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vaccinations

On the reaction by some people to the new mask recommendations

I have one thing to say to this.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Universal masking” for school children recommended

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As for masks in schools, well…

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

Still surging

Hospitalizations.

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

Positive tests.

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s not vaccinated people that are dying

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And one more thing:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More masking

In Travis County.

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

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

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

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

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

Fort Bend is doing likewise.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The fourth wave

We’re not ready.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He’s on brand, that much is for sure.

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

The ultimate inducement to getting vaccinated

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

UPDATE: Not just college football.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Just curious.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What will Harris County do about rising case numbers?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Austin tries to slow down the Delta spike

Not really much they can do, though.

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

Where the outbreaks are the worst

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The risk of being unvaccinated

The numbers don’t lie.

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

The next level of vaccine resistance

I’m speechless.

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

Our Delta future

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

Some more data, if you need it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The return to normal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The COVID death spike

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here comes the Delta variant

Be vaxxed or be vulnerable.

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

More Q-poll data.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Methodist anti-vaxxers officially fired

I have three things to say about this.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We’re (sort of) halfway vaccinated

It depends on how you’re measuring it. And it’s still not enough, no matter how you look at it.

Texas has hit the halfway point.

As of Friday morning, 50.1 percent of Texans 18 and older are fully vaccinated from COVID-19, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

While this is a milestone for the state, Dr. Susan McLellan is not celebrating.

“It means that 50 percent are not vaccinated, and that’s a problem,” said McLellan, professor of infectious diseases at University of Texas Medical Branch. “It’s been available for everybody 12-and-older for months. I don’t think that’s a very wonderful milestone.”

McLellan and other Texas doctors are concerned about the coronavirus case rate and the country’s newly-introduced, highly-transmissible delta variant. Now the dominant COVID strain in the U.K., experts expect the delta variant to become the dominant strain in Texas, as well.

Early studies show vaccination provides better immunity than contracting the virus does, McLellan said.

“Right now, there are pockets in the population that are not getting vaccinated, and they tend to congregate,” she said. “Young adults may think it’s no biggie to not get vaccinated, and then they go to a bar with a lot of people like them. They easily expose each other and spread it around.”

State vaccination rates can be misleading as a large percentage of vaccinated people live in large urban centers, such as Houston, Austin and Dallas, said Dr. David Lakey, a member of the Texas COVID-19 Expert Vaccine Allocation Panel.

In Harris County, more than 1.8 million people are now fully vaccinated, followed by Dallas County at 1 million. In Travis County, more than 631,000 people are fully vaccinated, the DSHS reported Friday.

[…]

Texas ranks 33rd among all states for its rate of vaccination. And its proximity to states with low vaccination rates — including Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama — could pose a threat to Texans, said Dr. Catherine Troisi, an epidemiologist with UTHealth School of Public Health.

“We don’t live in a bubble,” Troisi said. “People travel from state to state, and they can bring the infection with them.”

This story measured the vaccination rate for people 18 and older. Of course, kids are still vulnerable to COVID, and you can get vaccinated if you’re at least 12 years old, so that’s a somewhat odd way of measuring progress. The Trib identifies 40% of the state’s total population as being vaccinated, with Harris County continuing to be right at the same level as the state as a whole. They give totals for “people who are fully vaccinated”, which will include people who have had two Pfizer or Moderna shots plus people who got the one-shot J&J vaccine, and “total number of shots administered”, which includes people who have had just their first Moderna or Pfizer shot. I estimate from this that Harris is close to fifty percent of the total population having at least one shot, again consistent with the statewide number.

So that’s good and the number will continue to rise, but much more slowly since basically everyone who was eager to get a shot has had theirs. We’re fully into the “people who are hesitant” and “people who face obstacles” part of the journey, and that’s just going to take longer. In the meantime, the Delta and other variants are surging in the parts of the country (and elsewhere) that are less vaccinated, and while hospitalizations remain at manageable levels, that could change. A lot of the country, and a lot of Texas, remains at high risk because of low vaccination rates. I don’t know what more we can do about that.

Kids still get COVID, too

And they need to get vaccinated if at all possible.

