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coronavirus

House adopts its rules

Here you go.

Rep. Todd Hunter

The Texas House unanimously adopted rules Thursday that will require members to wear masks in the chamber and during committee hearings and allow them to cast votes on legislation from outside the House floor.

But the chamber opted to not require testing for lawmakers as they meet during the coronavirus pandemic and did not expand its virtual testimony options to allow members of the public who have not been invited to testify to comment at committee hearings remotely.

“We’re new to this pandemic, and the whole point about these rules — the key is respect, the key is courtesy,” said state Rep. Todd Hunter, R-Corpus Christi, while introducing the rules proposal earlier Thursday. “What’s the rules? It’s 150 people, that’s what the rules are.”

The coronavirus requirements were part of a broad resolution setting rules for the House during the Legislature’s 2021 session. Members debated amendments on the resolution for hours. In addition to voting on health protocols, the chamber overwhelmingly shot down proposals that would have kept Democrats from serving as committee chairs in the Republican-controlled House.

House members, staff and the public will be required to wear face masks while inside the chamber or a committee hearing room, though witnesses and lawmakers may remove them while speaking from a microphone. Members may also remove masks during a committee hearing if protected by a barrier and socially distanced from others.

The House’s decision to not require testing for people entering the chamber or attending a committee hearing differs from protocols the Senate passed Wednesday. Every senator will be required to test negative for the virus before entering the upper chamber or attending a committee hearing. Senate staff must be tested the first day of the week they enter the Capitol and before accessing a hearing or the chamber.

Addressing the House’s testing approach, Hunter told members that the chamber could not mandate testing until it’s “available in our courthouses and … schoolhouses,” saying it “would be wrong” for members to prioritize their health and safety above others.

“That is the people’s House,” said Hunter, one of the House members spearheading the rules proposal. “And for us to prioritize our own health and safety above others would be wrong.”

The House rules also authorized members to cast votes for legislation “from a secure portable device” if they are inside the chamber, in the gallery, or “in an adjacent room or hallway on the same level as the House floor or gallery,” such as the speaker’s committee room or member lounge. That expansion could help space out the chamber’s 150 members should a lawmaker wish to do so.

See here for some background. The rules are codified in HR4, and you can see a long Twitter thread about the housekeeping rules that were the preliminaries for all this here; note that some of the proposed amendments were later withdrawn. One of the two House members who got up to some mischief but was roundly rejected by the rest of the chamber. I mean, when Briscoe Cain is speaking eloquently for tradition and bipartisanship, you know you’ve gone off the rails somewhere.

Of interest is also the rules relating to redistricting:

Suit up, y’all. It’s on.

The five-ninths rule

All hail the new “smaller than three-fifths” rule.

The Texas Senate on Wednesday approved a fundamental alteration of its rules, ending the minority party’s ability to block legislation it unanimously opposes in the Republican-controlled upper chamber.

In a 18-13 vote, lawmakers voted to lower the threshold of support that legislation needs to make it onto the Senate floor. In past sessions, the Senate required a three-fifths supermajority, or 19 votes, to bring legislation to the floor. But after the defeat of Sen. Pete Flores, R-Pleasanton, reduced the number of Republicans from 19 to 18, lawmakers lowered the threshold to 18 members — a move Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick had been pushing for.

Passage of the rule required a simple majority — or 16 members. State Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston, tweeted that the resolution passed on a party-line vote.

Republicans on the floor hailed the move. Patrick, who presides over the Senate, first floated the idea of lowering the threshold last January, later contending in December that the 2020 election proved voters support conservative candidates and that he planned on “moving a conservative agenda forward.”

[…]

In introducing the resolution, state Sen. Bryan Hughes, R-Mineola, said: “I believe our tradition of requiring a supermajority is good and we should retain it, but … it’s my view that there are enough big items that the majority of Texans have asked for that would be blocked with a 19-vote requirement, which would put us in a special session where we have no control over the agenda.” (To be clear, only Gov. Greg Abbott can call lawmakers back for a special legislative session.)

While the procedure may sound like parliamentary arcana, the impact could spell trouble for Democrats. The change essentially allows Republicans to continue deciding which bills are brought up for consideration without the minority party’s input.

See here and here for the background. As you know, I oppose having artificial anti-majoritarian rules in place, for reasons you can peruse at those earlier posts. I have no illusions that this will be a good thing in this session. It’s going to suck, bigtime. I totally get all the complaints that the Democratic Senators have raised. I just disagree with them about the merits of this tradition.

One thing that was not clear to me, from this story or from the Chron story, was just exactly how this new, lower threshold for bypassing the blocker bill was to be determined. As noted in my previous post, the fraction used could be 5/9, or it could be 4/7, or it could just be “minimum eighteen Senators needed”. Neither of these stories explored that or the potential ramifications of it – I’ll get to that in a minute – but I eventually found it in Senate Resolution 2, the text of which is here (hat tip to Kimberly Reeves for providing the vital #SR2 hash tag that gave me the clue I needed to find this):

Any bill, resolution, or other measure may on any day be made a special order for a future time of the session by an affirmative vote of five-ninths [three-fifths] of the members present.

Further references to “three-fifths” were similarly struck and replaced by “five-ninths”. What this means is that on any day where there’s a full complement of Senators, eighteen votes are needed to bring a bill to the floor for a vote. That’s because, in math terms, 5/9 < 18/31. With a three-fifth requirement, 19 was the magic number (again, 3/5 < 19/31, but 18/31 < 3/5). The reason I'm obsessing over how this was officially expressed is because of the likelihood that at any point in the session, one or more Senators could be sidelined by COVID. If a Republican Senator is out, they're out of luck as long as the Dems are at full strength (17/30 < 5/9). They would need two Dems to be out to make the math work (5/9 < 17/29). Under normal circumstances, you'd shrug your shoulders and say these things happen, but in Pandemic Times, with the Republicans being very devil-may-care about masks, the risk of a self-own is higher than usual. This is one of the reasons why I thought Dan Patrick would give up on the fractions and just push a rule that does away with the pretense and enables majority rule. I wouldn’t have thought he’d be conservative in this sense, but here we are. We’ll see how it plays out.

How bad will the attack on voting be this session?

Hard to say, but there’s no reason to be particularly optimistic.

As the country’s political polarization reaches a boiling point — illustrated vividly Wednesday by the violent takeover of the U.S. Capitol by supporters of the president who believed his false claims that the election was stolen — Texas Republicans are seeking to make some of the nation’s strictest voting laws even stricter.

They say the unrest sparked by the events Wednesday is likely to invigorate discussions over the matter in the state Legislature, where the 2021 session will begin Tuesday.

Several election-related bills have been filed by lawmakers on both sides of the aisle — though their aims are in direct opposition, with Democrats looking to ease up laws they see as suppressing the vote and Republicans trying to curb the opportunities for the fraud they say plagued the 2020 election.

Democrats have filed about two-thirds of the election-related bills, with the other third coming from Republicans.

“If this week has highlighted anything, it’s that we need to protect and encourage democracy and that it’s fragile,” said Rep. John Bucy III, an Austin Democrat who sits on the House Elections Committee. “And so these types of bills are worth the investment.”

Election integrity was voted one of the Texas GOP’s top eight legislative priorities in 2020 by its members. Republican bills include measures to tighten mail voting restrictions and stop governors from changing election laws during disasters, two concerns that President Donald Trump raised in his election challenges.

[…]

State Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston, filed legislation that would codify a Texas Supreme Court decision that blocked Harris County from sending mail ballot applications to every registered voter in the county ahead of the November election. Texas is one of 16 states that require voters to have an excuse to vote by mail.

Bettencourt said Harris County’s move to mail the applications “would have certainly caused more voter confusion” because most recipients would not have been eligible for an absentee ballot. The state Supreme Court ruled last year that voters’ lack of immunity to the coronavirus alone does not qualify as a disability that makes them eligible to vote by mail, but could be one of several factors a voter may consider.

Other bills filed by Republican lawmakers aim to correct the voter rolls, such as one filed by newly elected Sen. Drew Springer that would require voter registrars to do various checks for changes in address on an annual basis.

Springer said the bill was inspired by an Ohio law that the U.S. Supreme Court in 2018 upheld that allows the state to purge voters from the registration rolls if they do not return a mailed address confirmation form or don’t vote for two federal election cycles. The Texas bill would require registrars to use data from the U.S. Postal Service and property records for inactive voters to identify possible changes of address, then to send the notice requesting confirmation of their current residence.

The Bettencourt bill, as described, doesn’t concern me much. Even in 2020, and even with all of the COVID-driven changes to election procedures, not that many people voted by mail, and the vast majority of those who did were over 65. Those folks will get their vote by mail applications one way or another. Unless there’s more to this, this bill is all show.

The Springer bill is potentially more concerning, but the devil will be in the details. I continue to have hope for a revamped federal law that will do a lot to protect voting rights that will blunt the effect of efforts like these, but it’s very much early days and there’s no guarantees of anything yet.

I did not excerpt a section of the story in which Rep. Steve Toth will propose a constitutional amendment that would require a special session of the Legislature in order to renew a state of disaster or emergency declaration past 30 days. It’s presented as a voting rights-adjacent measure, prompted in part by Greg Abbott’s extension of the early voting period, but as we discussed many times last year, there’s a lot of merit in asserting the role of the Legislature in these matters. I don’t trust Steve Toth any more than I trust Steven Hotze, but on its face this idea is worth discussing. It also would require a substantial number of Dems to support it, so there’s room for it to be a positive force. We’ll see.

There are bills put forth by Dems for obvious things like online voter registration, same day registration, no excuses absentee balloting, and so forth, all of which have little to no chance of being adopted. I’ve said before that I think people like voting to be easy and convenient for themselves and that Democrats should campaign on that (among other things), so I’m delighted to see these bills. I just know they’re not happening this session.

Beyond that, I’m sure there will be worse bills filed than what we’ve seen here. I won’t be surprised if there’s a push to amend the voter ID law to include absentee ballots, now that those are no longer seen as Republican assets. I’m sure there will be a bill officially limiting mail ballot dropoff locations, and maybe one to limit early voting hours. For sure, there’s a significant contingent of Republicans that would like to make voting extra super inconvenient for everyone, as well as make the penalties for whatever minor offense Ken Paxton can find to charge someone with as harsh as possible:

Laugh at the lunacy that is Allen West all you like, the man is in a position of influence. Note also the attack on drive-through voting, which is another likely target even without this hysteria. I don’t know how far the Republicans will go, but they’ll do something. We can do what we can to stop them, and after that it’s all about winning more elections. It’s not going to get any easier.

Vaccine roundup

Just a few news stories (and a Twitter thread) of interest from recent days.

How do you get a COVID-19 vaccine? In Texas’ rollout, it’s a game of luck and chance

Still, the contrast shows just how sharp and seemingly random the divide has emerged between those who are able to get the vaccine easily and those who cannot. In the fourth week of Texas’ vaccine rollout, a dermatology practice in Bellaire got 300 doses while Hope Clinic, which serves Houston’s poor and immigrant communities, got 100, according to the state’s most current list.

