‘An epidemic’: Syphilis rages through Texas, causing newborn cases to climb amid treatment shortage

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About twice a week, a pregnant patient turns up in Dr. Irene Stafford’s obstetrics office in Houston with syphilis, a sexually transmittable disease that affects more newborns in Texas than anywhere else in the country.

For a seasoned professional like Stafford, the sheer numbers are startling. She’s been treating congenital syphilis with increasing frequency in recent years in a city that has the state’s highest newborn infection rates.

“People think that syphilis is gone,” said Stafford, a maternal-fetal medicine specialist and associate professor at McGovern Medical School at UTHealth Houston. “Syphilis has become an epidemic.”

Last year, syphilis cases across Texas rose by 22%, according to preliminary numbers, from 21,476 in 2020 to 25,991 in 2022, the most recent statewide data available. That’s more than double the number of cases reported in Texas five years ago.

While nearly every case is easily treatable with penicillin, untreated syphilis can be passed from an infected pregnant patient to the newborn and can result in the child’s death. Officials in Harris County, which includes Houston, announced in 2021 that syphilis-related fetal deaths increased from four in 2019 to 14 in 2020.

In 2021, Texas reported its highest-ever number of cases in newborns, at 685, according to the Texas Department of State Health Services. Then that number jumped another 39% last year to 950, preliminary state data shows.

That same year, 2,855 cases of congenital syphilis were reported in the U.S. including 220 congenital syphilis-related stillbirths and infant deaths, up from 141 in 2019.

After steadily rising for more than a dozen years, the rates have gotten so high that earlier this year, officials with the pharmaceutical giant Pfizer announced a penicillin shortage that they blamed squarely on the demand created by soaring syphilis rates in the United States.

Most of the biggest leaps in syphilis cases occurred during the pandemic because of limited access to preventive health care.

Two years after a COVID vaccine was made available and the need for social isolation has decreased, recent statistics show that the pandemic-era spike in syphilis infections may be slowing. But the number of cases remains on the upswing as infected young adults pour through the doors of doctors’ offices, hospitals and public health centers.

Officials say they are desperate to shut down the epidemic as it rages in record numbers and in nearly every county from the Gulf Coast to the Texas Panhandle.

What concerns healthcare workers the most is that the biggest jump is among adults of child-bearing age, and in newborns. Known as congenital syphilis, the disease in newborns can result in the baby'sdeath up to 40% of the time, although the chances drop to 2% if the parent is treated at least 30 days before giving birth.

In Lubbock, where officials have seen an overall 500% increase in syphilis cases since 2019, health officials say significantly more babies have been born with the disease this year, leading to birth defects and, in some cases, deaths.

Early data shows more than 30 local cases of congenital syphilis have been reported to the Lubbock Health Department in the first half of the year, said Katherine Wells, the city’s public health director.

Last year, there were fewer than 10.

The increases have frustrated Wells, who said there was a stillbirth recently because of untreated syphilis.

“It’s really devastating,” Wells said. “She didn’t deserve to lose her baby.”

Complicating the effort to stop the spread is a national shortage of Bicillin, an injectable variety of the penicillin that is especially effective for pregnant people. Officials with the drug’s only U.S. manufacturer, Pfizer, said earlier this year that they underestimated what the demand would be and supply would be limited until next year.

Health officials in Texas have only been able to obtain 25% of their normal stockpile since April, although they are being told by Pfizer that they may be able to replenish by the end of the year, according to Douglas Loveday, a DSHS spokesperson.

DSHS is providing penicillin to local departments, which are seeing more patients referred to them by private providers who can’t get the treatment at all, Loveday said.

The agency is instructing providers to save their limited stock for pregnant patients with syphilis and use a three-week oral pill regimen to treat lower-risk patients.

With the shortage potentially lasting until next summer, Wells, Lubbock’s public health director, worries about how long her department can keep pregnant patients safe from the disease.

“Not getting these women treated and them having birth defects, that’s where my concern is from a public health standpoint,” Wells said.

An alarming increase

In Lubbock, a healthcare hub near the Texas Panhandle where rural people come from all over for screening and treatment, the syphilis infection rates have increased quickly over the years.

“We haven’t been able to get control of it,” Wells said.

The COVID-19 pandemic played a key role in the recent rise in cases.

People had reduced access to routine medical care like checkups and sexual health screenings because health care providers were inundated with coronavirus patients and people were in lockdown, said Dr. Ericka Brown, Harris County Public Health’s deputy director, who heads the health and wellness division.

