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coronavirus

Greg Abbott is a threat to students and teachers

I have three things to say about this.

Lindsey Contreras feels backed in a corner.

The first day of school is just a couple of weeks away. The mother of two, whose older child attends school in Allen, has been watching COVID-19 cases surge again in Texas, spurred by the emergence of the much more contagious delta variant.

“I am absolutely scared to death,” she said.

Her older son is 11 years old, too young by just a few months to receive a COVID-19 vaccine. Now that Gov. Greg Abbott has prohibited schools from requiring masks and online classes will not be offered, she said she’s running out of ways to protect her child.

“I feel like a trapped animal that can’t do anything to protect her babies,” Contreras said. “I would really prefer for [the school district] to offer virtual learning again.”

Lakeisha Patterson shares Contreras’ concerns. She teaches third grade in the Deer Park School District. Her students and her own two children are all too young to be vaccinated. Teaching was scary last year, but she’s even more worried now.

“The precautions we put in place at the beginning of last year, things that were to help, to help reassure parents that we’re doing everything we possibly can to keep our kids safe — we’re not seeing that this year,” she said.

Parents who are concerned by the lack of mask mandates are left with few options this school year. While Texas provided funds for remote learning during the start of the pandemic, a bill that would have funded it for this year died in the Texas Legislature after the House Democrats broke quorum. Another bill that did pass made it impossible for the TEA to use the same emergency powers to fund remote learning this year, according to an agency spokesperson.

Although some school districts, including Austin and Pflugerville ISDs, have announced online options, several others canceled their virtual learning plans for the upcoming school year.

Contreras and Patterson are joined by physicians, health experts, teachers and advocates in pleading with the governor to allow school districts to require masks, one of the most consistent viable tools against the spread of the coronavirus, and for parents to have their kids wear them even if there isn’t a mandate.

This fall’s hoped-for, easier return to school, with lowered spread of COVID-19 and more of the population vaccinated, has disappeared with the emergence of the more-contagious delta variant of the virus, which experts say is fueling the surge and likely spreading rampantly among the unvaccinated.

1. If you have kids under the age of 12, I really feel for you. I don’t know what I’d do in your shoes. My kids are fully vaccinated, but I’m still worried about them. It’s going to be a rougher year than we were expecting, and after all this time that’s a lot. Get your kids vaccinated at the first opportunity, and make sure every member of your family who is eligible is vaccinated.

2. Your school can’t mandate masks or vaccines, but you can ask them to strongly encourage them, and you can apply social pressure on your fellow parents. Get involved with the PTA, get to know your kids’ teachers, and advocate for safe behavior as much as you can. No, you shouldn’t have to do this, but here we are anyway. You can make a difference.

3. Do everything you can to vote Greg Abbott, Dan Patrick, Ken Paxton, and every pro-COVID Republican out of office in 2022. I mean, do I even have to explain this? There are plenty of consequences on us right now. There have to be some consequences for them. If there aren’t, we’ll never get past where we are now.

More on the Memorial Hermann and Baylor vaccination mandates

Memorial Hermann: Get your shots or get out.

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

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

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

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

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

He said spiking hospitalizations and COVID cases prompted the move.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More hospital systems to require vaccines

About time.

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

We’re #2!

More people have died of COVID in Texas than any other state except California, as Texas surpasses New York’s total.

Texas has passed New York to become the state with the second-most COVID-19 deaths, a feat experts say was driven by an inability to control transmission of the virus here.

Texas reached the milestone Wednesday, hitting 53,275 deaths, despite trailing New York by more than 29,000 fatalities last summer. Since then, though Texas is 54 percent more populous, more than twice as many Texans as New Yorkers have succumbed to COVID-19. California, the most populous state, leads the nation with 64,372 virus deaths.

Spencer Fox, associate director of the University of Texas COVID-19 Modeling Consortium, said he was surprised Texas had not passed New York in mortality sooner, since the northeastern state did a far better job limiting the spread of virus after it endured a horrific surge last spring.

“They enacted really strong, precautionary measures that overall are well based in the available science,” Fox said. “It seems that many of the Texas policies were put in place to try and prevent health care collapse rather than trying to prevent transmission.”

By June 30 of last year, as the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic swept through the United States, New York tallied 31,775 virus deaths. Texas had just 2,481.

While New York City hospitals were pushed to the brink in the spring and the region became a global epicenter of the virus, Texas had kept the virus at bay and begun to ease restrictions.

Over next 13 months, however, the states reversed roles. New York kept restrictions and mask rules in place longer and consistently maintained a lower positivity rate than Texas. In contrast, Texas endured two surges of the virus and is in the early stages of a third, as the Delta variant now sweeps the country as a fourth wave of the virus.

During that time, Texas steadily closed in on New York’s death tally, a Chronicle analysis found.

Another way to put it is this: Since June 30 of last year, 13 months ago, there have been about 51,000 COVID deaths in Texas. (That’s the official count, which as we know is too low for a variety of factors, but it’s what we’re using for comparison purposes.) In that same time period, there have been about 22,000 COVID deaths in New York. Texas, with 54% more people than New York, has had 131% more COVID deaths than New York in that time period. It’s mind-boggling, enraging, tragic, devastating, and all of it can be laid at the doorstep of Greg Abbott.

The rest of the story is a timeline of those past 13 months, the various things that governments in New York and Texas did and didn’t do to deal with the changing infection rates, and so on. New York has been far more restrictive than Texas has, sometimes to the point where its residents complained and experts questioned the risk calculation involved, but the numbers are what they are. New York also has a higher vaccination rate than Texas, so this trend is going to continue, and probably accelerate, in the foreseeable future. Indeed, given how much more vaccinated California is than Texas, we could conceivably catch up to them as well. Not a goal we should want to achieve.

But we’re well on the way, and Texas’ hospitals are bracing for impact.

When Terry Scoggin left work at Titus Regional Medical Center in Mount Pleasant on Tuesday evening, there were five patients at the facility being treated for COVID.

Overnight, six more people suffering severe coronavirus infections were admitted to the rural Northeast Texas hospital — pushing the facility to its capacity limit and putting Scoggin, the hospital’s chief executive, on high alert for what he’s calling “a fourth surge.”

“We’re at it again,” Scoggin said.

That same night, hospitalizations in Bexar County rose by nearly 8%. Almost 100 people were admitted with severe COVID to local facilities on Tuesday alone, Bexar County officials said on Wednesday.

“These numbers are staggering and frightening,” said Eric Epley, CEO of the Southwest Texas Regional Advisory Council for Trauma in San Antonio.

Hospital and health officials across Texas are seeing similar dramatic jumps, straining an already decimated health care system that is starving for workers in the aftermath of previous coronavirus surges.

[…]

Fueled by the highly contagious delta variant of the coronavirus, which is contributing to skyrocketing cases not just in Texas but across the nation, the rising hospitalizations rates have spread outside of the heavily populated metro areas that first began to report increases a few weeks ago. Now they are being seen in all corners of the state, triggering pleas from hospitals for state-backed staffing help to handle the increasing pressure.

Trend forecasters at the University of Texas at Austin’s COVID-19 Modeling Consortium said Wednesday that most regions of the state could see a return within a couple of weeks to the capacity-busting hospitalization rate facilities were experiencing in January — the height of the pandemic — if people don’t resume masking up and social distancing.

In Florida, hospitals are already seeing the numbers of COVID patients exceeding levels they saw during the worst of the pandemic, and consortium researchers told The Texas Tribune that Texas is not far behind.

“We are absolutely on a path to hit a surge as large, if not bigger, than the previous surges right now” said Spencer Fox, associate director at the consortium. “If nothing is done, we’re on a crash course for a very large third wave.”

The situation has caused health officials from both rural and metro areas to plead for more resources from the state.

“On behalf of the 157 rural hospitals across Texas, I am writing to ask you immediately take steps to provide additional medical staffing which we anticipate will be needed in our rural hospitals in short order because of the new COVID surge,” John Henderson, president and CEO of the Texas Organization of Rural and Community Hospitals, wrote in a July 26 letter to Gov. Greg Abbott.

And what was Abbott’s eventual response?

The story is behind their paywall, but the basics of it that I could glean were that the state of Texas is declining to use any COVID stimulus funds to pay for more hospital staff. Instead, the state is directing cities and counties to use their own COVID funds for that. Because we’re all in this together you’re on your own, Jack. And remember, it’s all your fault and will be your fault when more people have died of COVID in Texas than anywhere else in the country.

Justice Department sues over Abbott’s anti-migrant executive order

Good.

The Biden administration sued Texas on Friday, asking a federal judge to block Gov. Greg Abbott’s order that state troopers pull over drivers transporting migrants who pose a risk of carrying COVID-19 as a way to prevent the spread of the virus.

The lawsuit comes a day after the U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland, in a letter to the governor, threatened to take legal action against Texas if Abbott didn’t rescind his order. Garland described the order as “dangerous and unlawful.”

The Department of Justice said in the lawsuit that Abbott’s order will contribute to the spread of COVID-19 and it will disrupt immigration officials’ network of contractors and non government organizations that help host recently arrived migrants as their legal cases are pending.

“In our constitutional system, a State has no right to regulate the federal government’s operations,” the DOJ argued in a motion asking the judge to block Abbott’s order, adding “this restriction on the transportation of noncitizens would severely disrupt federal immigration operations.”

[…]

The lawsuit says that if migrants are not allowed to be transported by volunteers or contractors they would have to be confined to immigration facilities where there would not be enough space for every migrant.

I’d not blogged about this before, so here’s the background for you:

Gov. Greg Abbott draws criticism for ordering state troopers to pull over vehicles with migrants, saying it will stem COVID-19 risk
U.S. attorney general blasts Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s latest border directive and threatens a legal battle
‘Dangerous and unlawful.’ AG Merrick Garland threatens to sue over Gov. Abbott’s latest border order

Yes, the same Governor who has banned mask mandates and vaccine mandates for local government employees somehow thinks this will have a positive effect on COVID, even though 90% of migrants are vaccinated, nearly double the rate of the Texas population as a whole. For more on the lawsuit, which is an emergency motion seeking an injunction or temporary restraining order, see here. For a copy of the lawsuit itself, see here. For an analysis of why the Abbott executive order is “*flagrantly* illegal and unconstitutional”, see here. For more in general, see Dos Centavos and the Chron.

Greg Abbott will blame you if you get sick

He will take no responsibility at all.

With COVID-19 hospitalizations soaring past 5,000 statewide for the first time in nearly five months, state officials are stepping up vaccination outreach programs and promotional campaigns but Gov. Greg Abbott insists that the state won’t impose any new mandates on Texans.

