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Elsewhere in Houston

The Houston Local News Initiative

More news is good news.

Five foundations, including three local philanthropies, are investing more than $20 million to launch an independent nonprofit news outlet in Houston, entering the city’s competitive media landscape.

The Houston Endowment, the Kinder Foundation and Arnold Ventures on Wednesday said the yet-to-be-named news operation will be one of the largest of its kind nationally when it launches late this year or early next year on multiple platforms. The philanthropies, joined by journalism foundations American Journalism Project and Knight Foundation, said they seek to “elevate the voices of Houstonians” and “answer the community’s calls for additional news coverage.”

“All Houstonians deserve to be informed about the issues that impact their lives,” said Ann Stern, CEO of the Houston Endowment. “We are thrilled to support the expansion of local reporting in Greater Houston – combining the highest standards of journalism with an innovative community-focused reporting model.”

News organizations are increasingly expanding their footprint in Houston, ramping up competition for advertising dollars and journalism consumers in one of the nation’s largest media markets long served by the Houston Chronicle. Founded in 1901, the Chronicle is one of the nation’s largest regional media companies with the largest newsroom staff in Texas and more than 1 million print readers weekly. The Chronicle’s digital platforms, including its premium news website HoustonChronicle.com and its advertising-supported news website Chron.com, receive 30 million monthly visits.

[…]

Community Impact, an Austin-based hyperlocal newspaper, last month announced plans to break ground on its Houston regional headquarters this quarter. When completed later this year, more than 55 journalists and media employees are expected to work out of the new 16,000-square-foot office in Jersey Village. Over the past 15 years, several news outlets, including CultureMap and Houstonia, also have started operating in the city.

The new Houston nonprofit news outlet was born from a two-year research effort led by the American Journalism Project, a local journalism philanthropy that conducted local focus groups, community listening sessions and surveys to analyze Houston’s media landscape and identify gaps in news coverage. The new media outlet will follow in the footsteps of the Texas Tribune, which launched 13 years ago as a statewide nonprofit, nonpartisan online news outlet covering state politics and policy.

The Houston nonprofit will be funded by philanthropic dollars, memberships and sponsorship revenue. The Houston Endowment and the Kinder Foundation each contributed $7.5 million to the nonprofit newsroom. Arnold Ventures contributed $4 million, the American Journalism Project $1.5 million and the Knight Foundation $250,000.

The three local philanthropic foundations behind the new outlet said they will not have editorial control, review, oversight or influence over the journalism created and distributed.

I like this. The Texas Tribune model works pretty well, and there is definitely a niche to be filled here. You’ve seen me complain enough about the lack of coverage on local races, for example. To be fair, that’s partly because they don’t generate all that much news on their own, but between candidate forums, finance reports, advertising, social media, and just plain talking to people, there’s plenty there to provide more than the stale two-sentences-per-candidate race overview. The initiative’s website is here and they’re hiring, so if this is something that you or someone you know might be interested in, now’s your chance. The Press has more.

FBI seeks Astroworld info

Spill ’em if you got ’em.

The FBI has created a website that seeks information on the deadly Astroworld Festival, the Houston Police Department said Friday.

Members of the public can upload photos and video from the Nov. 5 event at NRG Park. Police said in a statement that they’re specifically looking for media from between 8 p.m. and 11 p.m. “of the main venue area,” which can be uploaded at fbi.gov/astroworld.

“HPD continues to lead this investigation and we appreciate the assistance from our federal partners at the FBI,” the statement read. The federal agency has previously offered to help with the investigation.

I genuinely have no idea how likely this is to result in usable, actionable information. For that matter, it’s not really clear to me what HPD might uncover in its investigation. I think we’re more likely to learn things from the county’s internal investigation and from the various lawsuits – whichever one gets to discovery first will probably be the main source of new information. But you never know.

Why your recycling hasn’t been picked up yet

Short answer: Staffing shortages, exacerbated by COVID.

A staffing shortage in Houston’s solid waste management department is causing delayed and missed recycling pickups across the city, the agency confirmed.

The Solid Waste Management Department is trying to fill 45 vacancies for waste collectors, said department director Mark Wilfalk.

Wilfalk, who assumed the position two months ago, said he’s reevaluating staffing needs based on the city’s population growth and demand for services like recycling.

“I don’t know what that magic number is just yet,” he said.

In the meantime, the solid waste department has been skipping some recycling pickups to make up the difference from staffing shortages.

Recycling is skipped first. Then, yard waste is skipped if necessary. Garbage collection is prioritized for health and safety reasons, Wilfalk said.

[…]

In addition to the 45 driver vacancies that haven’t been filled, [Mayor Turner] said current municipal waste collectors are being recruited by private companies that offer higher pay for fewer hours of work. Houston waste collectors sometimes work six or seven days a week.

COVID-19 has also led to fewer drivers available to pick up waste. Turner said 370 or more solid waste management employees were out due to the virus on Monday.

“That number is increasing every day,” the mayor said.

The city is paying additional vendors to supplement solid waste operations. Turner said they’re offering overtime pay and retention bonuses in an effort to keep current employees. Waste collection was also put on a holiday schedule the last two weeks of December to give collectors some time off.

Ours was not picked up two weeks ago; it’s the second time in the last few months we’ve been skipped. I’m hopeful for today or tomorrow – where recycling was usually picked up on the same day as garbage, lately it’s been collected a day or two after. It is what it is.

Got to keep an eye on the hospitalizations

They’re up, but for now we’re still in reasonably decent shape.

More than 1,200 people were hospitalized for COVID-19 in the Houston area on Monday, according to data released by the state Tuesday afternoon. The Department of State Health Services reported that 1,224 people were hospitalized for COVID-19 in the nine-county region around Houston.

The figure comes one day after the state reported topping 1,000 hospitalizations for the first time since October as the delta wave tapered off.

The hospitalization rate represents a 93 percent increase over last Monday, when DSHS recorded 636 COVID hospitalizations in the Houston area. The surge corresponds with the rapid spread of the highly-transmissible omicron variant, which first appeared in South Africa in late November, and has swelled to account for more than 90 percent of local cases in recent weeks.

Houston’s hospitalizations are still well below their delta peak, which reached 3,500 on Aug. 24. But less than a week after Houston  logged its 300,000th case of COVID, data from the Texas Medical Center shows that local transmission is increasing at a steady rate.

The current transmission rate is high – basically, on average everyone who gets the omicron variant will pass it on to another two people – and our vaccination rates remain pathetically mediocre. Harris County is better than the state overall, but not by much. There’s still a lot of room for this thing to find vulnerable people. Use rapid tests, isolate if you get a positive result, and wear good quality masks. We really can get through this if we’re not too dumb about it.

We need to get more kids vaccinated

C’mon, y’all. Now is very much not the time to be hesitant.

Most Houston parents have not rushed out to inoculate their children against COVID-19, new data show, the latest indication that achieving widespread immunity among the young may be a faraway prospect, even as case counts explode across the region.

Overall, about 85 percent of 5- to 11-year-olds in the nine-county Houston area have not yet received a COVID vaccine, according to tallies compiled by Texas Children’s Hospital. The remaining 15 percent have had at least one dose, the lowest rate among any eligible age range.

The figures are far below what health officials hoped to see nearly two months ago when the shots became available. In promoting the shots, public officials — including First Lady Jill Biden, who visited Texas Children’s Hospital in November to plug the pediatric vaccine — have struggled to reach the broad swath of parents who remain reluctant to vaccinate their children.

Dr. James Versalovic, the hospital’s pathologist-in-chief, said he hopes the arrival of the highly contagious omicron variant gives hesitant parents a renewed sense of urgency.

The doses are tailored for children and have a “tremendous safety record,” he said.

[…]

It is unclear whether the low rate of childhood vaccinations means the region has reached a saturation point, or whether harried parents simply have not had time to vaccinate their little ones.

“There’s not one specific reason why some parents haven’t vaccinated their kids,” said Jermaine Monroe, co-chair of Texas Children’s COVID Task Force. “We are trying to meet people where they are to help parents overcome their concerns.”

I’m sure the holiday season is a contributing factor, though you’d think it would also be an incentive, and there would be more opportunities with people off work. I hope this picks up in January, we really need to do everything we can to resist omicron. In my particular bubble, it seemed like most of the folks I know with kids in that age range got them vaxxed as soon as they could, but those I know who haven’t done that yet aren’t posting about it on social media, so I don’t have a full picture. Just, please, let’s get this going.

Here comes omicron

Ready or not.

Houston is seeing early signs of another wave of COVID-19 infections, fueled in part by a fast-spreading omicron variant, as public health officials warn of a nationwide spike in cases as early as next month.

The daily average of positive cases in the Texas Medical Center more than tripled last week, from 232 to 721, and Houston Methodist on Tuesday recorded nearly five times the number of positive cases in its system compared to the previous week. Harris County Public Health on Tuesday reported 483 new cases, the highest single-day total in more than two months.

The number of omicron cases in Houston detected through genome sequencing is small but rising, with Houston Methodist reporting 54 samples of the new strain Wednesday, compared to 31 four days earlier. The variant now makes up roughly 32 percent of cases in the hospital system, up from 13 percent on Saturday. Traces of omicron are also being detected at a growing number of city’s wastewater treatment plants.

With little data available in what is considered the early stages of the new variant’s spread, experts are uncertain about the degree to which it could overwhelm the healthcare system — a critical question in the months ahead. They are, however, growing more confident of an imminent swell of sickness.

“We’re going to have a wave. I don’t doubt it at all,” said Dr. Rodrigo Hasbun, professor of infectious diseases with McGovern Medical School at UTHealth Houston. “It’s just the magnitude of it and the duration that’s in question.”

[…]

Throughout the pandemic, Houston’s wastewater treatment plants have been a reliable indicator of future local spread, usually preceding new infections by about two weeks. During the week starting Nov. 29, the city found traces of omicron in seven treatment plants. By the following week — the most recently available data — that number jumped to 25.