A pandemic-era rise in opioid addictions, which increase STD risk, and a rise in casual sexual encounters fueled by social media — as well as the social overcorrection that likely occurred when people came out of isolation and were able to freely interact again — are also contributing factors, medical experts say.

Not unrelated is the fact that the reports of gonorrhea, which is typically screened alongside syphilis, shot up almost as much in 2020 as they had over the previous five years.

Federal health officials have also expressed concern about a downward trend in condom use by men, from 75% in 2011 to 42% in 2021, as a risk factor in skyrocketing STD rates. Syphilis is one of the sexually transmittable diseases that can be passed on in spite of condoms, particularly if the condom does not cover an infectious sore elsewhere on the body. But the risk of transmission can be reduced with regular use of them, officials say, although they call the trend just one of several contributing factors.

“There are all kinds of intersecting problems,” said Dr. Catherine Eppes, a Houston OB-GYN and a member of the Texas Medical Association’s committee on reproductive, women’s, and perinatal health.

Potentially contributing to the increase, state health officials say, is the fact that health officials have been making a better effort since 2017 to identify cases of congenital syphilis. But Eppes said a more meticulous count would not account for the significant rise in the infection rate.

“I would hope that we're more aware of how big of a problem it is and so people are screening more,” she said. “But I think, sadly, and probably more realistically, is that the increase that we saw over the last few years is just continuing. We're seeing much higher rates.”

An Old World disease

Syphilis is a bacterial infection that is passed through direct contact with an infection-related sore, usually through sexual intercourse, but can also be transmitted through sharing of needles.

The illness is not passed through casual contact with people or items, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Those most at risk are people who have unprotected sex with multiple partners, and those in relationships with people who have that lifestyle, according to the CDC.

But anyone who has sex is at some risk, because the infection can be present for years either with mild, vague symptoms or even more serious complications that may not point immediately to syphilis, said Stafford, the Houston OB-GYN.

The infection is known as “the great imitator” because its early symptoms of red bumps, fatigue, fever and similar signs can mirror other illnesses, from chicken pox to an allergic rash to the flu. Only 50% of people with syphilis even know they have it, Stafford said.

Half of those who test positive don’t have the classic risk factors that would have led them to do regular screenings, Stafford said — no drug use, no high-risk sexual activity. It’s most contagious in the first year or so after exposure, but syphilis can be passed along at any time while a person is infected.

Most of the new cases appear to be among men, ages 25-34, and women, ages 20-24, Brown said.

Communities of color and people earning lower incomes are disproportionately affected by the disease — more prevalence and higher death rates — because they tend to have less access to health care, Eppes said.

Left unchecked, it can lead to serious health consequences that include blindness, heart problems, organ failure, and mental illness.

Documented by historians and in literature since at least the Middle Ages, syphilis was thought to be have killed such storied figures as artists Paul Gaugin and Edouard Manet, author Oscar Wilde and Chicago gangster Al Capone before penicillin became widely available as a treatment.

The disease was nearly eliminated in the U.S., reaching an all-time low around the year 2000, after peaking in the 1950s.

Then in 2021, the U.S. recorded more cases of syphilis than it had in its history.

All hands on deck

State and local health officials are stepping up their efforts to educate doctors and the public about the prevalence of the infection, the importance of regular screening and safe sex practices, and the deadly risks of leaving syphilis untreated.

In 2022, Texas health officials produced a six-episode podcast educating public health workers and agencies that care for people of reproductive age and their babies about the screening, treatment and prevention of syphilis in newborns.

That same year, the state agency conducted syphilis training for health care workers in the Rio Grande Valley and partnered with health officials from the Denver STD Prevention and Training Center to host a webinar, as well as a congenital syphilis symposium attended by over 100 doctors, nurses and other healthcare workers from across Texas, Loveday said.

Cities have put up billboards while health departments and physician groups are hosting webinars to train doctors, and public health departments are offering free mobile screening clinics and free syphilis treatments to respond to the problem.

With the help of a $3.3 million research grant earlier this year, Stafford and a group of collaborators across the nation are working on developing a better test for syphilis diagnosis with the support of regional health departments.

She also worked with Harris Health System leadership to create an alert within the electronic health record at two major public hospitals in the area, Houston’s Ben Taub and Lyndon B. Johnson hospitals. If a syphilis screening hasn’t been done on a pregnant patient either at intake or at 28 weeks for pregnant patients, the system alerts physicians.

“It’s all hands on deck,” said Stafford, who leads a perinatal syphilis program once a week at UT Physicians in Houston.

The Lubbock Health Department has a team dedicated to tracking and treating syphilis patients. However, the federal funding for that expires next year. Wells is concerned that when it does, the disease will spread untreated throughout the community.