State officials announced Wednesday that Texas has 5,292 people hospitalized with lab-confirmed COVID-19 — the highest number since March 2, the day Abbott announced he was ending all state mask mandates and restrictions on businesses.

At that time, Abbott called for “personal diligence” and said statewide mandates are no longer needed.

Though 10,000 new COVID infections were reported statewide on Wednesday, the most since February, he has not changed his messaging.

“The time for government mask mandates is over — now is the time for personal responsibility,” Abbott wrote on Twitter on Tuesday. “Every Texan has the right to choose whether they will wear a mask or have their children wear masks.”

His latest comments came as the president of the Texas State Teachers Association publicly called on Abbott to allow schools to require masks, particularly since vaccines have not been approved for children under 12.

“If Gov. Abbott really cares about the health and safety of Texas students, educators and their communities, he will give local school officials and health experts the option of requiring masks in their schools,” Texas State Teachers Association President Ovidia Molina said on Tuesday.

I mean, I think we know the answer to that hypothetical.

Meanwhile, statewide hospitalizations from the virus have doubled in the last two weeks and more than tripled since the start of July, when Abbott re-issued a disaster declaration to deal with COVID-19.

“COVID-19 hospitalizations are rising and new variants of the virus are spreading quickly in our communities,” said Dr. John Hellerstedt, commissioner of the Texas Department of State Health Services in a statement Wednesday.

While Texas still appears to have more 9,100 available hospital beds statewide, there are areas around Beaumont, College Station and Killeen reporting that few intensive care beds are available for additional chronic patients.

The College Station region reported no more available ICU beds on Wednesday and Laredo officials were down to just 1 available ICU bed.

Killeen is a city in Bell County, which has one of the worst vaccination rates in the state, according to state data. Just 33.5 percent of that county’s population over 12 years of age have been fully vaccinated compared to over 54 percent in Harris County and 56 percent in Bexar.

“It is clear that increasing vaccinations is still our best strategy to navigate through this pandemic and get to closure,” Bell County Judge David Blackburn said in a recent news release.

Statewide, just 52 percent of Texans 12 and older have been vaccinated.

Here’s the Thursday update.

Across Texas, 5,662 people were hospitalized for the virus as of Thursday, the highest number recorded by DSHS since Feb. 28 and a massive increase since its low point of 1,428 on June 27.

It’s bad, y’all. And it’s getting worse. There’s a bit of a vaccination push now, but as you know it takes time to get fully protected, and we don’t have any. Abbott’s lifting of the mask mandate when he did was premature, and his mulish resistance to any possible leeway for local officials is harmful in the extreme, but let’s be clear that his biggest sin is not doing everything he could to get more Texans vaccinated. Masks at least would do something now, and even if it is too late for this surge to ramp up vaccinations, that’s still by far the best thing to do. So what is Abbott doing?

Vaccinations > masks, but thanks to Abbott’s utter lack of leadership, we have neither. And so thousands more people are getting sick, and some number of them – more than it should be – will end up in the hospital or a grave. And all of that is on Greg Abbott.

Will Delta change HISD’s plans?

Remains to be seen.

Houston Independent School District Superintendent Millard House II released a video Saturday confirming that the district’s “communicable disease team” is still fully operational as the district works to update its COVID-19 plan for the start of the new school year.

“As you all know, we’ve seen a rise in the wrong direction most recently and its important for our community to understand we take very seriously the health and safety of our students, staff and community members to ensure that we have a strong and healthy start to our school year,” said House, who began work July 1.

“Contrary to what some reports have indicated, we have not disbanded our communicable disease team. We are continuing to work closely with those individuals that understand [the virus] and make certain that the safety of our community is A-1,” House said.

[…]

The video release comes weeks after House stated that classes would be held entirely in-person this fall, but that pledge came as the delta variant of COVID-19 was just starting to gain a foothold in the area.

In May, the district said it would comply with Gov. Greg Abbott’s executive order that banned public schools from requiring masks inside buildings after June 4.

Houston ISD spokeswoman Tejal Patel said an updated communicable disease plan “will be released in the coming weeks,” but did not say whether it would include a mask mandate or remote-learning options.

I guess a better question to ask is whether Greg Abbott will change his current stance and allow school districts some leeway if there are multiple outbreaks. He’s not going to follow national guidelines because it’s the individual responsibility of children who are not yet eligible for a vaccine to not get COVID, so I wouldn’t hold out much hope. I hope HISD and Superintendent House do everything in their power to protect students and teachers and staff, and loudly advocate for the things that are not in their power.

On the reaction by some people to the new mask recommendations

I have one thing to say to this.

Texas Republicans in Congress are fuming over new mask requirements on Capitol Hill and recommendations from the CDC that even vaccinated Americans begin masking again as an extra precaution in parts of the country where the Delta variant is spreading, including Texas.

“Which is it, vaccines or masks?” said U.S. Rep. Chip Roy, a San Antonio Republican, in an impassioned speech on the House floor on Wednesday. “Do the vaccines work or they don’t work? Do the masks work or they don’t work? I’d like to know which it is.”

Health officials have been clear that the vaccines remain effective at preventing the worst outcomes of COVID, including hospitalization and death. The vast majority of breakthrough cases have been mild.

But COVID infections continue to climb throughout much of the U.S. — including Texas — and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention this week revised its recommendations to urge even fully vaccinated Americans in those areas to wear masks indoors again.

That led to new mask mandates in the U.S. House and the White House, but Texas Gov. Greg Abbott has made clear he doesn’t not plan to require face coverings again in Texas.

Still, Republicans were outraged at the new guidance. U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz called mask-wearing “a virtue signal of submissiveness” as he referred to Democrats wearing face coverings again as “kabuki theater.”

If you are not fully vaccinated, have not made your vaccinated status known to others, and have not been a vocal advocate of vaccination, then you can take any and all complaints you may have about these new recommendations and go fuck yourself. Seriously.

I say again, with all the feeling I can muster: Go fuck yourself.

“Universal masking” for school children recommended

Seems like a sensible idea, especially given that children under the age of 12 can’t get the vaccine yet.

The American Academy of Pediatrics on Monday recommended that all children over the age of 2 wear masks when returning to school this year, regardless of vaccination status.

The AAP, which said its important for children to return to in-person learning this year, recommends that school staff also wear masks. The AAP is calling the new guidance a “layered approach.”

“We need to prioritize getting children back into schools alongside their friends and their teachers — and we all play a role in making sure it happens safely,” said Sonja O’Leary, chair of the AAP Council on School Health. “Combining layers of protection that include vaccinations, masking and clean hands hygiene will make in-person learning safe and possible for everyone.”

The AAP said universal masking is necessary because much of the student population is not vaccinated, and it’s hard for schools to determine who is as new variants emerge that might spread more easily among children.

Children 12 and over are eligible for Covid-19 vaccinations in the U.S. And the FDA said last week that emergency authorization for vaccines for children under 12 could come in early to midwinter.

[…]

Universal masking will also protect students and staff from other respiratory illnesses that could keep kids out of school, the AAP said.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended this month that vaccinated students do not have to wear masks in classrooms.

Dr. Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health, said on MSNBC that the CDC may have been trying to be a little more lenient, allowing people to make judgment calls “depending on the circumstances in your school and your community.”

But he said he understands where the AAP is coming from.

“They will not be popular amongst parents and kids who are sick of masks, but you know what? The virus doesn’t care that we’re sick of masks,” Collins said. “The virus is having another version of its wonderful party for itself. And to the degree that we can squash that by doing something that maybe is a little uncomfortable, a little inconvenient … if it looks like it’s going to help, put the mask back on for a while.”

That was from last week. Yesterday, the CDC caught up.

To prevent further spread of the Delta variant, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention updated its mask guidance on Tuesday to recommend that fully vaccinated people wear masks indoors when in areas with “substantial” and “high” transmission of Covid-19, which includes nearly two-thirds of all US counties.

“In recent days I have seen new scientific data from recent outbreak investigations showing that the Delta variant behaves uniquely differently from past strains of the virus that cause Covid-19,” CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky told a media briefing on Tuesday.

“This new science is worrisome and unfortunately warrants an update to our recommendations,” she said. “This is not a decision that we or CDC has made lightly.”

[…]

Earlier this month, the CDC’s Covid-19 school guidance noted that fully vaccinated people do not need to wear masks, and then about a week later the American Academy of Pediatrics issued stricter guidance recommending that everyone older than 2 wear a mask in schools, regardless of vaccination their status.

Now the updated CDC guidance recommends everyone in schools wear masks.

“CDC recommends that everyone in K through 12 schools wear a mask indoors, including teachers, staff, students and visitors, regardless of vaccination status. Children should return to full-time, in-person learning in the fall with proper prevention strategies in place,” Walensky said. “Finally, CDC recommends community leaders encourage vaccination and universal masking to prevent further outbreaks in areas of substantial and high transmission. With the Delta variant, vaccinating more Americans now is more urgent than ever.”

The updated CDC guidance makes “excellent sense,” Dr. David Weber, professor at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine in Chapel Hill and board member of the Society of Healthcare Epidemiology, told CNN on Tuesday.

“Breakthrough disease clearly occurs, and for those cases, we know they’re much more mild in vaccinated people, but we don’t know how infectious vaccinated people are,” he said. “But clearly, if you want to protect your children under 12 or grandchildren, or protect immunocompromised people, as well as protect your own health — from even mild disease — then you should be wearing a mask, particularly in areas of high transmission when indoors.”

My kids have been vaccinated, but they’re still regular mask-wearers, especially the younger one. I fully expect them to continue to do so in school, at least for the fall. I’ve been wearing a mask again for indoor spaces as well. I will admit it’s kind of annoying, as we have been vaccinated for months now and have been pretty damn careful all along, but it is what it is. That said, I have a lot of sympathy for this position:

Some of that is happening in other states, but who knows, maybe we’ll get it for federal buildings and air travel, too. And who knows, maybe this will work.

As leaders in other parts of the country require government employees to get COVID-19 vaccinations, San Antonio and Bexar County are considering following suit, the Express-News reports.

Such a step would come as vaccination rates plateau and the highly contagious delta variant leads to a rise in infections, hospitalizations and deaths in Texas. California and New York City this week said they will make employees get the vaccine or submit to weekly coronavirus tests. Veterans Affairs became the first federal agency to mandate COVID vaccinations for frontline staff.

“We are supportive of the efforts of New York and California,” San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg and County Judge Nelson Wolff said in a joint statement supplied to Express-News. “We will be reviewing the legalities and practicalities of requiring a COVID-19 vaccine and/or weekly testing in conformity with CDC guidelines in order to protect the health and well-being of city/county workforce.”