Since the Food and Drug Administration approved emergency use of the Pfizer vaccine for 12 to15 year olds on May 10, more than 300,000 Texas adolescents and teenagers have received at least one dose. Girls in this age range are receiving the vaccine at a higher rate (153,000) than boys (149,000), according to Texas Health and Human Services. Nationwide, more than 626,000 12 to 15 year olds have received two doses, according to the CDC.

Though young people can now receive shots, the number of children and adolescents being hospitalized is increasing. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released data from the first half of 2021 that shows nearly one-third of adolescents who are hospitalized with COVID-19 require intensive care. Five percent of those patients need to be put on ventilators with supplemental oxygen, as well.

The CDC reports that nearly 400 children and adolescents are currently in hospitals across the country with COVID or complications from the virus. More than 16,000 under the age of 18 have been hospitalized from COVID since the start of the pandemic, and more than 300 of them have died from it, said Dr. Jim Versalovic, interim pediatrician-in-chief at Texas Children’s Hospital.

“This is a huge setback for a child or adolescent with time spent out of school or activities,” Versalovic said. “There’s a long recovery time even if the infection is mild initially.”

He attributes the increase to fewer masks and stagnating vaccination rates.

More than half of all Texans are vaccinated with at least one dose, but that doesn’t mean Houston is free of several coronavirus variants that are more transmissible and deadlier than the original virus.

In the last month, fewer people are masking up in public outdoors and indoors after the CDC said it was safe for vaccinated people to go masklessThree-day holiday weekends and the onslaught of summer weather has turned Houston into the partying swamp city it was before the pandemic, too.

[…]

Versalovic said about 10 percent of children diagnosed with the virus at his hospital require hospitalization. This rate is nearly three times greater than the seasonal flu, which the CDC reported killed nearly 600 children between 2017 and 2018.

Child survivors sometimes have a whole new set of problems when the initial infection clears. Several weeks after other symptoms have gone away, children who had mild COVID develop other symptoms that typically require hospitalization. This is called Multisystem Inflammatory Syndrome in Children, or MIS-C.

MIS-C symptoms include fever, stomach pain, diarrhea, vomiting, neck pain, random rashes and bloodshot eyes. Extreme fatigue is also a symptom, but it’s usually blamed on other problems.

Texas Children’s has vaccinated more than 18,500 12 to 15 year olds since early May. Any person age 12 and older is eligible for a free Pfizer vaccine from the hospital, regardless of whether they are currently a patient. Vaccines are available at six Texas Children’s sites across Houston Monday through Saturday.

The hospital is partnering with Houston-area school districts now to immunize their students, so middle and high schools can open safely for the fall semester, he added.

“We are going to be very busy during the summer months as we seek to immunize as many children as possible,” Versalovic said. “It’s important to protect adolescents to stop the spread of COVID as they get ready for summer activities, camps, sports and the school year in August.”

Not much to say here that we haven’t said already, many times. Get your kids vaccinated. As long as there are unvaccinated and/or immunocompromised members of your household, you should continue with pre-vaccination safety protocols as much as possible, which I know is vastly more difficult now that masks are being removed all over the place. It is true that the health risks to kids from COVID are lower than they are with adults, but they are not zero and they can be serious. For all the progress we’ve made, we’re not out of danger yet.

Methodist anti-vaxxers appeal lawsuit dismissal

As expected.

A group of Houston Methodist employees who sued the hospital system over its COVID-19 vaccine requirement have appealed a ruling dismissing the case.

Over the weekend, U.S. District Judge Lynn N. Hughes tossed the lawsuit, calling it “reprehensible” to compare the vaccine requirement to Nazi Germany’s medical experiments.

“Equating the injection requirement to medical experimentation in concentration camps is reprehensible,” Hughes said. “Nazi doctors conducted medical experiments on victims that caused pain, mutilation, permanent disability, and in many cases, death.”

[…]

Although the lower court judge thought the case had no merit, Woodfill could get traction from the 5th U.S. Circuit Court, known as one of the most conservative appeals courts in the country. On several recent occasions, the 5th Circuit has dealt blows to Hughes, a historically stubborn 79-year-old Reagan appointee.

The appeals court ordered him to re-sentence a defendant in a terrorism case who was accused of supporting ISIS overseas. After Hughes re-sentenced the man to the same abbreviated sentence, 18 months, which did not consider a sentencing enhancement, the government appealed and the 5th circuit removed the sentencing from Hughes’ court.

