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Endorsement watch: Vote No on Prop 3

Yes, there are Constitutional amendments on the ballot this fall. Most of them are pretty innocuous, but one of them is not, and you should vote No on it.

Proposition 3, on this year’s ballot, would enact a constitutional amendment barring any Texas jurisdiction from adopting any limits on religious services. The Texas Freedom to Worship Act, passed this year in the regular legislative session, after lawmakers, including all but three senators and all Republicans in the House and nearly half its Democrats, voted to forbid government officials from requiring churches to cancel or limit services when disaster strikes.

The idea was a bad one as a statute, and even worse as an amendment to the Texas Constitution, which would mean not even lawmakers could act to limit public worship in the face of a health emergency.

It could have severe “unintended consequences,” Rice University political scientist Mark Jones told us.

If state or local officials needed to close a church even temporarily due to fire damage or a nearby chemical spill, the congregation could simply refuse.

The amendment is also unnecessary. For decades, courts have recognized religious freedom, especially when it comes to freedom to worship as one chooses, as one of the U.S. Constitution’s most powerful protections. The Supreme Court ruled in November, for instance, that New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s order limiting congregations to 10 or 25 worshippers in areas of New York City with high infection rates violated the First Amendment. As of April, the high court had ruled five consecutive times that California’s pandemic-related limits on religious services were illegal.

But even so, the court has never gone so far as saying that no state interests can ever justify limiting religious services in public. Some dangers are just too large, and restrictions sufficiently reasonable, for such a blanket approach to make sense. Many faith leaders agree, and spoke out last spring against the legislation.

I’ve got a longer look at the Constitutional amendments here, and this one just stands out as being a Bad Idea. (No, I don’t know why it attracted so much Democratic support. Ask your Rep and your Senator how they voted on this and why.) I expect this will pass – these things usually do – but that doesn’t mean you should help it. The Chron doesn’t address the other seven propositions, all of which I’m fine with, in this piece. They may do so later, but if not take a look at my other post and see the links there for more guidance.

Looking for the missing students

More important than usual this year.

The state’s largest school district recorded a first-day enrollment of 172,091 students, a significant decrease compared with previous years. It is not uncommon for enrollment to lag, even to its lowest point of the year, in August.

While numbers reported later in the fall typically provide a more accurate depiction of a district’s student body, HISD’s enrollment in recent weeks has slowly risen to about 190,000 as of last week, according to House, but remains lower than the nearly 200,000 who finished last school year.

Still, [HISD Superintendent Millard House II] said before embarking on the home visits Saturday, the district is on pace to reach its target of about 197,000 students.

“Student reengagement efforts are ongoing, and it is our goal to facilitate outreach to the families of all students who have left HISD,” he said. “We are not here to judge, we are here to support. That is very important for us to understand. So, as we knock on doors this morning, we are here to ensure that we get these babies back in classrooms so that they can get the kind of support they need.”

HISD is not alone.

The Texas Education Agency registered a decrease last year of statewide enrollment from the previous year for the first time since it began collecting enrollment data.

There were roughly 5.37 million students enrolled in schools across Texas last year, a 2.2 percent decrease — about 122,354 students — from the prior year, agency officials wrote in a June report.

[…]

Such problems — having an outdated address or phone number as a student’s contact information — are par for the course for Burl Jones, a student outreach worker at HISD, who said he goes on “wild goose chases all the time” as he tries to get students back into classrooms.

COVID-19 made it worse. Some students did not have access to the internet early on, and some parents remain skeptical of vaccines or health protocols.

“Sometimes, people will be there, they won’t answer the door. Or you have an address on file for them and they don’t actually live there,” Jones said. “That is what it is out there, man, that is the real world. … I do what it takes to find them. It’s like, I am an investigator. I don’t give up. I get a joy out of recovering these kids.”

HISD also has held several phone banking sessions, including in partnership with Houston Federation of Teachers, the district’s largest employees union.

I’m sure there are more kids homeschooling this year than usual, but for sure there are kids who are simply missing from the rolls. We know there were many kids last year during remote schooling who never logged on, for whatever the reason. Kids have already lost a lot of ground, so it’s extra important to make sure no one gets left behind. I sure hope they can find everyone.

Back to Code Red

Pretty much inevitable at this point.

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo on Thursday returned the county to the highest COVID-19 threat level and urged unvaccinated residents to stay home and avoid unnecessary contact with others.

At a news conference, Hidalgo and Mayor Sylvester Turner pleaded with residents to get vaccinated, wear masks in public settings, and avoid hospitals except for life-threatening conditions.

“We find ourselves retracing our steps toward the edge of a cliff,” Hidalgo said. “It’s very conceivable that we can once again be heading toward a public health catastrophe.”

[…]

The county’s data report Wednesday evening showed how far and fast the situation has deteriorated: an explosion of new cases and a positivity rate of 16 percent. Hospitalizations in the Houston area have increased for 20 straight days and show no signs of slowing; they are on pace to set a pandemic record in about a week.

At its heart, the stay-home request of unvaccinated residents is toothless. Hidalgo lacks the authority to enforce it, let alone issue less restrictive edicts, such as mandatory mask wearing. As one of the most popular local elected officials, however, she hopes to shake residents from a sense of complacency that the pandemic is over.

“I know there’s a lot of conflicting messages, there’s a lot of confusion, so I don’t want to talk about what I don’t have the ability to do,” Hidalgo said of the state pre-emptions. “The truth of the matter is, the best we can do right now, the most we have the authority to do right now, is what we’re doing. So, we’re going to continue to make the most of that and really be direct about what we want the community to do.”

The mayor, who bucked the governor in requiring city workers to wear masks this week, said the numbers would dictate the city’s response to the virus. As of Thursday, 197 city employees had active cases of COVID-19.

“The numbers will dictate my response, and then we’ll deal with whatever happens after that. But I’m not going to be constrained by some order,” Turner said. “Wherever this virus goes, and whatever we need to do to check it and to save lives, is what I’m prepared to do.”

As the story notes, several other big counties have taken this step already, and more will surely follow. For those of you who like visuals, here you go:

Not a pretty picture at all. There’s nothing more Judge Hidalgo can do, since Greg Abbott has cut off any power that local officials had once had. I note that as of this writing, Mayor Turner’s employee mask mandate has not yet drawn a response from Abbott or Paxton. Makes me wonder if there’s more room to push the envelope a little, or if further provocation will draw their wrath.

While we can count on Judge Hidalgo to do everything she can to mitigate the spread of the virus, we can also count on her colleague to the north to do nothing.

COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations are continuing to increase dramatically in Montgomery County and around the region as the delta variant surges in unvaccinated residents.

While the Department of State Health Services recently started tracking cases in vaccinated people and specific data is not yet available, county health officials are reporting most new cases in unvaccinated residents.

“We can say that the vast majority of new cases, hospitalizations and deaths have not been vaccinated,” said Misti Willingham with the Montgomery County Hospital District. “Vaccines help reduce the risk of severe illness, hospitalization and death. Being vaccinated does a great job prepping your immune system should you encounter the virus.”

[…]

According to data from the health district since July 7, total hospitalizations in Montgomery County increased from 42 to 238 with 48 of those patients in critical care beds. MCPHD noted 157 of those 238 are Montgomery County residents.

The county’s active cases jumped 767 to 4,219. Since July 7, active cases in the county have surged by 3,624. The county’s total number of cases is now 60,941, increasing from 55,838 since July 7. Additionally, the county added three more reinfections bringing that number to 26.

However, health officials did not report any additional deaths from the virus. The total number of deaths remained at 354.

The county’s testing positive rate has climbed from 4 percent in early July to 19 percent. To date, 30,742 people have fully recovered.

Note there’s no comment from Montgomery County Judge Mark Keough in that story. Which is just as well, because when he does talk, this is the sort of thing he says. I have no words.

Since it’s all up to us to keep ourselves safe, we may as well remind ourselves of what we can do. Or at least, what we could do with just a little cooperation from our state government.

With COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations growing exponentially in Houston and Texas, responsibility for blunting the surge is still largely a matter of personal choices, leaving medical and public-health professionals pleading with Texans to be vaccinated, mask up and maintain social distancing.

On Wednesday, Texas reported 8,130 hospitalizations, a 44 percent increase since last Wednesday. At Texas Medical Center hospitals, 311 patients were hospitalized for COVID, up from 61 only a month before.

“When all the indicators head in the same direction, that gives you a good idea,” said epidemiologist Catherine Troisi, who teaches at UT School of Public Health. “Right now everything is looking bad.”

[…]

“Delta is so transmissible, it’s picking off anyone who’s unvaccinated,” said Peter Hotez, co-director of the Texas Children’s Hospital Center for Vaccine Development and dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor. “That’s what’s been happening in Louisiana and Mississippi, and now it’s starting here.”

Of the three main strategies to blunt the effect of the coming surge — vaccinating, masking and social distancing — Hotez favors vaccinations, and says it’s crucial to administer as many as possible immediately.

“If we wait until mid-surge, a vaccine campaign will be much less effective,” he said. “If ever there were a time to vaccinate, it’s now.”

He continued: “The single best thing we could do is mandate vaccinations for schools, but in Texas we’re not even talking about that. We can’t even mandate masks.”

Troisi agreed that urging individuals to act responsibly isn’t enough.

“From a public health standpoint,” she said, “we need to get people vaccinated, and we need to increase testing. Maybe we don’t have to mandate vaccines. But you shouldn’t be able to go into Target or eat at McDonald’s if you’re not vaccinated. There have to be consequences for not getting the vaccine. You can’t just put other people at risk.”

The delta variant moves faster than previous coronavirus strains, notes Spencer Fox, associate director of the UT COVID-19 Modeling Consortium.

“With the traditional coronavirus, if someone is infected, on average they’re infectious starting two-and-a-half days after infection and show symptoms at five days,” he said. “But with delta, a key difference is that the time between exposure and being infectious is shorter by a day.”

A percentage of people infected today are almost certain to need hospitalization within one to two weeks. So preventive measures taken today, he said, “will help reduce hospitalizations a week from now, and will have major impacts two weeks from now.”

In other words, all of the same risk-minimization techniques we had before, back when we didn’t have an amazingly effective vaccine that was free and available to everyone over the age of 12 to really truly minimize the risk. I’m going to boil it all down to “get you and everyone in your family who is eligible vaccinated, and do everything you can to avoid any contact with unvaccinated people”.

For sure, stay the hell away from this.

Texans for Vaccine Choice will host a rally on the steps of the Texas Capitol later this month, protesting “the current state of medical mandates” as the state grapples with a surge in COVID-19 cases and stagnating vaccination rates.

