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Rice University

Back to college, COVID-style

Not the return anyone was hoping for.

Texas A&M University’s new president M. Katherine Banks said this spring that she anticipated a “fall [semester] of joy” when the university reopens after 15 months of lockdowns and remote learning.

She wasn’t alone. As coronavirus case numbers dropped throughout the spring, higher education leaders across the state excitedly announced the return of in-person classes, 100% capacity at football games and an end to social distancing requirements for the fall.

But just a few weeks before students are expected to return to campus, university leaders are faced once again with uncertainty as the highly contagious delta variant of the coronavirus spreads throughout the state and country. This time, public university administrators are tasked with trying to mitigate the virus on campus without the ability to reinstitute mask mandates or require vaccines due to Gov. Greg Abbott’s executive order banning such directives. They’ll be limited in how they can respond even as the Centers for Disease Control has advised fully vaccinated people to wear masks indoors to prevent the spread of the virus and some students and faculty have expressed worry about how safe their return to campus will be.

“As the fall semester approaches, I have a feeling of déjà vu, albeit an unwelcome one,” wrote University of Texas at Austin President Jay Hartzell in a letter to the university community on July 30. “I recall last summer and winter, as we prepared to start semesters in the face of a COVID-19 virus that has an uncanny ability to time increasing threats to coincide with the academic calendar.”

While universities say they are monitoring the delta variant and whether they’ll need to pivot, many are moving ahead with previously decided reopening plans, including full football stadiums and in-person classes, while encouraging everyone to wear a mask and get vaccinated. Yet faculty and some students say they are increasingly worried about how they can effectively protect themselves and others on campuses where leaders can’t prevent unmasked or unvaccinated students and employees from entering and unknowingly spreading the virus.

[…]

Much of the frustration among faculty, staff and students is due to Abbott’s executive orders limiting masks and vaccine mandates. The faculty senate at A&M is scheduled to vote next week on a resolution calling on the state to allow universities to make their own decisions and “follow the science in their efforts to combat COVID-19.”

“There are heavy concerns when you think about the fact that institutions like A&M, the University of Texas … have a rich history based on the study of scientific principles,” said Dale Rice, speaker of the Texas A&M Faculty Senate. “And now they’re being constrained from following the science.”

Last week, a group of student leaders at UT-Austin slammed the governor for not allowing universities to make decisions on their own campuses, but also urged UT-Austin to do more.

“[I]t is also irresponsible for the University of Texas to plan for a full re-opening with little to no virtual classes available,” the letter from student leaders across various colleges read. “We have been made witness to the vast benefits of virtual learning for students, faculty, and staff who are disabled, have to work 2-3 jobs to keep up with the rising living costs in Austin, or have adapted to working or learning from home.”

For sure, the vast majority of people would prefer to be back on campus if that can be done safely, but as long as it cannot then remote learning for those who want or need it must be provided as well. Really, though, this is about vaccines and mandates. All of these campuses would be vastly safer if the overwhelming majority of people on them were vaccinated, and the only way to get there is to mandate it. You know, as they have done for decades for things like measles and whooping cough and meningitis. Legally speaking, there’s nothing to stop any campus from such a requirement, as past precedent and current judicial rulings demonstrate. The barrier is the threat that Abbott and the Republicans in the Legislature would zero out their funding.

(Note that I drafted this two weeks ago – there’s been too much damn news, y’all – and since then Rice University has announced that it will begin with virtual learning, though students are on campus.)

I can’t and don’t speak for any of these institutions. Some of them claim to be doing quite well on the vaccination front (we’ll see that in a minute), and good for them if so. But for any school that’s not well above the 80% mark – not just students, but faculty and staff and volunteers and contractors and pretty much everyone else who is regularly on campus – I’d be taking a hard look at our risks, both in terms of an outbreak and how likely the Lege actually is to follow through on a de-funding threat. Where is the bigger exposure? They all need to try to answer that question.

UTEP’s leaders said they feel they can reopen safely due to high vaccination rates in the surrounding community, citing in a note to the school community that more than 80% of El Paso residents 12 years or older have had at least one dose of the vaccine. The school has also ended testing for faculty and staff, encouraging them to use community testing centers, but will provide testing for students throughout the fall semester.

UTEP, along with some other Texas public and private universities, has asked students to voluntarily share their vaccine status.

Officials at UTEP estimated two-thirds of students and 90% of employees are fully vaccinated. Texas Tech University in Lubbock estimated about 75% of students and 90% of faculty are vaccinated, based on a voluntary spring survey. Baylor University said in a note that 47% of the campus community is vaccinated. Texas Christian University is also asking students to share their vaccine status ahead of the fall semester, but are not requiring vaccines and has said masks are “expected” but not required for unvaccinated students (NOTE: See update at the end).

[…]

Some private universities across the state have reacted to the increase in positive cases with stricter measures, though vaccines remain optional. On Tuesday, Rice University in Houston announced masks will be required indoors in group settings. Rice is also asking all students and employees to share their vaccination status. Those who are fully vaccinated must get tested every two weeks. Unvaccinated members coming to campus must test two times per week.

Trinity University in San Antonio is also requiring masks indoors and weekly tests for those who are unvaccinated. Baylor told students it will require weekly COVID-19 testing for the first part of the fall semester for students and employees, except for fully vaccinated students and students who have had a positive test within the last 180 days. St. Edward’s University in Austin initially said it would require a vaccine for all students, but later stated students could be exempt from that requirement under the governor’s executive order.

Emphasis mine. If you needed a reason to avoid Waco this fall, there you have it. There is definitely room here for colleges and universities, public and private, to at least put some of the costs of Delta on the unvaccinated. More frequent testing is an obvious one, but let’s not stop there. Require a vaccine or a positive test to attend sporting events, participate in intramural sports, attend any kind of public indoor event like lectures or movies or parties or concerts, eat in the cafeterias, and so on. Get vaxxed or stay distant, for your safety and everyone else’s, simple as that. That’s more likely to draw a lawsuit than a legislative response, but if so then there’s a decent chance you can get some people vaccinated before you’re forced to put the policy on hold, and maybe you won’t be forced to pause at all. See my earlier comment about evaluating risks and acting accordingly. Anything that results in more vaccinations should be strongly considered, even if it winds up being a short-term measure. Push that envelope, the long-term payoff is worth it. The Chron has more.

UPDATE: I received a message from TCU informing me that their policies have changed since that Trib story was published. They now require masks for indoor spaces. My thanks to them for the feedback.

Yes, the wastewater is also pointing to a COVID surge

In case you were wondering.

There is more COVID-19 in the city’s wastewater system now than at any time in the pandemic, city officials said Wednesday, the latest warning that the virus is spreading at an unprecedented rate.

Dr. David Persse, the city’s health authority, said there is more than three times as much virus in the system as there was last July. The volume also is higher than in January, during the most recent spike. Persse said that wastewater data, a precursor to other data points, show the surge will only grow worse in the coming weeks.

“We are at a level of virus in the wastewater that we have never seen before,” Persse said. “The wastewater predicts what we’ll see in the positivity (rate) by two weeks, which predicts what we’ll see in hospitalizations by about two weeks.”

[…]

The findings came during a news conference in which the city announced it will partner with Harris County and up to 17 school districts to vaccinate students over 12 and their families every Saturday in August, an effort they are calling “Super Saturday.” The inoculations will occur in school buildings throughout the region.

Persse described the state of the surge in stark terms, pointing to dire situations in area hospitals and rising cases and hospitalizations. The Lyndon B. Johnson Hospital declared an “internal disaster” Sunday night amid a nursing shortage and an influx of patients, circumstances officials said are occurring in other area hospitals, as well.

Texas Medical Center CEO Bill McKeon earlier this week said the region is “headed for dark times,” and the hospital system has exceeded its base intensive care capacity, opening unused wards to care for new patients.

“If you are currently unvaccinated, you need to consider that you represent a potential danger to yourself, and others, and most particularly your own family,” Persse said. “If you are not vaccinated… your chances getting through this without having to become either vaccinated or infected, is essentially zero.”

Just over 64 percent of Houstonians over 12 have received their first dose of the vaccine, according to city data, and 54.3 percent are fully vaccinated. The numbers among youth residents are more paltry, though: 28.1 percent of 12-17-year-old Houston residents are fully vaccinated, and 38.5 percent have received their first dose.

“If your child is 12 or older, stop and get them the shot,” said Houston ISD Superintendent Millard House II. “Increasing vaccination rates among our communities will help ease the worries of our families and their children returning to school.”

This is another one from earlier in the month, as things were really starting to get bad. We are familiar with this project, and it has been a big success. I just wish it had better news for us, but this is where we are. Getting more of those 12-and-older kids vaccinated would make a big difference as well, so I hope that effort is successful. We’re on our own, so we’d better act accordingly.

The COVID wastewater tracking project has been a big success

This has been one of the best things to come out of this interminable and miserable COVID experience.

Lauren Stadler’s environmental engineering students always pose the same question at the beginning of a semester: “What happens to water in the toilet after you flush?”

Historically, humans have worked to quickly dispose and eradicate their own waste, which can carry diseases.