A city and county vaccine mandate would apply to roughly 18,000 workers, according to the daily, which reports that both Nirenberg and Wolff are unsure whether the requirement would be allowable under state law.

I think we can say with extreme confidence that the state would bring all its fight against such a move. That doesn’t mean it’s not worth the effort, but it’s not a move to be made lightly. Be prepared to hire a bunch of expensive lawyers, and have a solid communication strategy in place, that would be my advice.

As for masks in schools, well…

What did you expect? Greg Abbott has already said there won’t be any mask mandate in schools, and it’s impossible to imagine him changing his mind. It’s all up to the parents and school staff. I would not feel safe having my not-yet-vaccinated kids in school without a full-mask situation, which by the way is what we did in this past spring semester. I don’t even know what the argument against is. Doesn’t much matter when the power is on that side. The Trib and Daily Kos have more.

Still surging

Hospitalizations.

The number of lab-confirmed COVID hospitalizations in Texas broke 4,000 on Friday for the first time since March, a worrying sign of the pandemic’s quick resurgence since the Delta variant was discovered in the state.

[…]

As of Saturday, Texas Department of State Health Services data reported 4,320 lab-confirmed COVID hospitalizations in the state, more than three times the cases it had at its low of 1,428 less than a month ago. In the span of one week, COVID hospitalizations had spiked nearly 50 percent.

The increases in COVID hospitalizations have been dramatic. In the week ending July 24, Texas averaged 3,710 people hospitalized with COVID, up from 2,537 in the week before and 1,838 in the week before that.

Texas Medical Center hospitals are seeing an influx of COVID patients in ICU beds, and medical leaders may soon consider postponing elective procedures, said Dr. James McDeavitt, executive vice president and dean of clinical affairs at Baylor College of Medicine.

“Everywhere is experiencing that same sort of explosive growth right now, so that’s obviously very concerning,” said McDeavitt, who has been closely tracking local COVID data since the start of the pandemic.

Positive tests.

More than 1,000 people are testing positive per day for COVID-19 in the greater Houston region, more than seven times last month’s daily average, according to the Texas Medical Center.

As the delta variant dominates new COVID-19 infections across the country, the Texas Medical Center is returning to daily coronavirus updates.

The takeaways, sent every morning from William McKeon, president and CEO of the Texas Medical Center, provide a glimpse into one of the world’s largest medical complexes as its clinicians treat infected patients. Previously released weekly, the switch back to daily missives illustrate how rapidly delta is spreading across the region.

Last week, an average of 1,069 people tested positive per day for COVID-19 in the greater Houston region, more than double the prior week’s daily average.

“The COVID-19 Delta variant is spreading rapidly throughout Texas as only 43 percent of our population is fully vaccinated,” McKeon wrote in a Monday email.

If you don’t know what to do by now, I can’t help you.

It’s not vaccinated people that are dying

Numbers don’t lie. It’s the unvaccinated that die.

Of the 8,787 people who have died in Texas due to COVID-19 since early February, at least 43 were fully vaccinated, the Texas Department of State Health Services said.

That means 99.5% of people who died due to COVID-19 in Texas from Feb. 8 to July 14 were unvaccinated, while 0.5% were the result of “breakthrough infections,” which DSHS defines as people who contracted the virus two weeks after being fully vaccinated.

The agency said nearly 75% of the 43 vaccinated people who died were fighting a serious underlying condition, such as diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, cancer or chronic lung disease.

Additionally, it said 95% of the 43 vaccinated people who died were 60 or older, and that a majority of them were white and a majority were men.

DSHS noted that these are preliminary numbers, which could change because each case must be confirmed through public health investigations. Statewide, more than 50,000 people have died of COVID-19 since March 2020, but the rate of deaths has slowed dramatically since vaccines became widely available in April.

Dr. David Lakey, the chief medical officer of the University of Texas System, said people succumbing to the coronavirus despite being vaccinated was “not unexpected.”

“No vaccine is 100%,” said Lakey, who is also a member of the Texas Medical Association’s COVID-19 task force. “And we’ve known for a long while that the vaccines aren’t 100%, but they’re really really good at preventing severe disease and hospitalizations. … There will always be some individuals that will succumb to the illness in the absence of full herd immunity.”

He added that 0.5% is “a very low number of individuals in a state of 30 million. … In the grand perspective of everything, that’s not a large number that would call into question at all the use of this vaccine.”

I should note that some of those 43 vaccinated people who died may have had other comorbidities, we don’t have enough data on that. But still, we’re talking a tiny fraction. One out of two hundred. Which group would you rather be in?

Need more? Go look at these charts from the CDC, one of new COVID cases and one of COVID deaths. The spike in new cases is much higher than the increase in deaths, because vaccinated people who still get COVID get a much milder version of it. They don’t go to hospitals, and they don’t die. If more people were vaccinated, that first chart wouldn’t have that big uptick in it, either.

And one more thing:

Just three states are now driving the pandemic in the United States, as the divide between vaccinated and unvaccinated regions of the country becomes ever more stark, as the more transmissible Delta variant of the coronavirus spreads.

Forty percent of all new cases this week have been recorded in Florida, Texas and Missouri, White House pandemic response coordinator Jeff Zients revealed at a press briefing Thursday.

Florida alone accounts for 20 percent of all new cases nationally, Zients pointed out, a trend that has stretched into its second week.

Zients added that “virtually all” hospitalizations and deaths — a full 97 percent — are among unvaccinated people. “The threat is now predominantly only to the unvaccinated,” he said. A few vaccinated people do experience so-called breakthrough infections, but they tend to experience only mild COVID-19 illness, or no illness at all.

Encouragingly, Zients said the five states that have experienced the most significant rise in infections — Arkansas, Louisiana, Florida, Nevada and Missouri — all also saw vaccination rates beat the national average for a second week in a row. But because immunity takes two weeks to develop, and the Delta variant spreads so rapidly, the benefits of the increased uptake of vaccinations may not be evident right away.

Singling out the three states where infections are now spiking could have the effect of putting pressure on elected officials there to do more to encourage vaccinations.

One of those elected officials is Greg Abbott, and we know how much he cares. But maybe some other people are less resistant. The numbers don’t lie.

More masking

In Travis County.

Public health officials in Austin and Travis County are now encouraging vaccinated people to wear masks both indoors and outdoors, and for those unvaccinated to stay at home except for essential needs — the first major city in Texas to take such a step.

This comes as the highly contagious delta variant continues to spread across the state, pushing the county’s seven-day average of new hospitalizations to 35 — the threshold for Stage 4 of the area’s COVID-19 risk-based guidelines.

County officials made the announcement in a virtual news conference Friday morning. Under Stage 4, officials want residents — vaccinated and unvaccinated — to wear masks at all times in public, and for unvaccinated people to only leave their homes for essential trips.

The city can’t enforce the restrictions, however, because Gov. Greg Abbott banned all local pandemic-related mandates in May. The recommendations differ from those of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which says it safe for people who are fully vaccinated to “resume activities that you did before the pandemic without wearing a mask or physically distancing.”

It was just last week that Austin had gone to Stage 3. Of course as noted they can’t make anyone do any of this. They can just ask nicely and recommend as hard as they can.

Fort Bend is doing likewise.

Fort Bend County officials highly encourage people to wear masks indoors and get vaccinated as the highly contagious Delta variant spreads through the community.

A month after confirming the presence of the Delta variant in Fort Bend, health officials have detected an increase in the COVID-19 test positivity rate and in the number of cases, hospitalizations and ICU admissions, said Dr. Jacquelyn Minter, director of the county’s health and human services department.

In the past week, roughly 77 percent of the reported cases were the Delta variant, Minter said. The vast majority of cases of severe illness involve people who are unvaccinated. There has been a spike in the number of infected young adults.

“We are finding that this variant is especially adept at spreading in close groups of unvaccinated people,” Minter said.

Officials recommend that people who are vaccinated and unvaccinated wear masks indoors, practice physical distancing and wash their hands. County staff will post signs recommending that people mask up.

“This is a preventive action that is being asked,” said County Judge KP George. “This is not a mandate. But it is strongly advised to reduce the number of infected people.”

Harris County has gone up a notch as well, and it won’t surprise me if they take the next step. Just as a reminder, masking and social distancing did a pretty good job of keeping things under control when there was no vaccine. If we could at least do that, we could get this back under control pretty quickly. I think we all know that the overlap between “won’t get vaxxed” and “won’t wear a mask” is pretty high, so keep your expectations in check. If only there were some way to do more than encourage and recommend…

The fourth wave

We’re not ready.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Abbott affirms he will take no action to mitigate future COVID waves

He’s on brand, that much is for sure.

Gov. Greg Abbott says he will not impose another statewide mask mandate, despite COVID-19 cases being on the rise again.

“There will be no mask mandate imposed, and the reasons for that are very clear,” Abbott told KPRC-TV in Houston on Tuesday. “There are so many people who have immunities to COVID, whether it be through the vaccination, whether it be through their own exposure and their recovery from it, which would be acquired immunity.”

It would be “inappropriate to require people who already have immunity to wear a mask,” Abbott said.

During a news conference Wednesday in Houston, Abbott went further and expressed blanket resistance to any new restrictions to fight the virus. He said Texas is “past the time of government mandates” and “into the time for personal responsibility.”

[…]

Abbott reiterated Tuesday that Texas schoolchildren will not face mask requirements as they return to school later this summer.

“Kids will not be forced by government or by schools to wear masks in school,” Abbott said. “They can by parental choice wear a mask, but there will be no government mandate requiring masks.”

Well, he answered my question, and that answer is “You’re on your own, it’s not my problem if you get sick”. What happens when and if hospitals begin to get overrun remains a mystery. The most charitable explanation of this stance is “Look, we all know that the idiots who haven’t gotten vaccinated are the same idiots who refuse to wear masks, so what’s even the point?” If only he as Governor had some power to enforce compliance, or to be a voice of persuasion to those who have refused to bear any responsibility. But at least he cleared that up for us, so thanks for that. The Chron and Reform Austin have more.

The ultimate inducement to getting vaccinated

Winning college football games. I mean seriously, if that doesn’t do it then literally nothing will.

SEC commissioner Greg Sankey calls it the “vaccination motivation” — in urging the league’s programs to receive the COVID-19 vaccination before the season kicks off in a little more than a month.

“Let me be clear to our fans, to our coaches, to our staff members and to our student-athletes: COVID-19 vaccines are widely available,” Sankey said to crank up SEC Media Days on Monday. “They’ve proven to be highly effective. And when people are fully vaccinated, we all have the ability to avoid serious health risks, reduce the virus’s spread and maximize our chances of returning to a normal college football experience, and to a normal life.

“With six weeks to go before kickoff, now is the time to seek that full vaccination.”