The rally is scheduled for Aug. 21 at 11:30 a.m. A panel discussion will address the state’s current COVID protocols and vaccine requirements.

“I’m speechless,” Dr. Peter Hotez said Thursday morning. “To do that when there’s a public health crisis, with COVID rates going up — it’s terrible.”

As someone once said, terrible is as terrible does. If the COVID they will spread could be limited to just them it would be one thing. But it’s not, and so here we are.

We’re #2!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“We’re at it again,” Scoggin said.

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

And what was Abbott’s eventual response?

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

The fourth wave

We’re not ready.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He’s on brand, that much is for sure.

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

Our Delta future

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

Some more data, if you need it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

And the STAAR results ain’t great either

Oof.

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

The pandemic was hard on math

Math scores on the end-of-course algebra exams, in particular.

Texas’ first trove of 2021 state standardized test scores offers early confirmation of what many educators feared: students fell dramatically behind in math during the coronavirus pandemic.

Results from spring algebra tests given to Texas high school students show a major decline in performance compared to 2019, particularly among Black, Hispanic and lower-income students.

By contrast, performance on high school English tests slightly dipped this year, mirroring nationwide studies suggesting that students’ reading skills continued to develop — albeit slower — throughout the pandemic.

Taken together, the scores offer one of the state’s earliest looks at the academic fallout from the pandemic, which upended education across Texas and pushed millions of children into online-only classes for varying lengths of time.

The results further validate concerns that students’ math development, in particular, has taken the biggest hit among core subjects. While children continue to gain literacy and language skills through everyday interactions, students are less likely to acquire math skills without regular classroom instruction.

“Just think of anything you do regularly — sports, cooking, playing the piano. When you don’t do that thing, you get rusty,” Sarah Powell, an associate professor for the University of Texas at Austin’s College of Education, wrote in an email. “The same holds true with math.”

[…]

Scores on the two reading tests, English I and English II, held more steady. Passage rates on the English I exam slipped slightly, from 74 percent to 71 percent, as did rates of scoring on grade level (from 60 percent to 55 percent). Scores on English II, which fewer high schoolers take, essentially were unchanged.

Student demographic groups that historically have performed worse on the exams saw their scores drop the most. The share of Texas students scoring on grade level in Algebra I fell dramatically among Black students, from 53 percent to 28 percent, Hispanic students, from 64 percent to 34 percent, and students considered “economically disadvantaged” by the state from 59 percent to 31 percent.

The demographic trends showed up in Houston. Five of the region’s largest districts serving predominantly non-white and lower-income students — Alief, Aldine, Fort Bend, Houston and Pasadena ISDs — saw drops ranging from 25 percentage points to 33 percentage points in their share of students on grade level in Algebra I. More affluent districts saw declines of 15 percentage points or less, including Conroe, Katy and Humble ISDs.

We will get the STAAR results, which students still had to take, later this month. I hope we learned something from this experience that will help going forward, because the students sure paid for it. I also hope the federal COVID relief funds will be well used to get tutoring and remedial help to all the students who need it.

HISD asks for virtual learning funds do-over

I can understand this.

Thirty school districts, including Houston ISD, and two associations signed a letter to urge Gov. Greg Abbott to add legislation funding virtual learning to any special session for other proposed laws.

A bill that would have ensured districts receive funding for each student enrolled in online-only classes died after Democrats broke quorum to kill a controversial voting bill. The bill was expected to be called at 11:40 p.m. on May 30.

The signatories of the letter sent Wednesday — which also include Aldine, Conroe, Goose Creek Consolidated, Klein and Spring ISDs — noted that many districts scrapped plans to offer virtual learning this upcoming school year after the bill did not get a vote.

[…]

“We respectfully request that you add virtual learning to the list of items for the legislature to act on during any special session you call prior to the 88th Legislative Session,” the letter reads. “Over the past year, many students have discovered that virtual learning provides them with an opportunity to learn and grow in their own unique way.”

There is no new statutory framework authorizing remote instruction without the legislation, according to Texas Education Agency. The agency used disaster authority for the 2020-21 school year to OK funding for remote instruction, but that authority cannot be used for the new school year.

Under the proposal, districts and charters with a state-issued academic accountability rating of C or higher for the previous year would have been allowed to operate a local remote learning program. Districts that decided to offer such programs would have had wide discretion over which students could enroll.

The bill was HB1468, with Democratic and Republican authors and sponsors. It makes sense to me, because some kids benefited from remote learning, and some kids who are not able to get the vaccine either due to not being 12 yet or because of underlying health issues still need to stay home. Several teachers unions opposed the bill, presumably because teaching in dual mode is a lot more work without any bump in pay. It would be a simple matter for this bill to pass if added to a special session, since it was well on its way originally, but as we know that is entirely up to Greg Abbott, and who knows what he’ll do.

What was the effect of Texas’ early re-opening?

Here’s a new study by a trio of economic researchers that attempts to answer questions about the behavioral, public health, and economic effects of Greg Abbott ending the statewide mask mandate and all restrictions on how businesses can operate, all on March 3 of this year. Short answer: Pretty much nothing changed.

This study explores a unique policy shock in Texas to identify the causal impacts of a statewide reopening on public health and economic activity. Texas was first state in the United States to enact a “100% reopening.” Executive Order GA-34, issued by Governor Greg Abbott, (i) eliminated statewide capacity constraints on all businesses, and (ii) abolished the statewide mask mandate (Abbott 2021). Texas’ “first mover” position makes the state’s reopening plausibly exogenous relative to other later-reopening states that followed suit and eased restrictions. Under Governor Greg Abbott’s order, local businesses were free to impose their own voluntary restrictions. Furthermore, unlike the imposition of local shelter-in-place orders which were permitted and widely adopted (Dave et al. 2020a), Governor Abbott advanced the legal position that no local order can supersede the state’s reopening order and legally impose COVID-related capacity constraints on local businesses or fine local residents for not wearing masks.4 At the time the reopening was announced, the state of Texas had administered 5.7 million vaccine shots to its residents, fully vaccinating 11 percent of its adult (ages 16 and older) population Centers for Disease Control and Prevention 2021b). By March 29, all adults 16 and older were eligible to obtain a vaccine (Harper 2021) and by April 13, 15.2 million vaccines had been distributed in Texas (Johns Hopkins University 2021), with 26 percent of the adult population completely vaccinated.5 This share had reached nearly 40 percent by mid-May 2021.

This study is the first to examine the impact of a statewide reopening in the midst of a mass statewide vaccination effort. We document three key findings. First, using anonymized smartphone data from SafeGraph, Inc. and a synthetic control approach, we find that the Texas reopening had little impact on stay-at-home behavior or on foot traffic at numerous business locations, including restaurants, bars, entertainment venues, retail establishments, business services, personal care services, and grocery stores. Second, using COVID-19 case and mortality data from the New York Times, we find no evidence that the reopening affected the rate of new COVID-19 cases in the five-week period following the reopening.6 In addition, we find that state-level COVID-19 mortality rates were unaffected by the March 10 reopening. These null results persist when we explore heterogeneity in the state reopening by urbanicity and political ideology of Texas counties. We find no evidence of social distancing or COVID-19 effects of the reopening across more urban versus less urban Texas counties as well as across counties where the majority of residents supported Donald Trump or Joe Biden in the 2020 presidential election.

Finally, we explore whether Governor Abbott’s reopening order generated short-run economic growth in Texas. Using weekly state-level data on UI claims per 1,000 covered jobs from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), synthetic control and difference-in-differences estimates show that neither continued UI claims filed nor new UI claims filed (per 1,000 UI covered job) fell in the five “full week” period following the March 10 reopening. Moreover, using state-level data from the St. Louis Federal Reserve Economic Data (FRED), we find no evidence that the Texas reopening reduced the short-run (March 2021) unemployment rate or employment-to-population ratio. Supplemental analysis of microdata from the Current Population Basic Monthly Survey (CPS-BMS) show no evidence that that the reopening affected employment-to-population ratios at bars, restaurants, or entertainment venues. Taken together, our findings underscore the limits of late-pandemic era changes in COVID-19 reopening policies to alter private behavior.

See here for my post about the end of the statewide mask mandate, which I contended should have waited another couple of weeks until more people were vaccinated. I still think that would have been the smarter policy, but what this study tells us is that a lot of people – both mask-wearers and mask-resisters – kept on doing what they’d been doing. In addition, localities that had mask mandates (at least up until recently) largely kept them in place, and businesses that required people to wear masks continued to do so.

That combination of factors is very likely why not much changed despite the new, relaxed rules. Cellphone mobility data was used in May last year to predict the second-wave summer spike, and the reason for it was that with the initial lifting of stay-at-home orders, people went back to pre-pandemic levels of activity, with predictable results. The authors’ point is that at this later stage of the pandemic, people’s behavior was much more accustomed to being restricted, so a change in government policy had much less effect on them. That also means it had much less effect on economic activity, contra what Abbott promised, for the reason that many had proclaimed for months, namely that you can’t really reopen the economy until most people feel comfortable enough to get back out there and shop and dine at restaurants and go to the gym and movies and whatnot. And they won’t feel that way until the pandemic is well and truly beaten, which means taking it seriously until it’s been controlled.

Anyway, there’s grist for a lot of mills in there, so check it out. It’s kind of dense, so if you’d rather have someone else summarize and analyze it for you, there’s this Atlantic story. If even that is too long for you, or if like me you have run out of free Atlantic articles to read, this Twitter thread from the author will have to suffice. He doesn’t touch on the economic stuff, just the health and behavior stuff, but his explanation of the theories about this are nice and succinct. I’m sure we’ll see further study on this topic – it’s too interesting and important for there to be just this one – but for now, this is what we have.

No limits imposed on Governor’s powers in an emergency

So much for that.

The state Legislature won’t curtail Gov. Greg Abbott’s pandemic powers, after members of the House and the Senate failed to hash out their differences over it.

The measure, House Bill 3, was priority legislation in the lower chamber, and variations of the bill had passed both the House and the Senate. But representatives appointed to find a compromise missed a key deadline late Saturday to release new bill text, killing the measure.

It was not immediately clear why the bill died. Representatives for House Speaker Dade Phelan, and the two members who led negotiations, did not immediately respond to requests for comment on Sunday.

Phelan previously said the measure was “the House’s blueprint for pandemic response.” His office has also said the speaker believes the Legislature should have a “seat at the table” when determining how the state would handle future public health crises.

The bill’s failure was somewhat surprising given bipartisan support for scaling the governor’s powers during the pandemic. Abbott faced criticism from both sides of the aisle last year for his near-unilateral decision-making in the state’s COVID-19 response, as he issued monthly emergency declarations and changed rules at will.