But an area’s waste creates a snapshot of who is there and what they’ve been exposed to, said Stadler, a wastewater engineer and environmental microbiologist at Rice University. She’s working with the Houston Health Department and Baylor College of Medicine’s TAILOR program to find SARS-CoV-2 in the city’s wastewater.

Stadler’s hunt has revealed variants in particular areas, heightening the city’s urgency to procure resources — COVID tests, informational meetings, advertising and now vaccine sites — in an effort to quash them before they proliferate.

“The beauty and challenge of wastewater is that it represents a pool of sample — we’ll never get an individual person’s SARS-CoV-2 strain, but a mixture of everyone in that population,” Stadler said. “We can find a population level of emergence of mutations that might be unique to Houston.”

[…]

Variant tracking has become an important part of the wastewater analysis process, Stadler said.

In February, the city and its research partners began seeing a quick emergence of the B.1.1.7 variant, which is now the dominant variant in the area. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, nearly 21,000 cases of the B.1.1.7 variant have been detected in nationwide.

Now that the team has gathered data and built a sustainable process, Stadler said they are using this information to forecast future pandemics. “Taking wastewater data, you can predict positivity rates and forecast infection burdens — it has this predictive power essentially. It’ll be very important to identify areas in the city experiencing increases in infection, and we can direct resources.”

The wastewater analysis team works with public works employees to collect weekly samples from nearly 200 sites across the city.

“I think they see this as a monitoring tool beyond the pandemic, and we see it as well,” Stadler said. “Hopefully, when SARS-CoV-2 is behind us, we will be able to monitor for an endemic virus, like flu. We can use wastewater monitoring to look for other viruses, bacterial pathogens and other pathogens of concern.”

See here and here for recent entries. I don’t have much to add, just my admiration for everyone involved and the knowledge they have gained. This was a simple and inexpensive innovation, and it will yield public health benefits for years to come. Kudos to all.

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.

Finally, a bit of good COVID news

Naturally, it comes from the wastewater.

Researchers who study sewage to monitor the pandemic are detecting less virus in Houston than they have in months, a positive signal that could indicate a forthcoming drop in new COVID-19 cases, doctors said.

The amount of viral load has declined at 28 out of 38 wastewater treatment plants across the city for the first time in five months, said Dr. Paul Klotman, president and CEO of Baylor College of Medicine. He announced the good news during a Friday video update.

“It’s actually a big drop,” Klotman said. “What that means is, in 7 to 10 days, I think we’re going to see a pretty dramatic drop in the number of new cases.”

[…]

Other indicators show signs of improvement. The Houston area’s R(t) value has dipped below 1 for the first time in weeks, meaning community spread is slowing. The test positivity rate for the Texas Medical Center hospital systems dipped from 13.2% last week to 12.7% this week, Klotman said, and the weekly average of COVID-19 hospitalizations is beginning to plateau.

See here, here, and here for the background. As we know, people shed virus in feces and urine, so tracking virus levels in wastewater is a pretty good tool for determining what the true status is and where hotspots are forming. If this is the start of a trend, we’ll see infection and hospitalization levels – not to mention deaths – start to decline rapidly in the next few weeks. Keep wearing your masks and avoiding indoor gatherings, as that’s been our best defense so far, and get that vaccine when you can.

More people in Houston than you think have had COVID

About one in seven, which is an awful lot.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

We really can track COVID-19 through wastewater

This is terrific news.

Researchers with the city, Rice University and Baylor College of Medicine were able to sniff out a potential second outbreak of COVID-19 at a homeless shelter in downtown Houston earlier this year by looking down its drains instead of in people’s noses, health officials said Thursday.

Quashing the resurgence at the Star of Hope Men’s Shelter earlier this year was one of the first successes of an effort to track the novel coronavirus through wastewater, city officials said Thursday. The initiative, one of several occurring around the country, attempts to spot outbreaks by sampling water at city treatment facilities, which could help officials tailor their testing and prevention efforts to specific neighborhoods.

To date, the results from testing wastewater largely have aligned with those from nasal swab testing, said Dr. Loren Hopkins, the city’s chief environmental science officer. That has increased the confidence that the wastewater sampling is accurate. The benefit, she said, is that wastewater tests produce quicker results.

“Ultimately, the goal is to develop an early warning system allowing the health department to identify the city’s COVID-19 hot spots sooner and put measures in place to the slow the spread of this virus,” Mayor Sylvester Turner said.

People shed the virus through feces, regardless of whether they experience symptoms. The city was able to detect the virus in the shelter by placing a sampler on the manhole outside the facility after its initial outbreak of COVID-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus.

The ability to home in on a single building still is limited, Hopkins said. City officials have deployed that strategy for the shelter and the Harris County Jail, and they are trying to acquire more equipment to expand the effort in the fall. The health department plans to begin testing long-term care facilities, for example.

[…]

So far, there has been a strong correlation between the viral load in the wastewater and the positivity rates by nasal tests, so the method has not unearthed large swaths of the virus that have gone undetected by tests. Still, that correlation has increased confidence that the wastewater analysis is accurate and can be used as a bellwether for future outbreaks.

From Sept. 7 to Sept. 14, for example, scientists found the virus was increasing in a statistically significant way in the communities served by the Tidwell Timber, Upper Brays and Forest Cove treatment plants, among others, while decreasing in District 23, White Oak and Homestead.

That information, coupled with the local positivity rate and other factors, helped the health department decide where to send strike teams to test people, conduct outreach and provide education about the virus. The city said the wastewater study has resulted in more testing at several congregant living centers.

See here and here for the background. This method is extra useful because it provides a more focused view of where the cases are clustering, and the testing is faster, so the response to the test results is also faster. If we are ever going to get a handle on this disease, especially before there’s a vaccine but also after one is available, it’s going to come from technology like this that gives a real-time and location-specific view of where the virus is happening. We should be rooting for this to ramp up as much and as quickly as possible. Kudos to all for making this happen. The Press has more.

Optimism abounds in the AAC

Good luck with that.

In the face of a pandemic, the American Athletic Conference will attempt to conduct business as usual this football season.

A plan announced Wednesday will allow AAC schools, including the University of Houston, to play a full 12-game schedule, if they so choose, and begin the season on time, even as COVID-19 continues to grip the U.S.

The AAC will play all eight of its conference games as originally scheduled beginning Sept. 19, and schools can schedule as many as four nonconference opponents, according to the plan unanimously approved by the AAC’s Board of Directors.

“We wanted to keep our eight-game schedule the way it was, not to be too disruptive to the teams,” AAC commissioner Mike Aresco said during a phone interview Wednesday. Asked about the uncertainty of playing a full 12-game schedule due to COVID-19, Aresco added: “We’re not sure that our teams can get to 12. There’s a lot that could affect that. This is the most unusual year we’ve ever faced.”

UH is expected to play an 11-game schedule, which begins Sept. 3 against Rice at TDECU Stadium. A 12th game — a nonconference trip to Washington State on Sept. 12 — was canceled with the Pac-12’s decision to play a conference-only schedule and is unlikely to be filled, a person with knowledge of the situation said.

I mean, I’m sure they’d like to do that. Many conferences are greatly restricting or eliminating non-conference games – the Big XII will allow for one non-conference game, others like the PAC 12 are doing none – so the extra games for AAC members may prove challenging to set up. Well, extra games with major-conference schools, anyway.

I remain perplexed by the belief that we’re going to have college football as if it were a normal year. The “bubble” concept seems to be working (or has worked) for basketball and soccer, while MLB baseball has had more than its share of problems with its rollout. I don’t see any reason to think that the players will be safe – never mind the coaches and staff and everyone else – and the idea that there could be fans in the stands is even more bizarre. On the other end of that spectrum, former AAC member UConn will not play football at all this fall. Maybe they’re the forward-thinking ones. The Trib has a more comprehensive roundup of what the various conferences are planning, for now. I’d assume all of that is written on the sand, at low tide. All I can say is, there’s not much time for things to get better before the games, such as they may be, begin.

How risky is music?

I’m very interested in the answer to this.

In any other time, under any other circumstance, the question would seem minor and technical. But today it has taken on both a global significance and pressing deadline: What happens to your breath when you play an instrument?

The answer could contribute to society’s budding understanding of the health risks of attending a classical concert, which will affect major decisions by the world’s largest orchestras.

The Houston Symphony has partnered with researchers at Rice University to try to do just that — study how air particles are spread during a symphonic concert, thus giving orchestras a road map to reopening safely.

The study, funded by the Rice University COVID-19 Research Fund Oversight and Review Committee and expected to be released later this summer, could help symphonies around the world find a way to hold a live concert while practicing safe social-distancing guidelines.

“This is an urgent matter,” said Robert Yekovich, dean of the Shepard School of Music at Rice. “Orchestras are waiting for information on what they’ll be able to do eight weeks from now.”

Ashok Veeraraghavan, Ashutosh Sabharwal, Yekovich and Houston Symphony CEO John Mangum penned the proposal for this study. Both Veeraraghavan and Sabharwal are electrical and computer engineering professors at Rice.