County registration hotlines have crashed under the volume of applicants while some doctors reported fielding calls from friends asking how to move to the front of the line.

In the month since the vaccines got federal approval, getting them into arms of the most vulnerable has been anything but smooth. Distribution has lagged. Demand has far outstripped supply. Critics call it yet another chapter in the failed government response to a virus that arrived nearly a year ago.

“There does seem to be no discernible distinction between those who are getting the vaccine and those who aren’t,” said Elena Marks, CEO of Houston’s Episcopal Health Foundation, an organization that works to improve health care access for poor.

Such unevenness is happening not just among the public but also within the medical community. At some small and midsize private practices, access to the vaccine remains elusive for front-line health care workers who regularly treat COVID patients, doctors say. Yet employees of large medical practices and big-name facilities are vaccinating staff that is not in direct contact with patients and in some cases working from home.

Clogged phone lines and ethical dilemmas: Texas health providers scramble to roll out vaccine with little state guidance

Texas has largely left the vaccine rollout process in the hands of local providers like Tarrytown Pharmacy, one of more than 1,000 providers approved to vaccinate Texans. And outside of dictating the first two groups allowed to receive it, providers say the state has given little instruction or information on when allotments will arrive, how immunization operations should be organized and what principles ought to be followed in prioritizing within groups 1A and 1B.

As they spearhead vaccination in a state of 29 million people, hospitals, pharmacies and community health centers alike across Texas built new scheduling systems from scratch, struggled to sync their patient information systems with the state’s and answered to an increasingly anxious public wondering when their turn for the shot will come — all while helping fight the COVID-19 pandemic during its highest peak in Texas.

“Every space I have is booked. I have phones going off the hook saying, ‘Where’s mine?’” said Dr. James McCarthy, chief physician executive for the Memorial Hermann Health System in Houston. “The demand is insatiable right now. Everybody wants it today, and we just don’t have enough vaccines. It will take months.”

The state’s initial allocation of 1.2 million doses had been shipped by Jan. 3, according to state health officials, and another January shipment was expected to bring the state’s total allotment to 1.7 million. That’s still hundreds of thousands of doses short of the roughly 1.9 million necessary to provide just a first dose of vaccine to those Texas health care workers and residents of long-term care facilities eligible in group 1A.

But before many of those first in line had received a dose, the state allowed providers to start administering the vaccine to the second group — about 8 million people older than 65 or at least 16 with certain medical conditions. A Department of State Health Services official said there is some overlap between groups 1A and 1B (doctors and other health care workers over age 65, for example).

The sudden announcement to open vaccinations to the second group — just a week after the first distribution of vaccines for the first group — caught many providers off guard.

“It was in response to all of the chatter and angst to ‘Oh my God, they haven’t given all their vaccines out,’ and it’s been five days,” said McCarthy of Memorial Hermann. “I thought we would get all the health care workers done, and then we would move on. I didn’t think we’d be doing them simultaneously.”

Greg Abbott’s Politics Create a Vaccine Stampede

But Texas decided to do things differently than the CDC. While the state’s designated first tier matched that of the feds, its second tier included all Texans age 65 and older, as well as those with preexisting health conditions that make them vulnerable to severe cases of COVID-19. This approach put lower priority on police and younger essential workers, like grocery clerks or restaurant servers, many of whom were bitter about the state’s decision. Then, just before the new year, Governor Greg Abbott and his state health department changed the game further. On December 29, state health commissioner John Hellerstedt ordered providers to start vaccinating those in the second tier immediately, even though many in the first tier remained unvaccinated. Abbott backed him up in a tweet: “The state urges vaccine providers to quickly provide all shots.”

In an instant, I effectively had been moved to the front of the vaccination line. The problem was finding where that line began. Abbott had started a stampede.

There were too many eligible people chasing too little vaccine. The Texas Department of State Health Services reported that it had received 1.3 million doses. But Abbott had authorized another 8 million people to receive the vaccine even though providers weren’t anywhere near finished inoculating the 1.9 million Texans in what was supposed to be the first-tier priority group. Abbott’s declaration got too many in the state (even those under 65 and without any severe health conditions) thinking vaccines were more widely available. With few providers actually offering shots to the general public, the Hunger Games of vaccination had begun.

Advocates worry vaccines will be out of reach for Black and Hispanic neighborhoods devastated by COVID-19

COVID-19 has been disproportionately deadly for communities of color in Texas. And advocates for those communities are worried that they will have more trouble accessing vaccinations than the white population because of where vaccination sites are located.

“We already saw huge disparities in death rates and people getting [coronavirus] infections, and there wasn’t availability of resources like health care for brown and Black communities suffering tremendously,” said Kazique Prince, interim executive director for the Central Texas Collective for Racial Equity, a nonprofit association based in Austin. “I’m very nervous and anxious that this [vaccination effort] is not going to work out for us.”

According to the Texas Department of State Health Services data, more than half of the fatalities in Texas due to COVID-19 have been Hispanic individuals and almost 10% have been Black people. Yet the state’s designated vaccination sites — mostly hospitals, clinics, nursing homes and pharmacies — are concentrated in more affluent areas where those facilities tend to be located.

And, just as a reminder:

Health officials in Austin are considering opening a makeshift hospital as its intensive care units fill up. Patients in North Texas are being treated in lobbies or in hallways. And hospitals around Laredo, Abilene and College Station have three or fewer intensive care unit beds open, according to state data.

A week into the new year, hospitalizations in Texas have well-surpassed a deadly summer wave that overwhelmed health care workers in the Rio Grande Valley. Health experts have long warned of a dark winter — with a public tired of following safety precautions, a raging pandemic and cold weather drawing people indoors where the virus can more easily spread. Add to that holiday gatherings and increased levels of travel, which health officials say are already being reflected in the growing numbers of hospitalized coronavirus patients.

New year, same story. We deserve so much better. We’ll get better soon from the federal government. When will we get it from our state government?

We have our Speaker

Congratulations.

Rep. Dade Phelan

The Texas House on Tuesday elected state Rep. Dade Phelan as the next House speaker, ushering into office a new leader who will oversee a chamber facing its toughest set of legislative challenges in years against the backdrop of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

The House voted 143-2 for Phelan, with four members not voting. The two members who voted against Phelan were GOP freshmen Bryan Slaton and Jeff Cason.

Phelan, a Beaumont Republican, replaced former House Speaker Dennis Bonnen, who retired from office thanks to a secret recording scandal that fractured relationships in the 150-member lower chamber. Phelan has billed himself as a figure who has earned the trust of his colleagues and who wants to lead the House by letting members drive the business of it.

Phelan’s election to the gavel was one of the House’s first orders of business Tuesday, when the Legislature gaveled in for the 2021 legislative session.

Best of luck in the new session. My advice is to never, ever speak to anyone associated with Michael Quinn Sullivan if you can avoid it, and if you can’t avoid it remember that they are almost certainly recording you in the hope that you will say something dumb and they can torpedo you over it. Learn from the mistakes of your overly self-confident predecessor. And don’t let anyone get away with sedition, insurrection, or not wearing a mask. Good luck, we’re all counting on you.

There was also this.

The Texas Legislature gaveled in Tuesday for its biennial session with a heavy security presence after the U.S. Capitol insurrection last week and rampant reminders of the still-raging coronavirus pandemic.

The state House and Senate met in the early afternoon without incident, and there was only a small protest outside the Capitol beforehand. Still, the sight of state troopers clustered around the building’s entrances and lining the halls inside was striking, especially after the unrest in the nation’s capital on Wednesday that left five people dead and has led to dozens of arrests.

“This is my 19th session, and I don’t think I’ve ever felt the way I felt today when I recognized that we had to have all this security,” Rep. Harold Dutton, D-Houston, said in the minutes before the session began. “And my first question to myself was, How far have we come? I mean, have we come forward or have we gone backward?”

“I told the DPS officers and the military I felt safe,” Dutton added, “but I didn’t know I needed them to feel safe.”

[…]

Nothing remotely close to what happened in Washington, D.C., unfolded Tuesday in Austin. There was a small protest — appearing to number less than a dozen people — outside the Capitol’s north entrance, at least partly related to vaccines, about an hour before the session began, and a wall of DPS officers were lined up on the perimeter of it.

After the chambers let out around 1:30 p.m., DPS troopers were still in place on the outdoor perimeter of the Capitol, but there were no protests in sight.

Let’s hope it stays calm and sedate.

And there was also this.

Even as members of both parties came together for the opening remarks and swearing in of new members, they remained visibly at odds over proper health precautions amid the pandemic. In the Senate, masks were not required and at least half of lawmakers declined to wear them while seated at their desks.

Plexiglass barriers lined administrative desks at the front of the room, but only Sen. Borris Miles, a Houston Democrat, had a protective shield around his desk.

“We’re here to do the people’s business,” said Lt. Gov Dan Patrick, who heads the Senate and has been a vocal opponent of mandated restrictions. “We want our Capitol open this session, unlike many states,” he added. “We want the public to be here and have your voice heard in committee, to be able to visit your representative.”

Members and their guests were required to test negative for COVID-19 before entering the Capitol.

The new session arrives as infections in Austin have reached all-time highs. On Tuesday, state and local emergency officials opened a temporary facility for overflow hospital patients as the city’s hospitals continued to be overrun with coronavirus patients.

Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston, was among those who declined to wear a mask in the chamber. His spokesman said “everyone was tested prior to coming into the Capitol this morning, including all senators and guests that were sitting in the gallery today.”

Yeah, no one’s ever heard of a false negative test result. What do you think is the over/under on legislators who get COVID? Not counting the two (Drew Darby and Tracy King) who were not present because they already had a positive test. I’m at least as worried about the staffers and folks who work at the Capitol, but we’re much less likely to hear it when they get sick. Just please, let’s try not to turn this session into a superspreader event.

Here’s the official budget forecast

“Could be worse” remains the watchword.

Texas lawmakers will enter the legislative session this week with an estimated $112.5 billion available to allocate for general purpose spending in the next two-year state budget, a number that’s down slightly from the current budget but is significantly higher than what was estimated this summer when the coronavirus began to devastate the economy.

Texas Comptroller Glenn Hegar on Monday announced that number in his biennial revenue estimate, which sets the amount lawmakers can commit to spending when they write a new budget this year. But he acknowledged that Texas’ economic future remains “clouded in uncertainty” and that numbers could change in the coming months.

Hegar also announced a nearly $1 billion deficit for the current state budget that lawmakers must make up, a significantly smaller shortfall than Hegar expected over the summer. That number, however, doesn’t account for 5% cuts to state agencies’ budgets that Gov. Greg Abbott, House Speaker Dennis Bonnen and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick ordered this summer or any supplemental changes to the budget lawmakers will have to make.

