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The great state of Texas

The march for voting rights

Good work, but it can’t be the end.

Saturday marked the third time in as many months that former U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke has headlined a voting rights rally at the Texas Capitol, as Democrats hope to keep momentum with just a week left before the end of the special session in Austin.

The rally, which drew several thousand attendees, marked the end of a Selma-style march to the state Capitol — a roughly 27-mile journey from Georgetown to Austin that activists split over four days. It was organized by the Poor People’s Campaign, a group inspired by Martin Luther King, Jr.

As demonstrators finished the last leg of their march, they greeted a crowd in front of the Capitol holding signs: “Texas deserves better,” “It’s about us,” “We care, we vote.” They sang along with the performers on the center stage as they belted out the labor movement anthem, “We Shall Not Be Moved.”

“The right time to do right is right now,” the Rev. William J. Barber II, a national civil rights leader who spearheaded the march, repeated throughout the rally.

It culminated with a live performance by Willie Nelson, who sang the classics “Whiskey River” and “Good Hearted Woman.” His set ended with a newer song, “Vote ‘Em Out,” which opens with the line: “If you don’t like who’s in there, vote ‘em out; that’s what Election Day is all about.”

The marchers have demands ranging from a $15 minimum wage to immigration reform, but their most pressing concern is new voting restrictions that have been proposed or passed in GOP-led states. Texas, which already has some of the nation’s strictest laws on voter registration and mail ballots, is among them.

Lots of positive energy came out of this, and I hope it helps to sustain us through the next few weeks, which are going to be tough. But really, what I want to see next are headlines that say things like “Senate Democrats agree to pass voting rights bill that includes redistricting reform and new preclearance requirements”, and “Beto O’Rourke announces his entry into the Texas Governor’s race”. I’m not asking for much here.

We’re #2!

More people have died of COVID in Texas than any other state except California, as Texas surpasses New York’s total.

Texas has passed New York to become the state with the second-most COVID-19 deaths, a feat experts say was driven by an inability to control transmission of the virus here.

Texas reached the milestone Wednesday, hitting 53,275 deaths, despite trailing New York by more than 29,000 fatalities last summer. Since then, though Texas is 54 percent more populous, more than twice as many Texans as New Yorkers have succumbed to COVID-19. California, the most populous state, leads the nation with 64,372 virus deaths.

Spencer Fox, associate director of the University of Texas COVID-19 Modeling Consortium, said he was surprised Texas had not passed New York in mortality sooner, since the northeastern state did a far better job limiting the spread of virus after it endured a horrific surge last spring.

“They enacted really strong, precautionary measures that overall are well based in the available science,” Fox said. “It seems that many of the Texas policies were put in place to try and prevent health care collapse rather than trying to prevent transmission.”

By June 30 of last year, as the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic swept through the United States, New York tallied 31,775 virus deaths. Texas had just 2,481.

While New York City hospitals were pushed to the brink in the spring and the region became a global epicenter of the virus, Texas had kept the virus at bay and begun to ease restrictions.

Over next 13 months, however, the states reversed roles. New York kept restrictions and mask rules in place longer and consistently maintained a lower positivity rate than Texas. In contrast, Texas endured two surges of the virus and is in the early stages of a third, as the Delta variant now sweeps the country as a fourth wave of the virus.

During that time, Texas steadily closed in on New York’s death tally, a Chronicle analysis found.

Another way to put it is this: Since June 30 of last year, 13 months ago, there have been about 51,000 COVID deaths in Texas. (That’s the official count, which as we know is too low for a variety of factors, but it’s what we’re using for comparison purposes.) In that same time period, there have been about 22,000 COVID deaths in New York. Texas, with 54% more people than New York, has had 131% more COVID deaths than New York in that time period. It’s mind-boggling, enraging, tragic, devastating, and all of it can be laid at the doorstep of Greg Abbott.

The rest of the story is a timeline of those past 13 months, the various things that governments in New York and Texas did and didn’t do to deal with the changing infection rates, and so on. New York has been far more restrictive than Texas has, sometimes to the point where its residents complained and experts questioned the risk calculation involved, but the numbers are what they are. New York also has a higher vaccination rate than Texas, so this trend is going to continue, and probably accelerate, in the foreseeable future. Indeed, given how much more vaccinated California is than Texas, we could conceivably catch up to them as well. Not a goal we should want to achieve.

But we’re well on the way, and Texas’ hospitals are bracing for impact.

When Terry Scoggin left work at Titus Regional Medical Center in Mount Pleasant on Tuesday evening, there were five patients at the facility being treated for COVID.

Overnight, six more people suffering severe coronavirus infections were admitted to the rural Northeast Texas hospital — pushing the facility to its capacity limit and putting Scoggin, the hospital’s chief executive, on high alert for what he’s calling “a fourth surge.”

“We’re at it again,” Scoggin said.

That same night, hospitalizations in Bexar County rose by nearly 8%. Almost 100 people were admitted with severe COVID to local facilities on Tuesday alone, Bexar County officials said on Wednesday.

“These numbers are staggering and frightening,” said Eric Epley, CEO of the Southwest Texas Regional Advisory Council for Trauma in San Antonio.

Hospital and health officials across Texas are seeing similar dramatic jumps, straining an already decimated health care system that is starving for workers in the aftermath of previous coronavirus surges.

[…]

Fueled by the highly contagious delta variant of the coronavirus, which is contributing to skyrocketing cases not just in Texas but across the nation, the rising hospitalizations rates have spread outside of the heavily populated metro areas that first began to report increases a few weeks ago. Now they are being seen in all corners of the state, triggering pleas from hospitals for state-backed staffing help to handle the increasing pressure.

Trend forecasters at the University of Texas at Austin’s COVID-19 Modeling Consortium said Wednesday that most regions of the state could see a return within a couple of weeks to the capacity-busting hospitalization rate facilities were experiencing in January — the height of the pandemic — if people don’t resume masking up and social distancing.

In Florida, hospitals are already seeing the numbers of COVID patients exceeding levels they saw during the worst of the pandemic, and consortium researchers told The Texas Tribune that Texas is not far behind.

“We are absolutely on a path to hit a surge as large, if not bigger, than the previous surges right now” said Spencer Fox, associate director at the consortium. “If nothing is done, we’re on a crash course for a very large third wave.”

The situation has caused health officials from both rural and metro areas to plead for more resources from the state.

“On behalf of the 157 rural hospitals across Texas, I am writing to ask you immediately take steps to provide additional medical staffing which we anticipate will be needed in our rural hospitals in short order because of the new COVID surge,” John Henderson, president and CEO of the Texas Organization of Rural and Community Hospitals, wrote in a July 26 letter to Gov. Greg Abbott.

And what was Abbott’s eventual response?

The story is behind their paywall, but the basics of it that I could glean were that the state of Texas is declining to use any COVID stimulus funds to pay for more hospital staff. Instead, the state is directing cities and counties to use their own COVID funds for that. Because we’re all in this together you’re on your own, Jack. And remember, it’s all your fault and will be your fault when more people have died of COVID in Texas than anywhere else in the country.

Greg Abbott will blame you if you get sick

He will take no responsibility at all.

With COVID-19 hospitalizations soaring past 5,000 statewide for the first time in nearly five months, state officials are stepping up vaccination outreach programs and promotional campaigns but Gov. Greg Abbott insists that the state won’t impose any new mandates on Texans.

State officials announced Wednesday that Texas has 5,292 people hospitalized with lab-confirmed COVID-19 — the highest number since March 2, the day Abbott announced he was ending all state mask mandates and restrictions on businesses.

At that time, Abbott called for “personal diligence” and said statewide mandates are no longer needed.

Though 10,000 new COVID infections were reported statewide on Wednesday, the most since February, he has not changed his messaging.

“The time for government mask mandates is over — now is the time for personal responsibility,” Abbott wrote on Twitter on Tuesday. “Every Texan has the right to choose whether they will wear a mask or have their children wear masks.”

His latest comments came as the president of the Texas State Teachers Association publicly called on Abbott to allow schools to require masks, particularly since vaccines have not been approved for children under 12.

“If Gov. Abbott really cares about the health and safety of Texas students, educators and their communities, he will give local school officials and health experts the option of requiring masks in their schools,” Texas State Teachers Association President Ovidia Molina said on Tuesday.

I mean, I think we know the answer to that hypothetical.

Meanwhile, statewide hospitalizations from the virus have doubled in the last two weeks and more than tripled since the start of July, when Abbott re-issued a disaster declaration to deal with COVID-19.

“COVID-19 hospitalizations are rising and new variants of the virus are spreading quickly in our communities,” said Dr. John Hellerstedt, commissioner of the Texas Department of State Health Services in a statement Wednesday.

While Texas still appears to have more 9,100 available hospital beds statewide, there are areas around Beaumont, College Station and Killeen reporting that few intensive care beds are available for additional chronic patients.

The College Station region reported no more available ICU beds on Wednesday and Laredo officials were down to just 1 available ICU bed.

Killeen is a city in Bell County, which has one of the worst vaccination rates in the state, according to state data. Just 33.5 percent of that county’s population over 12 years of age have been fully vaccinated compared to over 54 percent in Harris County and 56 percent in Bexar.

“It is clear that increasing vaccinations is still our best strategy to navigate through this pandemic and get to closure,” Bell County Judge David Blackburn said in a recent news release.

Statewide, just 52 percent of Texans 12 and older have been vaccinated.

Here’s the Thursday update.

Across Texas, 5,662 people were hospitalized for the virus as of Thursday, the highest number recorded by DSHS since Feb. 28 and a massive increase since its low point of 1,428 on June 27.

It’s bad, y’all. And it’s getting worse. There’s a bit of a vaccination push now, but as you know it takes time to get fully protected, and we don’t have any. Abbott’s lifting of the mask mandate when he did was premature, and his mulish resistance to any possible leeway for local officials is harmful in the extreme, but let’s be clear that his biggest sin is not doing everything he could to get more Texans vaccinated. Masks at least would do something now, and even if it is too late for this surge to ramp up vaccinations, that’s still by far the best thing to do. So what is Abbott doing?

Vaccinations > masks, but thanks to Abbott’s utter lack of leadership, we have neither. And so thousands more people are getting sick, and some number of them – more than it should be – will end up in the hospital or a grave. And all of that is on Greg Abbott.

On the reaction by some people to the new mask recommendations

I have one thing to say to this.

Texas Republicans in Congress are fuming over new mask requirements on Capitol Hill and recommendations from the CDC that even vaccinated Americans begin masking again as an extra precaution in parts of the country where the Delta variant is spreading, including Texas.

“Which is it, vaccines or masks?” said U.S. Rep. Chip Roy, a San Antonio Republican, in an impassioned speech on the House floor on Wednesday. “Do the vaccines work or they don’t work? Do the masks work or they don’t work? I’d like to know which it is.”

Health officials have been clear that the vaccines remain effective at preventing the worst outcomes of COVID, including hospitalization and death. The vast majority of breakthrough cases have been mild.

But COVID infections continue to climb throughout much of the U.S. — including Texas — and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention this week revised its recommendations to urge even fully vaccinated Americans in those areas to wear masks indoors again.

That led to new mask mandates in the U.S. House and the White House, but Texas Gov. Greg Abbott has made clear he doesn’t not plan to require face coverings again in Texas.

Still, Republicans were outraged at the new guidance. U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz called mask-wearing “a virtue signal of submissiveness” as he referred to Democrats wearing face coverings again as “kabuki theater.”

If you are not fully vaccinated, have not made your vaccinated status known to others, and have not been a vocal advocate of vaccination, then you can take any and all complaints you may have about these new recommendations and go fuck yourself. Seriously.

I say again, with all the feeling I can muster: Go fuck yourself.

Still surging

Hospitalizations.

The number of lab-confirmed COVID hospitalizations in Texas broke 4,000 on Friday for the first time since March, a worrying sign of the pandemic’s quick resurgence since the Delta variant was discovered in the state.

[…]

As of Saturday, Texas Department of State Health Services data reported 4,320 lab-confirmed COVID hospitalizations in the state, more than three times the cases it had at its low of 1,428 less than a month ago. In the span of one week, COVID hospitalizations had spiked nearly 50 percent.

The increases in COVID hospitalizations have been dramatic. In the week ending July 24, Texas averaged 3,710 people hospitalized with COVID, up from 2,537 in the week before and 1,838 in the week before that.