Veeraraghavan and Sabharwal spent June calibrating the machines they’ll use to test a variety of Houston Symphony musicians. They plan to begin the study this month. They’re using “Schlieren photography,” which tracks air flow by observing changes in its density; air itself, being invisible, can’t be tracked directly.

The machines would be able to see just how far an instrumentalist’s breath goes when he or she plays.

“Schlieren optics is a beautiful way of measuring. It’s an elegant technique,” Veeraraghavan said.

As someone who plays a wind instrument in a band that performs at sporting events, I have some interest in the results of this study. As with so many things about COVID-19, there’s conflicting data about how the virus is transmitted through the air, and all we can do is keep studying until we get a consensus. I look forward to the publication of this research.

More like Ike than Harvey

Not sure this is a choice I want to have to make, but here we are.

Hurricanes are expected to blow through Texas more quickly during the last 25 years of this century.

A study led by Rice University researcher Pedram Hassanzadeh found that climate change will make future hurricanes fast-moving storms like Ike in 2008 rather than slow-moving rainmakers like Harvey in 2017.

“We find that the probability of having strong northward steering winds will increase with climate change, meaning hurricanes over Texas will be more likely to move like Ike than Harvey,” Hassanzadeh said in a news release.

Hurricane Harvey caused an estimated $125 billion in damage, matching 2005’s Katrina as the costliest hurricane in U.S. history, according to the news release. Ike’s coastal flooding and high winds caused $38 billion in damage across several states. In 2008, it was the second-costliest U.S. hurricane. It has since moved to sixth.

The study is here. Ike cost less than Harvey, though that’s partially an accident of geography – had Ike stayed a bit more to the west it would have made a direct hit on Houston, in what has been described as a “worst case scenario” (at least pre-Harvey) for our town. Point being, neither is a good option. Maybe we ought to, I don’t know, do something about climate change so we don’t have to face choices like this in the future. Just a thought.

The reopening metric we should be heeding

From Twitter:

Here’s that link:

Abstract

We report a time course of SARS-CoV-2 RNA concentrations in primary sewage sludge during the Spring COVID-19 outbreak in a northeastern U.S. metropolitan area. SARS-CoV-2 RNA was detected in all environmental samples and, when adjusted for the time lag, the virus RNA concentrations were highly correlated with the COVID-19 epidemiological curve (R2=0.99) and local hospital admissions (R2=0.99). SARS-CoV-2 RNA concentrations were a seven-day leading indicator ahead of compiled COVID-19 testing data and led local hospital admissions data by three days. Decisions to implement or relax public health measures and restrictions require timely information on outbreak dynamics in a community.

Introduction

The most common metric followed to track the progression of the COVID-19 epidemic within communities is derived from testing symptomatic cases and evaluating the number of positive tests over time.1 However, tracking positive tests is a lagging indicator for the epidemic progression.2, 3 Testing is largely prompted by symptoms, which may take up to five days to present4, and individuals can shed virus prior to exhibiting symptoms. There is a pressing need for additional methods for early sentinel surveillance and real-time estimations of community disease burden so that public health authorities may modulate and plan epidemic responses accordingly.

SARS-CoV-2 RNA is present in the stool of COVID-19 patients5-7 and has recently been documented in raw wastewater.8-10 Thus, monitoring raw wastewater (sewage) within a community’s collection system can potentially provide information on the prevalence and dynamics of infection for entire populations.11 When municipal raw wastewater discharges into treatment facilities, solids are settled and collected into a matrix called (primary) sewage sludge, which has been shown to contain a broad diversity of human viruses including commonly circulating coronavirus strains.12 Primary sludge provides a well-mixed and concentrated sample that may be advantageous for monitoring SARS-CoV-2. As viral shedding can occur before cases are detected, we hypothesize that the time course of SARS-CoV-2 RNA concentrations in primary sewage sludge is a leading indicator of outbreak dynamics within a community served by the treatment plant.

So in plain English, if you know what the level of SARS-CoV-2 is in your municipal wastewater, you will have a very accurate predictor of the new COVID-19 case rate in your community. And guess what? The city of Houston is tracking this very data. I don’t know if it’s being published anywhere, but it sure could shed some light on how things are really going around here. Other cities should be doing this as well – if they aren’t doing it already, they need to start – and that information should be collected and published at the state level as well. What are we waiting for?

The 2020 Kinder Houston Area Survey

We were a pretty optimistic bunch earlier this year, in the Before Times.

Houstonians are expressing a deeper sense of mutual trust, compassion, and solidarity than ever before, with many also calling for policies that will reduce inequalities and improve public schools, according to a recent Rice survey. Houston Area Survey.

“We’re a different population. We see the world differently than we did five to 10 years ago,” said Stephen Klineberg, founding director of the Rice’s Kinder Institute for Urban Research and an emeritus professor of sociology.

The Kinder Area Survey, which was conducted between Jan. 28 and March 12, got responses from 1,001 Harris County residents, and results were released Monday during the Kinder Institute’s annual luncheon which was held virtually for the first time because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Klineberg, who has conducted the survey for the past 39 years, said this year’s survey has been one of the most remarkable — coming just days before the novel coronavirus jolted the Houston community and the world, and showing that Houston residents were hopeful for their city, but ready for a change.

[…]

More Houstonians than ever are also calling for government programs to address inequality, according to the survey. Sixty-one percent said government should take action to reduce income differences, 72 percent favored federal health insurance for all Americans, and 79 percent said the government should ensure residents who want to work can find employment. The numbers have increased from a decade ago, when they stood at 45 percent on income differences, 60 percent on healthcare for all, and 64 percent on employment.

Klineberg said the responses indicated the growing inequalities when it comes to health care and economic opportunities, which disproportionately affect the city’s black and Hispanic communities.

Houstonians are also more trusting of those around them, less fearful of crime and have shifted their views on what constitutes a crime. Seventy percent rejected the suggestion that possession of small amounts of marijuana should be treated as a crime — up from 44 percent in 2003 and 34 percent in 1995.

You can see the 2020 Kinder Houston Area Survey data here. I have to wonder what the data would have looked like if the survey had been conducted a month or so later, but that’s not important now. This survey is a treasure, and even if the timing was a bit weird this year it’s still a wealth of knowledge about our region. We’re so lucky this has been a thing for so long. Check it out.

Still not enough tests

We know, we know. Don’t ask what we’re gonna do about it.

The vast majority of even those Houston-area residents experiencing symptoms consistent with COVID-19 are not getting tested, according to initial results of a Rice University survey, the latest evidence of the lack of screening for the deadly pandemic.

The survey, taken at Rice’s new COVID-19 registry, found that testing has been conducted in just 10 percent of respondents with a fever, 11 percent of those with a cough and 13 percent of those with shortness of breath — the foremost symptoms associated with the illness caused by the new coronavirus.

“This continues to make the case that health departments have been making about the need for greater testing resources and capacity,” said Marie Lynn Miranda, a Rice professor of statistics and the director of the COVID-19 registry. “Given that we know many asymptomatic people are spreading the disease, that so many people with symptoms are not getting tested is a concern.”

The survey also found that four of 10 households have lost income as a result of the crisis and that it is causing moderate to severe anxiety in one of four people.

The Rice COVID-19 Registry is modeled on its Texas Flood Registry, established in 2018 to measure the long-term health and housing impacts of Hurricane Harvey. Some 20,000 people have provided information to that registry, which was expanded to include the impact of a May 2019 storm that battered the region and Tropical Storm Imelda in September of the same year.

Some 4,300 Houston-area residents thus far have taken the COVID-19 survey, which Miranda calls an attempt to better understand how the COVID-19 pandemic and social distancing policies are impacting people’s lives, livelihoods and mental well-being.

The registry is here, the initial findings are here, and you can take the survey by clicking here. This is not a representative sample, since people are choosing to participate, but it’s interesting anyway. Anything that calls attention to the need to do more testing is worthwhile.

From the “Shit happens” department

I apologize, I couldn’t help myself.

City health officials and Rice University scientists have begun testing Houston wastewater samples for COVID-19, a process they hope will reveal the true spread of the new coronavirus as clinical testing continues to lag.

The city-led effort makes use of studies that show traces of the virus can be found in human feces. By testing samples of sewage collected at the city’s wastewater treatment plants, officials hope to uncover the scale of the outbreak in Houston and, perhaps, locate hotspots undetected by in-person tests.

“It’s an evolving field. We hope that it will help give us just more information on where the virus is and how much of it is out there,” said Loren Hopkins, a Rice University statistics professor who also serves as the health department’s chief environmental science officer.

[…]

For now, plant workers are collecting wastewater samples across a 24-hour period once a week, before sending them to Rice and health department officials who then analyze the samples for COVID-19, the illness caused by the new coronavirus.

If successful, the project will reveal COVID-19 trends over a span of weeks and months in certain areas of Houston and citywide, Hopkins said. Though less precise than directly testing people for the coronavirus, the analysis will produce case estimates that include people who lack symptoms, because asymptomatic people still shed the virus in their stool. And because workers at the treatment plants are collecting samples across a 24-hour period, the results may provide a more accurate snapshot than the number of positive in-person test results, Hopkins said, because that data is impaired by days-long delays in receiving results.

