Off the Kuff Rotating Header Image

Elsewhere in Houston

Downtown kiosks

I’m not sure yet how I feel about this.

City Council on Wednesday will consider a plan to install up to 125 interactive digital kiosks around the city, a proposal that has drawn support from city officials who tout the advertising revenue benefits and opposition from some who equate the kiosks to sidewalk billboards.

If approved by council, the city would have Ohio-based IKE Smart City LLC install at least 75 kiosks within the next three years, focusing on commercial areas with heavy pedestrian traffic. The kiosks, which are designed to resemble massive smart phones, would display dining, transit, event and lodging options and provide free Wi-fi and 911 access, among other features.

The city would receive 42 percent of the revenue generated from digital advertisements displayed on the kiosks, providing an estimated $35 to $50 million over the course of the 12-year contract, according to the Mayor’s Office of Economic Development. Under the agreement, IKE Smart City would guarantee a minimum payment to the city of $11 to $16 million over the 12 years, depending on the number of kiosks installed.

City officials would have the option to extend the contract for another 10 years, in two five-year increments, if IKE Smart City meets certain performance goals. The company would pay for installation of the kiosks without using any public dollars.

Opponents of the kiosk proposal include Scenic Houston, a nonprofit that helped push for the city’s 1980 sign code that bans any new billboards. In a letter sent Friday to Andy Icken, the city’s chief development officer, Scenic Houston Executive Director Heather Houston said the board “strongly feels that the digital kiosks constitute digital billboards with a primary purpose to advertise.”

Icken disagreed, arguing Houstonians and tourists would find the kiosks helpful in navigating the city.

“I just don’t think of this as a digital billboard,” Icken said. “I believe they are interactive display screens, much like your iPhone, that allow people to get information.”

The kiosks also would display local job listings, arts and culture options, such as museums and theaters, a list of government buildings and services in the city, and a list of homeless shelters. Advertisements could not include racially derogatory, political or sexually explicit content, nor any ads for tobacco products.

Cooke Kelsey, chair of Scenic Houston’s advocacy committee, said the group also is concerned that business owners would lack the ability to prevent kiosks from being placed on sidewalks in front of their establishments.

Additionally, Kelsey argued the kiosks would defy the purpose of the city’s sidewalk right-of-way, which he said generally is supposed to be used for traffic-related street signage, such as stop signs.

“That’s what a right-of-way or easement is, an understanding that they use it for those types of purposes,” Kelsey said. “So, putting an 800-pound smartphone in front of your front door, even if it’s a map, that’s stretching it. If they’re starting to broadcast messages that have nothing to do with traffic, you’ve gone way outside of that.”

The embedded image is of one of these things in San Antonio, from a Scenic Houston action page to email your opposition to City Council. I get the concerns, especially about sidewalk space, and I agree that business owners should have a say in whether one of them is on their sidewalk. There are already colorful direction-oriented signs around downtown, which these would either supplement or supplant. I guess this would feel like less of a big deal if our bus stops had advertising on them, as they do in many other big cities. Honestly, my reaction is a shrug, perhaps because I just don’t see these things on the same level of ugliness as billboards. Maybe I’ll change my mind later, I don’t know. CM Sallie Alcorn is on record in the story as being opposed, while CM Ed Pollard is in favor. I predict someone will tag this, and then we’ll see what the rest of Council thinks. What’s your opinion? Campos, who does not like them, has more.

The COVID wastewater tracking project has been a big success

This has been one of the best things to come out of this interminable and miserable COVID experience.

Lauren Stadler’s environmental engineering students always pose the same question at the beginning of a semester: “What happens to water in the toilet after you flush?”

Historically, humans have worked to quickly dispose and eradicate their own waste, which can carry diseases.

But an area’s waste creates a snapshot of who is there and what they’ve been exposed to, said Stadler, a wastewater engineer and environmental microbiologist at Rice University. She’s working with the Houston Health Department and Baylor College of Medicine’s TAILOR program to find SARS-CoV-2 in the city’s wastewater.

Stadler’s hunt has revealed variants in particular areas, heightening the city’s urgency to procure resources — COVID tests, informational meetings, advertising and now vaccine sites — in an effort to quash them before they proliferate.

“The beauty and challenge of wastewater is that it represents a pool of sample — we’ll never get an individual person’s SARS-CoV-2 strain, but a mixture of everyone in that population,” Stadler said. “We can find a population level of emergence of mutations that might be unique to Houston.”

[…]

Variant tracking has become an important part of the wastewater analysis process, Stadler said.

In February, the city and its research partners began seeing a quick emergence of the B.1.1.7 variant, which is now the dominant variant in the area. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, nearly 21,000 cases of the B.1.1.7 variant have been detected in nationwide.

Now that the team has gathered data and built a sustainable process, Stadler said they are using this information to forecast future pandemics. “Taking wastewater data, you can predict positivity rates and forecast infection burdens — it has this predictive power essentially. It’ll be very important to identify areas in the city experiencing increases in infection, and we can direct resources.”

The wastewater analysis team works with public works employees to collect weekly samples from nearly 200 sites across the city.

“I think they see this as a monitoring tool beyond the pandemic, and we see it as well,” Stadler said. “Hopefully, when SARS-CoV-2 is behind us, we will be able to monitor for an endemic virus, like flu. We can use wastewater monitoring to look for other viruses, bacterial pathogens and other pathogens of concern.”

See here and here for recent entries. I don’t have much to add, just my admiration for everyone involved and the knowledge they have gained. This was a simple and inexpensive innovation, and it will yield public health benefits for years to come. Kudos to all.

The best time to buy a house in Houston was last year

Or the year before that, or the year before that

The O’Neals are part of a nationwide real estate frenzy playing out in Houston that is propelling prices to new highs. Houses are frequently drawing multiple offers, often above the asking price and can sell in a matter of days if they’re in good condition, according to local real estate agents.

The median price of a single-family home reached $260,212 in 2020, up 6.2 percent from 2019, according to an analysis of home sales and prices compiled by the Houston Association of Realtors for the Houston Chronicle. The increase in the median sales price was nearly twice the 3.2 percent year-over-year gain in 2019, according to HAR.

The increase came amid demand fueled by continued low interest rates, an extreme shortage of houses on the market and a rekindled desire for homes in the suburbs stemming from the pandemic as people spend more time at home. At the same time, despite the rising prices, the pandemic forced people to cancel vacations, stop eating out and allowed them to pay down debt, giving them more buying power than ever. Some of that may carry over to the future.

“We have a new habit of spending a lot of time at home,” said Ted C. Jones, chief economist with Stewart Title. “We’ll definitely eat out more, but maybe not as much as we did 24 months ago.”

Meantime, said Frank Lucco, an appraiser with Accurity Qualified Analytics, “Houses are flying off the shelves.”

Lucco said he has never seen Houston home prices rise this quickly in his 43 years as an appraiser. Traditionally, home prices have risen 3 percent to 4 percent annually over the last two decades. The veteran appraiser has been constantly adjusting his appraisals upward to reflect Houston’s fast rising prices.

“There’s multiple contracts on houses,” he said. “It’s not uncommon for houses to sell in the same day it’s listed.”

In March, 2,165 houses in the Houston area — 23.2 percent of the month’s sales — sold for above asking price, according to HAR. That’s nearly three times the 8 percent that sold for more than asking a year ago.

Everyone reading this in Austin and its environs is no doubt nodding their head grimly. You want crazy home prices and bidding wars, that’s the place for it. The same is going on in the greater D/FW area as well. As this story notes, there’s a lot of demand out in the burbs, with their bigger houses and spacious yards that have been a blessing for many in the pandemic, but there’s also a lot of demand for the urban core, especially among younger buyers. There’s plenty of construction in my neighborhood, and I can’t think of any lots that have been on the market for more than a couple of weeks. Whatever else you might say, it’s better to be a place where people want to live.

Whither downtown?

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

On vaccine equity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Our COVID numbers are staying down

Let’s keep this going.

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Space City Safe

I wholeheartedly endorse this.

A new crowdsourced website that allows Houstonians to vet a business or restaurant to see if they are following COVID-19 guidelines has exploded with responses.

The website, Space City Safe, is the brainchild of 25-year-old Heights resident Chris Haseler. Haseler, who works as an engineer, created the website the weekend after Texas Gov. Greg Abbott lifted the statewide mask mandate and opened Texas back up 100%.

“I think a lot of Houston was caught off guard by the governor’s announcement,” Haseler said. “A lot of people don’t feel safe quite yet.”

Haseler’s website allows users to input information about a Houston business or restaurant, including if they are requiring masks, social distancing and their capacity level. It also lets users leave comments about their experiences, link to where they got their information (such as a restaurant’s Instagram page), and make corrections.

“One of the integral parts of the website is being able to specify the information source, it sort of adds a level of accuracy,” Haseler said. “So you’ll notice for a lot of the website, it’s the business owner themselves who have put up their COVID restrictions.”

The site has grown to house just over 600 businesses. The boom in responses is not something Haseler expected – he created the website as a challenge for himself, “just for fun to learn about something new.”

“I certainly was not expecting this to take off at all,” Haseler said. “The fact that it has garnered so much attention and so many users has been a surprise and a lot of fun to deal with.”

Hey, if it’s up to businesses to decide how they want to handle it, then it’s up to the rest of us to decide what kind of response from businesses we want to support. I’d much rather know this ahead of time. The one piece of data on the site that I’d have included is whether there’s an outdoor option, but this is fine. I applaud the effort. If you don’t see your favorite place there, you can send its info to Space City Safe yourself. At some point we’ll need websites like this less, but we’re not at that point just yet. In the meantime, keep yourself informed so you can keep yourself safe.

