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The STAAR is back

Missed this last week.

For the first time since the pandemic began, Texas public schools will be rated based on how students score on the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness — more commonly known as the annual STAAR test.

It’s the latest big step toward normalcy for the state’s 8,866 public schools — which includes 782 charter schools — since the COVID-19 pandemic forced school closures in early 2020.

But this year’s ratings come with a few changes. For this year only, schools will receive an A-C rating. Districts and schools that score D or F will receive a “Not Rated” label instead. Schools who fall in those bottom tiers will also evade possible sanctions from the Texas Education Agency during the 2022-2023 school year.

The news comes as thousands of students in grades 3 through 12 are taking the exam this spring. Last year, students had the option to take the STAAR test and results were not held against them or the district.

The ratings, those letter grades affixed on school buildings across the state, are typically released by the Texas Education Agency in August. But when the coronavirus began appearing in the United States more than two years ago, schools were shut down and as a result, standardized testing school testing was canceled for the year.

The new A-C rating this year will allow districts that still have a D or F from 2019 to have a shot of getting a better grade.

[…]

Last year, STAAR results showed that the pandemic had a significant impact on student learning with far lower scores than before the pandemic, especially when it came to math. Also, schools that relied more heavily on online class instruction had students who scored significantly lower than those school that were able to open and offer in-person instruction.

There’s fear that this year’s test scores may be impacted again because of pandemic-related school closures and teacher absences that occurred during surges in infection caused by the delta and omicron variants of the coronavirus.

Even though the rating system has been changed this year, not everyone is a fan of the school rating system to begin with.

Matthew Gutierrez, superintendent of the Seguin Independent School District, near San Antonio, believes the STAAR will be helpful to gauge students’ academic level, but the letter grades should’ve been postponed this school year as well because of the continued COVID-19 disruptions. Seguin, along with other districts, had teachers and substitutes out with COVID-19 during the omicron surge this past winter.

“We had students who went days without support from their certified teacher,” he said. “You had situations where you were combining classrooms and having really creative staffing, so it’s not optimal for learning.”

Gutierrez is also concerned about the “Not Rated” label. He said if a district scored an F in 2019 and then a D this school year, that district won’t get credit for that progress.

Yeah, last year’s STAAR results weren’t great. They might be better this year, but as a whole we’re likely still pulling ourselves out of the ditch caused by the pandemic. We could just do like last year and skip the grades, since we’re essentially giving the schools that don’t get good results a break. I’m not sure what the point of this halfway-accountable system is, and I’m also not sure that we missed anything by not going through this rigmarole the past couple of years. It’s been a hard year for everyone. Let’s accept that and make it a little easier on ourselves.

We really missed counting a lot of people in Texas

Over half a million, by the latest estimate.

Tripped up by politics and the pandemic — and with only a last-minute investment in promotion by the state — the 2020 census likely undercounted the Texas population by roughly 2%, the U.S. Census Bureau said Thursday.

The once-a-decade national count put Texas’ official population at 29,145,505 after it gained the most residents of any state in the last decade, earning two additional congressional seats. In a post-count analysis using survey results from households, the bureau estimated that the count for people living in Texas households — a slightly smaller population than the total population — failed to find more than half a million residents. That’s the equivalent of missing the entire populations of Lubbock, Laredo and then some.

The undercount means that many residents were missing from the data used by state lawmakers last year to redraw congressional and legislative districts to distribute political power. For the next decade, the undercount will also be baked into the data used by governments and industry to plan and provide for communities.

Texas is just one of six states that the bureau determined had a statistically significant undercount. The others were Arkansas, Florida, Illinois, Mississippi and Tennessee.

[…]

Even as other states poured millions of dollars into census campaigns, Texas left local governments, nonprofits and even churches to try to reach the millions of Texans who fall into the categories of people that have been historically missed by the count — immigrants, people living in poverty and non-English speakers, to name a few.

Already without state funds, the local canvassing and outreach efforts relying on in-person contact were shut down by the coronavirus pandemic just as they were ramping up in the spring of 2020. The bureau extended time for counting by a few months, but the Trump administration later accelerated the deadline.

As Texas fell behind in the counting compared to other states, organizers struggled to reach groups at the highest risk of being missed as the pandemic continued to ravage their communities. It wasn’t until the 11th hour that Texas quietly launched a sudden pursuit of a multimillion-dollar advertising campaign to promote the count using federal COVID relief dollars.

By then, with just a month of counting to go, the self-response rate for Texas households had barely topped 60%. As census workers followed up in person with households that hadn’t responded, the share of households accounted rose, but Texas remained far behind several other states and several percentage points behind the national average.

[…]

Because it’s based on comparing the 2020 census to a followup population survey, the Texas undercount is more of a statistical guess and carries a margin of error. In the case of Texas, the bureau estimates the undercount could have been as large as 3.27% or as small as .57%. By limiting its analysis to people living in households, it leaves off people living in college dorms, prisons and other group quarters.

The bureau did not report any statistically significant undercounts after the 2010 census.

The bureau will not be providing more detailed undercount figures to determine which areas of the state or residents were missed in the census. But earlier this year, it reported the communities were not equally left off. Nationally, the census significantly undercounted communities of color, missing Hispanic residents at a rate of 4.99% — more than triple the rate from the 2010 census. Black residents were undercounted at a rate of 3.3% and Native Americans at a rate of 5.64%.

The 2020 Census also had a larger undercount of children under the age of 5 than every other census since 1970.

A previous estimate had the undercount at around 377K. That could still be accurate – note that this is a range, not a single number – but it is likely that it was higher. We certainly could have added one more Congressional district if the Republicans had given a damn, but since the undercount was mostly people of color, what did they care? Cities can still file a challenge to their official tally, but so far none have. It is what it is at this point. The Chron has more.

Treasury Department opens investigation into Abbott’s use of federal funds for border mission

Good, though I have a hard time believing there will be any real consequences.

Gov. Greg Abbott’s use of COVID-19 relief dollars to support his border security mission has come under scrutiny in Washington this week as questions grow about whether it’s the proper use of the federal funds.

The U.S. Treasury Department’s inspector general opened an inquiry into the spending on Tuesday, the Washington Post reported. The action came a day after a group of Texas Democrats in the U.S. House called on U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen to investigate.

Those steps followed a Post analysis of money intended to combat the effects of the pandemic, showing that Texas “leaders rerouted public health and safety funds to their border operations, while relying on federal pandemic funds to replace some of the money.”

Those border operations included Operation Lone Star, a state border security program that Abbott launched in March 2021 to deal with increased border crossings. The initiative involves the deployment of the Texas Department of Public Safety and the Texas Military Department to the border. Abbott has used state resources to patrol the border, build border barriers and arrest migrants for trespassing on private land and then turn them over to immigration authorities.

The state has spent around $4 billion on the operations; the Post has reported that around $1 billion in coronavirus aid was used.

The money came from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act, better known as the CARES Act, which had a key provision to support the medical response to the pandemic.

“In exercise of that responsibility … we are currently conducting a review of Texas’s uses of [Coronavirus Relief Fund] monies,” Richard K. Delmar, the U.S. Treasury Department’s deputy inspector general, said to the Washington Post.

[…]

Texas Democratic U.S. Reps. Joaquin Castro of San Antonio and Veronica Escobar of El Paso spearheaded the letter to Yellen asking for her department to investigate the matter.

“It is negligent and irresponsible for Governor [Abbott] to direct additional funding to Operation Lone Star, especially if the funding in question was intended to help Texans rebuild from the pandemic,” the Texas Democrats wrote.

U.S. Reps. Colin Allred of Dallas, Lloyd Doggett of Austin, Marc Veasey of Fort Worth and Sylvia R. Garcia, Al Green, Lizzie Pannill Fletcher and Sheila Jackson Lee of Houston joined in signing the letter.

“As you continue your oversight of the Coronavirus State Fiscal Recovery Funds, we urge you to ensure all states are using these crucial funds for the reasons they were meant to be used,” they continued. “Governor Abbott must not be allowed to use federal coronavirus relief funds to further his political theater at the expense of Texas families.”

I’m happy for this, but let’s be clear that there are no circumstances under which Greg Abbott will be chastened by the outcome of the investigation, and no circumstances under which he will admit to any wrongdoing or make any changes in his behavior, except for the worse. Voting him out is still the only real hope at this point. Daily Kos has more.

It’s city of Houston budget time again

That federal COVID relief money continues to be very nice.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Once again relying on federal money, Mayor Sylvester Turner’s proposed $5.7 billion budget for next year would pay for raises for all city employees, offer tax relief to seniors and disabled residents, and sock away the largest reserves in years for savings, according to an outline Turner shared Tuesday at City Hall.