Sankey, speaking on the first day of the four-day event and the first SEC Media Days in two years because of the pandemic, said six out of the SEC’s 14 football teams “have reached the 80 percent threshold in roster vaccination.”

“That number needs to grow, and grow rapidly,” Sankey said. “We have learned how to manage through a COVID environment, but we do not yet have control of a COVID environment, and that finds us preparing to return toward normal this fall, but we see realities around us.”

[…]

Sankey added, “The ‘forfeit’ word comes up at this point,” after the league last season left a cushion in December to allow for makeup games. That likely will not be the case this year. A&M is scheduled to kick off its season Sept. 4 against Kent State at Kyle Field, and Sankey said all early signs are the SEC’s season will not be pushed back a few weeks (and shortened to league-only contests) like it was in 2020.

“You hope not to have disruption, but hope is not a plan, goes the cliché,” Sankey said. “We (for now) still have roster minimums that exist, just like last year. What I’ve identified for consideration among our membership is we remove those roster minimums, and you’re expected to play as scheduled. That means your team needs to be healthy to compete, and if not, that game won’t be rescheduled.

“ … We’ve not built in the kind of time we did last year, particularly at the end of the season, to accommodate disruption. Unless we’re going to do that, our teams are going to have to be full prepared to play their season as scheduled.”

I’ll get back to the SEC in a minute, but at least one conference is using the word “forfeit”.

The American Athletic Conference has had conversations in the past week that would require teams without enough healthy players due to COVID-19 to forfeit games this season.

“It’s not decided yet, but it’s likely,” Houston athletic director Chris Pezman said recently during an appearance on SportsTalk 790 AM.

Few FBS teams dealt with COVID-19 disruptions as much last season as Houston, which had eight games either canceled or postponed. UH officials were particularly upset with the short notice given by Baylor, which called off a game less than 24 hours before kickoff and the Cougars’ equipment truck already in Waco.

The eventual season opener against Tulane was delayed until Oct. 8, a delay of more than a month.

A similar measure to force teams unable to field enough healthy players to forfeit has also been discussed with the Big 12.

“The COVIDing out and the gamesmanship that went into that, make no mistake that occurred this last year,” Pezman said. “You’re going to end up forfeiting.”

Lots of teams played incomplete schedules last year, with many games being delayed or canceled because one team or the other didn’t have enough healthy players. If the idea this year is for things to go back to “normal”, then teams need to ensure they can meet minimum roster requirements. The best way they can do that is to make sure that they don’t have COVID outbreaks, and we all know what they best way to do that is. Stuff can still happen – the recent outbreak with the Yankees, where over 85% of their team and staff are vaxxed, is an example – but the odds are much better in your favor this way.

Obviously, the number of people in scope for this is small, but it just might spread outward a bit. Imagine if coaches forbade the fat cat donors from hobnobbing with the teams if they’re not vaxxed, for example. Whatever the case, every little bit helps. And hey, if the ol’ ball coach says get your shots, who’s gonna say no?

UPDATE: Not just college football.

The NFL has added an additional COVID-19 vaccination incentive for players, threatening forfeits and the loss of game checks if an outbreak among unvaccinated players causes an unresolvable disruption in the regular-season schedule.

Commissioner Roger Goodell informed clubs of the new policy Thursday in a memo. The league has encouraged vaccination for players but has not required it, per an agreement with the NFL Players Association.

Instead, the league has set up a series of incentives. As of Thursday, Goodell wrote, more than 75% of NFL players were at least partially vaccinated and more than half of the league’s teams have player vaccination rates above 80%.

Unvaccinated players will be subject to severe protocols during training camp and the regular season, including daily testing, mask-wearing and travel restrictions. Thursday’s memo made it clear that unvaccinated players could, in theory, be responsible for the losses of games and paychecks as well.

You can be free to make your own choices about the vaccine if you really insist, but that doesn’t mean you’re free from the consequences.

Are any state leaders going to talk about the rising COVID rate?

Just curious.

With less than half of Texans vaccinated and the highly contagious delta variant of the coronavirus spreading, the percentage of COVID-19 tests coming back positive in the state has climbed to a rate unseen since winter.

As of this weekend, Texas’ positivity rate is over 10% — a level that Gov. Greg Abbott and the Trump administration had identified as a red flag earlier in the pandemic. Meanwhile, daily confirmed new case totals and hospitalizations are climbing fast, but are far below their winter peaks.

On Saturday, the seven-day average for new confirmed cases in the state was 2,119. That’s nearly triple the average on the first day of the month, when it was 757. Meanwhile, the number of people hospitalized for the coronavirus in the state climbed from 1,591 on July 1 to 2,834 on Friday.

More than 14,200 people with COVID-19 were hospitalized on Jan. 11 — the highest number of pandemic hospitalizations in Texas so far.

But the positivity rate stands out among the rising numbers because experts view it as a leading indicator.

“The early signs are similar. They are all right there,” said Benjamin Neuman, a virologist and professor at Texas A&M University. “Epidemiologists read test positivity stats like the low tide, and it looks as though we are in for a big wave.”

In the last seven days, about 144,000 molecular tests, such as nasal or throat swab tests, were administered in Texas, and 10.2% of those came back positive, according to the Texas Department of State Health Services. The last time the state’s positivity rate was above 10% was in February, and the rate hit an all-time low of 2.8% in mid-June.

The positivity rate does not clearly measure how prevalent the virus is spreading across the state since it depends on the number of administered tests, Neuman said, but “what it indicates is that we are missing a lot of cases.”

“Ten percent of the state is not infected right now,” he continued. “But 10% of the people with the sniffles have COVID, which means we are at the start of something like another wave. We have seen the numbers in the rest of the U.S. go up and Texas has been a little bit behind, but it looks as though we may be catching up fast.”

[…]

Public health experts have been raising alarm about the delta variant in recent weeks, especially in places like Texas where the vaccination rate is low. Around 43% of Texans are currently fully vaccinated.

The vaccines have been shown to be highly effective at preventing new coronavirus cases, though there have been some rare occurrences of breakthrough infections — which Dr. John Carlo, the CEO of Prism Health North Texas and president of AIDS Arms Physicians, explained is when someone who is completely vaccinated contracts the virus anyways.

“The reason that is happening more and more is because if we still have people that are unvaccinated circulating with those who are vaccinated, it still presents a risk for breakthrough infections, even though the risk is minimized,” Carlo said.

Evidence also suggests that the small numbers of people who are vaccinated but do get infected tend to face less severe versions of the illness.

“The good news is that though we are seeing breakthrough infections, these are only mild cases,” Carlo said. “The vaccines show great protections but we knew it was never going to be perfect, it’s not 100%. And the big thing to know is that the vaccine removes the high chance of severe symptoms if you do get the virus.”

In a statement, DSHS said the delta variant is “having a significant effect on unvaccinated people leading to increases in new cases and hospitalizations.” Texas officials have not said how many of the new cases are among vaccinated and unvaccinated people, but national and local health leaders say the most severe impacts appear to be happening overwhelmingly among the unvaccinated.

I mean, I know there are walls to be built, and voters to suppress, and trans kids to kick around. Greg Abbott has a busy schedule, you know? I’m sure he’ll get around to talking about the rising COVID rate and the need to get vaccinated and maybe the return to mask wearing any day now.

The Virus And The Vote

As you may recall, there were a lot of concerns going into the 2020 election about the potential for things to go horribly wrong. Books were written about the weak points in our bizarre and super-distributed system for running and certifying elections. The pandemic, and the chaos that resulted from how it was bungled by the Trump administration, jacked those worries up even higher.

And yet, with all that ambient anxiety, thousands of brand-new poll workers, ramped up absentee voting, and so many more alterations to old processes, everything went quite smoothly. Results were timely, no “Iowa Democratic caucus”-style screwups, and as we well know, vanishingly few instances of chicanery and lawbreaking. How did we pull it off? This report, from the Stanford-MIT Healthy Elections Project, provides some answers. It’s long, so let me just quote from the Introduction:

The 2020 U.S. election was both a miracle and a tragedy. It was a miracle in that election administrators, facing unprecedented challenges from a pandemic, were able to pull off a safe, secure, and professional election in which a record number of Americans turned out to vote. It was also a tragedy, though, because, despite these heroic efforts, lies about vote fraud and the performance of the system have cemented a perception among tens of millions of Americans that the election was “rigged.” This manufactured distrust has deeply damaged our democracy; the path to repairing it is not at all clear.

The Capitol Insurrection of 6 January 2021 will forever constitute the image of the 2020 election and the distrust that accompanied it. Despite the heroism and success we detail below, more than a hundred members of Congress voted to question and overturn the results in one or more states.

The enduring images of the 2020 election should have been very different. During the primary elections early in the year, the picture looked bleak, as poll-worker and polling-place shortages caused long lines of frustrated voters to risk their lives, while thousands of absentee ballots were rejected in places that had little experience with large-scale voting by mail. In the general election, however, an army of new poll workers, wearing personal protective equipment (PPE) and often administering the voting behind Lucite barriers, staffed polling places. Absentee voting also set records, as rates of canceled mail ballots were dramatically lower than before the pandemic.

How did the country pull off a successful election under pandemic circumstances? What changes to the election infrastructure were necessary to accomplish this task? How can we reconcile this measurable success with convictions, strongly held by a sizeable share of the electorate, that the election was rigged? These are the questions this article seeks to answer. Given the unfounded, partisan criticism that the election was “rigged” and “disastrous,” it is difficult in hindsight to reimagine what a true electoral disaster would have looked like and how close the United States came to experiencing one. The primary-season meltdowns in several states painted an ominous picture of institutional collapse threatening the general election. In several respects, the election system benefited from the timing of the pandemic, coming as it did in the middle of the presidential-primary season but hitting hardest just as Joseph Biden wrapped up the Democratic Party’s nomination. The baptism by fire in the primaries provided necessary lessons in how to solve pandemic-related problems so that both mail and polling-place voting could work properly come November.

A little light reading for you as we wait for our Democratic legislators to try to persuade a couple of recalcitrant Senators in Washington to get off their asses and take action to protect future elections and democracy in general. Found on Twitter.

What will Harris County do about rising case numbers?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Austin tries to slow down the Delta spike

Not really much they can do, though.

Austin city and public health officials on Thursday raised the city’s coronavirus risk-based guidelines for the first time since the winter surge, urging unvaccinated people to avoid non-essential travel and take other precautions after seeing a dramatic increase in new COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations in recent days.

Officials placed at least part of the blame on the dangerous and highly transmissible Delta variant of the virus, which has contributed to similar spikes in more populous areas across Texas recently.