“We can see how quickly this variant is going to spread,” said Hasbun.

Early findings from South Africa suggest that omicron causes less severe disease than earlier strains, though several factors, such as the country’s younger population, cloud the data.

Some experts offer cautious optimism despite the bleak outlook.

Dr. Annamaria Macaluso Davidson, associate vice president of medical operations for Memorial Hermann Medical Group, is hopeful that pockets of highly vaccinated areas in the city and new COVID treatments arriving on the market will stave off a dire situation at hospitals.

Two new pills to treat less severe COVID infections could receive emergency use authorization by early 2022.

“We’ve got more tools at our disposal that I think are really promising, even if we’re facing another surge,” she said.

The latest developments highlight the urgent need for vaccinations and booster shots ahead of the Christmas holiday.

Well, we know about the wastewater data. There’s been an uptick in demand for the booster, but the total number of people who have had a third shot is still pretty small. What we know so far suggests that omicron can evade the immunity response better than delta can, and so even fully vaxxed people, or people with two shots who have also had COVID, can still get the omicron variant. But if they do, it will very likely be mild. Even lesser-strength immunization seems to mitigate the severity of omicron, and that plus the Pfizer pill is the reason for guarded optimism. You should still take all reasonable precautions. Get that booster, avoid large indoor gatherings, that sort of thing. We’re in a much better place than we were last spring. Just don’t be dumb about it.

A broader look at the Houston project to track COVID in wastewater

The DMN tells me things I did not know about my current favorite public works project.

The [Houston] health department is conducting the wastewater surveillance for COVID-19 in partnership with researchers at Rice University and Baylor College of Medicine. Wastewater testing cannot identify individual people who have COVID-19, but it can identify neighborhoods with particular virus variants or relatively high virus loads.

Dallas County is not participating in similar wastewater surveillance to track the virus, said Dr. Philip Huang, director of Dallas County Health and Human Services. He said he doesn’t know of any other organizations or municipalities in North Texas that are operating similar programs.

While Dallas County previously considered using wastewater surveillance, the price of creating such a system was too high. “It’s actually quite expensive to set that up,” Huang said.

“After the 10-week survey, [the water district] discontinued its participation in the study due to inconsistent data that required continuous interpretation by local and state public health officials,” said Kathleen Vaught, public relations specialist at the water district.

Public health experts have long used wastewater samples to track the growth and spread of bacteria and viruses, like the poliovirus.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention began discussing the use of the tool to study COVID-19 in February 2020.

By September of that same year, the CDC and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services launched the National Wastewater Surveillance System, also known as NWSS, to help state, tribal and local health departments track and respond to COVID-19.

[…]

Houston is the only Texas city to participate in the NWSS, although that could change as the program grows in the next month, said NWSS team lead and CDC microbiologist Dr. Amy Kirby. Data taken from Houston wastewater samples is submitted to a national database tracking similar data from nearly 400 utilities across the country.

The University of California, Merced’s Naughton Lab created and maintains a dashboard, called COVIDPoops19, to track global wastewater testing for the virus.

I just want to say that learning of the existence of a dashboard called COVIDPoops19 has improved my life in ways I could not have imagined. You can zoom in on Houston in this dashboard and click on the various icons to learn more; clicking on the icon for Baylor College of Medicine led me to the actual Houston dashboard for this, which I had not seen before. If you play around with the slider, which shows you what the viral levels were for past weeks, you can see that the inflection point for this year was the week of June 21 – levels had been dropping through June 7, then you saw a few upticks on June 14, and on the 21st it was all increases, and it got worse for the next few weeks. We’re on more of an upward trend right now (December 6 is the most recent date), but there are increases and decreases in the various locations. I’m going to be bookmarking this page. Anyway, if you want to know more about this project, there you go.

Yes, omicron was found in the wastewater

In case you missed it.

Houston has detected the omicron variant of the virus that causes COVID-19 in eight of its wastewater treatment facilities, confirming the new strain is spreading in the city.

A Harris County resident was the first person in Texas to test positive for the variant Monday. She was fully vaccinated and did not report any recent travel history, officials have said.

City officials have been sampling wastewater facilities since last year, another metric to help the Health Department gauge the virus’s spread in Houston. People shed the virus through feces even if they are not symptomatic or have not tested positive, providing a truer picture than test results. It is also an early indicator, often presaging positivity rate and hospitalizations by weeks.

[…]

The city said the wastewater findings renew the need to get fully vaccinated and are cause for concern, but not panic.

“The Houston Health Department and Houston Water continue to do an exceptional job tracking the impact of the virus in our community,” Mayor Sylvester Turner said. “Vaccines help protect us, our loved ones, friends, and colleagues in the work environment. As the holidays approach, I encourage everyone to remain vigilant about their health and safety.”

See here and here for the background, and here for the Houston Health Department press release. I find it comforting to know that when all else fails, you can count on the wastewater treatment plants.

Here comes omicron

It was always just a matter of time.

Texas has identified its first case of the omicron COVID-19 variant, a strain flagged as potentially more infectious than any that has come before it, including the delta variant responsible for surges still happening across the country, state health officials said on Monday.

The variant was identified in Texas in a Harris County woman in her 40s, according to the Texas Department of State Health Services and county Judge Lina Hidalgo.

Many questions still surround omicron, even as it remains high on the radar of state and federal health officials.

While early indicators suggest the variant is very contagious, it’s still unknown whether it will infect people at a faster rate or cause more hospitalizations than the delta variant, which currently represents nearly all the active cases in Texas.

It could also take another month, experts say, to figure out how effective vaccines or natural immunity will be against the omicron variant.

Other unknowns include how sick it will make those infected and whether it will be milder or more aggressive than the delta variant.

Hidalgo said the woman in whom the variant was detected has no recent history of travel.

You can hear Dr. Peter Hotez talk about omicron and delta on CityCast Houston’s Monday podcast episode. I don’t have to tell you to get your shots and your booster, do I? There’s one way out of this, and that’s it.

UPDATE: Yeah, we detected it in the wastewater. A week ago. So, yeah.

How Houston has handled homelessness

We’ve done pretty well, actually.

Since more than $65 million in COVID-related funding has poured into Houston and Harris County’s coffers, they have worked in tandem with a number of partners to ramp up the housing units available to move people out of homelessness. As they’ve done so, they’ve picked up the pace at which homeless encampments are being “decommissioned” — the group’s term for offering the residents of a camp permanent housing, then clearing the site, usually with fencing, to prevent the camp from reforming. The process provides a way out of chronic homelessness to the many who choose housing and the services that go with it, a dislocation to the smaller group who do not.

The ultimate success of Houston’s encampment strategy could have rippling effects across the country. Cities including Austin and Dallas are seeking to emulate Houston’s program, said Marc Eichenbaum, special assistant to the mayor for homeless initiatives; others, including Denver and Spokane, Wash. are watching closely.

[…]

Out of the 35 people who were living in the encampment when outreach began, 22 decided to take the offer of housing, according to the Coalition for the Homeless of Houston and Harris County’s data. The others simply moved elsewhere. That ratio was a bit unusual, said James Gonzalez, the director overseeing the coalition’s work at the site. The other encampments where the Houston-Harris County Homeless Encampment Response Strategy has been carried out since the beginning of the pandemic saw between 85 and 90 percent of people choose housing, he said.

Houston, the coalition and their partners began moving people out of encampments in 2018 and has since distilled the process into a manual that has attracted the attention of cities across the nation. Houston, once called out in 2011 by the Department of Housing and Urban Development for the size of its homeless population, has since more than halved the number of people without homes in Harris and Fort Bend counties to 3,800 in 2020 from 8,500, even as the overall population in those two counties grew 16 percent. For every person housed, taxpayers save approximately $4,800 because the unhoused population’s emergency medical and incarceration costs are so high compared to the cost of housing and supportive services, according to a 2017 study from the National Alliance to End Homelessness.

But since 2016, the homeless count in the counties has plateaued. People were becoming homeless as quickly as the Houston area could house them.

Then came COVID — and with it, a sudden influx in funding to help battle the pandemic’s health risks to the homeless population. Part of the funds went toward a program renting units from landlords searching for a secure stream of income. The new units, where residents have access to case workers and other services, allowed partnered groups to pick up the pace of moving people out of camps.

[…]

Eichenbaum said the city plans to clear all of its encampments, but the current bottleneck is housing. “We don’t do this if we don’t have places to put them,” said Ana Rausch, vice president of program operations for the coalition. “There’s no point.”

While the city was able to quickly secure apartments for its program while the need to social distance lowered demand for dense living arrangements, it is now competing with an influx of renters who entered the market as vaccines became widely available this summer. The coalition employs a landlord engagement team which is calling landlords and trying to sell them on the program, in part by dispelling fears of perceived risks (Gonzalez argues that having rent guaranteed and a case worker on hand offers more of a safety net than a landlord has with a normal tenant). Nonetheless, the number of units joining the program have slowed.

In response, the city contracted with a hotel to turn it into what it’s calling a navigation center — a place where people moved out of an encampment can live, along with pets and loved ones, while they await their permanent housing. (San Francisco pioneered the strategy in 2015.) While the current navigation center is temporary, the city has a plan to build a long-term one in Fifth Ward west of U.S. 59.

Before the coalition and its partners began using COVID funding to move people into housing, it had decommissioned two camps in four years. Since December 2020, they’ve decommissioned about eight, Rausch said. As of Tuesday, she said the coalition and its partners had moved 134 people into housing out of encampments with COVID funding. The funds have also been used to help more than 5,000 less visible homeless individuals, including people living in shelters or cars.

I don’t have anything to add here, it’s just a good story and a great use of the COVID relief funds. I’m rooting for the coalition to meet its goal of decommissioning all of the camps.