Hegar’s estimates portend a difficult budget-writing session for lawmakers. But Hegar acknowledged that things could have been a lot worse. The $112.5 billion available is down from $112.96 billion for the current budget.

See here for the previous update. I continue to hope that Congress will throw a boatload of state and local aid our way in the coming months, which will also help, but at least we’re not in truly dire territory. And bizarrely enough, there may be a silver lining in all this.

But advocates hope the pandemic, combined with the revenue crunch, could lead to an unlikely bipartisan agreement. Before the pandemic hit, Democrats saw a takeover of the Texas House as key for advancing the prospects of Medicaid expansion in the state. But as COVID-19 has ravaged the state economy and thrown even more Texans into the ranks of the uninsured, Democrats are guardedly optimistic this could persuade enough Republicans to put aside their political hangups and support expansion—even as Republican Attorney General Ken Paxton leads a national lawsuit to eliminate the entire Affordable Care Act.

Texas is one of 12 remaining states that have refused the federally subsidized Medicaid expansion, despite having the highest rate and largest population of uninsured residents in the country. Expanding Medicaid would cover 1 million uninsured Texans and bring in as much as $5.4 billion to the state, according to a September report by researchers at Texas A&M University.

State Representative Lyle Larson, a moderate Republican, voiced his support for expanding Medicaid soon after the election, pointing to six GOP-led states that have done so in the past three years. “It is a business decision,” Larson wrote on Twitter, noting that the move would help with the revenue shortfall and COVID-19 response, address rural hospital closures, and expand access to care. Dallas County Representatives Morgan Meyer and Angie Chen Button, both Republicans, pulled out razor-thin victories to keep their House seats after voicing support for some type of Medicaid expansion in their campaigns.

Even conservative state Senator Paul Bettencourt acknowledged that the fiscal crunch will force consideration of Medicaid expansion. “My back-of-the-napkin analysis shows that’s a $1.6 billion item, like that—boom!” he told the Dallas Morning News in September. “I’m pretty sure we don’t have that falling out of trees,” he said. “You can put Medicaid expansion up at the top of the list. There will be a debate.”

But there’s still plenty of staunch opposition. “For those that promote [expansion], I haven’t heard what they’re willing to cut,” state Senator Kelly Hancock, a Republican who chairs the Business and Commerce Committee, said in November. “It’s easy to talk about it until you have to pay for it, especially going into this budget cycle.”

As with casinos and marijuana, the smart money is always to bet against Medicaid expansion happening. But this is a bigger opening than I’ve seen in a long time, and while that’s still not saying much, it’s not nothing.

Abbott speaks about the vaccination effort

It’s going great! We swear!

More than 877,000 Texans have received a COVID-19 vaccine since they first began arriving in Texas nearly four weeks ago, and that number is expected to increase by at least 50,000 more per day, Gov. Greg Abbott said Monday.

“Never before in the history of this state has Texas vaccinated so many people so quickly, “ Abbott said during remarks at the Esports Stadium Arlington & Expo Center, a newly-designated “vaccination hub” that local health officials said can vaccinate thousands per day. “It’s stunning to see what we’ve accomplished.”

The Arlington center, home to the city’s mass vaccination effort since December, is among 28 sites designed by the state as hubs.

“Our goal is, by the end of the week, we have no vaccines left,” said Tarrant County Judge B. Glen Whitley. The county’s health district was allotted 9,000 doses in the most recent shipment this week.

The hubs are meant to streamline vaccinations at a time when the state is seeing an unprecedented surge in COVID-19 cases, deaths, and hospitalizations. Texas continues to prioritize vaccinating health care workers, people who are 65 and older, and those with medical conditions that increase their risk of hospitalization or death if they contract the virus.

The large sites will receive most of the state’s next shipment of 158,825 COVID-19 vaccine doses this week. Just over 38,000 doses will go to 206 additional providers across the state, including several in rural counties that until recently had not received an allotment.

Officials promise bigger allotments in the weeks and months to come, but a patchwork local system of vaccine distribution, among other issues, has created a tumultuous rollout to the long-awaited vaccine.

On Monday, Abbott said Texas expects to see an additional 310,000 first doses per week for the rest of January and up to 500,000 second doses earmarked for those who have already received the injection in Texas. Continued increases are expected, Abbott said, depending on the federal government allotments.

[…]

The data on the number of doses administered has a reporting lag of at least two days, Abbott said, but added that Texans will start to see a significant uptick in those numbers as this week’s vaccinations are reported.

“You are going to see those numbers increase, as it turns out, somewhere between 50,000 and 75,000 per day,” Abbott said.

Texas Health Commissioner John Hellerstedt said the rate and scale of the state’s rollout has been “a really amazing operation” and said the creation of the hubs would ratchet up the rate of administration.

“Through the kind of vaccination operation we see here, we’re very confident it’s going to accelerate here even more,” Hellerstedt said. “It is really the way forward.”

That’s a lot of number being thrown at us. For sure, 50K per day is a big improvement over the “100K per week” we were at earlier in the year. That was a six-years-to-full-vaccinations pace, whereas 50K per day will get everyone vaccinated in 20 months. At the promised high end of 75K per day, we’re at about 13 months. Still not great – we sure would like to finish this task before 2022, wouldn’t we? – but at least in a timeframe we can envision. Note though that we are not at that pace yet – the 310K first doses per week rate is less than 50K per day, and puts us back at an almost-two-years duration. Again, I do expect things will get better, assuming of course that Abbott and the rest of our state leaders don’t reject federal assistance in the name of stupid partisan politics, but every week it takes us to get up to speed is that much longer to get to where we want to be. The hub approach is a sensible model, but it’s going to take a lot of effort and resources to make it work.

The Minute Maid mega-vaccine center

More like this, please.

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Assistance for renters coming

Good, but of course much more is needed.

Houston officials expect to get up to $70 million in federal stimulus funds to help renters in the city make their monthly payments and use toward other housing expenses.

The $900 billion federal stimulus package Congress approved late last year did not include more assistance for cities and states, but it did allot $25 billion in emergency relief for renters. Those funds will pass through states and local governments that represent more than 200,000 residents.

Mayor Sylvester Turner said Wednesday he expects Houston’s share of those funds will arrive soon. Bill Kelly, the city’s director of intergovernmental relations, said he estimates the city will get an allocation of $65 million to $70 million. The money will go through the Treasury Department, and the law calls for making the payments within 30 days of its passage, which would be Jan. 26.

“My personal goal is to make sure we have this thing done by February 1,” Kelly said of developing the city’s program.

[…]

To be eligible under the law, households must be renters and have at least one individual that qualifies for unemployment or has experienced financial hardship due to COVID-19; demonstrate a risk of homelessness or housing instability; and have a household income at or below 80 percent of the area median income. For a family of four in Houston, that would be $63,050.

The law prioritizes applicants who have been unemployed for 90 days and households below 50 percent of the median income, around $39,000 in Houston for a family of four. The city could adopt additional requirements and priorities.

The city previously used about $30 million of federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security, or CARES, Act funds to direct toward renters. It also used roughly $20 million for direct assistance, in which recipients can use the money as they see fit. BakerRipley, a community nonprofit, administered those funds.

The first round of $15 million was distributed on a first-come, first-served basis, but the city pivoted in the second round to distribute the money based on need.

I’m sure this will help a lot of people, and I’m sure the city will do everything it can to get the program up and running quickly. More is obviously needed, but I expect another, bigger relief package coming as soon as possible after January 20, so at least part of the problem should addressed. But look at all the qualifiers in the two paragraphs above, and ask yourself how many people might not know they’re eligible, or might not know how to apply for the funds, or who just need them faster than that to avoid eviction or other hardship. In normal times, it makes sense to make sure all the funds are used super-efficiently, and not wastefully. The cost of making it harder and take longer to get the funds is worth the tradeoff. We’re as far from normal times as we can get. Maybe we just need to make it easier to get as much money as is needed into the hands of everyone who might need it, and not worry too much if some of it goes to the “wrong” people. There’s got to be a better way to alleviate suffering in crisis times.

NCAA finalizes single-site March Madness

Welcome to Indianapolis, assuming anyone is allowed to attend, which honestly they shouldn’t as things are right now.

The NCAA will host its entire postseason men’s basketball tournament in Indianapolis and surrounding areas with a bubble-like format, officials announced on Monday.

All 68 teams will come to compete for the national championship and play most of the games at multiple venues in Indianapolis, with some games in Bloomington and West Lafayette. The bulk of the teams will stay in hotels connected to the Indiana Convention Center, which will be used as a practice facility, the NCAA said.

Selection Sunday is still scheduled for March 14, and the Final Four is set to be held April 3 and 5 at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis.

In Indianapolis, Bankers Life Fieldhouse, Hinkle Fieldhouse and Indiana Farmers Coliseum will be used for tournament games. Mackey Arena in West Lafayette and Assembly Hall in Bloomington will also be used, the NCAA said.

“This is a historic moment for NCAA members and the state of Indiana,” NCAA president Mark Emmert said in a statement. “We have worked tirelessly to reimagine a tournament structure that maintains our unique championship opportunity for college athletes. The reality of today’s announcement was possible thanks to the tremendous leadership of our membership, local authorities and staff.”

The monumental effort will include the largest bubble-like attempt by any major sport during the pandemic.

A local health partner in Indianapolis will handle testing for all players, coaches, staffers, officials and others connected to the event. The announcement did not specify the frequency of testing in what NCAA officials are calling a “controlled environment,” but Marion County officials have approved the NCAA’s plan and protocols.

Teams will stay on “dedicated hotel floors” and abide by social distancing throughout their time in the tournament. And a “limited number of family members” will be permitted to watch games, while other details about fans remain undetermined.

See here for the background. As the story notes, the Division II and III championships will also be held in Indiana, in other cities. This is all happening as various teams are missing and postponing games due to virus concerns, and one major women’s team canceled their season. Speaking of the women, no word that I know of what they will do with their tournament. I feel pretty confident that some form of March Madness, as big as they can make it (who knows, maybe even bigger this year), will happen. If all the other sports can be played to completion, and with all the money at stake, it pretty much has to.

Coronavirus 2.0

Happy New Year.

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

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

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

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

On the plus side, maybe.

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

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

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

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

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

More COVID restrictions are about to happen in Harris County

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More here.

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Senate outlines its opening plans

Seems inadequate to me, but what do I know?

All Texas senators attending the opening day of the 2021 legislative session will be tested for the coronavirus and media and public access to the chamber will be limited, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick announced Monday morning.

In a public memo, Patrick outlined a list of protocols for the Texas Senate’s Jan. 12 opening day, which typically sees the Texas Capitol packed with members, guests and families.

“Senators have agreed to a much shorter opening day ceremony to reduce the time spent in a large gathering,” he wrote. “The Senate is reducing all ceremonial events and gatherings this session to focus solely on their constitutional legislative duties.”