“We cannot pretend that we are done with a virus that is not done with us,” Austin Mayor Steve Adler said during a Thursday news conference.

But the city’s move to Stage 3 guidelines has no weight of law behind it because Gov. Greg Abbott banned pandemic mandates in May. It also only applies to the city’s unvaccinated population; the guidelines recommend that vaccinated people only need to take precautions while traveling.

The move marks the first time a major Texas city has reinstated increased health protocols since dropping mask mandates, dialing back business restrictions and allowing large events to resume in the spring and summer as COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations plummeted.

Stage 3 guidelines mean unvaccinated or partially-vaccinated residents should avoid gatherings, travel, shopping and dining out altogether unless it’s essential, and mask up when they leave their homes. Officials say they are weighing further precautionary recommendations in case these measures don’t reduce the numbers.

[…]

Among the alarming trends cited by Austin and Travis County health officials on Thursday: The average number of daily new cases has tripled, COVID-19-related hospital admissions are on the rise, cases of COVID-19 in children are rising, and 20% of the more than 100 people with COVID-19 in area hospitals are on ventilators, while 41 are in the ICU.

Almost all of the hospitalized patients are unvaccinated, said Dr. Desmar Walkes, Austin-Travis County Health Authority.

“This has to stop, and we know how to make that happen,” Walkes said. “We are hoping that this self-correction that we’re doing with the change to the stage three status will help bring us back to a place where our cases are again declining.”

At least 60% of Austin residents are fully vaccinated, and Travis County, where Austin is located, has the third highest vaccination rate among the state’s urban counties, which are also beginning to report increasing cases and hospitalizations.

Note that this is happening in one of the most-vaccinated counties in Texas. It’s much, much worse in other parts of the state, but we all know the politics of this. What might end up happening is for Austin and/or Travis County to encourage businesses to re-impose mask requirements, and it wouldn’t surprise me if they mostly go along with that. I’m sure Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo is keeping a close eye on things here, and on how they go in Travis, and may take similar steps. It’s deeply annoying as a vaccinated person, because we all know why this is happening, but here we are anyway. All you can do is try to protect yourself, because Greg Abbott sure as hell doesn’t care. The city of Austin’s news release is here, and the Austin Chronicle has more.

Where the outbreaks are the worst

We talk a lot about the vaccination rate in Texas, but that number by itself is misleading. Some parts of the state are very well vaccinated. Others, very much not so. That matters, because the Delta variant is just ripping through the unvaccinated population. There are breakthrough infections among folks who have had the shot – even the Pfizer and Moderna doses are not as effective against the Delta variant as they were against others – but the vast majority of new cases, hospitalizations, and deaths are among the unvaxxed.

So with that in mind, here are the places to watch out for.

Five low-vaccinated clusters — including two in Texas — could put the entire country at risk for spreading new variants of COVID-19, according to a new analysis out of Georgetown University.

The areas with concentrations of unvaccinated residents 12 and older encompass Texas’ western Panhandle and eastern Piney Woods regions — and are a major cause for concern for health experts. Dallas County, where officials this week said herd immunity has been reached, is not in either.

Georgetown researchers, who have been tracking vaccination rates since December, found that there are about 30 clusters across the U.S. that have lower vaccination rates than the national average of 47.8%. The five they have identified as most vulnerable are scattered across eight states concentrated in the southeastern part of the country, touching Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, Oklahoma, Tennessee and Texas.

The two clusters in Texas together encompass around 141 counties out of 254, said Dr. Shweta Bansal, an associate professor of biology at Georgetown who headed the project. Although that’s a significant portion of the state, the clusters do not include many of the highest-density cities, which have had greater success with vaccination.

Texas’ overall vaccination rate does not paint an accurate picture of the state’s danger level, Bansal said. From a glance, Texas appears to be in good shape, with 50.4% of the population 12 and older — or 12 million people — reported as fully vaccinated, according to data provided by the Texas Department of State Health Services. And nearly 14 million people in Texas, or 58%, have received at least one dose of a coronavirus vaccine.

But the Georgetown analysis raises a number of troubling concerns. For one, nearly all COVID-19 deaths in the country were people who weren’t vaccinated, according to The Associated Press.

And unvaccinated clusters pose greater threats because each interaction with an unvaccinated individual risks a new transmission of COVID-19, Bansal said. With every new case of the virus, there is another chance for a new variant to emerge. Already, the highly contagious delta variant that was first found in India in December has become the dominant strain in all new identified cases of the coronavirus in the U.S.

In other words, it’s no time to let our guard down, she cautioned.

If a new variant surfaces that is resistant to current vaccines, “it would mean rewinding the clock back to 2020 for all of us, even those of us that are vaccinated,” Bansal said.

Here’s another news link if you have trouble with that DMN story. I can’t find a copy of the actual report, but I was referred to this web page in my searches for it.

We’ve talked about this before, and I’m going to say this again: It doesn’t matter how bad the Delta variant is going to get, there is zero chance that the state of Texas under Greg Abbott takes any action to mitigate a future outbreak. There will be no mask mandates or limitations on businesses or crowds, and no allowance for local governments to impose them. The unvaccinated will be coddled and catered to in every way, and the rest of us, including and especially health care workers, can suck it. You’re on your own, and my advice to you is to not get too far out of the habit of wearing your face masks. You’ll be needing them again, probably in the winter.

More federal stimulus money for education coming

Good.

Texas soon will receive another $4.1 billion in federal stimulus money to address the post-pandemic needs of public school students, many of whom fell behind academically during months of remote learning.

The funding comes come as the U.S. Department of Education announced Wednesday that it has approved Texas’ plans for spending $12.4 billion allocated to the state. The state’s plan was among the first proposals to receive approval from the federal government. While some of the money will be spent on improving academics, the funding also aims to address student inequities that were worsened by the pandemic, as well as kids’ social and emotional needs.

The Texas Education Agency’s plan calls for mitigating learning loss as a top priority. The agency estimates students in the state lost an average of 5.7 months of learning last school year. Meeting student and staff mental health needs, expanded tutoring, high-quality instructional materials and job-embedded learning are included in the plan.

“The approval of these plans enables states to receive vital, additional American Rescue Plan funds to quickly and safely reopen schools for full-time, in-person learning; meet students’ academic, social, emotional, and mental health needs; and address disparities in access to educational opportunity that were exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic,” Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona said in a news release.

We have all the evidence we need to know how vital this is. The next year or more has to be about getting kids back up to where they would have been without the disruption of the pandemic. Their future depends on it.

The risk of being unvaccinated

The numbers don’t lie.

Nearly all COVID-19 deaths in the U.S. now are in people who weren’t vaccinated, a staggering demonstration of how effective the shots have been and an indication that deaths per day — now down to under 300 — could be practically zero if everyone eligible got the vaccine.

An Associated Press analysis of available government data from May shows that “breakthrough” infections in fully vaccinated people accounted for fewer than 1,200 of more than 853,000 COVID-19 hospitalizations. That’s about 0.1%.

And only about 150 of the more than 18,000 COVID-19 deaths in May were in fully vaccinated people. That translates to about 0.8%, or five deaths per day on average.

[…]

The preventable deaths will continue, experts predict, with unvaccinated pockets of the nation experiencing outbreaks in the fall and winter. Ali Mokdad, a professor of health metrics sciences at the University of Washington in Seattle, said modeling suggests the nation will hit 1,000 deaths per day again next year.

In Arkansas, which has one of the lowest vaccination rates in the nation, with only about 33% of the population fully protected, cases, hospitalizations and deaths are rising.

“It is sad to see someone go to the hospital or die when it can be prevented,” Gov. Asa Hutchinson tweeted as he urged people to get their shots.

As the story notes, this is an AP analysis of the available data. The CDC has not done its own analysis yet because the data is not complete – only 45 of the 50 states report breakthrough infections, and they vary in how they define them. But the overall point is clear: Even though COVID deaths are down over ninety percent from January, when vaccinations started rolling out, they could be down a whole lot more, if more people were vaccinated. The extent to which COVID is under control is the extent to which the population is vaccinated. That can vary by quite a bit, by state and by region, and so we will continue to see some level of hospitalizations and deaths from COVID. And that level is higher than it needs to be. Link via Daily Kos.

Bad bail bill 2.0

This was also happening over the weekend.

Days into a short legislative session, Texas lawmakers are moving quickly to pass a GOP priority bill that would make it harder for some people who have been arrested but not convicted to bond out of jail without putting up cash.

Legislators in the House and Senate filed matching bills to change state bail practices earlier this week, echoing legislation that failed to pass in the regular session. On Saturday, committees in both chambers approved the bills and sent them to the full chambers after nearly three hours of debate in the Senate and nine hours in the House.

The sweeping bail legislation would change how and if people can be released from jail before their criminal cases are resolved, while they are still legally presumed innocent. The bill would ban the release of those accused of violent crimes unless they had enough cash, as well as restrict charitable groups’ ability to pay to get people out of jail.

While the two Democrats on the Senate committee supported Senate Bill 6, House Democrats down the hall spoke out strongly against the identical House Bill 2, arguing it would lead to mass detention disproportionately affecting people of color, and it would create an overreliance on money in Texas’ pretrial system that is unfair to people who are poor. Both chambers of the Texas Legislature have a Republican majority.

During the hearings, the Republican bill authors, crime victims and their supporters argued new bail laws are needed to keep dangerous people behind bars before their trials, pointing to rising crime rates and numerous examples of defendants accused of violent crimes having been released from jail on bond and then accused of new crimes.

Bill supporters have also fought against the increase in courts releasing defendants on personal bonds, which don’t require them to have cash to get out of jail but can include restrictions like GPS ankle monitoring or routine drug testing.

“SB 6 is legislation which is really a direct response to the increase in violent and habitual offenders being released on personal bonds along with low-cash bonds,” State Sen. Joan Huffman, a Houston Republican and author of the bill said Saturday. “We have failed our communities, we have failed our citizens, definitely we have failed the victims, and it’s time to do something about it.”

House Democrats and civil rights advocates opposing the legislation took aim at the bills’ continued reliance on cash bail, noting that it primarily penalizes low-income people.

“What does ability to post a cash bond, how does that make a community safe?” questioned state Rep. Joe Moody, D-El Paso, who leads the House Criminal Justice Reform Caucus. “The bill pushes more people into the cash bail system by precluding their ability to have a personal bond in a laundry list of situations.”

