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Elsewhere in Houston

I regret to inform you that “tripledemic” is a word

The good news is that we may avoid it here in Houston.

A collision of three respiratory viruses — COVID-19, influenza and RSV — may not hit Houston as severely as other parts of the country, experts say, but pediatric hospitals are still preparing for a busy winter season with at least some virus overlap.

Texas Medical Center data published Tuesday shows early signs of another COVID wave, with an uptick in hospitalizations and the positivity rate, which jumped from 3.2 percent to 5 percent last week. COVID wastewater surveillance also offers a grim outlook, as the viral load rose for the fifth straight week, to 196 percent of the baseline set in July 2020. Newer variants make it difficult to predict the size and severity of the next wave of infections, experts say.

Meanwhile, RSV and flu, two respiratory viruses that commonly infect children, continue to circulate at high levels, weeks after patients began filling beds and prolonging wait times in Houston pediatric hospitals. Despite the ongoing strain, infectious disease experts believe Houston can avoid a so-called “tripledemic,” in which three simultaneous virus surges overwhelm hospital systems.

Statewide surveillance shows both RSV and flu have either peaked or declined.

“At least for us, here in Houston, the story that’s being written is we had this very early peak of flu and RSV and they’re starting to come down,” said Dr. Wesley Long, the medical director of diagnostic microbiology at Houston Methodist. “But then we’re probably going to see a winter speed bump of COVID.”

Dr. Melanie Kitagawa, medical director of the Texas Children’s Hospital pediatric ICU, said there are roughly 50 children admitted to Texas Children’s with RSV, or respiratory syncytial virus, which usually causes mild cold-like symptoms but can be severe for infants and older adults. That number has remained steady for at least a month, but flu admissions have been decreasing across the hospital system, she said.

Flu and RSV admissions have stayed at consistently high levels at Children’s Memorial Hermann for weeks, said Dr. Michael Chang, an infectious disease pediatrician at the hospital who is affiliated with UTHealth Houston.

Chang expects RSV to become more manageable before COVID ramps up. The percentage of positive RSV tests has dropped across the state since early October, from roughly 25 percent to less than 15 percent, according to the Texas Department of State Health Services.

For him, flu rates are more of a concern. Texas’ flu infection rate of 29 percent is among the highest in the nation, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“For flu, what I really worry about is that people have returned to normal behaviors, and vaccine uptake doesn’t seem to be really good,” he said. “From what I’ve seen of the new COVID numbers, we may see an unfortunate confluence of (COVID) and significant flu cases. But luckily I think we will avoid a full ‘tripledemic.’”

There are recent signs that the flu is waning as well.

See here for some background. We have milder winters here, so because we can still do stuff outside we can have a smaller winter effect from COVID. But the bottom line is the same as it always has been for minimizing the spread of these viruses. Get your COVID boosters, especially the bivalent booster. Get your flu shot. Keep wearing your facemask in crowded indoor spaces, and avoid such spaces where possible. You have the power and the choice to minimize your risk.

Concept Neighborhood’s Second Ward project

Sounds really cool. I hope they can pull it off, and in a reasonable amount of time.

Plans to turn a swath of the East End into a walkable district are getting larger and more ambitious – setting the groundwork for what could become Houston’s next 15-minute neighborhood — where everything a resident needs is within 15 minutes of walking distance.

Houston real estate firm Concept Neighborhood – a group of entrepreneurs that include some of founders of the Axelrad beer garden — previously unveiled plans to convert the former W-K-M warehouse complex in the East End into a mixed-use destination with hyperlocal businesses and walkable streets.

Now, the scale of the project — estimated at $350 million — has grown to 17 acres, and developers plan to incorporate up to 1,000 mixed-income apartments with 250,000 square-feet of retail and office space over the next decade. Working with global architecture firm Gensler on a master plan, Concept Neighborhood is expanding its vision for the district after purchasing additional land from Union Pacific Railway and a handful of other property owners over the past few months.

While some neighbors are nervous about gentrification, the developers, if successful, could achieve what urban planners say could be the first project of its kind in the city: a pedestrian-friendly neighborhood of adaptive reuse buildings where low- and middle-income residents can live affordably, and where owning a car would be optional.

“Houston does not have a neighborhood for people that want to rely on micro mobility, biking and transit,” said Jeff Kaplan, principal with Concept Neighborhood who lives in the district he’s helping to redevelop. “People can choose to have a car if they want to, and if they want to live car-free, they can.”

In the project called The Plant/Second Ward, developers are stitching several parcels together to create a nearly mile-long corridor of streets lined with small businesses, restaurants and housing across a mix of about 21 old and new buildings — starting from Harrisburg Boulevard in the south and extending north to Navigation Boulevard, a critical thoroughfare in the East End a few blocks south of Buffalo Bayou. Concept Neighborhood also plans to convert a section of a former Union Pacific railway into a hike-and-bike trail running one-third of a mile through the development from Commerce Street to Navigation Boulevard.

Concept Neighborhood’s website is here and a website for this project, called The Plant/Second Ward, is here. The southeast end of this neighborhood abuts the Coffee Plant/Second Ward light rail stop on the Harrisburg (Green) line, as you can see in the embedded image. One of the bigger issues they’ll be dealing with is maintaining affordability for the mostly lower-income residents already in the area. It’s safe to say that if this succeeds it will be the first of its kind in Houston. I’m rooting for them, but I also know that we often hear of large planned real estate projects that seem to go nowhere. I hope this one achieves its vision. (And boy do I wish Swamplot was still around to have a take on it.)

Houston leads the way in resettling Afghan refugees

Nicely done.

The sudden crush of thousands of Afghans who arrived in Houston last fall forced local refugee resettlement agencies to drastically expand services in a matter of weeks.

Houston’s role as the top destination for evacuated Afghans stressed these agencies, which had diminished in scope following Trump-era cuts to refugee resettlement.

But leaders for these groups say there’s an unforeseen silver lining to the logistical hurdle of resettling more than 5,500 Afghans: Refugee resettlement in Houston is back and organizations are better prepared to welcome refugees from around the world.

“That was a test,” said Ali Al Sudani, who oversaw the quick expansion of refugee resettlement at Interfaith Ministries of Greater Houston last fall. “That’s going to help us prepare for coming years.”

[…]

In the unpredictable world of refugee resettlement, organizations rely on a mix of public and private funds to maintain their programs. Agencies get money from the U.S. State Department for each new person they resettle. So when the Trump administration dropped the number of refugee arrivals to a fraction of Obama-era numbers, that funding stream largely dried up.

The Houston area has been a historic hub for refugee resettlement. During the time of these funding cuts, local agencies took a major hit, limiting their capacity to serve local refugees. Larger groups got help from the region’s deep-pocketed philanthropists. But one small Houston-area organization retained just a single staffer to handle all new arrivals; other agencies shuffled positions or didn’t replace staff when people quit.

Elsewhere in the U.S. small refugee resettlement agencies shut their doors.

Then, about a year ago, everything changed. In September 2021, planes began shuttling beleaguered Afghan families from U.S. military bases to Houston. Many were starting new lives with just a suitcase, limited or no English and still wrecked from the trauma of a violent and sudden departure from their homes.

Agencies staffed up and scaled up their operations — refugee resettlement was back.

It was a rough ride. Some frustrated Afghans waited weeks in extended stay hotels and overworked caseworkers drove pregnant mothers, who suddenly had to worry about insurance and health care costs, to doctor appointments. Social Security cards were mailed to addresses people had left.

Staff stepped up, working long hours to meet Afghan families’ needs, and faith communities, veterans, hotel owners also came together to lend a hand — one person even donated a cow that could be slaughtered according to halal guidelines. A significant boost in support could be attributed to Americans’ rare bipartisan support for this particular immigrant population, due in part to the fierce allyship of U.S. veterans who depended on Afghans during the 20-year occupation of their country.

More evacuated Afghans resettled in Houston than any other U.S. city — in fact, Houston took in more of these families than 47 U.S. states — some 5,600 evacuated Afghans. Houston became home for about half of all Afghans who resettled in Texas.

Now that early interventions — the airport pickups, the apartment placements and school enrollments — have concluded the next phase of services involves language education, career counseling and time-intensive case support to help immigrants file the paperwork to remain in the country legally.

I don’t really have anything to add here except “welcome”. It’s not that long ago that Greg Abbott was demonizing Syrian refugees, so at least we’re not going through that again. God bless all the helpers, and I wish our new neighbors the very best.

New regulations for outdoor music events proposed

Good idea, but it feels to me like there ought to be more.

Houston is considering tightening up permitting requirements for some large outdoor music events to avoid wasting city resources accommodating last-minute notices.

On Thursday, officials from the Houston police and fire departments went before City Council’s Public Safety and Homeland Security Committee to discuss proposed revisions to how the city regulates special events. The suggested changes would apply only to outdoor music events with more than 500 attendees that take place on private property.

Meanwhile, regulations concerning events on public property, which have garnered considerable attention following the Astroworld tragedy last year, have not undergone significant changes, according to city officials.

Outdoor music events on private property currently are not subject to the same level of review and monitoring as those on public land, according to Susan Christian, director of the Mayor’s Office of Special Events. The latest proposal is aimed at closing that gap, she said.

Under the proposal, organizers would have to outline a detailed safety plan and submit permit applications at least 60 days prior to the event or pay a late fee. Organizers who violate any requirements could be on the hook for extra public expenses incurred by the city in connection with the event.

The proposal was prompted by a rising number of incidents in recent years in which organizers did not inform the city of their plans in a timely manner — often not until days before the events took place — sometimes resulting in thousands of dollars in additional costs for city staff and first responders, Christian said.

“A lot have happened since COVID, and we’ve seen on several occasions where this particular issue arises that has cost us a lot of money and pulled resources away,” Christian said. “We just need some help so that we’re not having to stop everything we do with some of these bad players.”

Seems reasonable. I’m a little puzzled by the statements about events on public property not getting any significant changes, but maybe there’s a semantics issue in there. There is a city-county task force reviewing “procedures, permitting and guidelines for special events”, which may still have something to say. There was also a state task force that issued some recommendations about permitting, which may or may not have any effect. I don’t know if any of this is enough, but I do want to know that everything is being reviewed and nothing is off the table.

The wastewater is looking good now

In terms of COVID levels, anyway.

The COVID-19 viral load in Houston’s wastewater has sunk to its lowest point in seven months as the city puts the latest wave, driven by the highly contagious omicron subvariant BA.5, in the rear view.