Texas Medical Center hospitals are seeing an influx of COVID patients in ICU beds, and medical leaders may soon consider postponing elective procedures, said Dr. James McDeavitt, executive vice president and dean of clinical affairs at Baylor College of Medicine.

“Everywhere is experiencing that same sort of explosive growth right now, so that’s obviously very concerning,” said McDeavitt, who has been closely tracking local COVID data since the start of the pandemic.

Positive tests.

More than 1,000 people are testing positive per day for COVID-19 in the greater Houston region, more than seven times last month’s daily average, according to the Texas Medical Center.

As the delta variant dominates new COVID-19 infections across the country, the Texas Medical Center is returning to daily coronavirus updates.

The takeaways, sent every morning from William McKeon, president and CEO of the Texas Medical Center, provide a glimpse into one of the world’s largest medical complexes as its clinicians treat infected patients. Previously released weekly, the switch back to daily missives illustrate how rapidly delta is spreading across the region.

Last week, an average of 1,069 people tested positive per day for COVID-19 in the greater Houston region, more than double the prior week’s daily average.

“The COVID-19 Delta variant is spreading rapidly throughout Texas as only 43 percent of our population is fully vaccinated,” McKeon wrote in a Monday email.

If you don’t know what to do by now, I can’t help you.

It’s not vaccinated people that are dying

Numbers don’t lie. It’s the unvaccinated that die.

Of the 8,787 people who have died in Texas due to COVID-19 since early February, at least 43 were fully vaccinated, the Texas Department of State Health Services said.

That means 99.5% of people who died due to COVID-19 in Texas from Feb. 8 to July 14 were unvaccinated, while 0.5% were the result of “breakthrough infections,” which DSHS defines as people who contracted the virus two weeks after being fully vaccinated.

The agency said nearly 75% of the 43 vaccinated people who died were fighting a serious underlying condition, such as diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, cancer or chronic lung disease.

Additionally, it said 95% of the 43 vaccinated people who died were 60 or older, and that a majority of them were white and a majority were men.

DSHS noted that these are preliminary numbers, which could change because each case must be confirmed through public health investigations. Statewide, more than 50,000 people have died of COVID-19 since March 2020, but the rate of deaths has slowed dramatically since vaccines became widely available in April.

Dr. David Lakey, the chief medical officer of the University of Texas System, said people succumbing to the coronavirus despite being vaccinated was “not unexpected.”

“No vaccine is 100%,” said Lakey, who is also a member of the Texas Medical Association’s COVID-19 task force. “And we’ve known for a long while that the vaccines aren’t 100%, but they’re really really good at preventing severe disease and hospitalizations. … There will always be some individuals that will succumb to the illness in the absence of full herd immunity.”

He added that 0.5% is “a very low number of individuals in a state of 30 million. … In the grand perspective of everything, that’s not a large number that would call into question at all the use of this vaccine.”

I should note that some of those 43 vaccinated people who died may have had other comorbidities, we don’t have enough data on that. But still, we’re talking a tiny fraction. One out of two hundred. Which group would you rather be in?

Need more? Go look at these charts from the CDC, one of new COVID cases and one of COVID deaths. The spike in new cases is much higher than the increase in deaths, because vaccinated people who still get COVID get a much milder version of it. They don’t go to hospitals, and they don’t die. If more people were vaccinated, that first chart wouldn’t have that big uptick in it, either.

And one more thing:

Just three states are now driving the pandemic in the United States, as the divide between vaccinated and unvaccinated regions of the country becomes ever more stark, as the more transmissible Delta variant of the coronavirus spreads.

Forty percent of all new cases this week have been recorded in Florida, Texas and Missouri, White House pandemic response coordinator Jeff Zients revealed at a press briefing Thursday.

Florida alone accounts for 20 percent of all new cases nationally, Zients pointed out, a trend that has stretched into its second week.

Zients added that “virtually all” hospitalizations and deaths — a full 97 percent — are among unvaccinated people. “The threat is now predominantly only to the unvaccinated,” he said. A few vaccinated people do experience so-called breakthrough infections, but they tend to experience only mild COVID-19 illness, or no illness at all.

Encouragingly, Zients said the five states that have experienced the most significant rise in infections — Arkansas, Louisiana, Florida, Nevada and Missouri — all also saw vaccination rates beat the national average for a second week in a row. But because immunity takes two weeks to develop, and the Delta variant spreads so rapidly, the benefits of the increased uptake of vaccinations may not be evident right away.

Singling out the three states where infections are now spiking could have the effect of putting pressure on elected officials there to do more to encourage vaccinations.

One of those elected officials is Greg Abbott, and we know how much he cares. But maybe some other people are less resistant. The numbers don’t lie.

More masking

In Travis County.

Public health officials in Austin and Travis County are now encouraging vaccinated people to wear masks both indoors and outdoors, and for those unvaccinated to stay at home except for essential needs — the first major city in Texas to take such a step.

This comes as the highly contagious delta variant continues to spread across the state, pushing the county’s seven-day average of new hospitalizations to 35 — the threshold for Stage 4 of the area’s COVID-19 risk-based guidelines.

County officials made the announcement in a virtual news conference Friday morning. Under Stage 4, officials want residents — vaccinated and unvaccinated — to wear masks at all times in public, and for unvaccinated people to only leave their homes for essential trips.

The city can’t enforce the restrictions, however, because Gov. Greg Abbott banned all local pandemic-related mandates in May. The recommendations differ from those of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which says it safe for people who are fully vaccinated to “resume activities that you did before the pandemic without wearing a mask or physically distancing.”

It was just last week that Austin had gone to Stage 3. Of course as noted they can’t make anyone do any of this. They can just ask nicely and recommend as hard as they can.

Fort Bend is doing likewise.

Fort Bend County officials highly encourage people to wear masks indoors and get vaccinated as the highly contagious Delta variant spreads through the community.

A month after confirming the presence of the Delta variant in Fort Bend, health officials have detected an increase in the COVID-19 test positivity rate and in the number of cases, hospitalizations and ICU admissions, said Dr. Jacquelyn Minter, director of the county’s health and human services department.

In the past week, roughly 77 percent of the reported cases were the Delta variant, Minter said. The vast majority of cases of severe illness involve people who are unvaccinated. There has been a spike in the number of infected young adults.

“We are finding that this variant is especially adept at spreading in close groups of unvaccinated people,” Minter said.

Officials recommend that people who are vaccinated and unvaccinated wear masks indoors, practice physical distancing and wash their hands. County staff will post signs recommending that people mask up.

“This is a preventive action that is being asked,” said County Judge KP George. “This is not a mandate. But it is strongly advised to reduce the number of infected people.”

Harris County has gone up a notch as well, and it won’t surprise me if they take the next step. Just as a reminder, masking and social distancing did a pretty good job of keeping things under control when there was no vaccine. If we could at least do that, we could get this back under control pretty quickly. I think we all know that the overlap between “won’t get vaxxed” and “won’t wear a mask” is pretty high, so keep your expectations in check. If only there were some way to do more than encourage and recommend…

Abbott affirms he will take no action to mitigate future COVID waves

He’s on brand, that much is for sure.

Gov. Greg Abbott says he will not impose another statewide mask mandate, despite COVID-19 cases being on the rise again.

“There will be no mask mandate imposed, and the reasons for that are very clear,” Abbott told KPRC-TV in Houston on Tuesday. “There are so many people who have immunities to COVID, whether it be through the vaccination, whether it be through their own exposure and their recovery from it, which would be acquired immunity.”

It would be “inappropriate to require people who already have immunity to wear a mask,” Abbott said.

During a news conference Wednesday in Houston, Abbott went further and expressed blanket resistance to any new restrictions to fight the virus. He said Texas is “past the time of government mandates” and “into the time for personal responsibility.”

[…]

Abbott reiterated Tuesday that Texas schoolchildren will not face mask requirements as they return to school later this summer.

“Kids will not be forced by government or by schools to wear masks in school,” Abbott said. “They can by parental choice wear a mask, but there will be no government mandate requiring masks.”

Well, he answered my question, and that answer is “You’re on your own, it’s not my problem if you get sick”. What happens when and if hospitals begin to get overrun remains a mystery. The most charitable explanation of this stance is “Look, we all know that the idiots who haven’t gotten vaccinated are the same idiots who refuse to wear masks, so what’s even the point?” If only he as Governor had some power to enforce compliance, or to be a voice of persuasion to those who have refused to bear any responsibility. But at least he cleared that up for us, so thanks for that. The Chron and Reform Austin have more.

Are any state leaders going to talk about the rising COVID rate?

Just curious.

With less than half of Texans vaccinated and the highly contagious delta variant of the coronavirus spreading, the percentage of COVID-19 tests coming back positive in the state has climbed to a rate unseen since winter.

As of this weekend, Texas’ positivity rate is over 10% — a level that Gov. Greg Abbott and the Trump administration had identified as a red flag earlier in the pandemic. Meanwhile, daily confirmed new case totals and hospitalizations are climbing fast, but are far below their winter peaks.

On Saturday, the seven-day average for new confirmed cases in the state was 2,119. That’s nearly triple the average on the first day of the month, when it was 757. Meanwhile, the number of people hospitalized for the coronavirus in the state climbed from 1,591 on July 1 to 2,834 on Friday.

More than 14,200 people with COVID-19 were hospitalized on Jan. 11 — the highest number of pandemic hospitalizations in Texas so far.

But the positivity rate stands out among the rising numbers because experts view it as a leading indicator.

“The early signs are similar. They are all right there,” said Benjamin Neuman, a virologist and professor at Texas A&M University. “Epidemiologists read test positivity stats like the low tide, and it looks as though we are in for a big wave.”

In the last seven days, about 144,000 molecular tests, such as nasal or throat swab tests, were administered in Texas, and 10.2% of those came back positive, according to the Texas Department of State Health Services. The last time the state’s positivity rate was above 10% was in February, and the rate hit an all-time low of 2.8% in mid-June.

The positivity rate does not clearly measure how prevalent the virus is spreading across the state since it depends on the number of administered tests, Neuman said, but “what it indicates is that we are missing a lot of cases.”

“Ten percent of the state is not infected right now,” he continued. “But 10% of the people with the sniffles have COVID, which means we are at the start of something like another wave. We have seen the numbers in the rest of the U.S. go up and Texas has been a little bit behind, but it looks as though we may be catching up fast.”

[…]

Public health experts have been raising alarm about the delta variant in recent weeks, especially in places like Texas where the vaccination rate is low. Around 43% of Texans are currently fully vaccinated.

The vaccines have been shown to be highly effective at preventing new coronavirus cases, though there have been some rare occurrences of breakthrough infections — which Dr. John Carlo, the CEO of Prism Health North Texas and president of AIDS Arms Physicians, explained is when someone who is completely vaccinated contracts the virus anyways.

“The reason that is happening more and more is because if we still have people that are unvaccinated circulating with those who are vaccinated, it still presents a risk for breakthrough infections, even though the risk is minimized,” Carlo said.

Evidence also suggests that the small numbers of people who are vaccinated but do get infected tend to face less severe versions of the illness.

“The good news is that though we are seeing breakthrough infections, these are only mild cases,” Carlo said. “The vaccines show great protections but we knew it was never going to be perfect, it’s not 100%. And the big thing to know is that the vaccine removes the high chance of severe symptoms if you do get the virus.”

In a statement, DSHS said the delta variant is “having a significant effect on unvaccinated people leading to increases in new cases and hospitalizations.” Texas officials have not said how many of the new cases are among vaccinated and unvaccinated people, but national and local health leaders say the most severe impacts appear to be happening overwhelmingly among the unvaccinated.

I mean, I know there are walls to be built, and voters to suppress, and trans kids to kick around. Greg Abbott has a busy schedule, you know? I’m sure he’ll get around to talking about the rising COVID rate and the need to get vaccinated and maybe the return to mask wearing any day now.

Austin tries to slow down the Delta spike

Not really much they can do, though.

Austin city and public health officials on Thursday raised the city’s coronavirus risk-based guidelines for the first time since the winter surge, urging unvaccinated people to avoid non-essential travel and take other precautions after seeing a dramatic increase in new COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations in recent days.

Officials placed at least part of the blame on the dangerous and highly transmissible Delta variant of the virus, which has contributed to similar spikes in more populous areas across Texas recently.

“We cannot pretend that we are done with a virus that is not done with us,” Austin Mayor Steve Adler said during a Thursday news conference.