A new downtown park

Something to look forward to, when we’re all comfortable being in crowded spaces again, even outside crowded spaces.

Houston officials broke ground [earlier this month] on a new park in south downtown that by next year will provide the area with its first addition of major greenspace since Discovery Green opened more than a decade ago.

The park will take up most of the block surrounded by Bell, Fannin, Leeland and San Jacinto streets, replacing a Goodyear Auto Service Center. It will include a central lawn area, gardens on the north and south sides, dog runs for large and small breeds, water features and art installations, and a second location of Tout Suite, the East Downtown cafe. Construction is expected to wrap up next March.

Officials have dubbed the new area Trebly Park, a nod to the three street corners surrounding the park, and the implication that “there’ll be three times as much here for everybody who lives in the neighborhood and who visits,” said Bob Eury, president of the Downtown Redevelopment Authority. The project previously had gone by the name of Southern Downtown Park.

[…]

Mayor Sylvester Turner said the project is part of city leaders’ ongoing efforts to bring more parks and greenspace to the downtown area, such as the renovation Jones Plaza farther north. Those types of investments will spur further growth downtown, Turner said, adding that when he was growing up in Houston decades ago, the central business district would become “dead” shortly after everyone left work for the day.

“When I grew up in this city, there were probably, other than the hotels, I don’t think there was anybody living downtown. And now we have about 10,000 people living downtown,” he said. “The developments have led to the design and construction of this park, and at the same time, the parks are leading to residential and other transit-oriented development downtown.”

Downtown has other issues right now, but I expect they will sort themselves out one way or another. In the meantime, more park space is welcome. If like me you were scratching your head at the explanation of the “Trebly Park” name, CultureMap is here to help:

“Trebly Park is located on Block 333 of Downtown Houston, on a site defined by three city block corners. Trebly, meaning ‘three times as much,’ is fresh in spirit, rolls off the tongue, and is not moored in convention. By its definition, Trebly Park implies that the park has much to offer those who visit it in terms of experience with ‘three times as much’ fun, play, interaction, relaxation and deliciousness.”

Good to know. I’ve got it on my places to visit next spring.

River Oaks Theater closes down

Officially gone.

The first film ever shown at the River Oaks Theatre was “Bachelor Mother” in 1939 starring Ginger Rogers and David Niven. The last film, it seems, will be the Oscar-nominated “Nomadland” starring Frances McDormand. When credits rolled after the 7:30 p.m. showing on Thursday, the theater was expected to lower its curtain for good.

“It’s such a shame,” a bystander said as she and her dog passed under the theater’s iconic, black and white awning.

As Houston’s last remaining vintage movie theater, the River Oaks has held court on West Gray since 1939. After Landmark Theatres was founded in 1974, the River Oaks became one of its first acquisitions just two years later.

[…]

A spokesperson for Weingarten told the Chronicle they were “grateful for Landmark’s long tenure at River Oaks Shopping Center, and we appreciate the strong ties so many Houstonians have to the theater. Contrary to reports, there are no plans to redevelop the theater at this time. We look forward to finding the next great operator for the theater space.”

In February, Landmark Theatres’ president and chief operating officer, Paul Serwitz, confirmed the company had not paid rent since spring 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic. The River Oaks was closed just shy of six months, from March 16 through Sept. 9.

“With the closure, we had no business to operate. There was no other revenue stream,” Serwitz said. “Our whole company was shut down. We closed the corporate office, and everyone was furloughed. There was no capital to pay rent.”

Weingarten since proposed an “offer waiving much of the 12-month past due rent and providing a 24-month payment plan for the balance. We also proposed to allow Landmark to pay half rent for the next six months to get the theater through the worst of the pandemic. Unfortunately, Landmark was unable to see a path to profitability in order to renew the lease. Therefore, they have decided to close at the end of their lease term.”

See here for the background. It’s super sad, but given the past year and the toll it’s taken on the movie theater business, it’s hardly a surprise. Weingarten’s announcement that they have no plans to redevelop the theater (at this time, anyway) is interesting, because the last time the River Oaks Theater faced an existential crisis, that was the reason – Weingarten wanted to build something bigger on the property. It’s basically what happened on the other side of the street, where the old strip center was torn down and the Barnes and Nobles (among other things) was built in its place. If the classic theater facade is maintained, as has been the case with other former theaters around town, will people come to see that as some form of mitigation? You may not be able to find a midnight screening of The Rocky Horror Picture Show again, but at least the neighborhood retains a bit of character. Check in again in a decade or so and we’ll see how everyone feels then.

RIP, River Oaks Theater

It was nice while it lasted, but we don’t get to enjoy things like that for very long in Houston.

After an 82-year run, Houston’s historic River Oaks Theatre is preparing to close.

The lease between Los Angeles-based Landmark Theatres, an art house cinema chain that includes the River Oaks Theatre, and Weingarten Realty, which owns and operates the River Oaks Shopping Center, expires at the end of March.

Via email on Friday, a spokesperson for Landmark Theatres said they are “disappointed to announce that there has been no response or acknowledgment of the revised proposal we submitted to Weingarten (Realty) this week. In good faith, we presented a fair and reasonable proposal and asked for a response by close of business today. Unfortunately, there has been no response or even acknowledgment of this proposal, leaving us no choice, but continue with our preparation to leave our beloved home of 30 years.”

A couple of days earlier, there had been a glimmer of hope as it seemed as if negotiations, which had stalled, were beginning to resume. Further negotiations are pending.

As Houston’s last remaining vintage movie theater, the River Oaks — with its distinctive black-and-white striped exterior and red marquee — has held court on West Gray since 1939. After Landmark Theatres was founded in 1974, the River Oaks became one of its first acquisitions just two years later, in 1976.

The ornate, three-screen cinema has since been designated a Houston landmark by the Museum District Alliance. Though according to David Bush, executive director of Preservation Houston, landmarks can be demolished under the city’s preservation ordinance.

“Part of the problem is it’s fairly plain on the outside. What’s important is the interior, the auditorium,” Bush said. “Part of what makes it significant is that it’s the last one that’s functioning as a theater. Aside from what they did up on the balcony… it’s pretty much what it looked like in 1939.”

Other Texas cities have successfully protected historic theaters from neighborhood-oriented development by re-purposing them as live entertainment venues. The difference, Bush says, is zoning.

Same as it ever was. I don’t want to see this happen, any more than I wanted to see it happen fifteen years ago. But if Weingarten Realty wants to make the change, there’s nothing in heaven or on earth that can stop them. I don’t know what else to say.

The freeze was hard on the bats

Dammit.

The bat colony under the bridge at Waugh Drive in Buffalo Bayou Park, a beloved staple of the city, was severely impacted by last week’s winter storm.

While the full extent of the damage is still unknown, many of the Mexican free-tailed bats that usually emerge from under the bridge at dusk were killed by unusually frigid temperatures, according to Buffalo Bayou Park officials.

A small number of surviving bats were taken to a rehabilitation facility to be nursed back to good health, said Trudi Smith, director of programming for Buffalo Bayou Partnership. Officials asked park-goers and dog-owners to stay away from the area for safety reasons and to allow time for clean-up on Monday.

Diana Foss, a wildlife biologist with the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department and coordinator of the Houston area bat team, examined the colony Monday and was still making assessments of the loss by evening.

[…]

The Waugh Bridge colony was also killed off in droves during Hurricane Harvey in 2017. The flood waters submerged the Waugh overpass and the bats couldn’t fly out, drowning many. Residents saved some of them, but tens of thousands were displaced or died during the storm. Before Harvey, there were around 300,000 living in the bridge. After the storm Foss reported seeing around 100,000.

Many of the bats took up shelter in nearby structures, like the America Tower, after Harvey and it wasn’t clear if they would return. But the bats migrated back to their home and repopulated the bridge over time.

See here for the background. This is a small thing, obviously, much less important than the human misery that the freeze brought. We can still feel bummed about the bats without losing sight of the bigger picture.

We’ve got all kinds

Not the kind of distinction you want.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Vaccination progress

Making progress.

One in eight Harris County residents 16 and older have received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccines, according to state and local data.

A Chronicle analysis found that the first dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech or Moderna vaccines have gone to 12.4 percent of the county’s population in that age range, or 447,861 people.

That number is expected to rise as the Federal Emergency Management Agency opens a vaccine supersite in Houston at NRG Park. The site can vaccinate 42,000 people per week, targeting residents in high-risk ZIP codes.

Federal regulators are also likely to authorize the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine, boosting vaccine supply at a critical time, when some say the inventory does not match demand. On Wednesday, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration said it had reviewed the pharmaceutical giant’s trial data and determined it was consistent with the recommendations of the emergency use guidelines.

That’s about nine percent of the total population in Harris County, and a bit less than half of these people have gotten both dose. With the one-shot Johnson and Johnson vaccine on its way, we should really make a dent in the numbers quickly.

The super sites should help, too, even if people had to wait longer than they expected on the first day.

Lauren Lefebvre, regional director for the Federal Emergency Management Agency, said late Wednesday that there were a variety of reasons for the delays. Some people had issues with the electronic codes required to check in for appointments, and officials may tweak some of their procedures to decrease the amount of paperwork required to enter.

Traffic issues were further exacerbated by cars arriving early or late. Lefebvre said FEMA expects to add more workers in the coming days, and some of the traffic routes could change around the stadium to ease the flow of cars trying to enter.