“We did not have enough people here on the ground to really keep STDs under control before,” Wells said.

In Harris County, officials have begun work on a robust public awareness campaign to push free testing and treatments.

“It is being well received,” Brown said. “I think the fact that people can get tested for free and get treated for free is really sparking more interest. We want to make sure that we're removing all barriers so that people can make sure that they're safe and healthy.”

The Texas Tribune is a member-supported, nonpartisan newsroom informing and engaging Texans on state politics and policy. Learn more at texastribune.org.

Gov. Greg Abbott says he won’t give up COVID-era power until Texas lawmakers ban vaccine mandates, strengthen border

Jan. 26, 2023

Gov. Greg Abbott said Thursday that his pandemic-era public health disaster declaration, which has given him unprecedented powers for the past 1,049 days, would stay in place until state legislators pass laws banning COVID-19-related restrictions on Texans and strengthening the state’s power at the border.

Abbott’s remarks to syndicated Texas conservative talk radio show host Chad Hasty on Thursday doubled down on his long-standing challenge to lawmakers to prohibit local governments from enacting mask and vaccine mandates “and other restrictions on freedom.”

“I’m going to keep that in place until the legislators codify my executive orders that ban mask mandates, that ban forced vaccines and things like that,” Abbott said. “I want to see that get passed.”

The Republican governor has been intensifying the pressure on legislators to codify those restrictions on cities and counties since banning the practice through an executive order.

That order, issued in October 2021, says: “I will rescind this executive order upon the effective date of such legislation.”

Doing so would codify two of his COVID-19-related executive orders, which total more than 35 since the global coronavirus pandemic began three years ago. They all carry the weight of law as long as the disaster declaration stays in effect.

After more than 93,000 deaths and 8.2 million COVID-19 cases in Texas in the 34 months since Abbott’s declaration was made, the state remains one of about half a dozen still under a statewide declared disaster or public health emergency.

Abbott’s office has maintained for months that it has no plans to join the ranks of those dropping the orders, releasing a statement in December that doing so “would allow local governments to once again enforce occupancy limits, mask mandates and vaccine mandates.”

“Gov. Abbott will not let any government trample Texans’ right to choose for themselves or their children whether they will wear masks, open their businesses or get vaccinated,” spokesperson Renae Eze said in a written statement.

Abbott also said Thursday he wants Texas lawmakers to enact a state version of a controversial Trump-era immigration declaration known as Title 42 that is currently locked in a court battle. It allows for the quick return of migrants at the border — even those seeking asylum — under the auspices of the federal public health emergency.

The practice is currently authorized in Texas under a separate Abbott executive order, which could be jeopardized if the disaster declaration is lifted. At least one bill, filed by Rep. Brian Harrison, R-Midlothian, would create a program like Title 42 in state law.

“Since [President] Biden is forcing America to live under a Public Health Emergency, Texas is 100% justified in using our public health authority to control who crosses our borders,” Harrison said in a tweet on Thursday.

Whether Abbott can effectively wield the notion of an endless disaster declaration to bend the lawmakers to his will is unclear.

If the Texas Legislature had a problem with disaster declarations and Abbott’s behavior under them, it could have rebuked him with legislation in 2021 that would have curtailed his powers in disasters, or it could have required legislative action to declare a disaster or even ended the proclamation.

No such bills made it to his desk.

Abbott’s current public health disaster declaration has authorized him to make numerous executive orders that otherwise would not have been allowed without the additional powers the declaration brings.

Among them were changes to voting procedures, business closures and reopenings, and the two orders Abbott named on Thursday.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2023/01/26/texas-abbott-covid-mandates-immigration/.

The Texas Tribune is a member-supported, nonpartisan newsroom informing and engaging Texans on state politics and policy. Learn more at texastribune.org.

Republican victories show Texas is still far from turning blue

Texas Republicans maintained their nearly three-decade grip on state government on Tuesday, comfortably fending off a vigorous run to unseat Gov. Greg Abbott and dashing Democratic hopes that the state would turn purple.

Voters returned GOP incumbents to their jobs at the top of the ticket and handed the state’s dominant party its 14th consecutive sweep of statewide offices. Republicans also seemed poised to add slightly to their majorities in the Texas Legislature, where they’ve controlled both chambers for 20 years, and held large leads in all statewide judicial races.

“Tonight Texans sent a message that they want to keep the Lone Star State the beacon of opportunity that we provided over the past eight years,” Abbott wrote on Twitter on Tuesday evening.