The wastewater levels are 71 percent of what the Houston Health Department detected during the July 2020 wave, which the city uses as a benchmark, according to Texas Medical Center data published Tuesday. The COVID hospitalization rate and positivity rate also continue to decline steadily.

Harris County last week dropped its COVID community level from “medium” to “low,” which recommends staying up to date on vaccinations and testing if you have symptoms. Scientists are looking to other countries for signs of what comes next.

“Our history has typically been a winter surge,” said Dr. Luis Ostrosky, chief of infectious diseases with McGovern Medical School at UTHealth Houston. “So let’s enjoy it while we can.”

Several new omicron off-shoots have been detected in the United Kingdom, India, Singapore, Denmark and Australia, according to the journal Nature. BA.5 continues to dominate cases in the United States, though one subvariant, BA.4.6, has gained some traction and now makes up roughly 12 percent of cases, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Ostrosky urged people to get their updated booster shots, which better target omicron variants.

The dashboard is here, and you can see it as a graph here. COVID from the omicron wave peaked in the wastewater in July, but it was at almost ten times the level as it had been in July of 2020. It is now at 71% of the July 2020 levels, which is much better in so many respects. Get up to date on your boosters – I got my bivalent booster the other day – and get a flu shot (got one of those as well, at the same time), because there’s concern this could be a bad flu season. And even with these levels going down, hopefully for the foreseeable future, it’s still a good idea to wear a mask in crowded indoor spaces. Might help you avoid catching a winter cold, too.

Monkeypox case rate slows

Some good news.

Monkeypox infection rates are slowing in Houston, data shows, with health officials pointing to changing behavior as the key reason for the decline.

The 14-day average of daily new cases dropped by 43 percent, from .23 cases per 100,000 people, to .13, between Aug. 23 and Sept. 2, the last day for which data is available. As of Wednesday, Houston and Harris County had recorded a combined total of 693 cases.

Dr. David Persse, Houston chief medical officer, said he thinks it’s too early to attribute the drop to vaccinations, which became available in Houston in late July. Most people have yet to receive full protection from their second dose, administered about a month after the first dose.

“I believe the change … is largely because of individuals changing behavior and thinking twice about some of the high-risk behaviors,” Persse said during a Thursday Q&A session with reporters.

[…]

More than 5,200 people have received their first dose of the vaccine from the Houston Health Department. Harris County Public Health has administered the first dose to an additional 3,600 people.

Persse and Dr. Erick Brown, Harris County’s local health authority, said there are “plenty” of doses left and encouraged eligible people to schedule appointments by calling Houston’s hotline at 832-393-4220 or Harris County’s hotline at 832-927-0707.

“I’d like to strongly emphasize we are not out of the woods,” Brown said.

Monkeypox was never the public health crisis that COVID was – it’s a lot less contagious, and a lot less deadly – but we also had a vaccine already in place and needed to get it to a much smaller population in order to get the outbreak under control, and we didn’t do as well as we should have. We’re in better shape now, and I have hope we can continue to drive the numbers down. In the meantime, if you’re eligible for this vaccine, please do get it.

Opera in the Heights will stay at Lambert Hall

Good news.

Photo by Djmaschek, Creative Commons license

The uncertainty is over, Opera in the Heights is staying home.

After months of not knowing what the future for the neighborhood staple might hold, a consortium including a longtime Houston singing club and two donors have purchased the property including Lambert Hall and will let Opera in the Heights remain as a tenant at the historic performing arts venue, according to Eiki Isomura, the opera’s artistic and general director.

“This is a big moment of joy and relief right now,” he said. “We’re very excited.”

Just a few months ago, members of Opera in the Heights had wondered if their days performing in the historic Lambert Hall might be numbered.

Leaders with Heights Christian Church, the church that leased space to Opera in the Heights for the last quarter century, earlier this year decided to sell their 42,600-square foot property on the west side of Heights Boulevard between West 17th and West 18th streets because of dwindling membership and financial resources.

Realtors for the church opened competitive bidding for the property and a consortium comprising Houston Saengerbund and two of Opera in the Heights’ most generous patrons emerged with the winning bid, Isomura said.

The deal for purchasing the property closed last Friday, Isomura said.

See here and here for the background. I’d never heard of the Houston Saengerbund before, but they’ve been around since 1883 and are Houston’s oldest musical society. They sponsor an annual award to support young singers, which is cool. I’m just delighted that this story has a happy ending, both for OITH and Lambert Hall itself. It’s very much not all the time that Houston cultural and architectural landmarks get preserved, but this is one of them and it’s worth celebrating. Kudos all around.

The active shooter hoax at our neighborhood school

This made for a super eventful Tuesday afternoon.

Police and panicked parents scrambled to Heights High School Tuesday afternoon, in frantic response to a false report that a gunman had shot 10 people in a room on the 2,400-student Houston ISD campus.

The school went into lock down around 1 p.m., and police officers found the room locked and immediately breached the door, according to Chief Troy Finner. Two sweeps of the school found nothing, according to the Houston Police Department.

“We have no injuries here,” Finner said at a news briefing as a crowd of parents stood at an intersection near the high school. “Thank god for that.”

Officials intend to determine who made the hoax call and hold that person accountable. Finner said police believe the call may have come from outside the school.

“There was no active shooter here — there was a fight,” said Constable Alan Rosen.

An email notified parents later that Heights High, as well as nearby Hogg Middle and Harvard and Travis Elementary schools, were placed in lockdown.

“As a precautionary measure, we went into lockdown mode,” Heights Principal Wendy Hampton said in an email to parents. “Houston Police Department and HISD Police are onsite and continue to investigate, though no evidence has been found to substantiate the threat. We take all threats seriously as the safety of our students and staff is always our top priority.”

As it happens, I had to go into the office Tuesday afternoon. I was headed out a little after 1 PM, and was on Studewood going towards the I-10 entrance when I saw three HPD cars with lights and sirens going headed the other way at full speed. I didn’t give it much thought until after I had arrived at the office, took a minute to check Twitter, and found out what was happening. I don’t currently have any kids at Heights or the other schools that got locked down, but my kids have friends there and I have friends and neighbors who have kids at all of them. It was pretty stressful, to say the least, and I had the luxury of not having to be frantic about my own kids. My thoughts today remain with those parents and those kids.

Shannon Velasquez burst into tears on Tuesday afternoon as she waited on the sidewalk near Heights High School, where her daughter and hundreds more students were locked down in their classrooms after someone made a false report about a mass shooting.

The mother knew her daughter was fine — she had spoken with the sophomore student on FaceTime as she sped to school from work.

Still, she could not shake a horrible feeling, and her frustration bubbled over as she heard conflicting information from parents and officers about where she should go to reunite with her child.

“As if this isn’t bad enough?” she said. “I just can’t wait to put my arms around my kid.”

Anxiety, panic and confusion erupted on Tuesday afternoon in the residential streets surrounding Heights High School. Personnel from at least eight law enforcement agencies sped to the scene with lights and sirens. Panicked parents rushed from jobs and lunch appointments. Some drivers ditched their cars on the grassy median along Heights Boulevard, and walked or ran several blocks to the school.

Parents gathered information from their children, other parents, news reports and officials — eventually learning that their kids were safe and the massive frenzy actually stemmed from a false alarm.

Still, some parents said they were frustrated by sparse communication from the school, district or law enforcement agencies, although HISD and law enforcement agencies have defended their response.

[…]

Luis Morales, HISD spokesman, said notifications went out to parents 23 minutes after the district became aware of the situation.

“We were able to get that out a quicker than we have before,” Morales said, adding that the district must verify information before sending out notifications.

Chief Troy Finner said during a news briefing on Tuesday afternoon that he sympathized with parents who were frustrated. But safety comes before notifications, he said.

“We have to search the school. That is the most important thing — to stop the threat if there’s a threat,” he said. “We don’t have time to call. Once we make it safe, we start making those calls.”

Houston Fire Chief Samuel Pena said more than two dozen units from HFD responded to the scene. The first unit arrived two minutes after HFD received the call, he said, and quickly began coordinating a rescue team with police.

“The community expects the first responders to get on scene quickly, to get on scene and coordinate and start taking action as soon as they get on scene,” he said. “That’s exactly what we did.”

I have nothing but sympathy for the parents here. I was scrambling around looking for accurate information too, and the stakes were much lower for me. I have no doubt I’d have been out of my mind and super upset at how long it took to get updates. I also have a lot of sympathy for HISD and HPD, who were understandably reluctant to get out ahead of what they knew. I don’t have a good answer for this.

As relieved as we all are that this turned out to be nothing, we have to talk about the law enforcement response, since that is an obvious item of interest after Uvalde. In addition to HPD, there were deputies from the Precinct 1 Constable and the Sheriff’s office at the scene, and I assume there were some HISD cops as well. We do know that HPD entered Heights HS in search of the alleged shooter, which is good to know, but we don’t know more than that about who was in charge and who was making what decisions. Given what we know about the thoroughly botched response in Uvalde, this should be used as an opportunity for HPD and HISD to review their processes, make sure they have agreements in place, and so on. In the end, thankfully this was just a drill. We damn well better learn from it.

Maybe we shouldn’t pave over our best rain-absorbing wetlands

Just a thought. Even just paving over less of them might be wise.

At the far west end of Houston along the Katy Freeway, where the concrete city gives way to bigger sky and taller grass, signs advertising new master-planned communities greet you before anything else, pointing left and right to new neighborhoods going up where prairie used to be.

While Harris County officials say the new development is not happening in the floodplain — since it is built atop mounds of fill — and will not increase flood risk downstream because of drainage requirements, such as detention ponds, the fact remains that development covers the prairie sponge with concrete.

Prairies serve as natural flood mitigation, absorbing more water than other types of land, retaining water in their natural depressions and slowing down the flow with their tall grasses.

The Houston region used to be covered in that type of vegetation, back when the state’s coastal prairie was 9 million acres of grass and wetlands. Less than 1 percent of coastal prairie remains in Texas, much of it in the Katy prairie — an area difficult to define these days since it continues to shrink, but in the 1990s was roughly bounded by the Brazos River, U.S. 290, Highway 6 and Interstate 10.

After Hurricane Harvey, then-Harris County Judge Ed Emmett took a strong position on the prairie in an opinion piece published in the Houston Chronicle.

“Officials at all levels should commit to preserving the Katy Prairie as a national or state park or nature preserve,” Emmett wrote. “That single act might do more to protect our community than any other. It will not only reduce future flooding, it will send a clear signal that we have a new attitude — that we recognize the value of maximizing natural green space and we understand the importance of allowing waterways to function without interference.”

That has not happened.