The city and county have made vulnerable populations — including the unhoused, and those without Internet or the ability to travel — a focal point of their pandemic response. The NRG site is drive-in only, which has raised concerns about equitable access.

Houston Health Department Director Stephen Williams added that the NRG site is only one part of the city’s broader vaccination efforts, and will open up availability for “other providers, many of which are located in hard-hit areas but have been unable to keep up with demand.

“Of course we’re trying to target those individuals who are most vulnerable, but (NRG) is not exclusively for individuals that are most vulnerable,” he said. “Having an additional 6,000 slots to see people is a really good thing for Houston and Harris County — and we don’t want to minimize the value of that — but it isn’t everything.”

Yes, more is still needed. But we’re way ahead of where we were in January, and the curve is sloping upward.

Big Tex Storage

I’m strangely almost nostalgic for a controversy like this.

A group of Heights residents are lobbying legislators to protest the development of a storage facility at the site of the former Stude Theater, which was demolished after the property was purchased late last year.

The residents held a protest on Feb. 6 at the former theater.

The protest comes after a petition was formed by a community group called Stop BigTexStorage that, as of Feb. 6, is almost at its 5,000 signature goal. The petition calls for the Houston City Council to stop the permitting for Big Tex Storage Heights at 730 East 11th Street because they believe the project is poorly suited for its location and will have a negative impact on the community.

Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee also attended the protest. Lee suggested the city look into a compatibility ordinance and for the developers to meet with the community to try and find a common ground.

“I know these homeowners are angry about the fact that they have something being constructed where they didn’t have any input, any acknowledgment that this is a community, a community of families,” said Lee.

[…]

“We don’t know of any historically appropriate seven-story storage facilities,” SBTS said in a statement. “Our concern is with the size and function of the structure. It will be large and not contribute in a meaningful way to the neighborhood streetscape, and in any form, will detract greatly from the charm of the neighborhood that so many moved here for… We want them to realize the depth of anger about this project and the breadth of support for opposing it,” said SBTS in the statement. “We elected them to represent all our interests, not a select group of developers.”

This location is about a half a mile from my house, on a surprisingly small property. I had a hard time picturing where this place was supposed to be when I first heard about it because it just didn’t seem like a storage facility, which I imagined would be a full city block in size, could fit into this space. Clearly, that’s one reason why they’re building vertically. It still seems weird and out of place, but as The Leader News notes, that’s life in Houston for you.

Houston City Council member Karla Cisneros also has expressed disappointment over a project she called “so out of character” for the community, even though the proposed storage facility would be outside of her district. The council member who serves the area, Abbie Kamin, did not criticize the project directly but pointed out Houston’s lack of zoning laws and encouraged residents to push for more neighborhood protections.

Unfortunately for the thousands of petitioners who oppose Big Tex Storage, there is little they can do to prevent the business from setting up shop in the neighborhood. The property is located just outside one of the seven historic districts in the Greater Heights, meaning developments there are not required to adhere to the design standards of a historic district.

Margaret Wallace Brown, the director of the city’s Planning & Development Department, said the property owner and developer, Bobby Grover of Grover Ventures, has followed all the city’s laws and protocols and has nearly completed the permitting process, with only the fire marshal left to sign off on it. Wallace Brown said the property was platted as an unrestricted reserve in December, with no variance request and no notification to nearby residents required.

Grover said in December, when an 81-year-old theater-turned-church was demolished at the site, that construction for Big Tex Storage was scheduled to begin in March and be complete by January 2022.

“There is nothing that will stop him unless he decides not to do this,” Wallace Brown said. “He is following all of the City of Houston rules.”

Grover, in a statement, indicated he could be willing to address the concerns of the neighborhood, saying, “We look forward to working with Heights residents and organizations on this project.” He said the storage facility is being designed to complement the architectural character of the Heights, with “honed brick, la Habra stucco and architectural metal panels,” but did not respond to a question about whether he would be willing to reduce the planned height of the structure.

Big Tex Storage has existing locations in Montrose, River Oaks and Garden Oaks, with the latter self-storage facility located at 3480 Ella Blvd.

[…]

Even if Heights community members cannot convince Grover to reduce the scale of the Big Tex Storage development, residents have means of preventing similar projects in the future. Kamin said she plans to partner with the HHA on a presentation for residents next week that will outline the city’s planning and permitting processes as well as the tools homeowners have for protecting the character of their neighborhoods.

One of those tools is seeking a historic district designation from the city, which requires the support of at least 67 percent of property owners in a proposed district. According to Roman McAllen, the city’s historic preservation officer, such a designation likely would have prevented the demolition of the old building on 730 E. 11th St. and would have required the upcoming development to conform with the scale of surrounding structures.

“However, there isn’t a (historic) district there,” he said. “Unfortunately, the theater was not landmarked.”

I like the idea of historic designations where appropriate, but there was nothing special about the old theater, which was later a church, at least from the outside. It was a nondescript box that had nothing going on. Maybe it was different on the inside, or maybe there was something special about it and I’m too much of a troglodyte to have noticed it. Be that as it may, I’d rather see it be replaced by something that adds to the neighborhood – housing, retail, dining, that sort of thing – but that’s the way it goes in the parts of town where anything is more or less allowed to go. Honestly, I’m puzzled how a storage facility can be economically sensible in a high-property-value area like that, but what do I know.

If you are the petition-signing type, there is a petition for this. I expect construction to start on schedule, barring weather delays, and I expect to be fully annoyed by the construction activity blocking the sidewalk and likely a lane of traffic on West 11th, but it is what it is.

Finally, I can’t let this go by without noting the similarity of the Big Tex Storage monster to the iconic Ashby Highrise, which remains the gold standard for scary cartoon buildings. And thinking about the Ashby Highrise led me to remember the greatest parody of such a movement I’ve ever seen and its accompanying iconography, the classic Get Ashby High sign. I saw that nailed to a telephone pole on Shepherd near Bissonnet however many years ago, and I knew I needed to take a picture of it. I pulled onto a side street, parked and ran over to snap that shot. Good thing I did, because it was gone a couple of days later, and I never saw another such sign again. Always take that picture, kids, that’s the moral of the story.

Rodeo cancelled again

Bummer.

RodeoHouston is hanging up the cowboy hat for 2021.

No mutton busting. No fried Twinkies. No bed salesmen in NRG Center.

The Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo made the announcement Wednesday morning, which includes all competitions, concerts and entertainment, carnival and other attractions and activities.

RodeoHouston president and CEO Chris Boleman called the decision “extremely heartbreaking.”

Also canceled this year are the downtown rodeo parade, trail ride activities, Rodeo Uncorked! Roundup and Best Bites Competition and the barbecue cookoff. The Rodeo Run will be held in a virtual format.

“Unfortunately, it has become evident that the current health situation has not improved to the degree necessary to host our event,” Boleman said. “We believe this decision is in the best interest of the health and well-being of our community.”

The junior livestock and horse show competitions will be held in March as private events. The junior market auctions and Champion Wine Auction will be held in May, also as private events.

[…]

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo, who advised earlier this year against holding any events, applauded the rodeo “for protecting the health and safety of our community.”

“I know that when it comes to canceling events like this, it’s never easy — particularly when there is so much at stake for local vendors and residents who have come to depend on the rodeo for scholarship, entertainment and business,” Hidalgo said. “The truth is, the smarter we work to prevent the spread of COVID-19 now, the faster we can get back to normal, get our economy running at full speed and again enjoy amazing events like the Rodeo who make us who we are as a county.”

Mayor Sylvester Turner, who shut down the 2020 edition in early March, commended the rodeo for sticking with its commitment to award more than $21 million in student scholarships this year despite the cancellation.

See here for the background. The hope at the time was that there’d be enough people vaccinated to make this potentially safe, but we’re just not on track for that, not even in May. It sucks, but it’s the right decision, and at least they didn’t force the city and the county to make them shut it down. Here’s looking forward to 2022. The HLSR announcement is here, and the Press has more.

The second shot portal

People are going to need this, too.

Houston officials plan to launch a website this week that will let people schedule appointments for their second doses of the COVID-19 vaccine.

Health Director Stephen Williams on Monday said officials plan to send out that link to people who got their first shot from the city “later this week, and maybe even as soon as tomorrow.”

The new process would be welcome news to people waiting on their second doses, many of whom have grown uneasy as their windows for the booster shot approach. Currently, city health workers call vaccinees to schedule their shots in the week before the 28-day window when the second dose is recommended.

The city has cited new guidance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control that the second Moderna dose should be given as close to 28 days as possible after the first, but can be given as far out as 42 days. The Health Department has said it anticipates everyone who gets a shot from the city should be able to get their second one within 28 days. The city has asked residents to avoid calling the city unless they are less than 48 hours from their 28-day window.

Mayor Sylvester Turner said the city has given out more than 2,300 second shots already and has scheduled another 11,971. He said the city has received 18,600 doses for second shots. That is in addition to 41,950 doses for first shots, of which the city has administered 33,839 — about 80 percent of its supply.

The city closed its senior wait list — operated by the Harris County Area Agency on Aging — on Friday after more than 70,000 people called to enroll. Williams said it is “hard to discern” when the city will reopen that portal. It is separate from Harris County’s wait list, which launched last week, and has grown to more than 165,000 people.

I’ve seen chatter on Twitter and Facebook from people who have gotten the first shot (or helped a family member get it) and been confused about how to schedule the second one. Hopefully this will help with that, because obviously people will need to get that in a timely and orderly manner. And, not to put too fine a point on it, the volume of second shots will need to ramp up to meet the volume of first shots in short order. The first shot volume is starting to accelerate, but it will need to increase well beyond that. Help is coming, we’ve got to do the best we can until then.