The city often faces nine-figure budget deficits, forcing it to sell off land and defer costs to close gaps. For the third consecutive year, though, the city will rely on hundreds of millions of dollars in federal COVID-19 relief money to avoid a budget hole and free up other revenue for the mayor’s priorities.

The city is set to receive more than $300 million this year from the most recent stimulus package approved by Congress, and Turner has proposed using $160 million in the budget. The city has received more than $1 billion in such assistance over the last three years.

City Council is expected to propose amendments and vote to adopt the spending plan next month. The budget will take effect on July 1, the start of the next fiscal year.

With about $311 million in reserves, Turner is establishing the healthiest fund balance the city has seen in decades, which he called necessary given the uncertainty of rising inflation, the continuing COVID-19 pandemic and the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

The city budgeted $205 million in reserves last year, the first time it exceeded $200 million in reserves since 2009. The city’s financial policy calls for an unassigned reserve worth 7.5 percent of the general fund; this year’s amount is nearly double that, 13.5 percent.

That money also will help the next mayor and council confront budgets when the federal assistance runs dry and the city must fend for itself, Turner said. The relief funds must be obligated by 2024 and spent by 2026.

“I think what we all recognize is that some of the major cost-drivers will be driving this budget for the next several years… I don’t want to put future mayors and council members in a worse position,” Turner said. “As the city weans itself eventually off the (federal) funds, you’re going to be back with the fund balance.”

You can see a list of things in the proposed budget herer. HPD, HFD, Solid Waste, and Parks and Rec all get increases. We’ll see how spicy the amendments process is.

Time once again for Texas hospitals to struggle financially

I feel their pain, but…

More than $3 billion in federal money has flowed to Texas health care providers in recent months to help pay for COVID-19 treatments, tests and vaccines for patients without health insurance, according to national health officials.

Of that, a tiny fraction — some $2.2 million — went to the local independent hospital in rural Titus County for treating patients during wave after overwhelming wave of the devastating virus in an area where 1 in 3 residents are uninsured.

But the 174-bed Titus Regional Medical Center in northeast Texas needed every penny it could get as it struggled to cover the sudden, skyrocketing expenses of the pandemic: paying staff competitive wages to keep them on the job, keeping up with federal safety rules and managing record-breaking numbers of patients pouring into in the intensive care unit from a 150-mile radius, said CEO Terry Scoggin.

Now, after sending some $19 billion to hospitals and other health care providers nationwide, the fund known as the Health Resources and Services Administration COVID-19 Uninsured Program — created to help hospitals like Titus Regional pay for the care of uninsured COVID patients — has dried up.

While the halting of funds comes as Texas has seen infection numbers fall dramatically, the virus is still largely uncontrolled, causing surges and lockdowns in other countries. In the past, those surges abroad have always occurred before new cases rise again here in the United States, including Texas, which has more uninsured residents than any other state.

The failure to renew the program in time to continue reimbursing providers means that hospitals, clinics, private practices and others that don’t get public health funding from the state will have to “eat the cost” if they don’t charge for COVID-related services, Scoggin said.

“It’s a huge issue for us because we have so many adults who are uninsured,” Scoggin said. “And so it was kind of a kick in the gut for us when they shut that program off because I thought it was a good use of funds for the COVID piece.”

Refusing care to those patients who can’t pay is not an option, legally or morally, he said.

“We can’t turn people away, so we’re still going to pay for it,” Scoggin said. “It just shifted the expense of the uninsured from federal funds to individual hospitals.”

We’ve discussed the financial straits of rural hospitals in Texas before. I am once again pointing out that the locale in which this story is sited, Titus County, is yet another place that votes heavily Republican – Trump and Cornyn in 2020 and Abbott and Cruz in 2018 all topped 70% of the vote. I continue to have empathy for the employees of these hospitals, who for all I know may be habitually voting for politicians whose stated policy preferences are to help them. But I’m also saying it would be nice for these stories to include that easy-to-look-up data, because the simple fact is that if the likes of Greg Abbott or John Cornyn wanted to help the Titus Regional Medical Center, by expanding Medicaid or helping to push through more federal funds for the care of uninsured COVID payments, they could absolutely do so. The dots are just sitting there, waiting to be connected. We should do that.

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.

Looks like Texas didn’t even have to sue to keep Title 42 from ending

A different Trump judge already put it in the bag for them.

A federal judge in Louisiana plans to temporarily block the Biden administration from ending Title 42, a pandemic-era health order used by federal immigration officials to expel migrants, including asylum-seekers, at the U.S.-Mexico border.

The temporary restraining order is expected in a lawsuit brought by Louisiana, Arizona and Missouri after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced it would let the order expire May 23. The details of such a restraining order were not available late Monday.

“The parties will confer regarding the specific terms to be contained in the Temporary Restraining Order and attempt to reach agreement,” according to minutes from a Monday status conference in the case.

See here for the background. Sure is convenient to have a Trump judge for all purposes, isn’t it? Daily Kos has more.

Texas sues to stop the end of Title 42

Just another day at the office of destruction for Ken Paxton.

Best mugshot ever

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton filed a lawsuit against the Biden administration on Friday to halt the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from lifting Title 42, a pandemic-era health order used by federal immigration officials to expel migrants, including asylum-seekers, at the U.S.-Mexico border.

Title 42, which was enacted in March 2020 by the Trump administration, has been used 1.7 million times to expel migrants. Many of them have been removed multiple times after making repeated attempts to enter the U.S.

The CDC has the authority to enact orders like Title 42 under the 1944 Public Health Service Act, which gives federal officials the authority to stop the entry of people and products into the U.S. to limit the spread of communicable diseases. Part of the reason the agency is planning to lift the order soon is that COVID-19 cases have been decreasing and vaccinations have become widely available. The order is set to expire on May 23.

Paxton’s lawsuit argues that the Biden administration didn’t follow the administrative procedure laws needed to halt Title 42. The suit adds that if the Biden administration follows through with lifting the order, Texas will have to pay for social services for the migrants who enter the country.

“The Biden Administration’s disastrous open border policies and its confusing and haphazard COVID-19 response have combined to create a humanitarian and public safety crisis on our southern border,” the lawsuit says, which was filed in the Southern District of Texas in Victoria.

U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra, who is named as a defendant in the lawsuit, said on Thursday during a virtual event with the Council on Foreign Relations that health orders are not immigration policies.

“You don’t use a health law to deal with a migration challenge. You use migration laws to deal with migration challenges. You can’t use the cover of health to try to deal with a migration challenge,” he said.

[…]

The state has filed at least 20 other lawsuits in Texas-based federal courts, most of them led by Paxton, against the Biden administration over everything from federal mask mandates to halting the long-disputed Keystone XL pipeline. Judges appointed by former President Donald Trump have heard 16 of the cases and ruled in favor of Texas in seven. The other nine are pending, as of last month.

A majority of these lawsuits have been filed in courts in which the judge was appointed by Trump.

I mean, we could just wait until the combination of Democratic cold feet and empty both-siderism appeals forces Biden to back off anyway, but Paxton has never been one to wait for things to happen when he can find a friendly Trump judge to make them happen for him. Looks like I picked a bad day to quit sniffing glue. The Chron has more.

Our deadly roads

It was a bad year last year.

Last year was the second deadliest on record for vehicle fatalities on Texas roads, reflecting a lethal trend here and throughout the nation, especially in large urban areas.

In 2021, 4,480 people died in collisions on Texas highways, the most since 1981, and a 15 percent increase in fatalities over the previous year, according to the Texas Department of Transportation, which has tracked vehicle deaths since 1940.

Nationwide, fatal vehicle crashes in the first half of 2021 were up 18.4 percent over 2020. These statistics include crashes in which pedestrians are killed.

Traffic safety engineers say there are a multitude of reasons for the increase – some obvious, some almost counterintuitive, and some embedded in drivers’ habits and attitudes, making them harder to measure.

Driving under the influence of alcohol continues to be the second most common factor in deadly highway collisions in Texas, just behind “failed to stay in single lane” and ahead of speeding.

Robert Wunderlich, director of the Center for Transportation Safety at the Texas A&M Transportation Institute, is one of many experts who noticed an alarming trend in transportation safety during the coronavirus pandemic. As more people stayed home and roads emptied, lonely highways became more enticing for those who like to speed.

When vehicles collide, “just a ten percent increase in speed, say from 60 mph to 70 mph, results in a 38 percent increase in fatal crashes,” he said.

“It’s just physics and the dissipation of energy and what that does to the human brain in a crash,” he said. “People have simply got to slow down. People should enjoy the journey more and not try to arrive five to 10 minutes earlier.”