See here and here for my blogging about this from the regular session. Note that these hearings were held before the voter suppression bill hearings, which is one reason why those went so late – they started late, too. You should also read Scott Henson’s testimony before the committee, in which he suggests that this will have a big negative effect on rural counties. You know how I feel about this, and you also know that if the Republican majority is determined to pass this, they can and they will. So let me remind you of this:

For years, civil rights groups and federal courts nationwide and in Texas have scrutinized bail systems’ reliance on cash. In Harris and Dallas counties, federal courts ordered changes to bail practices ruled unconstitutional because they led to the systematic detention of people who haven’t been convicted of a crime simply because they were poor.

In an ongoing federal lawsuit in Houston, civil rights attorneys pointed to the case of Preston Chaney, a 64-year-old man who caught the coronavirus in the Harris County jail and died. He’d been kept in jail for months, accused of stealing lawn equipment and meat from a garage. If he’d been able to pay about $100, he could have walked out of jail shortly after his arrest.

Whatever gets passed here is going to wind up in the federal courts, and the state is likely to lose. Not that the Republicans are concerned about that – these bills are about primaries, not policies. This whole session, and most of the regular session, were about primaries. I’m sure you can guess what my prescription for getting less of this in the future is.

The next level of vaccine resistance

I’m speechless.

Some Texas Republicans are pushing back against President Joe Biden’s push for greater outreach to get more Americans to receive COVID-19 shots, as vaccination drives in states like Texas have stagnated.

“Not on my watch!” Attorney General Ken Paxton tweeted in response to the president’s comments on Tuesday that “we need to go community-by-community, neighborhood-by-neighborhood, and oft times door-to-door, literally knocking on doors.”

U.S. Rep. Chip Roy, a San Antonio Republican, on Wednesday directed a tweet at Biden with a play on the “Come and Take It” flag that shows an image of a syringe with the words “Come Inject It.” In a separate tweet, the congressman said he thought a door-to-door push would be unconstitutional, as such an approach was “only really contemplated in Constitution for the census.”

“Don’t knock on my door to ask about vaccines…or anything else,” U.S. Rep. Pat Fallon, a Sherman Republican, tweeted. He said there are “BIG red flags anytime the federal government is ‘going door to door.’”

[…]

A recent Quinnipiac University poll found that nearly half of Texas Republican voters say they do not plan to receive a COVID-19 vaccination. A Harvard University analysis of vaccination rates by congressional district shows Texas Republicans represent the 14 districts in the state with the lowest rates.

Roy’s Central Texas district bucks the trend, however. It has among the highest vaccination rates in the state, with nearly 49 percent of its residents fully vaccinated.

That’s because Chip Roy’s district isn’t really Republican, it’s basically fifty-fifty. And if he and his galaxy brain think this effort is unconstitutional, there’s a well-known method to get an objective opinion on that. I’m sure Ken Paxton is familiar with the process. As for the rest, I don’t even know what to say.

Our Delta future

Don’t expect anything to change, except for the number of people getting sick and dying.

The new and highly contagious Delta variant of the coronavirus may have sparked the recent outbreak of 125-plus cases of COVID-19 linked to a Houston-area youth church camp, and a Texas virologist says the breakout should be a wake-up call for communities.

“Clearly, COVID is not over,” said Dr. Benjamin Neuman, a virologist and professor at Texas A&M University.

“COVID isn’t ever gone until it’s completely gone,” Neuman said. “And I think we’ve made the mistake of assuming that the virus would go away or assuming that the virus wouldn’t affect children … We keep stumbling into the same mistakes over and over, and that is not a way out of COVID-19.”

The Galveston County church camp took place in June with more than 450 adults and youth in attendance, according to the Houston Chronicle. More than 125 COVID-19 cases have been reported, of which three thus far have been confirmed to be the Delta variant.

The Delta variant is poised to become the leading strain in the United States in coming months according to Texas health experts, whose top concern is the risk it represents for those who are unvaccinated.

That strain, known by scientists as B.1.617.2, now accounts for about a quarter of virus infections in the nation, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. First discovered in India, it triggered a devastating outbreak there in April and May and has since spread to 85 other countries, attacking areas where vaccination rates are the lowest.

While dozens of strains have spawned from the original COVID-19 virus, the Delta variant is the most transmissible so far, said Dr. Rebecca Fischer, an infectious disease epidemiologist and assistant professor at Texas A&M University’s School of Public Health. It is also leading to higher rates of hospitalization for those infected, according to research.

[…]

DSHS said it recommends people protect themselves from the variant the same way they do for other strains of the virus.

“The best protection from all strains of COVID is getting fully vaccinated,” the statement said. “People who are not vaccinated should continue to follow COVID precautions, like wearing a mask and social distancing.”

Though the CDC says people who are fully vaccinated do not have to wear masks in public spaces, Neuman is pleading for everyone to continue wearing them, especially with the Delta variant spreading in Texas.

“The only confirmed cases that we know are cases that spread through the air,” he said, and those are “from somebody’s mouth to somebody else’s mouth.” Because of that, “blocking one or both of those mouths is really the ultimate way to stop the virus from spreading.”

Some more data, if you need it.

More than 40 percent of new COVID-19 hospitalizations at Houston Methodist are the Delta variant, researchers said Wednesday, a number expected to rise as travel returns but vaccination rates stagnate nationwide.

“The number of Delta variant COVID-19 cases at Houston Methodist has nearly doubled over the last week and is sixfold higher than in May,” said Houston Methodist spokesperson Lisa Merkl. Delta variant cases made up just 20 percent of hospitalizations at the hospital system the week prior.

COVID-19 vaccinations are critical to reducing infection rates, epidemiologists said, especially as the more contagious strain of the virus spreads worldwide. Positive case and hospitalization rates are also trending upward at Houston Methodist.

Experts expect that Delta, which is thought to be 60 percent more transmissible than the original SARS-CoV-2 strain, will soon become the dominant coronavirus variant in the U.S. Houston Methodist’s models estimate the Delta variant will make up 92 percent of all new infections within the coming weeks.

Not sure what more you need to know. The people who are vaccine hesitant, or who have obstacles in their way for getting vaccinated, will for the most part eventually get vaccinated. It will take too much time and I doubt there’s anything we can do now that we haven’t already tried to speed it up, but this group will steadily shrink. The anti-vaxxers are not going to get vaccinated, and there’s not a damn thing we can do about it. They’re also not going to wear face masks – they were the most whiny and resistant about it when that was the only mitigation available for when you had to be among other people. There’s also basically no chance Texas will impose any face mask requirements again, and local governments are prohibited from doing so. I wouldn’t even expect Greg Abbott to make a timid suggestion that maybe some people should think about wearing masks again.

If the Delta variant really takes off in Texas and we start looking like Missouri, I have no idea what happens. I have a hard time imagining Abbott even asking for federal help, though maybe the locals can do that. In many ways, we are where we were before, which is to say we’re on our own as far as Texas government is concerned. At least this time, some of us have more protection than others.

Here’s your special session agenda

They call this “red meat”, but it’s really just bullshit.

Gov. Greg Abbott has announced the agenda for the special legislative session that begins Thursday, asking lawmakers to prioritize 11 issues that largely appeal to conservatives who wanted more out of the regular session.

The announcement of the agenda came just over 24 hours before lawmakers are set to reconvene in Austin.

The agenda includes Abbott’s priority bills related to overhauling Texas elections and the bail system, as well as pushing back against social media “censorship” of Texans and the teaching of critical race theory in schools. Those issues were anticipated after they did not pass during the regular session and Abbott faced pressure to revive them or had already committed to bringing them back.

[…]

The special session agenda also includes funding for the legislative branch, which Abbott vetoed last month. He did so after House Democrats staged a walkout in the final hours of the regular session that killed the priority elections bill. The inclusion of the legislative funding raises the possibility that lawmakers could restore paychecks for their staff — and other staff at the Capitol — before the next fiscal year begins on Sept. 1. More than 2,000 staffers are affected by the veto of the Legislative funding, which Democrats have called an executive overreach of power.

Late last month, House Democrats and legislative staffers asked the state Supreme Court to override it. The court had not ruled in the case yet.

The Democrats’ walkout prompted a flood of national attention, and now the minority members must decide how to try to derail it in the special session with their staff pay on the line. Republicans also have their work cut out for them in the special session, faced with preventing another embarrassing defeat of the elections bill and remedying two provisions they claimed after the regular session were mistakes.

The special session is set to start at 10 a.m. Thursday and could last up to 30 days, with the potential for Abbott to add more items as it proceeds. It is one of at least two special sessions expected this year, with a fall special session coming to address redistricting and the spending of billions of dollars of federal COVID-19 relief funds.

Abbott’s agenda for the first special session notably does not include anything about the state’s electric grid, which was exposed as deeply vulnerable during a deadly winter weather storm in February that left millions of Texans without power. Lawmakers made some progress in preventing another disaster during the regular session, but experts — as well as Patrick — have said there is more to do. Last month, calls for the Legislature to take further action to fix the power grid were renewed when grid officials asked Texans to conserve energy.

Despite Abbott’s recent claim that grid is better than ever, he sent a letter Tuesday to the state’s electricity regulators outlining a number of steps he would like them to take to “improve electric reliability.” But it appears Abbott does not want to reopen legislative debate on the issue for now.

Just to recap, I continue to expect the Supreme Court to delay and hope the legislative budget veto issue becomes moot. I don’t think there’s much if anything that Democratic legislators can do to stop any of these bills if Republicans are determined to pass them – it’s not out of the question that on some of them the Republicans are not sufficiently unified – so the best thing to do is to try to at least make sure everything has a real committee hearing first. Finally, I’m not surprised that Abbott has no interest in revisiting the power grid, not when he’s already staked his claim on everything being just fine now. The other piece of business for the Dems is to hammer this point over and over again, until it seeps into the public consciousness. Good luck, y’all. This is going to suck. The Chron has more.

The return to normal

Lots of us are going back to pre-pandemic life. Some of us have more justification for it than others.

As an increasing number of Texans get vaccinated against COVID-19, most voters here are returning to their pre-pandemic lives — or something close to it — after a year of living carefully, according to the University of Texas/Texas Tribune Poll.

In the June poll, 47% of voters said they were coming and going as they were before the pandemic restrictions hit, while 39% said they were leaving the house regularly while still exercising caution. Another 14% said they were still staying home all the time or only going out when absolutely necessary, according to the poll.

Conservatives are more likely to be living normally now, the poll found: 68% of Republicans are returning to pre-pandemic lifestyles compared with only one in five Democrats — even though Democrats are more likely to have been vaccinated.

By contrast, 59% of white voters have returned to their normal pre-pandemic lives with no additional precautions or restrictions that aren’t mandated, the poll shows. Fewer than one in five white Texans have a high level of concern about themselves or someone they know being infected.

“There are pretty large racial and ethnic disparities in levels of concern. This gap has persisted throughout the pandemic,” said Joshua Blank, research director for the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas at Austin. “The fact that these groups express more concern is a reflection of the reality that they’ve faced more harm or impact.”