Where the data may prove especially useful, experts said, is in locations where wastewater samples indicate the virus has spread more widely than clinical testing has revealed. Officials can then direct more testing to those areas, including through a mobile unit that launched earlier this week.

This is an attempt to address the serious gap between our need for testing and our capacity for testing. We hope it will help identify trends and emerging hot spots more quickly and effectively. It’s something that’s not been done before, and who knows if it will work the way we want. It’s surely worth a try.

The politics of social distancing

Not really a surprise.

People in parts of the country that voted for President Donald Trump have worried less about COVID-19, especially as the new coronavirus was first emerging in the U.S., a new study out of Rice University found.

[…]

“Even when — objectively speaking — death is on the line, partisan bias still colors beliefs about facts,” the study said. “Relying solely on compliance with voluntary suggested measures in the presence of different political views on the crisis may have limited effectiveness; instead, enforcement may be required to successfully flatten the curve.”

Counties with the most Trump voters saw far fewer Google searches about the virus, and social distancing was 40 percent less prevalent in those areas than in other counties, according to Rice Business professor Yael Hochberg, who co-authored the study.

The study used internet search data, as well as smartphone data to analyze average daily travel distance and visits to non-essential businesses over the last several weeks. It found that searches were low and travel was common in Trump country, especially in the early weeks of the outbreak.

Even as states began to issue stay-at-home mandates, the study found that counties that went for Trump in 2016 were slow to begin social distancing. Daily travel distance in those counties dropped by less than 7 percent, compared to a more than 9-percent drop in daily travel in counties with fewer Trump voters.

“Only when the federal order to ‘slow the spread’ arrived from the White House do high Trump counties begin to catch up,” the study said.

I’ve searched all around and I can’t find even a news release about this study, so I can’t give any judgment on its merits. I’m sure we’re all inclined to believe it, and there’s plenty of anecdotal data in the news in support of the general concept, but that’s as far as I can go at this time. Make of this what you will.

The MOB’s message to Baylor

I’ve been a member of the Rice MOB since 1988, when I arrived in Houston as a grad student in math. I’m especially proud to have been part of the MOB this weekend.

Rice University’s Marching Owl Band delivered a controversial skit and played pro-LGBTQ song “YMCA” by the Village People as dozens of students and alumni rushed the field with rainbow flags at its football game against Baylor University on Saturday night.

The skit comes as LGBTQ students and alumni fight to be recognized by the private Baptist college in Waco.

Chad Fisher, a spokesman for the Marching Owl Band, also known as “The MOB,” said he and his bandmates decided on a “Star Wars”-themed show months ago, but after learning about Baylor LGBTQ students’ ongoing fight to get recognition for their student group, they decided to incorporate that into their performance.

“Some of us did some more digging and found how deep it went,” Fisher said.

A Baylor spokeswoman confirmed that on Sept. 6, the college’s administration declined to officially recognize and charter Gamma Alpha Upsilon, an LGBTQ-student group on campus that has been fighting to be recognized since its inception in 2011.

The private Baptist university’s refusal to recognize Gamma Alpha Upsilon, or “GAY” in Greek letters, as an official student group has prevented them from receiving certain privileges, including the opportunity to advertise events on campus, reserve university spaces for meetings and receive funding through the student government.

Though Baylor President Linda Livingstone did not issue an official statement about the recent charter denial, the spokeswoman pointed to an Aug. 27 statement from Livingstone. In it, Livingstone said that “Baylor is committed to providing a loving and caring community for all students — including our LGBTQ students.”

But she also referred to the college’s “Human Sexuality” policy, which states that “the university affirms the biblical understanding of sexuality as a gift from God” and that “Christian churches across the ages and around the world have affirmed purity in singleness and fidelity in marriage between a man and a woman as the biblical norm.”

Baylor’s sexual conduct policy, also referenced in Livingstone’s statement, explains that it is “expected that Baylor students will not participate in advocacy groups which promote understandings of sexuality that are contrary to biblical teaching,” including “heterosexual sex outside of marriage and homosexual behavior.”

See here for more on this. You can also see the full script for the show here, and the scoreboard display that accompanied the show here. It’s not just that I believe Baylor is wrong, it’s that I think Baylor, and other “Christian” leaders, politicians, and organizations completely miss the main idea of Jesus Christ’s teachings. It’s very clear, if you actually read what Jesus said over and over again, that Jesus taught we are all God’s children and we are all loved by God. Jesus made a point of associating with lepers and prostitutes, paupers and tax collectors, to emphasize that we are not judged by who we are, we are judged by what we do. In particular, we are judged by our actions towards “the least of these”. (Ever read the parable of the sheep and the goats? Of Lazarus and the rich man? It’s all right there.) It amazes me how often the most prominent “Christians” of our time act like the villains in one of Christ’s parables. But here we are.

The insistence by groups like Gamma Alpha Upsilon and individual LGBTQ people that they too are included in God’s grace also amazes me. I, personally, would take the hate and vitriol that comes from the “Christians” and say fine, I don’t want to be part of your stupid, immoral group, I’ve got plenty of love and acceptance over here. But these folks, so much more than Linda Livinstone and Ken Starr and the rest of that crowd, have taken Jesus’ actual words and teachings to heart. They believe it, they know they’re a part of it, and they won’t give up until everyone else knows that, too. I’m not a particularly religious person, but I find that so moving and inspiring, and I want them to have what they have always deserved. If making dumb Star Wars jokes in a silly halftime show at the expense of the Baylor administration helps them in some infinitesimal way, I’m happy.

The cumulative effect

We really need to give a lot more thought, and action, to this.

As the flood-weary city of Houston recovers from yet another historic storm in the coming days, rubber-gloved mucking brigades and tow truck armies will swoop in to clean up the physical mess. But more and more, Houstonians are finding that the toll of these repeated floods reaches far beyond the physical. The events have changed the very way our city feels.

A Rice University study published earlier this month found that nearly 20 percent of flood victims surveyed in the wake of Hurricane Harvey reported post-flood PTSD, depression and anxiety. And more than 70 percent said the prospect of future flood events was a source of worry.

Harvey was the third “500-year” rain event to hit Southeast Texas in three years. This week, Tropical Storm Imelda also earned that distinction, as some areas received more than 40 inches of rain, paralyzing the area as highways morphed into parking lots and first responders performed more than 2,000 rescues Thursday alone. And many residents are now asking themselves: Is Houston worth it?

[…]

Ronald Acierno, director of UTHealth’s Trauma and Resilience Center, compares the cumulative effect of Houston’s weather events to a combat veteran who experienced improvised explosive devices in crowded marketplaces.

“Just as they may experience stress just being in a busy shopping center, new flooding can elicit anxiety or panic in victims of previous flooding,” said Acierno. “Even if they’re not affected by the new flooding or the danger isn’t as intense, the similarity will trigger a response.”

Acierno said “emotionally draining” is a good term for the frequent flooding’s effect on those for whom the toll doesn’t constitute PTSD.

“We don’t need to pathologize normal responses,” said Acierno, a professor of psychology at McGovern Medical School at UTHealth. “That doesn’t mean it doesn’t hurt.”

Acierno said seeking treatment or connecting with other people going through the same experience is the most protective way people can deal with the constant stress.

I couldn’t find the study in question, but these two articles from Texas Climate News do a good job summarizing what researchers have learned since Harvey. Obviously, climate change is a huge part of the problem. That’s a bigger problem than anything Houston and the greater Houston area can solve, though every government entity should be doing all they can. In the shorter term, we need to be moving quickly and decisively towards greater resilience. That’s going to cost a lot of money, and the state and the feds are going to have to do their part. We all know now, it’s just a matter of “when” for the next massive flood event, whether it’s one we see coming like Harvey or not, like Imelda. We know it’s out there, and it’s going to happen. What are we doing about it?

The Ike Dike debate continues

There’s more than one way to mitigate against flooding, and it may be best to adopt more than one of them.

For about a decade, two of Texas’ top universities have pushed dueling plans to protect the Houston-Galveston region from hurricanes.

A concept championed by Texas A&M University at Galveston appears to be winning out as the federal and state governments pursue a plan similar to one proposed by A&M oceanographer Bill Merrell in early 2009, months after Hurricane Ike smashed ashore at Galveston Island.

But that project by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Texas General Land Office, which calls for the installation of beachfront sand dunes and massive storm surge barrier gates, won’t become reality for at least 15 years — and probably much longer. That leaves plenty of time for a worst-case hurricane to devastate the densely populated, highly industrialized region — a reality that’s coming into sharper focus as sea levels rise and the ocean warms.

The so-called coastal barrier system also carries a significant price tag — as much as $20 billion — and a significant part of the system may guard against only a modest 100-year storm.

In the meantime, Rice University is pushing a plan that it says could become a reality faster and more cheaply than the coastal barrier system. While the Galveston Bay Park Plan isn’t designed to protect as much land as the coastal barrier system, the chief spokesperson for the university’s Severe Storm Prediction, Education and Evacuation from Disasters Center — known as SSPEED — says it would offer a significantly higher level of protection than the coastal barrier system for the most populated and industrialized areas in Houston and Galveston.