Put another way, some cities may have experienced the same number of crashes year over year, but during the pandemic many of the crashes occurred at significantly higher speeds, making them more deadly, both for vehicle occupants and, obviously, for any pedestrians involved.

In 2021, at least 821 pedestrians died in auto collisons in Texas, up 15 percent over 2020 totals — the same increase seen in auto-bicycle deaths — though both years were influenced by the pandemic.

Freeway crashes are not the biggest problem, and researchers often wryly point out that urban traffic jams at rush hour slow down traffic and demonstrably save lives.

Rush hour or not, city expressways have the best safety performance per vehicle mile primarily because people are traveling in the same direction and freeways usually have more safety features in place, Wunderlich said.

“What we’re more concerned about is that person driving 70 on a two-lane, undivided rural road with no shoulders,” said Wunderlich, adding that single car collisions under those conditions result in a “disproportionately high number” of deaths in Texas.

[…]

A more surprising development in the recent increase in road fatalities is that fewer drivers are wearing seat belts. Wunderlich and his researchers have confirmed this with “observational studies” in the field, not just surveys.

One theory suggested by some researchers is that the people who have stayed at home during the pandemic are generally better educated, more risk-averse and less likely to reject government-imposed safety protocols, such as face masks and seatbelts.

Wunderlich isn’t saying that the state’s increase in fatal car crashes has been driven by unmasked, blue collar guys in pickups speeding to their jobs, but he suggests it’s a hypothesis that might deserve some study.

“There are definitely more risk-takers on the road, more people, perhaps, who said, `I don’t need to wear a mask, I don’t need to wear a seatbelt, to hell with all that,’” he said.

Can’t say I’m surprised by that last observation. Texas’ population increase, which is fueled by people moving here at least as much as the birth rate, is also a factor, as a lot of the new people are also drivers. Vehicle size isn’t cited in the story, but we know that bigger vehicles are more deadly – again, it’s a simple matter of physics – and we have a lot of those in the state. That may be more of a perennial factor than a reason for the recent increase, though. I don’t have a good prescription here. Cities like Houston have taken and are taking steps to lower speeds within their limits and to encourage walking and biking and transit, but there’s an awful lot to do to make a dent in the car culture here, and non-car transportation options are vastly outspent and out-prioritized overall. Be careful out there.

Biden administration to appeal airplane mask mandate order

Good.

U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration said on Tuesday it would appeal a judge’s ruling ending a mask mandate on airplanes if public health officials deem it necessary to stem the spread of COVID-19.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, to whom the administration was deferring, said that it would continue to study whether the mandates were still needed. The mandates apply to planes, trains and other public transportation and, prior to Monday’s ruling, had been due to expire on May 3.

“We will continue to assess the need for a mask requirement in those settings, based on several factors, including the U.S. COVID-19 community levels, risk of circulating and novel variants, and trends in cases and disease severity,” a CDC spokesperson said in a statement on Tuesday.

The Justice Department said it would appeal Monday’s ruling by U.S. District Judge Kathryn Kimball Mizelle that the 14-month-old directive was unlawful, if the CDC determined the mandate was needed to protect public health.

See here for the background. For what it’s worth, the public still supports masking on airplanes. Airlines and their employees have not been very fond of it, which is understandable given the amount of petulance and rage they have had to deal with from unhinged mask-haters. Maybe they shouldn’t be so quick to let any of those folks back on board, but that’s just my opinion. It’s true that airplanes have excellent filtration and ventilation, which make them pretty safe from a COVID transmission perspective, though not entirely. And getting on and off the airplane, not to mention being in the airport, is much riskier. Masking up is still your best bet. Slate and Vox have more.

Mask mandate lifted for planes and trains

And other forms of mass transportation.

The Biden administration will no longer enforce a U.S. mask mandate on public transportation, after a federal judge in Florida on Monday ruled that the 14-month-old directive was unlawful, overturning a key White House effort to reduce the spread of COVID-19.

Soon after the announcement, all major carriers including American Airlines AAL.O, United Airlines UAL.O and Delta Air Lines DAL.N, as well as national train line Amtrak relaxed the restrictions effective immediately. Read full story

Last week, U.S. health officials had extended the mandate to May 3 requiring travelers to wear masks on airplanes, trains, and in taxis, ride-share vehicles or transit hubs, saying they needed time to assess the impact of a recent rise in COVID-19 cases caused by the airborne coronavirus. Read full story

Industry groups and Republican lawmakers balked and wanted the administration to end the 14-month-old mask mandate permanently.

The ruling by U.S. District Judge Kathryn Kimball Mizelle, an appointee of President Donald Trump, came in a lawsuit filed last year in Tampa, Florida, by a group called the Health Freedom Defense Fund. It follows a string of rulings against Biden administration directives to fight the infectious disease that has killed nearly one million Americans, including vaccine or testmandates for employers.

Judge Mizelle said the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) had exceeded its authority with the mandate, had not sought public comment and did not adequately explain its decisions.

A U.S. administration official said while the agencies were assessing potential next steps, the court’s decision meant CDC’s public transportation masking order was no longer in effect. The administration could still opt to appeal the order or seek an emergency delay in the order’s enforcement.

“Therefore, TSA will not enforce its Security Directives and Emergency Amendment requiring mask use on public transportation and transportation hubs at this time,” the official said in a statement.

“CDC recommends that people continue to wear masks in indoor public transportation settings.”

The ruling came down on Monday, issued by one of the lesser Trump judges, which is honestly saying something. For us in Houston, this also means that masking at IAH and Hobby airports and on Metro buses and trains is no longer required. It continues to be “encouraged”, which means that some vaccinated people and immunocompromised people who can’t avoid being in that situation will wear them. We’ll be flying a couple of times this summer, including the trip to take daughter #1 to college, and we’ll have our KN-95s on because honestly, why wouldn’t we? It is what it is at this point. Protect yourself and hope for the best.

We don’t have enough garbage truck drivers

We don’t pay them enough, it would seem.

For the last few months, Juan Sorto and his neighbors have looked toward the curb on Thursdays and asked themselves the same uneasy question: Did the garbage trucks come?

Last week, they had. The week before, they had not, according to Sorto. What is supposed to be a routine, weekly service has turned into a more haphazard enterprise in Sorto’s corner of northeast Houston, near Tidwell and Mesa. Sorto said his subdivision’s black bins often have been skipped entirely this year. His neighbors have started storing garbage in their recycling carts, with some spilling out into drainage ditches.

“There’s been times where we’ve gone more than a week without it getting picked up,” said Sorto, a former chair of the city’s Super Neighborhood Alliance. The Solid Waste Management Department said it checked its records and confirmed trucks had been through the neighborhood, but it would monitor the neighborhood more carefully in the future.

The reason for the uneven service, city officials say, is Solid Waste does not have enough drivers.

The department’s workforce has reached its lowest point in decades, and the department rarely is able to assign drivers to all of its routes. It often has to pull employees off recycling, yard waste and heavy trash routes to pick up garbage bins, which must be collected weekly, per state law.

The maneuvering leads to extensive and almost chronic backlogs in recycling and bulk collections, and it burns out drivers, who have been required to work six-day schedules since 2018. Drivers often tally 60 hours a week on Houston’s streets. The department is running nearly double its overtime budget for the year, and it has incurred overruns every year since 2014, often doubling or tripling the budgeted amount. It spent $6.3 million on overtime last year, $7.5 million the year before.

[…]

Solid Waste has struggled for years with collection delays, a scarcity of trucks and other fleet issuesmounting 311 complaints and frustration among residents and their elected leaders. Its workforce, though, is at its lowest point in years.

The department fell below 400 workers last September for the first time in at least two decades. As of December, the department had about 394 employees, down from 439 at the beginning of Turner’s first term, according to the city’s monthly financial reports. It had been treading water for years, with roughly the same number of workers in 2012. Meanwhile, the department has added more than 13,000 residential customers and picked up another 200,000 annual tons of waste in the last decade, budget documents show.

Facing a dwindling staff and a nationwide shortage of commercial drivers, the city last June announced $3,000 signing bonuses for up to 100 new drivers, who make an average base salary of $41,550. It did not stop the attrition; in fact, the department has lost more drivers than it has gained since then.

[Solid Waste Director Mark] Wilfalk called the dropping personnel numbers “scary.”

Private employers, he and the mayor said, simply are able to pay more than the city. Walmart recently announced commercial drivers can make up to $110,000 in their first year with the company.

Solid Waste’s personnel issues come down to basic math. The department has 181 routes that must be picked up each day. Yard waste collection routes require at least two people each, as do heavy trash routes. That means the department needs a minimum of 234 people a day.