But the city’s move to Stage 3 guidelines has no weight of law behind it because Gov. Greg Abbott banned pandemic mandates in May. It also only applies to the city’s unvaccinated population; the guidelines recommend that vaccinated people only need to take precautions while traveling.

The move marks the first time a major Texas city has reinstated increased health protocols since dropping mask mandates, dialing back business restrictions and allowing large events to resume in the spring and summer as COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations plummeted.

Stage 3 guidelines mean unvaccinated or partially-vaccinated residents should avoid gatherings, travel, shopping and dining out altogether unless it’s essential, and mask up when they leave their homes. Officials say they are weighing further precautionary recommendations in case these measures don’t reduce the numbers.

[…]

Among the alarming trends cited by Austin and Travis County health officials on Thursday: The average number of daily new cases has tripled, COVID-19-related hospital admissions are on the rise, cases of COVID-19 in children are rising, and 20% of the more than 100 people with COVID-19 in area hospitals are on ventilators, while 41 are in the ICU.

Almost all of the hospitalized patients are unvaccinated, said Dr. Desmar Walkes, Austin-Travis County Health Authority.

“This has to stop, and we know how to make that happen,” Walkes said. “We are hoping that this self-correction that we’re doing with the change to the stage three status will help bring us back to a place where our cases are again declining.”

At least 60% of Austin residents are fully vaccinated, and Travis County, where Austin is located, has the third highest vaccination rate among the state’s urban counties, which are also beginning to report increasing cases and hospitalizations.

Note that this is happening in one of the most-vaccinated counties in Texas. It’s much, much worse in other parts of the state, but we all know the politics of this. What might end up happening is for Austin and/or Travis County to encourage businesses to re-impose mask requirements, and it wouldn’t surprise me if they mostly go along with that. I’m sure Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo is keeping a close eye on things here, and on how they go in Travis, and may take similar steps. It’s deeply annoying as a vaccinated person, because we all know why this is happening, but here we are anyway. All you can do is try to protect yourself, because Greg Abbott sure as hell doesn’t care. The city of Austin’s news release is here, and the Austin Chronicle has more.

Where the outbreaks are the worst

We talk a lot about the vaccination rate in Texas, but that number by itself is misleading. Some parts of the state are very well vaccinated. Others, very much not so. That matters, because the Delta variant is just ripping through the unvaccinated population. There are breakthrough infections among folks who have had the shot – even the Pfizer and Moderna doses are not as effective against the Delta variant as they were against others – but the vast majority of new cases, hospitalizations, and deaths are among the unvaxxed.

So with that in mind, here are the places to watch out for.

Five low-vaccinated clusters — including two in Texas — could put the entire country at risk for spreading new variants of COVID-19, according to a new analysis out of Georgetown University.

The areas with concentrations of unvaccinated residents 12 and older encompass Texas’ western Panhandle and eastern Piney Woods regions — and are a major cause for concern for health experts. Dallas County, where officials this week said herd immunity has been reached, is not in either.

Georgetown researchers, who have been tracking vaccination rates since December, found that there are about 30 clusters across the U.S. that have lower vaccination rates than the national average of 47.8%. The five they have identified as most vulnerable are scattered across eight states concentrated in the southeastern part of the country, touching Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, Oklahoma, Tennessee and Texas.

The two clusters in Texas together encompass around 141 counties out of 254, said Dr. Shweta Bansal, an associate professor of biology at Georgetown who headed the project. Although that’s a significant portion of the state, the clusters do not include many of the highest-density cities, which have had greater success with vaccination.

Texas’ overall vaccination rate does not paint an accurate picture of the state’s danger level, Bansal said. From a glance, Texas appears to be in good shape, with 50.4% of the population 12 and older — or 12 million people — reported as fully vaccinated, according to data provided by the Texas Department of State Health Services. And nearly 14 million people in Texas, or 58%, have received at least one dose of a coronavirus vaccine.

But the Georgetown analysis raises a number of troubling concerns. For one, nearly all COVID-19 deaths in the country were people who weren’t vaccinated, according to The Associated Press.

And unvaccinated clusters pose greater threats because each interaction with an unvaccinated individual risks a new transmission of COVID-19, Bansal said. With every new case of the virus, there is another chance for a new variant to emerge. Already, the highly contagious delta variant that was first found in India in December has become the dominant strain in all new identified cases of the coronavirus in the U.S.

In other words, it’s no time to let our guard down, she cautioned.

If a new variant surfaces that is resistant to current vaccines, “it would mean rewinding the clock back to 2020 for all of us, even those of us that are vaccinated,” Bansal said.

Here’s another news link if you have trouble with that DMN story. I can’t find a copy of the actual report, but I was referred to this web page in my searches for it.

We’ve talked about this before, and I’m going to say this again: It doesn’t matter how bad the Delta variant is going to get, there is zero chance that the state of Texas under Greg Abbott takes any action to mitigate a future outbreak. There will be no mask mandates or limitations on businesses or crowds, and no allowance for local governments to impose them. The unvaccinated will be coddled and catered to in every way, and the rest of us, including and especially health care workers, can suck it. You’re on your own, and my advice to you is to not get too far out of the habit of wearing your face masks. You’ll be needing them again, probably in the winter.

The next level of vaccine resistance

I’m speechless.

Some Texas Republicans are pushing back against President Joe Biden’s push for greater outreach to get more Americans to receive COVID-19 shots, as vaccination drives in states like Texas have stagnated.

“Not on my watch!” Attorney General Ken Paxton tweeted in response to the president’s comments on Tuesday that “we need to go community-by-community, neighborhood-by-neighborhood, and oft times door-to-door, literally knocking on doors.”

U.S. Rep. Chip Roy, a San Antonio Republican, on Wednesday directed a tweet at Biden with a play on the “Come and Take It” flag that shows an image of a syringe with the words “Come Inject It.” In a separate tweet, the congressman said he thought a door-to-door push would be unconstitutional, as such an approach was “only really contemplated in Constitution for the census.”

“Don’t knock on my door to ask about vaccines…or anything else,” U.S. Rep. Pat Fallon, a Sherman Republican, tweeted. He said there are “BIG red flags anytime the federal government is ‘going door to door.’”

[…]

A recent Quinnipiac University poll found that nearly half of Texas Republican voters say they do not plan to receive a COVID-19 vaccination. A Harvard University analysis of vaccination rates by congressional district shows Texas Republicans represent the 14 districts in the state with the lowest rates.

Roy’s Central Texas district bucks the trend, however. It has among the highest vaccination rates in the state, with nearly 49 percent of its residents fully vaccinated.

That’s because Chip Roy’s district isn’t really Republican, it’s basically fifty-fifty. And if he and his galaxy brain think this effort is unconstitutional, there’s a well-known method to get an objective opinion on that. I’m sure Ken Paxton is familiar with the process. As for the rest, I don’t even know what to say.

Our Delta future

Don’t expect anything to change, except for the number of people getting sick and dying.

The new and highly contagious Delta variant of the coronavirus may have sparked the recent outbreak of 125-plus cases of COVID-19 linked to a Houston-area youth church camp, and a Texas virologist says the breakout should be a wake-up call for communities.

“Clearly, COVID is not over,” said Dr. Benjamin Neuman, a virologist and professor at Texas A&M University.

“COVID isn’t ever gone until it’s completely gone,” Neuman said. “And I think we’ve made the mistake of assuming that the virus would go away or assuming that the virus wouldn’t affect children … We keep stumbling into the same mistakes over and over, and that is not a way out of COVID-19.”

The Galveston County church camp took place in June with more than 450 adults and youth in attendance, according to the Houston Chronicle. More than 125 COVID-19 cases have been reported, of which three thus far have been confirmed to be the Delta variant.

The Delta variant is poised to become the leading strain in the United States in coming months according to Texas health experts, whose top concern is the risk it represents for those who are unvaccinated.

That strain, known by scientists as B.1.617.2, now accounts for about a quarter of virus infections in the nation, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. First discovered in India, it triggered a devastating outbreak there in April and May and has since spread to 85 other countries, attacking areas where vaccination rates are the lowest.

While dozens of strains have spawned from the original COVID-19 virus, the Delta variant is the most transmissible so far, said Dr. Rebecca Fischer, an infectious disease epidemiologist and assistant professor at Texas A&M University’s School of Public Health. It is also leading to higher rates of hospitalization for those infected, according to research.

[…]

DSHS said it recommends people protect themselves from the variant the same way they do for other strains of the virus.

“The best protection from all strains of COVID is getting fully vaccinated,” the statement said. “People who are not vaccinated should continue to follow COVID precautions, like wearing a mask and social distancing.”

Though the CDC says people who are fully vaccinated do not have to wear masks in public spaces, Neuman is pleading for everyone to continue wearing them, especially with the Delta variant spreading in Texas.

“The only confirmed cases that we know are cases that spread through the air,” he said, and those are “from somebody’s mouth to somebody else’s mouth.” Because of that, “blocking one or both of those mouths is really the ultimate way to stop the virus from spreading.”

Some more data, if you need it.

More than 40 percent of new COVID-19 hospitalizations at Houston Methodist are the Delta variant, researchers said Wednesday, a number expected to rise as travel returns but vaccination rates stagnate nationwide.

“The number of Delta variant COVID-19 cases at Houston Methodist has nearly doubled over the last week and is sixfold higher than in May,” said Houston Methodist spokesperson Lisa Merkl. Delta variant cases made up just 20 percent of hospitalizations at the hospital system the week prior.

COVID-19 vaccinations are critical to reducing infection rates, epidemiologists said, especially as the more contagious strain of the virus spreads worldwide. Positive case and hospitalization rates are also trending upward at Houston Methodist.

Experts expect that Delta, which is thought to be 60 percent more transmissible than the original SARS-CoV-2 strain, will soon become the dominant coronavirus variant in the U.S. Houston Methodist’s models estimate the Delta variant will make up 92 percent of all new infections within the coming weeks.

Not sure what more you need to know. The people who are vaccine hesitant, or who have obstacles in their way for getting vaccinated, will for the most part eventually get vaccinated. It will take too much time and I doubt there’s anything we can do now that we haven’t already tried to speed it up, but this group will steadily shrink. The anti-vaxxers are not going to get vaccinated, and there’s not a damn thing we can do about it. They’re also not going to wear face masks – they were the most whiny and resistant about it when that was the only mitigation available for when you had to be among other people. There’s also basically no chance Texas will impose any face mask requirements again, and local governments are prohibited from doing so. I wouldn’t even expect Greg Abbott to make a timid suggestion that maybe some people should think about wearing masks again.

If the Delta variant really takes off in Texas and we start looking like Missouri, I have no idea what happens. I have a hard time imagining Abbott even asking for federal help, though maybe the locals can do that. In many ways, we are where we were before, which is to say we’re on our own as far as Texas government is concerned. At least this time, some of us have more protection than others.

The return to normal

Lots of us are going back to pre-pandemic life. Some of us have more justification for it than others.

As an increasing number of Texans get vaccinated against COVID-19, most voters here are returning to their pre-pandemic lives — or something close to it — after a year of living carefully, according to the University of Texas/Texas Tribune Poll.

In the June poll, 47% of voters said they were coming and going as they were before the pandemic restrictions hit, while 39% said they were leaving the house regularly while still exercising caution. Another 14% said they were still staying home all the time or only going out when absolutely necessary, according to the poll.

Conservatives are more likely to be living normally now, the poll found: 68% of Republicans are returning to pre-pandemic lifestyles compared with only one in five Democrats — even though Democrats are more likely to have been vaccinated.

By contrast, 59% of white voters have returned to their normal pre-pandemic lives with no additional precautions or restrictions that aren’t mandated, the poll shows. Fewer than one in five white Texans have a high level of concern about themselves or someone they know being infected.

“There are pretty large racial and ethnic disparities in levels of concern. This gap has persisted throughout the pandemic,” said Joshua Blank, research director for the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas at Austin. “The fact that these groups express more concern is a reflection of the reality that they’ve faced more harm or impact.”

Less than half of Texas voters believe that coronavirus is still a significant crisis, compared with two-thirds in April 2020.

Democrats and Republicans differ sharply on this, and have disagreed since the beginning of the pandemic, the poll found. More than three-quarters of Democrats believe the pandemic is still a significant crisis, while less than one-quarter of Republicans feel the same. More than a third of Republicans say it’s not an issue at all.