In the five years since Harvey, thousands of new homes have been built on the prairie and former rice farms above the Addicks and Barker reservoirs.

The reservoirs operated as intended in Harvey, but homes upstream and downstream of Addicks flooded anyway, prompting lawsuits that still are being litigated. The flooded homes were not a surprise to those who predicted development within the reservoir and upstream of it — combined with extreme rainfall — would lead to disaster.

Today’s new development continues a trend that has been underway for decades.

Between 2010 and 2020, nearly 100,000 people moved into the Harris County portion of the Addicks Reservoir watershed — a 138-square-mile area that drains into the reservoir — increasing the population there from 295,694 to 390,402, according to the Harris County Flood Control District.

In the Katy prairie area, from 2001 to 2019, 60,404 acres changed from having no pavement to some amount of development.

You can read the rest, there are lots of pictures from Harvey and earlier times to help you visualize it all. Harris County took some small steps towards discouraging development in flood plains, but as long as the county is growing and builders are looking for new tracts of land on which to build, this is what we’re gonna get.

Houston will monitor for monkeypox in the wastewater

Seems like a good idea.

Houston will begin monitoring its wastewater for monkeypox in late August as cases of the blister-causing contagion continue to climb, health officials said.

Scientists will begin testing for the monkeypox virus in city sewage samples “starting in about three weeks,” Houston Health Department spokesperson Porfirio Villarreal said Thursday morning.

There are 152 cases in Harris County, 131 of those in Houston, the county’s Public Health Department reports. More than 6,300 Americans had tested positive for monkeypox as of Wednesday, nearly 500 of them in Texas. Many cases have been among gay and bisexual men, but the disease can be spread among anyone via close contact.

To collect the data, Houston scientists will take weekly samples from flushed wastewater at sewage treatment plants across the city. Once tested, the samples will give scientists a snapshot of which neighborhoods have the most monkeypox virus.

Health officials have used wastewater tracking to monitor COVID-19 levels in the city’s sewage since the beginning of the pandemic to understand how quickly the virus is spreading among the city’s two million inhabitants. The tracking project, a joint effort by Rice University and the Houston Health Department, offers clues to the severity of the pandemic that may be invisible in testing data.

We are familiar with the track-COVID-in-the-wastewater project, which has been a resounding success (and which is currently showing a decrease in the levels, praise be). Not clear yet if this data will show up on the same dashboard or if there will be a new one, but we’ll know soon enough. I’ll be on the lookout.

The latest COVID wave may be peaking in Houston

Hopefully

Texas Medical Center data released Tuesday suggests the latest wave of COVID-19 might have reached its peak in the Houston area, though several key metrics used to track the virus remain high.

The medical center’s weekly data report shows that COVID-19 hospitalizations, the positivity rate of coronaviruus tests and the amount of virus detected at the city of Houston’s wastewater treatment plants all trended downward for the second straight week. Those trends indicate the Houston area has likely crested the peak of a recent surge caused by the extremely contagious BA.5 subvariant, said Dr. James McDeavitt, executive vice president and dean of clinical affairs at Baylor College of Medicine.

“All the numbers are pointing to the fact that we’ve peaked maybe a week, a week and a half ago,” McDeavitt said. “I fully expect we will continue to trend down over the next several weeks.”

The line graphs from the TMC show a mountain range of peaks from prior waves of COVID-19, such as those caused by the delta and omicron variants. The latest BA.5 wave shows that after several weeks of steady climbing, the line is finally on the descent.

During previous waves, the virus did not pick up steam again after the numbers started to trend downward, McDeavitt said. He expects the same trajectory from BA.5.

It appears the current wave has at least reached a plateau, said Dr. Ashley Drews, an infectious disease specialist at Houston Methodist. The fact that the key metrics have stabilized is an encouraging sign, she said.

“We’re cautiously optimistic that things are turning in the right direction, and we’re going down,” Drews said.

[…]

During the week of July 25, TMC hospitals admitted an average of 219 patients with COVID-19 per day. That’s down from an average of 226 during the week of July 18, and 240 during the week of July 11.

However, the numbers remain much higher than they were before the emergence of BA.5. Three months ago, TMC hospitals admitted an average of 80 patients per day.

The good news is that the percentage of patients who need to be treated in an ICU remains lower than prior surges of COVID-19.

Last week, less than 14 percent of the 912 patients admitted with COVID-19 were treated in an ICU, according to TMC data. That’s lower than the percentage of patients treated in an ICU at the peaks of the omicron wave (17 percent) and the delta wave (22 percent).

[…]

The amount of virus detected at the city of Houston’s wastewater treatment plants, which has been a reliable indicator of community spread, also fell for the second straight week.

Wastewater loads reached an all-time high during the week of July 11, at 927 percent higher than a baseline established in June 2020. That fell to 774 percent during the week of July 18, and to 725 percent over the past week.

The amount of virus in the wastewater is still much higher than before the recent surge. Three months ago, it was less than 100 percent higher than the June 2020 baseline.

So, the data is starting to go in the right direction, which is good. But there’s still a lot of COVID out there, and all of the levels are still a lot higher than they were before the wave began, even if they never approached the heights of the previous peaks, and that’s bad. You should still be exercising caution, which is to say wearing your mask and avoiding indoor crowds if you can. And of course, get vaxxed and boosted as needed. We may be back on the downswing, but there’s no reason to believe we won’t trend up again at some point, and we’ve still got a ways to go to get to the lower levels we want.

The current state of the hospitals

Worse than before, but not nearly as bad as before that.

A small but growing share of Houston healthcare workers are calling in sick with COVID, exacerbating long-running staffing issues at some hospitals amid the virus’s resurgence.

But despite spreading infections, medical leaders say the Houston-area healthcare system is managing this wave better than previous bouts with the virus, pointing to better therapeutics and fewer COVID patients requiring critical care.

Anecdotally, doctors say at least half of all COVID patients were admitted for reasons unrelated to the virus. While wastewater data reflects a soaring infection rate, daily new hospitalizations are climbing at a slower pace compared to the record-breaking omicron wave in January and February, according to Texas Medical Center data.

“I don’t anticipate we’re going to have major operational problems” among medical center hospitals, said Dr. James McDeavitt, executive vice president and dean of clinical affairs at Baylor College of Medicine.

The latest Texas Medical Center data, published Tuesday, show hospitalizations have nearly doubled over the last five weeks, from 121 in early June to 240 last week. In January, it took only five weeks for omicron to spark a nearly 600 percent increase in daily COVID hospitalizations, as admissions jumped from 74 to a record 515, according to TMC data.

Meanwhile, the increasing viral load detected in the city’s wastewater — 927 percent higher last week than July 2020 — appears to be as high as ever. Two weeks ago, the viral load was 843 percent of the July 2020 baseline. The citywide positivity rate also saw a slight increase from 29 percent two weeks ago to 31 percent last week, while the positivity rate in the medical center dropped slightly from 16.1 percent to 15.9 percent.

[…]

The number of sick hospital staff members reflects a small portion of the overall workforce at Houston hospitals. On Monday, Houston Methodist reported 402 staff members — 1.4 percent of all employees — had tested positive for COVID. Harris Health System said 245 staff members, or 2.4 percent of its workforce, had tested positive for COVID so far this July, compared to roughly 90 staff members throughout most of June.

Additionally, spokespeople for Memorial Hermann Health System, Texas Children’s Hospital and HCA Houston Healthcare say they are not experiencing major staffing issues or operational interruptions amid the current surge.

“Because of our vaccination and booster requirements, our staffing across hospitals is robust and fully intact,” said Dr. James Versalovic, chief pathologist at Texas Children’s Hospital. “I’m happy to say, we have prepared ourselves for this moment.”

More than two years into the pandemic, medical leaders now greet surges with more nuanced messaging, showing concern over rising infections and staffing struggles while assuring the public that hospitals are now better equipped to withstand rising infections.

Versalovic noted that Texas Children’s has seen its COVID population double over the last month. The 7-day rolling average of pediatric COVID patients is now more than 50 in the hospital system. He urged parents to seek out vaccinations as the start of school closes in.

On the one hand, this is basically good news. The hospitals are able to function without being overburdened, our overall vaccination level (and the good luck that this variant, however more contagious it is, isn’t particularly devastating) is helping keep levels in check, and while we’re worse off than we were a couple of months ago we’re much better off than we were in previous waves. One could argue that this is more or less what “endemic” looks like.

On the other hand, Stace is right. We’ve basically given up on trying to keep a lid on this thing – to be sure, there’s far less that governments can do now, thanks to a bunch of wingnut court rulings and Greg Abbott executive orders, but there are plenty of things we could be doing that we aren’t. A lot of leaders who should know better aren’t setting good examples. Even a milder form of COVID is potentially deadly to people with various comorbidities and risk factors, or who are immunocompromised in some way. Just having people mask up again as a matter of course would make all of their lives better, but we’re not doing that.

I’m definitely masking in indoor spaces again, but I’m also willing to be in indoor spaces, and to be among groups of people. I’ve mitigated some of my risk, but I’m engaging in riskier behavior than I had been before. It’s one part denial, one part pandemic fatigue, one part the perhaps naive hope that there will be another booster coming soon, and one part hoping that I’m being cautious enough. I don’t know what happens next if things do get worse from here. I very much hope I don’t have to find out.

There’s no cheap housing in Houston any more

What are we going to do about that?

In the sprawling Houston region, those who could not afford homeownership in the city’s urban core always had options. They could trade proximity for affordability.

But as rising home prices and mortgage rates push homeownership further out of reach for the average renter, the suburbs within Harris County are losing their reputation as an affordable haven, said Rice University’s Kinder Institute for Urban Research — just one example of how access to homeownership and quality housing has grown more difficult over the past decade, with challenges accelerating during the pandemic.

The Kinder Institute and Harvard University’s Joint Center for Housing Studies released Tuesday morning their annual reports on the state of housing in the Houston area and the nation. Together, they painted a picture of a deepening divide between the prospects of current homeowners, whose equity has been buoyed by record-breaking home price appreciation, and renters, who have seen the monthly costs of buying a home rise far more quickly than wages.

The median-priced home in the suburbs of Clear Lake and Jersey Village, for example, were priced between $162,000 and $175,000 in 2011, according to the Houston Association of Realtors. They now go for $300,000 to $317,000.

“You have to go farther and farther out until you find a home that’s affordable,” explained Stephen Sherman, a researcher at the Kinder Institute. “The whole saying is drive until you qualify. We’re finding that people will have to drive even more” — a development which will have rippling implications on traffic and the way floodwaters drain.