The governor faced especially harsh pushback from right-wing members of his party, who called him “King Abbott” and lambasted his decision to implement business restrictions and mandate that Texans wear masks. Some challenged him, unsuccessfully, in court.

See here for the previous update. Conference committee negotiations are done in private, so we don’t know what the sticking points were, though perhaps we’ll hear something from one or more of the disgruntled parties. As you know, I was ambivalent about this, so I have no particular reason to mourn the demise of this proposal. Honestly, if we had just had a governor who made better decisions and was more collaborative we probably could have avoided a lot of the fuss. Not all of it by any means – the wingnut faction that completely lost their shit during lockdown was always going to seethe and try to do something in the session, but that would have been less likely to succeed. This has no chance of coming back in a special session because Abbott has no reason to put it on the agenda, so it’s a matter of what things look like in 2023 as to whether the issue comes up again. For now, barring anything unexpected, you can bury this one.

Threat level down again

Nice.

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo on Friday downgraded the county to the yellow COVID-19 threat level, citing improving metrics for the virus here coupled with increasing vaccinations.

“This is an important and encouraging, but still fragile, milestone in our fight against COVID-19,” Hidalgo said. “Our community is doing what it needs to do to move the needle in the right direction, but the threat of stalling or moving backwards remains very real.”

Hidalgo urged unvaccinated residents to avoid gatherings over Memorial Day weekend and implored them to get inoculated.

Friday’s move was the second downgrade in two weeks, following months of criticism the threat level had become meaningless as COVID numbers improved and the governor opened the entire state for business.

See here for the previous update. You can complain if you want, but Judge Hidalgo was just following the data and not screwing around with the agreed-upon metrics for the sake of politics. If you want to keep this moving along, go convince your unvaccinated friends and family to get the shot or stay masked up. The path forward has always been simple, the problem has been the unwillingness of too many people to follow it.

Threat level down

Been waiting for this for some time.

Harris County finally will downgrade from its highest COVID-19 threat level, County Judge Lina Hidalgo said Monday evening, after 47 weeks of urging residents to stay home.

Hidalgo said the effectiveness of the COVID-19 vaccines and improving local metrics were among several factors that convinced her to revise the threat level system the county debuted last summer. The U.S. Centers From Disease Control also told fully vaccinated Americans last week they may resume their pre-pandemic lives.

“We’re very much at a turning point,” Hidalgo said. “We don’t want to claim victory because there certainly there’s a possibility that amongst the unvaccinated, the virus gets out of control. But we do have reason for celebration.

Hidalgo said she would make a formal announcement Tuesday. Remaining guidelines would only apply to unvaccinated residents.

The two Republican county commissioners had urged the Democratic leader for weeks to abandon Level Red, which states that virus outbreaks are uncontrolled and worsening; data show the opposite is true.

The pair, Jack Cagle and Tom Ramsey, have said that while COVID-19 still must be taken seriously, the Level Red designation obscures the progress the county has made in containing the virus.

[…]

Currently, Harris County meets four of five criteria to downgrade to the next-highest threat level, including 14-day averages of new cases below 400 and share of ICU beds occupied by virus patients below 15 percent.

The remaining barrier is a test positivity rate below 5 percent; currently that metric stands at 9.4 percent. That result differs greatly than the positivity rate recorded by the Texas Medical Center system, which currently is 3.7 percent.

The TMC rate comes from tests conducted on patients at member hospitals in the Houston region; the county rate comes from tests taken by the Houston and Harris County health departments, as well as local pharmacies.

Hidalgo said experts she consulted said since few residents were being tested, Harris County’s rate likely was artificially high. She said her team would revise the metrics so positivity rate and new cases are secondary criteria.

See here for the previous update, which was a month ago. We’re a lot farther along on vaccinations, and all of the numbers have moved in accordance with that. I like the fact that we’re being true to the metrics, and that we are making adjustments to them based on new facts on the ground. I commend Judge Hidalgo for consistently doing the right thing, which would have been a lot easier to do if we didn’t have Threat Level Super Duper Bright Red stupidity and malevolence from other parts of our government. The later story also notes that government buildings would reopen to 50 percent capacity, and the county is reviewing that dumb anti-mask mandate order. The Press and the Trib have more.

Reopening schools and the COVID rate

Reopening schools led to more COVID cases. I mean, this is not a surprise, right?

When Texas schools returned to in-person education last fall, the spread of the coronavirus “gradually but substantially accelerated,” leading to at least 43,000 additional cases and 800 additional deaths statewide, according to a study released Monday.

The study was done by University of Kentucky researchers for the nonpartisan National Bureau of Economic Research in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and tracked weekly average COVID-19 cases in the eight weeks before and eight weeks after the state’s school districts sent students back to school in the fall.

The researchers said the additional cases they tracked after students began returning to schools represented 12% of the state’s total cases during the eight weeks after reopening and 17% of deaths.

They analyzed three things: school district reopening plans in every county, COVID-19 cases and deaths, and cellphone data that showed how adult movement changed once a community’s children went back to in-person learning.

Researchers chose Texas because, by the fall term, most schools around the country were still closed as Texas and a handful of other states were reopening in “less-than-ideal circumstances,” said Aaron Yelowitz, an economics professor at the University of Kentucky and one of the study’s researchers. The state also provided good conditions for pre-vaccine study, he added, since data was collected from May 2020 until January of this year, when vaccine rollout was still slow.

Although more adult Texans have since been vaccinated — about 30% had been fully vaccinated as of Saturday — Yelowitz said there are still communities in which the study’s findings could matter moving forward, like areas with more vaccine-hesitant or vaccine-resistant people.

My kids have been back at school since December. Their schools were limiting themselves to 25% capacity, the kid would eat lunch at their desks, I trusted they would all be wearing masks, and they wanted to go back. It was a risk, and we’ve made it through – my older daughter is now vaccinated, and daughter #2 will be getting her shot as soon as we can get them now that younger kids are eligible.

We can all debate the risk mitigation calculations people have made regarding their kids and in-person school. I don’t blame anyone who wanted or needed to keep their kids home, and I don’t blame anyone who wanted or needed their kids to go back to school. I do think it was wrong to not prioritize teachers and other school staff for vaccinations – they should have been in group 1B, along with grocery story employees and other essential workers – and I definitely disagree with any school district that eased or removed mask mandates. It’s a failure of our state government that we didn’t take all reasonable steps to minimize the risk of school reopenings, and now we can put a number on that failure. I don’t expect anyone in state leadership to accept any responsibility for that. But we can do something about it.

House passes its bill to limit Governor’s emergency powers

Not sure if this is going to make it through the Senate.

The Texas House on Monday gave preliminary approval to a sweeping bill that would reform the governor’s emergency powers during a pandemic and involve the Legislature during such instances.

House members voted 92-45 for House Bill 3, which will need another vote in the lower chamber before it heads over to the Senate for consideration.

“We must now take what we have learned in dealing with the pandemic and set a different framework for future pandemics,” state Rep. Dustin Burrows, a Lubbock Republican and author of the proposal, told House members as he laid out the legislation. “As a baseline, you will not government your way out of it.”

HB 3 as advanced Monday would give lawmakers more oversight of the governor’s emergency powers during a pandemic and specifically carves out future pandemics from how the state responds to other disasters, such as hurricanes. One amendment added Monday, for example, would require the Legislature to convene for a special session if a disaster declaration lasts longer than 120 days.

The wide-ranging legislation would affirm the governor’s ability to suspend state laws during a pandemic and allow for overriding local orders issued by county judges or mayors if they’re inconsistent with state orders.

Members drastically changed the legislation Monday with a number of amendments during the floor debate, including one that would create the Texas Epidemic Public Health Institute at the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston. That entity would make recommendations to a 12-member legislative oversight committee that also would be created if HB 3 became law. The committee, which would consist of the lieutenant governor and speaker — who would serve as joint chairs — and a number of committee chairs from both chambers, could in certain cases terminate pandemic disaster declarations, orders or other rules issued by the governor or local governments. It would only be able to act though when the Legislature is not convened for a regular or special session.

Ahead of Monday’s debate, the legislation was tweaked by Burrows to allow the Legislature to intervene on certain executive orders or proclamations issued by the governor. The governor would need permission from the Legislature to extend beyond 30 days an order or proclamation related to requiring face masks, limiting certain medical procedures or closing or capping business operating capacity. If the Legislature wasn’t already in session, the governor would be required to convene a special legislative session for lawmakers to consider modifying or terminating that order. If the Legislature was already in session, the governor would still need to ask state lawmakers for input to modify or terminate an order.

See here, here, and here for some background. You know how I feel about this – I generally agree with giving the Legislature a broader say in these matters, but I recognize that there can be logistical challenges with that, not to mention concern about speed of response. I also have serious concerns with the philosophy embedded in this bill – to say “you’re not going to government your way out” of a pandemic is, to put it mildly, wildly misinformed. I also have great concerns about the neutering of local officials, which the Chron story goes into.

The bill prohibits local governments from closing businesses or limiting their maximum occupancy, plus any local government deemed by the governor to have required a business to close would be prohibited from levying certain tax increases.

The bill also includes protections for most businesses from civil suits related to the pandemic.

Some of the more recent additions to the bill have helped it win the favor of conservative legislators who were skeptical, such as Rep. Tony Tinderholt, R-Arlington, who commended the bill’s author, Rep. Dustin Burrows, R-Lubbock, for addressing his concerns.

Texas House Democratic Party Chair Chris Turner, D-Grand Prairie, said the deal breaker for many members of his party came down to limits on local control.

“There were some positive things in the bill, but a lot of us were not comfortable with restrictions on local officials,” Turner said. “Local officials led our state through the pandemic and the Legislature should not limit their ability to do so in the future.”

I will admit to mixed feelings on this as well. We saw last year that the response to the pandemic varied greatly between urban counties and their neighbors. Harris County was serious about masking and social distancing and limiting gatherings, which meant putting more restrictions on businesses, while Montgomery County was the exact opposite. Which is all well and good until you remember that viruses don’t respect borders, and Montgomery’s laxness had a negative effect on Harris. That’s the argument for limiting what local officials can do, which sounds great until those limits are on actions you approve of. This bill ratchets that debate in the Republican direction, which at least clarifies the ambivalence I feel. The Senate bill is more limited in its approach. I have no idea which bill will win out. There’s only so much time left for a compromise. Reform Austin has more.

Trib polling roundup, part 1

On COVID and vaccinations.

Texas voters are feeling safer about being out in public, and better about getting COVID-19 vaccines, but a majority of the state’s voters still consider the coronavirus a “significant crisis,” according to a new University of Texas/Texas Tribune Poll.