At the start of the pandemic, 91% of Democrats viewed coronavirus as a significant concern, while less than half of Republicans felt that way, the April 2020 UT/TT poll found. By June 2020, that level of concern among Republicans dropped to 29% and stayed close to that rate for the next year.

The consistent differences in the perspective on the pandemic between the two parties has been reflected in the decisions being made by Texas’ Republican leaders — easing business restrictions just a month after shutdowns started, or fighting Democratic efforts to push through voting procedures that they believed reduced risk at the voting booth, pollsters said.

I would have had to answer “it depends” for a lot of these questions. I’m still working from home – we have a voluntary return to premises policy right now – but that’s because I vastly prefer working from home and avoiding the awful commute to my office. I still wear a mask in places that ask for masks to be worn, even if they specify that only unvaccinated people should wear them, though some of the time I skip it. I still have a preference for eating outdoors at restaurants, but I have eaten inside some of the time. I do think the pandemic is still a significant crisis, but that’s mostly because of the significant number of unvaccinated people that we have in this state. In my own highly-vaccinated neighborhood, I feel quite comfortable acting normally and don’t spend any time worrying about it. It’s all a matter of context.

The COVID death spike

Another way to visualize the data. It’s bad no matter how you look at it.

More than 51,000 Texans have died of COVID-19, according to the state’s latest tally.

That is larger than the capacity of Minute Maid Park, though it represents less than two-thousandths of Texas’ 29 million residents.

So, was the virus, which killed less than 2 percent of the Texans with documented cases, responsible for anything more than a blip in historical death trends?

An examination of Texas the past 50 years reveals the answer: Unequivocally yes.

Deaths in Texas historically are cyclical, explained Mark Hayward, a sociology professor at the University of Texas at Austin who studies mortality trends. They peak in winter with the annual flu season and ebb in summer, and steadily increase overall as the state’s population grows.

During the pandemic, however, that pattern was disrupted by a surge in mortality with no precedent in modern history. Hayward said that will lead to a decreased life expectancy for Texans; a British study published this week found the average lifetime of Americans decreased by almost two years in 2020.

“You don’t lose two or three years of life expectancy without actual catastrophe happening,” Hayward said. “Modern populations don’t go through that. In any kind of normal year, there’s never that kind of impact on a population’s mortality such as we’ve seen from COVID.”

Instead of falling in the summer, Texas deaths surged beginning in June 2020. They peaked in the third week of July at 6,211, up 71 percent over the same week the previous year. A second wave of the virus during the holiday season peaked the third week in January at 7,154, a 69 percent year-over-year jump.

The Chronicle examined weekly deaths in Texas back to 1964, the earliest year the state health department has reliable data. From that year through 2019, deaths in Texas increased an average of 2 percent annually. Deaths jumped 23 percent in 2020.

Considering that the pandemic reached Texas in March, deaths over the next 12 months jumped 32 percent over the previous year. Of the 285,108 Texas deaths between March 2020 and March 2021, 17 percent were from COVID-19, according to state health records.

You’ll need to click over to see the chart. It’s not just the number of deaths that increased – you would expect that based on overall population trends – but the rate as well. As the story notes, this is further evidence that the “official” COVID death count is well below the true number, with many factors contributing to the undercount. There’s nothing to be done about what has happened, but we might want to give some thought to why it happened this way and what we might do differently (and hopefully better) next time.

We’ll be paying for the freeze for a long time

What’s more, we have done nothing to prevent the same thing from happening again.

Publicly funded state agencies needing to keep the lights and heat on during the freeze racked up huge bills. In February 2020, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, which operates the state’s prisons, paid about $1.2 million for natural gas. This February the cost soared to nearly $8.5 million.

The University of Texas-Austin paid $940,000 for gas in February 2020. In 2021: $3.65 million.

Last month, state legislators passed laws to help companies borrow billions of dollars to pay for storm-inflated power costs and bill ratepayers over time to pay it back. Yet well before that, many Texas cities that own public utility companies already had been forced to scrounge up additional millions to cover gas and electric bills hugely inflated by the storm-caused shortages.

Outside of Dallas, Denton borrowed $140 million. Georgetown, just north of Austin, borrowed $48 million to cover the cost of providing electricity to its residents during the storm. Ratepayers will have to cover that, as well as a projected $5 million in interest and costs over the term of the loan.

Other cities dipped into their savings accounts to pay the storm-inflated power costs, depleting reserve funds. Garland siphoned millions from its rainy-day account. Weatherford, a small city outside of Fort Worth, drew down $13.7 million.

Wherever the money came from, eventually it will be repaid by local citizens, said Steve Moffitt, vice president of Schneider Engineering, a Boerne-based company working with municipal utility companies across the state to find the extra money. “At the end of the day, it has to come from customers somewhere,” he said.

The small city of Hearne borrowed $1.9 million to cover costs incurred by its publicly owned electric utility company. Ratepayers will pay off the debt over the next 10 years, said City Manager John Naron.

“Usually if we get a $2 million loan, we’re fixing streets, the sewage system, street lights,” he said. “Now we’re borrowing $2 million and getting nothing for it.”

When the dust cleared on the biennial legislative session that ended June 1, one thing was clear. Although it was ordinary Texans who suffered when the freeze hit four months ago — millions were left shivering in the dark for days; hundreds died — it is also ordinary Texans who would foot much of the bill, said Tim Morstad, associate director of AARP Texas.

“Consumers are being forced to prop up the system that failed us,” he said.

[…]

The magnitude of the financial fallout is difficult to digest. Experts estimate that based on the sky-high prices, nearly $50 billion-worth of electricity was consumed in Texas during the one-week storm — 250 times the normal cost, said Beth Garza, an energy analyst for R Street who from 2014 to 2019 was ERCOT’s independent market monitor, which watchdogs the electricity market.

Companies that had gas and electricity to sell cashed in on a Uri  windfall. Some Wall Street investors made millions, too.

For those forced to buy gas and electricity during the height of the freeze it was expensive at best, catastrophic at worst. Brazos Electric Power Cooperative, the state’s largest and oldest member-owned electric company, declared bankruptcy after racking up about $2 billion in charges when its generators failed.

To spare ratepayers the financial pain of getting hit with giant utility bills all at once, last month state lawmakers passed several laws to help the biggest losers borrow money and pay it back over time. The laws are complex, and analysts and companies said they are still deciphering how they will be used.

Pending high-stakes legal battles over the storm’s giant bills add more uncertainty to the final tab. “There are a zillion contractual disputes underway right now,” said Garza, pointing out that those, too, will end up costing companies – and their customers — giant legal fees.

Still, analysts projected the taxpayer tab would come to roughly between $7 and $9 billion. Yet that doesn’t include numerous other hidden costs.

The primary advantage to our market for power and electricity has always been low prices. Lots of firms offer a variety of plans, both fixed and flexible rates, and for the most part it has worked pretty well, as long as you do a bunch of research and remember to switch plans again before your low-rate plan ends and you get dumped into a default higher-rate plan. (Some people do lots of research.) All of this is predicated on the Texas energy market being geared towards low prices, and the way it does that is by not mandating capacity. There’s no backup power, no plants generating extra power that isn’t used, and that means we’re not paying for anything we’re not using. It’s efficient, and that efficiency keeps prices down.

The down side is what we saw in February. Because there was no extra capacity, when a number of plants went down, there wasn’t any power to spare. The only way to get more juice was to pay for it, and when prices are allowed to be unconstrained, you can be sure someone is going to make a buck off of it. We also learned that another key ingredient to our everyday low prices for electricity was that the power plants could be and were run as super low-cost operations, which in this context meant no money spent on weatherization. I think we all know how that turned out.

The argument in favor of our system is that we have paid a lot less for our electricity over a long period of time, so that even with the price shocks of February and the borrowing that various municipalities and utilities and co-ops have had to do, we’re still coming out ahead. But that isn’t of much help right now, and as we did nothing to change the fundamentals of our power market, we could face the same situation again at any time. People will be paying more now for what happened his past winter, and they have no insurance against a repeat. Even more, I don’t think a lot of people understand that. I don’t think we’re any more prepared mentally and emotionally for the next time this happens than we were this February. Maybe if we go another ten years before it happens again it won’t much matter. Do you want to make that bet? Like it or not, you already have.

Quinnipiac: Permitless carry and total abortion bans are not popular in Texas

More Q-poll data.

One week after Texas Governor Greg Abbott signed a bill into law allowing Texans to carry unlicensed handguns, voters say 74 – 24 percent that they oppose allowing anyone 21 years of age or older to carry handguns without a license or training, according to a Quinnipiac (KWIN-uh-pea-ack) University poll of Texas registered voters released today.

Democrats oppose this 94 – 6 percent, independents oppose this 73 – 26 percent, and Republicans oppose this 58 – 36 percent.

By an overwhelming majority, voters in Texas say 90 – 8 percent that they support background checks for all gun buyers.

Voters are split about the level of difficulty of buying a gun in Texas, with 46 percent saying it is too easy and 46 percent saying it’s about right. Only 4 percent say it’s too difficult to buy a gun in Texas.

When it comes to assault weapons, a majority (52 – 44 percent) oppose a nationwide ban on the sale of assault weapons.

A majority of Texas voters say 56 – 42 percent that they do not think stricter gun laws would help to decrease the number of mass shootings. This compares to a 2019 survey when voters said 50 – 45 percent they did not think stricter gun laws would help decrease the number of mass shootings.

Voters say 49 – 42 percent that they oppose banning abortion after a fetal heartbeat is detectable, which is usually around 6 weeks of pregnancy, and 10 percent did not offer an opinion. Democrats oppose the ban 65 – 25 percent, independents oppose the ban 54 – 37 percent, and Republicans support the ban 63 – 32 percent.

A majority of voters in Texas say 58 – 35 percent that they agree with the 1973 Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision that established a woman’s right to an abortion.

Asked to imagine if Roe v. Wade is overturned and the issue of abortion is left up to the states, voters shared whether they thought abortion should be legal in all cases, legal in most cases, illegal in most cases, or illegal in all cases in Texas. A majority (55 percent) say it should be legal in either all cases (23 percent) or legal in most cases (32 percent). Nearly four in ten (39 percent) say abortions should be illegal in most cases (29 percent) or in all cases (10 percent). These findings are similar to other Quinnipiac University Texas polls since 2018.

See here for the other Quinnipiac poll post. I mean, the permitless carry numbers sure make this look like a winning campaign issue, and it’s one where Dems could use quotes from a bunch of law enforcement officials opposing this law in their ads. It’s hard to say how much a single issue will move voters, and plenty of people who tend to vote Republican will continue to do so for other reasons even if they opposed this law, but it sure couldn’t hurt to lean on this.

There are also questions about the Republican voter suppression bill, which basically split along partisan lines, and about COVID vaccinations, which is the focus of this Chron story (and how I found the rest of the poll). This is from the poll memo, which notes that this part of the sample includes adults who aren’t registered voters:

More than two-thirds of adults in Texas (68 percent) say they’ve either received or are planning to receive a COVID-19 vaccine. Close to 3 in 10 adults (29 percent) say they do not plan to receive a COVID-19 vaccine.

There are sharp differences among political parties. Among Republicans, 45 percent say they do not plan to receive a COVID-19 vaccine. Among independents, that number is 28 percent. Among Democrats, it is 13 percent.

In the same week that workers at a Houston hospital either resigned or were fired for refusing to receive a COVID-19 vaccine, Texans weighed in about COVID-19 vaccination mandates in hospitals. Just over half of Texans say 51 – 45 percent that they think hospitals should be allowed to require their employees to get a COVID-19 vaccination.

Two-thirds of Texans say 66 – 30 percent that businesses should not be allowed to require proof of a COVID-19 vaccination from their customers.

However, a majority say 57 – 40 percent that cruise lines should be allowed to require proof of a COVID- 19 vaccination from their passengers.

A slim majority say 51 – 45 percent that public schools should be allowed to require mask wearing.

Not sure how you get from a 68% “vaxxed or will be vaxxed” rate to “45 percent [of Republicans] say they do not plan to receive a COVID-19 vaccine”, but here we are. You want to feel the herd immunity, you need to avoid places with too many Republicans.

Nobody knows why the grid was short on power

Really inspires confidence, doesn’t it?

Last Monday, Texas’ main power grid operator asked Texans, mid-heat wave, to turn their thermostats to 78 degrees during the afternoon and evening for the week to reduce electricity demand on the grid after 12,000 megawatts of power generation unexpectedly went offline — enough to power 2.4 million homes on a hot summer day.