Even though the department has 245 drivers and collection workers, some of those work at dump sites or spend their day delivering truck parts. Add in the 10 or so workers who are out sick or on vacation each day, and Solid Waste starts struggling to find enough drivers to cover its routes.

And because trash collection is the top priority, daily staff shortages usually mean recycling and bulk pickup routes get delayed.

See here for some background. That $41K starting salary is probably not going to cut it in this market, and is likely a threat of further departures given the crazy hours these guys are now having to work to keep up, though perhaps the overtime helps a bit. However you look at it, this is a problem that’s going to need some money to solve, and as such our old friend the trash pickup fee is being brought out again. Last seen in 2019 as a (dumb) proposal to pay for the firefighter pay parity measure that is currently blocked, the idea of charging something for solid waste pickup (as many Texas cities do) instead of paying for it all out of general revenue has been around since at least 2007 but has never gotten enough support in any form to be adopted. Will the current situation change that and allow for a fee to be implemented? Maybe, but betting on the status quo is usually the odds-on call. If it does come up again, this is the reason why.

Paxton threatens HISD over its COVID sick leave policy

We live in such stupid times.

Best mugshot ever

Attorney General Ken Paxton and Republicans in the Legislature are taking aim at Houston ISD, arguing that the district’s COVID sick day policy violates state law.

This academic year, Houston ISD is offering 10 additional days of paid sick leave to employees who are vaccinated against the coronavirus but test positive during the school year. Unvaccinated staff, however, must use personal leave time if they are infected.

In a nonbinding opinion last week, Paxton said the policy likely constitutes a “vaccine passport,” the documentation certifying a person’s vaccination status shown in exchange for “entry or services.” The GOP-led Texas Legislature last year outlawed such requirements for both private businesses and public agencies, and Gov. Greg Abbott issued a similar executive order banning the practice last summer.

“A court would likely conclude that, by offering additional paid leave only to those employees showing proof of COVID-19 vaccination or a medical exemption, the Houston Independent School District’s COVID-19 paid leave policy violates” the executive order, Paxton wrote.

Tejal Patel, a spokesperson for Houston ISD, said Paxton’s opinion “does not change the implementation” of the district’s paid leave policy. The last day of classes is just about seven weeks away.

“No court has ruled that the district’s policy of awarding additional leave days to vaccinated employees violates” the executive order, Patel said. “The district continues to evaluate its COVID protocols in our efforts to maintain a safe learning and working environment.”

The point of this was that since HISD couldn’t mandate that employees get vaccinated, they took the approach of incentivizing it by offering a reward to those who did. And it worked pretty well, as the story notes – over 20,000 of the district’s 24,000 employees have been vaccinated. In practice, this is no different than a million corporate wellness programs out there. The one I’m most familiar with offered a discount on your health insurance premium if you jumped through certain hoops, which ranged from things like taking a dumb survey to getting a blood test. If you participated – it was completely voluntary – you got a couple hundred bucks off the cost of your insurance for the year. This made sense for the insurer as well, as it (supposedly, at least) led people towards healthier lifestyles, which meant they’d pay out fewer claims.

So I struggle to see how one differs from the other. Except of course that we’re dealing with the extremely whiny snowflakes who refuse to get a COVID shot and who therefore must be catered to at every turn by politicians like Ken Paxton and Paul Bettencourt, who requested the opinion. God knows, we cannot deprive these special delicate flowers of anything. I approve of HISD’s response. So far, the school districts have done pretty well for themselves ignoring Paxton and Abbott. No guarantees here, and of course the Lege can deal with this next year if the Republicans remain in control, but for now I’d say keep on keeping on and hope for the best.

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.

We don’t have to treat political performance art as news

This is a story in the Chronicle about one of our Senators, who made some whiny petulant statements on social media about a celebrity best known for work in the 1980s who had posted about getting his second booster but is still wearing a mask in public because COVID is still a thing. I’m not naming names but I’m sure you know who and what I’m talking about. I’m just here to say that we don’t have to treat this sort of thing as news, even if it does happen on an otherwise slow news day. The senator in question is first and foremost an attention whore, and while one can argue that there is news value in the public statements of such an individual, this really is little more than egging on a toddler who’s having a meltdown because you turned off “Peppa Pig”. Our professional news gathering organizations could choose not to engage with this kind of ridiculous content, or they could choose to engage with them by calling them what they are, narcissistic ploys for attention by politicians who do nothing to serve the public. Reporting on it in the same way as one reports on a new bill being introduced or a committee hearing or a piece of critical analysis of legislation or a campaign does nothing but waste everyone’s time and degrade the political process by rewarding this kind of bad behavior. And now I’m going to stop wasting your time and mine on this.

Grand jury indicts three Hidalgo aides

Not great.

Three Harris County staffers at the center of a mounting investigation into a since-canceled vaccine outreach contract have been indicted with misuse of official information and tampering, according to district clerk records.

Aaron Dunn, Wallis Nader and Alex Triantaphyllis face one felony count on each of the charges. Warrants for their arrest have been issued. Documents elaborating on the charges were not yet available on the district clerk’s website.

Lawyers for at least two of the defendants professed their innocence Monday as the charges were made public.

“Aaron Dunn is innocent — he has been an honest public servant,” attorney Dane Ball said.

A lawyer for Triantaphyllis said she believes upcoming court proceedings will “shine a light” on the lack of wrongdoing.

“These charges against my client are unsupported by a full and objective review of the facts and the voluminous evidence in this case,” lawyer Marla Poirot said in a statement. “In his service to Harris County, Alex has made the people the top priority and worked to ensure that taxpayer resources are utilized as effectively and efficiently as possible.”

Nader’s lawyer could not be reached for comment. The three defendants are expected Tuesday in the 351st District Court.

In the months leading up to the indictments — the Texas Rangers, at the request of the Harris County District Attorney’s Office, identified the three staffers in search warrants as having a role in potentially steering a vaccine outreach contract in 2021 to a vendor by giving them early access.

The three worked under County Judge Lina Hidalgo at the time of the $11 million contract, which she canceled in September amid accusations that her office manipulated the procurement process.

Dunn has since left the office, while Triantaphyllis is the judge’s chief of staff and Nader is her policy director. According to lawyers for Hidalgo and the aides, the three did not view Elevate Strategies, owned by Democratic political consultant Felicity Pererya, as a potential vendor while planning the contract, their lawyers have said. Pererya’s company ultimately won the bid.

The lawyers have argued that one of the documents outlining the outreach contract’s scope of work were sent by mistake. Another was sent as part of an unrelated project.

There are reasons to be dubious of the evidence, but once there’s a headline like this, it’s hard to shake no matter what happens next. I certainly have my doubts about these indictments. We’ll know more soon enough. That’s all I’ve got to say at this time.

COVID hospitalizations at a low in the state

Good news (say it with me) for now.

Texas hospitals are treating fewer than 1,000 patients with COVID-19 for the first time in two years. According to the Texas Department of State Health Services, hospitalizations totaled 993 on Sunday. The last time COVID-19 patients in Texas numbered less than a thousand was April 4, 2020, before the state’s initial surge in hospitalizations, which rose to nearly 11,000 by late July that year.

“Less than a thousand [hospitalizations] is a good place to be and this is what we’ve kind of been waiting for and watching really closely,” said Chief State Epidemiologist Dr. Jennifer Shuford.

Fewer people are getting severely ill and needing medical care, said Dr. Shuford, because nearly the entire Texas population has now developed at least some immune response to SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19.

“We expect, based on some antibody studies that we’ve done, that about 99% of our population has some antibodies to COVID-19, either from vaccination or from prior infection.”

Other infectious disease experts are also cautiously optimistic that vaccinations, combined with four waves of widespread infections – the most recent of which was driven by the omicron variant – will help minimize future surges in cases and hospitalizations.

“I do think that the antibody seroprevalence does have something to do with the declining severity of the illness that we’re seeing in terms of decreased hospitalizations,” said Dr. Robert Atmar, an infectious disease expert who teaches at Baylor College of Medicine.

Dr. Atmar said while he was not aware of how DSHS estimated Texas’ overall immune response, the high rate is possible, especially if infection rates for the virus have been under reported.

“It wouldn’t be surprising if a large percentage of the population had been infected and/or vaccinated. 99% just seems high, but it’s certainly not unreasonable that that might be the case,” he said.

