Off the Kuff Rotating Header Image

Greg Abbott

A brief summary of what the next two years will be like

What will Republicans do without Trump?

“The Republican Party is at a crossroads like it’s never been before, and it’s gonna have to decide who it is,” said Corbin Casteel, a Texas GOP operative who was Trump’s Texas state director during the 2016 primary.

No one seems to be under the illusion that Trump will fade quietly. Since losing the election to Joe Biden in November, Trump has launched baseless attacks on the integrity of the election as most prominent Texans in his party let his claims go unchallenged. Some of Trump’s most loyal allies in Texas expect he’ll be a force here for years.

“The party is really built around Donald Trump — the brand, the image, but most importantly, his policies and what he accomplished,” [Dan] Patrick said during a Fox News interview Thursday. “Whoever runs in 2024, if they walk away from Trump and his policies, I don’t think they can get through a primary.”

To Texas Democrats, Trump has been a highly galvanizing force who created new political opportunities for them, particularly in the suburbs. He carried the state by 9 percentage points in 2016 — the smallest margin for a GOP nominee in Texas in two decades — and then an even smaller margin last year. But his 6-point win here in November came after Democrats spent months getting their hopes up that Trump would lose the state altogether, and they also came up woefully short down-ballot, concluding the Trump era with decisively mixed feelings about his electoral impact at the state level.

More broadly, some Texas Democrats believe Trump is leaving a legacy as a symptom of the state’s current Republican politics, not a cause of it.

“Frankly I don’t think he changed the Republican Party in Texas,” said Gilberto Hinojosa, the state Democratic Party chair, adding that Trump has instead magnified the “extreme politics and tendencies” that Texas Republicans have long harbored. “The things that [Trump] stands for — the white nationalism, the anti-LGBT [sentiment], the just flat-out racism, just the absolute meanness — that’s what the Republican Party has been in Texas for quite some time.”

As for Texas Republicans’ embrace of Trump, Hinojosa added, they “are the people that Trump talks about when he says he could shoot someone in the middle of Fifth Avenue and not lose their support.”

[…]

To be sure, it’s entirely possible Republicans unite in the next year the way political parties do when they’re in the minority — with an oppositional message to the opposing administration. But the GOP’s longer-term challenges could prove harder to resolve. In the final years of Trump, some in the party drifted from any unifying policy vision. At the 2020 Republican National Convention, the party opted not to create a new platform, saying it would instead “continue to enthusiastically support the President’s America-first agenda.”

November’s elections in Texas did little to settle the debate over which direction the party should go. Those who want to move on note that Trump won with the narrowest margin for a GOP presidential candidate this century, and swing-seat Republican congressional contenders largely outperformed him in their districts.

“Most every Republican that was successful, with the exception of a handful, outperformed Donald Trump by a significant margin,” Hurd said. “If you’re not growing, you are dying, and if we’re not expanding to those voters that are disaffected and don’t believe in the message that Democrats are providing, then we’re not going to be able to grow.”

On the other hand, Trump’s 6-point margin was bigger than expected, and he performed surprisingly well in Hispanic communities in South Texas. Former Texas GOP Chair James Dickey said Trump’s message was “particularly effective” in swaths of the state that aren’t typically looked at as political bellwethers.

“His biggest impact has been a return to populist roots and an expansion of the party in minority communities, which, again, is a return to its roots,” Dickey said.

My medium-lukewarm take based on 2018, 2020, and the Georgia runoffs is that Republicans do better with Trump on the ballot than not. Dems made the big gains in 2018 in part because Republican turnout, as high as it was in that off-year, wasn’t as good as it could have been. The GOP got some low-propensity voters to turn out in November – as did Dems – and now they have to try to get them to turn out again. Maybe they will! Maybe with Trump gone some number of former Republicans who voted Dem because they hated Trump will find their way back to the GOP. Or maybe those folks are now full-on Dems. The national atmosphere will be critical to how 2022 goes – the economy, the vaccination effort, the Senate trial of Trump, further fallout from the Capitol insurrection, and just overall whether people think the Dems have done too much, too little, or the right amount. Dems can only control what they do.

And that’s going to mean playing some defense.

Democrats are headed back to the White House, and Texas Republicans are gearing up to go back on offense.

For eight years under President Barack Obama, Texas was a conservative counterweight to a progressive administration, with its Republican leaders campaigning against liberal policies on immigration, the environment and health care and lobbing lawsuit after federal lawsuit challenging scores of Democratic initiatives. When Republicans could not block policies in Congress, they sometimes could in the courts.

Now, as Joe Biden enters the White House promising a slew of executive orders and proposed legislation, the notorious “Texas vs. the feds” lawsuits are expected to return in full force. And state leaders have begun to float policy proposals for this year’s legislative session in response to expected action — or inaction — from a White House run by Democrats.

[…]

Under Trump, Texas has often found itself aligned with the federal government in the courts. Most notably, the Trump administration lined up with a Texas-led coalition of red states seeking to end the Affordable Care Act. That case is pending before the U.S. Supreme Court.

Once Biden enters the White House and his appointees lead everything from the Environmental Protection Agency to the Department of Homeland Security, Texas’ conservative leaders will return to a familiar posture: adversary, not ally, to those making national policy.

Paul Nolette, a professor at Marquette University who studies federalism, said he expects Texas to be “at the top of the heap” among Republican attorneys general challenging the new administration in court.

According to Nolette, the number of multi-state lawsuits against the federal government skyrocketed from 78 under eight years of Obama to 145 during just four years of Trump.

“Republican AGs will take a very aggressive multi-state approach,” Nolette predicted. “It’ll happen quickly.”

It should be noted that a lot of those lawsuits were not successful. I don’t know what the scoreboard looks like, and some of those suits are still active, so write that in pencil and not in Sharpie. It should also be noted that the goal of some of these lawsuits, like ending DACA and killing the Affordable Care Act, are not exactly in line with public opinion, so winning may not have the effect the GOP hopes it would have. And of course AG Ken Paxton is under federal indictment (no pardon, sorry), leading a hollowed-out office, and not in great electoral shape for 2022. There’s definitely a chance Texas is not at the front of this parade in 2022.

My point is simply this: There’s a lot of ways the next two years can go. I think the main factors look obvious right now, but nothing is ever exactly as we think it is. I think Democrats nationally have a good idea of what their goals are and how they will achieve them, but it all comes down to execution. Keep your eye on the ball.

Our petty Governor

Sheesh.

Gov. Greg Abbott met with hospital executives in Houston on Tuesday to discuss the state’s coronavirus vaccine rollout, while appearing to snub city and county officials who are overseeing a bulk of the distribution.

The Republican governor said the county, and specifically Houston Methodist Hospital, is leading the state in vaccinations, with more than 250,000 doses administered through the weekend. Dallas County is second for the most shots given, he said.

“Houston Methodist has helped Texas become a national model for the vaccination program,” Abbott said, following a closed-door meeting with executives at the hospital.

[…]

In a tweet over the weekend, Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said city and county health officials had not been invited to participate in the governor’s meeting.

“Any roundtable conversation in Houston about vaccine distribution in Houston, Harris County region should include diverse representation to ensure there is equitable vaccine distribution to at risk, vulnerable communities,” Turner wrote.

Abbott has been repeatedly at odds with Democratic municipal leaders including Turner and County Judge Lina Hidalgo, who have asked for stricter emergency restrictions to slow the spread of the pandemic. The state has recorded more than 32,000 coronavirus deaths since March, and remains in the midst of a massive second surge.

The city and county are currently receiving about 17,000 vaccine doses each week, combined.

Asked about why municipal health leaders were excluded from the discussion, Abbott said state agencies are in “constant communication with local officials, and that process will continue.”

Abbott’s gonna Abbott. Remember how back at the beginning of the pandemic he was happy to let Mayors and County Judges lead when they were doing the hard and unpopular work, and then later he just cut them completely out of everything once he caught some heat from the wingnut faction over masks and quarantines? It’s who he is and what he is, and we shouldn’t be surprised. No wonder Mayor Turner is asking for more direct control of vaccine doses.

It’s going to be lawsuit season again

Not looking forward to it, but it’s better than the alternative.

It’s constitutional – deal with it

President-elect Joe Biden has big plans for his first 100 days in office, when he’s vowed to roll back the Trump administration’s immigration crackdown, push policies addressing climate change and potentially forgive student debt for thousands of Americans.

He’s also said he’ll push a mask mandate to combat COVID-19 and wants Congress to pass another massive stimulus package. And in the longer term, Biden has talked about rewriting the tax code to raise taxes on the rich.

Texas is almost certain to fight him every step of the way.

The state is about to be back on the front lines battling against the federal government, a long tradition for its Republican leaders, from former Gov. Rick Perry to Gov. Greg Abbott — who as the state’s attorney general famously said, “I go into the office, I sue the federal government and I go home.”

Abbott’s successor, Attorney General Ken Paxton, has been just as committed to pushing back on federal laws and mandates championed by Democrats. Most recently he led a failed lawsuit seeking to overturn Biden’s victory in four battleground states at the U.S. Supreme Court. Paxton did not respond to a request for comment.

As Biden takes office next week, many expect the state to pick up where it left off after suing the Obama administration dozens of times to stop initiatives such as the Clean Power Plan, scrap protections for immigrants brought to the country illegally as children and end the Affordable Care Act.

The conservative Texas Public Policy Foundation — which filed the Obamacare challenge that Paxton joined and is now before the Supreme Court — is gearing up to start grinding out challenges to a slew of White House priorities regarding immigration, energy and taxes.

“On the eve of the election we were discussing internally, ‘Well, what would happen if Biden won?’ One thing everyone pretty much agreed on is our litigation center would probably increase in size significantly,” said Chuck DeVore, vice president of national initiatives at TPPF. “We’re kind of excited about it.”

Robert Henneke, general counsel at the TPPF, wouldn’t say whether the group’s legal staff has grown as expected, but did say they are bracing for battles ahead as he expects the Biden administration to “pick up where the Obama administration left off.”

The story goes on to list some likely future battles, a couple of which are ongoing now. It should be noted that Texas’ record suing the Obama administration wasn’t particularly good, though now there are all those Trump judges on the bench, so who knows what can happen. One other thing that can happen is we can boot our felonious Attorney General out of office next year. That won’t stop bad actors in the private sector from bringing cases, but it will at least keep them from having the state’s imprimatur on them. All I can say beyond that is I hope they feel the need to file lawsuits for a lot longer than the next four years.

How bad will the attack on voting be this session?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Vaccine roundup

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Greg Abbott’s Politics Create a Vaccine Stampede

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And, just as a reminder:

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

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

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

Here’s the official budget forecast

“Could be worse” remains the watchword.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Abbott speaks about the vaccination effort

It’s going great! We swear!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

The Republican war against Harris County

To be fair, it’s not just Harris County that’s in the crosshairs, it’s the big urban counties, and cities in general. But it’s real and it’s dangerous and it’s anti-democratic.

Republicans in the Texas Legislature are gearing up to bar local governments from hiring lobbyists, punish cities that reduce their police budgets and restrict county judges’ power during future pandemics when lawmakers convene in Austin later this month.