The 5th circuit also admonished Hughes for remarks he made on the record about female employees of the federal government. Hughes later barred the Houston prosecutor from appearing at the jury trial involved in that case.

More than half of frontline medical workers nationwide have received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, according to a survey from the Kaiser Family Foundation, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank. But as of April, nearly one in five said they did not plan on receiving a COVID-19 vaccine.

See here for the previous entry. It’s true that Judge Hughes can be a crank, but I kind of doubt that any of those previous instances will weigh on this case. For some analysis of the lawsuit and subsequent dismissal, this WaPo story has some good information.

Valerie Gutmann Koch, co-director of the University of Houston’s Health Law & Policy Institute, called the decision “another step in demonstrating the legality of these mandates, particularly in a health crisis like this.”

“There isn’t much there to rely on to argue these mandates should be illegal,” she said.

[…]

Akiko Iwasaki, an immunologist at Yale University, characterized the lawsuit’s claims as “absurd” in recent remarks to The Washington Post, noting that tens of thousands of people participated in the vaccine trials. The suit also repeats misinformation circulated widely online about the shots altering DNA.

The inoculations are seen as key to a return to normalcy, yet most employers have shied away from mandating them, concerned about the thorny politics and previously untested legal issues. Colleges and universities, along with Houston Methodist and a handful of other health-care institutions, are the exception.

Koch said the ruling shows “employer mandates of the covid-19 vaccine, particularly in the health care arena, are absolutely legal.” She said she expects to see more legal battles around vaccination mandates but noted she has “always predicted that they have very thin legal legs to stand on.”

There is precedent for vaccine requirements, she said, such as when health-care institutions require vaccinations during particularly bad flu seasons. Koch said she was “encouraged by the fact that this was dismissed as quickly and expeditiously as it was.”

Veronica Vargas Stidvent, executive director at the Center for Women in Law at the University of Texas School of Law, said the ruling is based on employment law in Texas, so the extent to which it sets a precedent for other jurisdictions is not clear.

“At least here in Texas, under this ruling, it’s pretty clear employers can require employees to get vaccinated,” she said.

Yeah, I don’t think it should be a surprise that Texas employment laws are much more favorable to employers than to employees. As Reuters notes, Judge Hughes wrote that “Texas law only protected employees from being fired for refusing to commit an illegal act and that the requirement is consistent with public policy.” I’ll be more than a little surprised if the Fifth Circuit decides that this is the place to take a stand in favor of the workers.

Harris County’s COVID situation continues to improve

Keep it up.

Harris County’s 14-day average test positivity rate for COVID-19 has fallen below 5 percent for the first time since the start of the pandemic, County Judge Lina Hidalgo announced this week.

Despite the positivity rate and vaccination efforts that have resulted in 44 percent of all eligible Harris County residents being fully inoculated, Hidalgo said she continues to worry about the unvaccinated population’s behavior going forward.

“The concern is that amongst the unvaccinated, folks will stop taking the precautions they need to take, and spread the virus,” Hidalgo said. “The other concern, and this is perhaps the most significant, is making sure people continue to get vaccinated.”

Hidalgo said she thinks President Joe Biden’s goal to have 70 percent of the United States’ eligible population vaccinated by July 4 largely is in the hands of the community.

Indeed. Looking at the Trib’s COVID tracker page, 37.8% of Harris County residents (about 1.7 million people; note that the 44% figure cited above is for eligible residents, so limited to those 12 and over) have been fully vaccinated, but 3.7 million (over 75%) have had at least one dose administered. We’re right at the statewide average, and hopefully things will continue to trend upward, if a bit more slowly now.

I hope also that people will take to heart the warning about the continued danger for unvaccinated people, especially now as more businesses are removing their mask requirements. If you need an example, consider this:

I know, I’m as shocked as you are that a bunch of Bitcoin humpers are largely unvaccinated, but that’s not important right now. The point is that any arbitrary “herd immunity” percentage is immaterial when enough unvaccinated people are together in the same space. The virus will do what it always does. Your best counter-measure is to get vaccinated.

Lawsuit over Methodist Hospital vaccination mandate tossed

That was quick.