The COVID vaccine wait list

Good idea, and about time.

Judge Lina Hidalgo

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo announced Monday afternoon a new COVID-19 vaccine waitlist, in an effort to ensure those who are high priority don’t get overlooked and make for a smoother process.

Hidalgo explained the basics of how the waitlist will work. Hidalgo was joined by Dr. Sherri Onyiego, the interim local health authority for Harris County Public Health.

The waitlist is said to be weighted and randomized, meaning the website won’t necessarily favor whoever has the quickest internet connection. Once the portal opens Tuesday, everyone will be able to register.

If you fall under the 1A, 1B or seniors groups, then your registration will be weighted for priority, and it will then be randomized within the priority list.

The launch of this new portal and waitlist expands the previous process by allowing eligible residents to sign up for vaccines on their own directly, according to a press release from the county.

Eligible residents without internet access can also call 832 927-8787 once the portal is live to be placed on the waitlist.

The new system starts today:

That’s a good approach, and honestly it’s how we should be doing this nationwide. I’ve heard plenty of stories of people with good Internet skills or just the right about of persistence and life-hacking who have helped people sign up for vaccines, but it really can’t and shouldn’t be this hard. And honestly, even for the folks like me who are closer to the back of the line, just being able to register now and then wait to be called when it is our turn would likely relieve a lot of anxiety out there. This starts today and if it works as well as I expect it will, I hope other counties will follow suit. The Chron and Houston Public Media have more.

Meanwhile, on a related note.

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick is pushing the state to refine its criteria for COVID-19 vaccination eligibility, saying that whittling down the list may better prioritize vulnerable Texans and clear up confusion over when shots will actually be available.

The state is currently offering the vaccine to frontline workers and vulnerable Texans, a group of more than 9 million people — even though the state is only receiving about 300,000 doses a week. That numerical reality has made for a confusing and frustrating process for Texans eligible for a shot, with many unable to find available doses or unsure where to look with demand far exceeding supply.

“Texans need to have a better understanding of the time it will take for everyone to be vaccinated in order to reduce lines, confusion and frustration,” Patrick wrote in a Thursday letter to the state’s Expert Vaccination Allocation Panel.

It will probably be May at the earliest before all members of that first priority group have been immunized, said Dr. David Lakey, a member of the state’s vaccine panel, in an interview this week with Hearst Newspapers. The Texans currently eligible are included in groups 1A — health care workers and nursing home residents — and 1B, those over 65 and anyone 16 or older with certain pre-existing medical conditions.

[…]

Patrick suggested creating subgroups within 1B over the next several weeks — perhaps by first taking two weeks to vaccinate those 75 and older, a group of about 1.5 million. Then, he said, a subgroup of roughly 65,000 teachers and school staff over 65 could become eligible.

“This would help give people an idea of reasonable expectations and reduce wait times and frustration each week,” Patrick wrote. “Right now, in many cities and counties when an announcement of available vaccinations is made, website sign-up pages crash and phone calls go unanswered.”

Seems reasonable, and as above it makes you wonder why no one had thought of this before. Including and especially Greg Abbott, who did not come up with this idea despite being the immovable object on everyone’s COVID plans. We’ll see what happens with this.

Finally, a bit of good COVID news

Naturally, it comes from the wastewater.

Researchers who study sewage to monitor the pandemic are detecting less virus in Houston than they have in months, a positive signal that could indicate a forthcoming drop in new COVID-19 cases, doctors said.

The amount of viral load has declined at 28 out of 38 wastewater treatment plants across the city for the first time in five months, said Dr. Paul Klotman, president and CEO of Baylor College of Medicine. He announced the good news during a Friday video update.

“It’s actually a big drop,” Klotman said. “What that means is, in 7 to 10 days, I think we’re going to see a pretty dramatic drop in the number of new cases.”

[…]

Other indicators show signs of improvement. The Houston area’s R(t) value has dipped below 1 for the first time in weeks, meaning community spread is slowing. The test positivity rate for the Texas Medical Center hospital systems dipped from 13.2% last week to 12.7% this week, Klotman said, and the weekly average of COVID-19 hospitalizations is beginning to plateau.

See here, here, and here for the background. As we know, people shed virus in feces and urine, so tracking virus levels in wastewater is a pretty good tool for determining what the true status is and where hotspots are forming. If this is the start of a trend, we’ll see infection and hospitalization levels – not to mention deaths – start to decline rapidly in the next few weeks. Keep wearing your masks and avoiding indoor gatherings, as that’s been our best defense so far, and get that vaccine when you can.

The Minute Maid mega-vaccine center

More like this, please.

The city partnered with the Astros organization to transform [Minute Maid Park] into a site to provide the Moderna vaccine to up to 3,600 health care workers, residents ages 65 and older, and patients with underlying medical conditions. Vaccine distribution was moved from the Bayou City Event Center, which was needed for a different event, giving the city a sneak peek at how the stadium would operate as a mega-site when it officially opens in the coming week.

Divided into three sections, the stadium’s lower level was reserved for the elderly and those with mobility challenges. Volunteers first led participants to a section to complete additional paperwork for the vaccine, then to a waiting area and the official vaccination stations, and finally, an observation area, where health workers watched for any adverse or allergic reactions at least 15 minutes.

[…]

[Mayor Sylvester] Turner, who toured the site, greeting residents with fist and elbow bumps and encouraging volunteers and essential workers, said Minute Maid Park is the largest vaccination site that the city has hosted so far — inoculating 350 people an hour and tripling the total amount of people vaccinated last Saturday at the Bayou City Event Center.

U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, who attended an afternoon press conference at the ballpark, said it’s also the first model of a mega-site in the country, which could serve as an example for other major cities also looking to establish similar sites.

The outcome, however, was more than Turner and health officials had originally expected.

The city had around 1,000 doses of the vaccine as of Thursday and decided to scale back vaccinations for the weekend when a delivery was not received, but by Friday morning, the city unexpectedly received an additional 2,600 vaccines, Turner said. The city and the Houston Health Department quickly switched gears, scheduling appointments with people who had pre-registered to ensure that the vaccine was distributed and not sitting, wasted on shelves. They also opened up registration, receiving an additional 1,000 applicants within 20 minutes, Turner said.

Marcel Braithwaite, the Astros’ senior vice president of business operations, said the stadium had already begun preparing earlier in the week and officials were confident in the infrastructure.

“It was more about the logistical flow” and ensuring that there was enough physical space within the building to allow for social distancing in waiting areas and immunization pods, Braithwaite said.

This is great, and as a proof of concept it’s clear that this model can work well. I meant it literally when I said “more like this”, because we’re going to need to replicate this on a much bigger scale in order to make progress against COVID. Remember what I said about the scope of the problem. There’s nearly five million people in Harris County. If we want to get everyone vaccinated by the end of the year, we need to be doing over sixteen thousand inoculations per day, every day. That means we need the equivalent of five of these mega-centers, again operating every day. We need them to be accessible by public transit, we need them open at night so as to get people who can’t get off work (remember those 24-hour early voting centers we had last year? Like that), we need them to take all comers whether they have insurance or a personal physician or access to the Internet to make an appointment, we need people working at these locations who speak a broad variety of languages, and we need all of the personnel for this to be local, both to minimize COVID risk (so no one has to travel) and because literally everywhere else will be doing the same thing so we can’t expect to bring in volunteers from other places. Oh, and baseball season will start in April, so at some point Minute Maid becomes unavailable. How’s all that sound? It’s what we need. And we’re going to need a highly-functional federal government, as well as a much better response from the state government, to have a chance.

Coronavirus 2.0

Happy New Year.

The first known case of a new and possibly more contagious coronavirus strain has been reported in Texas, in an adult male resident of Harris County who had no history of travel, according to the state health services department and County Judge Lina Hidalgo.

The variant known as B.1.1.7 was first identified in the United Kingdom, where it has spread quickly, and cases have been found in several U.S. states, including California and Colorado. It does not cause a more severe disease, and vaccines “are expected to be effective against it,” the health services department said, citing the existing scientific evidence.

“The fact that this person had no travel history suggests this variant is already circulating in Texas,” said Dr. John Hellerstedt, commissioner of the state’s health services department. “Genetic variations are the norm among viruses, and it’s not surprising that it arrived here given how rapidly it spreads.”

While this variant doesn’t appear to be any nastier, as far as we know, and should still be covered by the vaccines, it is apparently capable of spreading faster. Really makes you want to stay away from people, doesn’t it?

On the plus side, maybe.

State officials will start distributing most of Texas’ vaccine doses next week to a handful of large pharmacies and hospitals, creating “vaccination hubs” where more people can get a shot quickly, the Department of State Health Services announced Thursday.

“As the vaccination effort continues to expand to people who are at a greater risk of hospitalization and death, in addition to frontline health care workers, these vaccination hubs will provide people in those priority populations with identifiable sites where vaccination is occurring and a simpler way to sign up for an appointment with each provider,” the department said.

Those hubs could vaccinate more than 100,000 people next week, officials said.

DSHS issued a survey earlier this month to vaccine providers gauging their ability to operate community vaccination sites. The state will release the final list of large-scale providers later this week, after the federal government decides how many doses Texas will receive next week.