The GOP’s success in Texas, even as it fell short of expectations nationally, signaled voters’ endorsement of Abbott following a second term marked by aggressive actions on the border and immigration, conservative positions on LGBTQ and other social issues and a near-total ban on abortion. And it was another rebuke of Democratic gubernatorial nominee Beto O’Rourke, who lost his third election in four years.

“Voters seem to be fine with the status quo,” said Drew Landry, assistant professor of government at South Plains College in Levelland, west of Lubbock.

If Democrats have anything to show for this election, it’s that they won two of three congressional seats up for grabs in South Texas — denying Republicans their hopes of statement victories in a heavily Hispanic region. Hispanic residents now represent the largest ethnic group in Texas, surpassing non-Hispanic white residents earlier this year in a census estimate.

The state’s shifting demographics had given Democrats hope, as margins at the top of the ticket have shrunk in recent years. In Abbott’s first bid for governor in 2014, he won by more than 20 percentage points. In 2018, he won his second term by just over 13. And Donald Trump won the state by less than 6 percentage points in 2020. Tuesday night, that Democratic progress seemed to halt. Abbott appeared likely to win by a similar margin as in 2018 — possibly larger.

Record-breaking midterm turnout in 2018 was largely due to O’Rourke’s run for Senate and anti-Trump mobilization among Democrats, and the turnout brought them closer to victory than in previous cycles.

But the party couldn’t replicate it this time around, in spite of O’Rourke again leading the ticket as well as lingering anger over the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection by Trump supporters and a widely criticized law enforcement response to the May 24 school shooting in Uvalde.

Democrats have always asserted, and polls have suggested, that bigger turnout at the polls would lead to Democratic victories. Mediocre turnout on Tuesday may be one of the biggest reasons that Democrats didn’t see a stronger advantage come from Texas’ recent population explosion, said Renee Cross, senior director of the Hobby School of Public Affairs at the University of Houston.

“To truly feel the effects of a demographic change, whether it’s young voters or new people coming in from perhaps more liberal states, people are going to have to turn out to vote,” Cross said. “I’m looking at some numbers across the country and some places have record midterm turnout, and we just didn’t do it in Texas. They just didn’t vote, period.”

But the South Texas results robbed Republicans of the hoped-for narrative that Hispanic voters were abandoning Democrats in droves. The races drew former President Bill Clinton and U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont, for the Democrats, while U.S. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-California, and Ronna McDaniel, chair of the Republican National Committee, stumped for Republicans.

“There was a lot of posturing by some Republicans that they’d hit the trifecta in South Texas by taking all three seats, so Democrats have felt maybe a tiny bit of relief at that,” Cross said.

U.S. Rep. Mayra Flores, a Republican who lost the South Texas seat she had won in a special election earlier this year, blamed apathy by conservative voters as well as independents who had heavily leaned Republican in Texas polling.

“The RED WAVE did not happen,” Flores wrote in a fiery Tweet after her apparent defeat on Tuesday. “Republicans and Independents stayed home. DO NOT COMPLAIN ABOUT THE RESULTS IF YOU DID NOT DO YOUR PART!”

The one South Texas congressional seat Republicans did claim, with the victory of Monica De La Cruz, was in a district drawn in 2021 to help a Republican win.

Still, the failure of the Democrats to break a 28-year losing streak for statewide office shows the party has a long way to go.

Even if Republicans aren’t seeing their map expanding into new territory like South Texas, they can still clearly count on rural voters to hold the line against waves of new and potentially liberal voters moving into Texas’ major cities, said Landry, the West Texas college professor.

“As large as the cities are and how Democratic that they are, Texas Democrats still don’t have a way to get past that red wall of rural West Texas,” he said. “Rural Texas still rules the day. I was seeing some very, very close numbers before a lot of the rural counties reported [election returns], and once they did, it just blew the door open for Abbott and [Lt. Gov. Dan] Patrick and all the others.”

Democrats had hoped this season’s political fervor over abortion rights, the deadly blackout during the 2021 snowstorm, gun violence and the economy would help them overcome a generation-long losing streak in Texas’ halls of power.

Texas led the nation in restricting abortion rights even before the U.S. Supreme Court removed the constitutional right to it last summer by overturning Roe v. Wade. Abbott began busing undocumented immigrants to other states last spring and has steered $4.4 billion toward his Operation Lone Star mission along the Texas-Mexico border — moves that drove Democrats to accuse him of spending taxpayer money on political stunts.

Hundreds of Texans died and millions more lost power for days when the state’s electrical grid crashed during a snowstorm in 2021. Democrats blamed Republican-appointed regulators for failing to prepare the grid for disasters.

