Local, state leaders battle COVID surge, each other

Brownwood Bulletin
Chris Cobler

Texas topped 1 million COVID-19 cases as some counties reimposed restrictions that had been loosened after this summer’s spike.

Particularly hard-hit El Paso extended its temporary shutdown of nonessential businesses, but the Texas Eighth Court of Appeals ruled 2-1 Friday to block County Judge Ricardo Samaniego’s order. Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, Gov. Greg Abbott and some El Paso businesses had opposed the judge’s order, claiming it went too far.

“I will not let rogue political subdivisions try to kill small businesses and holiday gatherings through unlawful executive orders,” Paxton said in a statement.

Samaniego promised to continue the legal fight to protect El Paso residents and health care workers.

“So unfortunate that Paxton, the ‘Texas’ Attorney General, finds the opportunity to gloat instead of coming to El Paso to walk alongside me by the mobile morgues with 144 El Pasoans; or send his condolences to the families of his 741 constituents who died of COVID-19,” the judge responded in a statement.

On Friday, the state reported 7,083 people hospitalized with COVID-19, according to the Texas Tribune. Hospital beds in West Texas are scarce, and area morgues are overflowing with bodies.

The Texas Department of State Health Services urged Texans to continue to wear facial coverings, socially distance and wash hands regularly. The state also supports the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s guidelines for Thanksgiving gatherings. These include:

Limit the number of attendees as much as possible to allow people from different households to remain at least 6 feet apart at all times. Guests should avoid direct contact, including handshakes and hugs, with others not from their household.

Host outdoor rather than indoor gatherings as much as possible. Even outdoors, require guests to wear masks when not eating or drinking.

Encourage guests to avoid singing or shouting, especially indoors. Keep music levels down so people don’t have to shout or speak loudly to be heard.

Preparing for vaccine

Texas will work to quickly distribute a new vaccine developed by Pfizer and BioNTech as soon as the drug receives final regulatory approval.

The state health department has developed a vaccine distribution plan and is working with health care  providers to enroll in the agency’s immunization program to be eligible to administer the shots. Over 2,500 providers already have enrolled in the program.

Meanwhile, the University of Texas celebrated the work of its McLellan Lab in Austin for co-designing the coronavirus spike protein used in the proposed vaccine. Also, the University of Texas Medical Branch served as a site for clinical trials for the Pfizer vaccine and engineered a way to evaluate the drug more quickly.

High interest in internet service

Many Capital Highlights readers reacted to last week’s column about the lack of broadband access in rural Texas.

They shared stories of driving miles to use a public library’s wifi for a few hours. Some described carefully positioning themselves just so in one corner of their home’s upstairs balcony to get service that was barely adequate.

Column reader Michael Phillips of rural Harrison County said his home is too remote for DSL and that satellite service is slow, expensive and unreliable at times. He has written letters to county officials, state legislators, his congressman and both of Texas’ U.S. senators.

“In today’s connected world, having access to fast, reliable Internet is essential,” he wrote. “More and more people are shopping online, banking and paying bills online, students need access to online research tools, many college classes are either partially or totally online, medical resources are online, streaming services, news and entertainment are online. In addition, many small businesses start up online.”

If you missed the panel discussion “Broadband is a Lifeline,” you still may view the replay at TexasTribune.org. Stay tuned to see what the Legislature will do when it convenes in January. 

Homeward rebound

The number of homes sold in Texas rose 18.4 percent in the third quarter of 2020 over the previous year.

Almost 120,000 homes sold in the state, even though listings dropped 32.4% from the prior year, according to the Texas Quarterly Housing Report by Texas Realtors.

“The Texas real estate market’s resiliency, especially in the middle of a pandemic crisis, is nothing short of incredible, though our housing supply is still critically low,” said Cindi Bulla, Texas Realtors chairwoman.

The statewide median housing price rose 8.6 percent to $266,000.

Talking turkey prices

Heading in to Thanksgiving, turkey supplies are down and prices are up, according to a Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service expert.

COVID-19 appears to be heavily influencing holiday turkey prices, said David Anderson, AgriLife Extension economist in Bryan-College Station. Although wholesale prices are up because supplies are down, Anderson said, retailers still might offer specials because of the pandemic.

About  a third of Americans will have fewer people at their Thanksgiving celebrations, according to a marketing survey by the Food Industry Association and the Hartman Group. About 26% of respondents said they would avoid long-distance travel.

“If people are scaling back, it will be interesting to see how the market for turkeys and traditional Thanksgiving dishes plays out,” Anderson said.

Chris Cobler is a board member and past president of the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas. He welcomes email at ccobler@texaspress.com.