The park plan, conceived in 2015, calls for the use of clay dredged from the Houston Ship Channel, where a $1 billion deepening and widening project is in the works to accommodate more and larger ships, to create a 25-foot-tall levee along the shipping lane, which is the nation’s busiest. Additional dredged material would be piled behind it to form parkland. The dike would connect to an existing levee at Texas City, which would be raised to 25 feet from 17 feet.

A significant amount of dredged material has already been disposed of along the channel, forming marshy islands and a wildlife management area. That means it would not have to be built entirely from scratch.

A large storm surge gate — much like ones called for in the coastal barrier system — also would be installed and would be closed only when big storms threatened the area. Like the coastal barrier system, the park plan also calls for a “ring” levee around the city of Galveston to protect it from incoming and outgoing storm surges, the deadliest effects of hurricanes. The new north-south levee, which would cut through Galveston Bay, would be punctuated by smaller gates to allow boats to pass through.

See here for some background on the SSPEED plan, and here for more on the plan that has been selected as the preferred plan by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The SSPEED alternative is touted by Jim Blackburn, who has been a critic of the Corps’ Ike Dike study. Blackburn says this plan could be done as early as 2027 for $3 billion to $6 billion, which means it could be locally funded; that would also speed up the process, as it would not need to go through so much federal review. It could also be done as a complement to the Ike Dike. The Corps disputes SSPEED’s cost estimate and argues their plan would have a significant environmental impact. I’m not qualified to sort that out, but I do like the idea of having a more nimble plan in place that could get some mitigation going right now, rather than a decade or more from now. Read the story and see what you think.

Emmett to teach at Rice

Fitting.

Ed Emmett

Outgoing Harris County judge Ed Emmett said Tuesday he will teach at Rice University, his alma mater, starting in January.

Emmett made the impromptu announcement after a Rice University undergraduate spoke during the public comment portion of Commissioners Court, when he encouraged her to sign up for his class.

“I’ll be teaching a class in the spring and two classes in the fall, and assisting the Kinder Institute on policy projects,” Emmett said.

He will be a non-tenured professor and senior fellow at the Kinder Institute for Urban Research. Though he said he looks forward to taking a step back from politics, Emmett’s first class will focus on policy topics within the Texas Legislature, which returns to Austin in January.

In an interview at his office, Emmett said Rice President David Leebron approached him last month about joining the faculty. Emmett in November lost his bid for a third full term as county judge, a position he has held since 2007.

I’m sure he’ll do a great job, and I’m sure his classes will be popular. I wonder if now that he is freed of the responsibility of governing and of being a politician, he’ll say some things in these classes that he’d always wanted to but never felt he could before. I’m sure we’ll hear about it if he does.

How many police forces do we need?

It’s an age-old question.

Harris County could save millions of dollars a year by consolidating overlapping law enforcement agencies, from sharing technological resources to reallocating duties from constables to the sheriff’s department, according to a report by the Kinder Institute for Urban Research at Rice University.

The report, which was released Thursday, revives several decades-old ideas to combine resources between law enforcement agencies in Harris County, despite likely opposition from the agencies and county government, which would have the ultimate authority in enacting many of the proposed changes.

[…]

Kinder studied the 60 law enforcement agencies that form a patchwork of separate but sometimes overlapping patrols within Harris County, including the sheriff’s office, the Houston Police Department, constables’ offices, school district police departments and smaller municipal police departments. Those agencies spend a combined $1.6 billion per year on law enforcement, according to the report.

“We do have a system that, for all intents and purposes, is working fairly well,” Kinder researcher Kyle Shelton said. “But there are clearly places where there are overlaps and places where we could see what efficiencies would work.”

Among ideas included in the report are a merger of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s police department with the Houston Police Department, and the consolidation of smaller municipal police departments into a larger network.

One of the report’s most aggressive ideas to consolidate would be to move patrol duties from the eight Harris County constables’ offices to the Harris County Sheriff’s Office.

Political opposition to that idea would be too difficult to overcome because agencies would have to cede governing power, [County Commissioner Steve] Radack said.

“People can study it and study it and study it, but I can assure you … the people that are really familiar with this are all going to say, no” said Radack, who was formerly the Precinct 5 constable.

You can see the report here. Two points I would add: One, this is not limited to Harris County. Two, the list above leaves out police departments associated with universities, community colleges, and medical schools. There’s a lot of law enforcement agencies out there.

I find it interesting that the main argument against any sort of consolidation is that there would be political opposition to it, as Commissioner Radack notes. I don’t doubt that he’s right, but it’s not a reason, it’s a justification. Some reforms would require legislative assistance – Constables are constitutional offices, after all – while others shouldn’t need anything more than various entities working together. I’m pretty sure that there’s a dollar figure that could be attached to each recommendation in that report. Maybe if we start talking about it, we can decide what if any of these ideas are really worth pursuing, even in the face of political opposition.

The Harvey effect on fire ants

Possibly another reason to curse that storm.

Rice University ecologists are checking to see if Hurricane Harvey’s unprecedented floods gave a competitive boost to fire ants and crazy ants, two of southeast Texas’ least favorite uninvited guests.

Extreme weather events like Harvey are expected to become more likely as Earth’s climate changes due to greenhouse gas emissions, and scientists don’t understand how extreme weather will impact invasive pests, pollinators and other species that affect human well-being.

With support from the National Science Foundation’s Rapid Response Research (RAPID) program, Rice ecologists Tom Miller, Sarah Bengston and Scott Solomon, along with their students, are evaluating whether Harvey increased opportunities for invasion by exotic ants.

“Hurricane Harvey was, among other things, a grand ecological experiment,” said Miller, the principal investigator on the grant and the Godwin Assistant Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology in Rice’s Department of BioSciences. “It offers a unique opportunity to explore whether a single extreme-weather event can re-shuffle an entire community of organisms.”

[…]

“We’re conducting monthly pitfall sampling at 19 established sites in the Big Thicket, a national preserve near Beaumont,” said [Sarah] Bengston, an ant expert, co-principal investigator on grant and Huxley Research Instructor of BioSciences. “Rice’s team has been working at these same sites for three years, and we know fire ants and tawny crazy ants, which are each invasive species, had begun to penetrate the intact native ecosystems in the park before the hurricane. We now want to know whether Harvey accelerated this invasion process.”

The RAPID funding will allow the team to document changes in ant communities and test whether changes in response to the hurricane are transient or represent new stable states.

I found the press release after seeing this Chron story based on it. All I can say is I hope the finding is negative.

No Astrodome laser light show for the Super Bowl

Alas.

Still cheaper to renovate than the real thing

Organizers have nixed a proposal to use high-tech lasers to project dazzling images of Houston’s culture and history onto and through the roof of the Astrodome during Super Bowl LI.

Harris County Judge Ed Emmett said the NFL turned down the proposal — the brainchild of two recent Rice University graduates — over security concerns of having people enter and exit the dome around game time.

“We made all the intros and this, that and the other, but it wasn’t a great surprise,” Emmett said. “The NFL once they locked down that whole campus out there, they just don’t want people coming in and out.”

[…]

NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy said the league had looked into the light show idea “but are now considering lighting the outside of the building for the entire week and on Super Bowl Sunday.”

“We have not finalized plans, but this remains under consideration,” McCarthy said.

Emmett said officials were briefly considering holding a reception in the dome during Super Bowl festivities, but that’s not happening now, either. He said the Dome will mostly be used for storage and staging purposes during the sporting event.

A Super Bowl host committee spokeswoman said “there will be no official events at the Astrodome” during Super Bowl weekend, and said she had no information about how the Astrodome might be used during Super Bowl weekend or why the light show was nixed.

See here for the background. Too bad, this sounded like a fun idea to me, but you know how the NFL is. Maybe some of us can get together before the game, hold up lighters, and sing “Another Brick In The Wall”. It’s the thought that counts.

Kinder Institute analyzes Mayor Turner’s pension reform plan

From the inbox:

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Rice University’s Kinder Institute has done the preliminary math on Mayor Sylvester Turner’s historic pension reform plan and determined the numbers appear to add up if all of the components are implemented as envisioned. The institute is one of several agencies to analyze the mayor’s proposal since it was unveiled last week.

“I welcome scrutiny of this plan by experts because it helps address the unfounded arguments being made by others who have no financial background,” said Mayor Turner. “There is no doubt this plan relies on a complex package of reforms. Without implementation of each piece, we will not achieve the anticipated results. Thankfully, the pension systems are sharing more data than ever before and are committed to continue working on information sharing so we can manage costs going forward.”

According to Kinder Institute Director Bill Fulton, the mandatory cost containment provision in the mayor’s plan, if executed properly and consistently over time, could provide a way for both sides to share in the upside and sacrifice when times are tough. Fulton said the plan outline seemed to show “shared sacrifice” on the part of both the city and its workers.

[…]

The Kinder Institute did the initial analysis in a blog post the day of Mayor Turner’s announcement based only on information that is publicly available. Mayor Turner did not request the analysis. A more detailed analysis is expected later.

The Kinder Institute’s analysis can be found here: Kinder Institute Pension Analysis.