The shooting of 19 children and two adults at a Uvalde elementary school in May touched off criticism of Republicans’ support of gun rights and gave Democrats hope that voters would agree the GOP had failed Texas children by repeatedly refusing over the years to limit access to firearms.

But Republicans were buoyed by a backlash over high prices at the gas pump and grocery stores, opposition to President Joe Biden’s immigration policies and fights over rising crime — particularly in rural Texas, where the GOP won its strongest margins of the night, Landry said.

“Those things are what got a lot of those voters excited,” Landry said. “Abbott did a really good job of tying O’Rourke with Biden and the border crisis and them being on the same page, and voters bought it.”

By the end of the night, the state Democratic Party had acknowledged in a press release that “this was a tough cycle.” But in a joint statement, party officials urged their supporters to “get back in this fight” starting Wednesday.

“We refuse to throw in the towel and give up on a state as remarkable, freedom-loving, beautiful, diverse, industrious, and trailblazing as Texas,” they said.

Disclosure: University of Houston has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

The Texas Tribune is a nonprofit statewide news organization dedicated to keeping Texans informed on politics and policy issues that impact their communities. This election season, Texans around the state will turn to The Texas Tribune for the information they need on voting, election results, analysis of key races and more. Get the latest.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2022/11/09/texas-election-results/.

The Texas Tribune is a member-supported, nonpartisan newsroom informing and engaging Texans on state politics and policy. Learn more at texastribune.org.

Abortion-rights groups sue Texas AG, prosecutors to protect ability to help pregnant Texans seek legal abortions in other states

By Karen Brooks Harper, The Texas Tribune

Reproductive rights groups on Tuesday filed a federal class-action lawsuit to head off possible prosecution from Texas officials for helping Texans gain access to legal abortions in other states.

The suit filed in Austin names Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton as well as a class composed of the county and district attorneys who could enforce the state’s near-total abortion ban, which goes into effect on Thursday.

The law, known as House Bill 1280, was passed last year. It is “triggered” into taking effect on Thursday by the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in June on Dobbs v. Jackson, which overturned Roe v. Wade’s constitutional protection for abortion access.

The plaintiffs want a federal judge to issue an injunction barring Paxton and prosecutors from using that law and other statutes to target those reproductive rights groups for activities the groups say conservative state leaders may politically oppose but are still legal.

The groups want the court to confirm that “the Trigger Ban cannot be enforced by any Defendant … in a manner that violates Plaintiffs’ rights to freely travel, freely associate, freely speak, and freely support members of their communities through financial assistance, as guaranteed by the United States Constitution and federal law,” according to the suit.

The named plaintiffs are Fund Texas Choice, the North Texas Equal Access Fund, the Lilith Fund for Reproductive Equity, Frontera Fund, The Afiya Center, West Fund, Jane’s Due Process, Clinic Access Support Network and Dr. Ghazaleh Moayedi, an outspoken Texas provider.

They’re asking for legal protection to continue fundraising and paying for out-of-state abortion expenses, including raising funds for travel or other costs or for the procedure itself, as well as helping pregnant Texans with logistical information about legal abortions out of state, according to the lawsuit.

The Lilith Fund and others have already been targeted by the lawyers and lawmakers who helped craft the Texas abortion bans seeking to depose them over abortions they helped people pay for, although no depositions have happened yet.

Abortion clinics have already stopped performing the procedure, fearing prosecution under state laws that were on the books before Roe v. Wade. In this lawsuit, the plaintiffs say they too have stopped working in Texas as conservative state leaders and lawmakers vow to punish them too with ever-increasing threats of criminal and civil action.

“Agents of the state of Texas contend that virtually every activity of those who assist pregnant Texans to understand their rights and medical options is now subject to criminal prosecution,” the lawsuit reads. “The threats have been repeated and far-ranging, and the intimidation has chilled helping professionals from providing counseling, financial, logistical, and even informational assistance to pregnant Texans who may need to access abortion care outside of the state.”

Paxton could not be reached for comment late Monday.

The suit argues that Paxton, along with “activist legislators and their associates,” are waging a coordinated effort to harass organizations exercising their right to free speech by defending access to abortions and helping pregnant Texans seek them legally under the current bans. Most of the latter involves financial or logistical help in obtaining an abortion in another state where the procedure is still legal.

The court filing points to, as an example, several statements in late June by state Rep. Briscoe Cain, R-Deer Park, asserting that donors, volunteers, employees and anyone else connected to these groups are guilty of violating the law for helping people legally outmaneuver the Texas ban. He also has suggested that the constitutionally protected right to travel interstate for any reason doesn’t translate to the right to pay for someone else to do it, such as for an abortion.