The measures are sure to escalate the long-running feud between Texas’ conservative leaders and the mostly Democratic officials who run the state’s largest cities and counties. And while higher profile items such as coronavirus relief and redistricting are expected to eat up much of the 140-day session, Republicans have made clear they will carve out time for items such as the lobbying ban.

“In terms of (taxpayer-funded) lobbying, it’s morphed into a kind of partisan struggle,” said Michael Adams, chair of the political science department at Texas Southern University. “The Dems were hoping, particularly in the House of Representatives, they would fare better (in the November elections). But that didn’t happen, and so we still see the dominance of the Republican Party in all branches of the state government. And certainly I think they will send a signal.”

Local officials have been bracing for an especially difficult session since October 2019, when House Speaker Dennis Bonnen was caught on tape saying he had tried to make that year “the worst session in the history of the legislature for cities and counties.” Bonnen said he made his goal evident to “any mayor, county judge that was dumbass enough to come meet with me.”

[…]

Last session, Republicans nearly ushered through a bill to prevent large cities and counties from spending tax revenue on lobbying, but the measure died in the final days when voted down in the House. Bonnen in 2019 announced he would not seek re-election after he was heard on the same tape recording targeting fellow Republicans who opposed the lobbying ban.

Though the Legislature does not begin until Jan. 12, lawmakers already have filed numerous bills related to cities and other local entities. State Rep. Steve Toth, R-The Woodlands, has proposed making cities liable for damages if they release someone from custody who was the subject of a federal immigration detainer request and that person commits a felony within 10 years.

A bill filed by state Rep. Jared Patterson, R-Frisco, would prevent cities and counties from requiring businesses to adopt labor peace agreements — in which employers agree not to oppose unionization efforts in exchange for employee unions agreeing not to go on strike — in order to receive a contract. State Rep. Valoree Swanson, R-Spring, has filed legislation that would allow business owners to halt local laws in court if the law “would result in an adverse economic impact” on the owner.

Swanson also filed a bill that would abolish the Harris County Department of Education, unless voters decide to continue it through a referendum on the November 2022 ballot. Conservative lawmakers have long sought to shutter or study closing the agency, the last remaining countywide education department in Texas.

State Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston, filed legislation that would codify a Texas Supreme Court decision that blocked Harris County from sending mail ballot applications to every registered voter in the county ahead of the November election. Swanson filed the House companion bill.

That’s a lot, and it doesn’t count the revenue cap, or this little gem that I had been unaware of:

During the 2019 legislative session, Abbott quietly backed a bill that would have maintained the current system in Texas’ rural Republican regions while changing it in more densely populated, mostly Democratic counties. That bill, which failed, would essentially have allowed the Republican governor to pick judges in the state’s Democratic areas, while Republican voters picked judges in the conservative areas.

I have to say, on reading all this my first reaction was why would anyone in Harris County want to be governed by people who hate us and want to do us harm? Sometimes I wonder what it would be like if Harris County were its own state. We’d have something like ten electoral votes all on our own, and we wouldn’t have to deal with this kind of bullshit.

It wasn’t always like this, of course. It’s not that long ago that “local control” was a Republican slogan rather than a quaint idea. But it’s also not that long ago that Harris was a Republican stronghold, and the radical shift in philosophy isn’t a coincidence. It’s very much of a piece with the Trump administration’s attacks on blue states, and of the increasingly bizarre and undemocratic legal arguments being made about this past election, including the one that the Supreme Court briefly considered that federal courts could overrule state courts on matters of state administration of elections. It has nothing to do with federalism or “states’ rights” or local control or any other mantra, but everything to do with the fact that Republicans don’t recognize any authority that isn’t theirs. If they don’t like it, it’s not legitimate, and the laws and the voters can go screw themselves.

This, as much as anything, is the tragedy of Dems not being able to retake the State House. With no check on their power, the Republicans are going to do what they want, and the best we can do is try to slow them down. It makes the 2022 election, and the continued need to break through at the statewide level, so vital. I’ll say it one more time, nothing will change until we can win enough elections to change the balance of power in this state. And if someone can give me an answer to that “how can Harris County become its own state” question, I’m listening.

More COVID restrictions are about to happen in Harris County

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More here.

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

It still looks grim in the Houston area

Brace yourselves.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How’s the vaccine rollout going?

Not very quickly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

Abbott appoints another statewide judge

From before the holidays:

Judge Michael Keasler

Jesse McClure, a trial judge on a criminal court in Houston, will join the state’s highest court for criminal matters in the new year.

Gov. Greg Abbott appointed McClure, a Republican, to the Court of Criminal Appeals, where he will fill a seat being vacated by Judge Michael Keasler. Keasler, 78, is departing Dec. 31 under Texas’ mandatory retirement law for judges.

McClure was appointed to his current bench by Abbott in November 2019 but lost his reelection bid to Democrat Te’iva Bell last month in an election that saw Democrats sweep Harris County.

Previously, McClure worked as a prosecutor for the Texas Department of Insurance, as an attorney with the Department of Homeland Security and as an assistant district attorney in Tarrant County. He will serve the remainder of Keasler’s term, which lasts through the end of 2022, and then plans to seek reelection.

[…]

A Texas law that requires judges to retire within a few years of turning 75 forced Keasler to step down partway through his six-year term.

In Keasler’s case, the law caused a fair bit of confusion.

Last year, two Democrats pursued the nomination to run for Keasler’s seat, expecting an election, rather than an appointment, in a misunderstanding that even the Texas secretary of state’s office did not escape. Ultimately, given that Keasler served through the end of the year, the seat fell to Abbott to fill, not the voters.

Keasler said that did not influence his decision to serve through the end of the year.

“I know I’m in the fourth quarter, there’s no question about that, I just hope I’m not at the two-minute warning just yet,” he joked.

See here for the background on that confusion. I guess “within a few years of turning 75” does leave some room for interpretation. McClure was Abbott’s second appointment to a statewide bench in the last three months, following the well-timed resignation of now-former Supreme Court Justice Paul Green. For all the biennial debate we have about electing judges versus some other system for naming them, we sure do have a lot of judges on the Supreme Court and Court of Criminal Appeals who got there initially via gubernatorial appointment. Such selections come with no requirement for Senate confirmation, and in nearly every case the newbie judge gets two full years on the bench before having to face the voters. We can as always debate the merits of the system we have, but we should be honest about the way that system actually works.

Too much virus, not enough treatment

Still a bad combination.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

Springer defeats Luther in SD30

Congratulations.

Rep. Drew Springer

State Rep. Drew Springer of Muenster prevailed over fellow Republican Shelley Luther in a special election runoff for a state Senate seat that was animated by Gov. Greg Abbott and his handling of the coronavirus pandemic.

Luther is the Dallas salon owner who was jailed earlier this year over her refusal to close her business due to coronavirus restrictions. Throughout the race, she was an outspoken critic of Abbott, who endorsed Springer in the runoff and spent hundreds of thousands of dollars of his own campaign funds to beat back Luther in the race to succeed outgoing state Sen. Pat Fallon, R-Prosper.

[…]

Springer declared victory on social media, posting statements on Twitter and Facebook that said he would “continue advancing the conservative priorities of our district like reducing property taxes, securing the border, and standing up for our law enforcement and first responders who keep our communities safe.”

“I will fight to ensure Texas remains the premier place in the nation to do business, so we can unleash the private sector to create jobs and move us out of this recession,” he wrote.

Luther ran as a political outsider, attacking Springer as a tool of the “Austin swamp” who would go along to get along in the upper chamber. Springer campaigned as a proven conservative, arguing Luther could not be trusted.

When it came to the pandemic, Luther leaned heavily on her experience being sent to jail, labeling Abbott a “tyrant” over the business shutdowns he initiated and calling for a 2022 primary challenge to the governor. While not as bombastic, Springer also expressed disagreement with some of the governor’s coronavirus handling, even after earning Abbott’s endorsement.

See here for the background. Like I said, there were no good choices in this race, but but at least we’ve been spared the hot takes and national attention that a Luther win would have meant. Maybe now Shelley Luther will go back to being an obscure small business owner that none of us had to pay attention to or care about. We can hope for that much.

Springer’s win will also trigger another special election, to fill his seat in HD68. I presume Abbott will call that pretty quickly after Springer gets sworn in, since the session is about to begin. I’d expect it in late January, and any subsequent runoff would be in early March or so. Like SD30, this is a deep red district 83.3% for Ted Cruz in 2018), so the partisan balance is not in doubt. The only question is whether Springer’s replacement will be more like him, or more like Shelley Luther.

It’s runoff day in SD30

Truly the final election of 2020.

Rep. Drew Springer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

We still need more than the vaccines

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

There’s also this.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here comes the vaccine

Houston’s first doses have arrived.

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Also a problem:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is Greg Abbott now an obstacle for Texas Central?

This Texas Monthly story suggests that maybe the answer to that question is Yes.

Earlier this year, after six years of legal battles brought by property owners and local governments, the rail project finally looked to be chugging along. Texas Central, the company behind it, had purchased six hundred parcels, or 40 percent of the land needed to build the project. In May, a victory at the Corpus Christi Court of Appeals asserted the business’s status as a railroad company with the power to exercise eminent domain—meaning that it can require owners to sell portions of their land in return for a “reasonable” price—though that ruling may be appealed to the state Supreme Court. This fall, the project received approval from the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Federal Railroad Administration, and Governor Greg Abbott wrote a letter to the Japanese government, a key investor in the project, voicing his support. The potential benefits of the rail seemed manifold. It would offer travelers a ninety-minute alternative to the four-hour drive between Dallas and Houston and relieve highway congestion that’s projected to double by 2035. It would reduce greenhouse gas emissions. And it would create thousands of high-paying jobs at a time when Texas is suffering from both a pandemic-related recession and an oil-price bust.

“The Texas High-Speed Train will be the first truly high-speed train in Texas and the United States, connecting North Texas, Houston and the Brazos Valley in less than 90 minutes, using the safest, most accessible, most efficient and environmentally friendly mass transportation system in the world today,” Texas Central spokesperson Erin Ragsdale wrote in a statement.

Abbott’s letter, however, sparked a firestorm among some of his longtime supporters. Even before the governor expressed support for the rail project, Meier said, her circle of friends had become increasingly wary of him because they believed he was pandering to liberal interests by imposing restrictions on some businesses during the early days of the pandemic. “I was the only one I know of that was still basically supporting him,” Meier said. “If he continues to support the [train], he will not get my vote, and I will passionately spread the word.”

Four days after Abbott penned his letter, his staff walked back his support, telling the Dallas Morning News that the governor intended to reevaluate his position out of concern for Texans’ property rights and because he was provided with “incomplete” information about the project. (His initial letter had indicated the railway had already obtained all the necessary permits to proceed, but, in fact, it still needs to receive approval from the Surface Transportation Board, a federal regulatory agency.) Abbott’s office did not make clear whether staff, pro-rail lobbyists, or another party had provided the information that allegedly misled him, nor did it respond to multiple requests for an interview about why he wrote the letter and later walked it back. Texas Central also declined multiple requests for interview about Abbott’s reversal. With the loss of the governor’s support, the train’s future faces new hurdles. Texas Central now lacks a strong advocate to ward against pending anti-high-speed rail bills in the upcoming Legislative session, and the company has lost a prominent voice asking investors to keep money flowing.