Access to the Senate floor will be restricted to lawmakers and one family member at each senator’s desk. There will be no floor seating outside the brass rail or anywhere else on the Senate floor — a stark difference from past years when the chamber floor was fully in use for family and guest seating.

A pool of four members of the media who have been granted credentials will be allowed in the second-floor gallery on opening day. In normal times, credentialed members of the media are allowed to sit at a table on the Senate floor.

Each lawmaker or incoming member will have three guest seats for family, friends or constituents in the gallery, a move Patrick said will limit the gallery to fewer than 100 guests and ensure space for social distancing. Patrick’s memo made no mention of masks and it was not immediately clear whether masks would be required in the chamber. The state House has announced that it will require them on opening day.

See here and here for the background. Visitors to the Capitol are required to wear masks, but Senators are special, so you know. They’re also, you know, old: Bob Hall, Chuy Hinojosa, Eddie Lucio, Robert Nichols, John Whitmire, and Judith Zaffirini – not to mention our very own Dan Patrick – are all over 70, and at least five others are over 60. I hate to be morbid, but just in the past week we’ve learned of two state legislators and one incoming member of Congress who died from COVID, and all of them were younger than that. Maybe everyone will show up wearing masks and it won’t be a big deal, but I cannot get over the casualness. Even worse, I’m not sure that someone in the Lege dying of COVID will change anyone’s behavior or beliefs. All I know is, I’m glad I don’t have to be there, and I fear for everyone who does.

There is a website for COVID vaccine signups in Houston

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It still looks grim in the Houston area

Brace yourselves.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

State Capitol reopens to the public today

From Twitter:

The Capitol grounds had reopened three weeks ago, but the building itself remained closed until today. This doesn’t address how the Legislature will operate – note the last paragraph for how that is deferred to the two chambers – so you will almost certainly be free to remove your mask and breathe in Rep. Briscoe Cain’s face at your discretion. We’ll know what the Lege has in mind for its own operations next Tuesday.

Census Bureau will miss deadline that would allow for apportionment shenanigans

Good.

The Census Bureau will miss a year-end deadline for handing in numbers used for divvying up congressional seats, a delay that could undermine President Donald Trump’s efforts to exclude people in the country illegally from the count if the figures aren’t submitted before President-elect Joe Biden takes office.

The Census Bureau plans to deliver a population count of each state in early 2021, as close to the missed deadline as possible, the statistical agency said in a statement late Wednesday.

“As issues that could affect the accuracy of the data are detected, they are corrected,” the statement said. “The schedule for reporting this data is not static. Projected dates are fluid.”

It will be the first time that the Dec. 31 target date is missed since the deadline was implemented more than four decades ago by Congress.

Internal documents obtained earlier this month by the House Committee on Oversight and Reform show that Census Bureau officials don’t expect the apportionment numbers to be ready until days after Biden is inaugurated on Jan. 20.

Once in office, Biden could rescind Trump’s presidential memorandum directing the Census Bureau to exclude people in the country illegally from numbers used for divvying up congressional seats among the states. An influential GOP adviser had advocated excluding them from the apportionment process in order to favor Republicans and non-Hispanic whites.

“The delay suggests that the census bureau needs more time to ensure the accuracy of census numbers for all states,” said Terri Ann Lowenthal, a former congressional staffer who specializes in census issues.

[…]

Former Census Bureau director John Thompson said the quality of the data is “the overarching issue” facing the Census Bureau.

“If these are not addressed, then it is very possible that stakeholders including the Congress may not accept the results for various purposes including apportionment,” said Thompson, who oversaw 2020 census preparation as the agency’s leader during the Obama administration.

He said in an email that missing the Dec. 31 target date “means that the Census Bureau is choosing to remove known errors from the 2020 Census instead of meeting the legal deadline.”

See here and here for some background. It’s one less way for Trump to screw things up beyond his own administration’s reign, and we should all be happy for it. There’s also a bill in the Senate to extend the deadline for Census results by four months, which the Census Bureau had asked for back in April but which got sidelined by (among other things) the usual Trump indifference. I presume that will have a much better chance of passing if the Dem candidates can win in Georgia, but we’ll see.

Astrodome renovation officially on hold

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

Still here

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

How’s the vaccine rollout going?

Not very quickly.

Top Texas officials again urged health care providers to administer more coronavirus vaccines Tuesday, the same day the state reported that the proportion of Texans whose coronavirus tests come back positive has hit levels not seen since a summer wave of cases that overwhelmed some hospitals.

The state reported Tuesday that 163,700 Texans had been vaccinated with at least one dose of the vaccine. About 1.2 million doses have been allocated to providers across the state through the first three weeks since their arrival, according to the Department of State Health Services.

“A significant portion of vaccines distributed across Texas might be sitting on hospital shelves as opposed to being given to vulnerable Texans,” Gov. Greg Abbott said in a tweet Tuesday evening.

That tweet came after health officials asked providers that received doses of the COVID-19 vaccine to “immediately vaccinate” all eligible Texans, including people 65 and older and those who are at least 16 with a qualifying medical condition. That renewed push echoed a statement Dr. John Hellerstedt, commissioner of the Texas DSHS, sent to providers last week directing them to “administer their entire allotment with all deliberate speed.”

“Dr. Hellerstedt put out that statement today to make it clear to all providers that people over the age of 65 and people with medical conditions that put them at greater risk of severe disease of death from COVID-19 are eligible to receive vaccine now,” said spokesperson Douglas Loveday. “Vaccine supply remains limited but more vaccine will be delivered to providers each week. It will take time to vaccinate everyone in those priority groups.”

To be fair, lots of states are stuck in low gear right now, but even accounting for that, Texas is in the back of the pack. There are distribution problems, and there is confusion over who can get a vaccine and where and how they can get it.

A single state website and hotline, with accurate and updated information about vaccine locations and supplies sure would be nice. What we have here evokes the old proverb that a person with one watch knows what time it is, and a person with two watches is never sure. Maybe when Greg Abbott and Ken Paxton are finished harassing the city of Austin, they can spend a few minutes thinking about that. In the meantime, hospitals are pushing back against the claim that they are the bottleneck.

The state’s largest hospital association is pushing back against a suggestion from Gov. Greg Abbott and the state’s top health official that a large number of coronavirus vaccines could be going unused in Texas hospitals.

The back and forth comes as the state vaccine dashboard shows that just 205,463 Texans had received the first dose of the coronavirus vaccine as of midweek, although 678,925 doses have been shipped around the state.

Abbott and Dr. John Hellerstedt, the commissioner of the Texas Department of State Health Services, sounded the alarm Tuesday, urging health care providers to begin vaccinating people 65 and over and those with underlying health conditions, including pregnant women, if they have concluded the first phase of vaccinations.

But most hospitals in the state are still vaccinating the first group of eligible Texans — hospital staffers working directly with coronavirus patients; long-term care residents and staff; emergency workers; and home health care workers — or have not yet received any shipments of the vaccine, according to Carrie Williams, spokeswoman for the Texas Hospital Association, which represents more than 85% of the state’s acute-care hospitals and health care systems.

“Vaccine is not sitting on hospital shelves,” Williams said, suggesting the state’s immunization reporting system has caused delays in reporting data. “With regard to data, we have no certainty it is accurate at this point in time. The number of doses administered is higher than what’s indicated.”

While the number of vaccines shipped across Texas is accurate, there have been “varying reports of the actual number of vaccines administered,” a spokesman for the Texas Division of Emergency Management said Wednesday.

The agency launched a website Wednesday showing up-to-date numbers of vaccine doses and therapeutics available at health care providers.

Abbott spokeswoman Renae Eze touted the website as a source of “real-time reporting system to show vaccine usage data from health care providers across Texas.”

The site, however, does not show how many COVID-19 vaccine doses have been administered.

[…]

For their part, hospital directors say the call from state leaders to move onto the next tier of vaccinations has caused chaos across the state as hospitals try to manage a vaccine rollout and a growing number of COVID-19 patients, Williams said.

“Hospitals are being flooded with calls from the general public seeking vaccine, which creates further operational challenges,” she said. “And, there are still hospitals that have not received any vaccine for their frontlines.”

The story doesn’t indicate what the URL of this new website is. The TDEM website is here, but all I found on a cursory search was information about testing, not about vaccines. This WFAA story about the bumpy vaccine rollout says that this DSHS page is the state’s main vaccine information center, but it’s mostly about eligibility. The story also reports, as Miya Shay did in her tweet, that DSHS and TDEM have two different maps showing providers who have received vaccine doses, and advise people to reach out to providers with their questions. That is not going to help with the flood of questions hospitals are already getting. Meanwhile, State Rep. Donna Howard tried to answer some questions on Twitter:

You can read the thread, but it largely comes down to lags in reporting, the timing of distribution, and confusion over who is eligible. For a guy who’s emphatically rejected calls for further COVID restrictions because the vaccines will save us all, you’d think Greg Abbott would want to put more effort into getting the vaccine distribution part of it right. Just a thought, but maybe this should be a campaign issue next year. What has been your experience trying to chase down a vaccine, for yourself or for a family member?

UPDATE: Later last night, the Trib published this longer story that covers all of the topics I’ve touched on here and more. At some point, Greg Abbott really needs to feel some heat for this.

A new high in hospitalizations

This is fine.

The Texas Department of State Health Services reported Monday a pandemic high 11,351 hospitalizations from COVID-19.

This surpasses the previous all-time high of 10,893, which occurred on July 22.

The record comes in the midst of a holiday season public health experts worry could exacerbate the already rapidly spreading virus and following an increase in cases weeks after Thanksgiving.

This hospital data does not account for people who are hospitalized but have not gotten a positive test, and DSHS says some hospitals may be missing from the daily counts. As of Monday, the state is also reporting 49 deaths from COVID-19, a lagging indicator of the extent of transmission rates, and more than 12,800 new confirmed COVID-19 cases. Reported cases may have appeared lower the last few days because some local health departments did not report data to the state over the holiday week.

Earlier this month, Texas’ ICU capacity was already the lowest since the start of the pandemic, leaving health care experts worried hospitals could be pushed to the brink as coronavirus cases continue to climb. Across the state, COVID-19 patients occupy 17.8% of the state’s hospital beds, and only 745 staffed ICU beds are still available.

At a press conference Monday, Mark Escott, Austin’s interim medical director and health authority, said that this week alone, “ICU utilization” is up 62% in Travis County and that hospital beds could become scarce in a matter of weeks.

“Our projections forward into the new year continue to look worse and worse day after day,” Escott said. “I think right now it appears we’re going to enter 2021 in a state of emergency.”

This is fine:

This is fine:

Dr. Peter Hotez, professor and dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine, said he anticipated a major fall surge amid a wave of new infections in West Texas and the Panhandle.

Those areas are among the hardest hit in the country, he said.

“Up in Midland and places like that, it’s still a really tough area,” he said, adding, “In terms of surges, I’m maybe a little less worried about the Texas Medical Center. But in other parts of the state, it’s going to be a real concern.”