Less than half of Texas voters believe that coronavirus is still a significant crisis, compared with two-thirds in April 2020.

Democrats and Republicans differ sharply on this, and have disagreed since the beginning of the pandemic, the poll found. More than three-quarters of Democrats believe the pandemic is still a significant crisis, while less than one-quarter of Republicans feel the same. More than a third of Republicans say it’s not an issue at all.

At the start of the pandemic, 91% of Democrats viewed coronavirus as a significant concern, while less than half of Republicans felt that way, the April 2020 UT/TT poll found. By June 2020, that level of concern among Republicans dropped to 29% and stayed close to that rate for the next year.

The consistent differences in the perspective on the pandemic between the two parties has been reflected in the decisions being made by Texas’ Republican leaders — easing business restrictions just a month after shutdowns started, or fighting Democratic efforts to push through voting procedures that they believed reduced risk at the voting booth, pollsters said.

I would have had to answer “it depends” for a lot of these questions. I’m still working from home – we have a voluntary return to premises policy right now – but that’s because I vastly prefer working from home and avoiding the awful commute to my office. I still wear a mask in places that ask for masks to be worn, even if they specify that only unvaccinated people should wear them, though some of the time I skip it. I still have a preference for eating outdoors at restaurants, but I have eaten inside some of the time. I do think the pandemic is still a significant crisis, but that’s mostly because of the significant number of unvaccinated people that we have in this state. In my own highly-vaccinated neighborhood, I feel quite comfortable acting normally and don’t spend any time worrying about it. It’s all a matter of context.

The COVID death spike

Another way to visualize the data. It’s bad no matter how you look at it.

More than 51,000 Texans have died of COVID-19, according to the state’s latest tally.

That is larger than the capacity of Minute Maid Park, though it represents less than two-thousandths of Texas’ 29 million residents.

So, was the virus, which killed less than 2 percent of the Texans with documented cases, responsible for anything more than a blip in historical death trends?

An examination of Texas the past 50 years reveals the answer: Unequivocally yes.

Deaths in Texas historically are cyclical, explained Mark Hayward, a sociology professor at the University of Texas at Austin who studies mortality trends. They peak in winter with the annual flu season and ebb in summer, and steadily increase overall as the state’s population grows.

During the pandemic, however, that pattern was disrupted by a surge in mortality with no precedent in modern history. Hayward said that will lead to a decreased life expectancy for Texans; a British study published this week found the average lifetime of Americans decreased by almost two years in 2020.

“You don’t lose two or three years of life expectancy without actual catastrophe happening,” Hayward said. “Modern populations don’t go through that. In any kind of normal year, there’s never that kind of impact on a population’s mortality such as we’ve seen from COVID.”

Instead of falling in the summer, Texas deaths surged beginning in June 2020. They peaked in the third week of July at 6,211, up 71 percent over the same week the previous year. A second wave of the virus during the holiday season peaked the third week in January at 7,154, a 69 percent year-over-year jump.

The Chronicle examined weekly deaths in Texas back to 1964, the earliest year the state health department has reliable data. From that year through 2019, deaths in Texas increased an average of 2 percent annually. Deaths jumped 23 percent in 2020.

Considering that the pandemic reached Texas in March, deaths over the next 12 months jumped 32 percent over the previous year. Of the 285,108 Texas deaths between March 2020 and March 2021, 17 percent were from COVID-19, according to state health records.

You’ll need to click over to see the chart. It’s not just the number of deaths that increased – you would expect that based on overall population trends – but the rate as well. As the story notes, this is further evidence that the “official” COVID death count is well below the true number, with many factors contributing to the undercount. There’s nothing to be done about what has happened, but we might want to give some thought to why it happened this way and what we might do differently (and hopefully better) next time.

Superintendent House has arrived

He’s got a lot of work in front of him.

When Millard House II officially [started] as the new superintendent of Houston ISD on Thursday, he [had] a stack of challenges awaiting his attention.

Some students fell further behind during the coronavirus pandemic while others were “lost” amid its grip. The district expects to receive hundreds of millions of dollars in federal COVID-19 stimulus funding with no public plan for the funds in place yet. While teachers are set to receive a raise, their compensation has lagged neighboring districts, and trustees voted three weeks ago to mandate House propose a potentially larger teacher pay raise in August, when the district’s financial outlook may be clearer.

As House assumes his new role, members of the HISD community said they hope he can tackle a variety of priorities, from funding to inequities, and expressed excitement to work with him.

“The first job as a new superintendent is to learn the community, learn our schools, learn our neighborhoods,” said HISD Trustee Anne Sung, who bumped into House this week while visiting schools. “He’s already doing that so I think he’s off to a great start.”

House, 49, who was not made available for an interview this week, arrives from Tennessee, where he led the seventh-largest district in the state, the Clarksville-Montgomery County School System.

[…]

Among the biggest challenges for House and the district will be helping students who fell behind during the pandemic.

Standardized test score data released this week revealed one of the clearest looks yet at the pandemic’s impact. Roughly two-thirds of HISD eighth-graders did not meet math proficiency, compared with 28 percent in 2019.

Additionally, some students stopped attending class altogether, prompting recovery efforts, such as a recent four-day phone bank aimed at convincing some to return.

“We have a tremendous deficit,” said Houston Federation of Teachers President Jackie Anderson, who leads the district’s largest employees union. “We are very concerned about that. I want him to know that it is not an ‘us against them’ — it is ‘we.’ And we all need to be working together, and I think that if that happens … we can be successful.”

Add the STAAR scores to the pile. Superintendent House and the Board and all the stakeholders will have plenty to do to get things going, with federal COVID relief funds available to help out. Here’s his introductory message:

Welcome to Houston. Now please make yourself available for interviews. Thank you, and god luck.

Here comes the Delta variant

Be vaxxed or be vulnerable.

Texas Medical Center hospitals are seeing an uptick in patients infected with the COVID-19 Delta variant, and infections are prevalent among young children and adults who have not been immunized.

At Texas Children’s Hospital, fewer than 10 kids have been diagnosed with the Delta variant, which epidemiologists say is more transmissible than the original strain of SARS-CoV-2. Doctors have diagnosed 48 cases of the Delta variant at Houston Methodist since the end of April.

“The big concern with Delta is that it could spread like wildfire,” said Dr. James Versalovic, interim pediatrician-in-chief at Texas Children’s Hospital. Experts expect the numbers to increase in the coming days because the virus is “highly contagious” and can infect even those who have been partially vaccinated. The Delta variant is able to spread more rapidly by binding to host cells in the body. Currently, the variant accounts for one in five cases in the U.S.

Early studies of the Delta variant indicate the current COVID-19 vaccines can protect patients from severe infections. In a pre-print paper published by Public Health England, researchers found the two-dose Pfizer-BioNTech and AstraZeneca vaccines were 96 percent and 92 percent effective, respectively, against hospitalization for COVID-19. Moderna’s vaccine is also effective against Delta, the company said on Tuesday.

Breakthrough infections can occur with the two-dose vaccines, but these infections are usually far less serious than the ones affecting people who have not been inoculated.

“The common theme in Delta variant patients we see is almost none of them have been vaccinated, and that’s especially true for the people who are hospitalized,” said Dr. Wesley Long, an infectious disease expert at Houston Methodist Hospital.

[…]

The emergence of the Delta variant prompted the World Health Organization to issue a new recommendation that all people, regardless of vaccination status, resume wearing masks indoors. Because the new variant is particularly contagious in undervaccinated areas, experts worry it could overwhelm Texas.

“It does raise some concern, because people are no longer practicing social distancing and they’re less consistent about wearing masks,” said Dr. Robert Atmar, professor of infectious diseases at Baylor College of Medicine. “Those individuals who aren’t vaccinated are at risk of getting sick or of needing hospitalization, and the rest of us who are vaccinated could still potentially (become infected).”

There’s basically zero chance that we get another mask mandate in Texas, and there’s no opportunity for the city or Harris County to issue one, either. I have started not wearing masks in indoor spaces, in recognition of my and my family’s vaccinated status, but I may reconsider that. Certainly, anyone with kids under the age of 12 should continue being cautious. Beyond that, it’s the same song, different verse: We need more people to be vaccinated. That is what will greatly slow down the spread of this variant and others like it, and will ensure we don’t have any more spikes in the hospitalization rate. It’s as simple as that.

UT/Trib poll: Abbott has the best of a bunch of weak approval numbers

Same story, new chapter,

Texas voters are split over whether they approve of Gov. Greg Abbott’s job performance, though he remains popular with Republicans and more popular among Texans than President Joe Biden, according to the latest University of Texas/Texas Tribune Poll.

The June 2021 poll shows that 44% of Texans approve of Abbott’s job as governor, while 44% disapprove. That leaves him with an overall approval rating from Texas voters that’s better than those of Biden, U.S. Sens. Ted Cruz and John Cornyn, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, Attorney General Ken Paxton and House Speaker Dade Phelan. Abbott enjoys the approval of 77% of his own party’s voters, with 43% of Republicans saying they “strongly approve” of his performance.

Democratic disapproval for Abbott remains potent. Eighty-two percent of Democrats disapprove of Abbott, with 75% of those Democrats saying they “strongly disapprove” of his performance.

“What we’re seeing now is that Democrats are registering as much disapproval with him as they are with really any kind of national Republican figure,” said Joshua Blank, research director of the Texas Politics Project.

Abbott earned higher marks among Texas voters regarding his COVID-19 response at the start of the pandemic, Blank pointed out. In April 2020, 56% of Texans approved of Abbott’s response to the pandemic, but that slipped to 44% in the latest June poll.

“One of the things that benefited Greg Abbott was Donald Trump,” Blank said. “So Donald Trump’s inability to appear to be seriously dealing with the pandemic made Abbott’s attempts early on — even if they were criticized — much much more serious-looking, both to Republicans and Democrats, and I think that’s why his numbers were so high.”

As the pandemic drew on, Democratic disapproval of Abbott increased steadily. In the last poll, 81% of Democrats disapproved of Abbott’s COVID-19 response, with 67% saying they strongly disagree. Meanwhile, 74% of Republicans approve and 45% strongly approve.

[…]

Biden’s ratings have remained steady among both Democrats and Republicans since the February UT/TT Poll. His overall job approval with Texan voters is at 43% who approve and 47% who disapprove. When filtered by partisanship, 88% of Democrats approve of the job he’s doing, including 53% who strongly approve. As for Republicans, 84% disapprove of the job he’s doing with 77% strongly disapproving.

Texans see Biden’s COVID-19 response as a strength, while border security remains a weak point.