And no matter how far out you look, it’s difficult to find a home priced below $200,000 in Harris County these days, where the median home price is on track to soon surpass that in Houston, according to the Kinder report.

Nationwide, four million renters in the past year have been priced out from buying homes, the Joint Center for Housing Studies report found. That’s a concern, said Daniel T. McCue, senior research associate at the center, because “if the door is closing on homeownership, it would lock in some significant inequities in housing.”

[…]

Home prices have outpaced incomes because of a confluence of issues including the chronic underbuilding of homes (the building of which has failed to keep up with population growth for years), the increased demand for homes as millennials enter the homebuying market, surging construction costs as the pandemic interrupted supply chains around the country and the fact that most new construction is focused on the high end of the market.

“Suburban Houston — and new homes in suburban Houston — used to be extremely affordable,” said Lawrence Dean, the Houston regional director for Zonda, which does market research related to new home construction. Since then, the costs of land, materials and labor have all shot up. These days, it’s near impossible to build a home for less than $200,000, he explained.

Wood, fiber-cement siding and even land that’s ready for new homes became harder to come by and labor became scarce during the pandemic. According to the federal government’s producer price index, which measures the average change in selling prices, residential construction materials saw costs rise more than 30 percent in January 2022 from March 2020, when the pandemic began to disrupt businesses in the United States.

The Kinder report is here. This is a regional problem, but it’s also a national problem. It’s partly pandemic-induced, and so may ease up a bit over time, but it’s also driven by other factors, including some lasting effects of the pandemic such as working from home. The point about housing within the city of Houston now being generally less expensive than in the non-Houston parts of Harris County is interesting, as a lot of the population growth in the unincorporated areas has been driven by affordable housing. We’re still cheaper than many other parts of the country (though not by as much now) so some of that will continue, but some of it will be pushed into other counties, and perhaps some of it will come back within the city of Houston. I’d like to see what the demographers think about that.

In the meantime, this is a real problem for a lot of people, and it’s going to take some big ideas to fix. Which, I’m sorry to say, doesn’t exactly fill me with hope. The abundance of available land, the lack of restrictions on building, and the general attractiveness of Texas as a place to live has been a huge driver of growth in the area. What do we do when the first two aren’t making a difference and the third is no longer true?

COVID hospitalizations up in Houston

Welp.

COVID-19 hospitalizations have nearly doubled in the Houston area over the last month, according to re-published Texas Medical Center data, which paints a clearer picture of the risk associated with newer, increasingly transmissible versions of the virus.

The medical center discontinued its weekly reports in May, when the omicron wave had officially receded, and COVID drifted out of the public’s mind. But a new COVID surge prompted the medical center to post a revamped dashboard Tuesday, showing that the virus remains a persistent part of life.

Among the more urgent revelations: The average number of daily new hospitalizations rose from 121 in early June to 224 last week. That number is nearly half of the record-breaking hospitalization peak in early January, when an average of 515 COVID patients were admitted per day, according to the updated TMC data.

“Hopefully it’s peaking,” Dr. Paul Klotman, president and CEO of Baylor College of Medicine, said during a Tuesday news briefing. “It’s still a dangerous virus.”

[…]

The increase coincides with the rise of BA.5, a latest subvariant in the omicron lineage, which in a matter of weeks took over as the dominant strain in the U.S. First detected in South Africa, the subvariant made its way to the U.S. in early May and now makes up 65 percent of cases nationwide. In the Houston Methodist system, BA.5 comprises 57 percent of cases, while BA.4, another highly transmissible strain, makes up 19 percent.

BA.5 is concerning, experts say, because it appears to be more capable of re-infecting people and more resistant to vaccine-induced immunity. Even those who battled a COVID infection a few weeks ago could be susceptible to BA.5, said Dr. Wesley Long, a clinical pathologist and medical director of diagnostic microbiology at Houston Methodist.

“In previous waves, there was a thought that if you were infected, you had natural immunity for a couple of months,” he said. “With this shift from BA.2 to BA.5, that rule isn’t holding true.”

A recent study published in Nature found that BA.4 and 5 — which share similar mutations — are more likely to cause vaccine breakthrough infections compared to BA.2.12, the previously dominant strain. Waning vaccine immunity also compounds the risk.

Even so, vaccines are still effective at preventing severe disease, hospitalization and death, Long said.

“People shouldn’t get the wrong idea and think ‘I don’t need to get my vaccine’ or ‘I don’t need to get my booster,’” he said.

It’s still too early to say whether BA.5 is causing more severe illness than its predecessors. Early research shows it contains mutations found in the delta variant, which was linked to more acute sickness. But the rise in hospitalizations could simply be attributed to the volume of infections in the community, said Klotman.

Yeah, it could be worse. We’ve definitely seen worse. You know what you need to do to keep it from getting worse. All together now: You may be done with COVID, but COVID isn’t done with you. Stace and the Texas Signal have more.

Harris County implements a burn ban

Surely this is a thing we can all comply with.

Harris County Commissioners Court on Tuesday enacted a countywide burn ban due to drought conditions and an increased threat of wildfires across unincorporated Harris County, but fireworks will remain legal in the unincorporated part of the county.

The ban will be in effect until either the Texas Forest Service determines drought conditions no longer exist within Harris County, or 90 days after the start of the ban. The decision to implement the ban was driven by current data metrics, projected weather patterns and trend analysis, according to the county.

“Although we have seen some rain, it’s not enough to lower the drought index levels across the county,” said Fire Marshal Laurie L. Christensen. “Don’t be lulled into a false sense of security with rain in parts of Harris County — the vegetation fuels are high due to drought conditions in not only open areas but, residential properties and roadways adjacent to grass and brush.”

No outdoor burning is allowed except in certain instances, such as backyard cook-outs in approved containers, according to the Harris County Fire Marshal’s Office. Violation of the ban is a Class C misdemeanor, punishable by a fine of up to $500.

The burn ban will not impact the sale of fireworks this Fourth of July season. It is illegal to discharge fireworks inside Houston limits.

Maybe I’m just too much of a city boy, but I do not understand why people burn leaves or whatever else is it that people burn. Whatever the case, it’s really dry out there and that’s a major wildfire hazard, so please don’t. And if you do, whether that sparks a larger blaze or not, I hope you get caught.

We are getting serious about the flood tunnel idea

Now the question is how could we pay for this?

Japanese flood tunnel

A network of eight massive storm water tunnels that drain upstream of and into the Houston Ship Channel could be the key to alleviating flooding in Harris County, flood control engineers announced this week. The scheme looks at how storm water management has traditionally worked here and re-imagines, at a steep cost, how the system could be drastically expanded.

The Harris County Flood Control District, formed in 1937, has long dealt with flooding in two ways: Engineers built channels to move water away and dug detention ponds to store it temporarily. But those methods are increasingly challenging to implement, they say, because so much of the area has been developed. Texas prairie is covered with asphalt, concrete and buildings.

Climate change is also broadening the scale of what the region faces: Rains are likely to be more intense. Hurricanes are likely to be stronger.

And so Flood Control staff for several years studied how tunnels might work to lessen the storm water buildup that accompanies heavy rainfall. On Thursday, the agency released its findings in a detailed report that explains why a $30-billion, 130-mile network of tunnels could be worth the investment. The team says it has more research to do before committing to the idea fully, but the concept checks out so far.

“We have determined that a large-diameter underground tunnel system would significantly reduce flood risk and the number of instances of flooding,” said Scott Elmer, assistant director of operations for the flood control district. “And, as we consider expanding our current flood damage reduction toolkit by investing in a tunnel system, we would gain an additional tool to use in the many areas of our county where the land is densely populated.”

A question ahead is whether people here will support it. Residents and advocates recently called for consideration of a tunnel below Buffalo Bayou instead of a vehemently-opposed federal proposal to dig the bayou deeper and wider. The flood control district’s proposal, of course, takes the tunnel idea much further, marking a shift toward massive, costly solutions that could protect Houston better from worsening weather. It raises familiar issues of risk and environmental harm. It highlights the same complexities of how planners prioritize who to help.

A case in point is the project plan finished last year and making its way through Congress that would create the so-called Ike Dike, featuring a series of towering gates that would cross the mouth of Galveston Bay to defend against hurricane storm surges. Advocates in that case lament the lack of attention to nature-based solutions and the reliance on a band-aid fix to the real issue of human-fueled climate change.

Both the Ike Dike and the tunnel system would require some federal funding and take years to build.

See here for some background, and go read the rest, there’s a lot more to the story. I will note that Austin and San Antonio have similar albeit much smaller tunnels, so this concept is not new or untested. Paying for this would be a challenge – look how long it’s taken to get federal funding for the Ike Dike, which is still not yet assured – and as with the Ike Dike there are questions about how long it would take to build this, what its environmental effects might be, and what other things we can and should be doing right now regardless of whether this thing eventually happens. (For a discussion of that in re: the Ike Dike, listen to this recent CityCast Houston episode.) I’m intrigued by this idea, I think it has promise, but we all need to hear more, and we don’t have a lot of time to spare. Whatever we do, let’s get moving on it.

Monkeypox in the Houston area

Was bound to happen sooner or later.

Two people in the region have tested positive for monkeypox, a viral disease with typically mild symptoms, public health officials with the City of Houston and Harris County announced Saturday.

The Houston Health Department said a Houston resident who had recently traveled internationally had a confirmed case of monkeypox. Hours later, Harris County Public Health said an out-of-state resident who had visited Harris County recently also had a confirmed case. The out-of-state resident is already out of the region and back in their home state.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Texas Department of State Health Services have said the virus does not present a risk to the general public. The CDC’s website says monkeypox is “rarely fatal” and the risk of transmission in the United States is low.

Symptoms can include fever, headache, muscle aches, swollen lymph nodes, chills and exhaustion. It’s most notable symptom is a rash that can resemble pimples or blisters, the CDC said. It can spread from person-to-person through direct contact with the rash or body fluids. It can also spread by respiratory secretions during prolonged, face-to-face contact or during intimate physical contact.

As of Saturday afternoon, three cases had already been recorded in Texas — not including the two reported in Houston that day — and 114 have been logged nationwide since the first case this year was identified in mid-May.

See here for the background. As noted, it’s not something to freak out about, but do be aware of it and exercise reasonable caution. Mostly, if you have reason to think you might have been infected, contact your local public health department and do what they tell you to do.

Calling all lifeguards

The city needs you.

Lifeguard shortages are keeping most Houston community pools closed as summer arrives with scorching heat and near record-breaking temperatures.