A federal judge has tossed a lawsuit against Houston Methodist over its policy to terminate workers who refuse to get the COVID vaccine, calling it “reprehensible” that plaintiffs compared the requirement to those made under Nazi Germany.

In the lawsuit on behalf of 117 Houston Methodist employees, lawyers likened the vaccine requirement to the Nuremberg Code, a set of medical ethics standards created at the end of World War II following medical experiments by the Nazis on German citizens.

U.S. District Judge Lynn Hughes heavily criticized the comparison in a decision Saturday.

“Equating the injection requirement to medical experimentation in concentration camps is reprehensible,” Hughes said. “Nazi doctors conducted medical experiments on victims that caused pain, mutilation, permanent disability, and in many cases, death.”

Houston Methodist is one of the first hospitals in the nation to require employees to be vaccinated. The hospital system allows employees to opt out of the vaccine requirement if they provide a medical or religious exemption.

[…]

Jennifer Bridges, a Houston Methodist Baytown nurse who originally circulated a petition in April asking the hospital’s executives to reconsider the policy, said the plaintiffs plan to appeal.

“This will go all the way,” Bridges said. “This is only the beginning.”

Occupational Safety and Health Administration officials issued guidance on Thursday outlining new COVID-19 precautions and procedures to prevent the spread of the virus in health care workplaces. Under the new rule, health care employers must provide paid time off for workers to receive COVID-19 vaccinations and recover from the side effects. Federal regulators in May issued guidance allowing employers to require proof of vaccination as a condition of employment.

Hughes wrote in the dismissal order that the vaccinate mandate “was not coercion.”

“Methodist is trying to do their business of saving lives without giving them the COVID-19 virus,” the judge wrote. “It is a choice made to keep staff, patients and their families safer.”

He also denied a request for a temporary restraining order to block the hospital from suspending the 178 employees who have not received a shot.

See here for some background – the policy was announced in late April, the lawsuit was filed shortly afterwards. As of the last day before the suspensions, all but 178 employees out of 25,000 had been vaccinated, and 27 of those 171 had since received a first shot. The nurse who has acted as the spokesperson for the holdout employees has insisted this isn’t about vaccine skepticism but about not wanting to rush things and so on, but as the Chron editorial board noted over the weekend, her rhetoric has veered more into conspiracy theory land as this has progressed. Plus, there’s the whole “hiring Jared Woodfill as their attorney” thing, which is something you never do if you want to be taken seriously. Anyway, my guess is that they will get no joy from the appeals courts, who I suspect will be more pro-employer than pro-not-getting-vaccinated, but we’ll see. The Press has more.

Will Methodist fire its unvaccinated workers?

In two weeks, if they haven’t gotten vaccinated, the answer is Yes.

Dozens of cheering supporters gathered outside the Houston Methodist Baytown campus Monday evening as several medical workers who refused to get a COVID-19 vaccine ended their last shifts working for the hospital system.

The act of protest was aimed at what workers said was the hospital’s decision to suspend employees for two weeks without pay and then fire them for failing to immunize themselves.

Jennifer Bridges, a nurse who effectively lost her job at the Baytown facility for deciding not to be inoculated, said the goal was to stage a walkout but that did not go as planned. Participating employees who refused the vaccine’s first dose were told not to gather or linger on the hospital grounds after ending their shift, she said.

“The hospital wouldn’t let us do it,” Bridges said.

She got out of work early, emptied her locker and gathered with others on a grassy medium near the ambulance entrance to the hospital. Bridges fished a paper out of a backpack — a suspension report — that she had been asked to sign. She refused, she continued.

About 117 employees in May filed a class action lawsuit against the health system for requiring its workers to be vaccinated against COVID-19. Bridges said the plaintiffs in the suit are a mix of those who want more trial data to emerge on the long-term effects of the vaccine before taking it, and those who simply don’t want any shots.

Sorry, I’m with Methodist on this. I cannot see any reason why health care workers – who by the way were already required to get a flu shot every year – should be able to opt out of this. If the concern is that we still don’t know enough about the potential negative effects of the vaccines, which at this point have emergency authorization from the FDA and not full clearance yet, all I can say is that over 300 million doses have been administered so far, with basically zero serious negative effects. There’s no way that the risk analysis comes out more favorably for not being vaccinated. Hiring Jared Woodfill as your attorney for that class action lawsuit doesn’t say much for one’s commitment to science, either.