Our wastewater treatment plant is ready for omicron

One small bit of reassurance in these uncertain times.

The Houston Health Department is testing the city’s wastewater for the new COVID variant, omicron, which experts say could soon be found in the U.S.

The department tests the city’s wastewater weekly for COVID strains. The most recent samples collected the week of November 22 show no trace of the omicron variant, officials said.

“Although our team has not detected Omicron in Houston, we should anticipate it arriving, and the health department is prepared to scale its operations as needed to respond,” Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said in a release. “In the meantime, I encourage eligible Houstonians to get fully vaccinated.”

Much is still unknown about the new variant, including if it’s more transmissible, deadly or more bypasses vaccines.

“While we await data to show the level of threat from Omicron, it’s important to remember that vaccination is our best tool to reduce cases, prevent serious illness and death, and slow the emergence of new variants,” Dr. David Persse, chief medical officer for the City of Houston said. “If you are not fully vaccinated or if you are eligible for a booster, please do it now to protect yourself, your family, and our community.”

Note that the omicron variant is already here in the US, and it’s just a matter of time before it’s detected everywhere. The wastewater tracking project here has been a big success, and since the latest variant is detectable via PCR testing, it’s no surprise that we’ll have this method to track it. Let’s please all do our part to keep it at a low level.

Harris County at “moderate” threat level again

For now. As with all things, for now.

The COVID-19 threat level in Harris County was reduced Friday to moderate from significant as the local number of hospitalized patients and new cases met thresholds that guide the meter while a new variant raised concerns that prompted countries across the world to once again restrict travel.

County Judge Lina Hidalgo’s office announced the change in the threat level after new data indicators turned yellow, the color designated to the level that calls for unvaccinated residents to remain vigilant, wear masks and continue practicing physical distancing, although can resume leaving home. Under the level, fully vaccinated individuals can resume activities without masking except where required.

The 14-day average positivity rate in the county reached 4.6 percent. As of Friday, 66.5 percent of the county’s population had received at least one dose of a vaccine and 57.2 percent were fully vaccinated.

The risks of the new variant, named Omicron by a World Health Organization panel, were not yet fully understood, according to the Associated Press.

The same panel that named the variant also classified it as a highly transmissible virus of concern. Numerous countries, including the United States, Canada and Russia, announced travel restrictions for visitors from southern Africa, where the variant was discovered, according to the AP.

In a tweet Friday evening, Hidalgo said she lowered the level “due to improved indicators” but cautioned “winter COVID spike is still possible.”

“Judge Hidalgo remains concerned about Omicron and the potential for a winter surge as we’re seeing in some other areas in the US,” spokesperson Rafael Lemaitre said Friday. “She is strongly encouraging residents who haven’t been vaccinated to do so — vaccines and boosters are widely available for free.”

I see from my archives that the threat level had been reduced to “Moderate” in late May, back when we all thought it was going to be a hot vaxx summer. Hopefully this time that will last a bit longer, but as before that will depend on getting enough people vaccinated. We’re making progress, and I remain hopeful that the vax’s availability for 5-11 year olds will help, but we still have a long way to go.

As for that new variant:

As global governments, scientists and health experts track the new omicron variant of COVID-19, Dr. Peter Hotez is encouraging people not to “push the panic button,” before we know more about it.

Hotez, who serves as co-director of the Center for Vaccine Development at Texas Children’s Hospital, said transmissibility is king in determining if omicron will impact the globe the way previous variants alpha and delta did. More data is necessary, he said.

“Before we press the panic button I think there’s a few things to consider,” Hotez said during an appearance on MSNBC. “Yes, it does have some immune escape properties, or at least it looks like it might, but that’s that’s not what’s associated with high transmissibility. We’ve had other immune-escape variants before that have not really taken off… That’s what I’m looking out for, the level of transmissibility.”

The good news, as I understand it from scanning Twitter, is that it was detected early on, and that PCR tests work to find it, which means that testing for it will be quicker and more effective. The vax makers say they can make a new batch for this in short order, it will mostly be a matter of getting it approved. So yeah, don’t panic yet, wait to see what the data says, and if necessary get yourself another booster. We’re much better placed for this now, if we’re not stupid about it.

No independent investigation of the AstroWorld tragedy

Not sure how I feel about this yet.

Harris County will not launch an independent investigation into the Astroworld festival disaster after commissioners declined to support a plan by County Judge Lina Hidalgo to do so.

Instead, the group on Tuesday voted unanimously to conduct an internal review, at the request of Precinct 2 Commissioner Adrian Garcia.

“I proposed a more thorough and detailed scope to increase the likelihood of objectivity and an impactful outcome,” Hidalgo said. “While this scales back my proposal, I am happy to see the court move as a unit on some next steps.”

Garcia, a former Houston Police Department officer, made a motion to support that agency’s investigation. The motion also directed the county administrator, Harris County Sports Authority and Harris County Sports and Convention Corporation to examine safety regulations for outdoor concerts.

“There’s a lot of moving pieces in this particular event, so my motion is intended to help us move forward in the spirit of making sure that we are coordinating and collaborating, but at the same time looking forward,” Garcia said.

He expressed concern that authorizing a new investigation would expose the county to lawsuits.

[…]

Hidalgo, as a member of the three-member Democratic majority, rarely loses votes on Commissioners Court. She was unable, however, to convince any of her colleagues behind closed doors to support her plan for an independent investigation of the festival, which she said would not interfere with the Houston Police Department’s probe.

Hidalgo said she hopes the review would suggest actions the county can take to make concerts safer.

I hope so, too. I liked the idea of an independent investigation, though there had been no discussion of what that might look like and what powers the investigator would have. Campos thinks it’s a mistake for the county to not pursue this, while Erica Greider has mixed feelings. The county’s review will not overlap with the HPD criminal probe, so maybe it will turn up some useful information. Like I said, I hope this is worthwhile.

UPDATE: Stace also thinks Commissioners Court should have approved the independent investigation.

Here’s a look at that long-awaited Ismaili Center

Looks really nice.

Designs for Houston’s the Ismaili Center Houston were unveiled Monday afternoon, revealing architecture and gardens likely to set a new bar in a city increasingly devoted to modern design and lush green spaces.

With a structure designed by UK-based Farshid Moussavi and gardens by Thomas Woltz of Nelson Byrd Woltz Landscape Architects — a renowned landscape architect known locally for his work transforming Memorial Park — the new Ismaili Center will sprawl across 11 acres at the southeast corner of Allen Parkway and Montrose Boulevard.

Clad in a silvery beige Turkish marble, the building will be a cultural landmark where local and visiting Ismailis can worship, and where others can attend cultural and educational events. Gardens on all four sides will include terraced plantings and water features in a configuration that pays homage to ancient Islamic architecture but with vegetation found in Texas ecosystems.

Houston was chosen several years ago by His Highness Aga Khan as the site of America’s first Ismaili Center, picked for its large population of Ismaili Muslims and for its overall diverse community. The Aga Khan is the spiritual leader — or imam — of Ismaili Muslims, and is a direct descendant of the Prophet Muhammad, who founded Islam some 1,400 years ago.

The Aga Khan Foundation purchased the local land in 2006 and later donated seven monumental artworks — Jaume Plensa’s “Tolerance” sculptures — that sit across the street in Buffalo Bayou Park. Excavation on the site is already under way and a formal ground breaking will likely take place early next year with construction finished by the end of 2024.

[…]

The Ismaili Center has no front or back; each side is equally detailed and welcoming, though there will be entry doors off of West Dallas and Montrose streets, Moussavi said. Deep on the lot toward West Dallas, the building had to be located outside of the 500-year flood plain to avoid damage in future weather events.

Woltz, who leads the landscape architecture team that will craft 10 acres of lush garden where there is now dirt and scruffy weeds, also did the landscaping for the Ismaili Center in London. Houston’s center will be the seventh throughout the world; the others — built between 1985 and 2014 — are in London, Toronto, Lisbon, Dubai, and in Burnaby, British Columbia, and Dushanbe, Tajikistan.

See here for the previous update, and here for an aerial view of what the property will eventually look like. It sounds great and the pictures are amazing. I still don’t know why it all took so long, but at least something is finally being built there. Maybe there will be hope for The Stables some day.

Some more AstroWorld stuff

Firefighter logs from the event tell the story of early chaos and continued problems.

Houston firefighters arrived at a small command post parked on the far-flung Orange Lot, about a mile from the festival grounds. They spent the day listening to radio dispatches from some of the hundreds of Houston police officers inside and outside the park, or using cellphones to call the concert organizers’ privately hired medical providers. They added notable updates to the 11-page log.

After the early breach of the entry, firefighters wrote just after 10 a.m.: “Venue fences damaged. No control of participants.”

In the initial rush on the gates, four concertgoers were injured, the logs show. Revved-up concertgoers would rush gates at least nine other times Friday, fire officials wrote.

At about 11 a.m. Friday, firefighters noted that a crowd of about 100 people were headed toward the Fiesta. Eighteen minutes later, they noted another 200 people approaching the park’s Gate 10.

“Participants are now dismantling barricades,” firefighters wrote.

[…]

Shortly after 5 p.m., the place was already about two-thirds full, according to the logs. The number of concert crashers appears to have grown significantly as well, with one entry showing that officials estimated as many as 5,000 people had not been scanned entering the park.

Police continued to respond to calls of people pushing down fencing at 5:50 p.m. and an hour later. They reported a “mob” at Main Street at 7:15 p.m., and a crowd of some 250 people rushing a pedestrian bridge nine minutes later.

Half an hour later, police had another 13 people in custody.

At 8 p.m., they reported a Houston police officer suffering from a hand injury;

By 9 p.m. — about the time that Travis Scott began performing — the crowd at NRG park had grown to 55,000, according to the logs.

As the concert progressed, hundreds of festivalgoers continued to pour over fencing.