Here’s that URL again, and more on the pension deal itself can be found here and here. The KI piece basically says that if everything works out as planned and envisioned, then the long-term funding gap can be erased. If you’re thinking that’s a pretty big “if”, you’re right, but the bottom line remains that the plan is plausible. Some legislation will need to be passed next year – I have no idea what Plan B is if that fails to happen – and before we get to the point of writing a bill and finding a sponsor, we need buy-in from the firefighters. That’s a non-trivial amount of work to be done, but at least there is a roadmap that may be used by all the vehicles in the procession.

Rice prof wins MacArthur grant

Awesome!

Dr. Rebecca Richards-Kortum

Dr. Rebecca Richards-Kortum

Babies were dying in the Malawi hospital and there was little Rebecca Richards-Kortum could do about it.

For Richards-Kortum, a bioengineering professor at Rice University, it was a heartbreaking realization, one that haunted her as she toured the modest health care facility more than a decade ago.

But her despair was quickly replaced by hope, when she noticed a room full of broken medical equipment – donated machines rendered useless by the African country’s unreliable power supply.

“I’m an engineer,” Richards-Kortum recalled saying to herself as she surveyed the equipment. “I can do something about this. I can fix this.”

Engineers are good at fixing problems, and Richards-Kortum is an exceptional engineer, so good the MacArthur Foundation on Thursday named her a 2016 MacArthur Fellow. More commonly known as a genius grant, the prestigious MacArthur fellowship comes with $625,000 paid over five years.

The MacArthur Foundation considers the no-strings-attached grants as investments in the future of recipients, usually a hodgepodge from among the nation’s best artists, historians, scientists and activists.

For Richards-Kortum, it’s a nod to the global work she’s done to deliver low-cost medical technology to Third World countries. That includes a piece of machinery she helped develop that assists babies who struggle to breathe and has significantly decreased mortality rates in countries using it.

That piece of machinery was a CPAP machine, which I blogged about here and which contributed to a 46% reduction in the infant mortality rate in one neonatal unit. She and fellow Rice engineer Maria Oden have since developed other low-cost life-saving devices, which ultimately led to this award. Congratulations, Dr. Richards-Kortum, and may the inspiration continue to flow.

The MOB and Baylor

So you’ve probably heard about this by now.

If it’s possible for a band to steal headlines away from a football game, Rice’s Marching Owl Band found a way.

While Rice made strides but ultimately fell against No. 21 Baylor 38-10 on Friday at Rice Stadium, it was what happened at halftime that was the focus.

The MOB dedicated its halftime routine to satirizing Baylor’s sexual assault scandal. It sparked controversy throughout social media and the college football world.

Some believe the band was rightfully shining light on Baylor’s handling of the assaults. Some believe the band went too far in satirizing a serious matter.

It appears Rice officials agree with the latter. The university released a statement Saturday apologizing for the MOB’s performance.

The statement reads:

“The Marching Owl Band, or MOB, has a tradition of satirizing the Rice Owls’ football opponents. In this case, the band’s calling attention to the situation at Baylor was subject to many different interpretations. Although the band’s halftime shows are entirely the members’ projects with no prior review by the university administration, we regret any offense, particularly if Baylor fans may have felt unwelcome in our stadium. While we know that the MOB did not intend in any way to make light of the serious issue of sexual assault, we are concerned that some people may have interpreted the halftime performance in that vein. Sexual assault is a matter of serious concern on campuses across the nation, and all of us have an obligation to address the matter with all the tools at our disposal. The MOB sought to highlight the events at Baylor by satirizing the actions or inactions of the Baylor administration, but it is apparent from the comments of many spectators and Baylor fans that the MOB’s effort may have went too far.”

In the performance, the band started with Muppet Fozzie Bear on the video board and the narrator saying “some jokes can be unbearable”, a miniscule jab at Baylor’s mascot.

The announcer then said “There are nine judges on the Supreme Court or is it?” The band proceeded to align in a formation to resemble the Roman numeral nine representing Title IX – poking fun at the multiple Title IX lawsuits Baylor is facing over the school’s handling of sexual assaults.
It took another turn when the band aligned in a star formation meant to represent former Baylor president Ken Starr and his resignation, all the while playing the song “Hit The Road, Jack.”

You can see the full script for the show here; the embedded image contains the bit that this story elides over. As you may know, I play with the MOB and I was there on the field for this show on Friday night. All I’m going to say is that Rice University may feel the need to apologize for something, but I don’t. They are not speaking for me on this. Nor, apparently, are they speaking for the editor of the Rice Thresher, who is for more eloquent than I. The Trib and Deadspin have more.

UPDATE: More from the Press and Underdog Dynasty.

UPDATE: Even better commentary in this Observer piece, written by a former MOB member.

Next B-Cycle expansion announced

From the inbox:

Houston’s bike share system, Houston B-cycle, will more than triple in size over the next two years, adding 71 stations with 568 bikes. The expansion will be paid for with federal grant dollars.

“The expansion of the B-cycle system will bring bike sharing into new neighborhoods and to new users,” said Mayor Turner. “As I’ve said, we need a paradigm shift in transportation away from single-occupancy motor vehicles. Making cycling more accessible by building a strong bike sharing system is a critical component of that change.”

The City’s Planning and Development Department sponsored an application for a grant from the Federal Highway Administration. The grant will reimburse the City for $3.5 million of the cost of expanding the system. Houston Bike Share, a local nonprofit that administers Houston B-cycle, will provide the remaining $880,000.

Currently, the system has 31 stations with 225 bikes. The expansion will bring the total to 102 stations and 793 bikes. The grant will also pay for two new transportation vehicles.

Houston B-cycle is a membership-driven bike share system. Memberships are available by day, week or year. All members have unlimited access to the bikes for up to 60 minutes per trip. There is a charge of $2 for every additional half hour.

The expansion brings bike sharing into the Texas Medical Center with 14 stations and 107 bikes. The new stations will also serve Houston’s students, with 21 new stations and 248 bikes at the University of Houston Main Campus, Texas Southern University, UH-Downtown and Rice University.

Since January 1, cyclists have made 73,577 trips and traveled 508,044 miles. Houston Bike Share CEO Carter Stern estimates Houstonians are on track to exceed 100,000 trips by the end of 2016.

“We could not be more grateful for the Mayor and City Council’s unflagging support of the Houston B-Cycle program and our efforts to expand the program,” Stern said. “The expansion approved today will allow us to build on the immense success that B-Cycle has had in just 4 short years and bring this affordable, healthy, sustainable mobility option to more Houstonians than ever before.”

Sounds good to me. There isn’t an updated system map yet, but this does a lot to expand B-Cycle outside the borders of downtown/Midtown, in areas that are dense and proximate to light rail lines. You know how I feel about using the bike network to extend transit reach, and B-Cycle is a great fit for the rail stations because trains are often too crowded to bring a bike onto them. I can’t wait to see what the new map looks like. The Press has more.

KUHA sale completed

Say goodbye to classical music on your terrestrial radio.

Houston Public Media’s classical musical station transitions to an all-digital format starting at 9 a.m. Friday, July 15.

It’s a result of Christian radio station KSBJ agreeing to purchase the KUHA 91.7 FM signal from the University of Houston — which holds the license — in February 2016.

“We are happy that the ownership of KUHA will stay in local hands and we are excited about the future,” Houston Public Media Associate Vice President and General Manager Lisa Shumate said in a statement. “Houston Public Media’s commitment to multi-platform arts and culture content, in addition to classical music, is stronger than ever.”

[…]

KUHA 91.7 FM was purchased from Rice University for $9.5 million in 2010. Most of the classical music and arts programming produced by Houston Public Media moved to the new station, along with live broadcasts with the Houston Symphony, the Houston Grand Opera and local performing artists and groups. KUHF then adopted a 24-hour all news and information format.

See here for the background. KUHA continues to exist as an HD station, and of course there’s always streaming. But if you like to listen to classical music in your car, and you don’t have an HD receiver, you’re out of luck. And so it goes.

The Latino health insurance enrollment gap in Texas

We have made great strides in reducing the uninsured rate in Texas thanks to the Affordable Care Act, but there’s still a lot of work to do.

It's constitutional - deal with it

It’s constitutional – deal with it

The percentage of Hispanics in Texas without health insurance has dropped by 30 percent since the Affordable Care Act (ACA) went into effect, but almost one-third of Hispanic Texans ages 18 to 64 remain uninsured.

That’s one of the conclusions of a new report released today by Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy and the Episcopal Health Foundation.

The report found the uninsured rate among Hispanics ages 18 to 64 in Texas dropped from 46 percent in September 2013 to 32 percent in March 2016. But even with those gains, researchers estimate approximately 2 million Hispanics remain uninsured across the state. However, nearly half of uninsured Texas Hispanics are currently eligible to get health insurance through ACA plans or other private health insurance, the report said.

“We estimate 920,000 Hispanics are eligible for coverage now, even without Medicaid expansion or any other widespread change in coverage,” said Elena Marks, EHF’s president and CEO and a nonresident health policy fellow at the Baker Institute. “This report clearly shows the need for outreach and enrollment efforts to continue to focus on Hispanic Texans who are uninsured but eligible for coverage.”