By the end of the week, that appeal from the Electric Reliability Council of Texas expired without a public announcement, and ERCOT officials still have not said why they asked Texans to cut back on electricity use.

Were there damages to the power grid infrastructure stemming from February’s deadly winter storm? Were there nefarious actors looking to manipulate the electricity market? What does this mean for power generation during the rest of the hot Texas summer?

ERCOT hasn’t said — or released data to answer any of these questions raised by industry experts. And that is exactly how the Texas power grid is supposed to work, energy experts said.

“ERCOT knows what plants fail, but not why,” said Bob King, an energy consultant in Austin who has worked in the Texas energy industry for more than 30 years.

[…]

In the meantime, ERCOT’s independent watchdog will investigate what happened. Beth Garza, who was director of the watchdog from 2014 to 2019, said that’s standard procedure after such an event.

“They will look if there is any indication if there is any nefarious or bad acting on any particular generations’ part,” Garza said.

Last week’s power generation outages marked the second time ERCOT has asked Texans to cut back on electricity use since February’s storm. Garza and other experts also raised concerns about the winter storm’s impact on “thermal” sources of energy, which in Texas are largely powered by natural gas plants.

“One thing I’d be curious about: What the effects of February’s cold weather was on thermal units,” Garza said. “Was some of that being worked on and fixed (last week)?”

We do know that it wasn’t because too many plants were down for routine maintenance, which contradicts a claim made by Greg Abbott. We may find out some more information soon, as the PUC has ordered ERCOT to release its data in the next seven days, though how much information we’ll get is not clear. The bigger point, as was made in the story, is that all this happened at a time when it wasn’t as hot as it’s going to get later in the summer. What will be in for then? Like I said, it doesn’t inspire confidence. Reform Austin has more.

We’re (sort of) halfway vaccinated

It depends on how you’re measuring it. And it’s still not enough, no matter how you look at it.

Texas has hit the halfway point.

As of Friday morning, 50.1 percent of Texans 18 and older are fully vaccinated from COVID-19, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

While this is a milestone for the state, Dr. Susan McLellan is not celebrating.

“It means that 50 percent are not vaccinated, and that’s a problem,” said McLellan, professor of infectious diseases at University of Texas Medical Branch. “It’s been available for everybody 12-and-older for months. I don’t think that’s a very wonderful milestone.”

McLellan and other Texas doctors are concerned about the coronavirus case rate and the country’s newly-introduced, highly-transmissible delta variant. Now the dominant COVID strain in the U.K., experts expect the delta variant to become the dominant strain in Texas, as well.

Early studies show vaccination provides better immunity than contracting the virus does, McLellan said.

“Right now, there are pockets in the population that are not getting vaccinated, and they tend to congregate,” she said. “Young adults may think it’s no biggie to not get vaccinated, and then they go to a bar with a lot of people like them. They easily expose each other and spread it around.”

State vaccination rates can be misleading as a large percentage of vaccinated people live in large urban centers, such as Houston, Austin and Dallas, said Dr. David Lakey, a member of the Texas COVID-19 Expert Vaccine Allocation Panel.

In Harris County, more than 1.8 million people are now fully vaccinated, followed by Dallas County at 1 million. In Travis County, more than 631,000 people are fully vaccinated, the DSHS reported Friday.

[…]

Texas ranks 33rd among all states for its rate of vaccination. And its proximity to states with low vaccination rates — including Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama — could pose a threat to Texans, said Dr. Catherine Troisi, an epidemiologist with UTHealth School of Public Health.

“We don’t live in a bubble,” Troisi said. “People travel from state to state, and they can bring the infection with them.”

This story measured the vaccination rate for people 18 and older. Of course, kids are still vulnerable to COVID, and you can get vaccinated if you’re at least 12 years old, so that’s a somewhat odd way of measuring progress. The Trib identifies 40% of the state’s total population as being vaccinated, with Harris County continuing to be right at the same level as the state as a whole. They give totals for “people who are fully vaccinated”, which will include people who have had two Pfizer or Moderna shots plus people who got the one-shot J&J vaccine, and “total number of shots administered”, which includes people who have had just their first Moderna or Pfizer shot. I estimate from this that Harris is close to fifty percent of the total population having at least one shot, again consistent with the statewide number.

So that’s good and the number will continue to rise, but much more slowly since basically everyone who was eager to get a shot has had theirs. We’re fully into the “people who are hesitant” and “people who face obstacles” part of the journey, and that’s just going to take longer. In the meantime, the Delta and other variants are surging in the parts of the country (and elsewhere) that are less vaccinated, and while hospitalizations remain at manageable levels, that could change. A lot of the country, and a lot of Texas, remains at high risk because of low vaccination rates. I don’t know what more we can do about that.

It wasn’t just Houston and Harris County that got screwed by P Bush and the GLO

Every time I read something new about this, I get madder.

Disasters have not fallen evenly on Iola and Port Arthur. Hurricane Harvey flooded almost the entire coastal city on the Louisiana border, which was damaged by Ike and Rita before that. Iola, a tiny Grimes County community 100 miles inland, largely is insulated from tropical storms.

Both cities applied for federal Harvey disaster aid distributed by the state. Iola pitched a wastewater system that would serve 379 people. Port Arthur proposed the replacement of century-old storm water pipes to help 42,000.

The state funded Iola’s project. Port Arthur got nothing.

“With our susceptibility to being affected by hurricanes, if those places got money, you know it wasn’t fairly done,” said Port Arthur Mayor Thurman Bartie.

A Houston Chronicle investigation found the $1 billion in aid distributed by the Texas General Land Office in May disproportionately flowed to inland counties with less damage from Harvey than coastal communities which bore the brunt of the storm.

The GLO also steered aid toward counties with a lower risk of natural disasters — by the state’s own measure — and sometimes to projects that help far fewer residents per dollar spent than unfunded projects in more vulnerable counties.

The lowest-risk counties that received awards, like Grimes, were only eligible because of the GLO’s decision to add them. And in some cases, the state funded projects in these places even though they scored worse than applicants in the highest-risk counties, according to criteria the land office set.

Aransas and Nueces counties, where Harvey made landfall, did not receive a dime. Neither did Jefferson County, which recorded the highest rain totals. Same for Houston and Harris County’s governments, even though the county suffered the most deaths and flooded homes from the storm.

“To get goose-egged is really disappointing,” said Nueces County Judge Barbara Canales. “The coast is going to get battered first. … How do you come out of $1 billion and Nueces isn’t even on your radar?”

It’s a great question, one for which Land Commissioner George P. Bush has no good answer. I’ll say this again, this does not happen by accident. Even if it were possible to accidentally create a system that prioritized low-risk, low-population areas over high-risk, high-population areas, there was plenty of time to catch and fix the error, especially since the GLO was explicitly warned about it. They knew which places got which awards well before the information was released, and either didn’t think anyone would have a problem with it or didn’t care who said what.

I don’t blame these low-risk places for applying for the federal funds. They were playing by the rules. The GLO and their deliberately jacked-up scoring system are the problem. As the story notes, the belated offer by P Bush to award $750 million to Harris County (by as yet unknown means), which came about in the face of intense bipartisan criticism, doesn’t do anything for the likes of Nueces or Aransas or Jefferson, or any of their cities. (It leaves Houston out in the cold as well.) At this point, the only sensible and equitable solution is to throw this entire pile of trash away and start over, this time with a scoring system that makes sense and ideally is overseen by someone other than P Bush. I don’t know how to make that happen, I don’t know if it’s possible to make that happen, but it’s the best way forward I can see. Maybe having Congress re-appropriate money directly to the screwed-over localities could work, if it’s possible to get that through Congress and the Senate. All I know is this is totally FUBARed, and there’s no good way forward. We have to go back, and we have to start over. And yes, we should be extremely pissed off about this.

There’s still a lot of investment in renewables in Texas

Good to know.

Four months after the failure of the Texas electric grid sparked a backlash against clean power, investors and developers have decided just what the state needs: more renewable energy. Much more.

Texas is on pace to have as much green-power development in coming years as the next three states combined, according to the American Clean Power Association, a Washington-based trade group. Projects totaling 15 gigawatts — equal to the total electrical capacity of Finland in 2019 — are under construction or in advanced development, more than double three years ago. That’s according to data from the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, or Ercot, the state’s grid operator.

All told, the forthcoming wind, solar and battery-storage projects are worth an estimated $20 billion to $25 billion, the American Clean Power Association said.

[…]

The amount of renewable energy in the Ercot queue in May was much higher than the same month in any of the past three years. That massive growth is driven by jumps in solar farms and battery storage that outweigh a drop in the amount of wind power in the queue.

New utility-scale solar installations in Texas totaled 3.3 gigawatts last year, nearly matching the 3.5 gigawatts of new wind, according to BloombergNEF. The research group projects more than double the amount of new utility-scale solar and 4.2 gigawatts of new wind there this year.

Republicans bashed renewable energy during and after the storm, even as the state’s grid operator said that frozen instruments at gas, coal and even nuclear plants were the main reason for the blackouts. “This shows how the Green New Deal would be a deadly deal for the United States of America,” Texas governor Greg Abbott told Sean Hannity on Fox News in the midst of the freeze. He went on to blame wind and solar power and said fossil fuel plants are necessary for baseline power.

Several renewable developers said new laws that targeted clean power projects would force them to rethink building in Texas. A group including big power companies, Amazon.com Inc. and Goldman Sachs Group Inc. sent letters to Abbott and lawmakers in April, writing that proposed new laws would chill investment in the state.

Perhaps that letter had an effect, for as the story notes we managed to make it through this session without any explicitly anti-renewables bills passing. (Not that the Republicans didn’t try, mind you.) There are still issues with the grid’s capacity to handle more output from renewables, but maybe the investors are assuming some of those problems will work themselves out. I note in the story’s graphic that the amount being invested in battery storage is way higher than it used to be, so maybe that has an effect as well. In any event, we are still investing in renewable energy here. Let’s hope we don’t screw it up.

Sure is a good thing the Lege fixed all those power grid problems

Otherwise, who knows what could happen?

Texas’ main power grid struggled to keep up with the demand for electricity Monday, prompting the operator to ask Texans to conserve power until Friday.

The Electric Reliability Council of Texas said in a statement Monday that a significant number of unexpected power plant outages combined with expected record use of electricity due to hot weather has resulted in tight grid conditions. Approximately 12,000 megawatts of generation were offline Monday, or enough to power 2.4 million homes on a hot summer day.

ERCOT officials said the power plant outages were unexpected — and could not provide details as to what could be causing them.

“I don’t have any potential reasons [for the plant outages] that I can share at this time,” said Warren Lasher, ERCOT senior director of systems planning, during a Monday call with media. “It is not consistent with fleet performance that we have seen over the last few summers.”

The number of plants that were forced offline today is “very concerning” Lasher said.

“We operate the grid with the resources that we have available,” he said. “It’s the responsibility of the generators to make sure their plants are available when demand is high.”

How reassuring. I don’t have anything but snark and profanity to add, so let me point to the Chron story for more details.

CenterPoint, which manages electricity for power providers in Houston, said in a statement if it must cut power to maintain reliability of the grid it will be “done with the intent to rotate outages.”

It is not the first time since February’s freeze and statewide power outages that ERCOT has issued a conservation order. The grid manager did so on April 14, when temperatures were hotter than usual and power generators went offline to do routine maintenance ahead of skyrocketing demand that happens annually during Texas’ hot summers. However, that conservation alert only lasted for one day.

Ed Hirs, an energy fellow at the University of Houston, said he wasn’t surprised another alert was issued on Monday.

“This is not going to get better,” he said. “There will be more alerts this summer primarily because the weather pattern looks like it will be hotter than last summer, and ERCOT, with the new bills passed out of the Legislature, is duty bound to issue alerts.”

[…]

Earlier this month, Gov. Greg Abbott signed Senate Bill 3 into law, which mandates the weatherization of power plants; creates a statewide emergency alert system; improves communication among those in the industry; and designates some natural gas facilities as “critical” so their power can’t be turned off during crises.

However, Hirs said those actions fall short of what is needed to prevent these issues from happening.

“This was destined to fail because no one would invest in new capacity or at least not invest fast enough to keep pace with demand,” Hirs said. “There’s really no incentive to reinvest or maintain the grid for weatherization.”

