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Texas Department of Emergency Management

Abbott’s border wall

I have many questions about this, but for this post I will limit myself to three.

Gov. Greg Abbott announced Thursday that Texas will build a border wall along the state’s boundary with Mexico — but provided no details on where or when.

Abbott declared his plans during a press conference in Del Rio. He said he would discuss the plans next week. The Biden administration issued a proclamation that stopped border wall construction on his first day of office.

Abbott announced the news while discussing a slew of border initiatives, such as a $1 billion allocation for border security in the state budget lawmakers just passed and a plan to establish a Governor’s Task Force on Border and Homeland Security with public safety and state government officials.

“It will help all of us to work on ways to stem the flow of unlawful immigration and to stem the flow of illegal contraband,” Abbott said, while seated next to officials from the National Guard, Texas Department of Public Safety and Texas Division of Emergency Management.

At the conference, Abbott also announced plans to increase arrests along the border — and increase space inside local jails.

“They don’t want to come to across the state of Texas anymore because it’s not what they were expecting,” Abbott said before being met with applause from those at the conference. “It’s not the red carpet that the federal administration rolled out to them.”

He also announced an interstate compact with Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey to resolve the border “crisis,” and called on other states to do the same.

1. How exactly is any of this going to be paid for? I know Abbott has promised more details next week, but we just had an entire legislative session, with a budget being passed, and I don’t remember “building a border wall” being part of it. Also, arresting however many people and putting them in jail – who will be paying for that? Even if one can claim that there is a line item in the budget for this, does anyone believe it’s enough?

2. How many lawsuits do you think this will generate? There’s federal-state issues, such as whether states can arrest migrants for trespassing, likely questions about how various funds may be spent on this ill-conceived idea, and who knows what else. Some number of lawyers are going to make a lot of bank on this.

3. We’re totally going to start seeing “Abbott for President 2024” speculation because of this, aren’t we? Time to find a nice Internet-free cabin in the woods, I suppose. More from the Trib here.

On informing the public during an emergency

Another thing the state didn’t do well.

As millions of Texans fought to survive brutal winter weather without power and water, Gov. Greg Abbott told residents Wednesday to search for emergency warming shelters on Google and to call 311 for additional assistance.

The only problem: Many people lacked internet access, cellphone service and the ability to watch the governor’s press conferences. When the power went out, the state suddenly lost the ability to provide essential information to people desperately in need of help.

“Telling people to Google it is not OK. It’s the result of non-imaginative or non-planning in general, and it’s very, very unfortunate,” said Dr. Irwin Redlener, a senior research scholar for Columbia University’s National Center for Disaster Preparedness. “And I think there needs to be some accountability for why they hadn’t made the infrastructure more resilient, and also why they hadn’t planned for a situation where the power’s out.”

During natural disasters and other humanitarian crises, the Texas Division of Emergency Management can use the national Emergency Alert System to share important updates, including for weather events, with Texans in specific areas. Impacted residents of the state would immediately receive a cellphone notification through that system with basic information like boil water notices or updates on when power might be restored.

But according to residents and lawmakers around the state, TDEM failed to provide such emergency alerts during this crisis, effectively leaving Texans without the kind of information necessary for living through a disaster. Instead, Abbott and TDEM officials encouraged people to search for resources on social media or Google.

[…]

Although many state officials blamed the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, the state’s power grid operator, for a lack of warning about prolonged outages, Texans pointed out that the extreme weather conditions should have warranted emergency messages anyway.

“Even if they didn’t know the power outages were coming, just the temperatures alone should have been enough to have massive warnings to people of what is possible,” [Austin resident Suzanne] Wallen said. “The icing of trees and the icing of power lines, all of that is kind of basic dangerous weather information.”

Communicating the right information to people in a timely manner often becomes a life or death situation during disasters like this, Redlener said. Especially when people lose access to clean water, they need to know immediately that they should stop drinking their tap water before boiling it.

And even though TDEM may not have been prepared to send out emergency alerts before people started losing power, the state agency still could have shared information through the national alert system when the situation became dire for people across Texas.

“From so many different perspectives, this is an example of a very poorly planned disaster response, and there’s all kinds of things that could have been better, including the communication issues,” Redlener said.

We received numerous alerts from the city of Houston and Harris County, before and during the disaster. There were automated calls to the landline and to our cells, plus emergency alerts on the cell and emails. Not all of these worked during power and Internet or cellular outages, but a lot of people still have good old-fashioned landlines (ours is now VOIP and so less useful at these times, but we still had those other methods). If power and cable are down, AM/FM radio still works. There were plenty of options available to the state, and there’s no reason why a lot of information couldn’t have been broadcast by all available means well in advance of the freeze. Space City Weather was warning about arctic conditions five days in advance of Monday’s frigid temps. Not everyone will get the message, of course, and not all who do will heed it, but a lot more could have been done. It’s of a piece with the overall lack of planning to keep the electric grid up and running in the first place.