In the first UT/TT Poll of the pandemic, conducted a year ago, 63% of Texans said they were “only leaving my residence when I absolutely have to.” That has fallen to 21%; in the current poll, 33% said they were “living normally, coming and going as usual,” and another 44% said they are still leaving home, “but being careful when I do.” The majority of Democrats, 55%, were in that last group, while 55% of Republicans said they are living normally.

“Democrats are still living as if it’s April of last year, but Republicans are pretty much back to normal,” said Joshua Blank, research director for the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas at Austin.

Those Texas voters haven’t thrown caution to the wind, however: 74% said they’re staying away from large groups, 64% are “avoiding other people as much as possible,” and 80% are wearing masks when in close contact with people outside their households.

I personally am in the “I leave home but am careful when I do” group – I’ve been in that group for awhile, and I expect to stay in it for the foreseeable future. Mostly that means I wear a mask when inside someplace other than my house, and it means I try to avoid being inside someplace other than my house if there isn’t a good reason for it. In other words, shopping is fine, ordering at restaurants (I’m eating outside or taking it to go for now) is fine, visiting the doctor or getting a haircut is fine, but I’ll pass on going to a bar or movie theater at this time. We have been to hotels, and we will travel via airplane in July. When the societal vax level is higher, I’ll be more open to more things. Your level of risk acceptance may vary.

Two-thirds of Texas voters said vaccines against the coronavirus are safe, while 18% said they’re unsafe and 16% were unsure. Democrats (86%) were more likely than Republicans (53%) to hold that view. Likewise, 66% said the coronavirus vaccines are effective, including 86% of Democrats and 55% of Republicans.

Asked whether they’ll get vaccinated when they can, 64% either said yes or that they’ve already been vaccinated, 22% said they won’t get a shot and 14% were unsure. Again, there was a partisan split behind those results, with 84% of Democrats saying they would get vaccinated or already have been, 51% of Republicans and 51% of independent voters saying the same.

In a June 2020 UT/TT Poll — before vaccines had been developed — 59% of Texas voters said they would get the shots if they became available, 21% said no and the rest were undecided. In October’s poll, 42% planned to get vaccinations, and 51% said in February of this year that they would either get the vaccination or already received it. Vaccine hesitancy has dropped accordingly, from 57% saying they were not going to get shots or were undecided in October, to 48% in February, to 36% in the most recent poll.

It’s that fourteen percent we need to concentrate on. Maybe over time pressure from family members or the threat of being fired will get some of the total resisters to get vaxxed, but the folks who are merely hesitant or who have obstacles in their way need to be accommodated in whatever way we can. Getting above 75% for the total vaccination rate would be big.

When it comes to government response to the pandemic, Texans hold the performance of their local governments above either state or federal governments. More than half (53%) approve of how their local officials have handled things, while 45% approve of the state’s work and 47% approve of the federal government’s response.

The good marks for local government, unlike those for state and federal governments, come from both parties. Among Democrats, 56% approve of local handling of the coronavirus, and 54% of Republicans feel the same way. The federal government, with a Democrat in the White House, gets 76% approval from Democrats and 58% disapproval from Republicans. And the state, with a Republican in the Governor’s Mansion, gets approval from 72% of Republicans and disapproval from 71% of Democrats.

Almost half of Texas voters (49%) approve of President Joe Biden’s handling of the coronavirus, while 35% disapprove. For Gov. Greg Abbott, 43% approve of his work and 48% disapprove; a year ago, 56% thought the governor was doing a good job with the coronavirus.

That’s a pretty robust approval number for President Biden, and a surprisingly poor one for Greg Abbott. It may just be that Democratic approval for Abbott has fallen to the kind of levels that Dan Patrick gets, but that would still be a big deal, since Abbott significantly outperformed Patrick in 2018. If Biden’s approval level remains in that ballpark, 2022 may be a pretty decent year for Dems here. Insert all the usual caveats about how far off things are, it’s one poll, the national environment matters, etc etc etc.

On the Big Freeze and its power outages:

Texas voters overwhelmingly support requiring energy providers to protect their facilities from bad weather, and a slim majority thinks the government should pay for that weatherization, according to the latest University of Texas/Texas Tribune Poll.

Having lived through a statewide winter freeze and electricity outages in February, 84% of Texas voters said those facilities should be weatherized, and 52% said government funds should pay for it.

“The main thing that the Legislature is talking about — weatherization — is the main thing that voters say they should do,” said James Henson, co-director of the poll and head of the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas at Austin.

Other proposals have strong support: 81% of voters think the members of the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, or ERCOT, the state’s grid manager, should live in the state; 81% said companies and regulators should be required to ensure higher levels of reserve power to meet spikes in demand; 78% want a statewide disaster alert system.

It remains to be seen what the Lege will actually do, but as far as what candidates should be talking about in 2022, it’s pretty clear on this front.

On voter suppression:

Asking whether the state’s election system discriminates against people of color depends on whether you are talking to Hispanic voters, who are split, Black voters, a majority of whom say it is discriminatory, and white voters, most of whom say it isn’t, according to the new University of Texas/Texas Tribune Poll.

Overall, 52% of Texas voters said the system doesn’t discriminate. But the question is divisive: 73% of Democrats said it does and 88% of Republicans said it doesn’t. Among white voters, 62% said the system doesn’t discriminate, but 58% of Black voters said it does. Hispanic voters were divided, with 43% saying it does discriminate and 42% saying it doesn’t.

[…]

Most voters (80%) agree that counties should keep paper records so voters can verify that their ballots are counted. And 65% agree that vote-counting equipment shouldn’t be connected to the internet or other computer networks. Smaller majorities — 56% each — said they would require the state’s biggest counties to livestream and record areas where ballots are counted, and that they would prohibit counties from sending vote-by-mail applications to people who didn’t request them.

“Texas voters are open to increasing security, against increasing barriers and decreasing convenience,” said James Henson, director of the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas at Austin and co-director of the poll. “When convenience begin to compete with election integrity and fraud, the Republicans back off a little.”

Other proposals have the support of most Republicans, but not of most voters. Allowing volunteer poll watchers to take pictures, record video and audio of voters has the support of 48% of Texans, but 71% of Republicans. While 47% of Texans would allow drive-thru voting, 64% of Republicans said that should be prohibited. Only 36% of Texas voters would prohibit counties from allowing more than 12 hours per day during the last week of early voting, which has the support of 60% of Republicans.

The data is here, though that’s just the high-level stuff. Giving more latitude to poll watchers got a plurality, but drive-through voting (47-42) and extended early voting hours (47-36) were preferred by the voters, so that’s two out of three for the good guys. People like convenience, it’s a simple enough thing. I’ll take my chances campaigning on that next year.

The Hobby poll on ending COVID restrictions

A little while ago I blogged about the recent UH Hobby Center poll regarding the winter freeze and blackouts and responses to them. At the time I mentioned the poll had a separate section about Greg Abbott lifting the COVID restrictions on mask wearing and business capacity. I thought there might be another story that referenced those results, but if there was I never saw it. So, let’s go back and look at that part of the poll ourselves. Here’s the relevant data, and as before the landing page for the poll is here. From the poll data for the questions on the restrictions:

On March 2, 2021, Texas Governor Greg Abbott issued Executive Order GA-34, which lifted statewide COVID-19 restrictions. The order rescinded, beginning on March 10, the governor’s previous mandate (GA-29) that Texans wear face coverings (masks) and allowed all businesses to operate at 100% capacity as long as the area in which the businesses are located does not surpass a high hospitalization threshold. This threshold is defined by an area where COVID-19 patients as a percentage of total hospital capacity exceeds 15% for seven consecutive days.

The survey respondents were asked five questions related to Governor Abbott’s executive order regarding the lifting of COVID-19 restrictions, and the responses were cross-tabulated with ethnicity/race, age, gender, education, and partisanship.

37% of Texans support Governor Abbott’s decision to end the statewide mask mandate while 56% oppose the decision. The remaining 7% neither support nor oppose the decision.

42% of Texans support Governor Abbott’s decision to allow all businesses to operate at 100% capacity and 49% oppose it. The remaining 9% neither support nor oppose the decision.

When provided with the following information, “According to recent data, the daily counts of COVID-19 hospitalizations and deaths in Texas are trending downward, although the rates remain relatively high. The head of the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other medical experts say that while caseloads are flattening out, variants of the coronavirus could bring another wave of the pandemic and that mask and business capacity restrictions should stay in place at this point in time,” 37% support Governor Abbott’s decision to end Texas’s statewide mask mandate and to allow businesses to operate at 100% capacity in light of the recommendations of medical experts while 51% oppose the decision. The remaining 12% neither support nor oppose the decision.

[…]

When asked whether they agree or disagree with the statement that Governor Abbott’s ending the mask mandate and allowing businesses to operate at 100% capacity will help restore jobs and return a sense of normalcy to Texans’ lives, 44% of Texans agree with the statement and 37% disagree. The remaining one-fifth (19%) neither agrees nor disagrees with the statement.

[…]

When asked whether they agree or disagree with the statement that Governor Abbott’s ending the statewide mask mandate and allowing businesses to operate at 100% capacity will result in an increase in the number of COVID-19 infections, hospitalizations and fatalities in Texas, a slight majority (51%) of the respondents agree with the statement compared to slightly less than a third (30%) who disagree with it. The remaining one-fifth (19%) neither agrees nor disagrees with the statement.

I’ve noted the partisan numbers in the sample before, so go review my previous post for that discussion. I’d love to see more polling on the lifting of the mask mandate, and I’d be very interested to see if it changes over time, but I’m not expecting much on that front. We know that Texas’ COVID case rate has remained fairly low despite the dropping of the mandates, a result I mostly attribute to people continuing to wear masks anyway. It may well be that people wind up disagreeing less with Abbott’s actions if this continues, or it may mostly be a proxy for partisan feelings. I’m noting it here in case we do get more data down the line.

Whither downtown?

Nobody really knows when or if Houston’s downtown will return to something like it was pre-COVID.

Few areas of the local economy were hit as hard by the pandemic as downtown and few face as much uncertainty as the service sector — shops, restaurants, dry cleaners, hair salons — that depends on people coming to work in the city’s center. Even as the pandemic’s end appears in sight and companies begin to bring workers back to the office, it remains unclear how fast employees might return downtown and whether they will come back in the same numbers.

Already, some companies are planning to continue the remote working arrangements forced by coronavirus and embraced by both employers and employees. The financial services company JP Morgan Chase, which has some 2,300 employees in two buildings downtown, recently said it will keep some positions remote and reduce the number of people in its U.S. offices, reconfiguring them to reduce the space it uses by up to 40 percent.