Just 12 of 37 aquatic centers operated by the Parks and Recreation Department are scheduled to open for the season, and even fewer were welcoming swimmers Tuesday. The pools will each operate three days a week on a rotating basis as parks department officials seek lifeguards to fill vacancies.

That ratio marks a slight improvement on last year, when 10 aquatic centers opened amid widespread staffing shortages. City officials blamed the paucity of lifeguards on its inability to recruit high school and college students, who make up the majority of its summertime employees.

“Local high schools and colleges stayed closed to off-campus visitors” due to COVID-19 safety protocols, said Leroy Maura, the director of Houston Parks and Recreation Aquatics. “We were not able to get in and recruit and that put us in this bind.”

The 37 aquatics centers require about 180 lifeguards to operate at full capacity. For decades, Maura said, the department could expect up to 150 of those lifeguards to return for subsequent summers. That changed with the pandemic. In 2021, 40 lifeguards came back. This year, only 24 returned.

[…]

Maura, the aquatics director, asked Houstonians to remain patient as his department recruits more lifeguards. He said he hopes to gradually open more pools as the summer scorches on.

I sure hope so. As the story notes, it’s going to be a hot, hot summer – hell, it already is. The schedule for the city’s polls is here, and you can find information on how to apply for a lifeguard job there as well. If you know someone 16 or older who can meet the requirements, the pay starts at $13.66 an hour. I worked way worse jobs than that back in the day.

Are we going to raise the COVID threat level again?

Maybe, but not yet.

Coronavirus infections are on the rise across Houston, wastewater tracking shows, even as fewer people seek testing two years into the pandemic.

Four months after the city saw record infection rates caused by the highly contagious omicron variant, new COVID-19 cases are once again climbing, according to data collected by Rice University and the Houston Health Department. The most recent sewage samples show increased viral loads at all but a few of the city’s three dozen wastewater treatment plants.

Citywide, the amount of virus particles detected in wastewater is up 242 percent above baseline, with an overall positivity rate of 14 percent. Both metrics increased by about a third over the previous samples, taken in early May. At the 69th street plant, serving much of the Inner Loop, officials said virus levels are 123 percent above baseline, with a 22 percent positivity rate.

Despite the uptick, health officials do not anticipate raising Harris County’s threat level to the highest level. The county’s threat level is currently set at moderate, signally a controlled level of COVID spread.

“Even though we see positivity rates going up, our hospital rates continue to remain low, said Dr. Erika Brown of the Harris County Health Department.

[…]

New of the rise in viral levels in the wastewater comes days after researchers at Houston Methodist reported new insight into how the omicron variant is mutating in Houston and across Texas.

Researchers demonstrated that two dominant sublineages of omicron have developed “unprecedented numbers” of spike protein mutations, leading to increased transmissibility. The mutations also enhance its ability to evade vaccines and the immune system.

This is a press release about the study in question; it’s from late April, which I’d classify as more than “days” ago, but whatever. The COVID levels in our wastewater continue to rise, but if the hospitals are still not seeing an increase in patients, then the threat level will stay where it is. I don’t know how long we can maintain this balance, but I sure hope it continues.

That press release is worth a read:

“One of the surprising findings in this study was that many mutations with critical roles in immune escape in previous variants of SARS-CoV-2 do not play the same roles in immune escape in omicron, and, in some cases, the effects of these mutations are completely reversed,” said Gollihar, who is the head of antibody discovery and accelerated protein therapeutics in Houston Methodist’s Center for Infectious Diseases. “The virus also appears to be stabilizing itself to allow for more mutations to evade our immune systems.”

He said this study is the first to systematically dissect each of the omicron mutations across the entirety of the spike protein. Previous studies miss contextual and long-range interactions across the protein.

“We developed a comprehensive map showing various mechanisms of immune escape by omicron that allows us to identify which antibodies retain neutralization activity against the virus,” Gollihar said. “This and future work will enable clinicians to make informed decisions about the use of monoclonal antibody therapy and aid in the development of next-generation vaccines.”

Having this new information about key features of omicron’s spike protein mutations and how they synergize, Gollihar and his team say it’s possible that the continuing accumulation of mutations may set the stage for greatly altering the equilibrium and stability of the spike protein in a way that allows for new, more virulent strains to develop. Understanding this evolution is critical, they say, to better inform future therapeutic targets and vaccine formulations, as the SARS-CoV-2 virus will continue to evolve with new variants inevitably arising and spreading.

Looking forward, they add, the strategy used in this study also will be applicable to future zoonotic outbreaks and other microbial pathogens, providing a powerful platform for investigating evolutionary trajectories of infectious agents and engineering appropriate and adaptable vaccines.

“We will continue to monitor the virus for changes in the spike protein and add new antibodies to test as they are discovered. Continuing to do so will allow us to design better probes for antibody discovery in hopes of engineering new therapeutics by finding potent neutralizing antibodies across all variants,” Gollihar said. “We have also recently expanded the platform to other pathogens where we hope to stay ahead of other potential outbreaks.”

I’m in awe of the work these folks have done and continue to do – I’m speaking of the researchers worldwide, not just these specific ones. We’re in a constant race with this virus, and so far we’ve been able to keep up. As above, I sure hope that continues, too. Stace has more.

Yeah, we’re still talking about West 11th Street

We can’t help it, sorry.

When Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner assured concerned Heights residents he’d take “a closer look” at plans to reduce 11th Street to one lane in each direction, he likely didn’t expect a sightseeing tour to give him quite the earful.

Wednesday, Turner and a gaggle of city staff took a hour-long tour of 11th where city planners propose taking away a travel lane to improve safety along the street by slowing drivers and adding a separated bike lane in each direction.

Following close by, and often engaging Turner in sometimes contentious conversations, were supporters of the plan on bikes and residents highly skeptical of the proposal, which they say will bring gridlock to a needed local street and pour traffic onto smaller Heights area roads.

[…]

City planners concede traffic flow will be worsened, especially during peak commuting hours in the evening, but that is an acceptable trade-off for a slower, safer street.

It’s not a trade local residents opposed to the project are willing to make. Occasionally sparring with cyclists along for the tour, critics said the city is using specious information about the traffic patterns and crashes to force bike lanes onto the street. With an efficient 11th that acts as a major street, traffic will flood onto nearby streets, making the neighborhood as a whole less safe.

“If they are going to speed here, they are going to speed on our interior streets,” said resident Shayne Stinson, pointing at 11th.

Stinson said much less drastic improvements could make the street safer without sacrificing traffic flow. Along with a safe crossing at Nicholson for bike trail users, he said better signal timing and left turn arrows can better solve the issue. Much of the safety challenge, he said the city’s own data suggests, is at major intersections such as Shepherd and Heights — not along 11th itself.

City officials, however, say the speed on 11th will remain the problem, whether or not left green arrows go in at major streets, or lights added at Nicholson and the bike trail. The way to avoid high speeds is to force passing cars into a single file line and limit turns so the fast lane becomes a thing of the past.

Advocates and pedestrians welcomed the proposed changes.

“When I cross the street sometimes I have to run fast,” said Eduardo Gonzalez, 20, who attends a nearby school.

As a Metropolitan Transit Authority rider, Gonzalez told Turner he supported anything that improved pedestrian access.

See here, here, and here for some background. At this point I feel like I’ve read the same story multiple times, about the city’s plan and the opposition from some folks. I would like to know three things:

1. How big is the opposition to this plan? Last time, I observed that the ProtectingOurStreets.org webpage that was listed on their printouts just redirected to a Change.org petition. Now it redirects to this Alliance for Reasonable Traffic Solutions webpage, but that tells me nothing about who is behind the organization. The About Us page doesn’t list a single name or other organization, though they do say they are “an organization made up of a group of Houston & Heights business and home owners who have come together to ensure the safety of cyclists and automobile drivers on the roads of Houston”. The Contact Us page is just a webform, with no street address or email address or phone number or contact name.

I’m not looking to out anyone who’d rather remain anonymous, but I would like to know who a spokesperson is, at the very least. The “about us” page mentions researchers, journalists, civil engineers, and more among its membership, without any way to vet those claims. I would say it all feels extremely astroturf-y to me, except that there are people with their signs in their yards so someone must have a hand in this. And, petty though this may sound, the website is rife with spelling and grammar errors, which actually lends credence to the grassroots claim, since a pro group would have done a better job proofreading the site. Whoever it is, they really don’t like bike lanes. I would like to know who they are.

Oh, and this is in the page source, between “title” tags: “Beyoutiful Anti Aging Studio”. If you open the thehoustonarts.com webpage and hover your mouse over the browser tab, you’ll see that name appear. If you google that, you get a Heights business on 13th Street, which I now realize I’ve driven past a million times on my way to and from Heights High School. Maybe that answers my question.

2. Whoever “ARTS” is, what is their ultimate goal? To completely defeat this plan for 11th Street and maintain the existing street exactly as it is? Or to effect some changes to the plan? If the latter, what do they consider acceptable and unacceptable? I’m an advocate for the city’s plan, but maybe if they’re not going for the maximalist position they have some ideas that I might be open to. (There’s nothing remotely specific on the webpage.) Maybe I’m vastly overestimating who “ARTS” speaks for, but again I see their signs in people’s yards and in front of businesses. They’re far from ubiquitous, but they’re there. So what do they want? I don’t think that’s too much to ask.

3. The one concrete suggestion I have seen from opponents who have been quoted in these stories is a traffic signal at Nicholson, where the Heights bike trail crosses West 11th. I realize we’re three years into this project and the design phase is over, but what effect would just this have on current traffic? Is there a more minimal plan that might achieve enough safety gains while addressing the concerns of the opposition? Note that I’m not really interested in this – I think the plan as is will be fine – but in the name of fully exploring this, I’d want to know. If I’ve underestimated the opposition (I will note again that as far as I’m aware no elected official who represents the area has expressed any concerns, which tells me a lot) I’d like to be able to weight my possible fallback positions.

Checking in again on the wastewater

COVID levels keep creeping up.

After the U.S. death toll from COVID-19 hit 1 million deaths on Monday, new data shows numbers on the rise again.

The latest Houston Health Department wastewater results from May 9 show levels are now higher than they were in July of 2020.

The viral load on May 9 was 127 percent higher in comparison to July 6, 2020.

The July 2020 readings serve as a baseline for wastewater testing, since that was during the summer surge of cases.

The positivity rate in Houston is also now at 8 percent. At the end of March, Houston’s wastewater positivity rate was 2 percent.

Since the results are delayed, levels are likely higher now.