See here for the background. It’s hard to know what Abbott is thinking, but what is clear is that the strongest opposition to TCR comes from rural Republicans, who are the base of the party. While I think that on a philosophical level this project likely appeals to Abbott – indeed, TCR was designed from the beginning to appeal to Republicans, with its private-enterprise, no-government-funding ethos, and with Republican stalwarts like Robert Eckels among its leadership – he is for sure aware of which way the wind is blowing, and after a summer of vitriol from the wingnut faction he’s probably wary of starting another fight. What that means in terms of the upcoming legislative session is unclear, but we already know that TCR was playing defense. They may be facing a more potent offense than originally expected.

The regional COVID situation

Not great, Bob.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now we wait on SCOTUS

The state of Texas filed its reply to the defendants’ responses to its democracykilling lawsuit, and, well, it’s something.

Best mugshot ever

This brings us the Texas AG Ken Paxton’s reply–or, rather, replies, as there are multiple filings, including a motion to enlarge the word-count limit, a supplemental declaration dated today from Charles Cicchetti, and a new affidavit prepared yesterday from one Lisa Gage.

The first reply brief focuses on rebutting the factual and legal claims made by the four defendant states. The brief starts with the facts, and AG Paxton’s choice of emphasis here is quite interesting, as the brief leads with an extended defense of statistical stupidity contained in the initial filing and the Cicchetti declaration (hence the newly drafted supplemental declaration which is attached). Here, the Paxton brief argues “Dr. Cicchetti did take into account the possibility that votes were not randomly drawn in the later time period but, as stated in his original Declaration, he is not aware of any data that would support such an assertion.” In other words, because he does not know anything about the two sets of voters, it was okay to assume they were identical for purposes of assessing the statistical likelihood that they would vote differently. That this is the lead argument in the reply tells you most of what you need to know. (Well, perhaps not, as other parts of the factual discussion misrepresent claims made by defendant states or repeat claims that were considered and rejected in other suits over the past month.)

On the law, the Texas reply essentially argues that the handful of attorneys in the Texas AG’s office who were willing to sign on to the brief know more about the election laws of Georgia, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania than do the Attorneys General and Secretaries of State of those various states. It further argues that although state legislatures have “plenary” authority to set the manner in which states select electors, this somehow does not include the authority to authorize the involvement of courts and election agencies, and that the U.S. Supreme Court, not the supreme courts of the respective states, should be the final authority on the meaning of relevant state laws and constitutional provisions. (Yay federalism!)

The other Texas filing, styled as a reply in support of Texas’s plea for emergency injunctive relief, is not much better. It does, however, deploy a powerful use of capitalization in the Table of Contents (“Texas IS likely to prevail”). Note that Texas does not have to worry about any of the defendant states responding in kind (“Texas IS NOT likely to prevail”) because this is the last brief to be filed.

In this brief, Texas argues that it is not seeking to disenfranchise voters. Rather, Texas argues, “Defendant States’ maladministration of the 2020 election makes it impossible to know which candidate garnered the majority of lawful votes.” Of course, to the extent this were true, Supreme Court intervention would not be necessary. If the relevant state legislatures concluded that the results of the elections within their states were indeterminate–that the voters had failed to select electors on election day–they could act, but they have not. Here Texas repeats its arguments that federalism requires the Supreme Court ordering state legislatures to act and possibly even hold new elections because Texas does not like how other states have run their elections.

It’s already time for some tweets.

One possible way to avoid that outcome is for SCOTUS to shut this shit down hard.

The easy thing for the Supreme Court to do is simply deny Texas permission to file the complaint (and deny the motions to intervene as moot) and be done with it. No fuss, no muss.

But the court should do more. It is perfectly ordinary and appropriate for the justices to write an opinion explaining the various reasons why they are rejecting Texas’ request. Indeed, the minority of justices who think that the court is required to accept original actions like Texas’ may well write short opinions of their own or note that they think the case was properly filed. So there is nothing overreaching if a majority of the court explains why the case is meritless.

The justices’ decision whether to do that needs to account for this extraordinary, dangerous moment for our democracy. President Donald Trump, other supportive Republicans, and aligned commentators have firmly convinced many tens of millions of people that the 2020 presidential election was stolen. If that view continues to take hold, it threatens not only our national politics for the next four years but the public’s basic faith in elections of all types that are the foundations of our society.

A simple five-page per curiam opinion genuinely could end up in the pantheon of all-time most significant rulings in American history. Every once in a long while, the court needs to invest some of its accumulated capital in issuing judgments that are not only legally right but also respond to imminent, tangible threats to the nation. That is particularly appropriate when, as here, the court finds itself being used as a tool to actively undermine faith in our democratic institutions — including by the members of the court’s bar on whom the justices depend to act much more responsibly.

In a time that is so very deeply polarized, I cannot think of a person, group or institution other than the Supreme Court that could do better for the country right now. Supporters of the president who have been gaslighted into believing that there has been a multi-state conspiracy to steal the election recognize that the court is not a liberal institution. If the court will tell the truth, the country will listen.

I’m not so sure I share the optimism, but I agree it would be the best thing that SCOTUS could do.

More Republicans have lined up to join Paxton on his lemming suicide bomber dive, including some who are seemingly claiming their own elections are also tainted.

Maybe the most ridiculous thing about this ridiculous moment, is that among the 126 Republican House members who have signed on to a document that they know to be not just false in its content, but malicious in its intent, are 19 from states that are the subject of the suit.

So Representatives like Doug Collins and Barry Loudermilk in Georgia are arguing that their own elections were fraudulent. Except, of course, they’re not making that argument. They’re not making any argument. They’re just hoping to gain “street cred” from adding their signatures to a list of people who support Trump rather than America.

You know who else is on Team Dictatorship? Dan Crenshaw, that’s who. This Dan Crenshaw.

U.S. Rep. Dan Crenshaw told Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie that a woman who reported sexual assault at a VA hospital had filed frivolous complaints when she and Crenshaw served in the same Navy command, according to testimony by several senior officials in a report by the agency’s watchdog.

Investigators said they were troubled by the way Wilkie and his agency handled the outcry of the woman, who is now a Democratic aide in the House of Representatives.

The Houston Republican’s link to matter, first reported by Newsweek magazine, was included in a report released by the agency’s inspector general on Thursday. The report details a number of apparent problems with the agency’s handling of complaints filed by the veteran, Andrea Goldstein, who alleged a VA hospital contractor “bumped his entire body against mine and told me I looked like I needed a smile and a good time.”

[…]

Senior VA officials told investigators that Crenshaw passed along information about Goldstein to Wilkie, the report says, which both Crenshaw and Wilkie have denied.

The report points to an email Wilkie sent Chief of Staff Pamela Powers and Brooks Tucker, assistant secretary congressional and legislative affairs, after a fundraiser that he and Crenshaw both attended. It said: “Ask me in the morning what Congressman Crenshaw said about the Takano staffer whose glamor (sic) shot was in the New York Times.”

While Wilkie told investigators that Crenshaw approached him at the December 2019 fundraiser and brought up the veteran, he claimed that Crenshaw merely told him they served together. When investigators asked Wilkie why that information was enough to merit the email he sent after the fundraiser, he responded, “Well, I don’t remember. I have no idea.”

Both Powers and Tucker, however, told investigators they recalled Wilkie making comments about the veteran’s reputation “based on information they understood he received from Congressman Crenshaw.”

The report also says Deputy VA Secretary Jim Byrne told investigators that Wilkie had “verified with Congressman Dan Crenshaw that the veteran had previously filed frivolous complaints when the two were serving in the same command in the Navy.”

Crenshaw and his staff refused to answer VA investigators’ questions about the matter, the report says. Crenshaw’s office did not respond Thursday to a request for comment.

The Newsweek story is here. Remember Crenshaw’s craven refusal to answer questions about this the next time he tweets some garbage about how “all cases should be heard, all investigations should be thorough”. As a reminder, the Chron endorsed Crenshaw for re-election. The Orlando Sentinel has apologized for endorsing Rep. Michael Waltz, one of Crenshaw’s fellow members of the Sedition Caucus. I await the Chron taking similar action; merely excoriating Ken Paxton and Ted Cruz, without even mentioning Crenshaw for his role in this debacle, is insufficient.

Montana Governor Steve Bullock has observed, as part of his own amicus filing against the Paxton mess, that Texas did not include his state as a defendant even though Montana made the same kind of changes that Georgia et al did that Paxton finds so objectionable. Of course, Trump carried Montana, so it’s totally different. Governor Bullock also knows how to bring the snark:

SCOTUS may act on the Texas case even before I finish drafting this post, so let me wrap up while the outcome is still unknown. First, a few words from Adam Serwer about why Trump has so many rats following behind his rancid Pied Piper act:

To Trump’s strongest supporters, Biden’s win is a fraud because his voters should not count to begin with, and because the Democratic Party is not a legitimate political institution that should be allowed to wield power even if they did.

This is why the authoritarian remedies festering in the Trump fever swamps—martial law, the usurpation of state electors, Supreme Court fiat—are so openly contemplated. Because the true will of the people is that Trump remain president, forcing that outcome, even in the face of defeat, is a fulfillment of democracy rather than its betrayal.

The Republican base’s fundamental belief, the one that Trump used to win them over in the first place, the one that ties the election conspiracy theory to birtherism and to Trump’s sneering attack on the Squad’s citizenship, is that Democratic victories do not count, because Democratic voters are not truly American. It’s no accident that the Trump campaign’s claims have focused almost entirely on jurisdictions with high Black populations.

From Elizabeth Dye at Above the Law:

But perhaps we shouldn’t get waylaid in Constitutional and procedural niceties, lest we distract ourselves from the point that THIS IS BATSHIT. The state of Texas has filed a facially nonsensical suit purporting to vindicate the rights of the Defendant states’ legislatures from unconstitutional usurpation by overweening governors and state courts, a usurpation which supposedly violates the Elections Clause. And the proposed solution is for the Supreme Court itself to violate the Elections Clause by postponing the electoral college vote, thus usurping Congress’s power to “determine the Time of choosing the Electors, and the Day on which they shall give their Votes; which Day shall be the same throughout the United States.”

And instead of saying, “Slow your roll, Ken Paxton! We’ve been banging the drum about states’ rights for two hundred years now. It’s kind of our thing, you know?” the intervenor states are all in on this Frankenstein hybrid of vote dilution and anti-federalism. Rather than acknowledging the reality of Trump’s loss, these attorneys general would rather attach their names to a complaint which claims that it’s just mathematically impossible for Biden to have won those four Defendant states because, ummm, Clinton lost them. Don’t ask how Trump was able to flip Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Michigan after Obama won them in 2012 and 2008 — that formula is still being calculated.

Never mind that Texas’s governor Greg Abbott extended early voting by a week, the same dastardly usurpation of legislative prerogative which supposedly voids the election in the Defendant states. Pay no attention to the fact that Mississippi also allows votes to be counted if they arrive within three days of the election, which Paxton argues is patently illegal. Or that Utah conducted this election entirely by mail, which is, according to the complaint anyway, prima facie evidence of intent to allow vote fraud. IOKYAR.