We expect another 200K total doses next week as part of this preparation. That’s good, but as we’ve discussed before, the numbers remain daunting. Texas has almost 30 million people in it. At 100K shots a week, you’re looking at six years to get everyone vaccinated. The optimistic interpretation of this story is that 100K per week is a starting point, and we’ll accelerate from there. Great, I sure hope so, but if we want to get enough of the state done to get close to herd immunity this year, we need to get to 500K per week, and every week we operate at less than that makes the target number have to be a little higher. (A better and more organized federal response will surely help.) I know, it’s a hard problem, everyone’s doing the best they can (well, not really, but let’s be generous for these purposes), and so on, but this is the math. As someone once said, the stars may lie but the numbers never do.

More COVID restrictions are about to happen in Harris County

Blame Greg Abbott and the virus, in whatever order you prefer.

Houston and its surrounding communities on Tuesday became the latest region to require new emergency restrictions after seven straight days of ballooning coronavirus hospitalizations.

The rollback, mandated under Gov. Greg Abbott’s emergency protocols, includes restaurants dropping to 50 percent occupancy from 75 percent, and bars that have not reclassified as restaurants closing immediately. The restrictions remain in place until the region drops below 15 percent COVID-19 hospitalizations for seven straight days.

As of Monday, the latest day of available data, the Houston region was at 19.9 percent, up from just over 13 percent a week earlier. Infections and hospitalizations have been rising steadily in recent weeks, following spikes in other parts of the state and amid holiday gatherings.

All but four of the state’s 22 hospital regions were over 15 percent as of Monday.

Texas Medical Center Hospitals in Houston announced earlier Tuesday that they were putting a hold on certain elective surgeries to save resources for coronavirus patients. Under the governor’s protocols, hospitals are required to postpone elective surgeries that would deplete COVID-19 resources.

“The best thing we can do is take this threshold as a wakeup call,” Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo said in a news conference Tuesday afternoon. “This is the time to take this for the red alert that it is. We are only going to get through this if we are able to quickly stem the tide of hospitalizations.”

More here.

The rollback comes as Texas Medical Center hospitals already had begun deferring certain elective procedures or readying such a managed reduction strategy, the same one they deployed during the summer when patient censuses spiked. The reduction is not the wholesale delay of elective procedures all Texas hospitals invoked in the spring.

Hospital leaders said Tuesday their systems will continue some elective procedures but suspend those non-urgent cases whose demands on staff and space detract from resources better used to treat COVID-19 patients. Procedures such as mammography and colonoscopy will continue because they don’t tax needed hospital resources, for instance, but some procedures like heart catheterizations might be better delayed.

[…]

The surge of COVID-19 hospitalizations has been relentless. The number of admitted COVID-19 patients in the Houston region has increased for 13 straight weeks, and the 25-county area anchored by Harris County had more than 3,100 hospitalizations on Monday, the highest since July, the peak of the first wave in Texas.

Houston Methodist was just short of 700 COVID-19 patients on Monday. Methodist CEO Dr. Marc Boom emailed employees that if this trend holds the system will surpass its peak July numbers in a matter of days.

“This may well be among the most challenging few weeks we’ve experienced during this pandemic,” Boom wrote in the email to employees Monday. “Together, we will get through this, but it will be difficult.”

Dr. James McCarthy, chief physician executive at Memorial Hermann, said his system exceeded 800 patients and should eclipse July numbers by the third week in January. The system’s number of patients has increased three-fold over the last month, he said.

[…]

The COVID-19 positive test rate statewide is now at 20.53 percent. Methodist’s is nearly 32 percent.

Porsa said said Harris Health is about to enter Phase 3 of its surge plans, which involves closing some of its clinics in order to deploy its nurses and other staff at Ben Taub and Lyndon B. Johnson hospitals, both of which are near capacity. He said the leadership is currently determining which clinics to start with.

Hospital officials said they are encouraged that ICUs aren’t being overloaded with COVID-19. They said their staffs have gotten much better, thanks to better treatment options and nine months of experience with the disease, at getting patients discharged faster now compared to early summer.

But with the Houston area now averaging more than 3,300 new COVID-19 cases a day — compared to roughly 2,330 such cases at the pandemic’s height in July — it appears the peak won’t come before late January or February, hospital officials said. They also worry a more contagious strain — not yet identified in Houston but maybe already here — poses an even greater threat ahead.

“January and February are shaping up to be our darkest days, given these record numbers,” said William McKeon, CEO of the TMC. “Hospitals lag behind in feeling the effects of increases in cases so expect the numbers to keep going in the wrong direction before things get better.”

We’re already passing the levels we had seen at the worst of it in July, and we’re probably a few weeks out from hitting the peak this time around. Remember all this next year, when it’s time to vote for our state government.

There is a website for COVID vaccine signups in Houston

You can’t use it right now, but it’s there.

Houston’s Health Department launched an online portal for residents to apply for an appointment at its COVID-19 vaccine clinic Monday but quickly ran out of available slots for the remainder of the month.

“The response to Houston’s first COVID-19 vaccine clinic was massive, quickly filling the appointment slots for the department’s current vaccine allocation,” Mayor Sylvester Turner said at a City Hall news conference where he was about to get his own shot in the arm.

“The vaccine clinic appointments are booked for the rest of this month, and the department is not taking additional appointments at this time.”

Turner said the city is working to set up additional sites and create additional capacity, although it is unclear when new appointments will be available. Turner said the city hopes to open a “mega site” on Saturday.

The portal, available at houstonemergency.org/covid-19-vaccines, added another way for qualifying residents to book for an appointment. A hotline also is available at 832-393-4220.

The city clinic vaccinated nearly 2,000 residents with the Moderna vaccine in two days. It is accepting residents from the first two phases of the state’s distribution plan, which include front-line emergency workers, people 65 and older, and those over 16 with certain high-risk health conditions.

It’s a good start, but at 2K shots a day, we’re talking two years to get to 75% distribution in the city. We’d like to go a little faster than that. Obviously, the city is limited by how much vaccine it can get, as well as the state regulations. Harris County had its own rough rollout thanks to confusion over who was allowed to sign up. On that first front at least, help is on the way, so maybe in another month or two we’ll see much higher numbers. And at least there is now a central location for this for Houston residents, something that had been sorely lacking before.

There’s some more vaccine coming to Texas, but it’s still not a lot.

On Monday, state health officials announced that 325,000 additional vaccine doses would be getting into the hands of 949 providers in 158 Texas counties over the next week, part of the first round of vaccinations for front-line health workers as well as nursing home residents, Texans over 65 and those with certain medical conditions, among others. Some 121,875 doses are earmarked for long-term care facilities such as nursing homes and assisted-living centers.

But with the number of vaccine doses available still falling far short of what’s needed to cover those who are eligible — and with state officials pushing hospitals and other providers to administer vaccine doses that the providers say they don’t have, aren’t sure are coming or have already administered — confusion and frustration have surrounded the initial few weeks of the vaccination rollout.

Providers have 24 hours to report their vaccination statistics to the Department of State Health Services, and the agency updates its numbers each afternoon with data reported by midnight the day before, so the state’s numbers could lag up to two days behind the reality on the ground.

Officials from the White House down to local doctors have warned that it would take months to have vaccine doses available to everyone who wants one.

“The problem is unrealistic expectations based on the reality on the ground,” said Marshall Cothran, CEO of the Travis County Medical Society, which received 700 doses through a local partnership and had them all scheduled within 48 hours for physicians and staff who are not affiliated with hospitals or other care organizations.

With the new shipments this week, the state has been allotted a total of 1.5 million doses through the first four weeks of distribution, officials said Monday. Providers in 214 of the state’s 254 counties will have received shipments by the end of the week, health officials said.

Some 793,625 doses had been received by providers by midnight Sunday, according to the Texas Department of Health Services.

Of those, 414,211 — just over half of those delivered — had been administered, according to the agency’s dashboard.

Hardesty said the nearly 16,000 doses his facility received are being administered “fast and furiously,” and about 10,000 people have gotten their first dose, with second doses to start in the next week.

“We’re giving them as quickly as we can,” he said.

I don’t doubt that, but let’s be clear that 1.5 million doses is five percent of the state’s population, and that 414K is just a bit more than one percent. Seven hundred doses for Travis County, with 1.3 million people, is a drop in the bucket. If you vaccinated 700 people a day in Travis County, it would take you six years to get everyone. In the end, this won’t take anywhere near that long, but we are talking months, and in the meantime the hospitals are also dealing with an insane surge in new cases. I can’t emphasize enough how much we needed to keep a lid on this, and how badly we failed at that.

Anyway. Here was the Harris County website for vaccine registration, which is still up but doesn’t have any method for signing up for a COVID shot at this time. Dallas County has its own website, while Bexar County had a similar experience as Houston did. It will get better, I’m sure, but the early days are going to be chaotic.

It still looks grim in the Houston area

Brace yourselves.

As Houston left 2020 in the rearview mirror, the coronavirus continued to spread throughout the region unchecked, with some of the highest positivity rates since the start of the pandemic.

And that spike will only continue to climb, experts warn, because the numbers do not take into account additional surges tied to holiday gatherings from Christmas and New Year’s celebrations. The pandemic has already claimed the lives of more than 4,600 people from Greater Houston.

The positive test rate statewide hit a record Friday at 21.15 percent, according to a Houston Chronicle review — surpassing the previous high mark, 20.55 percent, in July.

“It’s looking bad,” said Dr. Peter Hotez, a professor and dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine. “We still haven’t seen the full impact of what’s happened after Christmas and New Year’s, so you know it won’t get better — it’s only going to get worse.”

The positivity rate and hospitalization capacity data are such that more businesses will have to shut down, and others will have to reduce capacity, under Greg Abbott’s executive order. You’d think, given how much he hates the idea of shutting anything down, that Abbott would be working extra hard to get people to wear masks and observe social distancing and so on, but you’d be wrong.

