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May 11th, 2021:

Here comes Huffines

The political comeback nobody asked for is officially on.

Former state Sen. Don Huffines, R-Dallas, announced Monday that he is challenging Gov. Greg Abbott in the 2022 primary.

“Texas deserves actual Republican leadership that will act urgently and decisively—no more excuses or lies,” Huffines said in a statement.

Huffines is a wealthy businessman who served in the Senate from 2015-2019. Democrat Nathan Johnson defeated Huffines in 2018.

Abbott is up for a third term in 2022 and has drawn some heat from within his party for his response to the coronavirus pandemic. Huffines has criticized Abbott as being too slow to fully reopen the state and he spoke at a protest outside the Governor’s Mansion last fall.

Huffines’ announcement did not mention Abbott but took aim at “politicians who offer nothing but excuses and lies” and promised to take on the “entrenched elites of the Austin swamp.”

You can see Huffines’ statement here. It’s a lot. His name has come up before as a potential primary challenger to Abbott, and hey, he’s rich, he’s bored, and he’s got nothing better to do, so why not. As we have discussed before, Greg Abbott’s approval ratings have gotten soft, but he’s still strong with Republicans. I don’t see him as a credible threat and I doubt Team Abbott does as well, though I’m sure they’ll use a couple of their mega-millions to remind everyone what a non-entity Huffines is.

The story notes that Allen West (state GOP Chair and certified wackadoodle) and Sid Miller (Ag Commissioner) are also in the conversation as possible primary challengers to Abbott. Miller is the only one of the three that I think would present any real competition to Abbott, as he has at least won statewide, but my sense is that they’d still be fishing from the same pond of anti-Abbott Republicans. I don’t see them as likely to peel away existing support for Abbott. But I’m not a Republican, so take that with an appropriate amount of salt. The Chron and Reform Austin have more.

Magnet school change proposals put off again

Not a surprise.

Houston ISD’s administration has dropped plans to revamp the district’s prized magnet program before the next school year, a response to multiple concerns raised in recent weeks by school board members, district leaders confirmed [last] week.

The announcement means that several magnet recommendations issued by a district-led committee in early 2019 will remain unaddressed for another year. The suggested changes included adding magnet programs at all neighborhood middle and high schools currently lacking one, installing the same type of program at all schools in a given feeder pattern and eliminating magnet funding for elementary schools.

The recommendations resurfaced earlier this month, when district administrators proposed to make those changes by August. However, several trustees expressed skepticism about the timing of the overhaul, particularly given Interim Superintendent Grenita Lathan’s imminent departure and the relatively short time window for building out new programs.

“Based on input from principals, the Board of Education, and various stakeholders, HISD has decided to change our timeline on implementing the magnet program proposal,” the administration said in a statement. “The 2021-2022 school year will be utilized as a planning year in preparation for phased changes that would take place during the 2022-2023 school year, if approved.”

[…]

A committee of roughly 30 HISD employees, parents and community leaders gathered in 2018 and early 2019 to consider tweaks to the magnet program, aiming to create a more equitable system. HISD administrators implemented several of the committee’s smaller proposals, such as eliminating entrance requirements at many middle schools and tweaking the entrance scoring matrix to widen magnet access.

The larger and more politically charged recommendations went unaddressed for two years, with administrators and board members showing little interest in taking them up. Lathan and HISD Chief Strategy and Innovation Officer Rick Cruz reintroduced the proposals two weeks ago as part of the district’s budget planning for the 2021-22 school year — but trustees recoiled at the move.

HISD Trustee Elizabeth Santos said administrators were moving too hastily to add magnets, failing to gather input from the students and families that would see new programs. The administration’s proposal called for installing magnets at two campuses in Santos’ board district, Fonville Middle School and Sam Houston Math, Science and Technology Center.

“If you don’t survey, get to know the community and engage the community, then the community doesn’t have a product they can buy into,” Santos said.

HISD Trustee Judith Cruz similarly questioned the speed of the proposal, saying she worried the district lacked enough time to install strong new programs that would drive student academic success.

HISD Trustee Sue Deigaard also argued that the district should not undertake major overhauls ahead of a change in leadership. Lathan is expected to leave in June after accepting the superintendent position at Springfield Public Schools in Missouri. HISD trustees are conducting a nationwide superintendent search, with a lone finalist set to be named in late May.

See here for some background. The reasons for waiting given by the Trustees are sensible. The bigger question is why the 2019 recommendations had been shelved for as long as they had been. Maybe when we hire the next Superintendent we’ll see some movement on this. Don’t hold your breath.

Please get your second shot

I hope this is mostly a function of incomplete data.

Millions of Americans — including tens of thousands of Houstonians — either have delayed or are forgoing their second dose of a COVID-19 vaccination.

As of late last month, roughly 51,000 people who received their first inoculation through the Houston Health Department were “overdue” for their second dose. The department’s number is preliminary but includes any person who has gone at least 42 days since their first round without returning for a second shot.

Statewide, more than 630,000 of the roughly 11 million people who’ve received one dose are more than six weeks overdue, the Texas Department of State Health Services told the Houston Chronicle.