In the end, it’s a pretty small number of employees who are affected.

While nearly 25,000 Houston Methodist workers are now vaccinated against COVID-19, 178 employees are now suspended without pay for not receiving a shot.

In a Tuesday memo to hospital staff, Houston Methodist CEO Marc Boom said 27 of the 178 workers who have not been fully vaccinated have received at least one dose of the vaccine. If they comply, they will not face termination.

“I wish the number could be zero, but unfortunately, a small number of individuals have decided not to put their patients first,” Boom said.

More than 600 employees were granted deferrals or exemptions for medical or religious reasons, the hospital said.

The hospital will have a final number of employees fired for not complying with the vaccine mandate in two weeks. Houston Methodist also requires its workers to get an annual flu shot.

That’s 0.7% of the Methodist workforce that was affected, and some of them have already decided it wasn’t worth getting fired over. Good for them. All of these folks did have a choice, and they made it. That there are consequences is just how life is sometimes. Erica Greider and the Press have more.

What are the limits on limiting vaccination requirements?

News item #1: Carnival will require COVID vaccinations for all passengers cruising from Galveston:

Carnival Cruise Line today announced plans to begin cruising from the Port of Galveston on July 3.

Cruises will be open to customers who are fully vaccinated, meaning that they can show proof that they received their final dose of vaccine at least 14 days before the cruise begins.

“The current CDC requirements for cruising with a guest base that is unvaccinated will make it very dificult to deliver the experience our guests expect, especially given the large number of families with younger children who sail with us,” Christine Duffy, president of Carnival, said in a press release. “As a result, our alternative is to operate our ships from the U.S. during the month of July with vaccinated guests.”

The Carnival Vista will begin operations on July 3, followed by the Carnival Breeze on July 15.

On the one hand, that sounds not only eminently sensible – I mean, cruise ships are often called “floating petri dishes”, and I say that as someone who has enjoyed going on a couple of cruises – it’s something that the cruise industry itself may see as existential. Who would want to put themselves in an extremely enclosed space with hundreds if not thousands of possibly virus-shedding people if they didn’t have to? Who would want to work under those conditions? If there’s one activity that scores near the top of the scale on “non-essential services” and “high-risk for COVID spread”, it’s going on a cruise. Who in their right mind would not want to encourage, if not outright mandate, cruise passengers being vaccinated before getting on board?

Hold that thought while we note news items #2, As Carnival requires vaccines for cruisers, Abbott to sign ban on ‘vaccine passports’.

Texas businesses cannot require their customers to prove their COVID-19 vaccine status under a bill soon to be signed by Gov. Greg Abbott.

The measure, Senate Bill 968, outlaws so-called “vaccine passports” and prevents businesses from asking consumers to show their vaccine cards to receive services. Abbott had issued a similar executive order in April, though that applied only to state agencies and other organizations that receive public funding.

“I’m signing a law today that prohibits any business operating in Texas from requiring vaccine passports or any vaccine information,” Abbott tweeted Monday. “Texas is open 100 percent without any restrictions or limitations or requirements.”

The Senate approved the measure unanimously in April, and the House passed it by a vote of 146-2 in May. Because it earned two-thirds support in both chambers, the bill will take effect immediately after Abbott signs it.

Any business that does not comply with the law “is not eligible to receive a grant or enter into a contract payable with state funds.” State agencies may also “require compliance … as a condition for a license, permit, or other state authorization necessary for conducting business in this state.”

It should be noted that SB968 is a much larger bill that has to do with disaster preparedness and response – it has sections on things like personal protection equipment contracts, a disease prevention information system, wellness checks for medically fragile individuals, and more – so while it does impose this restriction on “vaccine passports”, it’s very much not just about that.

That said, the answer to my rhetorical question is “Republican governors”. Florida’s top madman Ron DeSantis imposed a similar ban on cruise ships that depart from that state. As the story notes, the cruise industry operates in multiple states and in international waters – the ships themselves fly under various foreign flags. Also, too, the specific term “vaccine passports” is basically meaningless now, no such thing currently exists. But one way or another, we have an irresistible force careening into an immovable object. Something is going to have to give, and unless one side or the other backs down, it will surely be up to the federal courts to sort this out. In the meantime, if you yearn to party on the high seas again, check the fine print on your cruise contracts. The Press and the Trib have more.