The Trump motion to intervene is little more than a cleaned up version of the president’s Twitter feed, drafted by John Eastman, a law professor at Chapman University who is nonetheless confused about birthright citizenship and recently penned a racist Newsweek editorial wondering if Kamala Harris was eligible to run for president.

Mentioning this John Eastman character brings us to the final tweets, because all good blog posts about election theft end with tweets. These two are embedded in that ATL article:

As noted before, Lawrence Joseph is the outside counsel Ken Paxton hired for his lawsuit, since the Solicitor General declined to come on board. Wheels within wheels, y’all.

And finally, nothing could sum up this entire experience better than this:

From the neighborhood of New Heights in the city of New Houston and the state of New Texas, I wish you all a happy weekend. CNN has more.

UPDATE: Didn’t have to wait long, as it turns out.

The US Supreme Court on Friday rejected Texas’s unprecedented last-ditch effort to challenge President-elect Joe Biden’s win in Pennsylvania, Michigan, Georgia, and Wisconsin by suing those four states in the high court.

At least a majority of the justices concluded that Texas lacked standing to bring the case at all, a threshold the state had to clear before the case could go any further.

“Texas has not demonstrated a judicially cognizable interest in the manner in which another State conducts its elections,” the court wrote in the brief order.

No justice noted that they had dissented from the decision to knock out Texas’s case from the start. It would have taken at least five justices to agree to hear the case, but the justices don’t have to individually indicate how they voted, so there’s no way to know the vote breakdown for certain. Justice Samuel Alito Jr., joined by Justice Clarence Thomas, wrote that they believed the court had to allow Texas to file its lawsuit, but they wouldn’t have granted any other relief that the state requested.

It was a significant loss not only for Texas, but for President Donald Trump, who had asked to intervene in the case and spent the the past two days tweeting about why the justices should effectively hand him an election that Biden won. The court denied all of the other motions filed in the case as moot once it decided Texas couldn’t bring the case at all, which ended Trump’s bid to get before the justices.

There’s plenty more stories out there – go to Google News or Trending on Twitter if you haven’t come across any others. The Electoral College meets on Monday, and after that it really is over, though one presumes the delusions will continue. I’m going to finish with some more tweets. You should go outside and enjoy the day.

Not sure how I feel about this. It’s right there in the Constitution, but it’s also overturning the will of the voters, which is what the Sedition Caucus was trying to do. I am happy to have a discussion about this, however. Let these bastards explain why they haven’t violated the Constitution.

Speaking of bastards and being in opposition to the Constitution:

Yeah, I don’t even know what to say to that. But I would very much like to know what every elected Republican thinks about it. Let’s get them all on record, shall we? Rick Hasen has more.

The states respond to Paxton

Now we wait for SCOTUS. I sure hope they’re quick about it.

Best mugshot ever

Each of the four battleground states targeted by a Texas lawsuit seeking to overturn President Donald Trump’s election defeat issued blistering briefs at the Supreme Court on Thursday, with Pennsylvania officials going so far as to call the effort a “seditious abuse of the judicial process.”

The court filings from Georgia, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin come a day after Trump asked the Supreme Court to intervene in the lawsuit brought by Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton seeking to invalidate millions of votes in their states. The lawsuit amounts to an unprecedented request for legal intervention in an election despite there being no evidence of widespread fraud.

“Texas’s effort to get this Court to pick the next President has no basis in law or fact. The Court should not abide this seditious abuse of the judicial process, and should send a clear and unmistakable signal that such abuse must never be replicated,” wrote Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro.

The Texas lawsuit, Shapiro said, rested on a “surreal alternate reality.”

[…]

Despite the slate of inaccurate claims driving the lawsuit, more than 100 House Republicans signed on to an amicus brief in support of Paxton’s motion.

Notable Republican leadership names on this list include House Minority Whip Steve Scalise and Republican Policy Committee Chairman Gary Palmer.

“The unconstitutional irregularities involved in the 2020 presidential election cast doubt upon its outcome and the integrity of the American system of elections,” the brief said without evidence.

“Amici respectfully aver that the broad scope and impact of the various irregularities in the Defendant states necessitate careful and timely review by this Court.”

Beyond the four states subject to the Texas lawsuit, more than 20 other states and Washington, DC, also submitted an amicus brief deriding the effort and urging the high court to deny Texas’ motion.

“The Amici States have a critical interest in allowing state courts and local actors to interpret and implement state election law, and in ensuring that states retain their sovereign ability to safely and securely accommodate voters in light of emergencies such as COVID-19,” the brief said.

Shapiro’s particularly fiery brief assessed that the Texas lawsuit is “legally indefensible and is an affront to principles of constitutional democracy.”

“Nothing in the text, history, or structure of the Constitution supports Texas’s view that it can dictate the manner in which four sister States run their elections, and Texas suffered no harm because it dislikes the results in those elections.”

See here and here for the background. A copy of the court filings are at the CNN story, but the best part of the Pennsylvania filing, which uses the word “seditious”, is here. Despite the sound and fury, there’s some suggestion that even the sedition-committers know that it all signals nothing.

Six states attorneys general, led by Missouri AG Eric Schmitt, have moved to intervene in Texas v. Pennsylvania, the lawsuit filed by Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton that seeks to prevent the selection of presidential electors based upon the November election results in four states (Pennsylvania, Georgia, Wisconsin, and Michigan). Yesterday, 17 states, also led by Missouri AG Schmitt, filed an amicus brief in support of the Texas suit. I wrote about that filing here.

There are a few notable things about today’s filing. First and foremost, it is notable than only six of the states that joined yesterday’s amicus brief (Missouri, Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, and Utah) were willing to join today’s motion to intervene and join the Texas Bill of Complaint. This suggests that some of the state AGs who were willing to say that the claims raised by Texas are sufficiently serious to warrant the Court’s attention were not willing to actually endorse the substance of those claims. Perhaps this indicates there is only so far they are willing to go to virtue-signal their support for the Trump tribe. (Yesterday’s filing from Arizona can be viewed in a similar light.) In the alternative it could simply represent discomfort with some of the claims this new briefing supports, which leads to my next point.

It gets into the legal weeds from there, so read the rest if you’re so inclined. In the meantime, there may still be a couple of respectable voices here in Texas.

The state’s Big Three — Gov. Greg Abbott, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and House Speaker Dennis Bonnen — have all supported the suit, and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz has reportedly even agreed to argue the case before the U.S. Supreme Court if it advances, which legal experts say is extremely unlikely.

More than half of the Texas Republican congressional delegation — 12 members including Reps. Dan Crenshaw, Kevin Brady and Randy Weber — were among the 106 House members to sign onto a brief in support of the suit.

[…]

Still, in what is shaping to be yet another with-Trump or against-Trump moment for Republicans in Congress, the Texas delegation is splitting.

Texas Sen. John Cornyn doubts that Paxton even has grounds to sue. “It’s an interesting theory,” he said, “but I’m not convinced.”

On Thursday, Cornyn — a past Texas attorney general, as is Abbott — was joined by several more prominent Republicans in his dissent.

Rep. Kay Granger, who has represented North Texas for almost two decades, told CNN she did not see the suit going anywhere and called it a “distraction.”

“I’m not supporting it,” Granger said. “I’m just concerned with the process.”

Conservative firebrand Rep. Chip Roy excoriated the suit, saying he could not join colleagues in the House in writing a brief to support the suit because he believes it “represents a dangerous violation of federalism and sets a precedent to have one state asking federal courts to police the voting procedures of other states.”

“I strongly support the continued pursuit of litigation where most likely to succeed — such as Georgia — to bring to light any illegal votes and encourage, if necessary, state legislatures to alter their electors accordingly,” Roy tweeted. “But, I cannot support an effort that will almost certainly fail on grounds of standing and is inconsistent with my beliefs about protecting Texas’ sovereignty from the meddling of other states.”

I give Kay Granger a B+, Cornyn a C, and Roy a D – he was perfectly happy to throw manure on the concept of voting by mail, so his disagreement was entirely about tactics, not principles. I remind you, as recently as 2016, Republicans in Harris County cast more votes by mail than Democrats did. As for Dan Crenshaw, I hope that the next time we try to tell the voters in his district that he’s nothing more than a faithful foot soldier for Donald Trump, they believe us.

Not that Ken Paxton cares, but I appreciate what the DMN editorial board says to him.

Your lawsuit, as you should know, will fail on the merits. Every piece of evidence shows the same result. Donald Trump lost this election. This is why the high court will turn you away, as courts have repeatedly turned away suits seeking to reverse the election’s outcome.

That is not to say that your decisions are without consequence. As the state’s attorney general, you chose to mislead the public by acting as if there were a legal case to defy the will of the voters as expressed through legally administered elections, and this will cause lasting damage to our political system and to faith in our elections. Much like crying wolf when there is no animal in sight, your lawsuit will undermine legitimate complaints in the future about voter fraud and undercut legitimate work in the future to ensure ballot integrity.

Your leadership is also fueling cynicism, empowering conspiracy theorists who operate on accusation rather than fact, and enabling those who seek election confusion rather than clear, compelling and accurate election results. This is leadership unbecoming of your office. It is a disservice to Texans who deserve a well-run office of the attorney general and who depend on a fair administration of justice.

We really need to vote him out in 2022. I’ll wrap up with some tweets.

I’ll blog about that more fully when I see a story. It just sure is hard to separate the timing, and the cravenness, of this lawsuit from Paxton’s immediate needs. We’ll see what SCOTUS has to say, and when they have to say it. Daily Kos and NBCNews have more.

We still have to talk about Paxton’s ridiculous and anti-democratic lawsuit

At least for one more day.

Best mugshot ever

President Donald Trump on Wednesday latched on to a longshot Texas lawsuit seeking to overturn a presidential election that handed the White House to Joe Biden.

Legal experts say Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton’s effort to contest election results of four key battleground states is all but certain to fail. But it has drawn support from the Republican attorneys general of 17 other states.

As the president’s legal team loses case after improbable case in federal district and appellate courts, the Texas lawsuit offers a major advantage: It goes straight to the top. Under a special legal avenue unique to states, Paxton filed the case directly with the U.S. Supreme Court, a body Trump has suggested could deliver him the victory that voters did not.

[…]

The Texas lawsuit takes issue with changes to election procedures in four battleground states: Georgia, Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin. Paxton argues those changes were unlawful and call into question Biden’s victories in those states. He is asking the high court to block the critical battlegrounds from participating in the Electoral College.

Though the Supreme Court has a six-member conservative majority, including three justices appointed by Trump himself, it has so far shown no interest in siding with him in the election cases his campaign has lobbed. On Tuesday, it decisively rejected Pennsylvania Republicans’ effort to overturn Biden’s victory there in a one-sentence order with no dissents.

Legal experts and court watchers expect a similar outcome in the Texas case. The court has asked for a response from the four battleground states Texas is suing, setting a Thursday deadline, but has given no indication about how it will decide the matter.

“This is the Hail Mary with time running out the clock kind of play here,” said David Coale, an appellate attorney in Dallas. “This is really the last little window to sort of sneak in there and try to get a court involved.”

States have a special legal ability to take cases directly to the Supreme Court, though such cases are rare, and more typically involve boundary disputes like water rights. If the high court accepts Texas’ argument that it can sue the four battlegrounds in this case, Coale said, “then any state can sue any other state about just about anything.”