[…]

“After three open-enrollment periods of the ACA marketplace, the uninsured rate among Hispanics is still three times that of whites,” said Vivian Ho, the chair in health economics at Rice’s Baker Institute and director of the institute’s Center for Health and Biosciences, a professor of economics at Rice and a professor of medicine at Baylor College of Medicine. “The disparity between the two groups remains striking. The Hispanic population is growing at a faster rate than the state average, which makes it increasingly important to the entire state that Hispanics gain affordable health insurance coverage.”

The report shows that although more Hispanic Texans remain uninsured, they enrolled in ACA health insurance plans at twice the rate of whites. Researchers found 21 percent of all insured Hispanics in Texas are covered by ACA plans, compared with only 11 percent of whites across the state.

“This shows that the ACA marketplace is an important source of affordable health insurance for Hispanics,” Ho said.

The report is only nine pages, so go take a look at it. I can tell you that the main reasons for the gap are the failure to expand Medicaid, and a still-significant number of people who have not yet enrolled in any plan. The authors recommend more outreach to the latter subgroup, but that’s easier – and a lot cheaper – said than done. There are numerous community and national organizations that have done a ton of hard work informing people about their health insurance and subsidy options, but they do so in an environment where the state government is actively hostile to them. There’s a reason why some states have lowered their uninsured rates a lot more than some others.

Another story on how Texas’ uninsured rate has fallen under Obamacare

Same book, next chapter.

It's constitutional - deal with it

It’s constitutional – deal with it

A study released Tuesday shows that the rate of Texans without insurance has dropped to its lowest point since the late 1990s because of the Affordable Care Act, Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy and the Episcopal Health Foundation reported.

Prior to the implementation of the ACA in September 2013, the uninsured rate in Texas was about 26 percent – more than one in four. By this March, that rate had dropped to about 18 percent, the study said.

Researchers found declines in every age group, ethnic and racial demographic, and across income levels. Texans between the ages of 50 and 64 showed the steepest decline, dropping to 10 percent from 21 percent during that time period.

Those with low to modest incomes of $16,000 and $47,000 also showed big gains in coverage. Their rate of uninsured is now about 13 percent compared to 23 percent in 2013.

“For more than a decade prior to the ACA, the uninsured rate remained above 20 percent and was rising. It’s now clear that it’s moving in the opposite direction and the ACA deserves the credit,” Elena Marks, president and CEO of Episcopal Health Foundation, said in a statement Tuesday.

Despite progress, Texas continues to lead the nation in the number and rate of the uninsured.

In fact, the new study shines a light on a gaping hole in coverage across the state. Nearly half, or 46 percent, of Texans earning less than $16,000 per year remain uninsured, the report shows.

A copy of the report is here, and a compendium of Baker Institute research on the topic of health insurance under the ACA in Texas is here. Another recent study, by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, had Texas’ rate of uninsured residents below 17%, somewhat lower than what this one has. That may reflect a slight difference in methodology or definitions, it’s hard to say. The trend is clear, and so is the fact that by any measure, Texas is still the worst at getting its residents covered. Even among states that did not expand Medicaid, Texas’ uninsured rate is higher than average, as you can see on that first link. And yes, you can make less than $16K a year but not qualify for Medicaid in this state. Basically, unless you’re a child or you’re disabled, you’re SOL as far as that goes. But don’t worry, you can always go to the emergency room and get some service at a much higher cost to a much smaller tax base. That’s how Greg Abbott and Dan Patrick want it to be. Forbes has more.

Remembering Buckyballs and the Nobel Prize they won

Twenty years ago, two Rice University chemists won the Nobel Prize for a revolutionary idea about carbon molecules.

The discovery of Buckyballs, a new form of carbon that ushered in the era of nanotechnology and won a Nobel Prize, happened largely by accident.

In 1985, Rice University chemists Robert Curl and Richard Smalley hosted British chemist Harry Kroto for a series of experiments in Houston. Kroto had a theory about how long carbon chains were formed in the atmospheres of carbon-rich giant stars, and Smalley had built a laser beam apparatus that could vaporize molecules and test the theory.

Over 10 days, the three professors and three graduate students conducted tests in which they vaporized carbon molecules with Smalley’s laser beam apparatus and then measured how the carbon atoms clustered together. To their surprise, in addition to the long chain molecules they were seeking, they found a high number of clusters consisting of 60 carbon atoms.

The professors tasked their graduate students with finding ways of changing the parameters of the experiment to increase the number of C60 molecules and tried to theorize what their structure would look like. They knew the structure had to be something more stable, like a sphere, that would protect the bonds between the carbon atoms from being easily broken.

“What was the chemical structure?” Curl recalled in his Rice office earlier this month. “How can you put 60 carbon atoms together and come up with something really stable?”

Kroto remembered he had built with his children a paper star dome that consisted of both pentagons and hexagons. He wanted to call his wife in England to have her find the construction.

“But it was getting late, and it seemed highly improbable that he had done this,” Curl said.

Instead, that night, Smalley fiddled with paper, scissors and scotch tape, creating a paper sphere made up of 20 hexagons and 12 pentagons with 60 corners. It fit all the parameters for a stable form of carbon with 60 atoms.

The structure resembled the geodesic domes that American architect Buckminster Fuller designed for the 1967 Montreal World Exhibition. They decided to name the structure buckminsterfullerene in his honor. They called the spheres Buckyballs for short because they resembled soccer balls.

The trio was excited about what they came up with, but it was only a theory. They had no proof other than the high number of C60 molecules they were seeing in their experiments.

“That didn’t deter us,” Curl said.

Read the rest, it’s worth your time. Smalley passed away in 2005; Curl is now an emeritus professor. They didn’t have to win the Nobel for this research – there was another team that had made a similar discovery. Buckyballs themselves were never of much practical use, but the discovery led to the field of nanotechnology and the creation of nanotubes, among other things. It’s fair to say we live in a different world today because of Robert Curl and Richard Smalley.

A way to use the Astrodome while we figure out what to do with it

How does a Super Bowl light show grab you?

Still cheaper to renovate than the real thing

The future of the Astrodome still might be in the dark, but that doesn’t mean the iconic building can’t return to the spotlight for at least a few minutes.

A pair of 25-year-old Rice University graduates came up with an idea to display a light show on the building’s roof that could come to fruition for the Super Bowl in February. The technological feat would use “projection mapping” to cast images of Houston culture onto the ceiling and through the hundreds of windows of the long-vacant Astrodome in yet another effort to redefine the structure as its fate is debated.

“I was just so interested that we not tear down the Astrodome, that we find a way to repurpose it and make it exciting again,” said Phoebe Tudor, who heads a group called Friends of the Dome and has worked on the light show initiative. “There are probably other things that could potentially happen in it in the future, but this would be such a great thing for now, and relatively easy and relatively inexpensive, compared to other things that may have been considered.”

[…]

Beyond the general concept of Houston history, show specifics have yet to be determined. During the demonstration in March, projectors cast Astros and Oilers logos onto the ceiling and even a picture of an astronaut.

People could come inside to watch a show, while images also could shine through the roof to the outside as nationally televised cameras pan over NRG Stadium during the Super Bowl, [County Judge Ed] Emmett said, potentially creating advertising revenue.

If successful, it likely would be only one of several possible uses of the Astrodome during the Super Bowl festivities, including another proposal to project images onto the outside walls.

The two Rice grads, one with expertise in engineering and the other familiar with projection mapping – a technique that uses multiple projectors to cast shapes and images onto uneven surfaces – came up with the light show idea.

One of the men, Alex Weinheimer of Houston, said he’s always had an interest in baseball, architecture and history. He said he was watching a Texans game one night when the broadcast showed a blimp passing over the Astrodome with its white indoor lights on.

“It’s a very pretty, geometric design,” Weinheimer said. “It’s also fairly unique.”

Weinheimer thought that something more could be done with the stadium. He got in touch with Joshuah Jest, and they began working up a light-show concept.

Tudor took notice of their work and helped put them in touch with the county. Over the past year, they’ve been working out the particulars of the show on a scale model, Tudor said, until they tested their idea in the Dome in March.

“We’ve sort of tried to prove the concept,” Weinheimer said.

Sounds pretty interesting. I confess I’m having “Pink Floyd laser light show” flashbacks here, and the urge to make stoner jokes is strong, but I will remain steadfast. Assuming everyone involved approves this, I could see it being a cool addition to the Super Bowl spectacle. Having a useful purpose for the Dome, even for a one-time event, is a good thing. I wish everyone luck in getting this done.

Houston Area Survey 2016: Harris County becoming more Democratic

Whoa.

A majority of Harris County residents lean Democratic for the first time ever, propelled by plummeting support for Republicans among Latinos, according to a survey released Monday by Rice University’s Kinder Institute for Urban Research.

The finding, in the midst of a particularly divisive presidential campaign, could signal an important shift in arguably the nation’s largest swing county, which narrowly went to President Barack Obama in 2012 by only about 970 votes. It might also portend that the long-sleeping giant of Latino voters will, finally perhaps, be roused from slumber in an election that has featured decidedly anti-Latino and anti-immigrant rhetoric, particularly from billionaire Republican contender Donald Trump.