I’m just some guy on the Internet, and I also think 99% is a little high. I do agree that between our mediocre vaccination rate and our undoubtedly high infection rate that a lot of people have at least some immunity at this point, and that is keeping the rate low for now. To some extent, as I understand it, this is how a pandemic becomes endemic – there’s enough residual immunity out there to keep infection rates modest and generally tamp down on larger outbreaks. But that surely comes with no guarantees, and the next bad mutation could happen at any time. If we’re lucky, that will either be relatively mild or be mostly stopped by vaccinations, but at this point who knows what could happen. I’ll be getting booster #2 in the near future, and you should be getting whichever booster you can if you haven’t already. It’s still your best bet.

When is an emergency no longer an emergency?

I don’t know, but not yet.

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo still has emergency powers to handle COVID, after a proposal to end her authority failed at commissioners’ court this week.

The proposal, by Precinct Four Commissioner Jack Cagle, failed on a 3-2 vote Tuesday, with the three Democratic members voting against.

Cagle sought to end the emergency powers granted to Hidalgo, citing the major improvement in pandemic realities and the court’s ability to frequently and quickly convene.

Precinct 1 Commissioner Rodney Ellis called the idea “ridiculous.”

“The mayor will still have emergency powers, the county judges around us would still have emergency powers,” Ellis said.

[…]

Since March 2020, Hidalgo and every county judge in Texas — along with mayors — have had extraordinary ability because of the public health risks of the pandemic to close and open public places, approve contracts and establish emergency shelters, testing sites and vaccine distribution locations. When a disaster is declared by the state — in this case across all 254 counties — county judges are considered the top health official and assume emergency powers similar to those of the governor.

The difference, Cagle argued, is the governor needs them because it would take weeks to reconvene the legislature. Commissioners court can call a meeting in 72 hours.

I don’t want to spend too much time on this, as it was basically a stunt by Commissioner Cagle. It’s not even clear that Commissioners Court could have rescinded the emergency powers, as the preview story notes.

Numerous elected officials continue to have authority under the disaster declaration, including Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner and all county judges across Texas. Under the state’s disaster declaration procedures, county judges in an affected area — in this case all of Texas — have emergency authority. Absent Abbott removing Harris County from the state’s disaster declaration, it is unclear whether Hidalgo would retain that authority with or without the support of local officials.

County judges typically need commissioners’ court approval, but their powers expand greatly as the head of county emergency management. Much of that comes from a 1975 state law that gave special responsibility to mayors, county judges and county health officials.

Exercising the powers, however, is different than having them, some officials said.

“We used common sense, but as the emergency has dragged on I think we have used that authority less and less because we didn’t need to,” said Jason Millsaps, chief of staff to Montgomery County Judge Mark Keough.

Still, Millsaps said Keough maintains the authority.

If literally every other county has retained emergency powers for their Judge, it makes no sense at all for Harris County to do otherwise. When the state and the country are no longer on emergency footing, which is to say no longer feels the need to act quickly in the event of another variant or other crisis, then we can talk.

City Council to return to in-person meetings

I feel like I should always append a “For now” onto commentary about things like this. You know, for all the obvious reasons.

Mayor Sylvester Turner said Wednesday he wants all City Council members to return to the chamber next week for meetings, the first such requirement since May 2020.

City Council went virtual after its first member tested positive for COVID-19, about two months after the pandemic began to upend life in Houston. The body met digitally until the summer of 2021, when it began holding joint meetings that gave council members the choice of joining in person or on Microsoft Teams.

Attendance has varied, but several members typically join the meeting online. On Wednesday, eight of the body’s 16 members attended in person.

“I want you back around the horseshoe,” Turner said Wednesday, referring to City Hall’s arc-shaped table in the second-floor council chamber. “The technology has been fine, but I want you back around the horseshoe next week.”

Still feels a little weird to me to have things going back to full-on in-person as before. You can fill in your own proverb about COVID not being done with us if you want. That said, we are right now in a period of low transmission, and many people do want to get back out into the world. It’s hard to justify high-alert requirements under these conditions. I figure the only way to get people to respond the way we’ll need them to when the virus does come back is to ease up now so we can say “hey, we backed off when the science said we could, now we have to tighten up again”. I can’t say that will work, but at least it feels like it has a chance.

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.

Studying COVID in cats and dogs

Seems like a reasonable thing to look at.

Brushing a dog’s teeth is hard enough. The dog looks at you plaintively, eyes wide with betrayal, as you insert the toothbrush and perform a quick pantomime of a tooth cleaning in the seconds before it closes its jaws—and heart—to you.

Researchers at the lab of Texas A&M veterinary epidemiologist Sarah A. Hamer have a more difficult task: they must get pets to submit to a nasal swab, something which even many humans have to be cajoled into doing. Their aim is to better understand how COVID-19 spreads from humans to their pets, and how a pet’s behavior, such as whether it shares an owner’s bed or whether it is a prolific face licker, affects that transmission.

The testing has involved more than six hundred animals—mostly in Central Texas—who live in households where at least one human has COVID. Only about a quarter of the pets from which Hamer’s team has taken samples since June 2020 have tested positive for SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID, and just one quarter of those infected pets were symptomatic. Some suffered sneezing, diarrhea, runny noses, and irritated eyes, but the most common symptom owners reported was lethargy: their dogs and cats simply seemed lazier than usual.

“It was all very mild illness, and it all sort of resolved without veterinary interventions,” Hamer said. “From our study, we have no evidence that the virus is killing pets.” (She noted, however, that there have been reports of animals with comorbidities experiencing more severe illness, just as humans might.)

Despite this relatively low threat to cats and dogs, the lab’s work is crucial for surveilling, and understanding, the coronavirus—especially because the pandemic is thought to have originated from an animal-to-human transmission event. (Hamer’s team identified the first known UK variant of the coronavirus in an animal, in March 2021.) Casey Barton Behravesh, an A&M grad who’s now an expert on zoonotic diseases with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, explained that when viruses jump from species to species, there is an increased risk of mutations creating new variants. The CDC has consequently funded much of Hamer’s research, providing about $225,000.

“It’s important to look at both people and animals, tracking mutations and the possible formation of variants, so we can keep a close eye on what might be happening,” Barton Behravesh said. “We don’t want to see a strain emerge that becomes more serious in terms of illness in people or animals. We don’t want a strain to emerge that can’t be detected by the diagnostic tests that we have available, or that might impact the therapeutics that are becoming available, or impact the vaccine.”

Read the rest, it’s good stuff. We know that deer can carry COVID, and since most of us will come in much closer contact with pets than with deer, it’s good to know what the risks may be. The good news is that they seem to be low, but best to stay on top of it.

Yeah, ivermectin is useless against COVID

Hardly a surprise.

Antiparasitic drug Ivermectin became a partisan battleground during the Covid-19 pandemic, as anti-vaccine influencers and Republican politicians hawked it as a miracle cure, to the widespread skepticism of infectious disease experts.

A peer-reviewed study recently presented by Dr. Edward Mills, a professor of health sciences at McMaster University in Canada, offered significant new evidence that ivermectin was coronavirus snake oil all along.

In the largest trial yet analyzing the effectiveness of ivermectin on treating the coronavirus, Mills and his fellow researchers found that Covid-19 patients at risk of severe illness who received ivermectin did no better than those prescribed a placebo, the Wall Street Journal reported on Friday.

“This is the first large, prospective study that should really help put to rest ivermectin and not give any credibility to the use of it for Covid-19,” Peter Hotez, dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine, told the Journal.

Of the 1,358 patients, researchers prescribed half a three-day course of ivermectin pills, and the other half with a placebo. They then tracked how many patients were hospitalized over the course of four weeks, how quickly the patients rid the virus from their bodies, and death rates, among other variables. The researchers parsed the data in a variety of different ways and found no instances where ivermectin impacted patient outcomes.

There’s another study of ivermectin going on in Texas, which I expect will yield similar results. What it might take to convince those who have been humping ivermectin as a cure-all to see reality, I have no idea. For those of us who want to maximize our chances of surviving this pandemic, get vaxxed and boosted, keep wearing masks where it makes sense to do so, and get a real treatment regimen if you need one. It’s pretty simple, honestly.

Iconic Heights church for sale

Some neighborhood news that has us all a little worried.

Photo by Djmaschek, Creative Commons license

Heights Christian Church, a community gathering place for more than a century, is selling its historic property and merging with another congregation.

Rev. Amber Mattingly, the pastor at the church at 1703 Heights Blvd., said Tuesday that dwindling membership and financial resources prompted church leaders to vote in early February to merge with First Christian Church, which operates across from Rice University at 1601 Sunset Blvd. Mattingly said the decision also was made to move out of the property on Heights Boulevard, which includes educational buildings as well as Lambert Hall, a 95-year-old performing arts venue that is on the National Register of Historic Places.