Overall, 49% of Texas voters approved of the president’s COVID-19 response, while 36% disapprove. Of those, 91% of Democrats approve, while 64% of Republicans disapprove.

See here for the February UT/Trib poll, which had Biden at 45 approve, 44 disapprove. There was also a May end-of-session poll that had him at 44/46. While it is true (and we have discussed before) that Abbott’s approval numbers had been bolstered in the past to some extent by him not being completely despised by Democrats, that moment has passed. It’s hard to compare his numbers to almost anyone else in the state because the “don’t know” response for them is so much higher – Ken Paxton has 32/36 approval, for instance, and for Dan Patrick it’s 36/37. My tentative conclusion is that there will likely be less of a gap between Abbott’s numbers next November and those of Patrick and Paxton (if he’s on the ballot), but that’s not set in stone. Who the Dems get to pick matters, too.

In reading this story, I got curious about how Biden was comparing to President Obama in Texas. I have mentioned that a decent approval rating for Biden next year would help Democrats on the ballot, and while it’s still early and the overall political environment is different, I thought it might be useful to have a bit of context. So I poked around in the UT Politics polling archive, and this is what I came up with:

June 2009 – 43 approve, 46 disapprove

October 2009 – 41 approve, 52 disapprove

February 2010 – 41 approve, 50 disapprove

May 2010 – 35 approve, 58 disapprove

September 2010 – 34 approve, 58 disapprove

May 2012 – 36 approve, 54 disapprove

February 2013 – 39 approve, 53 disapprove

June 2013 – 43 approve, 50 disapprove

October 2013 – 37 approve, 54 disapprove

February 2014 – 34 approve, 55 disapprove

June 2014 – 37 approve, 56 disapprove

October 2014 – 36 approve, 57 disapprove

Obama was pretty much in the same place at this point in 2009, and boy howdy did it go south from there. I’m pretty sure his overall approval numbers were better than Biden’s are now – again, the overall climate is much different – but the infamous Rick Santelli “tea party” rant had already occurred, and we know what happened next. Note that other than an outlier in June of 2013, the numbers were pretty stable and generally lousy through the first two years of each term. I included the May 2012 numbers because I came across them in my own post, but as you can see they still fit the pattern.

Obviously, if Biden is sporting similar approval numbers next year, we’re almost certainly doomed. I don’t think that will happen, but I don’t have anything solid to go on for that, so all we can do is watch and see. At least we have something to compare Biden to now.

And the STAAR results ain’t great either

Oof.

The COVID-19 pandemic appeared to undo years of improvement for Texas students meeting grade requirements in reading and math, with students who did most of their schooling remotely suffering “significant declines” compared to those who attended in person, according to standardized test results released Monday by the Texas Education Agency.

In districts where fewer than a quarter of classes were held in person, the number of students who met math test expectations dropped by 32 percentage points, and the number of students who met reading expectations dropped by 9 percentage points compared to 2019, the last time the test was administered. In districts with more than three-quarters in-person instruction, the number of students meeting math expectations only dropped by 9 percentage points and those who met reading expectations by 1 percentage point. Students of color and lower-income students saw greater gaps as well, although those gaps were smaller than the one between remote and in-person instruction.

“The impact of the coronavirus on what school means and what school is has been truly profound,” Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath told reporters Monday. “What we know now with certainty is that the decision in Texas to prioritize in person instruction was critical.”

[…]

Since 2012, test results in the state had been steadily improving, but after COVID-19 related disruptions, the percentage of students meeting reading expectations dropped back to 2016 rates and the percentage meeting math expectations dropped to 2013 passing rates. Math test performance saw the most significant drop, from 50% of students meeting their grade level in 2019 to only 35% this year.

Hispanic students in districts with over three-quarters of learning done remotely saw the largest drops compared to other demographics, with a 10 percentage point decrease in the number of students meeting reading expectations and a 34 percentage point decrease in those meeting math expectations. This is followed by Black students taking mostly remote classes, who saw a 6 percentage point decrease in those meeting reading expectations and a 28 percentage point in those meeting expectations for math.

Students who took the test in Spanish also saw “far more significant declines in rates of grade level” than those who took the test in English, Morath said.

“The data may be disheartening, but with it, our teachers and school leaders are building action plans to support students in the new school year,” he said. “Policymakers are using it to direct resources where they are needed most.”

He said parents can also sign in to TexasAssessment.gov to go over their children’s results and strategize how to catch them up.

As the story notes, there were places where remote learning was not associated with declines; indeed, some remote-heavy districts did just fine. The Lege is going to look into that, and so hopefully if nothing else we’ll get some good data about how and why remote learning can be successful. The STAAR was not the only standardized test to see significant declines, with math being the bigger issue than reading. There will be plenty of funds available, from a bill passed this session to the most recent COVID relief package from Congress, that will provide resources for tutoring, and that will be very necessary. If we work hard and get lucky then maybe this won’t have a big lasting impact on students’ lives. But we need to get serious about making up the lost ground, and we have no time to lose. The Chron has more.

Quinnipiac: Permitless carry and total abortion bans are not popular in Texas

More Q-poll data.

One week after Texas Governor Greg Abbott signed a bill into law allowing Texans to carry unlicensed handguns, voters say 74 – 24 percent that they oppose allowing anyone 21 years of age or older to carry handguns without a license or training, according to a Quinnipiac (KWIN-uh-pea-ack) University poll of Texas registered voters released today.

Democrats oppose this 94 – 6 percent, independents oppose this 73 – 26 percent, and Republicans oppose this 58 – 36 percent.

By an overwhelming majority, voters in Texas say 90 – 8 percent that they support background checks for all gun buyers.

Voters are split about the level of difficulty of buying a gun in Texas, with 46 percent saying it is too easy and 46 percent saying it’s about right. Only 4 percent say it’s too difficult to buy a gun in Texas.

When it comes to assault weapons, a majority (52 – 44 percent) oppose a nationwide ban on the sale of assault weapons.

A majority of Texas voters say 56 – 42 percent that they do not think stricter gun laws would help to decrease the number of mass shootings. This compares to a 2019 survey when voters said 50 – 45 percent they did not think stricter gun laws would help decrease the number of mass shootings.

Voters say 49 – 42 percent that they oppose banning abortion after a fetal heartbeat is detectable, which is usually around 6 weeks of pregnancy, and 10 percent did not offer an opinion. Democrats oppose the ban 65 – 25 percent, independents oppose the ban 54 – 37 percent, and Republicans support the ban 63 – 32 percent.

A majority of voters in Texas say 58 – 35 percent that they agree with the 1973 Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision that established a woman’s right to an abortion.

Asked to imagine if Roe v. Wade is overturned and the issue of abortion is left up to the states, voters shared whether they thought abortion should be legal in all cases, legal in most cases, illegal in most cases, or illegal in all cases in Texas. A majority (55 percent) say it should be legal in either all cases (23 percent) or legal in most cases (32 percent). Nearly four in ten (39 percent) say abortions should be illegal in most cases (29 percent) or in all cases (10 percent). These findings are similar to other Quinnipiac University Texas polls since 2018.

See here for the other Quinnipiac poll post. I mean, the permitless carry numbers sure make this look like a winning campaign issue, and it’s one where Dems could use quotes from a bunch of law enforcement officials opposing this law in their ads. It’s hard to say how much a single issue will move voters, and plenty of people who tend to vote Republican will continue to do so for other reasons even if they opposed this law, but it sure couldn’t hurt to lean on this.

There are also questions about the Republican voter suppression bill, which basically split along partisan lines, and about COVID vaccinations, which is the focus of this Chron story (and how I found the rest of the poll). This is from the poll memo, which notes that this part of the sample includes adults who aren’t registered voters:

More than two-thirds of adults in Texas (68 percent) say they’ve either received or are planning to receive a COVID-19 vaccine. Close to 3 in 10 adults (29 percent) say they do not plan to receive a COVID-19 vaccine.

There are sharp differences among political parties. Among Republicans, 45 percent say they do not plan to receive a COVID-19 vaccine. Among independents, that number is 28 percent. Among Democrats, it is 13 percent.

In the same week that workers at a Houston hospital either resigned or were fired for refusing to receive a COVID-19 vaccine, Texans weighed in about COVID-19 vaccination mandates in hospitals. Just over half of Texans say 51 – 45 percent that they think hospitals should be allowed to require their employees to get a COVID-19 vaccination.

Two-thirds of Texans say 66 – 30 percent that businesses should not be allowed to require proof of a COVID-19 vaccination from their customers.

However, a majority say 57 – 40 percent that cruise lines should be allowed to require proof of a COVID- 19 vaccination from their passengers.

A slim majority say 51 – 45 percent that public schools should be allowed to require mask wearing.

Not sure how you get from a 68% “vaxxed or will be vaxxed” rate to “45 percent [of Republicans] say they do not plan to receive a COVID-19 vaccine”, but here we are. You want to feel the herd immunity, you need to avoid places with too many Republicans.

Methodist anti-vaxxers officially fired

I have three things to say about this.

More than 150 Houston Methodist Hospital employees resigned or have been fired as of Tuesday over a recent policy that required hospital employees to be vaccinated against COVID-19 by Monday.

All told, 153 people are no longer employees of the Houston health care chain, Methodist spokesperson Patti Muck said. The hospital has about 25,000 employees, nearly all of whom have abided by the policy, Methodist leaders have said previously.

The firings follow a contentious few weeks in which hospital employees staged protests and filed a lawsuit against the hospital, claiming the policy, announced in April, violated their rights. Methodist was one of the first large health care providers in the country to announce vaccine requirements.

“I’m so happy and relieved,” Jennifer Bridges, the lead plaintiff in the suit, said Tuesday. “I don’t want any part of Methodist.”

Earlier this month, a federal judge tossed the lawsuit filed by more than 100 Methodist employees, most of whom were not doctors or nurses. In it, the plaintiffs argued Methodist’s policy violated the Nuremberg Codes, a World War II-era agreement that bans involuntary participation in medical trials.

Bridges said Tuesday that she and others planned to protest outside Methodist on Saturday, and that conspiracy theorist Alex Jones will be in attendance.

See here and here for the background. My three things:

1. I strongly suspect Methodist would say that the feeling is mutual, Jennifer.

2. Inviting Alex Jones to your protest really makes one question the previous statements made about how these folks are not anti-vaccine, just super cautious about this particular vaccine.

3. As Methodist cardiovascular technician Deedee Mattoa says in this story, the real surprise here is not that Methodist followed through, but that Memorial Hermann and Baylor College of Medicine, which have made public promises to require COVID-19 vaccines but have not set deadlines for when staff will need the shots, have not yet followed suit. What are you guys waiting for? The Trib has more.