“We need a lot of those folks from February to come back in and get their second dose now,” Dr. David Lakey, a DSHS commissioner who sits on Texas’ COVID-19 Expert Vaccine Allocation Panel, said last week.

Part of the gap, however, is likely due to people who opted to receive their second dose through other health care providers as vaccine availability expanded.

It’s not cause for alarm just yet, said Rice University health economist Vivian Ho, though she said the trend does not bode well for the overall goal of herd immunity.

[…]

Ho said people shouldn’t be dissuaded from rescheduling appointments that they missed, as they’ve been shown to give additional antibodies even if they come late.

“The first dose really does boost your antibodies, but it’s the second that really gives you the second umph,” she said.

Houston Methodist radiologist Dirk Stotsman worried that some people are forgoing their second round of inoculations because the first doses of Moderna and Pfizer have been proven highly efficacious against the virus.

While the first dose offers a good level of protection, he said, the extra antibodies provided by the second dose will be integral to prevent the spread of more infectious and dangerous strains of the virus.

Getting just the one Pfizer or Moderna shot is better than nothing, but it’s not as good as it should be. If you’ve gotten one shot and for whatever the reason not gotten the second one, it’s not too late. Go ahead and make an appointment or do a walk-in where available.

In related news:

With the rescission of the mask mandate and full reopening of businesses, medical experts worried spring would bring a debilitating fourth wave of COVID-19 infections to Texas.

But as vaccination rates slowly leveled off in recent weeks, the rate of infections and hospitalizations did as well. More than a year after businesses closed, offices sent workers home and traffic vanished from Houston’s concrete jungle of freeways, public health officials are cautiously optimistic efforts to quell the spread of the virus and vaccinate as many people as possible are working.

Yet despite claims from officials like Gov. Greg Abbott that this downturn is linked to “herd immunity” — the mysterious target ranging between 60 and 80 percent fully vaccinated against COVID-19 — experts say Texas cannot rely on vaccinations alone to achieve what some think may mean the end of the pandemic.

“Nobody knows for sure what’s going to happen,” said Catherine Troisi, an infectious disease epidemiologist with UTHealth School of Public Health in Houston. “But my educated guess would be as more of the population becomes either vaccinated or immune through natural infection, we won’t see as many cases.”

Fewer than 3,000 patients have been hospitalized across the state for the past five weeks, according to a Chronicle data analysis. It’s the longest streak with that few patients since June 2020.

Dr. Carl Vartian, chief medical officer at HCA Houston Healthcare’s Clear Lake and Mainland hospitals, worries the public conflates “herd immunity” with “ending COVID-19.” But COVID-19 may not truly end. Rather, experts suspect it will become “endemic,” never fully leaving the population — like influenza, which still infects hundreds of thousands of people a year in the U.S.

Again, what we have now is better than what we had before, but not as good as it could be. Even at “herd immunity levels”, there’s still a lot of unvaxxed people. The difference is that it becomes harder for the virus to really take off as it has done before. But people can and will still get sick and die if they’re not vaccinated. It’s up to us what the level of those illnesses and deaths are.

Tesla crash update

Interesting.

Federal investigators on Monday released their preliminary assessment of a deadly crash in Spring involving a Tesla, though many details of the incident remain under scrutiny, including whether anyone was in the driver’s seat at the time of the wreck.

In the two-page update, the National Transportation Safety Board said the crash occurred less than 600 feet from where Dr. William Varner, 59, and Everette Talbot, 69, began their trip in Varner’s driveway. NTSB officials said security camera footage shows Varner getting into the driver’s seat and Talbot getting in the front passenger seat.

Both were killed in the fiery crash, which took firefighters hours to extinguish because the car’s battery reignited several times.

Where Varner was when the crash happened is a point of contention between local crash investigators and Tesla officials. In the days after the crash, Harris County Precinct 4 Constable Mark Herman said investigators are confident no one was in the driver’s seat.

Tesla founder Elon Musk and other company officials have disputed that, saying evidence points to someone being in the seat, based on the damage to the steering column.

NTSB investigators in the report do not make a final determination.

“The car’s restraint control module, which can record data associated with vehicle speed, belt status, acceleration, and airbag deployment, was recovered but sustained fire damage,” investigators said in the report. “The restraint control module was taken to the National Transportation Safety Board recorder laboratory for evaluation.”

See here and here for the background, and here for a copy of the NTSB report. The key bit is this:

The vehicle was equipped with Autopilot, Tesla’s advanced driver assistance system. Using Autopilot requires both the Traffic Aware Cruise Control and the Autosteer systems to be engaged.[2] NTSB tests of an exemplar car at the crash location showed that Traffic Aware Cruise Control could be engaged but that Autosteer was not available on that part of the road.

As the footnote indicates, Traffic Aware Cruise Control handles acceleration and deceleration, while Autosteer keeps you in your lane. Autosteer requires lane markers to be utilized, which that stretch of road did not have. My takeaway from this is that the guys in the car would not have been able to engage the Autopilot, as Tesla has claimed. The investigation is ongoing, and as noted the NTSB has not yet determined a cause, so we still don’t really know what happened. I remain curious about this and look forward to the final report.

UPDATE: Here’s a longer version of the story.