But if the security breaches were the first signs of trouble, the most significant signs of danger began to appear shortly after 9:15 p.m.

“Individual with crush injury, breathing difficulty,” firefighters noted, at 9:18 p.m. “(ParaDocs) en route.”

“This is when it all got real,” they wrote, at 9:28 p.m.

There’s more if you want to keep reading. I suspect we’re going to learn a lot from these logs, and from what the firefighters who wrote them have to say about it now.

Another source of information about this disaster will be all the litigation.

Attorneys representing more than 200 people claiming they were injured in last week’s Astroworld Festival stampede in Houston said on Friday that they are filing another 90 lawsuits against the promoters of the event in which at least nine people died.

The announcement marked the latest legal action to follow last Friday’s concert by Grammy Award-nominated rapper Travis Scott before a crowd of 50,000 at NRG Stadium that got out of control when fans surged toward the stage.

“We represent more than 200 victims who were injured mentally, physically and psychologically at the Astroworld Festival,” civil rights Attorney Ben Crump announced at a news conference in Houston.

At least 50 other suits have been brought against producer Live Nation Entertainment Inc and Scott over the deaths and injuries related to the Astroworld Festival that was intended to signal the resurgence of Scott’s hometown.

A ninth person succumbed to her injuries on Wednesday, raising the death toll to nine. It occurs to me that the families of the deceased have not yet filed any lawsuits. I have to imagine those will come later. We will be re-living this experience for a long time.

And in the end, I hope we learn from this terrible experience.

The Danish city of Roskilde shares little with Houston other than a proximity to a waterway and a music festival tragedy in which nine people died.

The Roskilde Festival, which typically draws more than twice as many music fans as the town’s population of around 50,000, made only celebratory news until its 30th year, when nine fans were crushed in a mosh pit during a Pearl Jam performance there on June 30, 2000.

One year later, the festival returned with Bob Dylan headlining.

Carlos Chirinos, a music and global health professor at New York University, studies music-related crowds and behaviors. He worked with Roskilde Festival organizers in 2005.

“I was impressed with how they stepped up security in the pit,” he said. “I had an opportunity to be close with security and saw how closely they worked with stage management. They tried to achieve total control.

“And they haven’t had any incidents since then.”

[…]

In the meantime, experts say large-scale changes to how the music industry conducts its events are unlikely to take place. Those advocating for the end of general-admission music festivals with tens of thousands of concert-goers may get a short-term reprieve: the festival season largely hibernates for the winter.

But by next spring and summer, music festivals will likely return in full fervor.

“It’s not cynical, but just an observation, that some of the most heartbreaking tragedies at mass gatherings in the United States have not yielded a lot of change,” said Steve Adelman, vice president of the Event Safety Alliance. The non-profit organization was formed following a 2011 concert event that was to feature the band Sugarland at the Indiana State Fair. Severe winds knocked down supports for a temporary roof, killing seven fans and injuring dozens of others.

“What are the likely long-term changes after the tragedy at Astroworld? You can find people asking if it will be the end of GA shows, and commenters saying that will happen. I don’t think that’s likely at all,” Adelman said. “If for no other reason than the economic model for the music industry has changed. No one is selling records. So the industry sells live music, food, beverages and merchandise. That’s just the model. It’s economics.”

Of course, those that organize and promote these events have to be able to get insurance for them. The lawsuits may make that more difficult for them, or at least force them to make some changes. But yeah, it’s probably best not to bet on anything truly game-changing. Attend at your own risk, hopefully with the knowledge of what can go wrong.

The safety protocols

We won’t know for some time what exactly went wrong at AstroWorld, but we do know what should have been in place to keep the concertgoers safe.

When tens of thousands of people are packed into a confined area like NRG Park, crowd surges of some form are to be expected, security industry experts say, and certain precautions should be implemented.

“It’s very natural when the lights go down or somebody takes the stage, the entire crowd takes a step forward. It’s just natural, you move toward the point of interest. … And depending on the density of the crowd, that can become extremely dangerous,” said Tamara Herold, an associate professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

Herold researches crowd management and works with security firms and sports leagues around the world to ensure public safety at large-scale events.

While Herold couldn’t comment on the security at the Astroworld Festival, citing a lack of publicly released information, she said there are general steps organizers can take to mitigate risk at such festivals.

[…]

High-density events such as Astroworld carry with them inherent dangers, which have played out to tragic ends at concerts and sporting events throughout modern history. More specifically, Herold’s research has found that there is a much higher likelihood of violence and injury at events with general admission seating, the standard at festivals such as Astroworld.

One way to mitigate that risk is to separate the crowd into more manageable sections, Herold said. Videos posted to social media do appear to show the area in front of the stage separated into four sections.

If a crowd surge turns dangerous, the next best bet is to notify the performer, have them pause the show and encourage the crowd to settle down, according to Herold.

“If you allow the concert to continue, the pressure will continue to build, people will begin to panic and then they behave in ways that create even more pressure in the crowd as they try to escape, and it creates a very desperate situation,” Herold said.

See here and here for some background. Professor Herold is speaking in general terms, and what she says makes a lot of sense. This particular event should have had its own safety protocols, and there are questions about whether they were followed.

Astroworld had a plan for all sorts of emergencies. It designated who could stop a performance and how. It included a script for how to announce an evacuation. It detailed how to handle a mass casualty event.

Whether promoters followed it Friday evening, when eight concertgoers died and scores were injured during Travis Scott’s headlining performance, is unclear.

The Houston Chronicle obtained the 56-page “event operations plan,” which the festival promoter developed to ensure the safety of 50,000 guests at the sold-out event at NRG Park.

“Astroworld, as an organization, will be prepared to evaluate and respond appropriately to emergency situations, so as to prevent or minimize injury or illness to guests, event personnel and the general public,” the document states.

Attendees described an entirely different scene: an overwhelmed venue where security personnel were unable to prevent fans from being crushed. Where medics were too few. And where production staff were unwilling to halt the show despite pleas from fans that others had collapsed.

[…]

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo said a review of the plan — and whether it was properly followed — should be part of an objective, third-party investigation of the tragedy.

“What I know so far is that Live Nation and Astroworld put together plans for this event,” Hidalgo said Saturday. “A security plan, a site plan. That they were at the table with the city of Houston and Harris County. And so perhaps the plans were inadequate. Perhaps the plans were good, but they weren’t followed. Perhaps it was something else entirely.”

Litigation will provide a window into that, but that’s a slow process. Judge Hidalgo is right, we need a thorough investigation; I’m not sure what a third-party investigation would look like, but as long as everyone has sufficient faith in whoever is leading it, that’s fine by me. The goal should be to come to some answers, even just preliminary ones, in a short time frame. We all need to know how and why this happened. Ken Hoffman and Texas Public Radio have more.

How to help the AstroWorld victims

Very straightforward.

Houstonians hoping to help the victims can contribute to their verified GoFundMe accounts. The fundraising platform has created a hub for Astroworld victims with direct links to verified campaigns to help families cover funeral expenses and medical bills.

“We prioritize balancing speed and safety to ensure funds are distributed as quickly as possible to those who need help,” GoFundMe said in a release.

The verified accounts so far include:

GoFundMe said the online hub will be updated with more fundraisers as they are created and verified.

I don’t have anything to add here. Go help if you can.

A timeline of the AstroWorld tragedy

Good reporting about a terrible event.

For 37 minutes after Houston police and firefighters responded to a “mass casualty” event at a packed Astroworld rap concert where attendees were crushed against the stage Friday evening, Travis Scott continued performing.

Police officials said the promoter, Live Nation, agreed to cut the show shortly after multiple people collapsed at 9:38 p.m. But concert attendees said Scott appeared to play his whole set and finished at 10:15 p.m. Concert staff ignored pleas from fans to halt the show, including some who climbed onto camera platforms to point out others who had collapsed and needed medical attention.

A review of videos and social media posts that documented one of the deadliest concerts in U.S. history raises questions about the official timeline of events put forth by local officials, the swiftness of their response and their ability to communicate effectively with concert promoters during the disaster.

Houston Police Chief Troy Finner said he had enough officers onsite to handle the crowd of 50,000. But he also said he could not have abruptly ended the show for fear of sparking a riot his department could not control.

The delay restricted the movement of first responders, who were still transporting limp bodies when Scott finished his final song, “Goosebumps.”

Eight people died, including 14- and 16-year-old high school students. Scores were injured.

[…]

Two veteran concert promoters of major shows — one with experience in Texas — said the plans and procedures between promoters, showrunners and local officials outline exactly how to pull the plug on a show. Neither would comment publicly because Live Nation, the company that managed Astroworld, is a dominant force in entertainment booking.

Often, a performer with a high-energy and complex performance such as Scott’s would have a direct line to a producer or stage manager via an earpiece. The producer/manager would be in constant contact and have the ability at practically any time to tell a performer what is going on and that a show is being abruptly halted.

Cancellation can come from various people along the process, ranging from the artists themselves to promoters and police. Stage crews can, in a matter of seconds if necessary, turn off all power to the stage and broadcast safety and security messages on video boards and over the audio system.

Live Nation did not use the PA system or video boards to broadcast any safety messages Friday evening, attendees said.

The procedures are especially common when promoters hold outdoor shows. Free Press Summer Fest, held across multiple stages and at multiple venues in the Houston area over the past decade, canceled and restarted performances in a matter of minutes as rain moved into the area in 2015 and 2016.

See here for some background, and read on for that timeline, which was put together with the help of eyewitness accounts and their social media posts. There are a lot of questions to be answered about whether security was adequate and what happened with communications, and it’s important that we figure that out and make the answers public. And then, as needed, seek accountability.

The AstroWorld concert tragedy

Just awful.