Even if the court gets past tricky procedural issues, Texas’ case faces an uphill battle.

Officials in the battleground states have roundly rejected Paxton’s argument, calling it “false,” “irresponsible,” “a publicity stunt,” “genuinely embarrassing,” “beyond reckless” and “beneath the dignity of the office of attorney general.”

They also point out that many of the claims Paxton makes about election irregularities in their states have already been litigated and roundly rejected. Experts, state election officials and U.S. Attorney General Bill Barr have all said there is no evidence of voter fraud on a scale that could have affected the outcome of the election.

“Texas alleges that there are 80,000 forged signatures on absentee ballots in Georgia, but they don’t bring forward a single person who this happened to. That’s because it didn’t happen,” said Jordan Fuchs, Georgia’s deputy secretary of state.

See here for the background, and please put aside any concerns you may have for Ken Paxton’s dignity. He sure isn’t concerned about it.

Honestly, the best way to deal with this kind of pure bullshit is through Twitter.

For more responses from people who are smarter and way more honest than Ken Paxton, Texas Lawyer collected a bunch more responses, a sample of which is here:

>> Raffi Melkonian, appellate lawyer at Wright, Close & Barger: “The new Paxton lawsuit is not worth a lot of your time, but I mean, it doesn’t make any sense and is bad and has no chance of success at all. Just want to be clear on that.” [Twitter]

>> Jonathan Adler, Case Western Reserve University law professor: “Here, Texas is not only asking the Supreme Court to hear the case, it is also asking for expedited consideration and extraordinary emergency relief, in the form of injunctions barring the defendant states from relying upon the election results to appoint electors and authorizing ‘pursuant to the Court’s remedial authority, the Defendant States to conduct a special election to appoint presidential electors.’ In effect, the suit is asking the U.S. Supreme Court to supervise the Presidential election in the four defendant states.” [Reason.com]

>> J. Scott Key, Georgia appellate attorney and Mercer University law professor: “This pleading is our book club’s next selection. Over wine, we will discuss whether the text is a coded love letter subtle to a jealous suitor with pardon power.” [Twitter]

>> U.S. Sen. Ted CruzR-Texas:  “Petitioners’ legal team has asked me whether I would be willing to argue the case before #SCOTUS, if the Court grants certiorari. I have agreed, and told them that, if the Court takes the appeal, I will stand ready to present the oral argument.” [Twitter]

>> John Q. Barrett, law professor at St. John’s University School of Law: “Kudos to Sen. Cruz for giving the Court another major reason, just in case it needed any more, to deny cert.” [Twitter]

>> Philadelphia election lawyer Adam Bonin, who has represented the Democratic Party in recent election litigation in Pennsylvania: “It is embarrassing to see argument like this from a state attorney general to the Supreme Court of the United States.” [Twitter]

>> Andrew Fleischman, appellate attorney, Ross & Pines, Atlanta: “Gonna go ahead and sue the Supreme Court to enjoin them from taking up this Texas challenge. That way they’ll all have to recuse. When the Supreme court rejects the suit after dismissing my petition and ordering sanctions, I’ll go on Fox News and say they were scared of me.” [Twitter]  “Ok the absolute trolliest thing Michigan could do right now is move to recuse Paxton because his desire for a pardon is a conflict of interest. We’re not even really doing law any more so why not?” [Twitter]

>> Eric Greenberg, Seyfarth Shaw: “Would the @Nate_Cohn @nytimes needle predicting a Biden win in GA at 3 am in the morning be sufficient evidence to combat the claim as to GA?  Just kidding — but maybe not.” [Twitter]

>> Adam VanHo, Ohio attorney, former state assistant attorney general: “@KenPaxtonTX should be ashamed of himself for this frivolous filing. And if states get to sue other states over their treatment of voters, when will states like New York and Ohio sue southern states over their treatment of former felons’ voting rights.” [Twitter]

>> Pennsylvania Lt. Gov. John Fetterman: “Can the Texas AG *also* sue their Lieutenant Governor for the handsome reward of $2M he owes me for reporting voter fraud?”  [Twitter]

>> Chris Geidner, The Justice Collaborative: “As others have noted, Texas Solicitor General Kyle Hawkins is not on the SCOTUS filing—despite him being the state’s lead SCOTUS lawyer. There is, however, a ‘special counsel’ noted.” [Twitter]

>>Joyce White Vance, former U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Alabama: “This lawsuit alleges defendant states took advantage of the pandemic to expand vote by mail. It’s the ultimate expression of Trump’s view the GOP can’t win … if all eligible Americans can vote. Tx AG, himself under criminal investigation, appears to be a fan of cheat to win.” [Twitter]

>>Jocelyn Benson, Michigan Secretary of State: “This lawsuit seems to suggest that the voters of Michigan messed with Texas. They didn’t. Case closed.” [Twitter]

SCOTUS requested responses from the four targeted states by this afternoon. Everyone with integrity believes the case will be summarily dismissed shortly thereafter. Stay tuned. The Chron, Daily Kos, the Current, Political Animal, and Slate have more.

Ken Paxton sues other states to overturn their election results

It’s as stupid and pernicious as it sounds.

Best mugshot ever

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton is suing four battleground states — Georgia, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin — whose election results handed the White House to President-elect Joe Biden.

In the suit, he claims that pandemic-era changes to election procedures in those states violated federal law, and asks the U.S. Supreme Court to block the states from voting in the Electoral College.

The last-minute bid, which legal experts have already characterized as a longshot, comes alongside dozens of similar attempts by President Donald Trump and his political allies. The majority of those lawsuits have already failed.

There is no evidence of widespread fraud in the 2020 election, officials in most states and U.S. Attorney General Bill Barr have said. Biden won in all four states where Paxton is challenging the results.

In a filing to the high court Tuesday, Paxton claims the four battleground states broke the law by instituting pandemic-related changes to election policies, whether “through executive fiat or friendly lawsuits, thereby weakening ballot integrity.”

Paxton claimed that these changes allowed for voter fraud to occur — a conclusion experts and election officials have rejected — and said the court should push back a Dec. 14 deadline by which states must appoint their presidential electors.

“That deadline, however, should not cement a potentially illegitimate election result in the middle of this storm,” attorneys for Texas wrote.

[…]

Notably, Paxton himself is listed as the agency’s lead attorney on the case — a highly unusual role for the state official, who rarely plays a hands-on role even in the state’s major cases. Paxton’s new chief deputy, Brent Webster, signed onto the filing, but conspicuously absent is the agency’s top lawyer for appellate work, Solicitor General Kyle Hawkins, who typically argues the state’s cases before the Supreme Court and did so as recently as last month. None of Hawkins’ deputies is listed as contributing to the case, nor are any of the agency’s hundreds of other attorneys.

The agency instead appears to have hired an outside attorney, Lawrence Joseph, to contribute to the case.

The agency did not answer questions about its staffing choices for the lawsuit, nor did Hawkins himself.

Gov. Greg Abbott, a former Texas attorney general, signaled support for the lawsuit, telling a reporter the case “tries to accelerate the process, providing certainty and clarity about the entire election process. The United States of America needs that.”

We’ll discuss motives in a minute, but first, a few tweets.

You should also read this thread from Steve Vladeck, and this post from Rick Hasen, in which he calls this “a press release masquerading as a lawsuit” and “utter garbage”. And now you know all you need to know about the legal merits of this case, which by the way was filed on the legal deadline for states to certify the Presidential election.

Now then. Why would multiply-accused felon Ken Paxton do this? Two obvious reasons:

1. It’s a signal to George P. Bush and any other potential primary challengers that no one is going to out-wingnut him in 2022. We are at “drinking hemlock to own the libs” levels of depravity here. Maybe Solicitor General Kyle Hawkins will speak up and contradict the speculation about why Paxton was on his own for this, but the fact that Paxton did this on his own is surely a message to any wannabe kingslayers.

2. It’s also a message to Donald Trump, and that message is “PARDON ME! PAAAAAAAARDON MEEEEEEEEE!” Why fight an FBI investigation if you can be pre-emptively declared not guilty of any crimes you may have committed?

My guess is that Greg Abbott’s “well, we should just let the process play out” numbskullery is also an attempt to placate the seething hordes that now think he’s a liberal squish crossed with Joseph Stalin. I doubt it will work, but this is where Abbott is these days.

Anyway. On the one hand, we have already wasted too many brain cells on this. On the other, we should never forget that the official stance of way too many Republican officials is that they cannot lose elections and will do anything at all to prevent that from happening, law and decency and democracy be damned. I can only imagine the freakout they will have when Dems finally break through at the state level. For more reading than you should have time for, see the Chron, TPM, Daily Kos, Mother Jones, Reform Austin, and the Press.

The bar conundrum

Ugh.

Halloween this year in downtown Austin was a raucous affair. Nightclubs advertised dancing and drink specials. Thousands of people crowded 6th Street, partying shoulder to shoulder, some with masks and some without.

All of this happened as bars in Austin were still under a shutdown order to stop the spread of the coronavirus.

Those bars and nightclubs are some of the more than 2,500 so far that have been permitted to reopen by the state on the promise that in the middle of a pandemic, they’d convert themselves into restaurants.

Shuttering Texas’ nearly 8,000 bars has been one of Gov. Greg Abbott’s most drastic safety restrictions. He most recently allowed bars to open in parts of the state where coronavirus hospitalizations are relatively low, with permission from the local officials.

But in areas where bar bans are still being enforced, many of those businesses are still operating like, well, bars. Just weeks after Halloween, with Thanksgiving on the horizon, frustrated health experts and local officials say the loophole is defeating the purpose of the bar ban and could be one reason the state is battling its largest outbreak in months.

“The restrictions were put in place for a reason,” said Dr. Philip Huang, the director of Dallas Public Health. “And if you get around it, if you’re trying to cheat, then you’re sort of eliminating the reduced transmission that you’re trying to achieve.”

Public health officials and experts have said since this spring that bars pose unique dangers for spreading COVID-19. The Texas Medical Association notes it is one of the worst ways to spread the virus.

“Packed bars, where people are talking very close to each other and they’re shouting, or they’re yelling and people are touching a lot — that’s super high risk,” said Aliza Norwood, a medical expert at the Dell Medical School at the University of Texas at Austin.

If the current trend continues — over 8,300 Texans were hospitalized with confirmed coronavirus infections Monday, up by nearly 900 from last week — “there may be a time in which it is appropriate to shut down bars and restaurants completely,” Norwood said.

Austin health officials agree.

“We are at a precarious spot right now where cases are rising across the country,  cases are rising across Texas,” said Mark Escott, interim Austin-Travis County health authority, before adding, “We really have to find a way to stabilize things to avoid that surge.”

But Abbott, who has concentrated power within himself to take action on COVID-19, said he has no plans to do so. He did not respond to requests for comment.

I’ve been an advocate for taking steps to help bars survive, with the rule interpretation that lets them be classified as restaurants a key component of that. I’ve done this because I want to see these businesses survive and their employees keep their jobs, and I believed it could be done in a reasonably safe fashion, with an emphasis on outdoor and to-go service. That obviously hasn’t worked out so well. The best answer would have been to pay the bars to shut down long enough to get the virus under control. It’s still not too late to do that, but that’s going to require Mitch McConnell’s Senate to take action, and I think we both know that’s not going to happen. One can only wonder what some advocacy from Republicans like Greg Abbott and Ted Cruz and John Cornyn might have accomplished, but that would have required them to take this seriously in the first place. In the meantime, just because these places are open doesn’t mean you have to go to them, or that you have to be inside of them if you still want to support them in some way. Keep yourself safe, at least.