“Frankly I’m not all that surprised,” said Jim McGrath, a Republican political consultant in Houston and spokesman for former President George H. W. Bush. “These are the fears realized by those on the Republican side who are worried about the irresponsible rhetoric surrounding the illegal immigration issue.”

According to the annual survey, which was conducted between January and March, 52 percent of Harris County residents said they identified more with the Democratic Party compared to 46 percent in 2012. Only 30 percent of residents leaned Republican this spring, about the same as in 2012, meaning that it is the share of undecided and new potential voters whom have swung largely Democratic.

[…]

Support for the GOP has stayed steady among white and African-American residents for the past decade, with 54 percent of the county’s white population swinging Republican and 39 percent Democrat, though there was a slight increase in Democrat support among Anglo voters in the county over the past two years. Similarly 82 percent of African-American residents lean Democratic and 8 percent Republican.

Among Latinos, however, there has been a sea change.

From about 2000 to 2008, some 40 percent of the county’s Hispanic residents identified as Democratic compared to fewer than 30 percent who felt Republican, Klineberg said. That began to change around 2009 when their support for Democrats increased to nearly 50 percent and the share of those leaning Republican dropped to 25 percent.

The gap widened once more around the 2012 presidential election when Republican Mitt Romney received the lowest share of the Hispanic vote — 27 percent — than GOP nominees had tallied in the previous three election cycles in a campaign during which immigration was particularly divisive.

This spring, Harris County’s Hispanic residents registered the lowest amount of support ever for Republicans — only 18 percent — compared to 68 percent of Latinos who said they lean Democrat.

“It’s a powerful message to the Republican party, reach out to these Latino voters, don’t push them away,” Klineberg said. “And for the Democrats, get out the vote.”

The survey is conducted by land line and cell phone calls among a statistically representative sample of 808 residents, not eligible voters, in Harris County. Among 604 Harris County residents who can vote, 46 percent leaned Democrat and 41 percent Republican.

See the Urban Edge blog for more details on the poll. There’s quite a bit more to the 2016 Houston Area Survey than this, but for now we’ll just focus on this particular data point, for obvious reasons. This is not a poll in the standard sense – it doesn’t ask which candidate you will support, nor does it try to determine who is a “likely” voter – but it is consistent with what we are seeing in national data as well as swing states. Latinos were slightly more likely to vote Republican in Texas in 2012 than they were elsewhere, though that was partly a turnout function, as polling data at the time showed that lower-propensity voters were more strongly Democratic. If – the big if – Latino voters are more strongly motivated to turn out this year, it is consistent for them to be more Democratic even without taking the Trump factor into account.

What could this mean in practical terms?

Some advocacy groups, such as the William C. Velásquez Institute, a national Latino public policy research group in San Antonio, predict Hispanics in Texas this year will account for more than 3 million registered voters and cast more than 2 million votes, both of which would be records. Overall, the state has about 14.2 million registered voters.

Their expectations are largely predicated on population growth. Since 2012, Texas gained 600,000 eligible Hispanic voters, expanding to 4.8 million – second only to California, according to the Pew Research Center, a think tank in Washington, D.C. The Latino share of Texas’ eligible voters increased 2 percentage points in that period, to 28 percent.

Bearing in mind all of the usual disclaimers, let’s do a little back-of-the-envelope math for the fun of it. Here are three statewide scenarios for this year:


Total votes    Latino  Not Latino     Pct
=========================================
  4,650,000    480,000  4,170,000  58.75%
  3,350,000  1,120,000  2,230,000  41.25%

  4,570,000    400,000  4,170,000  54.40%
  3,830,000  1,600,000  2,230,000  45.60%

  4,670,000    500,000  4,170,000  53.00%
  4,230,000  2,000,000  2,230,000  47.00%

Scenario 1 is basically what happened in 2012. No change in Latino turnout, which based on 2012 polling is 20% of the total, or Latino propensity for voting Democratic, which was about 70% that year. Scenario 2 is the “two million Latino voters” possibility that the Velasquez Institute mentioned. For that, I’m assuming 80% Democratic support, which is consistent with the polling data we have so far for matchups against Donald Trump, and with the data noted above that lower-propensity Latino voters are more heavily Democratic than Latinos overall. Sure, this may be a bit optimistic, but I’m playing a what-if game here, so stay with me. Scenario 3 is the bluer sky version of #2, where Latino turnout is 2.5 million at the same 80% Democratic rate. Note that in all cases, non-Latino turnout and propensity is the same. This is mostly to make the calculations simple; basically, I’m isolating the Latino voting variable. One could play around with the hypothesis that a Trump candidacy might also depress base Republican turnout, but I’ll leave those calculations to you. In scenario 2, Latinos make up about 24% of the voter universe, while in #3 they are 28% of total turnout, which as noted is about their share of total eligible voters.

I’m not arguing any of this is likely, or even realistic. I am showing that the ground is shifting, and even a relatively modest change could have a sizable effect. It’s not enough to turn Texas blue, but the state would be a lot less red. As noted before, that effect would surely be felt downballot, with Harris County likely being an epicenter. The bigger question would then be if any of that might carry over into a non-Presidential year, or if the same patterns we have observed in recent elections would persist. That’s beyond my scope here, and depending on how things end up may be irrelevant. But clearly something is happening. Even if it’s not enough to change the state, it’s more than enough to tilt Harris County, whether there is a concerted turnout effort (which I hope there is!) or not. Campos has more.

Former KTRU to become Christian station

Well, that’s different.

KSBJ Educational Foundation, which owns and programs noncommercial Christian music radio stations, acquired the 50,000-watt KUHA (91.7 FM). Subject to Federal Communications Commission approval, the station could switch from its current classical format to NGEN by late May or early June.

UH in 2010 acquired the station for $9.5 million from Rice University, where it was known for years as KTRU, and aired classical music on the signal before deciding last year to put the station on the market and move its classical programming to digital formats.

“It’s a good result for Houston because classical service continues and the station stays in the hands of local owners and experienced broadcasters,” said Lisa Shumate, general manager of Houston Public Media. “It enables us to continue to provide multi-platform arts and culture coverage and use our resources for continued focus in news and other local content initiatives.”

[…]

Classical music will continue on 91.7 FM until the sale is approved and also can be heard at KUHF (88.7 FM HD-2), the Houston Public Media mobile app, at HoustonPublicMedia.org, on over the air television at Channel 8.5 and through iHeartRadio and TuneIn and other free mobile applications.

We first heard about this last August. Whatever you think of the whole KTRU situation – and for what it’s worth, KTRU is back on the air, if you can find it – this now means there will no longer be a non-HD FM station devoted to classical music in Houston. That just feels wrong, but then no one asked me.

Fewer Texans having trouble paying medical bills than pre-Obamacare

What else can you say but “Thanks, Obama!”

Fewer Texans say they have problems paying their medical bills in 2015 compared to 2013, according to a new report released by EHF and Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy.

The report found that since enrollment began in the Affordable Care Act’s Health Insurance Marketplace (ACA), the percentage of Texans who reported problems paying health care bills dropped almost 15 percent (25.8 percent in 2013 to 22 percent in 2015). The drop was consistent across income levels and health insurance status, and corresponds with national data showing the percentage of adults reporting problems paying medical bills dropped across the U.S.

Data released this week in a nationwide Kaiser Family Foundation/New York Times survey show 26 percent of U.S. adults reported having problems paying medical bills in the past year.

“The fact that Texans had fewer problems paying their medical bills in 2015 is good news,” said Vivian Ho, the chair in health economics at Rice’s Baker Institute and director of the institute’s Center for Health and Biosciences, a professor of economics at Rice and a professor of medicine at Baylor College of Medicine. “One reason fewer Texans are having problems paying medical bills is because more Texans now have health insurance. However, one in five Texans still has problems affording health care. And it’s no surprise our data show the uninsured and those with lower incomes continue to struggle paying those bills more than anyone else.”

The report found 30 percent of uninsured Texans reported problems paying their health care costs in 2015, down from 35 percent in 2013. Researchers found just 20 percent of those with health insurance said they had problems paying medical bills last year, down from 23 percent in 2013.

When it comes to skipping health care services because of cost, the report found uninsured Texans are more likely to skip all services (primary care, specialist care, prescription drugs, etc.) than those with insurance. However, researchers discovered fewer uninsured Texans said they skipped getting care in 2015 compared to 2013.

“On the whole, uninsured Texans reported fewer problems with affording health care in 2015,” said Elena Marks, EHF’s president and CEO, and a nonresident health policy fellow at the Baker Institute. “While our data doesn’t explain exactly why that is happening, the Texas economy improved during that time which might have helped the uninsured pay for care.”

In addition, Marks said because the number of insured patients increased across the state, more charitable care may have been available to the uninsured. New 1115 Medicaid waiver projects across Texas also may have enabled more uninsured adults to access affordable health services, Marks said.

The full report is here. Elena Marks and Vivian Ho are familiar names to anyone who’s been following health insurance news in Houston – they’ve been on this stuff since the beginning. Now just imagine how much better things could be if we’d only expand Medicaid, too.