At least eight people are dead and dozens more injured after a sold-out crowd of roughly 50,000 surged during rapper Travis Scott’s performance late Friday at the Astroworld Festival outside NRG Park, overwhelming security forces and resulting in one of the deadliest concerts in U.S. history.

As Scott’s performance started shortly after 9 p.m., the chaotic crowd seemingly swallowed everyone in it, Instagram user SeannaFaith wrote.

“The rush of people became tighter and tighter. .. Breathing became something only a few were capable. The rest were crushed or unable to breathe in the thick hot air,” she wrote. “It was like watching a Jenga tower topple. Person after person were sucked down…. You were at the mercy of the wave.”

“We begged security to help us, for the performer to see us and know something was wrong,” she continued. “None of that came, we continued to drown.”

Then, one person fell. And another.

“We had a mass casualty event here at Astroworld,” Houston Fire Chief Samuel Peña said.

Seventeen people were taken to the hospital, 11 of whom Peña described as being in cardiac arrest. Eight are confirmed dead. Some of the victims might be children.

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo called it an “extremely tragic night,” as families awaited word on whether their loved ones were safe. The Houston Police Department is in the process of identifying victims at hospitals, and a reunification center was set up at the Wyndham Houston Hotel at 8686 Kirby. People searching for loved ones can also call 832-393-2991 or 832-393-2990.

“Our hearts are broken,” Hidalgo said. “People go to these events looking for a good time. It’s not the kind of event where you expect to find out about fatalities.”

The news conference with Mayor Turner and Judge Hidalgo came on while I was drafting this, which confirmed that the casualty count remains at eight, including two people under the age of 18, and that there were no people known to be missing at that time. There will be an investigation into how this happened. My heart goes out to everyone who was affected by this tragedy.

Get ready to compost

I hope this expands in the near future.

The city launched a composting pilot program Wednesday, opening three sites where residents can drop off compost-friendly waste that otherwise would wind up in a landfill.

The hope is the program will help educate Houstonians on how to divert some of their trash away from the city’s rapidly filling landfills, which also can cut down on methane emissions.

“Very few people in Houston compost. This is a way to educate people about the benefits of it,” said At-Large Councilmember Sallie Alcorn, who led the effort to start a pilot program. “I know we’re not going to revolutionize the whole city by composting today, but it’s planting a seed, it’s educating people.”

Residents will be able to drop off their compost materials at three sites over the next six weeks: The Kashmere Multi-Service Center, from 9 a.m. to 11 a.m. on Saturdays; the Historic Heights Fire Station, from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. on Wednesdays; and the Houston Botanic Garden, from 9 a.m. to 11 a.m. on Saturdays.

The city and its partners, Zero Waste Houston and Moonshot Compost, will take the materials to Nature’s Way, an organization that will turn the compost into soil over the course of 15 to 18 months.

[…]

Food materials sitting in landfills mark the third-largest source of human methane emissions in the United States, accounting for 14.1 percent of the emissions in 2017, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The agency reported that methane emissions from municipal landfills in 2019 were equivalent to more than 21.6 million passenger vehicles driven for one year.

The region’s landfills also are quickly filling. A master plan for the Solid Waste department reported there is only about 30 to 40 years of capacity remaining at the city’s 12 landfills. Seven of them would be forced to close by 2040 unless they undergo major expansions. All private construction and demolition landfills are expected to reach capacity in that time, as well. The master plan called for increasing diversion programs, such as composting, to ease the burden on those sites.

I hope we can all agree that creating more landfill space is not the highest and best use of any existing property. Diverting some amount of waste that has other good uses away from the landfill is a great way to kick that can a good distance down the road. Recycling is a big part of that, composting is just taking it to the next level. Some places already have curbside compost pickup, and our goal should be to get there as well.

Compost-friendly materials include food scraps, such as coffee grounds and tea bags; meat and bones; moldy or freezer-burned food; fruits and vegetable; dairy; and seafood and shells. Alcorn reminded residents to remove paper stickers and other materials from the items before dropping them at the collection sites.

Acceptable materials also include compostable utensils, bags and cups; newspapers, fur, hair and nail clippings; flowers; paper napkins and towels; vegetarian pet bedding; and wood ash.

We do some backyard composting – my wife loves to garden, so she makes heavy use of what we compost – but not everything listed here goes into our bin. I need to make a plan to separate out some of that material and bring it to the Heights Fire Station next Wednesday.

Wait, what Astrodome mural project?

How is it we hadn’t known about this before now?

Ready and waiting

A proposal to repaint the Astrodome with a series of murals expressing opposition to human trafficking was rejected Friday by the Texas Historical Commission out of concern for the 56-year-old building.

Commission members said they were worried about acrylic latex paint being applied directly to the structure, a state antiquities landmark that is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Under the proposal, submitted by the Harris County Sports & Convention Corp., which owns the 1965 dome, street artists would paint the building’s exterior circumference with murals measuring 75 feet high and 150 feet wide, under the coordination of a group called Street Art for Mankind. An eighth artist would paint an image on the roof of an astronaut in space. The art installations would remain in place for 10 years.

No one representing the county or the art group was present as commission staff presented the request for a historic buildings and structures permit.

“We have concerns about turning the Astrodome into a big billboard. It doesn’t really seem like an appropriate treatment for a historic building that is a state antiquities landmark,” Mark Wolfe, the commission’s executive director, told commissioners and members of the agency’s Antiquities Advisory Board.

Commissioners said they would support an artificial “wrap” around the dome. But they objected to paint being applied directly onto the building’s concrete surfaces and glass windows.

I did not make it through all 295 pages of the Texas Historical Commission’s agenda, so I don’t know anything more about where this came from or who would do it. It’s a noble idea, but I share the THC’s reluctance to make such a fundamental alteration to the Dome. There will one day be a true redevelopment effort, and I’d rather they start with the Dome more or less as is, rather than have to scrape off a bunch of latex paint. I would also support the “wrap” idea, which seems ideally suited for this kind of project. And I’d still like to know more about the origin of this idea.

Hey, look, it’s a Robinson Warehouse update!

From the new CityCast Houston newsletter, Lisa Gray’s latest project.

What once was there

“It appears that the property purchased by the Aga Khan many years ago is under development,” writes City Cast subscriber Mickey Altman. “What is going on there?”

He’s talking about the enormous lot at 2323 Allen Parkway – right across from Buffalo Bayou Park’s alphabet-dude Tolerance sculptures, and with a looong edge facing Montrose. For 14 years, as midrise apartment empires rose all around, those 11 high-profile acres have languished, tantalizingly empty.

Their vacancy especially grated on Montrose denizens and architecture fans because they’d once slavered over the site’s possibilities. After the Aga Khan Foundation bought the place in 2006, it razed the crumbling brick warehouse that occupied the land and announced plans to build a big-deal Ismaili Centre like the ones in London, Vancouver and Lisbon.

The Aga Khan, a direct descendant of the prophet Muhammad, is the spiritual leader of the Ismaili sect of Shia Muslims. He’s also a world-class architecture fan, and Ismaili Centres in other cities present themselves as brick-and-mortar proof of Ismailis’ friendly, do-gooder worldliness. Houston’s Ismaili Centre was to be part park, part prayer hall, part conference center – and open to the Montrose public.

Then…nothing.

In 2010, Swamplot blog readers spotted construction trailers. False alarm! Those were for a bridge across the street.

“Hark, a fence!” snarked Swamplot in 2012, when new chainlink appeared. But construction failed to follow.

In 2013, earth-moving equipment rumbled across the field, and a contractor told a reporter that he was preparing a cricket field. Instead: Crickets.

At last, in February 2019, the Ismailis announced something. Passing over a passel of starchitect finalists – David Chipperfield, Jeanne Gang and Rem Koolhaas – they’d picked up-and-coming Farshid Moussavi, a Harvard professor. And to design the enormous grounds, they chose Thomas Woltz, known to Houstonians for revamping Memorial Park and the landscaping around Rothko Chapel.

And now, three years later? To answer Mickey Altman’s question, I emailed Farshid Moussavi’s office in London. “We anticipate that there will be a press release regarding the project sometime next month,” responded her studio manager, Ishwariya Rajamohan. But alas: No pretty drawings, and no real timetable.

But something is happening. Yesterday, from the southern edge, I saw earth-moving equipment, Port-a-Cans, and best of all, what looked like giant bathroom tile samples – presumably the architectural equivalent of fabric swatches, to show what how various exteriors might look on the site itself.

And so, yet again, we wait.

Lisa took a picture of the construction equipment she saw, so click over if you’re curious. I had driven past the site just a couple of days before she posted that and didn’t see anything at that time, but I drove by again on Thursday and sure enough, dirt had been moved. It’s all on the southern end at this point, right at the Montrose/West Dallas intersection.

I of course have been obsessed with the former Robinson Warehouse site since the old place was first being demolished in 2006 – yes, of course I observed the news about the architect noted in that piece – so this is very much of interest to me, even though my daily travels (or what will be my daily travels, when I start going back to the office) don’t take me by there any more. For sure, though, when there is something happening, I will make a point of getting over there on the regular to take more pictures of it.

By the way, I recommend visiting the CityCast Houston homepage and signing up for the daily newsletter. There will be a podcast coming soon as well. Lisa Gray is an excellent observer of the Houston scene, and it’s a pleasure getting her daily insights. The newsletter is free, so go sign up for it.

The kids are all right

This is the best thing you’ll read today.

Patrick Kisindja spends his days combating vaccine hesitancy. Sometimes he calls people, other times he drives to their homes to explain the science behind the shot.

Then, in the afternoon, Kisindja drives teens to the Harris County Public Health vaccination clinic at Dick Graves Park.

The 21-year-old southwest Houston resident serves as an ambassador at the faith-based nonprofit reVision.

Founded in 2011 at St. Luke’s United Methodist Church, the organization provides mentors, case managers and community support for the city’s most disconnected youth, including refugees, those experiencing homelessness and members of the juvenile detention system.