But hey, you got permitless carry and a six-week abortion ban, and if those things don’t make you feel all cool inside, I don’t know what would. And because I don’t have any more words to add here, have some Internet humor.

Try to stay cool, y’all.

All juiced up with no place to go

Seems like there should be a better solution for this.

In 2005, the Texas Legislature approved the development of a network of electric transmission lines to send wind and solar power from West Texas to population centers in other parts of the state. The landmark project transformed the renewable energy industry and the slice of West Texas that Rep. Drew Darby calls home.

Metallic fields of photovoltaic solar panels now stretch across once bare scrub land. Lines of sky-scraping wind turbines reach to the horizon. And with those renewable energy projects came “some of our only opportunities for economic development” in rural Texas, said Darby, a Republican from San Angelo.

But those opportunities are at risk as companies cancel or postpone new wind and solar farms, and the list of planned projects keeps getting shorter. One key reason: generators can’t be sure that they can get their power to market.

The rapid growth of renewable energy, particularly wind power, has outstripped the carrying capacity of transmission lines. Even when demand soars and electricity supplies run short, the state’s grid manager, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, must limit the power West Texas wind and solar farms can sell into the grid because of transmission constraints.

“I started seeing some projects go off the boards, and companies were saying they’re not going to build,” Darby said. “I asked why, and they said ‘We’ve had curtailments. We’re going to have to curtail production at certain times.’”

That West Texas has plenty of power but no place to go carries more than a little irony as policy makers and regulators focus on increasing electricity supplies following the deadly February power crisis. ERCOT is forecasting record power demand this summer, with a reserve margin — the cushion of extra generation available when supplies get tight — that’s higher than in recent years, but still well below the margins with which other grids operate.

[…]

Even as parts of the state bake in the summer heat and homeowners crank up air-conditioning units, the transmission limits mean the excess power generated out West won’t make it to where demand will be highest.

Ross Baldick, an emeritus professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Texas at Austin, said West Texas transmission upgrades completed in 2014 can transport about 18,500 megawatts of electricity, but more than 20,000 megawatts of wind energy alone are generated in the area. Due to other technical constraints, grid officials must limit power through those lines to less than 12,000 megawatts to keep them working properly.

Think about it like water pipes, Baldick said. One main pipe feeds smaller pipes that provide water to individual homes. If you try to force more and more water into the pipes, you reach a limit where the pipes could burst. To avoid that problem, you would have two choices: build more pipes to offset the stress on the existing pipes, or limit the amount of water flowing through the pipes.

Those are the choices for the power grid: build more transmission to transport increasing amounts of renewable power from the west, or limit the amount of power on the transmission lines.

As the story notes, West Texas has all of the conditions you could want for solar and wind energy generation, but none of it matters if you can’t hook it up to the grid. As a result, the projections of wind and solar energy for the year are declining. The House passed a bill by Rep. Darby to expedite the process ERCOT uses to study and plan for new transmission projects and the Public Utility Commission’s ability to approve them, but it died in the Senate. The power companies themselves aren’t going to build more transmission capacity, so here we are. Sure seems like there ought to be a better way.

What are the limits on limiting vaccination requirements?

News item #1: Carnival will require COVID vaccinations for all passengers cruising from Galveston:

Carnival Cruise Line today announced plans to begin cruising from the Port of Galveston on July 3.

Cruises will be open to customers who are fully vaccinated, meaning that they can show proof that they received their final dose of vaccine at least 14 days before the cruise begins.

“The current CDC requirements for cruising with a guest base that is unvaccinated will make it very dificult to deliver the experience our guests expect, especially given the large number of families with younger children who sail with us,” Christine Duffy, president of Carnival, said in a press release. “As a result, our alternative is to operate our ships from the U.S. during the month of July with vaccinated guests.”

The Carnival Vista will begin operations on July 3, followed by the Carnival Breeze on July 15.

On the one hand, that sounds not only eminently sensible – I mean, cruise ships are often called “floating petri dishes”, and I say that as someone who has enjoyed going on a couple of cruises – it’s something that the cruise industry itself may see as existential. Who would want to put themselves in an extremely enclosed space with hundreds if not thousands of possibly virus-shedding people if they didn’t have to? Who would want to work under those conditions? If there’s one activity that scores near the top of the scale on “non-essential services” and “high-risk for COVID spread”, it’s going on a cruise. Who in their right mind would not want to encourage, if not outright mandate, cruise passengers being vaccinated before getting on board?

Hold that thought while we note news items #2, As Carnival requires vaccines for cruisers, Abbott to sign ban on ‘vaccine passports’.

Texas businesses cannot require their customers to prove their COVID-19 vaccine status under a bill soon to be signed by Gov. Greg Abbott.

The measure, Senate Bill 968, outlaws so-called “vaccine passports” and prevents businesses from asking consumers to show their vaccine cards to receive services. Abbott had issued a similar executive order in April, though that applied only to state agencies and other organizations that receive public funding.

“I’m signing a law today that prohibits any business operating in Texas from requiring vaccine passports or any vaccine information,” Abbott tweeted Monday. “Texas is open 100 percent without any restrictions or limitations or requirements.”

The Senate approved the measure unanimously in April, and the House passed it by a vote of 146-2 in May. Because it earned two-thirds support in both chambers, the bill will take effect immediately after Abbott signs it.

Any business that does not comply with the law “is not eligible to receive a grant or enter into a contract payable with state funds.” State agencies may also “require compliance … as a condition for a license, permit, or other state authorization necessary for conducting business in this state.”

It should be noted that SB968 is a much larger bill that has to do with disaster preparedness and response – it has sections on things like personal protection equipment contracts, a disease prevention information system, wellness checks for medically fragile individuals, and more – so while it does impose this restriction on “vaccine passports”, it’s very much not just about that.

That said, the answer to my rhetorical question is “Republican governors”. Florida’s top madman Ron DeSantis imposed a similar ban on cruise ships that depart from that state. As the story notes, the cruise industry operates in multiple states and in international waters – the ships themselves fly under various foreign flags. Also, too, the specific term “vaccine passports” is basically meaningless now, no such thing currently exists. But one way or another, we have an irresistible force careening into an immovable object. Something is going to have to give, and unless one side or the other backs down, it will surely be up to the federal courts to sort this out. In the meantime, if you yearn to party on the high seas again, check the fine print on your cruise contracts. The Press and the Trib have more.

UPDATE: One more thing to consider:

In other words, this is more hot air than anything else. Still likely to be fought out in court, but the stakes may not be as high as you think.

What was the effect of Texas’ early re-opening?

Here’s a new study by a trio of economic researchers that attempts to answer questions about the behavioral, public health, and economic effects of Greg Abbott ending the statewide mask mandate and all restrictions on how businesses can operate, all on March 3 of this year. Short answer: Pretty much nothing changed.

This study explores a unique policy shock in Texas to identify the causal impacts of a statewide reopening on public health and economic activity. Texas was first state in the United States to enact a “100% reopening.” Executive Order GA-34, issued by Governor Greg Abbott, (i) eliminated statewide capacity constraints on all businesses, and (ii) abolished the statewide mask mandate (Abbott 2021). Texas’ “first mover” position makes the state’s reopening plausibly exogenous relative to other later-reopening states that followed suit and eased restrictions. Under Governor Greg Abbott’s order, local businesses were free to impose their own voluntary restrictions. Furthermore, unlike the imposition of local shelter-in-place orders which were permitted and widely adopted (Dave et al. 2020a), Governor Abbott advanced the legal position that no local order can supersede the state’s reopening order and legally impose COVID-related capacity constraints on local businesses or fine local residents for not wearing masks.4 At the time the reopening was announced, the state of Texas had administered 5.7 million vaccine shots to its residents, fully vaccinating 11 percent of its adult (ages 16 and older) population Centers for Disease Control and Prevention 2021b). By March 29, all adults 16 and older were eligible to obtain a vaccine (Harper 2021) and by April 13, 15.2 million vaccines had been distributed in Texas (Johns Hopkins University 2021), with 26 percent of the adult population completely vaccinated.5 This share had reached nearly 40 percent by mid-May 2021.

This study is the first to examine the impact of a statewide reopening in the midst of a mass statewide vaccination effort. We document three key findings. First, using anonymized smartphone data from SafeGraph, Inc. and a synthetic control approach, we find that the Texas reopening had little impact on stay-at-home behavior or on foot traffic at numerous business locations, including restaurants, bars, entertainment venues, retail establishments, business services, personal care services, and grocery stores. Second, using COVID-19 case and mortality data from the New York Times, we find no evidence that the reopening affected the rate of new COVID-19 cases in the five-week period following the reopening.6 In addition, we find that state-level COVID-19 mortality rates were unaffected by the March 10 reopening. These null results persist when we explore heterogeneity in the state reopening by urbanicity and political ideology of Texas counties. We find no evidence of social distancing or COVID-19 effects of the reopening across more urban versus less urban Texas counties as well as across counties where the majority of residents supported Donald Trump or Joe Biden in the 2020 presidential election.

Finally, we explore whether Governor Abbott’s reopening order generated short-run economic growth in Texas. Using weekly state-level data on UI claims per 1,000 covered jobs from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), synthetic control and difference-in-differences estimates show that neither continued UI claims filed nor new UI claims filed (per 1,000 UI covered job) fell in the five “full week” period following the March 10 reopening. Moreover, using state-level data from the St. Louis Federal Reserve Economic Data (FRED), we find no evidence that the Texas reopening reduced the short-run (March 2021) unemployment rate or employment-to-population ratio. Supplemental analysis of microdata from the Current Population Basic Monthly Survey (CPS-BMS) show no evidence that that the reopening affected employment-to-population ratios at bars, restaurants, or entertainment venues. Taken together, our findings underscore the limits of late-pandemic era changes in COVID-19 reopening policies to alter private behavior.

See here for my post about the end of the statewide mask mandate, which I contended should have waited another couple of weeks until more people were vaccinated. I still think that would have been the smarter policy, but what this study tells us is that a lot of people – both mask-wearers and mask-resisters – kept on doing what they’d been doing. In addition, localities that had mask mandates (at least up until recently) largely kept them in place, and businesses that required people to wear masks continued to do so.

That combination of factors is very likely why not much changed despite the new, relaxed rules. Cellphone mobility data was used in May last year to predict the second-wave summer spike, and the reason for it was that with the initial lifting of stay-at-home orders, people went back to pre-pandemic levels of activity, with predictable results. The authors’ point is that at this later stage of the pandemic, people’s behavior was much more accustomed to being restricted, so a change in government policy had much less effect on them. That also means it had much less effect on economic activity, contra what Abbott promised, for the reason that many had proclaimed for months, namely that you can’t really reopen the economy until most people feel comfortable enough to get back out there and shop and dine at restaurants and go to the gym and movies and whatnot. And they won’t feel that way until the pandemic is well and truly beaten, which means taking it seriously until it’s been controlled.

Anyway, there’s grist for a lot of mills in there, so check it out. It’s kind of dense, so if you’d rather have someone else summarize and analyze it for you, there’s this Atlantic story. If even that is too long for you, or if like me you have run out of free Atlantic articles to read, this Twitter thread from the author will have to suffice. He doesn’t touch on the economic stuff, just the health and behavior stuff, but his explanation of the theories about this are nice and succinct. I’m sure we’ll see further study on this topic – it’s too interesting and important for there to be just this one – but for now, this is what we have.

The Chron debunks P Bush

You love to see it.

In recent days, Texas Land Commissioner George P. Bush has said his office is not to blame for failing to award Houston or Harris County a single penny of $1 billion in flood mitigation funding last week.

Bush and his spokeswoman alternately blamed the snub on criteria Texas was forced to use by President Donald Trump’s housing department, complex regulations by the Biden administration and the failure of the city and county to submit better applications.

A Houston Chronicle analysis of the Department of Housing and Urban Development flood mitigation program revealed a different reality: Not only does the federal government grant states significant discretion to decide how to spend their funds, but the criteria Bush’s General Land Office developed discriminated against populous areas.

The state agency ignored advice from the city of Houston, which warned in a January 2020 letter that its rules effectively would penalize urban areas for having large populations. And several scoring metrics the GLO designed drew criticism from engineers, who said they do a poor job evaluating the merits of a particular flood protection project.

“To miss it in the development of the criteria is one thing,” said Melvin Spinks, a past president of Houston’s American Council of Engineering Companies. “But then to receive the applications and not let it dawn on you how flawed they are is the other part that we go on scratching our heads. Who could be that senseless?”