As for the vaccination effort, that remains its own challenge.

Mayor Sylvester Turner on Friday announced the opening of a public clinic that will administer doses of the Moderna vaccine. Health care workers, people over 65 and people with serious underlying health conditions are eligible and must make an appointment by calling 832-393-4220 between 7:30 a.m. and 4:30 p.m. starting Saturday.

But Hotez warned that Harris County and others across Texas face a “daunting” challenge to vaccinate enough people to neutralize the virus’ danger.

In Harris County, public health authorities will have to ramp up a vaccine distribution program to administer the medicine to some 500,000 residents a month, he said — a volume that the Texas Medical Center and other hospitals, clinics and medical practices aren’t equipped to handle.

“We’re not anywhere close to that,” he said.

Instead, the county should consider opening vaccination centers at places such as NRG Stadium or the George R. Brown Convention Center, he said.

“If we can just gear up to get people vaccinated, then nobody has to lose their lives from COVID-19,” he said.

Understand that even at 500K a month, it will take nearly ten months to vaccinate everyone in Harris County. Even if all we “need” is 75% of the people to be vaccinated, we’re still looking at seven months. This is going to take awhile, and we need to stay on the defensive until then.

Astrodome renovation officially on hold

Not a surprise, given everything that is going on right now.

Still here

The COVID-19 pandemic upended most aspects of normal life, but this year has clutched dearly to one bit of normalcy for Houston residents: inaction on the Astrodome.

For 12 years, the architectural triumph that put Houston on the map — or the past-its-prime hunk of steel and cement, depending on who you ask — has sat, largely abandoned off Loop 610. Harris County Commissioners Court in 2018 approved a $105 million plan to transform the facility into a parking garage and event venue.

Two years later, work has barely begun. The project is on hold indefinitely and its funding sources have dried up. Fans of the dome must face a hard truth: This plan to renovate the building appears doomed.

“The only construction we’ve done is removal of asbestos and demolition work to enable that,” County Engineer John Blount said. “There’s been no real construction toward building the parking structure.”

There are two reasons for what elected officials do or not do: money and politics. The current Astrodome plan strikes out on both, the county’s current leaders say.

Former County Judge Ed Emmett was one of the most vocal proponents of renovating the dome, which the Republican argued would be ludicrous to demolish since it is structurally sound and already paid for by the county.

Even though voters in 2013 rejected a $217 million bond proposal to convert the 55-year-old structure into event and exhibit space, Emmett convinced his colleagues to support the current, pared-down version in 2018, which he hoped to see through to its completion.

Nine months later, however, his re-election bid was denied in a stunning upset by Lina Hidalgo, who helped Democrats flip Harris County Commissioners Court for the first time in a generation. She immediately put the project on hold, concerned the project did not make fiscal sense.

Hidalgo, who was in middle school the last time the Dome hosted an event in the early 2000s, does not share the same enthusiasm for revitalizing the landmark as her predecessor. With an agenda to radically change how county government interacts with residents, through increased spending on social programs and infrastructure, Hidalgo has never seen the Astrodome as a pressing issue.

Hidalgo recognizes the Dome’s place in history but looks at the issue through the lens of what is best for the community, spokesman Rafael Lemaitre said.

“She’s not opposed to working to find ways to bring it to life, and we’ve been in touch with nonprofits on that,” Lemaitre said. “But right now, we can’t justify prioritizing putting public dollars or governing on it.”

[…]

Beth Wiedower Jackson, president of the Astrodome Conservancy, acknowledges there is little chance construction resumes on the 2018 plan. She said Hidalgo has said she is open to a new proposal, and agrees with the nonprofit that a repurposed Dome should produce a revenue stream for Harris County.

Jackson said that while the conservancy does not yet have a budget in mind, the group has begun searching for private funding partners and hopes to present a more expansive plan to Commissioners Court in 18 to 24 months. While frustrating to start over, she said the group instead views it as an opportunity.

“It is prudent to stop and push pause and re-center this project as many times as we need to,” Jackson said. “Do we have an opportunity now to think bigger, and more holistically, and greener and smarter about what it looks like? Hell yes. That’s exciting for us.”

The last mention I had of the Astrodome was September 2019 (“on hold for now”), and before that was January 2019 and October 2018, when Ed Emmett was still County Judge and we were looking at a March 2019 start to further construction. I wasn’t born here and don’t have the emotional connection to the Dome that some people do, but I support the Emmett-produced 2018 plan for the Dome, and agree with the assessment that the best thing to do is to find some use for it. I also agree that the county has much bigger priorities right now than this, and it won’t hurt anything to put it all on the back burner for the next year or so, when we are hopefully out of the current pandemic hole we are now in. If the plan has shifted by then from the Emmett plan to something that offloads most of the funding and responsibility to non-profits, that’s fine too. Even if we’d been working on the Emmett plan all along, it’s not like we’d have been doing anything with the Dome this year anyway. We’ll get back to it when it makes more sense to do so.

Another poll about the COVID vaccine

A little better.

Texans now appear a little more likely to get vaccinated against the COVID-19 virus than a few months ago, according to a new survey.

The survey, conducted by the Episcopal Health Foundation, found 63 percent of people in the state say they’re likely to get the vaccine when it becomes available. The percentage was 59 in a survey the foundation released in October.

The percentage is up significantly from a University of Texas/Texas Tribune poll conducted in October. It found only 42 percent of Texans said they’d get the vaccine.

The phrasing of the two surveys was different. The UT/TT survey asked if respondents would get a low-cost coronavirus vaccine if it were available; the Episcopal foundation survey asked if respondents were “very likely/unlikely” or “somewhat likely/unlikely” to get the vaccine.

Thirty-seven percent said they were “very likely” to get the vaccine in both the new poll and the one released in October. The number “somewhat likely” grew from 22 to 26 percent.

The number “very unlikely” to get the vaccine dropped from 28 to 20 percent.

See here for more on that UT/Texas Tribune poll, here for the Episcopal Health press release, and here for the poll data. I believe the number of people who want to get vaccinated will continue to rise, though there’s certainly a ceiling on it. Some of that is partisan – there’s a distinct split in this poll – and some of it is the usual anti-vaxxer BS. Overall, though, I think a combination of the desire to return to normalcy and general societal acceptance of the vaccine will get us to a decent level. There will still be the need to do outreach, and to meet people where they are on this. We can’t afford to take any chances with this.

Give Pancho Claus a hand

Tis the season.

He doesn’t come the night before Christmas in a miniature sleigh with reindeer like St. Nick, but instead parades along city streets with an equally number of low-riders, often surrounded by a festive jazz band.

“To the top of the roof, the lowriders flew, with a bag full of toys, and Pancho Claus too,” Richard Reyes likes to recite when he introduces the Christmas character he brought to the Bayou City almost 40 years ago.

A Houstonian Santa unlike any other, dressed in a bright red and black zoot suit with a fedora, Pancho Claus has helped thousands of disadvantaged children to feel the joy of Christmas, bringing gifts and throwing colorful seasonal parties that their low-income parents could not afford.

Now, after decades of giving, this Latino “Papá Noel” lost financial sponsors and the support of the institution of which he was one of the founders, Talento Bilingüe de Houston, sparking a community effort to save Pancho Claus. An online fundraiser via GoFundMe.com has been established, as well as an effort to create an independent nonprofit to keep the holiday tradition alive, and other programs with children that he carries out throughout the year.

“We lost our sponsors, but we don’t blame them because the (coronavirus) pandemic is affecting everybody,” said Reyes. “I’ve always said that we have our community, and this year, our community will be our sponsor.”

[…]

Pancho Claus is now operating at the Latino Learning Center, another nonprofit east of downtown that agreed to provide temporary space to store materials and prepare gift boxes. No shows or city events are planned because of the pandemic, and instead Pancho Claus will distribute gifts in a drive-thru format. More information will be posted at www.panchoclaus.com.

See here for my last Pancho Claus update, and here for the GoFundMe link. If you’re looking for a good place to give a few bucks this holiday season, you’d do well to help Pancho Claus out.

More people in Houston than you think have had COVID

About one in seven, which is an awful lot.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Nearly 1 in 7 Houstonians have been infected with the coronavirus, city officials announced Monday, the infection’s true prevalence according to a study of antibodies in blood samples taken from people at their homes.

The study, conducted by Baylor College of Medicine and the city health department, found 13.5 percent of people tested had antibodies to the virus in their blood in mid-September, about four times the number revealed through diagnostic testing at the time.

“Thank God a vaccine is on the way because without one, given these numbers, we would need five to six times the number of infections to achieve herd immunity,” said Dr. Paul Klotman, president of Baylor. “It would also mean five to six times the number of deaths.”

[…]

Dr. David Persse, the city’s health authority, said he wasn’t sure if the Houston antibody percentage “is good news or bad news.” He said “the takeaway is that the virus is more active in the community than we can otherwise tell.”

Klotman and some others said the percent of Houstonians infected was less than they had expected. The head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention last summer said the number of people who’ve been infected is likely 10 times higher than the number of confirmed cases, and one study found New York City was about 20 percent in late April.

The Houston finding suggests about 250,000 Houstonians had been infected as of Sept. 19, the last day blood samples were collected. Only 57,000 infections had been identified by traditional viral testing at that time.

Persse said it is nearly impossible to predict what the percentage will be in January, but Klotman said he believes it has grown appreciably in the past nearly three months.

The test identifies those who previously have been infected with the virus by the presence of antibodies, proteins the immune system makes to fight infections. It is not a diagnostic test that identifies people with active disease, COVID-19.