The 42,600-square foot property, which covers the block between 17th and 18th streets on the west side of Heights Boulevard, was listed for sale about two weeks ago, according to Mattingly, who said the church brought in a grief counselor to help its 14 members cope with the development.

“Even though it was a good decision, there’s a lot to be mourned,” she said.

Leonard Wilkin, the board chair for Heights Christian Church, did not immediately respond to a Tuesday voicemail seeking comment. Mattingly said the leadership at the church, founded in 1912, intends to find a buyer that will continue to use the property in service to the community.

As for the fate of the tenants of the property, including a Spanish-speaking congregation, an art studio, a ballet studio and a nonprofit opera company, that remains unclear. Mattingly said the organizations that rent space at Heights Christian Church have been asked to vacate by the end of July.

Opera in the Heights, which has conducted performances at Lambert Hall since 1996, said in a statement released Friday that it is in “ongoing conversations with several venue operators in Houston to explore our options for next season.” The nonprofit opera company said it also is considering organizing a town hall meeting among its supporters, either in person or virtually, to discuss its next steps.

Lambert Hall is one of those places that makes the Heights what it is. We’re not regular opera-goers, but we’ve seen several Opera in the Height performances there. Both of our girls attended the Art on the Boulevard after school program with the delightful Miss Naomi for years – quite a few of the works they produced are still on display in our house. I don’t know what’s in store for this location, and I totally understand why the church, which suffered greatly during the pandemic, felt the need to do what it’s doing, but it’s hard to see this news and not feel a bit anxious about what comes next. I wish everyone involved all the best, and I hope that whoever buys this property has an appropriate amount of respect for it.

Appeals court upholds school district mask mandates

Maybe not the most timely ruling ever, but still nice.

An appellate court on Thursday sided with Texas school districts in their dispute with state officials over mask mandates, which numerous school systems have already lifted as pandemic conditions have eased.

The state’s the 3rd Court of Appeals affirmed a trial court’s orders that granted school districts temporary injunctive relief from the enforcement of an executive order from Gov. Greg Abbott prohibiting mask mandates.

In its opinion Thursday, the appellate court pointed to its opinion in a similar challenge involving Harris County. In that case, the court considered whether a disaster act gave the governor the authority to stop local government entities from implementing COVID-19 safety measures viewed by the governor as “more restrictive than necessary,” according to the opinion.

“For the reasons previously set forth in our opinion in Harris County, we again conclude that the Governor does not possess absolute authority under the Texas Disaster Act to preempt orders issued by governmental entities and officials,” Thursday’s opinion read.

Many, if not all, school districts that defied Abbott’s order have lifted their mask mandates, including Houston, Dallas, Spring and Aldine ISDs, which were among the plaintiffs.

[…]

With the opinion, the court confirmed the state Education Code gave districts the authority to decide.

“We conclude that the Education Code provisions granting broad authority to local school districts and community college districts to govern and oversee public schools within their districts do not prescribe ‘the procedures for conduct of state business,’” the opinion stated. “In sum, the Texas Disaster Act does not grant the Governor absolute authority to preempt orders issued by local governmental entities, such as school districts, and the provisions of the Education Code relied on by the school districts in issuing their respective facecovering requirements are not subject to suspension under … the Act.”

See here for the background, and here for a copy of the opinion. As noted before, the Supreme Court has yet to take up this question, though at this point maybe they just won’t since it’s not currently at issue. (That could of course change.) Ken Paxton is never one to take an L so I suspect he’ll continue to pursue this. I also strongly suspect that a top item on the agenda for the 2023 Lege, assuming no changes in the power structure, will be to amend the Education Code to explicitly prohibit school districts from making this policy without the permission of the Governor first. Have I mentioned that this is an important election coming up? Just checking. The San Antonio Report has more.

A trifecta of crap from the Fifth Circuit

It’s what they do.

A federal appeals court has ruled for Texas in three lawsuits challenging the state’s voting laws, including mail-in ballot provisions and the elimination of straight-ticket voting.

In a series of 2-1 rulings Wednesday evening, a panel of the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the lawsuits by civil rights groups, political organizations and voters targeted the wrong state agency — the Texas secretary of state’s office — when they sought to overturn a string of voting laws and practices.

Because the secretary of state is not in charge of enforcing the challenged laws, the agency is protected by sovereign immunity in all three lawsuits, said the opinions written by Judge Stuart Kyle Duncan and joined by Judge Don Willett.

Judge Patrick Higginbotham dissented in all three cases, writing that he believed the majority was splitting hairs by narrowly interpreting which state officers enforce election laws.

The secretary of state is the chief election officer of Texas who is charged by law with protecting the voting rights of Texans “from abuse by the authorities administering the state’s electoral processes,” Higginbotham wrote.

“The allegation in these cases is that the Secretary is failing in that duty. This charge should satisfy our … inquiry,” he said.

Reporter Chuck Lindell first posted about this on Twitter, so if for some reason the Statesman link doesn’t work or gets paywalled, you can see the basics there. Let’s break down the three cases:

A challenge by the Texas Alliance for Retired Americans and two national Democratic organizations sought to overturn a 2017 law that ended straight-ticket voting, also known as one-punch voting because it lets voters select all candidates of a particular political party in one step.

A state district judge barred enforcement of the law, ruling in September 2020 that the change unconstitutionally burdened the right to vote.

See here and here for the background. This one confused me at first, because there had been a basically identical challenge filed earlier in the same court by a different set of plaintiffs that was later dismissed by that judge. I don’t know why the subsequent challenge, which fell under the Democracy Docket umbrella, was more successful, but there you have it. You may recall I was skeptical of this one, and of the three it’s the one I’m the least upset about. The Fifth Circuit’s ruling is here.

A lawsuit by the NAACP and Texas Alliance for Retired Americans sought to block mail-in ballot regulations that require voters to pay for postage and mandate that ballots be postmarked by 7 p.m. on Election Day and received by 5 p.m. on the next day.

The lawsuit also challenged signature-matching requirements and a law that makes it a crime to possess another voter’s mail ballot.

See here and here for the background. I thought this was an interesting suit that made a reasoned case and that in a fair world would have gotten a more thoughtful review by the Fifth Circuit, but that ain’t the world we live in. I don’t know if this subject was addressed in one of the many voting rights bills that Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema personally strangled (with the help of all 50 Republicans, of course), but if there’s ever another opportunity to address voting rights at a federal level, this should be an item on the to do list. The Fifth Circuit opinion is here.

A lawsuit by groups including the League of Women Voters of Texas and the Coalition of Texans with Disabilities challenged the process of verifying mail-in ballots by ensuring that the voter’s signature on the outside envelope matches the signature on the vote-by-mail application.

A trial judge granted a detailed injunction limiting the practice in September 2020, but again the 5th Circuit Court stepped in to halt the injunction until the appeal was decided. Wednesday’s ruling vacated the injunction.

See here, here, and here for the background. Remember when signature matching was our biggest concern about mail ballots? Boy, those were the days. Anyway, even though this suit was filed in 2019, that injunction was halted by a different Fifth Circuit panel because it was too close to the election. There’s always, always an excuse. The opinion for this one is here.

The first and third cases were reversed and remanded to the district court “for further proceedings consistent with this opinion”, while the second was reversed and remanded with instructions to dismiss. I’m not quite sure what further proceedings there may be, and it may be that the bigger problems caused by SB1 may make the third case not particularly relevant at this time, I dunno. I assume that since the issue cited by the Fifth Circuit was that the SOS was not the proper defendant, the cases could be refiled with some number of county election administrators as defendants instead. I don’t know how practical that would be, and I also don’t know if this is just a prelude to the Fifth Circuit (or later SCOTUS) ruling that actually you can’t sue those people either, because the whole idea that you can pursue redress in a federal court is just an illusion anyway or whatever. We’ll see if anything does get refiled, but I would not feel particularly optimistic about any of it.

UPDATE: And when I checked Twitter on Thursday, I saw that Prof. Vladeck had addressed my questions.

Always expect the worst from the Fifth Circuit. You’ll almost never be wrong.

COVID may be down but it’s definitely not out

Just a reminder, this pandemic hasn’t gone away. It’s less of a threat to us here right now, but it’s still very much a threat.

The evolution of the coronavirus is likely to produce dangerous new variants that escape built-up immunity and evade vaccines, according to a new study that may offer clues for the future of the pandemic.

In a searing condemnation of “misconceived and premature theories” about the demise of COVID-19, the authors — microbiologists at the European Commission and the University of Oxford — take aim at what they call the “persistent myth” that the virus will evolve to be benign.

That omicron caused relatively mild disease “has been enthusiastically interpreted to be a sign of the approaching end of the pandemic,” the authors write in the study, which was published Monday. “Yet the lower severity of omicron is nothing but a lucky coincidence.”