After heavy criticism from local Republican and Democratic elected officials, whose constituents rank flood protection as among their top issues, Bush on Wednesday said he had “heard the overwhelming concerns” and would ask HUD to allocate $750 million directly to Harris County. He provided no clarity, however, on how long that would take nor where that money would come from. HUD officials in Washington said they could not comment on a proposal Texas had yet to formally make.

For now, the funding landscape remains the same: Despite Harris County having a greater population than the other 48 eligible recipient counties combined, GLO last week awarded just 9 percent of its $1 billion here, for projects in the municipalities of Pasadena, Galena Park, Jacinto City and Baytown.

“Right now, the city is under the assumption we have no money for any of our projects,” said Steve Costello, Houston’s chief recovery officer.

See here, here, here, here, and here for the background. At a high level, there’s nothing here we didn’t already know. The metrics were designed to screw Houston and Harris County, the GLO was warned about it, they failed to take any opportunity to correct course even though they would have seen the results before releasing them, and their excuses are a steaming pile of crap. This story goes into the details, and for that it’s worth your time. It also gave us this lovely tweet thread from reporter Zach Despart:

That thread is a good summary of this story if you don’t want to read the whole story. But you should, it’s good and you will feel a burning desire to vote against George P. Bush at your next opportunity. Check it out.

Another upward revision of the freeze death count

Buzzfeed News takes a deep dive.

The true number of people killed by the disastrous winter storm and power outages that devastated Texas in February is likely four or five times what the state has acknowledged so far. A BuzzFeed News data analysis reveals the hidden scale of a catastrophe that trapped millions of people in freezing darkness, cut off access to running water, and overwhelmed emergency services for days.

The state’s tally currently stands at 151 deaths. But by looking at how many more people died during and immediately after the storm than would have been expected — an established method that has been used to count the full toll of other disasters — we estimate that 700 people were killed by the storm during the week with the worst power outages. This astonishing toll exposes the full consequence of officials’ neglect in preventing the power grid’s collapse despite repeated warnings of its vulnerability to cold weather, as well as the state’s failure to reckon with the magnitude of the crisis that followed.

Many of the uncounted victims of the storm and power outages were already medically vulnerable — with chronic conditions including cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and kidney problems. But without the intense cold and stress they experienced during the crisis, many of these people could still be alive today.

[…]

The BuzzFeed News analysis of deaths during the storm is based on mortality data from the CDC. It relies on a method called “excess deaths” analysis, recently used to estimate the full toll of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Our analysis, reviewed by three independent experts, suggests that between 426 and 978 more people than expected died in Texas in the week ending February 20 alone. Our best estimate is that 702 people were killed by the storm that week. Even the lowest end of the range is almost three times the number officials have acknowledged. Neighboring states that were hit hard by the winter storm but did not experience the widespread power outages seen in Texas did not show a spike in deaths.

BuzzFeed News reached out to relatives of people who died during the power outages, identified from dozens of wrongful death lawsuits as well as death reports obtained from public records requests to medical examiners in eight of the biggest counties in Texas. Interviews revealed stories of anguish and confusion, as families struggled to find out exactly how their relatives died.

This confusion also poses real economic challenges for survivors. For Mary Gonzales, the delay in obtaining a cause of death for her husband meant she was unable to claim an income from his pension for almost three months. And without an official acknowledgment tying their loved ones’ deaths to the storm, families will be unable to claim federal assistance for funeral costs.

The high death toll adds pressure on state legislators, energy regulators, and Texas Gov. Greg Abbott to harden the state’s infrastructure to avert another deadly disaster.

Abbott’s press secretary, Renae Eze, did not respond to questions about the significantly higher death toll or whether the state would investigate further, but said Abbott was “working collaboratively with the House and Senate to find meaningful and lasting solutions to ensure these tragic events are never repeated.”

“The Governor joins all Texans in mourning every single life lost during the winter storm, and we pray for the families who are suffering from the loss of a loved one,” she said.

But with the state’s legislative session ending on May 31, lawmakers only have a week left to finalize a proposal to address some of the vulnerabilities that made the February storm so horrific.

“As it stands, nothing has happened,” said Michael Webber, a professor of mechanical engineering focused on energy infrastructure at the University of Texas at Austin.

As of the end of March, the official death count was at 111, and a Houston Chronicle analysis in early April estimated it at 194. As this story among others notes, there are only so many medical examiners in the state, and only so many deaths result in an autopsy. As was the case with COVID, some deaths are attributed to chronic conditions like heart disease despite the obvious external cause. Similar statistical methods that estimate “excess deaths” have been used for COVID as well, and you can read how they arrived at these figures in the story. We’ll never know an exact number, but we do know that the official number will always be too low. Daily Kos has more.

What are P Bush’s pledges worth?

Something less than $750 million would be my guess.

When Republican Texas Land Commissioner George P. Bush announced Wednesday evening that he would ask federal officials to send Harris County $750 million in flood mitigation aid, he told Houstonians the move was a response to their “overwhelming concerns” over his agency’s decision to deny the city and county any relief days earlier.

Bush’s announcement, however, raised new questions about where the money would come from and how it would affect future rounds of funding. Local leaders, who are not guaranteed any money until federal housing officials sign off on Bush’s plan, said the amount remained well short of the $1.3 billion they had sought from the Texas General Land Office for a range of projects intended to mitigate future floods.

County officials are particularly worried that in accepting the $750 million, they would be disqualified from future funding competitions. And Mayor Sylvester Turner questioned why Bush would ask the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to make the payment, effectively ensuring the money will not arrive for months, instead of allocating it himself.

Houston, meanwhile, remains shut out. A GLO spokeswoman said the county could consider sharing its allotment, if it arrives. But Harris County may be reluctant to do so because it is trying to close a $700 million gap in its flood bond program without raising taxes.

“I see this as a failed attempt on (Bush’s) part to try to pit the city and county against each other,” said Precinct 2 Commissioner Adrian Garcia.

Turner called it “foolishness” for Bush to not request any mitigation aid for the city. The mayor’s appointed chief recovery officer, Steve Costello, said city officials would continue to seek funding for the city that aligns with their share of the damage from Hurricane Harvey.

“Right now the city is under the assumption we have no money for any of our projects,” Costello said.

See here for the previous entry. If this is taken seriously and pursued, it would take up to 90 days for the money to come through. It’s hard to see why Harris County and especially Houston would take this seriously, with there being so many unanswered questions. This has the feel to me of Bush just scrambling to find something that will take the heat off. It doesn’t look like Houston or Harris will take the bait, so either Bush figures out a way to undo the colossal mess he created or it remains awfully awkward for the foreseeable future.

Hospitalizations are down

Very good news.

The number of Texans hospitalized for COVID-19 this week hit its lowest mark in nearly a year, the latest sign that the state is turning a corner.

According to the state Department of State Health Services figures released Wednesday, fewer than 2,000 people were hospitalized for COVID-19 for the first time since June, 2020. Wednesday’s data showed 1,962 people were in the hospital due to the virus; by Thursday, the number had dropped again — to 1,899.

It’s the first time the hospitalization rate has dipped below 2,000 since June 2020, and a massive drop from its January peak of more than 14,000.

The news was welcomed by public health officials and experts, though they also warned against complacency until more people are vaccinated.

“We are at this point where the virus is basically in an arm-wrestling match with vaccines, and vaccines are winning,” said Dr. David Persse, Houston’s chief medical officer. “Things are absolutely getting better, but I don’t want us to completely take our foot off the brake.”

He said the drop in hospitalizations is likely due to the elderly — who are more at-risk of serious symptoms — being initially prioritized for inoculations. Nearly 70 percent of all Texans older than 65 have been fully vaccinated as of Thursday, according to DSHS.

Persse remains worried about the number of people who have not been vaccinated.

“There’s still a risk,” he said.

As of Thursday, about 52 percent of all eligible Texans — those aged 12 and older — have received at least one vaccine dose, a number that puts the state near the bottom of all states for vaccines per capita.

Like I said, this is all very good, but there’s no question it could be better. We could have more people vaccinated, and we could be vaccinating the rest at a faster clip. We could have more unvaccinated people wearing masks and exercising caution about being around other people. We could have fewer people who don’t intend to get vaccinated. Our numbers are better than they’ve been in a year – basically, since the start of last year’s summer surge – and they’re going in the right direction, but we’re still vulnerable to an uptick. If we make it through without that happening, at least some of that will be pure dumb luck.

P Bush tries to make amends

What a joker.

Texas Land Commissioner George P. Bush said Wednesday he would ask the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to directly send Harris County $750 million in flood mitigation aid related to Hurricane Harvey, days after his agency declined to award the county any money for their proposed projects.

The snub sparked an intense and immediate backlash from Houston-area Democrats and Republicans, who demanded that Bush revise the General Land Office’s metrics for doling out $2.1 billion in federal relief for flood projects. The officials noted that Houston bore the brunt of the historic hurricane, yet had failed to secure one cent from the initial $1 billion round of funding.

In a statement, Bush blamed the situation on federal “red tape requirements and complex regulations” that he described as a “hallmark” of the Biden administration. He said the Land Office, which administers Texas’ federal disaster relief, had been delayed in distributing the Harvey funds by the U.S. Housing Department, which did not publish rules regulating the use of the money until two years after Harvey. That happened under the administration of former president Donald Trump.

Bush said he had directed GLO officials to “work around the federal government’s regulations” by seeking the direct allocation, though he did not say which regulations had prevented the agency from awarding the money to Harris County itself.

A GLO spokeswoman said the $750 million, if approved by HUD, would go directly to Harris County. The county could then decide to send some of the money to the city for its own mitigation projects.

Mayor Sylvester Turner said Bush’s plan would still leave the city with only a fraction of the $4.3 billion approved by Congress in 2018 to help Texas prevent future flooding. Turner and other local officials have long insisted Houston and Harris County should receive roughly half of that amount, which they say would align with their initial share of Texas’ housing recovery aid and the proportion of damage taken on by the Houston area during Hurricane Harvey.

“Harris County should receive $1 billion and the City of Houston should receive $1 billion,” Turner said. “All Commissioner Bush has to do is amend his state plan to provide that direct allocation to the city of Houston and to Harris County.”

[…]

A spokesman for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development disputed the Land Office’s account, saying state officials have “full responsibility and jurisdiction over who gets the money.” While HUD must sign off on the GLO’s plan for distributing the funds, there did not appear to be any HUD guidance that required the state to use the criteria opposed by the city and county.

See here, here, and here for the background. A succinct summary of this saga:

Also, too, the $750 million is a bit more than half of the $1.34 billion Houston and Harris County had asked for, and the GLO did not say if this would be the total amount Houston and Harris would get or if this would somehow be carved out of the initial $2.1 billion allocation, and if so what would happen to the grants that had been made. But other than that, great job, Bushie! The Trib and Campos, who knows what the “P” in “P Bush” stands for, have more.

The kids are getting vaxxed

Good news.

In the first week that Texas adolescents were eligible to be vaccinated for COVID-19, after a year of pandemic-induced isolation from their families, peers and classrooms, more than 100,000 kids ages 12-15 poured into pediatricians’ offices, vaccine hubs and school gyms across Texas to get their shots.

One of them was Austin Ford, a 14-year-old in Houston whose mother is a pediatric nurse, whose father has a disability that makes him vulnerable to COVID, and who lost a family member to the virus last month.

“It was a no-brainer for us,” said his mother, Sherryl Ford, 46, who took Austin to Texas Children’s Hospital for his shot last Friday, less than 24 hours after the Pfizer vaccine was approved for emergency use for his age group. “I have friends who took their kids the night before. In the days since the federal approval on May 13, about 6% of Texas children ages 12-15 have gotten a dose of the Pfizer vaccine. It took more than a month to reach that percentage for eligible adults last winter when the vaccination effort began.

It marks a promising start, health officials and others say, to the state’s first attempt to inoculate Texas’ estimated 1.7 million adolescents, who have endured isolation and virtual-learning challenges for more than a year.

“It’s amazing,” said Dr. Seth Kaplan, a Frisco pediatrician and president of the Texas Pediatric Society, which represents about 4,600 pediatricians and other child medicine professionals.”

[…]

In Texas, where the issue of vaccinating children for any kind of illness has sparked intense political debate, parents are permitted to opt out of vaccines required to attend public schools, as well as opt in to a statewide immunization registry that tracks childhood vaccinations.