Disclosure: Afiya Center has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

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This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2022/08/23/abortion-funds-lawsuit-texas-travel/.

The Texas Tribune is a member-supported, nonpartisan newsroom informing and engaging Texans on state politics and policy. Learn more at texastribune.org.

This 2003 Texas law could shield Alex Jones from paying the vast majority of the $50 million owed victims

A Texas jury has awarded a nearly $50 million judgment in a defamation trial against extremist talk show host Alex Jones for claiming the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting was a hoax. He was sued by the parents of a 6-year-old boy killed in the tragedy.

The question is, will Texas law spare the Infowars host and his company Free Speech Systems tens of millions under a 19-year-old statute limiting the amount that a jury can make a plaintiff pay?

The answer is likely to be decided during the appeals process, but if the statutory limit is applied by the courts to Jones’ case, he could be forced to pay less than $5 million in total damages, legal experts say.

What was the Jones judgment?

On Aug. 4, a Texas jury in Austin awarded Neil Heslin and Scarlett Lewis $4.1 million in compensatory damages for the mental anguish and reputation damage inflicted on them by Jones’ crusade to prove the massacre a hoax. Their son, Jesse Lewis, was fatally shot during the Sandy Hook massacre. The jury did not award any money to compensate for financial losses the couple may have suffered as a result of Jones’ statements.

A day later, the same jury hit Jones with another $45.2 million in punitive damages — which exist for the purposes of punishing the defendant, rather than compensating the victims.

The parents’ lawsuit had asked for $150 million in compensatory damages and additional punitive damages.

Jones’ attorneys have said they plan to appeal both damage awards.

What does the law say about punitive damages?

In a civil lawsuit, there are two types of damages: compensatory and punitive.

Compensatory damages are a combination of awards for economic losses as well as noneconomic losses, which include the impacts on the plaintiff’s reputation and their emotional, physical or mental health.

Punitive damages, though also paid to the plaintiff, are there to punish and deter the defendant.

A Texas jury can choose any dollar amount to award when it comes to punitive damages, but the civil statute does limit the amount in punitive damages the defendant may ultimately be forced to pay.

The law guiding punitive damages allows plaintiffs to collect up to twice what was awarded in economic compensatory damages — plus the same amount as was awarded in noneconomic compensatory damages, with the latter limited to $750,000.

In Jones’ case, Jesse Lewis’ parents were awarded $4.1 million in compensatory damages, but none of that has been specified as economic damages.

That means Jones’ punitive damages, which amounted to $45.2 million, could be limited to $750,000 if courts decide that the cap does apply. Add that to the $4.1 million, and the parents could wind up collecting just $4.85 million in total — less than 10% of what the jury awarded them last week.

Texas juries are not allowed to be told about the cap on punitive damages, so jurors may hand down a verdict much higher than the cap, not knowing the plaintiff may never see that total amount.

Exactly how much in punitive damages a defendant ends up paying — including whether the cap applies at all — is something typically decided by judges in the appeals process.

Are there exceptions?

The law allows for an exception to the cap if the actions that triggered the lawsuit are one of a list of felonies, known as “cap busters,” that include murder, kidnapping, forgery, some types of fraud and other — mostly violent — crimes.

The attorney representing Jesse Lewis’ parents, Mark Bankston, told reporters before the $45.2 million in punitive damages was awarded that the Texas Supreme Court could remove the cap “on a case-by-case basis” but declined to say how that might happen in this case.

There is no lifetime limit on the amount of punitive damages a defendant can be forced to pay if they are sued several times. Jones faces more lawsuits by parents of Sandy Hook victims, and each of them will have their own judgments that may or may not be subject to the limits.

Why were the limits created?

The cap on punitive damage awards traces back to a 2003 measure, House Bill 4, a massive overhaul of the state’s civil litigation laws that the bill’s author said was intended to fight frivolous or abusive lawsuits.

“The problem that existed at the time was that there were a lot of lawsuits of questionable merit being brought where huge punitive damages were being threatened,” said former state Rep. Joe Nixon, a Houston lawyer who authored the sweeping changes to Texas lawsuits in 2003.

Without limits on punitive damages, Nixon said, defendants in lawsuits were exposed to potentially unfair judgments — the threat of which would often push defendants into high-dollar settlements in order to avoid the potential for financial ruin.

Opponents argued that Nixon’s measure gave a pass to extremely wealthy companies that were bad actors.

The bill was one of the biggest pieces of legislation to be passed by the new GOP majority in the Texas House that year, the first time Republicans had controlled the Texas Legislature in 130 years.