Instead, the microbiologists believe more severe strains could be on the way as the virus adapts to dodge natural immunity and vaccines. Analyzing the possibilities for how COVID may evolve in the coming months and years, they attempt to debunk the notion that omicron’s lessened severity represents a step towards normalcy.

“Omicron is not at all a good predictor for the future,” said Dr. Peter Markov, a scientist at the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre and lead author of the study.

Many viruses that plague human populations, including HIV and Hepatitis C, do not evolve to be less severe over time, Markov said.

You can find more details here. You know that BA2 omicron variant that’s already making case counts go up in Europe? We’re starting to see evidence of more infection in the US as well. In the wastewater, of course.

There’s a whole thread to read for that. The good news locally is that our wastewater virus levels are still trending down, as of March 7. That of course can change quickly. You know what the best protection from this is, of course.

That drum has been beaten to death, and yet the US as a whole and Texas and Harris County in particular are not great on getting shots in arms. Too many vaccinated people haven’t gotten boosters. Too many vax-eligible kids haven’t gotten theirs. The anti-vaxx crowd is as loud and obnoxious and dangerous as ever. And yet even with all that, we’re in a better position than some other places.

Another thread to read. An astonishingly small number of people over the age of 80 have been vaccinated in Hong Kong, which is absolutely getting slammed right now, and in China as well. That and a lack of immunity from prior exposures – this is their reward for suppressing the first waves of COVID so well – are the underlying factors. Our vax rate in Texas isn’t great, but so many people have been infected at least once that it helps make up the gap somewhat. But vax + booster is still by far the most effective protection against hospitalization and death. If the next variant is more effective at avoiding existing protections, or is more severe in addition to being more transmissible, we’re going to be in deep trouble. Hope for the best, make sure everyone in your circle is vaxxed and boosted, and stay vigilant. Stace has more.

How low can COVID go?

I feel like this is more a function of time and evolution than anything else, but we’ll see.

New coronavirus cases across the greater Houston area dropped to their lowest level in four months, new data showed Monday, just days after Harris County’s COVID threat level dropped to yellow, signaling the virus is not immediately threatening the capacity of the region’s healthcare system.

The demise of the omicron wave appeared all but complete in the latest numbers from the Texas Medical Center, which collectively admitted 77 new COVID-19 patients daily last week, down 63 percent since February.

Across the region, daily infection rates are now roughly equal to those recorded during the lull that followed the delta wave in late November, before the more contagious omicron variant swept the globe. The figures come as the remaining indoor mask mandates expire across the country and as Americans report feeling increasingly exhausted — or altogether fed up — with pandemic restrictions.

Around 430 people tested positive for COVID each day last week, down 80 percent from last month, Texas Medical Center reported Monday morning.

Houston-area deaths from COVID have plummeted in tandem with falling case counts in recent weeks. A total of 4,288 residents have died since the pandemic began.

The figures confirm Houston is in a period of low transmission. How long it will last is uncertain. Some experts, including Catherine Troisi, an infectious disease epidemiologist with UTHealth School of Public Health, consider omicron’s relatively milder disease a “lucky” happenstance that may not be repeated in future iterations of the virus.

Viral waves typically arrive about six months apart, meaning another surge could begin by summer.

Well, the next wave may already be underway in Europe, though at this point it remains to be seen if it will result in anything like what we have seen before. At some level, if we can get enough people vaxxed and boosted, then at least the next wave should not be as hard on the hospitals and the mortuaries. That’s the goal at this point, minimize the damage. You would hope that by now we’ve learned from our past experience.

MLB’s Canadian conundrum

Here’s an interesting wrinkle to the recently-resolved MLB lockout.

With the Major League Baseball season set to start, unvaccinated players will once again need to sit out series against the Toronto Blue Jays at Rogers Centre.

Players who haven’t been fully vaccinated against COVID-19 will not be able to play in Toronto.

In addition, unvaccinated players won’t be paid for games or service time for the entirety of a series played north of the border. Each day spent on a baseball club’s active roster or injured list represents one day of service time.

Current vaccination guidelines still doesn’t allow foreign unvaccinated travellers to cross the Canadian border. Athletes no longer have special status in order to travel without having taken the vaccine after the federal government revoked the exemption on Jan. 15.

Sportsnet’s Shi Davidi reports the subject was “a significant point” in players’ CBA discussions with “a few teams” taking issue before ultimately relenting.

According to the story, about 88% of “tier one individuals” are fully vaccinated, which includes players, coaches, and other staff that travel with the teams, so the extent of the problem should be relatively limited. Still, if we assume that is the value for active players as well, on a 26-man roster, that’s three players per team, and as anyone familiar with the Kyrie Irving situation knows, who the unvaxxed players are matters. It’s one thing to miss a reliever at the back of the bullpen or a starting pitcher whose turn in the rotation wouldn’t have happened anyway. It’s another thing to miss your starting catcher or an All Star outfielder. Some teams will be much more affected than others, and if a team in the same AL East division as the Jays has its own Kyrie on it, that could affect the playoff races.

The collective bargaining agreement that has settled the lockout is still preliminary and subject to some details being worked out, including those relating to this situation. It may be that Canada eventually relaxes this rule, and it may be that some holdout players give in so as not to be the reason why their teams are disadvantaged. Most likely, this will be an ongoing story and another reminder that however done we may be with COVID, COVID is not done with us.

Of course the Census undercounted people of color

This was the Trump administration’s goal from the beginning.

The 2020 census continued a longstanding trend of undercounting Black people, Latinos and Native Americans, while overcounting people who identified as white and not Latino, according to estimates from a report the U.S. Census Bureau released Thursday.

Latinos — with a net undercount rate of 4.99% — were left out of the 2020 census at more than three times the rate of a decade earlier.

Among Native Americans living on reservations (5.64%) and Black people (3.30%), the net undercount rates were numerically higher but not statistically different from the 2010 rates.

People who identified as white and not Latino were overcounted at a net rate of 1.64%, almost double the rate in 2010. Asian Americans were also overcounted (2.62%). The bureau said based on its estimates, it’s unclear how well the 2020 tally counted Pacific Islanders.

The long-awaited findings came from a follow-up survey the bureau conducted to measure the accuracy of the latest head count of people living in the U.S., which is used to redistribute political representation and federal funding across the country for the next 10 years.

Other estimates the bureau released on Thursday revealed that the most recent census followed another long-running trend of undercounting young children under age 5.

While the bureau’s stated goal is to “count everyone once, only once, and in the right place,” miscounts have come with every census. Some people are counted more than once at different addresses, driving overcounts, while U.S. residents missing from the census fuel undercounting.

Disruptions from the coronavirus pandemic and interference by former President Donald Trump’s administration raised alarms about the increased risk of the once-a-decade tally missing swaths of the country’s population. COVID-19 also caused multiple delays to the bureau’s Post-Enumeration Survey that’s used to determine how accurate the census results are and inform planning for the next national count in 2030.

During the news conference announcing the follow-up survey results, Census Bureau Director Robert Santos — who, before becoming the agency’s head, told Bloomberg CityLab that he believed the census was “being sabotaged” during the Trump administration to produce results that benefit Republicans — acknowledged “an unprecedented set of challenges” facing the bureau over the last couple of years.

“Many of you, including myself, voiced concerns. How could anyone not be concerned? These findings will put some of those concerns to rest and leave others for further exploration,” Santos, a Biden administration appointee, said during the news conference announcing the follow-up survey results.

The bureau said previously that it believes the census results are “fit to use” for reallocating each state’s share of congressional seats and Electoral College votes, as well as redrawing voting districts.

[…]

In response to the bureau reporting that American Indians and Alaska Natives living on reservations continued to have the highest net undercount rate among racial and ethnic groups, Fawn Sharp, president of the National Congress of American Indians, said the results “confirm our worst fears.”

“Every undercounted household and individual in our communities means lost funding and resources that are desperately needed to address the significant disparities we face,” added Sharp, who is also the vice president of the Quinault Indian Nation in Taholah, Wash., in a statement.

Marc Morial, the president and CEO of the National Urban League, which led a federal lawsuit in 2020 to try to stop Trump officials from cutting counting efforts short, said the group’s lawyers are considering returning to court to try to secure a remedy.

“We’ve talked about voter suppression. Now we see population suppression,” Morial said on a call with reporters. “And when you tie them together, it is the poisonous tree of seeking to diminish the distribution of power in this nation on a fair and equitable basis.”

Other longtime census watchers see this moment as a chance to reimagine what the next count in 2030 could look like.