There are 745 ICU beds available across the state, according to data from the Department of State Health Services, the lowest number available since the pandemic’s surge during the summer. Among 63,679 staffed hospital beds, 13,416 are available statewide.

Further, 15 of the state’s Trauma Service Areas are reporting that more than 15 percent of their total hospital capacity is taken up by COVID-19 patients, crossing the threshold for what the state considers “high hospitalizations.”

At the Texas Medical Center, the weekly average of new COVID patients has more than doubled since early November, from 104 to 248. Medical center data from Sunday shows 1,594 total COVID patients and another 404 in the ICU. There are 1,298 total occupied ICU beds with hundreds more available, the data shows.

“The medical center has gotten a lot of heft, in terms of being able to accommodate COVID patients,” Hotez said.

[…]

The sporadic use of masks has contributed to the surge, said Hotez, adding that he doesn’t anticipate the number of statewide hospitalizations decreasing anytime soon. He noted that the number of beds is less of a concern than the number of trained staff available.

Hotez said he did not know how much Christmas gatherings would impact the number of infections. But he warned people that New Year’s celebrations would be the “best party the COVID virus can hope to have.”

“I would just say any kind of New Year’s celebration is fraught with risk ,” he said. “Because when you have this high level of transmission going on in the state, anytime you bring four or five people together, there’s a good likelihood they’re going to have COVID.”

I’m really scared for what the next few weeks may bring. Wear your mask, practice social distancing, avoid indoor gatherings, and try to survive until you can get vaccinated.

Too much virus, not enough treatment

Still a bad combination.

Three weeks after Gov. Greg Abbott visited Lubbock to celebrate new antibody treatments amid a surge of infections, the city remains in crisis. Its two main hospitals had nearly two dozen patients waiting for beds Friday, and the city has administered only about 200 doses of the new medications, with about 4,500 active cases countywide.

Hospitals are also filling in Dallas, Houston, San Antonio and other parts of the state that were slower to be hit by the fall surge. The state is hovering around 9,000 hospitalized COVID-19 patients and reported fewer than 700 available intensive care beds for the first time this week, less than half the supply in September.

While most hospital officials in Texas welcomed the new treatments and remain hopeful that they prevent some hospitalizations, the limitations are also becoming apparent. Without enough doses or a way to distribute them quickly, hospitals will continue to be strained unless infections slow or until vaccines become widely available, not likely until at least early summer.

In Lubbock, hundreds of nurses and other hospital employees are out sick or quarantining from the coronavirus, and administrators worry that the hundreds more who have come to help from across the state and country will be called back as outbreaks in their home communities worsen. More than 231,000 new cases were reported Friday nationwide, nearly 4,000 above the previous record set on Dec. 4.

“We always have more contingency plans, and we’re deep into the middle of some of those where we truly are turning away patients from outlying communities because we can’t take them,” said Dr. Ron Cook, Lubbock’s health authority and the chief health officer at the Texas Tech University Health Science Center.

The treatments, made by the companies Eli Lilly and Regeneron, were granted emergency use authorizations last month to help prevent hospitalizations for the most vulnerable patients, including those over 65 and with chronic illnesses such as diabetes, obesity or kidney disease. They are the same treatments President Donald Trump and his lawyer Rudy Guiliani have received.

Texas got about 20,000 doses in the past five weeks, while it reported 330,000 new infections. Early clinical research suggests the drugs prevent about 1 in 20 people who receive them from being hospitalized.

Doctors at University Medical Center in Lubbock are encouraged by the early outcomes, but have often struggled to contact and persuade enough eligible patients to receive the treatments. The drugs need to be administered early on, before a person is hospitalized, and patients may not yet have developed symptoms. Some have never heard of the treatments or spoken with the hospital’s doctors before.

[…]

Combating the virus has been especially tough in Lubbock, a college town in a fiercely independent swath of the state where pandemic science has been regularly questioned and the governor’s tepid mask mandate largely unenforced. In recent weeks, the mayor and others have resorted to pleading with residents to physically distance and wear face coverings.

“Our independence is also hurting us,” Cook said.

Abbott’s mask order includes several exceptions and calls for fines only on the second offense, which county officials have said is nearly impossible to track.

It’s like I was saying. Prevention will have an exponentially better effect on the pandemic than treatment will, and that’s true even if the treatment we’d been given was much more effective than preventing five percent of its recipients from being hospitalized if they take it in time. Donald Trump and Greg Abbott have failed us at so many levels.

(This story is from two weeks ago, it’s been in my drafts because there’s been so much news as well as the holidays. It’s possible things are a little better in Lubbock now – I sure hope they are – but the point still stands. We are reacting instead of trying to take control of the situation. We’ve been doing that for months. The fact that we have better tools now to react with doesn’t change that.)

Next in line for the vaccine

Attention will shift to more vulnerable populations.

Texans who are 65 years old and older, and those who are at least 16 with certain chronic medical conditions will be next in line for the COVID-19 vaccine, the Texas Department of State Health Services announced Monday.

“The focus on people who are age 65 and older or who have comorbidities will protect the most vulnerable populations,” said Imelda Garcia, chair of the state Expert Vaccine Allocation Panel and DSHS associate commissioner for laboratory and infectious diseases. “This approach ensures that Texans at the most severe risk from COVID-19 can be protected across races and ethnicities and regardless of where they work.”

The vaccine, which arrived in Texas on Dec. 14, has been available so far only to front-line health care workers and residents of long-term care facilities. There are nearly 1.9 million Texans in that group, so it will likely take a few weeks before the state transitions to the next phase, state health officials said.

The state expects to receive 1.4 million vaccine doses by the end of the month. Eligible facilities under the current phase include hospitals, pharmacies, nursing homes and Texas Department of Criminal Justices facilities.

The city of Houston will also receive 6,000 doses that are ticketed for firefighters and health care workers, so that’s good. A list of comorbidities that would get you onto the eligible list for the vaccine is in the article, so click over and check it out if you think this may apply to you or someone you know. But do keep in mind that bit about it taking a few weeks to transition into that next phase, because it will take awhile to get through the first phase. We need to continue to practice prevention so as not to sicken and kill many more people needlessly.

Indeed, for those of us in Houston, the next few weeks are looking rough.

The spread of COVID-19, steadily increasing in Houston and Texas since the beginning of November, is expected to accelerate in coming weeks, according to the latest modeling, a trajectory that could make the city and state one of the nation’s next hot spots.

The models project COVID-19 numbers — cases, hospitalizations, deaths — to continue rising in Houston and many other parts of Texas before likely peaking sometime in January. Parts of the state at crisis levels the past month have peaked.

“There’s a lot of concern about the Houston area as we enter the Christmas season,” said David Rubin, a pediatrician and director of The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia’s PolicyLab, which produces one of the models. “If I were to say what areas in the country still have the potential to surge, the Houston area definitely would be one of them.”

Rubin and others urged everyone to hunker down over the coming holiday period in an attempt to limit the damage from the coronavirus’ seeming last onslought before gradually deployed vaccines can begin to shut down the pandemic. He noted widespread deployment won’t be in time to affect Houston’s winter peak.

[…]

“What’s concerning is that so many regions of Texas look to be hit about the same time,” said Spencer Fox, associate director of the UT COVID-19 Modeling Consortium. “It’s a sad trend at a time when the vaccines are almost within reach.”

The Houston-area trends are worrisome in two of the models. Fox’s group projects 2,121 COVID-19 hospitalizations in the area on Jan. 15, for instance, an increase of 36 percent over the 1,561 such admissions for Dec. 17.

In addition, the CHOP PolicyLab modeling shows the number of Harris County COVID-19 cases should nearly double by the end of the first week of January. The model projects 2,919 cases on Jan. 7, up from 1,478 on Dec. 14.

A third forecast, by the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME), projects the number of deaths in Texas will peak Jan. 5 at 292. The model, the only one of the three that projects more than a few weeks out, says daily deaths would total 280 on that date assuming universal mask wearing but reach 345 by late January if mandates are eased.

Thanks partly to the vaccines, the IHME model projects the number of daily Texas deaths will decrease dramatically after the Jan. 5 peak — 138 on Feb. 1, 55 on March 1 and 17 on April 1. The vaccine’s most immediate effect is expected to be more of reducing severe illness and deaths than cases.

The IHME model does not project past April.

In all, 28,134 COVID-19 Texas deaths are expected as of Dec. 31, according to the IHME model. All but 2,700 of those came after June 30.

“That’s a devastating loss of lives in just a six-month period,” said Dr. Peter Hotez, a Baylor College of Medicine infectious disease specialist and vaccine scientist. “Has Texas ever lost so many lives in such a short time?”

The CHOP PolicyLab foresaw the June/July spike, though they were more alarmist than the situation turned out to be. But between the holidays and the colder weather that makes outdoor dining less feasible, the conditions are certainly there for an uptick. We all know what to do about this, it’s just on us to actually do it.

Ken Paxton’s attempted jihad against Harris County

Wow.

Best mugshot ever

Attorney General Ken Paxton tried to get the Trump administration to revoke millions in federal COVID relief funding that Harris County budgeted for expanding mail-in voting earlier this year, newly revealed records show.

Paxton wrote in a May 21 letter to Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin that Harris County’s plan was an “abuse” of the county’s authority and an “egregious” violation of state law. The letter was obtained and published by the Citizens For Responsibility and Ethics in Washington.

“We respectfully ask the department to scrutinize its award of CARES Act funding to Harris County in light of the county’s stated intent to use federal funding in violation of state law, and to the extent possible, seek return of any amounts improperly spent on efforts to promote illegal mail-in voting,” Paxton wrote. “Without implementing adequate protections against unlawful abuse of mail-in ballots, the department could be cast in a position of involuntarily facilitating election fraud.”

The letter to Mnuchin illustrates the lengths Paxton went in his efforts to stop Harris and other counties from making it easier to vote by mail during the pandemic, which included suing Harris County as it tried to send mail ballots applications to all 2.4 million of its registered voters. The mail-ballot application push was part of the county’s $27.2 million plan to expand voting options, funded in large part through CARES Act money.

[…]

The Treasury Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment on whether Mnuchin heeded Paxton’s request to investigate how Harris County used the funding.

In a written statement, County Judge Lina Hidalgo said that the loss of the funds “would have knocked the floor out of our citizens’ ability to vote safely” during an important election held in the middle of a global pandemic.

“This attempt to cut off emergency federal funding for fellow Texans is indefensible,” she said. “To do so in secret is truly a shame and I’m relieved this is now out in the open.”

Members of the Texas Democratic Party accused the attorney general of “picking fights” to distract from his personal life.

“In the middle of the biggest pandemic in American history, every Texan should have been afforded the opportunity to vote as safely as possible. Indicted Texas Republican Attorney General Ken Paxton continues to try to pick fights to distract away from his personal life and his abuse of office. Paxton is a carnival barker who has made Texas a laughingstock with his ridiculous inquiries and lawsuits. To restore trust in the Attorney General’s office, we must all band together to vote him and his abuse of power out in 2022.”