Lawsuit limitations, known by supporters as tort reform, had been blocked for years by the previous Democratic majority, so the passage of HB 4 was considered an enormous victory for conservatives. It was also a major part of the agenda of then-House Speaker Tom Craddick, who was in his first term in that role at the time and who laid intense pressure on his leadership team to make it law.

It passed largely along partisan lines.

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This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2022/08/08/alex-jones-verdict-damages/.

The Texas Tribune is a member-supported, nonpartisan newsroom informing and engaging Texans on state politics and policy. Learn more at texastribune.org.

Uvalde was a mental health desert before a school shooting prompted Texas to respond with resources

By Karen Brooks Harper and Jason Beeferman, The Texas Tribune

For local mental health support in Texas, call 888-690-0799. You can also reach a trained crisis counselor through the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline by calling 800-273-8255 or texting 741741.

B.R. was 12 when she tried to overdose on Midol in her rural Uvalde junior high bathroom last year after the bullying at school had become too much to bear.

The girl’s first appointment with a counselor at the government-funded mental health authority finally came in May — a year and a month after that suicide attempt.

Now her family worries that the limits of the small-town system they rely on make it ill-equipped to meet the needs of children like her — suicidal, isolated and with few things standing between her and another attempt at taking her own life.

“I understand there’s a process in order to get help,” said her mother, a 39-year-old Uvalde resident, who asked that the family’s name not be used in this story. “But we’ve gone through so many things already. It takes so much time to get help that sometimes a family just gives up.”

Despite the teen’s isolation in the South Texas town of 15,000, B.R. is not alone. She is among millions of people scattered across the rural counties of Texas who are vulnerable to higher rates of depression, anxiety and suicide than their urban counterparts — yet they have only limited access to patchwork mental health services from a handful of understaffed or underfunded providers.

The weight of the shortcomings of Uvalde’s mental health system came down hard after a troubled teen, raised in the small southwest Texas town, entered Robb Elementary School a few days before summer break and shot to death 19 children and two adults with an assault rifle.

While many debated the merits of more gun restrictions, Gov. Greg Abbott and other Texas Republicans defended Texas’ lax gun laws and instead blamed poor mental health services in the area, although no evidence has been produced the shooter was ever diagnosed with a mental illness. Their response was to send a wave of state-funded and -organized services to Uvalde, including a federally supported crisis center known as the Uvalde Together Resiliency Center.

While it’s unknown whether the shooting had anything to do with the lack of mental health resources, few dispute that Uvalde has little to offer.

“There’s never enough. There’s never, ever, ever enough in rural Texas,” said Todd Russell, a professor retired from Sul Ross State University Rio Grande College who taught counseling in Uvalde for over two decades.

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Uvalde has about 15 mental health professionals based in the town, and those include marital therapists and substance abuse counselors. There is one psychiatrist affiliated with Uvalde Memorial Hospital, where emergency room beds for mental health patients are most often used for drug cases. There is no dedicated mental health hospital or residential treatment facility.

Residents in Uvalde and other rural Texas towns “might as well be living on the other side of the moon” when it comes to mental health access, said Steve Bain, interim dean of the College of Education and Human Performance at Texas A&M University-Kingsville and a counseling professor.

Wait times for services can be months, even for suicidal patients, said Bain, whose research focuses on rural mental health.

“It’s almost impossible to get people in to a psychiatrist,” Bain said. “Often the county mental health services are so backed up, they don’t have the specialized professionals working with them that they need to help these kids.”

The problem isn’t just proximity, but also poverty. Some 30% of the children in Uvalde live below the poverty line, according to health data collected by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

“You have to look at the income in these communities: A large part of them are working at minimum wages, and they don't have the time and the luxury of having health insurance or the ability to take off from work,” said Marian Sokol, executive director of Children’s Bereavement Center of South Texas, which worked with students in Sutherland Springs after a church shooting there in 2017 and is setting up a location in Uvalde with at least one full-time counselor for the next several months. “They might be struggling to meet the basic needs of their family — food and housing — and not be able to focus on mental health as much.”

A narrow safety net

The mental health care services in Uvalde fall to fewer than a dozen agencies, private providers, churches and publicly funded clinics — all of which have a limited reach.

Most mental health care in the region falls to the state safety net, which in Uvalde is Hill Country Mental Health and Developmental Disabilities Centers, the local mental health authority offering treatment to the mostly uninsured and underinsured.

The agency is based in Kerrville but has a center in Uvalde, a collection of tin buildings on a sun-soaked parking lot that serve as a regional hub for the agency.