The study was done by city health employees calling households in randomly selected Census blocks and asking for volunteers to give a blood sample for testing. Harris County launched a similar effort next month, and the city of Houston will do another round in early 2021. I’ll be very interested to see how the three compare. So far, the antibodies people get for having and recovering from COVID-19 are known to last a few months, and beyond that it’s not fully clear how susceptible such a person is. This also shows the dire need for masking and social distancing, because there have been – and are, and will be – a lot of people walking around who don’t know they’re sick. They themselves may be fine, but they could wind up infecting others who won’t be. The vaccines will be a huge help, but we’re still a long way away from that blessed day. So yeah, please keep wearing your mask and avoiding indoor gatherings. The Press has more.

Rodeo makes plans for May

I hope they’ll be able to follow through.

RodeoHouston is making big changes for 2021.

Next year’s competitions, concerts, entertainment and carnival are moving to May 4-23, pending the COVID-19 situation, to provide “a better opportunity to host the events.” The original dates were March 2 – 21.

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner spoke with Rodeo officials and Dr. David Persse, the city’s chief medical officer, to finalize the move.

“Houston and the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo are synonymous. It is hard to imagine one without the other,” Turner said in a statement.

The Junior Livestock and Horse Show competitions will still be held in March.

[…]

Also moving to May are the Downtown Rodeo Parade, Rodeo Run, trail ride activities, Rodeo Uncorked! Roundup & Best Bites Competition and the World’s Championship Bar-B-Que Contest.

More details will be shared by early March, along with health and safety guidelines.

That’s from the early edition story; there was a companion piece in which County Judge Lina Hidalgo expressed guarded optimism in a statement, but wouldn’t commit to anything beyond the sincere hope that this was doable. Later, everything was combined into this story, which had some more info, as well as some more skepticism that May is sufficiently far out to be a good bet.

Not so fast, said Catherine Troisi, an infectious disease epidemiologist at UTHealth School of Public Health in Houston. She said she thinks May “might be pushing it” to ensure a safe event.

“To achieve herd immunity, the point at which the virus begins dying out, most estimates say we’ll need to have 60 percent of the population vaccinated,” Troisi said. That’s assuming most people are willing to take the vaccine.

“It’s almost impossible for everyone to be fully protected in May,” she said.

[…]

According to a Houston Chronicle investigation, local public health officials learned of the region’s first COVID-19 case on March 4, the day after performances began at RodeoHouston. But the virus was eventually traced to the BBQ cook-off, which happens the week before RodeoHouston.

If next year’s event does happen in May, expect to still see masks and to practice social distancing, said Marilyn Felkner, a public health professor at the University of Texas at Austin and retired infectious disease epidemiologist. She also anticipates a limit on ticket sales.

“The world will not be COVID-free by May of 2021,” Felkner said. “The vaccines will reduce the levels that we’re seeing, but they won’t eliminate it completely.”

She thinks food tents, where people would remove masks, will be particularly dangerous. And there’s also the carnival which, despite being outdoors, isn’t known for cleanliness.

RodeoHouston also has new leadership. [Chris] Boleman, who earned his doctorate at Texas A&M, was announced in May as the organization’s new president and CEO. He replaced Joel Cowley.

Boleman said more details will be shared by early March, along with health and safety guidelines.

As I’m sure we all remember, the Rodeo shutting down last year less than halfway through after a case of community-spread COVID was discovered was a real “oh, shit” moment from that time. Obviously, the hope here is that enough people will have been vaccinated to make this tolerably safe, though as noted still with mandatory mask-wearing. I hope so, too, but I’m not ready to think about either the food tents or the rides at this point, for all the reasons cited by Professor Felkner. I’m hopeful, but also realistic. The Mayor’s statement is here, and the Press has more.

Eating on the street

This makes a lot of sense.

Main Street bar owners are expected to take to the streets now that the city has given them the OK.

City Council on Wednesday approved, after some delay, plans for the More Space Main Street program which would close the road to automobiles and allow bars and restaurants to create outdoor seating spaces in the street.

If all goes well, revelers willing to head out could celebrate some Christmas cheer on the road.

“I’m very hopeful we could be up and running for the holiday season,” said Scott Repass, owner of Little Dipper, a bar along Main, and a champion of the proposal to allow outdoor spaces.

The program, which city officials approved as a pilot until March 2022, includes possibly closing Main downtown from Commerce to Rusk, depending on which businesses seek to participate. Rules and regulations for the areas bars and restaurants could carve out on the street are being developed by officials across several city departments, including planning, public works, police, fire and the Mayor’s Office for People with Disabilities.

Barriers would be placed to close Main Street off to traffic, while allowing cross streets to continue for vehicle use.

[…]

Aimed at helping the bars and restaurants weather the effects of the coronavirus pandemic, the plan to close Main builds on the More Space program Houston’s planning department created to allow restaurants to use their parking lots to provide al fresco dining.

Main Street establishments do not have parking spaces, so business owners and the Houston Downtown Management District pushed to use the street.

“We had about 15 businesses that expressed a strong interest in taking part as soon as they are able,” said Angie Bertinot, director of marketing for the downtown district.

See here for more about the dining-in-parking-lots plan. Main Street already has limited vehicular traffic – it’s one lane each way, you can’t make left turns, and it’s already got a couple of blocks closed off at Main Street Square. Houston can support some form of outdoor dining pretty much all year – you need shade in the summer, and portable heaters at times in the winter, but it’s almost never too cold to be outside, and that’s the key. We’re doing this now out of COVID necessity, but we should have done this a long time ago because it’s a good idea. The Press has more.

So whatever happened to Astroworld II?

It’s still out there, but I wouldn’t hold my breath for it.

For more than four years, Mayor Sylvester Turner has trumpeted Houston’s need for a destination theme park that would boost the region’s tourism industry and provide an outlet for families.

In the final weeks of his reelection campaign last year, he even said an amusement company was interested and that an announcement could come within weeks.

“I’ve had investors come and sit around my table to talk about it,” he said that October.

That teaser came months after the mayor appeared at rapper Travis Scott’s concert — part of the Grammy-nominated Houston native’s “Astroworld” tour, named for a theme park that sat across the South Loop from the Astrodome for 37 years before closing in 2005. Standing on the Toyota Center stage, Turner gave a beaming Scott a key to the city and drew thunderous applause when he said, “Because of him, we want to bring another amusement theme park back to the city!”

The announcement hinted at last fall never came, however. After he won reelection last December, Turner said investors had surveyed land on the north side but determined the site was not a good fit.

Still, Turner said several large parcels within the city limits could host a marquee park, and said he planned to form a task force in January of this year to focus on the idea, with the goal of having a park open by the time term limits force him from office at the end of 2023.

Turner spokeswoman Mary Benton said this month that the mayor was in the process of asking people to join his theme park task force when the pandemic arrived and became the administration’s main focus. Still, she said, Turner has not abandoned the goal.

“The mayor looks forward to resuming work on developing a theme park as soon as possible,” Benton said. “There is strong interest among developers who recognize the value of building a new theme park venue in Houston.”

[…]

There are many reasons why few major parks have been developed in the U.S. in recent decades, however, and that still fewer have been built without public subsidies, said Wonwhee Kim, chief intelligence officer for The Park Database, whose staff also work with developers hoping to build new parks.

“They’re a type of infrastructure costing hundreds of millions of dollars, and once you build it, it can’t easily be changed,” Kim said. “In the 1970s you could get by with opening a theme park with 10 attractions because that was the beginning of the industry. But now because expectations are so high, a developer would have to come in and build to the level of the existing parks. It’s very risky, and so most theme parks these days are built with some kind of public-private partnership.”

See here for an early mention of this possibility. As noted, in the Chron story and in that post, only half of the original Astroworld site is available, so location is a possible issue. And, not to put too fine a point on it, now is not a great time for theme parks in any form or fashion. Maybe put that one on the agenda for the next Mayor, and review the remaining items on the to-do list for the second term.

“COVID-killing machines”

I like the sound of that.

The George R. Brown Convention Center was built to hold Houston’s biggest crowds, but during the pandemic its halls have grown quieter. In reviving the center, Houston First squared off with a problem facing all local venues — showing the public they’re safe.

To address the problem, the local government corporation created to operate the city’s convention and performing arts facilities launched a public education campaign in August and spent about $30,000 on three mobile air filtration units for the convention center’s general assembly space, which is often used by businesses for presentations. The units, installed in September, add a layer of security for guests, said Michael Heckman, the group’s acting president and chief executive.

“Any level of added confidence that we can give to the public during this time is incredibly important,” Heckman said. “And I think once people understand the level of sophistication of this technology they’d be highly impressed, as we were.”

The filters are the product of Houston’s Integrated Viral Protection, an enterprise formed by engineer and real estate developer Monzer Hourani based on technology developed by researchers at the University of Houston.

[…]

Other pandemic-era inventions, such as UV light devices, require people to leave the room and, while they kill viruses on surfaces, they are not as effective at treating the air, Hourani said. Most HEPA, or high-efficiency particulate air filters, remove particles through holes still big enough to let coronavirus through, he said.

Despite the creation, Hourani said people gathering still need to wear masks. From a clinical perspective, air filtration devices like IVP’s can be used as an added layer of protection in addition to other preventative measures, said Dr. Jill Weatherhead, assistant professor of infectious disease for Baylor College of Medicine.

“At this point it’s unclear how much benefit it provides,” she said, “and it shouldn’t take the place of mask-wearing and social distancing. And frequent disinfecting.”