Because of their circumstances, members of the reVision program are especially vulnerable to COVID-19. So for the past few months, the nonprofit has focused on helping them get their shots. Ambassadors like Kisindja are integral to reVision’s program, which uses peers to lead the vaccination effort for teens.

The people Kisindja spends his days informing about the coronavirus vaccine? The parents of students in the program.

Often, he visits them three or four times before they acquiesce. Many are refugees, and he often reminds them — sometimes in Swahili — that they were vaccinated against other diseases before settling in the U.S.

“It protects you,” Kisindja said. “You’re better with that. You don’t want to end up in the hospital.”

Kisindja uses every tool in his arsenal to persuade parents to sign consent forms for their children to get the shot.

“We’re doing it for the kids,” Kisindja continued. “And that’s what reVision is all about — helping kids and keeping them safe.”

There’s more, so read the rest. Patrick Kisindja has done more good for the people of Texas in the past few months than Ted Cruz would do in a dozen lifetimes. He and his friends are doing it one person at a time, though as you’ll see there were some events that greatly helped their cause. If you need numbers to be convinced:

[reVision CEO Charles Rotramel] hired four former reVision students, now in college, to serve in the program. Methodist provided their training — going in depth with how the vaccine works and also the different categories of vaccine hesitancy.

“In June, we really just turned them loose,” Rotramel said. “I didn’t know if it would work, but we felt like, let’s just go all in and see what we could do.”

Besides, he had no idea how else they would ever reopen reVision without everyone being vaccinated.

And, ultimately, Rotramel had faith.

“I had a firm belief and trust in young people that they would make the right decision,” he said.

[…]

The youth who showed up to reVision’s first clinic in July were rewarded with a full day of fun at Main Event.

Then, those kids shared their photos on social media, and everything changed.

“That broke the dam,” Rotramel said. “Then, we had a flood of kids who wanted to get vaccinated.”

Before long, the ambassadors shuttled youth to their shots almost every day. By the time school started, about 70 percent of reVision students were fully vaccinated.

“And that was our goal,” Rotramel said. “We had been so concerned about them going back to in-person school in an unvaccinated space.”

On Aug. 12, Rotramel was able to finally open the doors to the reVision community center. The only people invited inside were fully vaccinated.

“That turned another corner because everyone wanted to be in the space,” he said. “That was moving to us.”

The hallways were again full of chatter and laughter, from all age groups and in a variety of languages.

“It’s that joyful noise we really hadn’t heard,” Rotramel said.

Now, nearly 90 percent of reVision students are vaccinated.

Just fantastic. We could use a whole lot more of this. Thanks, y’all.

MKT Bridge repairs delayed

Bummer.

Months after a fire closed a key Houston trail link, opening day for the M-K-T Bridge remains up in the air, after workers discovered more repairs are needed to the old railroad crossing.

“They found additional damage caused by the fire that was not visible during the initial assessment,” the Houston Parks Board said in a statement. “Further repairs are needed before the bridge can safely reopen. In addition, there is also damage to the bridge caused by wear and tear that we would like to address while it is closed.”

That leaves the link along the Heights Hike and Bike Trail near Interstate 10 and White Oak Bayou closed for an undetermined period, officials said. Initially parks board officials planned to have the bridge open by the end of summer.

[…]

Officials closed the bridge after an Aug. 19 fire broke out in brush along the north side of White Oak Bayou. The blaze, investigated as an arson, charred the wooden beams that support the trail bridge. Houston Parks Board and city officials spent months assessing and then approving fixes to the span.

Now with more work needed, much of that process starts over again, with engineers designing the repair and the city issuing permits.

“As a result of this new development, and for safety reasons, the bridge will remain closed,” parks board officials said. “We are disappointed that the bridge will not open as originally planned and cannot say for certain when the bridge will reopen to trail users.”

See here and here for some background. No indication yet how much of a delay this will cause, but we’re already at the end of the summer, so we’re surely at least a few months out. As noted in the story, there’s now a project to extend the White Oak Bayou Trail to connect it to the MKT Bridge, which is expected to be done in early 2022. It would be awesome to have both of them done by then, but getting the bridge repair right is the more important consideration.

A bit of good news in the wastewater

I’ll take it where I can get it.

Community spread of coronavirus is on the decline from its recent summertime high, but experts warn that Labor Day gatherings and kids’ return to classrooms could bring a rash of new infections in the coming weeks.

The latest samples of Houston’s wastewater — a highly sensitive method for tracking coronavirus — show diminishing traces of the virus across the region, said Loren Hopkins, the Houston Health Department’s chief environmental science officer. The results indicate a slight drop in person-to-person spread.

“The positivity rates are still alarmingly high, the wastewater rates are still alarmingly high, but it may be trending down,” Hopkins said Wednesday.

The decline could be short-lived.

The holiday weekend and the start of school, which spurred record infections among children, will likely keep the Houston area in “plateau mode” for the foreseeable future, said Bill McKeon, CEO of the Texas Medical Center.

On Tuesday, the Texas Medical Center reported that the rate of transmission across the Houston area was 0.87; the average for the previous week was 0.99. Both figures landing below 1.0 is a good sign; any number above 1.0 means the virus is spreading through the community.

Still, McKeon urged caution. Tuesday’s low daily transmission rate of 0.87 could be artificially deflated due to low testing rates, he said, which commonly occur over holiday weekends.

“We are just coming out of the Labor Day weekend and we typically do not see the impact of holidays for one to two weeks,” McKeon said.

[…]

Houston’s coronavirus hospitalizations slowed by 2.3 percent in the past week, but remained only slightly lower than August’s record peak. As of Tuesday, 3,370 people were in area hospitals for COVID-19, down from the record high of 3,500 on Aug. 24, according to the Texas Department of State Health Services.

Ballooning school transmissions are another concern, experts said, especially in districts that do not have mask mandates. Student infections are rapidly rising across the state, with the total number of positive cases among public school students surging by 90 percent just a few weeks into the new school year.

“We need mask mandates to protect our school children from getting infected and bringing it home to Mom and Dad,” said Catherine Troisi, an epidemiologist at Texas Medical Center’s School of Public Health.

The wastewater had documented to surge, and it will be the leading indicator when there is a real decline. I hope people were cautious over the Labor Day weekend, but we’ll know soon enough what if any effect that had. As for mask mandates in the schools, it seems to be working pretty well for HISD. I keep saying, none of this is a mystery, we know what we need to do, we just have to do it.

The Census and gentrification

Some population trends of interest in Houston.

People of color led Houston’s growth over the last 10 years, but that trend wasn’t reflected across all the city’s historic Black and Hispanic neighborhoods.

Census data released earlier this month paints a changing map of Houston’s racial demographics. In some neighborhoods, such as the historically Black Third Ward, the changes are stark — a byproduct of ongoing gentrification. In other neighborhoods, such as Sunnyside and the Near Northside, the shifts are subtle but hint at the beginnings of a similar process.

The data confirms what residents have known for a long time: The changes are nothing new, and the stakes are high, experts say.

“This is a crisis of enormous proportions,” said Assata Richards, director of the Sankofa Research Institute. “It’s not just that people have lost their communities, communities have lost their people. Housing rates have increased, opportunities have decreased and the protections for naturally occurring affordable housing aren’t there.”

Black people now make up just 45 percent of Third Ward, a drop from 71 percent in 2010, according to the census bureau. Both numbers increase about 10 percent if you remove the census tract that houses the University of Houston.

Third Ward saw its Black population drop about 15 percent to 8,045 residents, though the neighborhood’s overall population grew about 35 percent, census data shows. The white population rose about 170 percent, from 1,283 residents in 2010 to 3,465 in 2020. White people make up about 20 percent of the neighborhood’s 17,706 residents.

“It’s like a flood. A hurricane has hit the city, and the flood has washed away African Americans from historic neighborhoods,” said Richards, who lives in Third Ward. “I’ve seen the disappearance of Black people at the parks, at the post office, at the corner store. The places in our community are being reshaped and are beginning to become foreign to me. It has a very disorienting effect. These are my neighbors and family members and people I love.”

The gentrification occurring in Third Ward is happening in other racial and ethnic enclaves throughout the city. Second Ward saw its Latino population drop about 25 percent, from 10,802 residents to 8,111 over the last 10 years. The white population rose to 2,572 from 1,711 residents in 2010, an increase of about 50 percent.

Despite Houston adding nearly 94,000 Latinos over the last decade, almost none of that growth occurred in the East End, Near Northside or Northside, traditional Latino strongholds. Nearly every census tract in those areas lost at least some portion of its Latino residents, regardless of whether there was an increase in white residents.

That’s why experts say the issue is larger than just a matter of white people moving into a neighborhood historically occupied by a particular racial or ethnic group.

In fact, the white growth in Third Ward and other areas inside Loop 610, such as the East End and the Heights, is mostly an anomaly. The white population in Houston decreased by about 30 percent over the last decade, though Houston’s overall population rose by 10 percent. That growth was driven almost entirely by people of color and not limited to neighborhoods in the urban core.

“What happens when it becomes more profitable for a landowner to sell than it is to rent is that the people who were long-term renters end up displaced,” said Dr. Quianta Moore, of Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy. “Some look at gentrification as neighborhood revitalization and say that’s not a bad thing, but regardless of the definition you use, it’s always problematic when people are forcibly displaced from their neighborhood.”

“When you have economic factors that drive and uproot people out of a neighborhood … there’s a negative psychological harm and increased morbidity and risk of death,” Moore said, citing “Root Shock,” a 2004 book by Dr. Mindy Fullilove.