What happens when there’s no room for the sick people?

It’s already happening in some parts of Texas, mostly out west.

Sarah Vasquez for the Texas Tribune

Presidio and Brewster counties, home to Marfa and Big Bend, along with nearby Culberson County, lead the state in cases per 1,000 residents in the last two weeks, according to a Texas Tribune analysis. In fact, all of West Texas, including Jeff Davis, Hudspeth and El Paso counties, is ablaze with increasing COVID-19 cases and low on hospital beds.

Big Bend Regional Medical Center, the only hospital in Presidio, has just 25 acute care beds. Culberson County’s 2,200 residents have just Culberson Hospital, where there are 14 beds and two ventilators, but at least one doctor said she doesn’t feel adequately prepared to use them.

Patients in dire condition are often transferred from the small towns to regional hospitals in larger metropolitan areas. But those closest hospital systems in El PasoLubbock and Midland, which have more resources, are already struggling with their own influxes of local cases, leaving doctors and county officials worried a bump in cases from Thanksgiving gatherings will fill beds beyond capacity with nowhere left to send the sickest patients.

“It’s unlikely we’d be able to help them at this point,” said Ricardo Samaniego, the county judge of El Paso, where COVID-19 patients occupy more than 35% of hospital beds.

Without El Paso as an option to send patients, nearby doctors and officials are scrambling.

“It’s a scary feeling to have a critically ill patient with nowhere to go,” said Gilda Morales, a Culberson County commissioner and doctor at Culberson Hospital.

She said that in recent weeks, the county has sent struggling patients to hospitals in San Antonio — more than 400 miles away — including Culberson County Judge Carlos Urias, who’s been there for nearly four weeks.

If a flood of residents need to be hospitalized quickly, and cases in San Antonio and other metropolitan areas swell, Culberson might not have the resources to treat everyone in need, Morales said.

“We’re worried those beds will run out, and then what?” Morales said. “We’re all holding our breath because as much as we told people not to get together for Thanksgiving, the holidays and family give a false sense of security.”

Hospitals across the West Texas region are “bumping capacity and stretched absolutely to the limit,” said John Henderson, president of the Texas Organization of Rural and Community Hospitals. Administrators have struggled to find open beds, in some cases calling 15 or 20 facilities, he said.

“Everyone is headed the wrong direction,” he said. “Every week is a little worse than the last one.”

In Odessa and in neighboring Midland, the area’s three hospitals serve as “referral centers,” accepting patients from small-town facilities that are ill equipped to treat serious illnesses.

“All of our outlying facilities, they don’t have ICUs or ventilators that can take care of patients long term,” said Dr. Rohith Saravanan, chief medical officer of Odessa Regional Medical Center. The hospital in recent weeks added 34 beds for people with COVID-19, and, as of Tuesday, only four were still empty.

“If we see any more sharp rises, I don’t think our hospitals will be able to keep up with capacity,” Saravanan said.

Scenic Mountain Medical Center in Big Spring is one of those outlying community hospitals. The facility’s seven intensive care unit beds are full, as are 18 overflow beds that fill the hallways.

Just as a reminder, people still have heart attacks and get in car crashes and fall down stairs and get shot. They’re competing for increasingly scarce hospital resources with all of the COVID patients, too. I don’t have any answers for this, or at least I don’t have any answers beyond what I and many others have been saying for months – wear your face mask, avoid indoor gatherings, observe social distancing. More to the point, Greg Abbott doesn’t have any answers, either. That’s a lot more consequential.

How is the Lege going to operate?

It’s going to be an interesting session.

Rep. Charlie Geren

In the most detailed public glimpse yet at how the 2021 legislative session might play out during a pandemic, the chair of the committee that handles administrative operations in the Texas House told a group of lobbyists Tuesday that masks may be required in all public parts of the Texas Capitol and that a limit could be placed on the number of people allowed inside the building.

State Rep. Charlie Geren, R-Fort Worth, listed a number of details during a presentation to the Professional Advocacy Association of Texas, a lobbyist and government affairs group. He also said that the House was looking at remote voting options for the chamber’s 150 members, which would allow lawmakers to vote on bills from elsewhere inside the building if they decide to not be present on the floor.

Geren said people entering the Capitol during the session will likely be tested and that lawmakers might require visitors to schedule appointments before arriving. They can limit the risks, he said, but can’t expect to completely prevent COVID-19 cases.

“We’re going to plan for an outbreak in the Capitol,” he said. “I think we have to.”

The Senate, he said, is having its own chamber-specific conversations over what protocols should be in place. Spokespeople for Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Later Tuesday, Geren told The Texas Tribune that details he shared at the event are not set in stone — and emphasized that “there’s nothing in concrete yet, and there won’t be for a while.”

Geren is a member of a workgroup tapped by state Rep. Dade Phelan, the next likely House speaker, to make recommendations on legislative operations during the coronavirus pandemic. He said the ideas were being shared with a separate group Phelan recently created to solicit input on potential changes to the lower chamber’s rules.

“We won’t know until we adopt the rules,” Geren said, “and the rules are being talked about now.”

There’s more, and you should read the rest. What the Lege can do may be constrained by the state constitution, which among other things mandates that the session be open to the public. You can already watch the legislature online, as each day’s events are streamed live, but would that pass muster if it’s the only option? I’m sure there are lawyers pondering that now. You can expect mask wearing to be a tiresome flashpoint, as professional jackasses like Briscoe Cain have already stated their intention (repeated in this story) to not wear masks or require any visitors to their office to wear them. We’ll see how contentious the rule-setting process is.

(I should note, by the way, that Charlie Geren’s bio page says that he is 71 years old. Preparing for a COVID outbreak at the Capitol is going to be a bigger deal for some folks than for others. And let us not forget the staffers, the security guards, the maintenance and cafeteria and groundskeeping and other workers who will also be affected by the rules the Lege adopts, and the shameful indifference of the likes of Briscoe Cain.)

Meanwhile, on the other side of the Capitol:

Nine months before the November election, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick made headlines by suggesting that if Republicans lost their supermajority in the Senate, he would pursue a bold procedural move: further lowering the threshold that is required to bring legislation to the floor.

Now that the election has come and gone — and the GOP indeed lost its supermajority — it remains to be seen how serious Patrick is about the idea, which would strip Senate Democrats of the one tool they have to block legislation they unanimously oppose.

The lieutenant governor, who presides over the Senate, has not made any known public comments since the election about the potential rule change, and senators are being tight-lipped or saying they have not heard anything. The uncertainty comes less than a month and a half before the Legislature gavels in for the 2021 session — and each chamber takes up its rules as one of the first orders of business.

Right now, Senate rules require 19 members, or three-fifths of the body, to vote to bring legislation to the floor. With the reelection loss of Sen. Pete Flores, R-Pleasanton, this November, Republicans are set to begin the session with 18 members.

Patrick already led the charge to decrease that threshold from 21 members — two-thirds — during his first session as lieutenant governor five years ago.

Since the election, Patrick’s office has not responded to requests for comment on whether he plans to push a rule change that would lower that threshold so Republicans can keep steamrolling Democrats. Such a change would happen at the beginning of the legislative session and only require the support of a simple majority in the chamber, or 16 members.

Four GOP senators’ offices said Tuesday they were unavailable to discuss the topic of Senate rules going into the session.

Sen. Paul Bettencourt of Houston, chairman of the Senate Republican Caucus, said Tuesday he is completing his term as chairman and cannot comment “in advance of the caucus taking a position or not” on a rule change. The caucus is holding a retreat this week.

I am on record as being in support of ditching anti-majoritarian traditions like the two-thirds rule, which is now the three-fifths rule. I wasn’t always this way – when the two-thirds rule was first threatened, I stood in defense of it, because I knew it was the only real tool Democrats had at their disposal to stop bills they hated. I’ve since abandoned that thinking, because we’ve seen far too much minority rule in our federal government, and when the blessed day comes that Democrats have control in Austin, I want them to be able to use it. If that means giving up our best tool for obstruction now, then so be it. I know that puts me at odds with current Senate Democrats, several of whom are quoted in that story. I totally get where they’re coming from, and I have no doubt that an unfettered Dan Patrick is a fearful thing. But I can’t defend that practice any more, and I won’t. Majority rule is the better way, and the day is coming when that will be in our favor. Hold tight until then.

State budget situation not quite as awful as feared

Still bad, but could be worse.

Despite “historic declines,” state lawmakers will have more money to work with in the upcoming legislative session than Comptroller Glenn Hegar expected over the summer, he said Monday. But Hegar did not outline specifics as state coffers continue to suffer from the economic recession spurred by the coronavirus pandemic.

Sales tax revenues, by far the largest part of the state budget, fell by 4.8% in the second half of the 2020 fiscal year compared with the same stretch last year, Hegar said. It was a much softer hit than he anticipated, thanks to Texans staying home and spending money on “staycations instead of vacations.”

Other revenue streams, such as taxes related to alcohol, hotel occupancy, and oil and gas, were down more than 40% in the same period this year compared with last, Hegar told lawmakers Monday during a Legislative Budget Board meeting at the Capitol.

“Revenues remain down significantly relative to a year ago, and well below what we expected to collect when the Legislature wrapped up work on the budget in 2019,” Hegar said.

Legislative budget writers decide how much money will be allocated for large state expenses like how much school districts get, how well health care programs are funded, which transportation projects get built and what amount state law enforcement gets based on how much the comptroller says will be available during the next two-year budget cycle, which runs from September 2021 through August 2023. Hegar will likely unveil that number as the session nears.

Hegar, whose office is in charge of collecting taxes owed to the state of Texas, last formally updated lawmakers in July, when he wrote a letter to Gov. Greg Abbott and lawmakers projecting the state’s current two-year budget to be roughly $11.5 billion less than originally estimated. That would put the state on track to end the biennium, which runs through August 2021, with a deficit of nearly $4.6 billion, Hegar wrote in July.

A few points:

– Let’s hope Hegar is a better revenue estimator than Susan Combs was. Her epic misfire in 2011 led to far more cuts being made than were needed.

– There are and will be plenty of stories written about how this is now the time that the Lege will consider marijuana legalization or casino gambling, because those things generate revenue that could be used to help stave off the deficit. The bit about gambling has been trotted out reliably every cycle since at least 2003, and it has never been true, in large part because the people who oppose expanded gambling still oppose it in deficit situations, and they remain with sufficient power to block it. I expect the same to be true for pot – it will happen when and if there is sufficient political support for it, and the budget situation will not be a factor.

– Also, too, people like Greg Abbott and especially Dan Patrick don’t want new revenue sources. They are perfectly happy to cut things out of the budget. Deficit situations are great opportunities for them.

– We could avoid all this if there is a federal COVID relief package targeted at cities and states. That’s only going to have a chance of happening if Dems win the two Georgia Senate runoffs, and even then it may be dicey. But it is a thing that Abbott et al could advocate for if they chose.