Most of what’s in between is technical details about the filters and the company, which you can peruse as you see fit. I think the idea of “making it safer for people to congregate indoors, as long as they wear masks” is a good one, and if it works would allow for a greater resumption of normal activities, without increasing the risk. It’s pretty clear that there are a lot of people who can’t or won’t do the risk-mitigating things we need them to do – and let’s be clear, some of these folks are service and retail workers who have no choice, while some others very much could be making different decisions – and as long as that is the case, the next best thing we can do is improve the odds overall. I hope this works as intended.

Please stay socially distant this Thanksgiving

It’s what we have to do.

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo on Tuesday urged residents to limit Thanksgiving gatherings to immediate family to limit the spread of COVID-19.

The county will send an emergency cell phone alert to all residents urging them to get tested for the virus, regardless of whether they have symptoms, as uncontrolled community spread has driven up new case and hospitalization numbers to a point higher than before Labor Day. Hidalgo and health officials fear a sustained surge like the one in June and July, which pushed Houston-area hospitals beyond their base ICU capacity.

“We reopened too soon,” Hidalgo said. “We’ve seen every indicator move in the wrong direction.”

Hidalgo’s requests is voluntary, since Gov. Greg Abbott in April stripped local officials of the ability to issue their own COVID-related restrictions. The governor rebuffed Hidalgo’s request in June for a new stay-at-home order; she warned during her annual State of the County remarks last week that new restrictions may be needed to combat this most recent wave of infections.

Before we get to the very well-known reasons why we should not be gathering in large quantities in our homes, let’s take a moment to consider this.

An estimated one out of every six Texans — roughly 4.75 million people — has contracted COVID-19, according to a recent statistical analysis by the University of Texas at Austin COVID-19 Modeling Consortium. The analysis estimates that the virus is spreading rapidly and so far has infected more than 16 percent of people in Texas, far more than the state’s tally.

“The speed at which things can get out of hand is a lot quicker than people expected,” said Spencer Fox, associate director of the consortium.

The consortium’s statistical modeling uses cell phone data to measure mobility and state hospitalization levels to determine where the virus is spreading and how many people have been infected. It is not a perfect predictor of the virus’ spread, Fox cautioned, but it dovetails with state estimates.

The researchers’ approximation of 4.75 million cases is “generally in the ballpark” of what state health officials believe is the true number of infections, said Chris Van Deusen, a spokesman for the Texas Department of State Health Services, which publishes the state’s official COVID-19 infection figures.

“It varies by condition, but we know and expect that all kinds of diseases are underreported,” Van Deusen said in an email.

In the Houston region, the UT consortium’s projections have worsened recently because of the growing number of new infections and hospitalizations. There’s a 76 percent chance the pandemic is growing here, according to the latest modeling, up from 47 percent on Friday. More than 1 million people — about 16 percent of Houston-area residents — have been infected with COVID-19, the UT researchers estimated.

[…]

The consortium estimated in October that there was at least an 80 percent chance the pandemic was growing in El Paso. That proved to be true. Cases and hospitalizations rose in that border city throughout late October and early November, overwhelming the local health care system. The model estimates that one in every three El Paso residents has contracted the virus since the start of the pandemic.

The modeling also shows the potential danger of letting the virus run rampant to establish herd immunity — a strategy that some critics of lockdowns say is worth trying.

In order for herd immunity to work before a vaccine is ready, roughly 60 percent of the population would have to be infected, or more than 17 million people, Fox said. Given the demand on hospitals in Texas now, with an estimated 16 percent of the population infected or recovered, the health care system would be overwhelmed if the coronavirus was allowed to spread unchecked.

“You can just think about what that would look like,” he said.

So there’s an excellent chance that someone at your Thanksgiving dinner has, or has had, COVID-19. If they are sick, they may not know it, which means they’re out there spreading it without realizing it. Why would you want to take the chance?

Look, the weather forecast for Thanksgiving is beautiful. If you want to celebrate outdoors, with family or friends in a socially-distant manner while masked when you’re not eating, you can reasonably do that. But don’t be part of the problem, and especially don’t be an asshole. Let’s all try to live long enough to be able to get vaccinated for this thing. The Trib has more.

It’s still not too late to prevent a big spike in COVID infections

But it will be soon.

A rise in COVID-19 cases has health care officials and government leaders pleading with Houstonians: Act now to prevent, or at least minimize, a third wave of infections across Greater Houston.

“This feels a lot like late May, early June when we saw the early warning signs that things were beginning to increase,” Dr. Marc Boom, president and CEO of Houston Methodist, told the Chronicle on Tuesday, “and then things slipped out of our control.”

According to a Chronicle analysis, the seven-day rolling average for newly reported cases was 1,044.2 as of Monday in an eight-county Houston area. That’s the highest since Oct. 8. In the summer, the rolling average peaked July 17 at 2,432.7.

The rate at which the virus is spreading, called the reproduction rate, reached 1.18 across a nine-county Houston area as of Monday, according to the Texas Medical Center. A number below 1, which the Houston area did report for a few weeks, means the virus is burning out. A number above 1 means that virus spread is increasing. During the COVID-19 spike this summer, Houston’s reproduction rate was in the 1.5-1.7 range when things were getting out of control, Boom said.

Finally, the seven-day average for COVID test positivity rate was 4.2 percent for TMC hospital systems as of Monday. It had been 3.4 percent last month.

For the city, Mayor Sylvester Turner on Monday reported the positivity rate was 6.5 percent as of Oct. 21. Statewide, the positivity rate was 9.42 percent as of Monday.

[…]

Houston-area case increases are not as severe as in other parts of the country and state. In the U.S., 489,769 new cases have been reported since Oct. 20. There are surges in Wisconsin and other Midwest states. In El Paso, state health officials converted a convention center into a makeshift hospital to ease the crush of patients.

Still, Shreela Sharma, an epidemiologist at UTHealth School of Public Health, knows how quickly COVID cases can climb. And she said the number of new cases in the Houston region is roughly 40 percent higher than when the summertime peak began. That means if a third wave does occur, it would start with a higher baseline.

The time is now to wear masks, practice social distancing and wash your hands.

“Our window is right now,” she said. “We could rapidly lose that window over the next few weeks.”

Yes, that is the one piece of good news. We know how to get a handle on this, and we’ve been doing it all along. Wear your mask – yes, wear it while voting, too – maintain social distancing, and avoid indoor gatherings. This week’s colder weather excepted, we’re in much better shape to handle the winter than the northern climes, because for most of our winter it’s still perfectly amenable outside for activities and dining and whatnot. Again, just don’t be an idiot. Do the things that you know you need to do. The alternatives are so, so much worse.

One more thing:

Researchers with Houston’s Health Department will monitor the wastewater flushed from 60 schools and 15 senior living homes in the city for COVID-19 in hopes of catching outbreaks before they arise in clinical testing.

City council on Wednesday unanimously approved $11.5 million in federal COVID-19 spending. Included in that was $221,000 to buy the sampling equipment needed to expand the city’s existing wastewater testing program into K-12 schools in areas with high positivity rates.

People shed the novel coronavirus through feces, regardless of whether they experience symptoms. The samplers will be installed in manholes outside the schools, and researchers will analyze them, looking for the virus.

“It’s very granular,” said Dr. Loren Hopkins, the health department’s chief environmental science officer. “We don’t expect to see any positives at all, we expect to see nothing… If we see something in a school and we see it two days in a row, then we know someone in that school is shedding the virus.”

The department would then alert the school and deploy the more traditional, clinical testing, according to Hopkins.

Don’t laugh, this is an effective method of contact tracing. It’s already been used successfully by the city. Now, if there are people who can test wastewater to see if your poop has the COVID virus in it, you can damn sure keep wearing your mask.

The virtual marathon

We’re still not ready for things to be normal.

The 2021 Chevron Houston Marathon and Aramco Houston Half Marathon will be virtual due to ongoing public health concerns with COVID-19.

The 2021 Virtual Houston Marathon Running Events will be held over the span of 10 days where runners will have the option to complete the race distance anywhere between Jan. 8-17, according to the Houston Marathon Committee.

Participants who have already registered for the 2021 marathon will be able opt for the virtual race experience, which will include a discounted registration for the Chevron Houston Marathon 50th Anniversary Celebration in 2022; or defer their entry to one of the following two years (2022 or 2023); or donate their entry to the Houston Marathon Committee, which is a 501 c(4) nonprofit organization.

Half marathon registrants and We are Houston 5K runners will receive an email with instructions on how to complete their registration selection, according to a news release.

“At this time, we recognize that there are many unknowns surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic, but the safety and well-being of our runners, volunteers, partners, spectators and local Houston community will always be our top priority,” said Wade Morehead, committee executive director. “While we are unable to celebrate the 2021 event together in the heart of Downtown Houston, we will be cheering for our runners around the world as they participate in a unique virtual race experience, embracing the incredible spirit of our RunHOU community.”

I mean, none of this should be a surprise. The Marathon is an event where everyone is packed together, and even if the spectators and officials and volunteers were all wearing masks, there’s no way that the runners could. Doing it like this, where everyone just picks their own 26-mile course and registers to submit an official time for it, is the only way. This is just a reminder that seeing the calendar turn over into 2021 doesn’t mean anything in terms of the virus or its containment. We’re still in need of an actual federal plan, with actual leadership, to try to contain it, and eventually a vaccine to finally achieve some level of immunity. If we’re lucky, that 2022 50th anniversary marathon will be able to be run like it always has in the past. But as of today, we can’t say for sure that it will.

(You can register for the Marathon here, if that’s your thing.)