We’ve talked about this before, and we’ve noted that Texas Republicans did their part to help suppress the count, even at the cost of adding more Congressional districts to the state. Obviously the 2020 Census had a couple of unprecedented obstacles, from the pandemic to the extremely racist presidential administration, but there are ways to do this better next time. A more functional Congress could update federal law to allow statistical sampling in the Census process, to address the 1999 SCOTUS ruling that prevented it from being used, though I would not count on the current SCOTUS being warm to the idea. Throwing more money at it is also an option. All I know is we did worse in 2020 than we did in 2010, and that cannot be allowed to continue. MOther Jones and TPM have more.

Turns out it’s not great debuting a transit service in a pandemic

What are you gonna do?

The future of Houston transportation is not moving many people, even as traffic rebounds to pre-pandemic levels and ridership returns to many Metropolitan Transit Authority lines. The Silver Line, billed as a viable alternative to light rail using its own lanes and stations along Post Oak through the heart of Uptown, carried fewer riders in January than 40 of Metro’s bus routes. The line, which comes every 12 minutes and avoids Galleria-area congestion, is a vital route for those using it, but carrying less than 10 percent of the riders it was built for on opening day.

“Every bus that goes by, it’s empty,” said Mike Riley, 61, who lives and works in Uptown. “After all that work, you see maybe three people waiting for a bus.”

Despite stark use of the Silver Line — Houston’s first bus rapid transit project — transit officials are not pushing the panic button, on Post Oak or any of the other 75 miles of bus rapid transit planned in the region.

“These are 50-year projects,” Metro CEO Tom Lambert said, acknowledging the line has lower-than-projected ridership but has faced near-constant headwinds since opening in August 2020.

After Uptown officials spent $192 million rebuilding the street to develop the line, operated by Metro, to carry 12,000 riders per day, bus drivers are ferrying fewer than 800 on many work days.

The 60-foot vehicles use a dedicated busway along Loop 610 and their own lanes along a 2.3-mile stretch of Post Oak to deliver bus service more like light rail, stopping only at stations between the Northwest Transit Center near Interstate 10 and Loop 610 and then Westpark Lower Uptown Transit Center near Interstate 69 along Westpark Drive.

Every expectation of Houston transit in the coming years makes those two transit centers major transfer points for buses within the urban core. The Silver Line, built to connect them, is projected to carry more than 30,000 trips daily in 2030 — more than the Red Line light rail does today.

Currently, however, it does a fraction of that, even as the routes around it see a resurgence of use.

[…]

The first few months of Silver Line service have been unprecedented, with a combination of factors hurting transit ridership in general and the Silver Line in particular. COVID dropped transit use, along with most driving, by half in the Houston area. Riders were advised to stay off transit at the exact time Metro otherwise would have offered free rides and a blitz of advertising. Park and ride service, which was expected to be a big lure for commuters into Uptown to hop the Silver Line, dropped from 33,000 trips on a typical day in the region to fewer than 4,000 when the BRT began operating on on Post Oak.

In many cases, those park and ride commuters still are not back. Kastle, a building security data firm that has been tracking office use, estimates only 51.3 percent of office workers in the Houston area have returned to their pre-pandemic desks. In Uptown, where park and ride use long has been tied to tight parking limits in office garages, fewer workers and staggered shifts make it more convenient for some to drive, at least until traffic turns terrible again or plentiful parking dries up.

Not really a whole lot to say here – those last two paragraphs really sum it up. Let’s see what the numbers look like when the park and ride is back to something like full strength. The Silver Line, which will always be the Uptown Line to me, will eventually connect with the Universities and Inner Katy lines, and that should be a boost as well. The timing of its debut could not have been more unfortunate. All we can do is wait it out.

And we’re back to yellow again

Let’s hope it lasts.

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo on Thursday lowered the county’s COVID threat level to yellow, signaling a controlled level of cases following the decline of the omicron wave.

The yellow level means COVID poses a “moderate threat” to the public and urges residents to continue to stay vigilant unless fully vaccinated.

Under the yellow or moderate level, unvaccinated residents are encouraged to continue masking and social distancing, while vaccinated residents are encouraged to do the same where required by law.

“My hope is that we are at a permanent turning point of this pandemic,” Hidalgo said in a statement. “But we’ve yet to have a wave where our hospitals don’t get overwhelmed, so we need to tread with caution before we declare victory over this virus.”

As noted, we dropped to the orange level two weeks ago. We were last in yellow in November, for less than a month before omicron moved in. I’m still wearing a mask for the grocery store and other indoor places with lots of people – I mean, I haven’t had a cold in over two years now, so why wouldn’t I? You do you, as long as that means getting vaxxed and/or boosted if you haven’t yet.

Sure, go ahead, test ivermectin

Just keep your expectations very low.

Texas universities, including Texas Tech’s Health Science Center in El Paso, are now recruiting subjects for a nationwide study to test the effects of unproven repurposed drugs against non-severe COVID cases.

Ivermectin, an anti-parasitic medication that local and federal health agencies have warned against using for COVID symptoms, is a candidate in the clinical trial known as ACTIV-6, along with fluticasone, an asthma medication, and fluvoxamine, an anti-depressant.

None of the three drugs have been shown to be beneficial against COVID-19 in any large-scale clinical trial.

The form of ivermectin tested by the study is different from the over-the-counter formulation and dosage, meant to treat animals, that some people have attempted to use for COVID, Dr. Edward Michelson of Texas Tech’s Health Science Center in El Paso told local station KTSM. Michelson leads the local ACTIV-6 study in El Paso.

The study aims to determine whether any of the drugs can help meet a “critical” need for medications to prevent COVID from worsening in people with “mild-to-moderate” cases that do not require hospitalization or oxygen, according to the study website.

I mean, maybe they will find some valuable use for ivermectin in treating COVID. Or maybe they’ll find super solid evidence that none of these off-use drugs work and it will deter some people from taking advice from quacks instead of getting real help. (There’s already evidence for that, and indeed that ivermectin is actually harmful.) I don’t expect much to come out of this, but I want to hold some space in my heart for the possibility. If you want to do your part for SCIENCE, click here, and godspeed to you.

More school districts dropping mask mandates

Unsurprising.

Some of Texas’ biggest school districts are lifting mask mandates for students just weeks before spring break.

Houston Independent School District, the state’s largest district, and Dallas ISD announced Monday that they would not require students to wear masks. Austin ISD announced Wednesday it would stop requiring masks.

The move comes after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced that coronavirus infection rates were slowing.

“It does give people hope for this spring,” said Dallas ISD superintendent Michael Hinojosa.

All three districts enacted mask mandates in early August amid the delta variant surge and in defiance of Gov. Greg Abbott’s May executive order that says Texas schools can’t require masks.

At the time, dozens of school districts went against the governor’s order, and some were sued.

[…]

Candice Castillo, executive officer of student support services in Houston ISD, said recent data points to a dramatic downturn. In a district with about 195,000 students, there are 46 active cases, a 90% decrease in cases from the peak of omicron.

The district’s decision comes after Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo lowered Harris County’s COVID-19 threat level from “severe” to “significant.”

“This is the right moment for us to make this decision,” Castillo said.

In Austin ISD, the district has seen a 97% decrease in cases over the last six weeks, and the current number of active cases represents less than 1% of the total student and staff population.

Stephanie Elizalde, Austin ISD superintendent, said Wednesday during an Austin ISD board meeting that the district is abiding by the CDC’s recommendations, but to keep in mind that the fluidity of the pandemic means that the mandate can come back when necessary.

See here for more on HISD lifting its mask mandate. You can feel however you want about this – I know a lot of people are still very apprehensive about easing off on precautions like masking, and I totally understand. I’m still masking in public indoor spaces, and likely will continue for the foreseeable future. But the point is, the districts got to make the decisions they thought were best, based on the status of the pandemic and the advice and guidance from the CDC. That more than anything is what we wanted and deserved. The fact that they managed to hold out in defiance of Abbott and Paxton for all this time is a victory. It could be a transient one – for sure, someone is going to file a bill next session to force school districts to bend the knee to the governor – but at least we have an election first that can affect that action. Again, that’s all we can reasonably ask for at this time.

On the matter of the still-unresolved litigation over the mandates and Abbott’s executive order banning them in the schools:

I Am Not A Lawyer, but my best guess is that SCOTx will eventually take this opportunity to decline to intervene on the grounds that there’s no longer a reason for them to get involved. I suppose they could order the lawsuits to be dismissed, but here’s where my non-lawyerness comes to the fore, because I don’t know if that’s a thing they normally do. Be that as it may, the stars have aligned for them the sidestep a politically charged case, and that I know is a thing they like to do.