as many as on July 1, and a 38 percent increase over last Tuesday’s figure.

Estimates by the UT-Austin COVID-19 Modeling Consortium suggest that all regions across Texas will face surges larger than anything seen so far.

In the Houston area, the previous record for COVID hospitalizations was 2,927 people on Jan. 8. The consortium’s latest model predicts that record will be broken Aug. 8. The previous record for ICU patients — 947, set July 18, 2020 — is predicted to be broken Aug. 15.

Even more alarmingly, the surge isn’t predicted to level off there, but to keep climbing sharply. By the end of August, the consortium forecasts that roughly 2,000 people will be in Houston ICUs — double the previous high.

“It’s really scary,” said Spencer Fox, associate director of the modeling project. “I’m worried about the next few weeks. It’s so clear in the data: We’re in the midst of a very severe surge.”

Houston Methodist CEO Marc Boom described “a perfect storm”: the combination of Texas’ large number of unvaccinated people, the rampaging delta variant, and the recent relaxation of preventive measures such as masking and social distancing.

I’m at a loss for words and have wrung out just about all of my outrage. So I’m just going to leave this here:

If only Greg Abbott would listen to his own Department of State Health Services. I wonder what it’s like to live in a state that has a Governor that isn’t actively trying to harm its residents.

One more thing:

White Linen Night is back — well, sort of.

In lieu of official festivities, a group of Heights business owners have gotten together to host “Late Night on 19th Street” this Saturday. The good news is there will still be plenty of live music, pop-up vendors, artisans and white linen. The bad news is there will not be street closures, so plan accordingly.

Celebrations — geared toward supporting small, local businesses — are slated to run Aug. 7 from 5-7 p.m. between the 200-300 on Heights’ historic 19th Street.

Manready Mercantile owner Travis Weaver suggests bringing water, sunscreen, a bandana, portable cooler and potentially an umbrella.

“It never hurts to be prepared,” he said via statement. “If you don’t have any white linen, anything white will do. Don’t forget comfy shoes!”

How about “And don’t forget a mask! And for Christ’s sake don’t bother to show up if you and your entire party aren’t fully vaccinated!” I’m just saying.

Our eroding reputation as a good place to do business

If we don’t have that, what do we have?

Veteran Waco economist Ray Perryman is used to seeing an annual parade of best for business rankings that put Texas at the top.

Those rankings shape perceptions about the state’s business climate — a longtime selling point touted by politicians and economic development specialists alike.

That’s why Perryman finds one recent ranking “eerily disturbing.”

Texas fell to fourth in business news network CNBC’s annual ranking of best states for business, dropping two spots from its 2019 ranking. Virginia, North Carolina and Utah beat out Texas. The network didn’t do a 2020 ranking because of the pandemic.

So what led to Texas’ decline?

Look no further than the Lone Star State’s 49th place finish — ahead of only Arizona — in CNBC’s expanded category called life, health and inclusion. This year, that category included inclusiveness initiatives, health care resources, progress in ending the pandemic and other more traditional quality-of-life measures.

“This ranking is a compelling early warning signal that short-sighted, counterproductive policies risk eroding the progress over the past 30 plus years in building Texas to be the most competitive economy in the country,” said Perryman, president and chief executive officer of The Perryman Group. His firm produces economic estimates of everything from Texas’ epic winter storm to the consequences of Texas and Oklahoma leaving the Big 12 athletic conference.

“It’s an unforced error that the state can ill afford,” he wrote in his weekly column published on his website. The column was titled “This Stuff Matters!

That column is here. As noted, Perryman is the go-to guy for timely economic projections on a variety of subjects. He’s also been a consistent critic of things like our chronic underfunding of education and more recently the various forms of anti-transgender bills, so in a sense this is confirmation of his priors. It also makes sense, especially at a time where it’s cities and diversifying suburbs that are the biggest components of Texas’ economic engine and yet also a constant target of the state government. It’s not crazy to imagine that more people who might otherwise seek high-paying jobs here will be turned off by what Greg Abbott et al are doing. As with polls, this is one data point and you shouldn’t go overboard with it, but it’s worth keeping an eye on.