I suppose if there’s one thing that the year 2020 has been good for, it’s to serve as a reminder to me that I am still capable of being shocked. I can’t say that I’m surprised, because it was clear from the beginning that then-County Clerk Chris Hollins’ aggressive efforts to make voting easier, ably funded by Commissioners Court, were going to draw a heated response. I guess I had just assumed that the lawsuits filed by Paxton and others against the various things that Hollins pioneered were the response, with bills filed in the 2021 Legislature the culmination, but I had not expected this.

It is interesting that Paxton chose to fire this particular shot in secret. We would have found out about it at the time if he had succeeded, of course, but it’s strangely out of character for Paxton to do something like this under cover of darkness. Say what you will about Ken Paxton, the man does not lack confidence in the correctness of his positions. I don’t know what his motivation was for not being front and center about this – I mean, we saw the lawsuit he filed to overturn the election. Shame, or fear of being publicly dragged, are not inhibitions for him. Maybe he was afraid of spooking Secretary Mnuchin, who is generally less cartoon-y in his villainy. I’m open to suggestion on this point.

The story mentions that this letter came from the Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), which led me to this:

CREW obtained Paxton’s letter to Mnuchin as part of a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit against the Treasury Department, which remains ongoing.

The lawsuit in question is over the appointment of Louis DeJoy as Postmaster General. We might never have found out about this scurrilous and cowardly action otherwise.

I was going to spend more time in this post pointing out that Paxton’s allegations were 1) essentially baseless, and 2) should have been made in a lawsuit, as this would have fallen squarely under his law enforcement authority if Harris County were indeed breaking the law as he claimed, but honestly that CREW article laid it out thoroughly, so go read that for those details. The main takeaway here is that this wasn’t just a partisan dispute, which could and should have been carried out in public as so many other mostly ginned-up voting “controversies” this year were, it was 100% unadulterated bullshit from our despicable Attorney General. He’s not feeling any pressure to step down from his fellow Republicans, and do brace yourself for a pardon from our Felon in Chief, so it really is up to us to vote his sorry ass out in 2022. The Texas Tribune has more.

Are you ready to attend a basketball game?

I’m not, at least not yet. Ask me again after I’ve been vaccinated.

The Rockets on Thursday made official their plans to have limited numbers of fans in attendance at home games under a variety of health and safety protocols during the spike in cases in the coronavirus pandemic.

There will be a reduced capacity of spectators at Toyota Center of approximately 16-20 percent (3,000 to 3,660) for Rockets games and other events, beginning with the Rockets regular-season season opener next Wednesday. Thursday’s preseason game against the Spurs is to be played with staff, friends and family in attendance as a final test of the health and safety requirements and sanitation steps planned.

Fans will be required to answer health questions prior to entering Toyota Center with additional league-mandated testing protocols required of fans closer to the court.

Face masks are required for all those in the building 2-years-old and older, other than players, unless eating or drinking. Gaiters, bandanas or vented coverings will be not considered acceptable face coverings.

The NBA did a great job with the bubble for their 2020 playoffs, but that’s not practical for the regular season, which will be slightly shorter than usual but still pretty close to normal. College basketball is happening now, though I don’t know what the fan attendance policies are. I’m not ready for this, and I don’t think it’s a great idea. I wish I knew what the city of Houston and/or Harris County think about this, but that topic was not explored in the story. I hope this doesn’t cause any large-scale breakouts, but I wouldn’t bet on it.

(By the way, the scheduled season opener for the Rockets yesterday was postponed because of COVID concerns on the team. Womp womp.)

SCOTUS mostly punts on Census apportionment shenanigans

They seem to be hoping that the problem will solve itself, while applying a partisan litmus test to when it is appropriate for them to step in.

The Supreme Court dismissed a challenge to Donald Trump’s final sabotage of the census on Friday, deeming it premature. Trump seeks to exclude an estimated 10.5 million people from the data used to divide up congressional seats among the states because they are undocumented immigrants. This policy, if successful, would strip seats in the House of Representatives from diverse states with large immigrant communities. Because it has not been implemented, however, the Supreme Court determined, by a 6–3 vote, that the case is not yet ripe for resolution. All three liberal justices dissented.

Friday’s decision in Trump v. New York does not come as a surprise: At oral arguments, several conservative justices seemed to be looking for a way out of deciding whether the president has the power to manipulate the census this way. A few, including Justices Brett Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett, even appeared to recognize that Trump’s policy is unlawful. The Constitution requires the apportionment of House seats based on “the whole number of persons in each state,” and the government has never before in history sought to exclude undocumented immigrants. By declaring that an entire class of immigrants are not “persons” who reside in the United States, Trump is trying to pass a modern three-fifths clause—except his policy reduces millions of immigrants to zero-fifths of a person.

Still, the Supreme Court’s conservative majority decided that this threat was insufficient to create a live controversy due to the uncertainty that plagues this case. (It did so in an unsigned opinion apparently joined by all six conservatives.) The federal government does not actually know how many undocumented immigrants live in each state. Trump has directed the Census Bureau to use existing administrative records to obtain these figures. But this process is ongoing, and the bureau has warned that it may not produce the data for weeks—possibly not until Trump has left office. (Joe Biden will undoubtedly retract the policy if it has not yet been executed.) The administration has speculated that it may narrow its goal by excluding only subsets of immigrants, like those in detention. (There are more than 50,000 people in ICE detention today, so even that exclusion could affect apportionment and funding.)

In light of this uncertainty, the majority found that the plaintiffs—which include states that may lose representation and local governments that may lose funding—lacked standing to attack the policy in court. Trump’s policy “may not prove feasible to implement in any manner whatsoever, let alone in a manner substantially likely to harm any of the plaintiffs here,” the majority asserted. In other words, Trump might fail to carry out his scheme, which would spare the plaintiffs any injury. Moreover, if the president only excludes a subset of immigrants, like ICE detainees, the plan might not “impact interstate apportionment.”

The court also found that the case “is riddled with contingencies and speculation,” declaring that “any prediction how the Executive Branch might eventually implement” Trump’s policy is “no more than conjecture.” As a result, “the case is not ripe,” and the plaintiffs must come back when they can contest a more explicit policy. The court clarified that “we express no view on the merits of the constitutional and related statutory claims presented.”

[…]

Friday’s ruling also entrenches a new rule that emerged after Barrett replaced Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg: Plaintiffs only have standing when they are challenging a policy that the conservatives do not like. In November, by a 5–4 vote, the ultraconservatives blocked a COVID-19 restriction on New York City churches that was no longer in effect. As Roberts explained in his dissent, the restrictions were not in force when the court issued its decision. Yet the court blocked them anyway, reasoning that the governor might enforce them again in the future.

It is difficult to square that decision with Friday’s census punt. Trump has stated his policy in stark terms and directed the government to execute it as soon as possible. There is a serious, looming threat that his administration will carry it out in the near future. No one actually knows whether Biden or Congress can reverse the policy after it has been implemented. Yet the conservative justices still considered the case premature. This inconsistent approach gives the impression that at least five conservative justices are manipulating the rules to roll back blue states’ COVID orders while giving Trump leeway to test out illegal policies. Friday’s decision is not the end of this litigation, and the administration may ultimately fail to rig the apportionment of House seats. It is framed as a modest, narrow, technical decision. But the court has revealed its priorities, and they have nothing to do with restraint.

See here and here for the background. Texas would also likely lose a seat or two if this went into effect, not that you’d know it from the total radio silence of our state leaders. My hope is of course that the Census does not deliver this data before January 20, in which case the Biden administration could just drop the subject and proceed as we have always done. It’s not great that we have to rely on that hope, of course. Daily Kos and TPM have more.

TDP asks SCOTUS to review age discrimination claim in mail voting

From the inbox:

Today, the Texas Democratic Party and voters filed their final brief with the U.S. Supreme Court, seeking its review of the case filed last Spring which challenged the constitutionality of Texas’s law that limits voting by mail, without excuse, to voters age 65 and older. The 26th Amendment prohibits “denying or abridging” the right to vote based on age, which Texas law does. The United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit ruled in September that so long as all voters can vote in person, it does not abridge the right to vote if the state provides some voters with additional voting options. The Texas Democratic Party and voters argue this ruling runs contrary to the 26th Amendment and is inconsistent with U.S. Supreme Court precedent.

The Supreme Court is scheduled to confer regarding this case on January 8, 2021. On January 11, 2021, at 10:00 am ET, the Court will issue its orders list for the 2021 term. At that point, the Court may grant review of the case, deny review, or hold the case over for further consideration at a later time. If the Court grants review, the case could be heard this term, with a decision before Summer or it could decide to hear the case in its term beginning Fall of 2021. If the court denies review of the case, it will return to the U.S. District Court in San Antonio, where it will proceed to the final trial and, thereafter, potentially go back through the appeals process.

See here for my last update on this case, and here for a copy of the filing, which in fancy lawyer-speak is a “petition for a writ of certiori”. SCOTUSblog has a concise summary of the case so far. The brief makes three arguments, of which the first two are technical and boring to non-lawyers, but the third is a straightforward claim that the Fifth Circuit erred in its ruling:

The error in the Fifth Circuit’s reasoning was powerfully illustrated by the statement respondents’ counsel made at oral argument: “[I]f a state were to pass a law saying that White people must vote by personal appearance but Black people can vote by personal appearance or by mail-in balloting, …. the Fifteenth Amendment would not prohibit that law because that law does not deny or abridge the right to vote within the meaning of the Fifteenth Amendment.” Or. Arg. Rec. at 41:27-42:07. To state that position is to show its indefensibility.

1. The Fifth Circuit treated “abridge” as solely a temporal restriction: In its view, a state’s law does not “abridge” the right to vote when it adds voting opportunities for some, so long as one manner of voting remains in place for those not given the new voting opportunity. See BIO App. 38a. That holding is inconsistent with this Court’s precedents that the concept of abridgement “necessarily entails a comparison” of “what the right to vote ought to be.” Reno v. Bossier Par. Sch. Bd., 528 U.S. 320, 334 (2000).

Contrary to the Fifth Circuit’s arid resort to dictionary definitions of “abridgment,” BIO App. 33a34a, the proper baseline under the Fifteenth, Nineteenth, Twenty-Fourth, and Twenty-Sixth Amendments is given in the text of those amendments themselves. Those amendments provide that the right to vote shall not be abridged “on account of” or “by reason of” specific characteristics: “race,” “sex,” taxpaying status, or “age.” By their plain terms, those amendments call for a comparison between the law’s treatment of voters of different races, sexes, taxpaying statuses, or ages—not between the scope of the right a particular voter enjoyed yesterday and the scope of the right he or she enjoys today. It cannot be that the Fifteenth Amendment would have nothing to say if a jurisdiction gave white voters an early voting period, as long as it left untouched a preexisting ability for Black voters to cast a ballot in person on election day. But that perverse consequence is exactly what the Fifth Circuit’s logic commands.