UPDATE: One more thing to consider:

In other words, this is more hot air than anything else. Still likely to be fought out in court, but the stakes may not be as high as you think.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Threat level down again

Nice.

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

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

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

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

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

Hospitalizations are down

Very good news.

The number of Texans hospitalized for COVID-19 this week hit its lowest mark in nearly a year, the latest sign that the state is turning a corner.

According to the state Department of State Health Services figures released Wednesday, fewer than 2,000 people were hospitalized for COVID-19 for the first time since June, 2020. Wednesday’s data showed 1,962 people were in the hospital due to the virus; by Thursday, the number had dropped again — to 1,899.

It’s the first time the hospitalization rate has dipped below 2,000 since June 2020, and a massive drop from its January peak of more than 14,000.

The news was welcomed by public health officials and experts, though they also warned against complacency until more people are vaccinated.

“We are at this point where the virus is basically in an arm-wrestling match with vaccines, and vaccines are winning,” said Dr. David Persse, Houston’s chief medical officer. “Things are absolutely getting better, but I don’t want us to completely take our foot off the brake.”

He said the drop in hospitalizations is likely due to the elderly — who are more at-risk of serious symptoms — being initially prioritized for inoculations. Nearly 70 percent of all Texans older than 65 have been fully vaccinated as of Thursday, according to DSHS.

Persse remains worried about the number of people who have not been vaccinated.

“There’s still a risk,” he said.

As of Thursday, about 52 percent of all eligible Texans — those aged 12 and older — have received at least one vaccine dose, a number that puts the state near the bottom of all states for vaccines per capita.

Like I said, this is all very good, but there’s no question it could be better. We could have more people vaccinated, and we could be vaccinating the rest at a faster clip. We could have more unvaccinated people wearing masks and exercising caution about being around other people. We could have fewer people who don’t intend to get vaccinated. Our numbers are better than they’ve been in a year – basically, since the start of last year’s summer surge – and they’re going in the right direction, but we’re still vulnerable to an uptick. If we make it through without that happening, at least some of that will be pure dumb luck.

The kids are getting vaxxed

Good news.

In the first week that Texas adolescents were eligible to be vaccinated for COVID-19, after a year of pandemic-induced isolation from their families, peers and classrooms, more than 100,000 kids ages 12-15 poured into pediatricians’ offices, vaccine hubs and school gyms across Texas to get their shots.

One of them was Austin Ford, a 14-year-old in Houston whose mother is a pediatric nurse, whose father has a disability that makes him vulnerable to COVID, and who lost a family member to the virus last month.

“It was a no-brainer for us,” said his mother, Sherryl Ford, 46, who took Austin to Texas Children’s Hospital for his shot last Friday, less than 24 hours after the Pfizer vaccine was approved for emergency use for his age group. “I have friends who took their kids the night before. In the days since the federal approval on May 13, about 6% of Texas children ages 12-15 have gotten a dose of the Pfizer vaccine. It took more than a month to reach that percentage for eligible adults last winter when the vaccination effort began.

It marks a promising start, health officials and others say, to the state’s first attempt to inoculate Texas’ estimated 1.7 million adolescents, who have endured isolation and virtual-learning challenges for more than a year.

“It’s amazing,” said Dr. Seth Kaplan, a Frisco pediatrician and president of the Texas Pediatric Society, which represents about 4,600 pediatricians and other child medicine professionals.”

[…]

In Texas, where the issue of vaccinating children for any kind of illness has sparked intense political debate, parents are permitted to opt out of vaccines required to attend public schools, as well as opt in to a statewide immunization registry that tracks childhood vaccinations.

But while Texas health officials have expressed concern about what they describe as a growing anti-vaccine movement, between 97% and 99% of Texas schoolchildren are fully vaccinated, according to the Texas Department of State Health Services.

State health officials don’t expect that high of a number with the COVID vaccine, at least not right away, but say that number signals a high rate of general vaccine acceptance among Texas parents, said Chris Van Deusen, spokesperson for DSHS.