Houston Methodist is also reporting a rise in cases over the last two weeks.

[…]

“We have also seen our first cases of BA.4 and BA.5, which we will continue to monitor, since literature suggests these variants escape immunity from previous Omicron infection,” [Dr. Wesley Long of Houston Methodist] tweeted. “Vaccines are still our best defense against COVID-19 along with masking and distancing.”

Long also says while the wastewater levels are nearly 30 percent higher than the July 2020 surge, that the public shouldn’t be fearful, but shouldn’t ignore the trend either.

“The bottom line is, the amount of virus in the community is going up,” Long said. “That’s one thing we know for sure. I wouldn’t be worried, but I would be paying attention.”

There was a story in the Sunday print edition of the Chron about the Houston wastewater tracking, with a byline from the NY Times, but I could not find it online. Note that this KHOU story reports on the May 9 virus level in two different ways, saying that the viral load is “127 percent higher” and also that it is “nearly 30 percent higher”. The latter is correct – the Houston COVID dashboard says that the COVID load is “127% in comparison to the July 2020 level”, which is to say up 27%. Pay attention in those math classes, people.

At this point, until there is a new type of vaccine, we have what we’re going to get. I heard on the CityCast Houston podcast that the vax level in Harris County is about 67%, which is better than it used to be but still too low to really slow things down. What we can do is whatever we can to get the unvaxxed people in our lives to get the shots, and we can get boosted – one if we’re under 50, two if we’re over. Get your kids boosted, which also very much means getting them vaxxed in the first place – only about 30% of kids in this range have had two shots, which is just madness to me. Wear your masks when in indoor public places again, and avoid needless indoor public gatherings. You have to take care of yourself now, so do it. Until it gets worse – and I still hope it won’t – this is the best you can do.

UPDATE: The May 16 numbers are now on the dashboard, and they show that we are at 170% of the July 6, 2020 level. Not great!

Uvalde

I don’t have anything clever or original to say about the horrible tragedy in Uvalde. There’s a vast amount of stories and heartbreaking photos out there, so go and look to the extent that your heart and mental health can endure. I’ll simply note a couple of stories that I think say more about Greg Abbott than any insult I could hurl at him, and the contrast with Beto O’Rourke speaks for itself. I will also co-sign this sentiment, which should serve as a reminder that no matter how little you think of Ted Cruz, he’s worse than that.

There are many things you can do in response to Tuesday’s massacre, and all of them involve getting enough people who have had enough to the polls to throw out the callous nihilists who just don’t care about children being murdered on the regular. There’s also one thing you can do right now that may yield a more immediate effect:

I should note that it’s not clear to me that the city can cancel this convention. There’s a contract that was signed and it spells out the conditions under which one party or the other can back out – I’m not sure what grounds the city would cite. I do know there would be a lawsuit; as you may recall there was one filed in 2020 over the Republican convention in Houston, which the city canceled due to COVID; in the end a federal judge allowed it to happen for sketchy reasons. The city prevailed initially in the state lawsuit but that ruling was vacated earlier this year by the 14th Court of Appeals and the Texas GOP has re-filed its suit. They still may lose, but they’re not done yet, and if the city loses it could be quite costly.

Which doesn’t mean you can’t demand the city find a way to do this anyway. And for sure, you can make sure every one of the ghouls that shows up for that atrocity feels unwelcome while they’re here. I’m just compelled to point this stuff out, it’s what I do. The Chron has more on the planned protest activity. Now go take action and make some good trouble.

UPDATE: Mayor Turner has specifically mentioned the possibility of lawsuits if the city were to cancel the contract with the NRA for its convention. There’s still plenty we can do to make their time here as unpleasant as possible.

2022 Kinder Houston Area Survey

Lots of optimism in here.

Dr. Stephen Klineberg’s final survey of the Houston area leaves him with hope. Yes, residents are concerned about the economy and crime, and their mental health has not improved even as the COVID-19 pandemic has begun to wane, but it’s not all doom and gloom, according to the 2022 Kinder Houston Area Survey released Tuesday.

Shifting attitudes toward public education, diversity and Houston’s place in America’s growth, in particular, give Klineberg reason for optimism — and if there’s anyone here who can claim to be an expert on Houston’s population, it’s the man who has annually written the most comprehensive report on the city’s residents since the survey’s inception in 1981.

“It’s hard to be pessimistic over the long haul in Houston because there’s just so many things happening in Houston. Whatever you’re passionate about or whatever you care about, there’s wonderful things happening in the city, and a population that really cares about Houston and wants it to succeed,” Klineberg said.

Still, there’s no denying that Houstonians have real concerns about the state of the city. Twenty-eight percent of the survey’s 1,958 randomly selected respondents said that the economy was their biggest concern, and crime closely followed with 25 percent.

The pandemic also left lasting scars on residents’ mental health. Seventy-six percent of respondents said that their stress and anxiety have increased, and 57 percent reported feeling increasingly lonely and isolated since the pandemic started over two years ago.

[…]

Nearly two-thirds of Houston-area residents said they support a person’s right to an abortion for any reason, and more than 90 percent said they support it if the person’s health is endangered by the pregnancy.

Klineberg was glad to see, for the first time since the survey began, that a majority of non-Hispanic white people, 51 percent, agree that people of color don’t have the same opportunities as them — a 15 percent rise since 2020. Fifty-seven percent of Hispanic people now agree with that statement, and 17 percent of Black people.

“For the first time over the years of the surveys, majorities in all three of Houston’s largest ethnic communities now agree in acknowledging the racial inequities in access to economic opportunity in American society today,” the report states.

The survey later adds that “area residents of all ethnicities have been giving increasingly positive evaluations to relations among the ethnic communities, and they are more likely than ever before to say that they have close personal friends across the ethnic divides.”

That’s especially important in Houston, says Klineberg, because U.S. census projections show that the rest of the country will mirror Harris County’s racially diverse demographic in the coming decades, according to the report.

“Houston is called upon to be a model for the rest of the nation, to take the lead in building something that has never existed before in human history—a truly successful, inclusive, equitable, and united multiethnic society, comprising virtually all the peoples, all the ethnicities, all the religions of the world, gathered here, in this one remarkable place,” the report states.

Among its most notable finds, for Klineberg, was a big jump in the percentage of people who support “significantly more money” for public schools, up to 67 percent from 55 percent in 2020. In 1995, that number was just 41 percent.

The steady rise in support for education funding signals to Klineberg that Houstonians may be moving away from the industrial mindset during the oil and gas boom of the 1960s and 1970s — when loose regulations, free enterprise and low taxes helped wealthy businessmen flourish, but left many others behind.

“Area residents, who have traditionally been opposed to government intervention of almost any sort, appear to be rethinking their basic assumptions about the nature and causes of poverty in America,” the report states.

See here for what I had on the 2020 Survey. I must have missed the 2021 Survey but I’ve blogged about several others in the past: 2013, 2016, 2017, and 2019. The Kinder HAS page is here, and I recommend you peruse it when you get a minute. As the story notes, Dr. Stephen Klineberg is retiring from Rice after doing this survey work for 40 years, which has been a huge boon for all of us. There’s a nice retrospective of his work here. Enjoy!

We’re still talking about West 11th Street

My neighborhood sure can monopolize the discussion. Sorry about that.

A discussion planned to laud Houston’s efforts to expand bicycling access Thursday turned into a debate on the merits of a two-mile stretch of 11th Street.

The city’s plan to reduce 11th to one lane in each direction from Shepherd to Studewood — cheered by cyclists — has faced late opposition as construction nears. Residents concerned over the traffic impacts of taking away an automobile lane and the benefits of adding protected bicycle lanes used a scheduled discussion about the city’s bike lane progress to reiterate their concerns to City Council’s transportation, technology and infrastructure committee.

Critic Ann Derryberry, who lives near 11th, said numerous residents have raised alarms, concerned that adding bike lanes will force residents to sit in heavy traffic longer, re-route cars onto nearby residential streets, complicate deliveries for area businesses and lead to little safety benefit for cyclists.

“You say it is a protected lane, but it will be mostly painted because of all the driveways and alleys,” Derryberry told council members and their staff, noting the need to paint green warnings where cars and turns will turn across the lane.

Rather than reduce and slow traffic, critics of the plan said the city should commit to cycling and safety improvements elsewhere, and perhaps add a signal at 11th and Nicholson where the Heights Hike and Bike Trail crosses.

Cyclists and safety advocates argue that diverting attention from 11th would be ignoring that the street is the problem and speeds along it are what make traveling by car, bike or foot unsafe.

“Houston has prioritized cars for decades,” said Kevin Strickland, a Heights resident active with various cycling and neighborhood groups. “We have a right to safe streets we are not getting.”

City planners, citing an average speed well above 40 mph — 10 mph over the limit — opted to narrow the street to one lane after three years of discussion with community groups and study. The single lane and a center median with dedicated turn lanes at some locations, planners say, will keep traffic speeds lower and provide room for adding protected bike lanes along 11th. Unlike the four-lane thoroughfare runners and cyclists dart across now, supporters said, narrowing the road also will allows safer crossings, and space at Nicholson to safely wait for oncoming traffic to pass.

To sort out some of the concerns, Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said Wednesday he wanted to take “a closer look” at the project, convening stakeholders and city staff for a review. Turner did not indicate any change to the project is forthcoming, or that the delay would offset plans for construction to begin later this year.

See here and here for some background. I’ve noted the opposition to this before, and in the past week I’ve seen some new handouts for them – see here and here for what this latest one was saying. I looked at the ProtectingOurStreets.org webpage, and it just redirects to a change.org petition. I’ve also noticed some road signs on 11th with the same information. I have no idea what is meant by the “eliminating turns from White Oak to Michaux” claim, as it makes no sense on its face and doesn’t appear anywhere I can find on the project page. The opposition to this is vocal and they have some organization, though I can’t tell how big they are. If there’s an organized effort in favor beyond what the BikeHouston folks are doing, I’m not currently aware of it. We’ll see what if anything comes out of this review by Mayor Turner, which I believe is supposed to take 30 days.

Missing In Harris County Day 2022

From the inbox:

For those with missing loved ones and those who would advocate for them, an annual event May 14th in Houston is the place to be for resources, awareness, and more.

May 14, 2022, is Missing in Harris County Day (MIHCD).  To celebrate and commemorate this occasion, local, state and national agencies with a mission to find missing persons ask you to attend Missing in Harris County Day on Saturday, May 14, from 10 AM to 3 PM at The Children’s Assessment Center, 2500 Bolsover Street, Houston, TX 77005. MIHCD’s mission is to help those with missing loved ones make connections that can help bring the missing home.