The main problem here is real estate prices rising at too fast a rate, which makes a lot of older and historic neighborhoods, including and especially Black and Latino neighborhoods, unaffordable for current residents. I’d love to see more stories that go into the policy changes that could be made to try to reverse, or at least slow down, these trends. Denser development and more investment in transit would surely help, but I don’t claim to be smart enough to know the particulars. I’ve seen much of Inner Loop Houston transform from a place where anyone could live to a place where most people can’t afford to live in my thirty-plus years here. There’s been a lot of positive change, in terms of food and amenities and arts, but we need that to be the reality for all of Houston.

The financial incentive

At this point, whatever works.

A week after public health officials in Texas’ most populous county started handing out $100 cash cards to locals getting their first COVID-19 shot, the number of daily vaccinations has shot up to six times its previous rate, Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo said Tuesday.

“We had an inkling that something was going right when I started my announcement [about the incentive] at noon, and by the time I was done, 30 minutes later, there was a line of cars waiting to receive the vaccine,” Hidalgo said. “We haven’t seen those lines for months.”

To accommodate and encourage the increased demand, the county will be opening an additional mass vaccination site and expanding its mobile vaccine program, Hidalgo said.

“You have to be creative, and we’re seeing the results and we’re doubling down on it,” Hidalgo said.

Harris County officials began the incentive program last Tuesday in a bid to jumpstart stalled vaccinations in Houston and surrounding areas, and to provide relief to the region’s stressed hospitals during what health officials say is the worst surge of infections the area has seen since the pandemic began last year.

For the three weeks before the program started, Hidalgo said, Harris County Public Health was administering an average of 431 first doses per day. The day the announcement was made, the number jumped to 914. The next day, 1,596 people sought the first doses from public health providers.

On Saturday, four days into the program, some 2,700 people got their first injection, Hidalgo said.

“This is an incredible achievement,” she said.

As the story notes, more vaccination sites are being opened to accommodate what I hope will be a sharp uptick in demand. The FDA approval of the Pfizer shot, and more companies telling their employees to get vaxxed may help push the numbers up as well. I honestly don’t care what the cause is, as long as it happens. And it needs to happen at a higher rate than this – even with the uptick statewide, we’re at less than 30% of the shots-per-day peak in April. Let’s get closer to that, and then we’ll really have something.

More fourplexes

I am in favor of this.

Houston is mulling changes to its planning rules that could encourage a broader variety of housing types, such as triplexes and fourplexes, that developers and the city say could create more affordable options and help fill an unmet niche in the local housing market between single-family homes and larger apartment complexes or townhouses.

The current rules discourage those “middle” forms of development by allowing no more than two units on a single-family residential plat. The code allows for a duplex, or a home and one “accessory dwelling unit,” such as a garage apartment.

If owners want develop a project with more units, they have to get a commercial multifamily designation, which triggers higher financing costs and more regulations — such as the number of parking spaces, or the width of the driveway — that make the projects less feasible. The city did not approve a single new permit for three-, four- or five-unit structures in 2019 or 2020, an indication that it can be cost prohibitive for developers to pursue them.

“All of these requirements discourage such developments,” said Suvidha Bandi, principal planner for the city Planning Department.

The city has released a survey seeking public input on the rules, and whether they should be changed. The survey has garnered roughly 500 responses to date, and the Planning Department recently extended its deadline to Aug. 16. The potential changes are part of the Livable Places initiative, a bid to make the city more walkable, affordable and equitable.

[…]

Any changes would not supersede local deed restrictions, which could limit such developments in certain neighborhoods, Planning Director Margaret Wallace Brown said.

If the city were to loosen the planning restrictions, it could encourage more development in what housing experts call the “missing middle,” the dearth of housing supply between single-family homes and larger complexes. Daniel Parolek, an urban designer who coined the term, has said those developments typically have been illegal or discouraged in many parts of the United States since the 1940s.

That is when many of the existing triplexes and fourplexes in Houston were built, according to city planning officials. Since then, city planning rules have made it more difficult to build them.

As the story notes, this is the start of a long process, as a proposal has yet to be drafted and would need approvals from the Planning Commission and City Counci. Houston used to have a lot of three- and four-plexes. Montrose had a ton of them, usually those foursquare brick buildings that I’ve always liked, in the 90s when I was living there. They were definitely the affordable places to live, and they could be again. It just makes sense to me to revise the rules that are now preventing their construction. Really, we need to have a conversation about doing this in neighborhoods that have deed restrictions prohibiting them as well, which includes the neighborhood I live in now. The fact is that Houston is a much more expensive place to live now than it used to be, despite the vast amount of open space we have to build more housing, and we need to take action to make more affordable housing available. This would do that, and I support it.

Yes, the wastewater is also pointing to a COVID surge

In case you were wondering.

There is more COVID-19 in the city’s wastewater system now than at any time in the pandemic, city officials said Wednesday, the latest warning that the virus is spreading at an unprecedented rate.

Dr. David Persse, the city’s health authority, said there is more than three times as much virus in the system as there was last July. The volume also is higher than in January, during the most recent spike. Persse said that wastewater data, a precursor to other data points, show the surge will only grow worse in the coming weeks.

“We are at a level of virus in the wastewater that we have never seen before,” Persse said. “The wastewater predicts what we’ll see in the positivity (rate) by two weeks, which predicts what we’ll see in hospitalizations by about two weeks.”

[…]

The findings came during a news conference in which the city announced it will partner with Harris County and up to 17 school districts to vaccinate students over 12 and their families every Saturday in August, an effort they are calling “Super Saturday.” The inoculations will occur in school buildings throughout the region.

Persse described the state of the surge in stark terms, pointing to dire situations in area hospitals and rising cases and hospitalizations. The Lyndon B. Johnson Hospital declared an “internal disaster” Sunday night amid a nursing shortage and an influx of patients, circumstances officials said are occurring in other area hospitals, as well.

Texas Medical Center CEO Bill McKeon earlier this week said the region is “headed for dark times,” and the hospital system has exceeded its base intensive care capacity, opening unused wards to care for new patients.

“If you are currently unvaccinated, you need to consider that you represent a potential danger to yourself, and others, and most particularly your own family,” Persse said. “If you are not vaccinated… your chances getting through this without having to become either vaccinated or infected, is essentially zero.”

Just over 64 percent of Houstonians over 12 have received their first dose of the vaccine, according to city data, and 54.3 percent are fully vaccinated. The numbers among youth residents are more paltry, though: 28.1 percent of 12-17-year-old Houston residents are fully vaccinated, and 38.5 percent have received their first dose.

“If your child is 12 or older, stop and get them the shot,” said Houston ISD Superintendent Millard House II. “Increasing vaccination rates among our communities will help ease the worries of our families and their children returning to school.”

This is another one from earlier in the month, as things were really starting to get bad. We are familiar with this project, and it has been a big success. I just wish it had better news for us, but this is where we are. Getting more of those 12-and-older kids vaccinated would make a big difference as well, so I hope that effort is successful. We’re on our own, so we’d better act accordingly.

The nursing shortage

Just gonna leave this here.

A nursing shortage and a high volume of patients prompted Lyndon B. Johnson Hospital on Sunday night to declare an “internal disaster” in the emergency room, where wait times swelled to 24 hours, Harris Health System officials said Tuesday.

Internal disasters limit the flow of ambulance traffic to the hospital and are usually triggered by infrastructure problems, such as fires or diagnostic machine failures.

On Sunday, however, the hospital could only staff 16 of its 24 ICU beds. At one point, about 130 people were in the ER waiting room from an “onslaught” of patients with a variety of health problems, said Dr. Esmaeil Porsa, president and CEO at Harris Health System. The rise in patients came as the state of Texas is dealing with an acute surge of COVID-19 hospitalizations; on Tuesday, the state reported 7,305 hospitalized patients, an increase of 38 percent over last Tuesday.

The system needs about 250 more nurses to fully staff both LBJ and Ben Taub Hospital, said Porsa.

“It got a point where it was actually unsafe for us to accept more patients because we just did not have enough staff,” he said.

Porsa said the 215-bed hospital is no longer under an internal disaster but remains at capacity. It has since added staff for two ICU beds.

The disaster designation was first brought to light by an emergency room doctor who emailed State Sen. John Whitmire Sunday night about the “untenable” situation there. The email, obtained by the Houston Chronicle, pleaded for more nurses.

Just a reminder, a lot of doctors and nurses are thoroughly burned out from the earlier COVID waves. They had every reason to believe that things were finally better and they could get back to their regular, normal jobs, but that was not to be. And now we’re asking them do it all again, for an even bigger surge with no help at all from state government in sight. It’s just going to get worse from here.

More on the Memorial Hermann and Baylor vaccination mandates

Memorial Hermann: Get your shots or get out.

Memorial Hermann on Monday said it will require all employees to be vaccinated by Oct. 9, becoming the third Houston healthcare institution to do so.

The hospital system follows Baylor College of Medicine, which announced its employee vaccine requirement last week, nearly two months after Houston Methodist reached its vaccination deadline.

Managers and other leaders across the organizations must be compliant by Sept. 11. The deadline is Oct. 9 for all other employees, including the system’s affiliated providers and volunteers.

About 83 percent of Memorial Hermann’s workforce is fully vaccinated, including 87 percent of bedside staff, 95 percent of managers and above and all executive leaders, according to the hospital system. Memorial Hermann employs more than 29,000 people.

Exemptions will be made for those who are unable to be vaccinated due to medical or religious reasons. Employees who are not exempt and refuse the vaccine “will be deemed to have voluntarily resigned their position,” said Dr. David L. Callender, Memorial Hermann President and CEO.

He said spiking hospitalizations and COVID cases prompted the move.

“We’ve been waiting a little bit just to make sure the circumstances fully warrant moving forward, and we think they do now, “ Callender said Monday. “We’re seeing the impact of the very aggressive delta variant, a significant spike in new cases and hospitalizations, and about 50 percent of Houston’s population remains unvaccinated, which means the community continues to be at risk.”