The chemical company LyondellBasell, which has about 2,300 employees in its downtown office, said it will consider flexible, remote alternatives to in-person work. The pipeline company Kinder Morgan, which has about 20 percent of its 2,100 working in its headquarters on Louisiana Street, said it has not determined when and how it will bring back other workers.

A recent survey by Central Houston, an organization that focuses on the redevelopment and revitalization of downtown, found that 75 percent of downtown employers expect at least 10 percent of their workforce will transition to a mix of in-person and remote work.

Only about 18 percent of employees are working from the office downtown, according to Central Houston’s survey. About half the companies said they expect to bring 50 percent of their workers back to the office by June and 70 percent said they expect to have half their workforce in the office by September.

[…]

It’s hard to say when the downtown workforce will return to pre-pandemic levels, said Bob Eury, president of Central Houston. The Houston utility CenterPoint Energy said it plans to bring all its employees who have been working remotely back to the offices at 1111 Louisiana St. in June.

Also in June, the University of Houston-Downtown, which has nearly 1,400 employees, said it will bring full-time staff on campus at least three days a week. By July, the staff should be working regular Monday-Friday schedules, the university said.

But some companies are still figuring out when they’ll bring employees back and how many might continue to work remotely. Porter Hedges, a law firm on Main Street, still has most of its 220 employees working at home, but has not set a timetable for their return to the office.

Employees at EOG Resources are working in the office roughly half the week, the other half at home as part of the company’s phased reopening strategy. A spokesperson could not say how long the policy would remain in place.

Developers and property managers, however, are confident that offices will eventually fill with workers again. Travis Overall, executive vice president for Brookfield Properties, which owns 10 buildings downtown, said he doesn’t believe the pandemic will lead to a major restructuring of the downtown workforce over the long term.

Nobody really knows what will happen, because we’ve never experienced anything like this. We don’t have any precedent to point to. I feel reasonably confident saying that the courts and government buildings will be returning to full in-person business soon, and that will bring a lot of people back, but a lot of other businesses are up in the air. I also think that if there is a relative glut in office space downtown, lower rents will lure in some new occupants. It may take three to five years to see how it has all shaken out.

Should Harris County lower its threat level?

Maybe?

According to Harris County’s COVID-19 guidance, residents should avoid all unnecessary contact with others. They should not go to bars or barbecues or ballgames. They should work from home if possible and leave only for errands, such as groceries or medicine.

Hardly any of the county’s 4.8 million residents appear to be following this advice now. Gov. Greg Abbott fully reopened Texas last month and nixed the mask mandate. Youth sports have resumed, houses of worship again welcome in-person parishioners and 21,765 fans attended the Astros home opener at Minute Maid Park.

Yet, for 42 consecutive weeks, Harris County has been at its highest COVID-19 threat level, red, even though the virus metrics here have improved significantly since January and other counties have relaxed their guidance for residents. Though local officials have no authority to issue COVID-19 restrictions, Harris appears to be the only of Texas’s 254 counties to still urge residents to remain at home.

The county’s two Republican commissioners, Jack Cagle and Tom Ramsey, this week urged Democratic County Judge Lina Hidalgo to reconsider the threat-level criteria. The pair also have resumed attending court meetings in person, which they say can be done safely, while the three Democrats join virtually and require members of the public to do so, as well.

[…]

Since moving to level red last June, Harris County never has met all the criteria to move to the second-highest level, orange, including 14-day averages of: A positivity rate below 5 percent, daily new cases below 400 and COVID-19 patients occupying less than 15 percent of hospital ICU capacity. As of Wednesday, those metrics stood at 8.7 percent, 434 and 15.1 percent.

The glass-half-full view of these numbers is that each has declined significantly from January’s post-holiday spike. Both the number of COVID-19 patients occupying ICU beds and positivity rate have dropped by more than half, and the daily new case average is down 83 percent.

The more cautious approach, which Hidalgo favors, considers that the governor fully reopened the state over the objection of one of his medical advisers, herd immunity that is still months away and the presence of several virus variants in Houston that are a wild card.

Commissioner Ramsey points out that multiple school districts in his precinct are back to mostly in-person classes, which Commissioner Cagle notes that if you’re at the highest threat level all the time, it’s hard to turn the volume up when things do get worse. (I like to think of it as the “These go to eleven” justification.) Judge Hidalgo points to the fact that less than twenty percent of the county is fully vaccinated (this is counting all residents, not just those sixteen and older who are able to get the vaccine) and there are major outbreaks in places like Michigan that stand as cautionary tales for easing up too quickly. I’ll get to all this in a minute, but first we should note the irony of this story appearing on the same day as this story.

The Astros will be without four key players — Jose Altuve, Alex Bregman, Yordan Alvarez and Martin Maldonado – indefinitely because of MLB’s COVID-19 health and safety protocols.

The loss of those four, plus infielder Robel Garcia, is a brutal blow for a team already in a mid-April funk and a reminder that baseball is still operating in a pandemic.

The fivesome went on the COVID-19 related injured list prior to Wednesday’s game against the Detroit Tigers. Astros general manager James Click could not confirm whether the team has had a positive test. Players or staff who test positive for the virus must give their team permission to disclose a diagnosis.

“It’s just a challenge for the rest of our guys to pick us up and get us back on the right track,” Click said before Wednesday’s game at Minute Maid Park. “We’ve obviously scuffled a little bit the past four games. When it rains it pours. It’s a difficult situation.”

Placement on the COVID-19 injured list does not automatically indicate a positive test. There is no minimum or maximum length of stay. The list is also reserved for players or staffers exposed to someone who has had a positive test, those experiencing COVID-19 symptoms, or those experiencing adverse effects of the COVID-19 vaccine. Manager Dusty Baker revealed that all five players “had at least their first shots.”

The Rice women’s volleyball team had to drop out of the NCAA tournament because of COVID protocols as well. Just a reminder, you’re not fully vaxxed until two weeks after the second shot. If it can happen to them, well…

Anyway. I don’t think Commissioners Ramsey and Cagle are making faulty or bad faith arguments. Their points are reasonable, and I’m sure a lot of people see it their way. Judge Hidalgo is also right, and the fact that Harris County hasn’t actually met any of the metrics to put it below the “red alert” threshold should mean something. To some extent this is a matter of risk tolerance, but I do find myself on the side of not redefining one’s own longstanding metrics for the sake of convenience. It seems likely to me that if everything continues along the same trends in the county, we should meet the standard for lowering the threat level soon. And if we don’t – if our caseloads continue to stay at the same level or tick back up, even if hospitalizations are down and even as we vaccinate more and more people – I think that should tell us something. Campos has more.

First attempt to redefine the governor’s powers in an emergency

I’m still conflicted about this.

The Texas Senate backed a potential constitutional amendment Tuesday that would substantially rein in the power of the governor during emergencies like this past year’s coronavirus pandemic.

Texas voters would have to approve the amendment Nov. 2 for it to take effect. And before it could get on a ballot, the Senate action must still be approved by the House.

The amendment would require the governor to call a special session in order to declare a state emergency that lasts more than 30 days. The special session would give lawmakers the chance to terminate or adjust executive actions taken by the governor, or pass new laws related to the disaster or emergency.

The Legislature did not meet last year as the pandemic swept the state, so Gov. Greg Abbott addressed the largely unprecedented situation with executive orders and declarations spanning several months, citing the Texas Disaster Act of 1975.

Abbott issued what essentially amounted to a statewide shutdown order last year, and he kept in place some level of capacity limitations for businesses until early March of this year. In July, he mandated that Texans wear masks in public. He also used executive authority to lift other state regulations to help businesses struggling during the pandemic, such as allowing restaurants to sell groceries and mixed drinks to go.

But many state lawmakers say the Legislature should be the government body to make decisions that affect businesses and livelihood of Texans.

“Early on, people understood [business closures] because they’re like, ‘we don’t know what this is,’” Sen. Brian Birdwell, R-Granbury, said on the Senate floor. But as the pandemic and business closures wore on, Birdwell said the anger grew as the mandates continued.

Birdwell said if the governor believes the situation is dire enough that businesses need to close, then he needs to get the Legislature involved.

[…]

“I don’t see this Legislature being able to convene fast enough to answer … in the kind of disasters I have seen and expect the state to see in the future,” said Sen. Sarah Eckhardt, D-Austin, who used to serve as Travis County judge.

Meanwhile, a priority bill filed in the House would carve out future pandemics from how the state responds to other disasters.

That bill, HB 3, has not yet made it out of committee, but would allow the governor to suspend state laws and require local jurisdictions to get approval from the secretary of state before altering voting procedures during a pandemic.

Rep. Dustin Burrows, R-Lubbock, previously told the Texas Tribune that the proposal was meant as a starting point to map out responses in the event of another pandemic.

“HB 3 was trying to set structures, predicting the disaster or the emergency,” Birdwell said. “What I did was set a baseline…It is impossible to predict the disaster.”

As I’ve said before, I think the Legislature should have a say in these matters, and that calling a special session last year would have cleared some things up and maybe prevented a lawsuit or two. I think Sen. Birdwell’s proposed resolution is more or less okay, though I don’t trust his motives and I agree with Sen. Eckhardt about the Lege’s lack of ability to move quickly in times of crisis. Hell, unless we’re willing to allow a Zoom legislative session, having that special session I mentioned could have been a superspreader event. HB3 is completely off the rails – again with the fixation on preventing counties from making it easier to vote – so if I had to choose between the two I’d take the Senate’s version, but I’m a very qualified and uncertain supporter. The system we had now wasn’t great. My fear is that we’ll make it worse.

Is there really a primary threat to Abbott?

Maybe, but it’s not a serious one.

As Gov. Greg Abbott races to reopen all businesses and end mask mandates this week, it hasn’t been fast enough to defuse escalating political pressure from fellow Republicans who see Texas lagging behind other states in dropping COVID-19 restrictions.

For months, Abbott has taken barbs from conservatives who have held up Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis as a measuring stick to show Texas is reopening too slowly, fueling talk that Abbott will face something he’s never seen: a real primary battle.

“We are glad Governor Abbott is following the example of Governor Ron DeSantis of FL & Governor Kristi Noem of South Dakota & opening up Texas,” Texas Republican Party Chairman Allen West said last week on his social media accounts after Abbott announced that all businesses would be allowed to reopen to 100 percent this week.

That came days after DeSantis blew Abbott away in an early 2024 presidential primary test ballot at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Orlando, Fla. Asked who their top choice would be if Donald Trump doesn’t run, 43 percent in the straw poll picked DeSantis. Noem finished second with 11 percent. Abbott was the choice of less than 1 percent, finishing 21st among 22 potential candidates.

And then there was January when DeSantis himself was in Austin, less than a mile from the governor’s mansion, touting how he kept his state open despite criticism from the media.