Even worse than all that is stuff like this.

Mayor Sylvester Turner said his office has heard from the White House during this week’s winter freeze, but Gov. Greg Abbott has not reached out at all.

The mayor first raised the lack of communication in an interview Friday morning with MSNBC, telling Stephanie Ruhle he had not heard from the governor’s office as millions went without power and water this week.

“I have not talked to the governor at any time during this crisis,” Turner said. “I have not talked to the governor, but we’re pushing forward.”

At a press conference later Friday morning, Turner said the state has sent National Guard troops to help staff a warming center at the George R. Brown Convention Center. The Texas Department of Transportation also has been “very, very helpful,” the mayor said.

“Between TxDOT and the National Guard, they have provided some assistance,” Turner said.

Asked whether he or his staff has reached out to Abbott, Turner said: “I have been very laser-focused on dealing with the situation right here in the city of Houston. The White House has reached out to me several times, and we’ve had those communications.”

It’s not just Mayor Turner and Houston that have been ignored by Greg Abbott. San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg, along with Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff, and Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins have said the same thing. I don’t even know what to think about that. I have no idea what Abbott is doing. He was actually pretty visible during Hurricane Harvey, so it’s not like he doesn’t know how to do this sort of thing, and he surely knows that being out in front of an emergency and being visibly in charge and helping others is a boon to one’s image (unlike some other politicians I could name). But by far the bulk of the heavy lifting is being done by local officials and third parties. It’s beyond bizarre.

How’s the vaccine rollout going?

Not very quickly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

High school sports pushed back a bit

Just a guess, but I’d bet this winds up being redone at least once more before any actual sports get played.

The University Interscholastic League is delaying the start of high school football’s regular season to Sept. 24 for Class 6A and 5A schools with the state championships moved to January.

The change is part of the league’s altered fall sports schedule for the 2020-2021 school year in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

For 6A and 5A schools, the first day of football practice and volleyball practice is now Sept. 7; volleyball’s regular season starts Sept. 14 with state championships Dec. 11-12; cross country meets and team tennis matches start Sept. 7; cross country’s state championship meet is Dec. 5 and team tennis’ state championships are Nov. 11-12.

Schools in Class 4A through Class 1A are remaining on the original schedule. For 1A-4A: football and volleyball practice begins Aug. 3; volleyball’s regular season starts Aug. 10; football regular season’s Aug. 27; volleyball’s state championships are Nov. 18-21; football’s state championships are Dec. 16-19.

The high school football playoffs for 6A and 5A schools are slated for an early December start with the district certification deadline of Dec. 5. For volleyball in these classifications, the deadline is Nov. 17.

[…]

In comparison with like-minded high school athletics governing bodies in Texas, The Texas Association of Private and Parochial Schools delayed the start of fall practice to Sept. 8 with competition beginning Sept. 21 and football season kicking off Sept. 28. The Southwest Preparatory Conference also delayed competition for its schools to Sept. 8 with conference games not occurring until the week of Sept. 21, at the earliest.

The California Interscholastic Federation is delaying its entire high school sports schedule with its football teams set to play its first games in late December or early January.

The Trib adds some more detail.

Marching bands across the state can begin their curriculums on Sept. 7.

The organization also issued guidance on face coverings, protocols for individuals exposed to COVID-19 and how to set up meeting areas like band halls and locker rooms.

Anyone 10 years or older must wear a face covering or face shield when in an area where UIL activities are underway, including when not actively participating in the sport or activity. People are exempt from the rule if they have a medical condition or disability that prevents wearing a face covering, while eating or drinking or in a body of water.

Some schools won’t have to follow UIL’s face covering rule if they are in a county with 20 or fewer active COVID-19 cases that has been approved for exemption by the Texas Department of Emergency Management. In that situation masks can still be mandated if the local school system implements the requirements locally, according to the press release. UIL still “strongly” encourages face coverings in exempt schools.

As the Chron story notes, many school districts have already announced the will begin the year as online-only, per the new TEA guidelines. Students at those schools will still be eligible to participate in UIL extracurriculars, which also includes music. This is from the Texas UIL Twitter feed:

The “Class” stuff refers to school size, where 6A and 5A are the largest schools – this classification used to stop at 5A, but suburban schools kept getting larger. It’s not clear to me why smaller schools – and 4A schools are still pretty big – are exempt from the schedule delay. In the end I don’t think it matters, because unless we really turn things around in the next couple of weeks it’s still not going to be safe, and the UIL will have to revisit this again. Don’t be surprised if in the end, everything gets delayed till the spring. The DMN has more.