– Oh, yeah, the Rainy Day Fund. We didn’t use it in 2011 because Rick Perry decided that the fund, which was explicitly set up for the purpose of blunting the effect of economic downturns – hence the actual name “Economic Stabilization Fund” – was actually for natural disasters instead. I feel pretty confident that Greg Abbott will declare that COVID is no reason to tap the fund, and in the absence of a legislative majority to dip into it, it ain’t happening. (It’s possible some small amount may be used, if budget writers feel sufficiently desperate, and the nihilist caucus can be tamed or bought off. Don’t bet on it, that’s my advice.)

We’ll know more in January. Hope for the best. The Chron has more.

Even the White House thinks Texas sucks at COVID response

I mean

The White House Coronavirus Task Force says Texas is in the swing of a “full resurgence” of COVID-19 and the state’s mitigation efforts “must intensify,” while Gov. Greg Abbott and other leaders decline to take some of the steps the Trump administration is recommending.

A report issued by the task force before the Thanksgiving holiday calls for Texas to significantly reduce maximum occupancy for public and private indoor spaces and to conduct weekly coronavirus testing of teachers, college students, county workers, hospital personnel and others.

“Texas continues to be in a full resurgence and mitigation efforts must intensify,” the Nov. 22 report says. “The silent community spread that precedes and continues to drive these surges can only be identified and interrupted through proactive, focused testing.”

The White House sends such reports to states weekly, but they are not typically made available to the public. The report was published by the Center for Public Integrity.

Three days before the report was issued, Abbott was assuring the public that local officials had been provided with all the tools they need to slow outbreaks, including a requirement that Texans wear masks indoors in public places and when patronizing businesses.

Abbott has also enacted mandatory occupancy reductions — including closing bars — in regions where the number of hospitalized COVID-19 patients exceeds 15 percent of capacity for seven straight days.

But Abbott has declined to go further, instead focusing his message on treatment, touting a newly approved drug as proof that “the cavalry is coming.”

There are plenty of local officials who would disagree with Abbott’s assertion that they have all the tools they need.

Mayor Sylvester Turner on Tuesday said he agreed with the White House report’s findings and implored Abbott to take a harder line or give local officials back the powers they had in the spring.

“We determined what the occupancy limits were going to be in large part. We had the ability to say ‘no,’” said Turner, who took questions from reporters after a holiday-themed event at City Hall. “The tools that we had in March and April, we no longer have. We are not driving this car. County judges and mayors are more like passengers. The state is driving the car.”

In addition to Abbott’s May preemption of local restrictions, bars that collect less than 51 percent of their revenue from alcohol also can reopen as restaurants, and the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission in August made that easier by broadening the scope of revenue they can count as not stemming from alcohol sales.

“Bars can be open. So, we’re doing what we can to limit gatherings, but that’s a big, big problem,” Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo said during Tuesday’s regularly scheduled meeting of Commissioners Court. “Because these things have been allowed, we’re seeing the numbers we’re seeing again now.”

Measures of the virus’ spread, Hidalgo noted, approximate the levels being reported when she placed the county at its worst, “red” threat level in June.

“It was soon after that that the governor pulled back a little bit, and the numbers kept climbing until finally they peaked at a level where they routinely exceeded base hospital capacity” in intensive care units, she said. “And so if we go much longer without action, we’re going to be in a bad place.”

One option the city does have is a curfew, which has been implemented in El Paso and San Antonio. Turner said he reserves the right to implement one in Houston, but views that as a “nuclear option” that punishes good actors along with the bad.

The mayor said he is trying to keep people alive for the next few months, until vaccines become available and strengthen the fight to contain the virus’ spread.

“My appeal to the governor is to join with us and do the same,” he said.

Remember how they once had to solve the riddle of the Sphinx to unlock some of those tools in the first place? Boy, those were the days. The Chron story notes that while the local numbers aren’t as bad as they were in July, they are all on an upward trend. That ain’t good.

What could be done? In addition to letting the locals actually do the things they want to do, Abbott could issue a new mask mandate, with enforceable penalties attached, and take the heat from the wingnuts for it. He could order more enforcement of bar and restaurant occupancy limits, to crack down on the bad actors. It also remains true that Abbott could be exhorting our two Republican Senators to get off their asses and support a big COVID relief bill that would get affected businesses through the next few weeks. Even this wholly inadequate effort would be better than nothing. “Doing nothing while we wait for the vaccine and try out new treatments for the many people who get sick” and “completely shutting down everything with no financial relief for anyone” aren’t the only options available. The Trib has more.

Crossing a red line

Will Greg Abbott notice?

North Texas crossed a critical threshold in the number of hospital patients fighting COVID-19 that could trigger bar closings and lower occupancies at stores and restaurants if such cases don’t decrease within a week.

With more than 2,300 patients testing positive for the coronavirus in the 19-county hospital region, 15.05% of all beds were occupied by a person with COVID-19, according to state data.

Hospitals had been approaching the 15% red line — set by Gov. Greg Abbott in October — for several days before the Thanksgiving holiday as the state continued to report record-breaking numbers of new coronavirus cases. On Friday, Texas reported 2,473 new cases and 51 new deaths — a drastic drop compared to recent results likely due to labs being closed for the holiday.

Currently, most businesses in the area may operate at 75% capacity. But under Abbott’s Oct. 7 executive order, businesses will be forced to limit capacity to 50% if they are in a region where more than 15% of hospital patients have tested positive for the coronavirus for seven consecutive days. The rate must drop below the red line for one week before business capacity can rise again.

“As the number of positive cases grows, our health care heroes need your patriotism and sacrifice,” said Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins in a statement Friday. “Please put off get-togethers and avoid crowds to protect public health and the economy.”

The 19-county region includes both Dallas and Tarrant counties as well as smaller counties, including Rockwall, Cooke and Hunt.

A total of 8,518 people were in a Texas hospital Friday with COVID-19, the state reported. That’s about 2,400 shy of the state’s peak, set in July.

Nine of the state’s 22 regions reported at least one day above the 15% threshold this week. And another hovered just below it Friday. The region that includes El Paso was by far the worst, with about 35% of all its hospital patients fighting COVID-19.

Abbott on Friday tweeted a rosier outlook, highlighting that the rate of infected patients at El Paso counties had dropped for two weeks in a row, and the state’s positivity rate has been declining.

Earlier this month, Abbott rejected the idea of once again scaling back the economy statewide. Another shutdown would have a disastrous effect, he said. At the time of his comments — just eight days ago — six of the state’s regions were above the line.

At this point, we’ve basically surrendered. I have no expectation that Abbott will take any action, other than maybe to cheerlead treatment options, for those who will be able to use them. If you don’t want to be complicit in this, do your part – wear your mask, maintain social distancing, avoid public gatherings, and so on. I don’t know why our leadership is so terrible, but it is and it’s up to us to keep our own selves safe.

More on police oversight boards

Ours in Houston isn’t very good. Some other cities do it better. We can learn from them.

Houston’s police oversight board is the weakest among Texas’ five largest cities and suffers from “a complete lack of transparency and public reporting,” a recent study from Rice University’s Kinder Institute for Urban Research concludes.

The report, released last week, analyzed police oversight institutions in Houston, Dallas, San Antonio, Austin and Fort Worth, concluding that the agencies in each city need more resources, and fewer legislative hurdles, while its members need more experience and training.

The Independent Police Oversight Board in Houston “has very limited powers to conduct its own investigations, instead being handed completed internal affairs investigations without the ability to independently collect further evidence on the event,” reads the report, co-authored by Kinder Institute director Bill Fulton, a member of Mayor Sylvester Turner’s recent police reform task force.

The group detailed its recommendations in a 153-page report released in late September, about three months after Turner announced his 45 appointees to the board. The group recommended that city officials bolster the police oversight board with paid staffing and facilities outside the police department and by changing policy to allow the board to report some of its findings to the community, which it is currently barred from doing.

Turner has signaled he intends to adopt at least some of those recommendations, saying in early September he is “99.999 percent certain there will be some adjustments” to the police oversight board. The mayor later said he’s “overwhelmingly supportive of most of the ideas” in the task force’s report, though he said some could be difficult to fund or would require state legislative action.

The task force’s recommendations align with those presented in the Kinder report, which recommends the board be staffed with “people with legal knowledge, police expertise and research skills.” Austin has by far the most paid staff members on its oversight group among Texas’ five largest cities, the report found.

“(M)ost agencies in the state’s big cities have fewer than five employees to oversee forces of thousands of officers,” according to the report. “Houston’s IPOB has no staff or resources.”

See here for more on Mayor Turner and the task force recommendations. For more on the Kinder report, which you can find here, I’ll refer you to this Grits for Breakfast post, which goes into more detail. At this point, we have all the information we need to act. It’s time to act. I’m hopeful we’ll get some at the city level in the upcoming weeks, but as Mayor Turner says, some of this needs to happen at the state level. And there, I fear, we’re more likely to run into obstacles. For instance:

That bill is authored by Rep. Matt Krause, one of the vulnerable Republicans we were unfortunately not able to knock off this election. The problem goes a lot deeper than one State Rep, though. Cities are not going to be able to do what their voters want them to do if the Republican legislature and Greg Abbott have anything to say about it.

Please stay socially distant this Thanksgiving

It’s what we have to do.

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo on Tuesday urged residents to limit Thanksgiving gatherings to immediate family to limit the spread of COVID-19.

The county will send an emergency cell phone alert to all residents urging them to get tested for the virus, regardless of whether they have symptoms, as uncontrolled community spread has driven up new case and hospitalization numbers to a point higher than before Labor Day. Hidalgo and health officials fear a sustained surge like the one in June and July, which pushed Houston-area hospitals beyond their base ICU capacity.

“We reopened too soon,” Hidalgo said. “We’ve seen every indicator move in the wrong direction.”

Hidalgo’s requests is voluntary, since Gov. Greg Abbott in April stripped local officials of the ability to issue their own COVID-related restrictions. The governor rebuffed Hidalgo’s request in June for a new stay-at-home order; she warned during her annual State of the County remarks last week that new restrictions may be needed to combat this most recent wave of infections.

Before we get to the very well-known reasons why we should not be gathering in large quantities in our homes, let’s take a moment to consider this.

An estimated one out of every six Texans — roughly 4.75 million people — has contracted COVID-19, according to a recent statistical analysis by the University of Texas at Austin COVID-19 Modeling Consortium. The analysis estimates that the virus is spreading rapidly and so far has infected more than 16 percent of people in Texas, far more than the state’s tally.

“The speed at which things can get out of hand is a lot quicker than people expected,” said Spencer Fox, associate director of the consortium.

The consortium’s statistical modeling uses cell phone data to measure mobility and state hospitalization levels to determine where the virus is spreading and how many people have been infected. It is not a perfect predictor of the virus’ spread, Fox cautioned, but it dovetails with state estimates.

The researchers’ approximation of 4.75 million cases is “generally in the ballpark” of what state health officials believe is the true number of infections, said Chris Van Deusen, a spokesman for the Texas Department of State Health Services, which publishes the state’s official COVID-19 infection figures.

“It varies by condition, but we know and expect that all kinds of diseases are underreported,” Van Deusen said in an email.