“Florida is open,” said DeSantis, a guest at the Texas Public Policy Foundation at a time businesses in the region were barred from operating at more than 50 percent. “No restriction and mandates from the state of Florida whatsoever. We trust individuals.”

DeSantis lifted Florida’s restrictions in September — a full six months before Abbott made his move in Lubbock last week.

“Greg Abbott certainly is no Ron DeSantis,” former state Sen. Don Huffines, a Republican, said Saturday while standing in front of the Alamo to mark the 185th anniversary of that battle.

Huffines said between Abbott’s handling of the mass statewide power outages and his pandemic response, it is long past time for someone to challenge Abbott in a GOP primary.

“There’s a lot of issues that are going to be discussed in a primary, and those are just two of them,” Huffines said just before delivering a speech before almost 300 people in which he decried governments taking away people’s liberties.

Huffines isn’t ready to declare for the race but said he’s keeping his options open.

Just for clarity, Don Huffines is a one-term State Senator who lost his first re-election bid in 2018 by double digits. Others mentioned in the story include hair salon owner Shelley Luther, who lost her one election in the special for SD30, one of the reddest districts in the state; Jonathan Stickland, widely loathed State Rep who did not run for re-election in 2020; and Florida Man Allen West, a former one-term Congressman who is now somehow the state GOP Chair. If these are the potential opponents, then as someone once said, they’re not sending their best. I seriously doubt Greg Abbott is living in fear of any of these folks.

This story mentions three other potential candidates: Dan Patrick, George P. Bush, and Sid Miller. Patrick, who would be a legitimate threat to Abbott, has said he’s running for re-election. Bush, who would be a lesser threat, has been encouraged by some to run for AG instead. Miller is hard to take seriously in any context, but he’d be a greater threat than the first three. I’d be surprised at this point if any of them ran against Abbott, but I can’t rule it out completely.

I’ll say what I always say in these situations: No one is running until they actually say they’re running. I’m not a Republican and I claim no insight into what their base wants, but there’s no polling evidence at this time to suggest that Abbott is in any trouble with his base. As we have discussed, he is annoyingly popular. Dan Patrick could beat him – it would be a hell of a fight – but I doubt anyone else has a chance. I just don’t think anyone who could make a fight out of it will try. We’ll see.

What to expect when you’re fully vaccinated

The CDC has released some guidance that will help people understand what is safe to do and what precautions they will still need to take once they are fully vaccinated.

Fully vaccinated Americans can gather with other vaccinated people indoors without wearing a mask or social distancing, according to long-awaited guidance from federal health officials.

The recommendations also say that vaccinated people can come together in the same way — in a single household — with people considered at low-risk for severe disease, such as in the case of vaccinated grandparents visiting healthy children and grandchildren.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced the guidance Monday.

The guidance is designed to address a growing demand, as more adults have been getting vaccinated and wondering if it gives them greater freedom to visit family members, travel, or do other things like they did before the COVID-19 pandemic swept the world last year.

“With more and more people vaccinated each day, we are starting to turn a corner,” said CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky.

During a press briefing Monday, she called the guidance a “first step” toward restoring normalcy in how people come together. She said more activities would be ok’d for vaccinated individuals once caseloads and deaths decline, more Americans are vaccinated, and as more science emerges on the ability of those who have been vaccinated to get and spread the virus.

You can see their guidance here. Among other things, this should make a lot of grandparents happy:

A lot more people will get those vaccines in the coming weeks. The need for continued mask-wearing is simply because you can still get and carry the SARS-CoV2 virus after being vaccinated, you are just much less likely to become sick if you do. Basically, you can still be an asymptomatic carrier, and so for the safety of the not-yet-vaccinated, especially in public places, your mask is still needed at this time. But that will eventually decrease, as the vaccination numbers swell. We just had to wait a little longer. We can and must still do the right thing in the meantime. Vox, the Chron, and Daily Kos have more.

Abbott lifts statewide mask mandate

Unbelievable.

Gov. Greg Abbott announced Tuesday that he is ending Texas’ statewide mask mandate next week and will allow all businesses to operate at full capacity.

“It is now time to open Texas 100%,” Abbott said from a Mexican restaurant in Lubbock, arguing that Texas has fought the coronavirus pandemic to the point that “people and businesses don’t need the state telling them how to operate” any longer.

Abbott said he was rescinding “most of the earlier executive orders” he has issued over the past year to stem the spread of the virus. He said starting next Wednesday, “all businesses of any type are allowed to open 100%” and masks will no longer be required in public. The mask requirement has been in effect since last summer.

Meanwhile, the spread of the virus remains substantial across the state, with Texas averaging over 200 reported deaths a day over the last week. And while Abbott has voiced optimism that vaccinations will accelerate soon, less than 7% of Texans had been fully vaccinated as of this weekend.

Texas will become the most populous state in the country not to have a mask mandate. More than 30 states currently have one in place.

Abbott urged Texans to still exercise “personal vigilance” in navigating the pandemic. “It’s just that now state mandates are no longer needed,” he said.

Currently, most businesses are permitted to operate at 75% capacity unless their region is seeing a jump in COVID-19 hospitalizations. While he was allowing businesses to fully reopen, Abbott said that people still have the right to operate how they want and can “limit capacity or implement additional safety protocols.” Abbott’s executive order said there was nothing stopping businesses from requiring employees or customers to wear masks.

[…]

Texans have been under a statewide mask mandate since July of last year — and they have grown widely comfortable with it, according to polling. The latest survey from the University of Texas and Texas Tribune found that 88% of the state’s voters wear masks when they’re in close contact with people outside of their households. That group includes 98% of Democrats and 81% of Republicans.

The absence of statewide restrictions should not be a signal to Texans to stop wearing masks, social distancing, washing their hands or doing other things to keep the virus from spreading, said Dr. John Carlo, CEO of Prism Health North Texas and a member of the Texas Medical Association’s COVID-19 task force.

Carlo declined to react specifically to Abbott’s order, saying he had not had a chance to read it. He also expressed concern that new virus variants, specifically the U.K. variant, could still turn back the positive trends cited by Abbott.

“We’re facing unacceptably high rates, and we still hear every day about more and more people becoming sick. And it may be less than before, but it’s still too many,” Carlo said. “Even if businesses open up and even if we loosen restrictions, that does not mean we should stop what we’re doing because we’re not there yet.”

It was clear from what Abbott said during President Biden’s visit that he was planning to take action to loosen restrictions. I was prepared for him to announce a step-down or a schedule or something more gradual. I did not expect him to just rip the bandage right off. I don’t know what to say, but Judge Hidalgo does, so let’s listen to her.

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo and Mayor Sylvester Turner slammed Gov. Greg Abbott Tuesday for allowing all businesses in Texas to fully reopen next week and lifting his statewide mask mandate, suggesting the governor timed the move to distract angry Texans from the widespread power outages during the recent winter storm.

“At best, today’s decision is wishful thinking,” Hidalgo said. “At worst, it is a cynical attempt to distract Texans from the failures of state oversight of our power grid.”

Turner said Abbott’s decision to rescind the COVID measures marked “the third time the governor has stepped in when things were going in the right direction,” a reference to the surges in cases, hospitalizations and deaths that ensued after Abbott implemented reopening guidelines last year.

“It makes no sense,” Turner said. “Unless the governor is trying to deflect from what happened a little less than two weeks ago with the winter storm.”

[…]

Before Abbott’s announcement, Hidalgo and Turner sent the governor a letter urging him not to lift his statewide mask mandate.

“Supported by our public health professionals, we believe it would be premature and harmful to do anything to lose widespread adoption of this preventative measure,” Hidalgo and Turner wrote, arguing the mandate has allowed small businesses to remain open by keeping cases down.

The disparity between Hidalgo and Turner’s concerns — that Abbott would simply lift the mask order but keep other restrictions intact — and his decision to fully reopen the state puts on full display the diverging messages Houstonians are receiving from their local Democratic leaders and the Republicans who run the state. While Hidalgo is telling residents to stay home and buckle down, Abbott is giving the green light for a return to normal life, albeit one where Texans govern themselves using “personal responsibility,” he said Tuesday.

We know how well that’s worked so far. The irony is that other parts of state government still understand what’s at stake:

I’d love to say that Abbott will suffer political blowback for this, but polling data is mixed and inconsistent.

Texas voters’ concerns about the spread of coronavirus are higher now than they were in October, before a winter surge in caseloads and hospitalizations, according to the latest University of Texas/Texas Tribune Poll.

Almost half of Texas voters (49%) said that they are either extremely or very concerned about the spread of the pandemic in their communities — up from 40% in October. Their apprehension matches the spread of the coronavirus. As cases were rising in June, 47% had high levels of concern.

Caseloads were at a low point in October, as was voter concern about spread. And sharp increases through the holidays and into the new year were matched by a rise in public unease.

Voters’ concern about “you or someone you know” getting infected followed that pattern, too. In the current poll, 50% said they were extremely or very concerned, up from 44% in October, and close to the 48% who responded that way in the June poll.

“The second, bigger surge seems to have had an impact on people’s attitudes,” said James Henson, co-director of the poll and head of the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas at Austin. “In October, there was a trend of Republicans being less concerned, but this does reflect what a hard period the state went through from October to February.”

While their personal concerns have risen, voters’ overall assessment of the pandemic hasn’t changed much. In the latest survey, 53% called it “a significant crisis,” while 32% called it “a serious problem but not a crisis.” In October, 53% called it significant and 29% called it serious.

Economic concerns during the pandemic remain high. Asked whether it’s more important to help control the spread of the coronavirus or to help the economy, 47% pointed to the coronavirus and 43% said it’s more important to help the economy. In a June poll, 53% of Texans wanted to control the spread and 38% wanted to focus on the economy.

“The economy/COVID number is 2-to-1 in other parts of the country. Here, it’s almost even,” said Daron Shaw, a UT-Austin government professor and co-director of the poll. “What was a 15-point spread is now a 4-point spread.

So people are concerned about the pandemic, but also about the economy. Some of that may just be a reflection of the partisan split, but I have no doubt that Abbott thinks the politics of this are good for him, and that’s even before we take into account the distraction from the freeze. The scenario where he’s most likely to take a hit is one in which the numbers spike and a lot more people die. Nobody wants that to happen, yet here we are at a higher risk of it because of Abbott’s actions. It’s just enraging. So please keep wearing your damn mask, even after you get your shots. Wait for someone with more credibility than Greg Abbott to tell you it’s safe to do otherwise.

One more thing:

We both know how plausible that is. Texas Monthly, Reform Austin, the San Antonio Report, the Texas Signal, and the Chron has more.