The reason why the voting amendments use the word “abridge” is not to create a temporal comparison, but to make clear that any race-, sex-, taxpaying-, or age-based suffrage rule, and not only categorical denial of the right to vote, is covered. The Voting Rights Act, which was enacted to enforce the Fifteenth Amendment, illustrates this point. While Section 5, the provision at issue in Bossier Parish involved a statute with language explicitly requiring a temporal comparison, Section 2 echoes the Fifteenth Amendment text and requires an inter-voter comparison. Section 2(a) prohibits practices that result “in a denial or abridgement” of the right to vote on account of race or color or membership in a specified language minority. 52 U.S.C. § 10301(a). Section 2(b) declares that a violation of that prohibition occurs, among other things, when the plaintiff group has “less opportunity than other members of the electorate to participate in the political process and to elect representatives of their choice.” 52 U.S.C. § 10301(b) (emphasis added). That understanding of abridgment is also, as the petition explains, more consistent with this Court’s decision in Harman v. Forssenius, 380 U.S. 528 (1965). See Pet. 20-22.

Basically, the Fifth Circuit said that giving one set of voters (in this case, voters over the age of 65) something extra (no-excuses absentee ballots) was fine and not a form of discrimination against other voters, who were still able to vote. The TDP argues that the correct interpretation of the 26th and other amendments to the constitution is that not giving the under-65 voters the same benefit as the 65-and-older crowd is an abridgement of their rights, and thus unconstitutional. I think the plaintiffs have a solid argument, but as we know I Am Not A Lawyer, and also this particular Supreme Court is nobody’s friend when it comes to voting rights. We’ll know in January if we’ll get a short-term resolution or if this goes back to the trial court for a do-over.

Another poll about the COVID vaccine

A little better.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s runoff day in SD30

Truly the final election of 2020.

Rep. Drew Springer

Gov. Greg Abbott stayed out of the September special election for a Texas state Senate seat in rural North Texas, content to let his coronavirus response become a flashpoint between two members of his own party.

But now that the race is down to a Saturday runoff, Abbott has gone all in.

The race pits state Rep. Drew Springer of Muenster against fellow Republican Shelley Luther, the Dallas salon owner who went to jail after defying Abbott’s pandemic orders earlier this year. Ahead of the 2021 legislative session — and the 2022 primary season — Abbott is determined to make an example out of Luther, who has become an avatar of his intraparty detractors.

Abbott endorsed Springer earlier this month, making official a preference that many had suspected after Luther spent months lacerating Abbott’s pandemic management. The governor’s campaign has since made over a quarter-million dollars worth of in-kind contributions to Springer. And in the runoff’s final week, his campaign is airing a TV spot attacking Luther, the first time it has spent serious ad dollars against a member of his own party since he sought to defeat a trio of state House Republicans in the 2018 primary.

“What are they so afraid of?” Luther asked during a debate Wednesday, leaning in to the proxy war that was apparent before the September election but has become far more explicit since then.

As Abbott has poured his campaign resources into the runoff, Luther has received even more funding from Tim Dunn, the hard-right megadonor and board chair of the advocacy group Empower Texans who has overwhelmingly bankrolled her campaign. After loaning Luther $1 million during the first round, he has donated $700,000 to her in the runoff, including $200,000 on Monday.

Springer said during the debate that Luther has taken “$1.7 million from a billionaire in West Texas who is trying to buy this seat.”

“He knows he will control Shelley Luther,” Springer said, “and that is why he is willing to spend that kind of money.”

[…]

While at least a couple of new issues have cropped up in the runoff, the race remains animated by Abbott’s coronavirus handling and conservative angst over it. There was a fresh reminder of the state’s restrictions earlier this month when a large part of North Texas had to roll back business reopenings because its hospital region saw coronavirus patients make up more than 15% of its capacity for seven straight days.

When Abbott endorsed Springer, Luther issued a response that reminded supporters that it was the governor’s “unconstitutional orders that put me in jail for opening my business.” (Abbott later updated an order to remove the threat of jail time.) And at the end of the response, Luther attached an illustration depicting the runoff as a choice between Abbott and Springer, both wearing masks, and her and President Donald Trump, both unmasked.

Let’s be clear that neither of these candidates are any good from our perspective. Springer at least has some amount of “normal legislator” about him – the Texas ParentPAC sent out an email on Thursday announcing their support for Springer, so he’s got that going for him – while Luther is both a complete vanity candidate – as in, entirely motivated by her own self interest – and the preferred candidate of the Empower Texans evil empire. The only positive she brings is the poke in Abbott’s eye she would bring. I may get five seconds of grim enjoyment out of that if she wins today, but that’s about it.

We still need more than the vaccines

The vaccines are great, don’t get me wrong, and they couldn’t have come at a better time, but they’re going to take awhile to be administered, and in the meantime a whole lot of people are still getting sick and dying.

Gov. Greg Abbott on Thursday applauded the arrival of the new coronavirus vaccine, calling it a “monumental medical miracle” as he sought to boost morale amid some of the pandemic’s toughest days.

Speaking outside a UPS distribution center in Austin, the governor painted an especially rosy picture of the weeks ahead, promising a swift vaccine rollout even as national supplies are limited and the state is reporting high numbers of new daily infections. Hospitals in some cities across Texas have been overrun with COVID-19 patients.

The vaccine, which began rolling out on Monday, “is on a daily basis saving lives and beginning to restore normalcy in our community,” Abbott said.

About 90,000 doses have been distributed in Texas already, and another 150,000 were being shipped out on Thursday. The first batch is intended for health care workers treating COVID-19 patients.

State health officials are still determining whom to prioritize from there, including teachers, public safety employees and prisoners. The governor himself has yet to be inoculated but said he plans to at “the appropriate time.”

Texas expects to receive 1.4 million doses by the end of the year, not quite enough to treat all of the 1.6 million health care workers who would be eligible.

[…]

State and national health experts have cautioned that it will be well into 2021 before vaccines become widely available and that infections will continue to spread as long as some resist safety measures such as physically distancing and masking in public.

“It’ll still be weeks, perhaps months, before it is absolutely available to anyone who chooses to have it,” said John Hellerstedt, commissioner of the Texas Department of State Health Services. “In the meantime we need to continue the kinds of things that have gotten us this successful so far.”

Abbott has so far refused to tighten the state’s mask mandate or impose other new restrictions, even as county officials have asked for them as they battle new waves of infections. On Monday the state reported nearly 18,000 new confirmed and probable cases, as well as 252 deaths. More than 24,000 Texans have died from COVID since March.

For a very sobering look at where we’re headed, read this:

What is the one thing that could mitigate this? Another lockdown, with a mask mandate alongside it. What is the one thing that could mitigate the devastating economic effect of another lockdown? A truly adequate COVID stimulus package from Congress. What are the two things Greg Abbott is never going to do? You get the picture.

There’s also this.

The start of COVID-19 vaccinations for health care workers has sparked hope that the end of the pandemic crisis is within sight, but when it comes to vaccine distribution, this is still the easy part. Local and state health agencies say they will struggle to get hundreds of millions of doses of the vaccines to the general public without a huge amount of additional funding. Even if Congress does manage to pass a compromise relief bill, the amount it provides may not be enough.

The fates of the vaccine and the relief bill, both months in the making, are linked. The $900 billion proposal that Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill continue to debate has a number of provisions to mitigate the COVID economic crisis, including additional unemployment benefits and small business support. The latest available version also contains $6 billion in vaccine distribution funding for state and local health departments. But groups that represent state and local health departments say that this funding, while crucial, won’t be sufficient to distribute the vaccine on a massive scale as efficiently and widely as possible.

“We see the $6 billion that’s on the table as an important down payment to scale up staffing, develop and enact communications plans to address vaccine hesitant populations, and enroll more vaccinators,” Jasmine Berry, the communications director at the Association for Immunization Managers, says in an email. “There’s still going to be a need for additional funding for state and local health agencies.”

What’s more, the already months-long delay in getting this funding to state and local health departments may create problems down the line, as the country’s vaccination campaigns expand beyond health care workers and nursing homes.

“Where we’ll really start to see potential delays, or where we are not as successful as we could have been, may be as we move through the phases to the next group, where there’s a much larger population that would need to be served,” says Adriane Casalotti, the chief of government and public affairs at the National Association of County and City Health Officials, which represents local health departments.

How much of the vaccination tab are Greg Abbott and the Legislature willing to pick up if Mitch McConnell continues to block any COVID relief bills from passing? A miracle’s no good if you can’t access it.

Abbott is right that the vaccines will save lives and restore normality to our lives. But only if we live long enough to get vaccinated, and only if the funding is there to make sure everyone can get vaccinated. These things aren’t going to happen by themselves.

The Lege will start out with masks

We’ll see how it goes from there.

Rep. Charlie Geren

People attending the opening day of the 2021 legislative session will be required to wear a mask and asked to take a coronavirus test ahead of the event, the chair of the House Administration Committee wrote in a memo to lawmakers Monday.

State Rep. Charlie Geren, R-Fort Worth, said there may be additional screenings or temperature checks upon entering the building for the festivities, which typically see the Texas Capitol packed with members, guests and family. If a House member tests positive for the virus, he wrote, “arrangements will be made … to allow them to take the oath of office.”

“The duration of the ceremony will be shortened,” he wrote, “and there will be a significant reduction in the number of people admitted to the House floor and gallery.”

Access to the House floor will be restricted to lawmakers, essential staff, ceremony participants, temporary officers and approved guests, according to Geren. Members of the media, the public and additional guests who have been approved to attend the ceremony will be seated in the House gallery.

Each lawmaker or incoming member will have two guest seats for family or friends either on the chamber floor or in the gallery. Guest seats will be spaced approximately three and a half feet from each other side-to-side and staggered front to back, Geren wrote. That spacing, coupled with the requirement of a face mask, “is acceptable to medical professionals consulted by the House,” he wrote.

Geren also wrote that hand sanitation stations will be located outside the chamber and on members’ desks and that ultraviolet light disinfecting units will be used on the floor and in the gallery.

See here for the background. The Senate has not settled on its protocol yet, so this could theoretically be a one-chamber rule. The bigger question remains what if anything the House plans to do with anti-mask jackwads like Briscoe Cain, because I fully expect that those types will be present, and they will kick up a huge fuss if they’re not given the special treatment they believe they are entitled to. We could be getting things off to quite the inauspicious start. Not my problem, but I hope they have a plan.

More people in Houston than you think have had COVID

About one in seven, which is an awful lot.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

Can we get enough people vaccinated?

It’s going to take a lot of work.