The state is doing research to determine the best messages and outreach for parents, who will be targeted in a public awareness campaign over the summer, Van Deusen said.

Texas pediatricians have also been talking with parents for months about vaccinating their kids, in preparation for its availability to that age group, Kaplan said.

See here for the background. My younger daughter is in that six percent, and in less than two weeks we’ll be a fully vaccinated family. That’s not only good for the kids, it’s good for our overall vaccination numbers, which can use all the help they can get. Given the universal return of in-person school and the removal of mask mandates, this makes a lot of sense. The schools themselves will be used to help get kids vaccinated, which is a big deal considering how many obstacles some folks face in getting the shots.

Statewide, more than three dozen school districts from Laredo to McKinney and from East Texas to El Paso have become official providers and have received vaccines, either for students or staff or, in McKinney’s case, for both.

“We want to be part of the solution for our staff and our students, and we want education and our school experience to get back to what it was pre-pandemic,” Pratt said.

Although the vaccines require parental consent, a key part of the enthusiasm appears to be coming from teenagers themselves.

“Most of the kids that I’ve spoken to are really ready to get it because they understand that even though we kind of opened everything up and they are getting back to normal, there’s still a risk for them,” Kaplan said. “If they can get vaccinated, then their participation in activities that they want to be participating in is that much safer for them.”

I don’t know what we need to do to get HISD involved as well, but we should do that. The Dallas Observer has more.

Two arguments against Abbott’s rollback of extended unemployment insurance

It’s bad economic policy.

“I’m still nervous that we’re bowing out of this program before the labor market is fully healed,” said Dietrich Vollrath, an economics professor at the University of Houston. “The bad consequences of doing too much is limited,” he said, “but the bad consequences of doing too little can really be detrimental.”

About 800,000 Texans were receiving federal jobless assistance at the end of April, according to the most recent data. Nearly half of them — the self-employed or other gig economy workers — will lose all of their benefits at the end of June, when the governor is ending the additional aid. The rest will see a steep drop in their weekly checks.

[…]

While the Texas economy has largely rebounded from the height of the pandemic, when the unemployment rate topped 12 percent, companies across the state are still firing employees at two to three times the normal rate, according to Vollrath. He said that’s a sign the recovery remains fragile.

Labor experts already have some preliminary findings on the impacts of increased benefits during the pandemic. Economists at Yale University found that the $600 unemployment checks approved early on under the Trump administration did not significantly deter unemployed people from reentering the workforce.

Belinda Román, an assistant economics professor at St. Mary’s University, said ending the payments could backfire and instead drive people further into poverty. If it does work, she said, it may force at least some people into underpaid jobs that they have decided are no longer worth the time or health risk.

“My perspective is, pay better and that probably incentivizes a lot of people to come to work,” she said.

See here for the background. Those $600 checks also largely kept the economy from cratering a year ago. Taking away this benefit now, when the economy is still in recovery and lots of people are still not vaccinated and being cautious about going out, will mostly have the effect of making people who are already on the economic margins even poorer.

Also, too, there are other reasons why some businesses are having problems hiring.

Britt Philyaw, executive director of the Heard That Foundation, a Dallas non-profit that provides support for hospitality workers, said she doesn’t know of anyone who has turned down restaurant jobs to stay on unemployment.

“I find it really disturbing some of the things that I’ve seen on social media. I don’t like that the labor shortage is being politicized and how it is being said that people are lazy or they’re making more money on unemployment. I don’t think it’s the truth. The people we’ve worked with throughout the pandemic who were on unemployment and got their stimulus checks were not making ends meet,” she said.

What the pandemic did, in her opinion, was highlight the instability of restaurant jobs. The quirks of service industry work like tips and irregular schedules are often draws for many people in the industry, but they were cast in a different light when the pandemic hit, Philyaw said. Suddenly the things that were once perks of the business were no longer worth sacrificing health insurance, predictable pay and stability for.

“Something that is desperately lacking from the conversation is the fact that 70% of the population that works in the industry are women, some of them single with kids. I think that should be a huge part of the conversation,” Philyaw said.

The service industry labor market was already tight before the pandemic, and with even more jobs than there are workers, Philyaw said employees have the ability to be choosy about who they do go work for, which is making it even harder for employers, some of whom are offering sign-on bonuses and raising wages to attract new hires.