Here’s the TDP 2020 after action report

Reasonably informative, though nothing here that I found terribly surprising.

Texas Democrats have come to the conclusion that they fell short of their expectations in the 2020 election largely because Republicans beat them in the battle to turn out voters, according to a newly released party report.

The Texas Democratic Party laid the blame in part on their inability to campaign in person, particularly by knocking on doors, during an unusual election cycle dominated by the coronavirus pandemic.

The party also said its voter turnout system was inefficient. It contacted reliably Democratic voters too often and failed to reach enough “turnout targets” — people who were inclined to support Democrats, but weren’t as certain to actually show up at the polls.

“Despite record turnout, our collective [get out the vote] turnout operation failed to activate voters to the same extent Republicans were able to,” according to the “2020 Retrospective” report, which was authored by Hudson Cavanagh, the party’s director of data science, and was first obtained by The Washington Post and The Dallas Morning News.

Texas Democrats did manage to register and turn out voters in record numbers in 2020, but Republicans likewise beat expectations — enough to erase any gains made by Democrats and stave off what some hoped would be a “blue wave.”

[…]

The report described the party’s voter targeting efforts as “inefficient,” saying it didn’t have reliable contact information for some of its highest priority targets.

“The pandemic prevented us from getting the most out of our most powerful competitive advantage: our volunteers,” the document said. “We struggled to reach voters for whom we did not have phone numbers, who were disproportionately young, folks of color.”

But Texas Democrats pushed back on the idea that they lost ground with Latino voters — particularly in counties in the Rio Grande Valley, which Biden carried by 15 points after Clinton won them by 39 in 2016.

Texas Democrats conceded that Latino voters in parts of the state did move toward then-President Donald Trump, but said those same voters continued to support other Democrats down the ballot.

In addition, Texas Democrats contend that data suggesting a massive shift toward Republicans among Latino voters is more accurately explained by increased turnout among Republican Latinos.

“Roughly two-thirds of Latinos continue to support Democrats, but Republicans Latino voters turned out at a higher rate than Democratic Latino voters in the 2020 cycle, relative to expectations,” the report found.

Despite an underwhelming performance in 2020, Texas Democrats continued to paint an ambitious picture of a “sustainably blue” state over the next 10 years.

The party concluded that with “sufficient investment and ambition,” Democrats can register 100,000 to 150,000 more voters than Republicans per cycle and flip Texas blue by 2024.

See here and here for the background, and here for a copy of the report. They answered a couple of my questions, but most of the rest were outside their scope. Overall, I found the report a little frustrating to read – the graphs were quite technical, but there wasn’t much explanation for how the numbers were calculated. I don’t have any cause to quarrel with any of the data, but I don’t feel like I understand it enough to explain it to someone who hasn’t read the report.

I don’t want to sound too grumpy. I appreciate that the TDP did this at all, and made the results public. The big picture is clear, and the basic causes for what happened in 2020 were also easily comprehensible. I’d note that in addition to dampening turnout, the lack of in-person campaigning also helped erode the Dems’ voter registration edge, with Republicans doing a lot of catching up in the last three months of the campaign. I’ve said before that the lack of traditional campaigning is a one-time event, and while it had bad effects in 2020 it still gave the Dems the chance to try new things, and it also showed them the need to bolster their data collection and management. If that can be turned into improved performance in 2022, it will at least not have been wasted.

The report paints a pretty optimistic picture for the Dems’ trajectory over the next couple of election cycles, which the Republicans deride and which I feel a bit wary about. The GOP’s ability to boost their own turnout, their continued and increasing advantage in rural Texas, the uncertainty of the forthcoming Biden midterm election, the growth of lies and propaganda as campaign strategy, these are all things I worry about. Again, much of this was outside the scope of the project, but I do wonder if a report written by outsiders would have come to similar conclusions. I don’t want to be a downer, but I also don’t want to be naive.

Like I said, I’m glad they did this. It’s a good idea, and it should be done after every election, because the landscape is constantly evolving and we have to keep up with it. I hope that it inspires action and not just a sense of “okay, now that’s over with”. What did you think?

MLB deadens its balls

Wait, that sounds wrong.

Major League Baseball has slightly deadened its baseballs amid a years-long surge in home runs, a source confirmed to The Associated Press on Monday.

MLB anticipates the changes will be subtle, and a memo to teams last week cites an independent lab that found the new balls will fly 1 to 2 feet shorter on balls hit over 375 feet. Five more teams also plan to add humidors to their stadiums, meaning 10 of MLB’s 30 stadiums are expected to be equipped with humidity-controlled storage spaces.

A person familiar with the note spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity Monday because the memo, sent by MLB executive vice president of baseball operations Morgan Sword, was sent privately. The Athletic first reported the contents of the memo.

The makeup of official Rawlings baseballs used in MLB games has come under scrutiny in recent years. A record 6,776 homers were hit during the 2019 regular season, and the rate of home runs fell only slightly during the pandemic-shortened 2020 season — from 6.6% of plate appearances resulting in homers in 2019 to 6.5% last year.

[…]

The league mandates all baseballs have a coefficient of restitution (COR) — essentially, a measure of the ball’s bounciness — ranging from .530 to .570, but in recent years the average COR had trended upward within the specification range.

In an effort to better center the ball, Rawlings has loosened the tension on the first of three wool windings within the ball. Its research estimates the adjustment will bring the COR down .01 to .02 and will also lessen the ball’s weight by 2.8 grams without changing its size. The league does not anticipate the change in weight will affect pitcher velocities.

The memo did not address the drag of the baseball, which remains a more difficult issue to control.

If you’ve been paying attention to this, you know that the composition of the ball, which was extremely bouncy in 2019 then all of a sudden much less so in the playoffs, has been a mystery and a controversy in recent years. For an in-depth examination, give a listen to this episode of Effectively Wild, where guest Meredith Wills, a PhD astrophysicist, discusses her experiments in literally taking balls from different years apart to figure out what the factors in its changes over time were. MLB says the “deadening” this year should have a relatively small effect, but who knows what that will mean in practice.

MLB has also released its health and safety protocols for the season.

Major League Baseball (MLB) today announced an agreement with the Major League Baseball Players Association (MLBPA) on an enhanced set of health and safety protocols for the 2021 season that adopts current best practices in addition to those in place during the successful 2020 season and reflects the recommendations of the parties’ consulting medical experts and infectious disease specialists. The enhanced 2021 Operations Manual will apply during Spring Training, the Championship Season and the Postseason, and also includes a one-year continuation of seven-inning doubleheaders and the modified extra innings rule during the 2020 championship season. Spring Training presented by Camping World begins on Wednesday, February 17th.

“We were able to complete a successful and memorable 2020 season due to the efforts and sacrifices made by our players, Club staff and MLB employees to protect one another. The 2021 season will require a redoubling of those efforts as we play a full schedule with increased travel under a non-regionalized format,” MLB said. “We have built on last year’s productive collaboration between MLB and the Players Association by developing an enhanced safety plan with the consultation of medical experts, infectious disease specialists, and experts from other leagues. We all know the commitment it will take from each of us to keep everyone safe as we get back to playing baseball, and these enhanced protocols will help us do it together.”

Read on for the full list. The actual HSE stuff seems to be modeled after what the NFL did. From a game perspective, there will be the 7-inning doubleheaders and the runner on second to start extra innings, but no National League DH or expanded playoffs, as those were items the MLBPA preferred to defer to the collective bargaining agreement. Here’s hoping MLB can make it through the season as successfully as they did last year.

As the COVID mutates

Just another reminder that we need to continue trying not to spread the virus while we wait for everyone to get vaccinated.

A more contagious variant of the coronavirus first found in Britain is spreading rapidly in the United States, doubling roughly every 10 days, according to a new study.

Analyzing half a million coronavirus tests and hundreds of genomes, a team of researchers predicted that in a month this variant could become predominant in the United States, potentially bringing a surge of new cases and increased risk of death.

The new research offers the first nationwide look at the history of the variant, known as B.1.1.7, since it arrived in the United States in late 2020. Last month, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warned that B.1.1.7 could become predominant by March if it behaved the way it did in Britain. The new study confirms that projected path.

“Nothing in this paper is surprising, but people need to see it,” said Kristian Andersen, a co-author of the study and a virologist at the Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, Calif. “We should probably prepare for this being the predominant lineage in most places in the United States by March.”

Dr. Andersen’s team estimated that the transmission rate of B.1.1.7 in the United States is 30 percent to 40 percent higher than that of more common variants, although those figures may rise as more data comes in, he said. The variant has already been implicated in surges in other countries, including Ireland, Portugal and Jordan.

“There could indeed be a very serious situation developing in a matter of months or weeks,” said Nicholas Davies, an epidemiologist at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine who was not involved in the study. “These may be early signals warranting urgent investigation by public health authorities.”

[…]

“There’s still a lot that we have to learn,” said Nathan Grubaugh, a virologist at Yale University who was not involved in the study. “But these things are important enough that we have to start doing things now.”

It’s possible that chains of B.1.1.7 transmission are spreading faster than other viruses. Or it might be that B.1.1.7 was more common among incoming travelers starting new outbreaks.

“I still think that we are weeks away from really knowing how this will turn out,” Dr. Grubaugh said.

The contagiousness of B.1.1.7 makes it a threat to take seriously. Public health measures that work on other variants may not be enough to stop B.1.1.7. More cases in the United States would mean more hospitalizations, potentially straining hospitals that are only now recovering from record high numbers of patients last month.

Making matters worse, Dr. Davies and his colleagues at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine posted a study online on Wednesday suggesting that the risk of dying of B.1.1.7 is 35 percent higher than it is for other variants. The study has yet to be published in a scientific journal.

And if you’re worried about that, you can also be worried about this.

The likely more transmissible variant of COVID-19 first detected in South Africa has arrived in the Houston area, according to Houston Methodist Hospital.

The hospital system said it found the region’s first case of the new, faster-spreading variant on Saturday while sequencing the genomes of positive test results. It also found two cases of the variant first discovered in the United Kingdom. The UK variant first was confirmed in the Houston area in early January.

The infected person is a Fort Bend County man, who tested positive weeks ago and has recovered from the illness, said Dr. Jacquelyn Johnson Minter, Fort Bend County Health & Human Services Director. The patient had traveled domestically before his diagnosis. His household members have tested negative, and he did not work while infected so there was no exposure at his job, Minter said.

Still, Minter said she would not be surprised to learn the South Africa variant was spreading through the community.