In poll after poll, alarming numbers say they don’t plan to be inoculated with the vaccine, whose 95 percent efficacy rate in trials exceeded everyone’s expectations. It’s scientists’ nightmare: create one of medicine’s landmark achievements only to have large numbers of people not bother to get it.

But that appears to be the reality. Although the numbers appear to have improved since drugmakers Pfizer and Moderna reported their impressive trial results last month, about 40 percent of Americans tell poll takers they don’t plan to get a COVID-19 vaccine. In Texas, only 42 percent say they will.

Public health officials fear such numbers will hinder the campaign to shut down the greatest scourge since the 1918 Spanish influenza.

At stake is a possible squandering of the chance to get COVID-19 under control by late summer, to save countless lives that will be lost the longer it takes to stop the spread of the virus. Also at stake is an increased potential for a more lethal or contagious strain of the virus to emerge, always a threat as long as an infection continues to circulate.

“The hesitancy is bad for getting the population vaccinated to obtain herd or community immunity, which would allow for activities to become normal again,” said Kirstin Matthews, a fellow in science and technology policy at Rice University’s Baker Institute. “The Biden administration will need to find ways to gain public trust in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and FDA to ensure communities take the vaccine.”

A national task force led by Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security and Texas State University’s anthropology department added that “if poorly designed and executed, a COVID-19 vaccine campaign in the U.S. could undermine the increasingly tenuous belief in vaccines and public health authorities who recommend them, especially among people most at risk of COVID-19 impacts.”

[…]

Vaccine mistrust has been building for years, fueled by a small but growing movement that works to exempt children for “reasons of conscience” from school-required inoculations. But the COVID-19 vaccine has brought a new audience to such groups, like Texans for Vaccine Choice. Its leader told publications this summer that its phones were ringing off the hook with calls from people who said they’d gotten other vaccines but don’t want this one.

Neil Johnson, a physicist at George Washington University who studies anti-vaccine groups on social media, has estimated that in recent months, 10 percent of people on Facebook asking questions about vaccines have switched to anti-vaccine views.

“It’s going to be a bumpy road,” said Peter Hotez, a vaccine scientist at Baylor College of Medicine. “Given media scrutiny and an aggressive anti-vaxxer movement, particularly in Texas, any adverse vaccine events are going to be amplified.”

The story cites this Texas Tribune poll from October. I feel like things are probably a bit better now, mostly because it’s clear we will now have a competent administration that takes the pandemic seriously in charge of getting the vaccine out. For sure, messaging is going to be key to this, and all of us will need to play a part to make sure our family and friends have good information and make good choices. This Twitter thread has some good advice.

There will no doubt be significant resistance no matter what, and we may have to reach a point where we impose sanctions on people who could get the vaccine but haven’t. I don’t know what that might look like, and honestly I’m not sure if there’s a practical way to do what I’m suggesting. It’s way premature at this point anyway, but it’s best to be prepared for all possibilities. And as much as anything, we need to be prepared to fight off any effort in the Lege to coddle the anti-vaxxers, who already have had way too much influence, and success. If we can just avoid not making things worse, that will be a big win.

UPDATE: See this NPR story for evidence of growing confidence in the COVID vaccine.

Here comes the vaccine

Houston’s first doses have arrived.

Months of waiting for a COVID-19 vaccine to arrive in Houston are almost — but not quite — over, as hospitals prepare to move the first doses from sealed subzero shipments and into the arms of thousands of front-line health care workers this week.

About 19,500 doses of Pfizer’s vaccine will arrive Monday at four medical centers in Texas: MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, Methodist Dallas Medical Center, Wellness 360 at UT Health San Antonio and UT Health Austin’s Dell Medical School, according to the Texas Department of State Health Services, which is overseeing deliveries of the first vaccine approved and shipped in the United States.

Another 75,075 doses will arrive at 19 additional sites on Tuesday, including seven in the Houston area. By midweek, 27 hospitals in the Houston region, most of them Texas Medical Center hospital system flagships or suburban campuses, will have received doses.

Officials on Sunday at some Houston hospitals compared it to waiting on an Amazon delivery: The package is confirmed, but the email with the tracking number and details hasn’t arrived. The first inoculations in Houston could happen in days, depending on when those shipments appear, said Dr. Marc Boom, president of Houston Methodist.

“If it arrives tomorrow, we will have a full day of vaccinations on Tuesday,” Boom said Sunday. “If it’s Tuesday, depending on what time, we could have some people come in. … I have people scheduled literally in five-minute slots.”

[…]

Under a tiered plan developed by public health leaders, the first vaccine doses will be given to front-line hospital workers. Later shipments will allow hospitals to administer doses to patients at high risk of contracting COVID-19 and developing serious complications, likely in January.

And after that it gets trickier. And it could get even trickier still.

Here are some basic outlines of what’s happening. As we learned last week the Trump White House skimped on actually buying enough doses of vaccine from Pfizer. But the federal government will cover the actual purchase of vaccines. The White House says the military is in charge of and has a plan to actual get the supplies to the states. And though we don’t know all the details let’s assume they have that covered. But that only appears to be getting the crates of supplies to a central staging point in each state. That’s not a negligible job. But it’s only a relatively small part of actually getting the country vaccinated. You need public health campaigns. You need staging areas and distribution from wherever the military drops it off to actual health centers and vaccination centers around each state. And finally you need a small army of medical professionals to actually administer the doses. It’s a big job and the Trump administration hasn’t funded any of that or devised any national plan.

In the absence of any federal plan or budget the CDC and HHS have cannibalized existing budgets to get some money to states for planning. But the sums are by most estimates an order of magnitude less than the amount needed.

State governments would be hard pressed to fund an operation like that during the best of times. But states and local governments around the country are already pushing massive cuts because of the dislocations caused by the pandemic. Through much of the latter part of 2020 the assumption was that this would be dealt with in a follow-up stimulus plan. But of course that never happened.

What the White House has arranged funding for is a critical but relatively small part of the vaccination effort: vaccinations for people in assisted living facilities and health care workers. Those are the two most critical populations. They should go first, and the plan is to get those people vaccinated in December and January. But that leaves the great bulk of the population unvaccinated. The plan is for that phase to end around Feb 1. Meanwhile CARES Act funding, which states can use for various purposes, has to be spent by Dec. 31.

That’s all that’s funded. It’s like a trap door set up for Biden to fall through. So as you can see, today’s excitement and anticipation over the vaccine is cued up to turn sharply to disappointment in February when people start asking where their shots are and blame the train wreck on President Biden. No plan. And no funding to implement a plan. Of course that is potentially catastrophic in human terms. But a lag in vaccination means not only more suffering and death but more delay in allowing the economy to get back on its feet, since people aren’t going to go to restaurants and participate in public life until case numbers drop dramatically.

That…would be bad. I suppose as long as there are still talks for another COVID relief bill, or if Dems win both Georgia Senate runoffs, we still have hope. But yeah, that could be a problem.

Also a problem:

The White House Coronavirus Task Force is increasingly suggesting that states including Texas begin shutting down again, saying in reports sent to state leaders this month that they aren’t doing enough to slow the worst surge in COVID cases that the country has seen.

“This surge is the most rapid increase in cases; the widest spread of intense transmission, with more than 2,000 counties in COVID red zones; and the longest duration of rapid increase, now entering its 8th week, that we have experienced,” say the reports, sent to Texas and other states on Dec. 6. “Despite the severity of this surge and the threat to hospital systems, many state and local governments are not implementing the same mitigation policies that stemmed the tide of the summer surge; that must happen now.”

Texas, the report says, “must increase mitigation to prevent ongoing community spread,” including “significant reduction in capacity or closure of public and private indoor spaces, including restaurants and bars.”

The task force’s reports over the last several weeks, meanwhile, have consistently pointed to the success of European countries — many of which have shuttered restaurants, bars and other businesses — in stemming the outbreak.

“The majority of the United States is not mitigating similarly,” Dec. 6 state report says.

You know how I feel about this. Do your best to take care of yourself, because Greg Abbott isn’t going to do anything to help you. The Trib has more.

The regional COVID situation

Not great, Bob.

COVID-19 is surging across southeast Texas, especially in the suburban counties outside of Houston, which have seen a steady increase in the number of new cases, data show. Galveston, Chambers, Brazoria, Liberty, and Montgomery counties have all had higher COVID-19 cases per capita than at any point during the pandemic. Chambers County leads the region with 463 virus cases per 10,000 residents, followed by Galveston County with 433 cases per capita, according to data compiled by the Houston Chronicle.

Experts say the latest spike is driven by a combination of factors — public fatigue from basic COVID-19 restrictions such as mask wearing and social distancing, but also more family gatherings in households and larger groups in bars and restaurants. While case counts are consistently much higher than they were in previous weeks and months, they have yet to equal the peak seen during the summer.

Yet the virus’s resurgence in places like Galveston County has put business owners like Railean on edge, owing to an executive order from Gov. Greg Abbott that could trigger new restrictions — including the complete closure of some bars — if regional virus hospitalizations exceed 15 percent of hospitals’ total bed capacity for seven consecutive days. At a time when thousands of restaurants — as many as 10,000 across the state, per the Texas Restaurant Association — have closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, further closures could be catastrophic for the industry.

“It would be absolutely devastating to lose this holiday season, devastating to our businesses,” said Gina Spagnola, president of the Galveston Chamber of Commerce.

The Texas Department of State Health Services divides each of the state’s 254 counties into 22 “trauma service areas” which coordinate systems of emergency healthcare and preparedness for their respective regions. Galveston, Chambers, Brazoria, and Liberty Counties are part of a nine-county region trauma service area where COVID-19 hospitalizations have spiked significantly since early November. On Saturday, the region’s rate of hospital beds in use by covid-infected patients eclipsed the 15 percent mark for the first time before dipping back down to 13 percent by Tuesday.

After seven consecutive days above that 15 percent mark, per Abbott’s executive order, the state health agency would notify county judges in all nine counties of the following restrictions: hospitals must suspend elective surgeries; businesses including restaurants, retail stores, offices gyms, and museums would be limited to 50 percent capacity; and bars and other establishments with more than 51 percent alcohol sales must close.

I wish the Chron had included the comparable number for Harris County. I tried computing it myself based on the Chron’s coronavirus page and 2019 Census numbers I found on Wikipedia, but I got higher totals for Chambers and Galveston than what the story gives. The Harris County number I calculate by the same method was lower than those two, but I don’t know how to adjust them, so we’ll leave it at that. I could still probably make a moral comparison between Harris’s more strenuous effort to combat the virus and the more lax attitude of some neighbors, but I don’t know what that would accomplish at this point. The bulk of the blame for all this remains with Donald Trump, Greg Abbott, and the Senate for not passing further COVID relief, which among other things might have helped all these businesses to survive without being open. We can’t wind the clock back and make Trump take COVID seriously, but we could still do the stimulus. Greg Abbott could still tell our Senators to demand that the Senate pass something that would help our state and our businesses. I’m going to keep saying that, every time. On so many levels, it didn’t have to be like this.