But while Texas health officials have expressed concern about what they describe as a growing anti-vaccine movement, between 97% and 99% of Texas schoolchildren are fully vaccinated, according to the Texas Department of State Health Services.

State health officials don’t expect that high of a number with the COVID vaccine, at least not right away, but say that number signals a high rate of general vaccine acceptance among Texas parents, said Chris Van Deusen, spokesperson for DSHS.

The state is doing research to determine the best messages and outreach for parents, who will be targeted in a public awareness campaign over the summer, Van Deusen said.

Texas pediatricians have also been talking with parents for months about vaccinating their kids, in preparation for its availability to that age group, Kaplan said.

See here for the background. My younger daughter is in that six percent, and in less than two weeks we’ll be a fully vaccinated family. That’s not only good for the kids, it’s good for our overall vaccination numbers, which can use all the help they can get. Given the universal return of in-person school and the removal of mask mandates, this makes a lot of sense. The schools themselves will be used to help get kids vaccinated, which is a big deal considering how many obstacles some folks face in getting the shots.

Statewide, more than three dozen school districts from Laredo to McKinney and from East Texas to El Paso have become official providers and have received vaccines, either for students or staff or, in McKinney’s case, for both.

“We want to be part of the solution for our staff and our students, and we want education and our school experience to get back to what it was pre-pandemic,” Pratt said.

Although the vaccines require parental consent, a key part of the enthusiasm appears to be coming from teenagers themselves.

“Most of the kids that I’ve spoken to are really ready to get it because they understand that even though we kind of opened everything up and they are getting back to normal, there’s still a risk for them,” Kaplan said. “If they can get vaccinated, then their participation in activities that they want to be participating in is that much safer for them.”

I don’t know what we need to do to get HISD involved as well, but we should do that. The Dallas Observer has more.

Abbott knew the blackouts were coming

Good morning. Take a deep, cleansing breath, have a seat, and then read this.

Texas Governor Greg Abbott’s office knew of looming natural gas shortages on February 10, days before a deep freeze plunged much of the state into blackouts, according to documents obtained by E&E News and reviewed by Ars.

Abbott’s office first learned of the likely shortfall in a phone call from then-chair of the Public Utility Commission of Texas DeAnne Walker. In the days leading up to the power outages that began on February 15, Walker and the governor’s office spoke 31 more times.

Walker also spoke with regulators, politicians, and utilities dozens of times about the gas curtailments that threatened the state’s electrical grid. The PUC chair’s diary for the days before the outage shows her schedule dominated by concerns over gas curtailments and the impact they would have on electricity generation. Before and during the disaster, she was on more than 100 phone calls with various agencies and utilities regarding gas shortages.

After the blackouts began, Abbott appeared on Fox News to falsely assert that wind turbines were the driving force behind the outages.

Wind turbines were a factor, but only a small one. Wind in Texas doesn’t produce as much power in the winter, and regulators don’t typically rely on wind turbines to provide significant amounts of power. Instead, regulators anticipated that natural gas and coal power plants would meet demand.

In public, Bill Magness, then-CEO of ERCOT, the state’s electric grid regulator, didn’t seem concerned about the approaching weather. In a virtual meeting on February 9, Magness said, “As those of you in Texas know, we do have a cold front coming this way… Operations has issued an operating condition notice just to make sure everyone is up to speed with their winterization and we’re ready for the several days of pretty frigid temperatures to come our way.” During the two-and-a-half-hour public portion of the meeting, Magness devoted just 40 seconds to the unusual weather.

There’s more, so read the rest. I don’t know about you, but I’m beginning to think that Greg Abbott isn’t very good at this “being Governor” thing. Maybe we should consider electing someone else. Just a thought.

Two arguments against Abbott’s rollback of extended unemployment insurance

It’s bad economic policy.

“I’m still nervous that we’re bowing out of this program before the labor market is fully healed,” said Dietrich Vollrath, an economics professor at the University of Houston. “The bad consequences of doing too much is limited,” he said, “but the bad consequences of doing too little can really be detrimental.”

About 800,000 Texans were receiving federal jobless assistance at the end of April, according to the most recent data. Nearly half of them — the self-employed or other gig economy workers — will lose all of their benefits at the end of June, when the governor is ending the additional aid. The rest will see a steep drop in their weekly checks.

[…]

While the Texas economy has largely rebounded from the height of the pandemic, when the unemployment rate topped 12 percent, companies across the state are still firing employees at two to three times the normal rate, according to Vollrath. He said that’s a sign the recovery remains fragile.

Labor experts already have some preliminary findings on the impacts of increased benefits during the pandemic. Economists at Yale University found that the $600 unemployment checks approved early on under the Trump administration did not significantly deter unemployed people from reentering the workforce.

Belinda Román, an assistant economics professor at St. Mary’s University, said ending the payments could backfire and instead drive people further into poverty. If it does work, she said, it may force at least some people into underpaid jobs that they have decided are no longer worth the time or health risk.

“My perspective is, pay better and that probably incentivizes a lot of people to come to work,” she said.

See here for the background. Those $600 checks also largely kept the economy from cratering a year ago. Taking away this benefit now, when the economy is still in recovery and lots of people are still not vaccinated and being cautious about going out, will mostly have the effect of making people who are already on the economic margins even poorer.

Also, too, there are other reasons why some businesses are having problems hiring.

Britt Philyaw, executive director of the Heard That Foundation, a Dallas non-profit that provides support for hospitality workers, said she doesn’t know of anyone who has turned down restaurant jobs to stay on unemployment.

“I find it really disturbing some of the things that I’ve seen on social media. I don’t like that the labor shortage is being politicized and how it is being said that people are lazy or they’re making more money on unemployment. I don’t think it’s the truth. The people we’ve worked with throughout the pandemic who were on unemployment and got their stimulus checks were not making ends meet,” she said.

What the pandemic did, in her opinion, was highlight the instability of restaurant jobs. The quirks of service industry work like tips and irregular schedules are often draws for many people in the industry, but they were cast in a different light when the pandemic hit, Philyaw said. Suddenly the things that were once perks of the business were no longer worth sacrificing health insurance, predictable pay and stability for.

“Something that is desperately lacking from the conversation is the fact that 70% of the population that works in the industry are women, some of them single with kids. I think that should be a huge part of the conversation,” Philyaw said.

The service industry labor market was already tight before the pandemic, and with even more jobs than there are workers, Philyaw said employees have the ability to be choosy about who they do go work for, which is making it even harder for employers, some of whom are offering sign-on bonuses and raising wages to attract new hires.

“People in front-of-house and back-of-house [of restaurants] are shopping around,” she said. “And they’re looking for things they value like, ‘Am I going to work in a safe environment? Am I going to work in an environment where I’m not going to be harassed or bullied or forced to work for free?’ So there’s just a lot of things at play, but I really don’t think it’s as simple as the stories that grab the most attention.”

For Andrea Winn, a long-time restaurant industry professional who’s held server, sommelier and wine director positions at Dallas restaurants like Bolsa and Abacus, the decision to leave the restaurant industry came when the downtown Dallas restaurant she was working at reopened over the summer and management did not adhere to capacity limits, mask mandates and other safety protocols.

She took a full-time job as a wine and beer buyer for Whole Foods, stepping away from the industry she loved and had worked in since completing her degree in history and getting out of a desk job she loathed. It wasn’t easy to leave the dining room — she was saying goodbye to higher pay, flexible hours and the ability to travel when she wanted — but the benefits outweighed the cons, she said.

“I have a job now [at Whole Foods] where I am guaranteed a certain amount of hours every week, I know how much I’m going to get paid, and I have health insurance and sick time. The sick time was a really big thing because working in restaurants, unless you are really sick, you are expected to work sick. You’re looked down upon, and your schedule will be threatened if you don’t [work],” Winn said.

There is a common perception that restaurant workers are young, uneducated and in the industry out of necessity, Winn said, and such thinking makes it easy to believe that the shortage of workers is due to an unwillingness to work. But the reality is the industry is made up of seasoned professionals like her who sought out restaurant and bar careers and are now choosing to pursue careers that offer a better quality of life, she said.

Some jobs are better than others. People who have kids at home and no child care available don’t have a lot of options right now. Making them desperate doesn’t seem like a good idea to me.

P Bush tries to deflect blame on flood funding fiasco

You can run, but you can’t hide, George P. Bush.

Texas Land Commissioner George P. Bush blamed local leaders Friday for Houston and Harris County’s failure to secure a single penny of roughly $1 billion in federal flood mitigation funds tied to Hurricane Harvey, though a county commissioner said Bush privately pledged his support for giving Harris County future aid directly rather than forcing it to compete for the money.

The Texas General Land Office, which is responsible for allocating U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development flood mitigation dollars, told city and county officials Thursday they would receive nothing of the more than $1.3 billion they had sought for 14 mitigation projects.

Mayor Sylvester Turner and County Judge Lina Hidalgo blamed the result on certain project scoring criteria that disadvantaged urban areas.

A General Land Office spokeswoman said the agency was required to use the criteria developed by federal officials at the Housing and Urban Development Department.

HUD disputed that Friday evening, laying the blame squarely on Bush’s team.

“HUD has not prevented Texas from awarding CDBG-MIT funds to Houston or Harris County,” agency spokesman Michael Burns said in a statement. “The formula for allocation was created by the state of Texas. They have full responsibility and jurisdiction over who gets the money that was allocated to the state for flood mitigation.”

Burns did not say whether HUD would intervene. The agency’s comments capped a whirlwind two days where Bush visited areas that received awards. In all, the GLO awarded about $1 billion for 81 different projects across 40 counties, including $179 million in Galveston County.

See here for the background. The embedded image is a statement from Republican County Commissioner Tom Ramsey, so this isn’t just Democratic carping. (UPDATE: Commissioner Jack Cagle calls the GLO’s decision “shocking” and says it “mocks common sense”.) This isn’t and shouldn’t be just about formulas and algorithms. It also has to be about the goals, which should then be reflected by the formulas. As I said last time, it should be obvious that the city of Houston and Harris County need and deserve a significant portion of this funding. We suffered the most from Harvey, we have the greatest amount of current and future need, and this was the intent of Congress when that money was appropriated. There’s no world in which giving zero dollars to Houston and Harris County is rational, efficient, or just. The GLO was given the responsibility to distribute these funds – over the objections of the city and the county, by the way – and so it is entirely on them to ensure an outcome that made sense. Which is the opposite of what we got.

Bush, who on Friday toured those areas and others to announce award recipients, said “constituents have to start asking the City of Houston and Harris County who exactly are filling out these applications, and are they being effective in representing their constituents,” according to KTRK-13.

He did not specify what errors the city and county made that prevented them from receiving any funds. City and county officials said GLO staff never informed them of any mistakes on their applications nor asked for any additional information during the scoring process.

GLO spokeswoman Brittany Eck said she could not confirm nor deny Bush’s comment that cast blame on local leaders for Houston’s lack of mitigation funds, but suggested the city and county should have acted more strategically by submitting fewer projects, perhaps even offering a joint application to strengthen their chances for approval by increasing the number of people who would benefit.

GLO had capped the maximum award application at $300 million, however, regardless of the applicant’s population. That discouraged the city and county from submitting mega-projects for consideration.

[…]

Turner said the snub was just the latest attack by Republican state officials on the Democrats who run the state’s largest cities and counties.

He said while politicians may be the intended targets, the lack of flood protection funding hurts average residents.

“This is not about some paperwork; this is not about not scoring as high,” Turner said. “This is about state leaders intentionally deciding not to allocate one single dime to local communities that were substantially impacted by Hurricane Harvey.”

Steve Costello, the city’s chief recovery officer, said GLO staff failed to understand “the difference between urban drainage and regional drainage” when setting their scoring criteria.

“Our projects were neighborhood revitalization projects,” Costello said. “If you think about urban drainage, we were servicing 100 percent of the people in the service area of the urban drainage project. And yet, when you divide it by 2.2 million people in the city, you get this detrimental impact on the fact that it’s not enough people being served.”

In January 2020, Turner emailed Bush, recommending the GLO revise the metric that considered the share of residents who would benefit from the project for that very reason.

“The system is flawed. The evaluation was flawed,” Costello said. “Commissioner Bush should have read his email.”

This was a screw job, but it wasn’t a screw up. This was the intended outcome. Any assurances from Bush that he’ll personally help us out with the next distribution are extremely hollow. Just look at what he did to us this time around.