In the Houston region, the UT consortium’s projections have worsened recently because of the growing number of new infections and hospitalizations. There’s a 76 percent chance the pandemic is growing here, according to the latest modeling, up from 47 percent on Friday. More than 1 million people — about 16 percent of Houston-area residents — have been infected with COVID-19, the UT researchers estimated.

[…]

The consortium estimated in October that there was at least an 80 percent chance the pandemic was growing in El Paso. That proved to be true. Cases and hospitalizations rose in that border city throughout late October and early November, overwhelming the local health care system. The model estimates that one in every three El Paso residents has contracted the virus since the start of the pandemic.

The modeling also shows the potential danger of letting the virus run rampant to establish herd immunity — a strategy that some critics of lockdowns say is worth trying.

In order for herd immunity to work before a vaccine is ready, roughly 60 percent of the population would have to be infected, or more than 17 million people, Fox said. Given the demand on hospitals in Texas now, with an estimated 16 percent of the population infected or recovered, the health care system would be overwhelmed if the coronavirus was allowed to spread unchecked.

“You can just think about what that would look like,” he said.

So there’s an excellent chance that someone at your Thanksgiving dinner has, or has had, COVID-19. If they are sick, they may not know it, which means they’re out there spreading it without realizing it. Why would you want to take the chance?

Look, the weather forecast for Thanksgiving is beautiful. If you want to celebrate outdoors, with family or friends in a socially-distant manner while masked when you’re not eating, you can reasonably do that. But don’t be part of the problem, and especially don’t be an asshole. Let’s all try to live long enough to be able to get vaccinated for this thing. The Trib has more.

The vaccine distribution challenge

Having a vaccine for COVID-19 is wonderful. Being able to make it available to everyone who needs it is a big challenge.

With cases spiking to over 10 million, the virus is everywhere, and spreading deeply into every corner of the country. This is where the Biden administration will face its biggest challenge, especially as it pertains to rolling out a potential vaccine.

My home state of Texas is a great example. A 2016 report from the Texas Department of State Health Services illustrates the terrible state of rural health care. According to DSHS, 235 of Texas’ 254 counties were medically underserved. There were many isolated counties with little to no access to health care. Some even lacked a single doctor.

This has been a crisis a long time in the making. As the Texas Observer recently noted, in 2019, Texas budgeted $17.7 million for infectious disease surveillance, prevention, and epidemiology—and over $400 million for border security. So even when a vaccine is delivered, it will be going to a state that is understaffed and underfunded.

Lipscomb County, population 3,302 as of 2010, in the northeast corner of the Texas panhandle, doesn’t have a doctor. It is worth noting that Lipscomb County is a 550-mile drive from Austin. Portland, Maine, is a closer drive to Washington, D.C., than those 3,302 isolated souls.

Given this isolation and lack of resources, the vaccines themselves present a logistical challenge alone that borders on the impossible for rural America. The Pfizer vaccine, now the leading contender, will require ultra-cold storage of at least -94 degrees Fahrenheit and two rounds of shots. Another leading vaccine candidate from Moderna also requires cold storage, albeit not to the same extent, according to the company. Typically, hospitals and large clinics have this capability. Small towns lacking even the most basic health clinics do not.

To deploy the Pfizer vaccine or any other one, health planners will have to figure out a way to deliver it to rural areas while maintaining its required temperature long enough to ensure that the population receives both doses. This scene will be repeated all across small-town America. This presents a big risk: An uncoordinated federal roll out of vaccines requiring ultra-cold storage could leave state and local governments competing for resources much like they were competing for PPE earlier in the pandemic.

The Trib expands on this.

How effectively public health officials can prioritize and distribute millions of doses of the new vaccines across a state that covers 270,000 square miles and more than 170 rural counties will determine how quickly Texas turns a corner in a pandemic that is again surging across the state and pushing hospitals to the brink in West Texas and the Panhandle.

The task is made more difficult because the Texas Department of State Health Services, which is largely responsible for the distribution effort, won’t know which vaccines it’s receiving, and how many doses, until one or more is approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

They will also have to combat misinformation and persuade vaccine skeptics — and those unnerved by the coronavirus vaccines’ historically swift development — of the benefits of being inoculated. World Health Organization experts have said that up to a 70% vaccine coverage rate for COVID-19 may be needed to reach population immunity through vaccination. In the 2019-20 flu season, only about 37% of adults younger than 65 received a flu vaccine. The rate was about 65% for seniors.

“We haven’t seen any efforts that are this broad since probably a polio vaccination in the 1950s,” said Dr. Mark McClellan, a former head of the FDA who has advised Abbott about the pandemic.

“The people who are most likely to benefit from vaccination are people who may have difficulty connecting to health care,” such as elderly people and residents of low-income communities who often lack health insurance, he added — compounding the logistical challenges.

The vaccine is expected to initially be in short supply, and will be first distributed to a state-selected group of people considered to be essential workers or most vulnerable to being severely sickened.

[…]

It’s still unclear, beyond a list of murky priority groups such as health care workers, who will get the vaccine during the initial months when supplies are scarce. In the coming weeks, a state panel of experts is expected to publish more specific recommendations about who will be eligible for a vaccine and when.

Early estimates from the Texas Department of State Health Services found there are more than 5 million people who are vulnerable or work in front-line jobs that increase their exposure risk. That includes more than 3.9 million people who are 65 or older, more than 638,000 health care personnel, more than 327,000 acute care hospital employees, more than 137,000 nursing home residents and more than 66,000 emergency medical workers.

The state’s adult population also includes more than 9.4 million Texans with underlying medical conditions that could increase their risk for severe illness associated with COVID-19.

So yeah, it’s a big problem, and there are many questions that need to be answered, some of which will spark heated debate. In the meantime, as both stories noted, the pandemic rages on, meaning we could be trying to vaccinate people while we’re still in conditions that still demand social distancing and will put everyone involved in the process at risk. So you know, maybe we should try a little harder to contain the spread right now. Just a thought.

UPDATE: From the Trib:

Health care workers will be the first people in Texas to receive a COVID-19 vaccine once one receives emergency approval from the U.S. government, and on Monday a state panel of vaccine experts and politicians revealed which workers in the health field will receive top priority.

The “first tier” recipients, according to the panel’s new guidelines, include:

  • Hospital-based nurses, doctors, custodians and other workers who have direct contact with patients
  • Staff of nursing homes or other long-term care facilities who work directly with residents
  • Emergency medical services providers such as paramedics and ambulance drivers
  • Home health aides who manage “vulnerable and high-risk” patients

Certainly reasonable. We’ll see how it goes after that.

An ounce of cure

It’s certainly nice to have this, it’s just that there isn’t nearly enough of it.

Texas has received 5,800 doses of the newly approved coronavirus treatment that Gov. Greg Abbott heralded on Thursday and will receive even less next week, underscoring the massive challenge that remains as the state scrambles to tamp down its latest outbreak.

While the medication, made by Eli Lilly, is welcome news to many in the state’s health care community, its supplies are so limited that some hospitals are weighing how to ethically prioritize eligible patients, and others have opted out altogether.

“We recognize that this therapy could provide some modest benefit, but it requires space, staff and additional training around infusions that are hard to come by right now, as we are currently strained just taking care of the patients we have in house,” said Dr. Ann Barnes, the executive vice president and chief medical executive at Harris Health System in Houston.

[…]

Carrie Williams, a spokeswoman for the Texas Hospital Association, said executives huddled Tuesday with state leaders and “were largely very supportive of having the opportunity to have their hands on this therapeutic.”

“It’s an outpatient infusion therapy and requires significant space and staff time, which obviously is taxed right now,” Williams said in an email. “That said, we welcome all the help we can get to decrease demand on hospitals right now.”

Texas is expected to receive another 3,200 doses next week, according to data from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. That would make it the second largest state recipient, just behind Illinois.

Still, it’s not keeping pace with Texas’ mounting infections. Health officials reported more than 50,000 new positive cases this week through Friday alone, and there are 152,000 estimated active cases statewide. More than 8,000 people were hospitalized with the virus as of Friday.

And the drug is not a cure-all; in clinical trials, it was shown to reduce hospitalizations among high-risk patients but not eliminate them. Federal officials have said they expect close to 400,000 doses to be available nationwide through the end of the year; 80,000 of those have already been distributed.

To be effective, the treatment has to be administered early in an infection, before severe symptoms emerge, and it is meant only for people over age 65 who have chronic conditions such as diabetes or high blood pressure. It’s administered intravenously over the course of an hour.

In Lubbock, where cases are surging and the governor traveled on Thursday, hospitals received 172 doses this week, according to Dr. Drew Payne, a physician and associate program director at Texas Tech University. He said they have scrambled since to determine how best to get the doses out and hoped to begin administering them over the weekend.

“It’s good to say, ‘Hey, everybody needs this medication and we need to give it out,’” Payne said. “But then the logistics of having nursing staff, a place to bring COVID-positive patients into, a way to give that medication, a plan if there’s an adverse reaction to that medication — those are all things we’ve been dealing with.”

Lubbock reported nearly 500 new positive cases on Friday, with 5,700 active cases overall.

See here for the background. The numbers are clear – this new treatment will help at the margins, but we need to bring down the number of new cases. Until we really prioritize that, it’s all just band-aids.

Prevention > treatment

I mean, more treatments for COVID is a good thing, but you know what’s better? Not getting COVID in the first place. Maybe we can try doing better on that?

Gov. Greg Abbott traveled to Lubbock on Thursday to tout a newly approved coronavirus treatment, without saying how many doses are available or announcing any new restrictions to slow the virus’s spread as infections continue to surge.

Speaking at his first news conference on the pandemic in over two months, the governor said the treatment, made by Eli Lilly and similar to the one that President Donald Trump received last month, has already been distributed to Lubbock and other areas with overcrowded hospital systems, including Midland, Amarillo and El Paso.

“They have enough right now where they can begin the process and treat patients at least for the next several days,” Abbott said. He said he expects additional treatments to arrive in the coming weeks, as well as the first few shipments of a coronavirus vaccine, which could arrive by late December and would go to first responders.

“The cavalry is coming,” he said.

The governor added firmly that the state will not be locking down again, a measure used this spring to slow the initial wave of infections, and insisted that local officials have all tools they need to slow local outbreaks, including a mask mandate in place since the summer and mandatory occupancy reductions for regions where the number of COVID-19 patients exceed 15 percent of total hospital capacity for seven straight days.

In a companion article, Abbott gives three pieces of “good news”, which are this new treatment, that new treatment, and the forthcoming vaccines. All of which is great, and I can’t wait till the vaccines are widely available, but none of that really deals with the current crisis. Effective treatments assumes a fully functional health care system, and right now we have overcrowded hospitals and doctors and nurses who are getting thoroughly burned out. I also assume these treatments aren’t free, and in case you’d forgotten the state of Texas is one of the plaintiffs in a lawsuit that if successful would take away health insurance from millions of people – that’s on top of the millions who already don’t have it here in our state. Plus, and I can’t say this often enough, the economy is not going to get back to full steam until people feel safe from the virus. It’s not enough to say “if you get sick we’ll help you get better”, especially if you’re a person who is immunocompromised or has various co-morbidities or doesn’t have sick leave or child care or health insurance. How many more people need to get sick and die before Greg Abbott can be bothered to care?