[…]

Dr. Wesley Long, who works with the Methodist sequencing effort, said there is no evidence from the clinical trials of Pfizer and Moderna vaccines that they are less effective against the variants, especially the U.K. strain. He said there is limited evidence that certain other vaccines and therapies that target the spike protein of COVID-19 may be less effective against the South African variant, though they still should provide benefits to most people.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control says “rigorous and increased compliance” with mitigation strategies like social distancing and wearing masks is needed to combat the spread of the virus.

Yes, the same basic techniques to avoid spreading the disease are still effective – masking, social distancing, washing hands, avoiding indoor gatherings – but they have to be strictly followed, because the newer versions of the virus are easier to transmit. So far there’s no evidence that these mutations are resistant to the vaccine, but the risk there is that the more infections, the greater the chances of further mutation, and thus the greater the chances that such a variant could emerge. All of this is to say, stay vigilant. Infection numbers are finally starting to drop, and with that comes the temptation to ease up. It’s still way too early for that.

What should the Governor’s powers be in a future emergency?

He admits there could maybe be some limits, but as is often the case has no great idea what they might be.

Gov. Greg Abbott said Tuesday he is open to reconsidering his executive powers during state emergencies, a point of contention among some fellow Republicans during the coronavirus pandemic, and that his office is “offering up some legislation ourselves on ways to address this going forward.”

“What we are working on — and we’ve already begun working with legislators — is approaches to make sure we can pre-plan how a response would be done, but it has to be done in a way that leaves flexibility to move swiftly,” Abbott said in an interview with The Texas Tribune.

Abbott spoke with The Tribune the day after his State of the State speech in which he laid out his agenda for the 2021 legislative session, which started last month. As the pandemic has dragged on, some GOP lawmakers have grown uneasy with how aggressively Abbott has used his executive authority, particularly when it comes to business shutdowns and mask mandates. In the speech, Abbott promised to “continue working with the Legislature to find ways to navigate a pandemic while also allowing businesses to remain open.”

Abbott said in the interview that he still wants the governor to have the ability to do things like cut regulations in the time of a disaster, saying there is an “absolute need for speed” in such instances that the legislative process cannot provide. That is especially true, he added, “during a pandemic, when sometimes it’s hours that matters, especially sometimes in responding to demands that are coming from the White House where you basically have a 24-hour time period to respond to it.”

“We need to create a structure that will work that accommodates the need for a 24-hour turnaround,” Abbott said.

Abbott issued a monthlong shutdown of nonessential businesses last spring as the virus was bearing down on Texas. He has since relaxed restrictions and now business operations are based on the proportion of a region’s hospital patients being treated for COVID-19. Along the way, some in his party have argued the Legislature should have had more of a say in decisions that affect so many Texans. Some Republicans blasted him for going too far with his executive orders, while many Democrats and local officials criticized him for not going far enough to curb infections.

I brought this subject up a bunch of times in the earlier days of the pandemic, when Abbott showed some actual interest in doing something about it. A lot of the pushback came in the form of clownish lawsuits from Steven Hotze and Jared Woodfill, which was absolutely the worst way to have this discussion. Woodfill is quoted in this Chron story that includes some input from legislators, but screw him, he’s a waste of space. Let’s see what members of the House think.

Lawmakers in the state House, which is controlled by Republicans, have yet to coalesce around any specific bills. Some members have called for requiring the governor to get legislative approval before renewing emergency orders.

“When you have to make split-second decisions on how to operate under a pandemic, it’s very difficult,” House Speaker Dade Phelan, R-Beaumont, said in an interview last month with the Tribune’s Evan Smith. “It’s a lose-lose situation. I thought he did as best he could.”

A spokesman for the speaker added in an email Wednesday that Phelan, whose district has received help from the governor’s office during hurricanes, “believes the Texas Legislature should have a seat at the table when developing a framework for how Texas addresses future public health emergencies.”

The Woodlands Republican Rep. Steve Toth, who was involved in and supported multiple suits against the governor over pandemic-related executive orders and has filed a bill to limit those powers, said Abbott’s comments were “very welcome.”

“I have to agree with him 100 percent: The ability to adjust regulations and ease regulations was critical in the face of this shutdown to give retailers and small business owners the ability to survive,” Toth said. “The big question is when it’s something this big, a shutdown statewide for multiple months … I just think it’s imperative that a decision of that magnitude that we bear that burden together, that it falls on all our shoulders to come up with a solution.”

Toth’s bill, HJR 42, would give voters in November the choice to decide whether to require the governor to call a special session of the Texas Legislature if he wishes to extend a state of emergency past 30 days.

Democrat Trey Martinez Fischer of San Antonio on Wednesday filed a similar bill, HB 1557, that would amend the law immediately without a need for an election. Martinez Fischer called it “the most seamless proposal that’s been offered.”

“In times of pandemic, we need a quarterback,” Martinez Fischer said. “But that quarterback also needs a team. And the Legislature’s the team. (The bill) gives the governor the ability to be that decision-maker, if you will, but then bring us in session so that we can provide our expertise and be part of the solution.”

Steve Toth is generally a lousy member of the House, but in this case I agree with what he’s suggesting, though I prefer Rep. Martinez Fischer’s approach of making any changes statutory rather than constitutional. For one thing, that will be easier to do, and for another it will be easier to modify or undo if those changes are more obstructive than constructive. I like the basic idea that the Governor can impose emergency orders, but beyond a certain point the Legislature needs to be brought in to extend them. I think that’s a decent balance, though of course it could fall prey to politics, especially if we ever get to a situation of divided partisan rule. I very much want to avoid the ridiculous shenanigans that Republican legislatures in states like Wisconsin and Michigan and Pennsylvania and North Carolina have done to overrule and neuter their Democratic governors, often in ways that were harmful and politically motivated. I think the Republican legislature here is unlikely to over-correct on a Republican governor, though there will be a wingnut faction that will want to do that. For now at least, I’m cautiously optimistic that something reasonable can be put forward. We’ll see how that goes.

On a completely tangential note: Remember the days when people could assert with a straight face that the Governor of Texas was maybe the fifth or sixth most powerful office in the state? It’s been a long time since I’ve heard that old chestnut, and the last time I did a few years ago I snorted out loud. I don’t know exactly when that stopped being true, but it sure hasn’t been in awhile. Just thought I’d make note of it here.

Rodeo cancelled again

Bummer.

RodeoHouston is hanging up the cowboy hat for 2021.

No mutton busting. No fried Twinkies. No bed salesmen in NRG Center.

The Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo made the announcement Wednesday morning, which includes all competitions, concerts and entertainment, carnival and other attractions and activities.

RodeoHouston president and CEO Chris Boleman called the decision “extremely heartbreaking.”

Also canceled this year are the downtown rodeo parade, trail ride activities, Rodeo Uncorked! Roundup and Best Bites Competition and the barbecue cookoff. The Rodeo Run will be held in a virtual format.

“Unfortunately, it has become evident that the current health situation has not improved to the degree necessary to host our event,” Boleman said. “We believe this decision is in the best interest of the health and well-being of our community.”

The junior livestock and horse show competitions will be held in March as private events. The junior market auctions and Champion Wine Auction will be held in May, also as private events.

[…]

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo, who advised earlier this year against holding any events, applauded the rodeo “for protecting the health and safety of our community.”

“I know that when it comes to canceling events like this, it’s never easy — particularly when there is so much at stake for local vendors and residents who have come to depend on the rodeo for scholarship, entertainment and business,” Hidalgo said. “The truth is, the smarter we work to prevent the spread of COVID-19 now, the faster we can get back to normal, get our economy running at full speed and again enjoy amazing events like the Rodeo who make us who we are as a county.”

Mayor Sylvester Turner, who shut down the 2020 edition in early March, commended the rodeo for sticking with its commitment to award more than $21 million in student scholarships this year despite the cancellation.

See here for the background. The hope at the time was that there’d be enough people vaccinated to make this potentially safe, but we’re just not on track for that, not even in May. It sucks, but it’s the right decision, and at least they didn’t force the city and the county to make them shut it down. Here’s looking forward to 2022. The HLSR announcement is here, and the Press has more.

Will Spring Training start on time?

Maybe, maybe not.

Less than a month before pitchers and catchers are set to report, the Cactus League released a letter it sent to Major League Baseball in which it called for spring training to be delayed, a move it hopes would allow Arizona’s situation to improve as it relates to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The letter, addressed to MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred and dated Friday, was signed by Cactus League executive director Bridget Binsbacher, representatives of each of the Cactus League’s eight cities — including six mayors and two city managers — as well as a leader from the tribal community that is home to the league’s other facility.

“In view of the current state of the pandemic in Maricopa County — with one of the nation’s highest infection rates — we believe it is wise to delay the start of spring training to allow for the COVID-19 situation to improve here,” the letter stated. “… As leaders charged with protecting public health, and as committed, longtime partners in the spring training industry, we want you to know that we stand united on this point.”

The Cactus League does not have the power to unilaterally change the season’s Feb. 27 start date. That authority is collectively bargained between baseball’s owners and players. With multiple reports indicating the owners are in favor of a delay, the Cactus League’s letter could be interpreted as an attempt to ratchet up pressure on the players.

Despite acknowledging the league had been in regular contact with MLB — and that MLB was not caught off guard by the letter’s contents or its public release — Binsbacher said it was not meant to create leverage.

“Honestly, this letter was a sincere representation of our local leaders to encourage the safest possible scenario,” she said. “… Any (additional) time is going to improve the situation — and that’s truly the focus. If there is an opportunity to do this, we would support it. If they come back and say they want to continue on with the schedule as it is, we’re going to prepare for whatever the outcome is.”

[…]

The Athletic reported that in December MLB “floated” the idea of delaying spring training and the season by a month, but it would not assure the players of a full 162-game schedule or of paying them for any games missed. The conversation went nowhere, according to the report.

The players’ union issued a statement on Monday in which it said it was aware of the Cactus League’s letter, though had not been involved in direct communication with the league.

“While we, of course, share the goals of a safe spring training and regular season, MLB has repeatedly assured us that it has instructed its teams to be prepared for an on-time start to spring training and the regular season and we continue to devote all our efforts to making sure that that takes place as safely as possible,” the statement said.

You may recall there was a fair bit of friction between the league and the players last year over how many games were played, which had an effect on the amount of salary the players ultimately got. Not surprisingly, the players want to play a full season, and the owners would like to not pay them for a full season. Given that the NFL successfully completed a full season, and that the NBA and NHL are back to a more-or-less regular schedule, it’s hard to see MLB using the pandemic as a reason not to play, but the owners want to have fans in the stands as much as possible. Delaying the start of the season until more people are vaccinated, and local limits on crowd sizes are lifted, is a goal they may find attractive. My guess is that the season ultimately starts on time and it’s business mostly as usual, but it will be noisy along the way. ESPN has more.

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.

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.)

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.