Families and friends of missing persons as well as interested members of the community are encouraged to attend the event to learn how to navigate the missing persons system. Agencies at the event to assist families and friends of missing persons include social service agencies and various missing persons networks, such as Texas Center for the Missing.

The event will feature:

  • Local law enforcement agencies accepting missing persons reports and updates from families of the missing
  • Trained DNA collection specialists collecting voluntary family reference DNA cheek swabs to upload into a national missing persons database
  • Bilingual guides assisting all attendees in the completion of a missing persons report or directing attendees to resources
  • Private roundtable discussion for family members with a missing loved one
  • Panel discussions addressing missing persons issues and more!

Families or friends should plan to bring information to the event for data entry or information updates in the national missing persons database, including:

  • Photos of the missing with identifying features (e.g., tattoos or birthmarks) or personal items (e.g., favorite earrings or shirt)
  • X-rays, dental or medical records
  • Police reports or other identifying documents that can be scanned and placed on file
  • Two biological relatives from the mother’s side of the missing loved one to voluntarily submit DNA samples, if desired

More information is available at: http://centerforthemissing.org/missing-in-harris-county-day/.

Attendees are welcome to wear memorial t-shirts and bring posters, photos, or literature to display to commemorate their missing loved ones on the “Wall of the Missing.” The “Wall of the Missing” is a centralized location at the event for all attendees to view missing persons information. Documents placed on the board will not be returned after the event.

About Missing in Harris County Day

Partners in the Missing in Harris County Day event include the Harris County Sheriff’s Office, Houston Police Department, Harris County Institute of Forensic Sciences, Texas Center for the Missing, and The Children’s Assessment Center. Other collaborators and in-kind sponsors of the event include: Alexandria Lowitzer Recovery Fund, Alzheimer’s Association, CODIS, Consulate General of Mexico in Houston, Crime Stoppers of Houston, Doe Network, Galveston County Medical Examiner's Office, Harris County Community Services Department, Montgomery County Sheriff’s Office, NamUs – National Missing and Unidentified Persons System, Pasadena Police Department, Project Guardian, Project Lifesaver, Texas Equusearch, and TEXSAR Gulf Coast Division. Law enforcement connected to the event will not be checking for citizenship documentation or for arrest warrants.

See here for more. The event takes place on Saturday, May 14, at the The last MIHCD was in 2019; I’m sure you can guess what caused the interruption. The Harris County Institute for Forensic Sciences sent me all of the press information on this. There’s free parking available at the location, so drop by and learn something. Maybe you’ll have some information to impart, who knows.

Along those lines, the IFS also sent me this list of people who have died and are in the county morgue but have not been claimed by their next of kin. It may well be that their families don’t know what has happened to them, which is another way to be missing. If you know anything about any of these folks, call the IFS with what you know at 832-927-5000 – there’s a case number for each.

Ashby Highrise 2.0

It’s baaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaack!

Did you miss me?

Since a judge sided with developers of the so-called Ashby high-rise in 2016, the grassy lot at the center of one of the most closely watched land-use battles in Houston’s history has sat untouched, surrounded by chain-link fencing.

Now, the owners of the property are resurrecting efforts to build a high-rise residential tower at the corner of Bissonnet and Ashby Street near Rice University. They have brought in a new development team and a scaled-down version of the original plans they hope will win over neighbors who fiercely opposed the earlier iteration.

Hunt Companies of El Paso is partnering with Dallas-based StreetLights Residential to build a 20-story luxury apartment community called The Langley. They plan to break ground in November and complete construction by 2025. The tower is one story lower with 94 fewer units than a 2016 version of the project. The new proposal also features a smaller parking garage at three levels instead of five.

Fewer units mean fewer residents, which the developers hope will ease concerns over traffic on the two-lane streets surrounding the site — a key point of contention for the prior proposal.

[…]

When Buckhead Investment first announced a project in 2007, it quickly drew the ire of residents who argued a high-rise was out of character for the neighborhood. They worried about traffic congestion and plummeting property values.

The opposition sparked a yearlong battle to squash the project through protests and lawsuits in what became a symbol for fighting Houston’s lax zoning. Ultimately a judge sided with Buckhead in clearing the way for the developers to build.

But the legal win for developers came near the bottom of the 2014-to-2016 oil bust, which made it difficult to attract investors to Houston, and the property instead sat undeveloped.

Hunt Companies, however, didn’t shelve the project. The owners kept their original permits up-to-date with routine inspections and permit renewals every few months, said a spokeswoman for Houston Public Works Department. In a statement, the department said the city’s legal team would review an earlier agreement with the project owners to determine how the new proposal might be affected.

The developers have scheduled meetings with the city to determine next steps in the approval process, Meek said.

The prior project was “another developer, from another time. We’re the right developer for this and we’re excited to see The Langley come forth,” Meek said.

See here for all my previous blogging in this epic saga. The photo I’m using in this post, which I’ve used many times before, is of a sign that parodied the iconic and ubiquitous “Stop Ashby Highrise” signs from the height of that controversy. I took that picture in 2007, to give you some idea of the time span. As far as I can tell, the old stopashbyhighrise.org domain is kaput; there’s still a Facebook group whose last post was in 2013, and a #StopAshbyHighrise hashtag, which gave me a chuckle when I clicked on it:

Well, Big Tex Storage is mostly built now, so maybe that’s a positive omen for The Langley, which will always be on the Ashby site as far as I’m concerned. Will the neighborhood residents rise up against it? Will I be forced to undertake another decade-long blogging quest to document it? Tune in and find out. CultureMap has more.

Sunnyside Solar Farm

This is excellent.

Residents of Sunnyside, a historically Black neighborhood in south Houston where the city once ran its largest garbage incinerator, will soon realize a decades-long mission to rehabilitate the former landfill site.

City officials and residents gathered there on Friday to announce that state environmental regulators had approved plans to build Sunnyside Solar Farm, soon to be the nation’s largest urban solar farm, on the site.

The critical state permit will help the project secure financing and partner with energy companies to sell electricity generated by an array of 150,000 solar panels — enough to power 5,000 to 10,000 homes. Construction will begin early next year with plans to start operating by July 2023, city officials said.

City leaders and members of Congress touted the attention the renewable energy project would bring to Houston. The city would be an “epicenter of change” for solar power in urban areas, said Rep. Al Green, who touted a $750,000 federal grant for job training that would benefit the solar farm.

For community members like Renard Roy, however, the project represents a lifetime of tenacious effort by residents to overcome a legacy of discriminatory burdens followed by neglect.

If I’d heard of this before I’d forgotten about it. This Houstonia story from last year has a pretty good overview of what has happened in recent years with this project. You should read the rest of the Chron story I’m quoting from for the deeper history, which is as sad and disturbing as you might think. For this to be the end result of all that is remarkable and worth celebrating. I look forward to seeing the finished product.

Are we about to get more COVID in Houston?

We could be.

New data from the Texas Medical Center shows COVID-19 cases have leveled off over the past week, but some trends suggest the Greater Houston area could be on the verge of seeing higher virus spread.

TMC hospitals reported an average of 351 new cases per day during the week of April 18, the same number it reported during the previous seven-day period. The number of new cases does not include anyone who used an at-home test and did not report a positive result.

Those numbers represent a significant decline from last month, when the hospitals were reporting an average of 2,592 new cases per day.

However, the effective reproduction rate – or the average number of people who will be infected by someone with COVID – increased to 1.0 last week, up from 0.82 one week earlier. The rate essentially measures how well collective behaviors like wearing masks and social distancing are slowing the spread of the virus, with any rate higher than 1.0 meaning that spread is increasing.

The amount of virus being detected at the city of Houston’s wastewater treatment plants has also increased to the highest rate since Feb. 7, according to data from the Houston Health Department. Twenty-one of the city’s 39 wastewater treatment plants saw an increase in viral load in samples that were collected and analyzed April 18. By comparison, 16 plants saw in increase in samples collected and analyzed one week earlier.

The TMC’s weekly update also shows new hospitalizations have increased to an average of 59 admissions per day during the week of April 18, up from 42 the week before. TMC hospitals admitted an average of 89 new patients per day last month.

The data isn’t strongly conclusive, but it’s also early in what could be a trend, and as we know with this virus once you really start to see an uptick, it’s already too late. On the other hand, lots of people have COVID antibodies now, and that plus the number of vaxxed people who haven’t had COVID is probably enough to mitigate any crazy spread, or at least to make it less harmful, at this time. But of course there are still plenty of high-risk people out there, and lots of kids haven’t been vaxxed, and no one wants to get even a mild case of COVID. So, you know, stay cautious. You can still wear a mask even if you don’t have to, and you can get that second booster if you’re eligible. It’s never a bad idea to minimize your exposure to this thing. Stace has more.

Please don’t feed the ducks

Quack.

The City of Houston is asking residents who visit Hermann Park to stop feeding the ducks.

They said the population of domestic ducks has exploded and park workers think it’s because the ducks won’t leave because there’s too much food.

Families in Houston have enjoyed feeding the ducks at Hermann Park for decades. But now, the city says it needs to end.

“For many years people have been bringing bread to the park and feeding the ducks and families like to come and do that,” City of Houston natural resources manager Kelli Andracek said. “But it really has created some problems and the ducks are prolific breeders and the population has gotten a little bit out of control there.”

Not all of them are a problem, but…

“There’s really this one species that has this massive population at the park,” Andracek said.

That would be the muscovy.

They’re the ugly ducklings you see at the park … the ones with the warty-looking faces. The biggest of the bunch were bred for their meat and they’re not supposed to be here.

And they leave a mess.

“There’s duck feces all over the ground because there’s so many of them,” Andracek said.

Basically, the duck population is booming at Hermann Park, which as noted also means that the duck poop is piling up. Muscovy ducks, as we have observed before, are a non-native species that can cause problems in addition to excessive amounts of poop, which is what led to the city of Pearland authorizing more intense methods of dealing with them. (Absolute respect to the Chron headline writer who referred to that situation as a quackmire. Chef’s kiss, y’all.) The city of Houston is hoping that if people stop feeding these ducks, they’ll go away on their own.

Needless to say, some people ain’t having it.

[J]udging by social media responses to KHOU’s news report, it’s going to take a lot more than posted warnings to dissuade some people from the practice.

“All the fkn crime in the city and you’re worried about some ducks being fed!!! Smh,” commented one user on KHOU’s YouTube video of the duck report.

“Just let people take them home,” wrote another. “Free ducks!”