“People in front-of-house and back-of-house [of restaurants] are shopping around,” she said. “And they’re looking for things they value like, ‘Am I going to work in a safe environment? Am I going to work in an environment where I’m not going to be harassed or bullied or forced to work for free?’ So there’s just a lot of things at play, but I really don’t think it’s as simple as the stories that grab the most attention.”

For Andrea Winn, a long-time restaurant industry professional who’s held server, sommelier and wine director positions at Dallas restaurants like Bolsa and Abacus, the decision to leave the restaurant industry came when the downtown Dallas restaurant she was working at reopened over the summer and management did not adhere to capacity limits, mask mandates and other safety protocols.

She took a full-time job as a wine and beer buyer for Whole Foods, stepping away from the industry she loved and had worked in since completing her degree in history and getting out of a desk job she loathed. It wasn’t easy to leave the dining room — she was saying goodbye to higher pay, flexible hours and the ability to travel when she wanted — but the benefits outweighed the cons, she said.

“I have a job now [at Whole Foods] where I am guaranteed a certain amount of hours every week, I know how much I’m going to get paid, and I have health insurance and sick time. The sick time was a really big thing because working in restaurants, unless you are really sick, you are expected to work sick. You’re looked down upon, and your schedule will be threatened if you don’t [work],” Winn said.

There is a common perception that restaurant workers are young, uneducated and in the industry out of necessity, Winn said, and such thinking makes it easy to believe that the shortage of workers is due to an unwillingness to work. But the reality is the industry is made up of seasoned professionals like her who sought out restaurant and bar careers and are now choosing to pursue careers that offer a better quality of life, she said.

Some jobs are better than others. People who have kids at home and no child care available don’t have a lot of options right now. Making them desperate doesn’t seem like a good idea to me.

Threat level down

Been waiting for this for some time.

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

Abbott ends mask mandates

This guy, I swear.

Gov. Greg Abbott announced Tuesday that public schools can no longer require masks on their campuses starting June 5. The decision was part of a new executive order that bans governmental entities in Texas — like cities and counties — from mandating masks in the fight against the coronavirus pandemic.

Starting Friday, any government entity that tries to impose a mask mandate can face a fine of up to $1,000, according to the order. The order exempts state-supported living centers, government-owned or -operated hospitals, Texas Department of Criminal Justice facilities, Texas Juvenile Justice Department facilities, and county and municipal jails.

The order is arguably the most consequential for public schools. After Abbott ended the statewide mask requirement in early March, school systems were allowed to continue with their own mask-wearing policies unchanged. But after June 4, “no student, teacher, parent, or other staff member or visitor may be required to wear a face covering,” according to Abbott’s new order.

While 30% of Texans have been fully vaccinated against COVID-19, the vast majority of children are unvaccinated. The Pfizer vaccine was authorized last week for children as young as 12. The Moderna and Johnson & Johnson vaccines are still only authorized for those 18 and older. School-age children have seen lower infection rates than other age groups. COVID-19 cases among those 5-17 years old make up 10% of total cases in the country, according to the latest CDC data.

Last week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said fully vaccinated people no longer have to wear masks outdoors in crowds and in most indoor places.

The Texas State Teachers Association called Abbott’s latest move premature. In a statement, the head of the association, Ovidia Molina, said Abbott should have waited until the CDC issued updated guidance on masks for the 2021-22 school year. Molina acknowledged that some Texas school districts have already ended their mask requirements but said the association believes “that also is ill-advised.”

“The health and safety of our students, educators and communities must remain our first priority as we attempt to emerge from this pandemic,” Molina said.

Abbott’s new rules will take effect as the school year is winding down for most students — or already over. The last day of classes for the state’s biggest school district, Houston ISD, is June 11, while May 27 is the last day for most students in the state’s second biggest district, Dallas ISD.

Why can’t you just wait another week? School is almost over here in Houston, and it will be over in some parts of the state before this kicks in. Vaccination levels still aren’t that great, though we can reasonably expect them to be significantly better by August, and we know that fully reopening schools when we did increased the COVID infection rate. Surely Abbott isn’t that afraid of little ol’ Don Huffines. One more week, that’s all that was needed. The Chron has more.