See here for the background. I don’t think that justification needs any further explaining. By the way, the Memorial Hermann CEO wrote an op-ed in March, just as we were starting to hear about some scary variants out there, begging Greg Abbott to leave mask mandates in place. We know how that went.

Here’s Baylor, from about a week ago, with a somewhat less punitive approach.

Baylor employees have until Sept. 15 to become fully vaccinated or they may be subjected to discipline, said Dr. James McDeavitt, senior vice president and dean of clinical affairs at the medical school. However, he believes termination will be a “rare event.”

“We thought it was important to make a statement,” McDeavitt said. “As an organization, we are committed to vaccination, and we have been involved in all stages of the pandemic, from the development of vaccines, testing, clinical trials of medications and critical care of patients. (Requiring vaccines) was a necessary step for us to close that loop.”

Baylor’s vaccine policy had been in the works for some time, McDeavitt said, but the spike in cases was a catalyst for releasing the policy this week. “The spreading of the delta variant had a role in the timing of the release of this,” he said.

The policy, which was sent to employees Wednesday, details requirements for annual influenza and COVID-19 shots, except for people who have religious beliefs or a medical condition that would preclude them from becoming immunized.

So far, employee feedback has been positive, he said.

“I haven’t gotten any negative pushback to date,” McDeavitt said.

Baylor looked to Houston Methodist’s example when developing its policy, McDeavitt said. Methodist was the first health system nationwide to require vaccinations for employees in early June. More than 150 hospital employees resigned or were fired over the new policy — fewer than 1 percent of Methodist’s 25,000 employees.

“We will roll this out differently than Houston Methodist did. If someone flat-out refuses to become vaccinated, we don’t intend to jump to termination,” McDeavitt said.

For employees who are vaccine-hesitant, there will be a human resources process to further encourage them to take the shots. McDeavitt hopes no one is terminated over the new vaccination policy.

We’ll see how that works for them. I don’t care either way, as long as it gets the desired result. There’s no indication in that story of how many BCM employees are already vaccinated. MH’s 83% is not bad, but obviously it can – and will – be better. I wish they had done this sooner, but at least they are doing it. Texas Children’s, where are you on this?

More hospital systems to require vaccines

About time.

Memorial Hermann officials are finalizing details on its mandatory vaccine policy for employees.

During a radio interview Wednesday, Dr. David L. Callender, president and CEO, said the system will soon announce the timeline for its employees to become fully vaccinated.

The new measure comes as a fourth wave of the virus spreads across the state, due in large part to the ultra-transmissible delta variant. On Friday, the Department of State Health Services reported 13,871 new confirmed COVID cases, the largest single-day count since last winter’s surge and more than 12 times the number of cases confirmed on July 1.

“We think it’s very important for health care workers across the country to be vaccinated as vaccination is really the only way to stop this pandemic,” Callender said on the Houston Public Media radio show. “We’re working on (the policy), and will be making an announcement early next week.”

As of Friday morning, no details were made available on a vaccination deadline for employees or what type of discipline they may face if they do not comply with the new policy.

[…]

Memorial Hermann follows Baylor College of Medicine, which this week became the second Houston-area health care facility to require vaccines for employees, nearly two months after Houston Methodist reached its vaccination deadline.

Baylor employees have until Sept. 15 to become fully vaccinated or they may be subjected to discipline, said Dr. James McDeavitt, senior vice president and dean of clinical affairs at the medical school. McDeavitt expects most of the system’s employees will comply, and he believes firings connected to the policy will be rare.

I mean, Houston Methodist was doing this back in April, before any of us had ever heard of the Delta variant. They prevailed in a lawsuit, which is now under appeal, so the legal precedent is there for Memorial and Baylor. I honestly don’t know what has taken them so long, but better late than never. Now I’m wondering about other hospital systems – when I went to the Memorial Hermann Twitter page to get their logo for the embedded image, they suggested Texas Children’s Hospital, and now I’m wondering what their policy is. A Google search did not answer that question for me, which suggests the answer is No. Get it together, Texas Children’s!

The fourth wave

We’re not ready.

One local hospital is reinstating visitor limits and Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo is mulling a change to the county’s threat level amid a wave of COVID-19 variant cases that medical leaders warned Tuesday could overwhelm area hospitals and wreak further havoc as schools reopen next month.

The warning came amid massive spikes in hospitalizations across the Houston region, which Hidalgo’s office is closely monitoring to decide if the county needs to raise its emergency threat level from yellow to orange — or moderate to significant.

“We’re watching this very, very closely,” Hidalgo spokesperson Rafael Lemaitre wrote in an email. “The trends are moving in the wrong direction again and we are in a high-stakes race against the delta variant of this virus. Our message to the community is simple and clear: If you haven’t been vaccinated, take action now.”

In May, Hidalgo lowered the threat level from red — where it had been for nearly a year — to orange, then yellow a few weeks later, as COVID cases waned statewide.

But this month, hospitalizations across the state have more than doubled, ballooning from 1,591 on July 1 to 3,319 as of Tuesday, according to the Texas Department of State Health Services. The state’s hospitalization count peaked in January at 14,000.

Texas Medical Center CEO William McKeon said he fears the closing of many testing centers will make it more difficult to gauge the extent of COVID’s spread in the coming weeks.

“As this fourth wave begins in force, our radar is down,” Texas Medical Center CEO William McKeon said in a Tuesday conference call with reporters. “We have only a fraction of the testing…. We’re going to be running much more blind to the spread of delta variant in our community.”

[…]

Memorial-Hermann Health System plans to readopt visitor restrictions this week, and will test all patients for COVID, regardless of their vaccination status, said Dr. Annamaria Macaluso Davidson, vice president of employee health medical operations.

The hospital system had about 100 confirmed COVID cases on July 4; by Tuesday, there were more than 250.

We’ve been discussing this, and you know how I feel. The hospitalization numbers are still relatively low, but that’s a sharp increase, and there’s no reason to think there won’t be more. And I hadn’t even thought about the drastic reduction in testing facilities – I don’t know how big an effect that may have, but it’s not going to help.

I drafted this a couple of days ago, and before I knew it, Judge Hidalgo had already taken action.

Harris County’s emergency threat level was raised to orange — or “significant” — on Thursday and County Judge Lina Hidalgo called for resumed mask wearing amid a fourth wave of COVID-19 that has already caused hospitalizations to spike across the region.

“It’s not too late,” Hidalgo said. “But if we don’t act now, it will be too late for many people…. We are at the beginning of a potentially very dangerous fourth wave of this pandemic.”

The guidelines for the orange threat level are voluntary, and urge residents — namely those who are not vaccinated — to avoid large gatherings and businesses with poor safety procedures.

Hidalgo also said “everyone” should resume wearing masks to protect the County’s population who are not fully vaccinated. Currently, about 2.1 million county residents are fully vaccinated — 44 percent of Harris County’s total population.

She noted the county’s positivity rate is now doubling about every 17 days, quicker than any other point in the pandemic.

Get your masks back on, and hope for the best. I trust Judge Hidalgo to do everything she can to ameliorate this situation, but as we know, there’s not a lot she can do. Greg Abbott has seen to that.

One thing that could help is if more places of business begin putting in their own vaccination requirements, mostly for employees but also possibly for customers or business partners, depending on the situation. Putting some limits on what one can do as an unvaccinated person is one of the few effective ways to compel people to get their shots. That will have to come from the private sector, because it sure won’t come from the state. The FDA giving final approval to the Pfizer and Moderna shots will help, too. I just don’t know how long we can wait.

What will Harris County do about rising case numbers?

I’m afraid we’ll find out soon enough.

The Harris Health System’s COVID-19 ward was down to just one patient at the beginning of July.

Anxious to hit zero COVID-19 patients, Dr. Esmaeil Porsa, the hospital system’s CEO, purchased and stored a bottle of Martinelli’s sparkling grape juice — “fake champagne” — in his refrigerator. If the COVID ward emptied out, he would drive to Lyndon B. Johnson Hospital, one of the system’s two medical centers, to celebrate with doctors and nurses.

Instead, the numbers went the opposite direction. As of Friday morning, nurses were treating 14 COVID patients at LBJ Hospital.

“We really had the opportunity to have this darn thing beaten,” Porsa said.

COVID-19 infections are climbing upward again in Houston and Texas as vaccine rates lag, the delta variant spreads and people return to their normal lives.

Most of the patients admitted to hospitals for COVID-19 are unvaccinated or have received just one dose of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines, Porsa said. None of the 119 people who have died from COVID-19 at Harris Health since January were fully vaccinated.

“If that is not reason enough for us to change our attitudes toward a simple, accessible, proven safe and proven effective prevention … I’m just losing my mind,” Porsa said.

Hospitalizations across the state have increased by more than 75 percent in recent weeks: On June 27, 1,428 hospital beds were filled; by July 15, the number had reached 2,519.

According to KHOU, “Almost every county in the area is seeing an increase in new cases”, and “Daily new cases in the Greater Houston area have jumped about 65% in the last two weeks”. (Cases and hospitalizations are rising nationally, too.) They show data from Harris and its surrounding counties except for Liberty and Waller. Harris has the lowest percentage increase, but it’s the biggest county so its sheer numbers are the highest.

We know how Travis County is responding to its increase in cases. Harris County had dropped its threat level to Yellow in May. Are we looking at a step up again?

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo has yet to announce any rollbacks for the region.

“There is no conceivable reason why a single additional hospital bed in our healthcare system should be filled with someone who is sick from COVID-19 when vaccines are readily available and free,” said Rafael Lemaitre, a spokesperson for Hidalgo’s office.

Vaccination rates plateaued in late April amid high hesitancy rates and difficulty accessing immunization sites. In recent months, health officials piloted financial incentives such as scholarships to encourage younger people to sign up for an appointment.

Stay tuned on that. Maybe there’s some headway to be made with younger people, whose vax rates are the lowest among age groups. Better happen quickly, that’s all I can say.