“I will feed the ducks any damn time I want,” wrote user Dave Smiling Coyote.

“These people just wanna ruin the fun!” commented Jerin Browder. “[I’m] going to keep feeding the ducks.”

Naturally, there’s been a conspiracy theory propagated on Nextdoor that has helped inflame the passions of the dedicated duck-feeders, because Nextdoor is the worst. I for one endorse the idea of these folks taking the ducks home with them, though. By all means, take that matter into your own hands.

New variants being detected

Got to keep an eye on that.

Two new omicron subvariants that health officials say are contributing to a COVID uptick in New York State have been identified in Houston, according to researchers at Houston Methodist.

Genome sequencing efforts within the hospital system have detected 83 cases of BA.2.12 and three cases of BA.2.12.1 — two sub-lineages of the dominant variant BA.2 — since the start of the year.

Local case numbers, however, are sitting at their lowest point in nearly a year, according to the Harris County Public Health COVID dashboard, which reports an average of 20 new cases per 100,000 people over the last seven days. That number was as high as 1,256 in mid-January, during the height of the omicron surge.

It’s a different story in New York, which has seen a 70 percent increase in new cases over the two weeks, from a daily average of 3,231 on March 13 to 5,467 on Thursday, according to the New York Times virus tracker.

[…]

Houston wastewater surveillance data show an increasing viral load at a growing number of the city’s treatment plants as of April 4, when samples were last collected.

The city’s wastewater dashboard shows 14 out of 39 total wastewater treatment plants experiencing an increase from the week before, compared to eight on March 28.

The wastewater data is here. As of April 4, the virus level was at 38% of where it was on July 6, 2020, which is the date when this collection project started and is used as the baseline. We’ll have to keep an eye on that of course, but we also have to consider infections versus hospitalizations and deaths. It makes sense to wear a mask in most indoor settings – I do, and plan to continue doing so for the foreseeable future – but it’s not clear yet that we need to do more than that. Other than get vaxxed and boosted, of course, which if you haven’t by now I don’t know what to say to you.

The UH wildlife cameras

I love stories like this.

A duck waddled between the trees of Glenwood Cemetery, not far from where four University of Houston students tied their camera to a trunk.

If the bird came closer to the lens, the device would detect a change of temperature or motion, and snap — start taking photos and providing the undergraduate research team with data. Their work Thursday marked the start of a monthlong survey of wildlife in Houston’s urban landscape, which is part of an ongoing study that has already yielded surprises for dozens of students and faculty at UH.

For instance: Bobcats live in the city limits. So do otters.

“I wasn’t aware of a lot of the animal populations that existed so close to the city,” UH biology senior Kaleb Barnes said at the cemetery, located just over a mile from downtown. “It’s kind of amazing, knowing how they’re able to inhabit the same space as us.”

Creating that awareness is Ann Cheek’s goal. And as leader of the project since it began in spring 2020, she helps students in three of her courses conduct the research and participate in the scientific method from start to finish, via planning, data collection, data analysis and presentations to local ecologists.

“There are lots of wild things living in the city,” said Cheek, an instructional professor of biology at UH. “It’s not just concrete and people.”

The research project, called “Hidden Life of Houston,” is a partnership between the university and the Memorial Park Conservancy. It feeds into a larger study led by the Urban Wildlife Information Network at Chicago’s Lincoln Park Zoo.

Conservation is the focus, with researchers attempting to discover what species live where and whether their appearances follow seasonal trends. Cheek’s teams share that information with Houston environmental groups and give their findings to the Urban Wildlife network, which seeks to determine whether certain species are inherently more common in cities or whether their locations are more isolated.

You can see more about the project here and their photos here. I hope they find a way to set up some cameras in some bayous as well, because I know there will be some spectacular finds there. Whatever the case, this is super cool and I hope they make a ton of discoveries.

More on Lambert Hall and Opera in the Heights

From the Chron, about the forthcoming sale of the Heights Christian Church and its effect on Opera in the Heights, which has long performed at Lambert Hall on the church’s property:

Photo by Djmaschek, Creative Commons license

“The whole reason someone had the idea to start an opera company in a converted sanctuary was because the hall has such wonderful acoustics,” says artistic director Eiki Isomura. “They thought of it as the perfect platform for artists and [a chance] to experience opera in a unique, small, intimate, powerful venue. It would be really hard to replace.”

The notice put Opera In the Heights in the awkward position of needing to plan its 2022-23 season without knowledge of where those performances might take place. Recent rehearsals have been prone to interruptions by prospective buyers touring the Heights Boulevard property, which has been listed for $5 million through the Greenwood King realty firm. (Heights Christian Church plans to merge with the West U-area First Christian Houston.)

“I wish we could wait a little longer because the chance that a buyer wins out who wants to see us stay is not zero, but we can’t wait,” says Isomura. “We have to book dates, we have to book venues. There’s just way too much happening here in town for us to just wait and see.”

Furthermore, “spaces are limited and our support base expects a certain type of opera experience: where it’s just small enough that you feel really connected to the action, and for there to be a decent-sized orchestra,” he adds.

What will most likely wind up happening, according to Isomura, is that Opera In the Heights will at least temporarily become a “nomadic” company, rotating between stages in the area as they become available. It’s early yet, but he’s been looking at two that bear certain similarities to Lambert Hall: the Sterling Stage at Stages’ Gordy theater, which offers both a cozy neighborhood vibe and close quarters with audiences; and Zilkha Hall inside Hobby Center, which would provide an orchestra pit and “feels intimate” despite its larger capacity and downtown location.

The company’s fate may well come down to how the performing arts fit into any potential buyer’s business plan, and Isomura reports there is some reason for optimism on that front. This past Saturday, Opera In the Heights held an open meeting and heard from several people who shared a wish “to keep and develop Lambert Hall as a resource to the community,” he notes.

See here for the background. The best solution would be for Opera in the Heights to continue using Lambert Hall, under whoever the new owner is. It’s a great fit of venue and artist, and it’s one of the things that makes The Heights what it is. But we know that’s not often how Houston operates. I wish Opera in the Heights the best of luck in getting settled for the new season and the longer term.

Here comes BA.2 in Houston

But don’t panic, it’s just a change in the virus composition, not an increase in viral load.

Houston is seeing an uptick in the number of BA.2 cases, with genome sequencing and wastewater testing picking up higher levels this week compared to last week.

The more contagious omicron subvariant was identified in 24 percent of patients who were sequenced at Houston Methodist, a jump from the 1 to 3 percent previously reported. BA.2 was also detected at six wastewater treatment plants on March 21 — the most recent day for which data is available — after the Houston Health Department last week said it had not been detected at any plants.

“Previously, we saw some indications of mutations consistent with BA.2 but were not confident in the determination at the time,” health department spokesman Scott Packard said in an email. “Retrospective analysis indicates BA.2 was likely in the wastewater in low levels starting in mid-to-late January.”

The recent data is the first indication of a significant rise in BA.2 in the Houston-area. Eventually, the subvariant is expected to become the dominant strain here, lining up with the nationwide rate, according to the health department.

[…]

In Houston, the average positivity rate over the last two weeks is 1.8 percent, down from the high 30s in the early January. Wastewater testing shows an increasing viral load at nine wastewater plants, while the remaining 30 are plateaued or decreasing.

“Although BA.2 appears to be more contagious than BA.1, the good news is that countries experiencing a spike in cases are not seeing a proportionate spikes in hospitalizations,” Packard said. “That means being up to date on vaccines (initial shots plus boosters) remains highly effective against serious illness, even with BA.2.”

As a reminder, you can see the Houston wastewater dashboard here. I don’t know how long we will be in this trough, but at least in the short term our vax level plus the sheer number of people who contracted the BA.1 version of omicron should help.

In the longer term, as immunity wanes and new variants pop up, it will be time for more shots. A fourth shot has now been authorized by the FDA for us old folks.

A second round of booster shots was greenlighted for everyone over the age of 50 by public health officials on Tuesday, kicking off the regulatory process for shots to likely be available in pharmacies this week.

Everyone 12 and older is already eligible for a booster shot five months after their initial vaccine series if they received an mRNA vaccine like Pfizer or Moderna, or two months after getting the Johnson & Johnson vaccine.

But for those over 50, determined to be a vulnerable age group, officials at the Food and Drug Administration and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have decided the data on waning immunity justifies making another shot available four months after the first boost. And while anyone who meets that criteria can now get another booster, CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said it was “especially important” for those 65 and older and those 50 and older with underlying medical conditions.

“This is especially important for those 65 and older and those 50 and older with underlying medical conditions that increase their risk for severe disease from COVID-19 as they are the most likely to benefit from receiving an additional booster dose at this time,” Walensky said in a statement on Tuesday.

My niece is getting married in June in Washington state. I expect all of us who will be there for it and who are eligible for that booster will have gotten it by then. I ain’t messing around.

More eating outdoors downtown

This is a good idea, and I’m glad it’s being continued.

DINING IN DOWNTOWN HOUSTON CAN be a hassle, what with the limited parking and COVD-19 restrictions affecting seating space at so many eateries. Fortunately, the city of Houston is helping to alleviate some of the restaurant seating issues by encouraging businesses to set up space outside on the street, through the program More Space: Main Street.

Downtown Houston lost about a dozen street-level bars and restaurants because of thinned-out crowds during the pandemic, according to the Downtown District. And the Texas Restaurant Association estimates that the state lost 9,000-10,000 restaurants since the start of the pandemic.

First announced in 2020, More Space: Main Street was created as a way to encourage social distancing. Now, the program has expanded another year, allowing restaurants to continue using makeshift patios that take up street space outside the restaurants. The program temporarily closes off select parts of a seven-block stretch of Main Street to automobile traffic to make it safe.

[…]

David Fields, chief transportation planner for the city, says the program has been a boon for Downtown businesses and city officials received positive feedback from the community. Closing off traffic to this vibrant section of Downtown, he says, has made “a more active and interesting Main Street.”

The program was slated to run until the end of this month, but after its latest evaluation by city officials 一 who found that the program’s participants saw an increase in revenue, and customer and employee retention 一 the Houston City Council voted for More Space: Main Street to be extended until 2023.

See here for the background, and here for the city’s More Space: Main Street page. As I said at the time, this makes a lot of sense to me. Houston is pretty amenable to outdoor dining most of the year, and with some added shade or portable heaters as needed it’s almost always viable. Why wouldn’t we want to take advantage of that? I’m at the point where I’d rather eat outside at most restaurants, and will likely continue to be that way well after COVID becomes part of the background. Kudos to the city for a little innovative thinking when it was really needed.