Known locally as MHDD, the agency serves roughly 15,000 people a year in a 19-county region stretching from the Austin suburbs down to Uvalde and west to the Texas-Mexico border in Del Rio. Its service area is 23,000 square miles, with a population of about 760,000 people.

In Uvalde, about 550 residents receive mental health and developmental disability services through Hill Country MHDD, said Tod Citron, the agency’s chief executive officer. The Uvalde office has 20 employees it shares with two neighboring counties, with a collective population nearing 30,000 people.

Community Health Development Inc. runs a federally qualified health clinic in Uvalde that also offers mental health services to impoverished patients, with a psychiatrist and a licensed social worker on staff.

Republican state leaders have increased mental health funding by hundreds of millions in recent years — with more attention on the issue following the shootings at Columbine High School in 1999 and a 34% increase in funding since 2015 — and yet Texas still ranks 51st among states and Washington, D.C., in per capita state spending.

That resulting safety net is so narrow that it catches only patients with the most complex or dire mental health issues, leaving out vast swaths of people who urgently need care before their problems escalate into major life issues, suicide or — in the rarest cases — mass violence, Heinz said.

And while that is a problem in cities large and small across Texas, she said, mental health care access shrinks even further in small underserved towns like Uvalde, where 20% of residents live in poverty and nearly a quarter have no insurance.

A new state program designed to help at-risk youth through early intervention had not reached Uvalde by the time Salvador Ramos killed 21 people with an assault rifle he purchased legally as soon as he turned 18 in May.

That program, run by the Texas Child Mental Health Consortium, is funded at $25 million per year to serve 40% of the students in the state, much of that through federal COVID-19 money.

So far, the two-year-old program has served more than 6,000 children, a number that would have been higher had the pandemic not stymied its growth, officials said. The consortium’s leaders say they expect that number to increase exponentially as the program takes hold in more districts.

When demand for services provided by a separate program, Communities In Schools, the largest provider of school-based behavioral health services for students in Texas, was at an all-time high in 2021 because of mental health issues brought on by the pandemic, its request for additional federal funding was denied by the Texas Legislature last summer. That program was not in Uvalde at the time, although it has responded to the Robb Elementary shooting.

This health access gap disproportionately impacts communities of color, who make up the vast majority both of residents in the Uvalde region and patients without insurance.

Alicia Ramirez, a registered nurse with Methodist Healthcare Ministries of South Texas, Inc., said many of her patients have language barriers or lack the information necessary to recognize a mental health problem and seek care. It’s also a cultural issue, she said.

“It’s a stigma,” Ramirez said. “They don’t like to talk about those things sometimes, especially in our culture.”

Family Service, an organization that partners with schools to provide mental health counseling as well as drug prevention and after-school programs, opened its first Uvalde offices 20 years ago in Robb Elementary, though it has since moved.

The San Antonio-based organization serves much of the Hill Country through its rural area services program and is one of about half a dozen small private or nonprofit agencies operating in Uvalde and the surrounding area. Many of them are charity- or grant-based with oft-changing missions or based in churches. Nearly all of them are either based somewhere else or covering several rural Texas counties.

None of it comes close to meeting the demand, said Mary Garr, Family Service’s chief executive officer.

“The resources needed are much greater than what Uvalde currently has,” she said.

But of all the medically underserved areas in the region, in fact, Uvalde has historically been better off than its counterparts.

Of six counties that border Uvalde, with a collective 125,000 people, not one of them had a working psychiatrist full time in 2020, according to DSHS.

Statewide, some 61% of adults with some form of mental illness reported that they weren’t treated. About one-fifth of adults with mental illness are uninsured in Texas, according to Mental Health America’s recent survey, twice the national average.

Texas ranks in the bottom fifth of states when it comes to youth mental health services.

The Texas Department of State Health Services predicts that with population and health projections, South Texas will need 50 more psychiatrists in the next 10 years — but is on track to add only 10.

Experts fear a powder keg in rural Texas, where residents are lucky to have more than one stoplight, let alone an army of therapists and intervention specialists waiting to intervene in a crisis. Where the state’s gun restrictions for people with legal indicators of severe mental illness ring hollow without ways to identify those people to begin with.

“We are a desert in more ways than one,” Russell said.

Debate continues over whether a stronger system in Uvalde could have prevented the Robb Elementary shooter from committing such an atrocity — if his early problems of truancy, cruelty to animals and violence at home and at school that appeared to raise few red flags in his hometown might have been recognized in a system set up to intervene with people just like him.

There is doubt that Uvalde’s gunman could have received the treatment he needed even if he had been diagnosed because so little help was available before the shooting.

The majority of individuals diagnosed with mental illness do not engage in violence against others. But people who commit mass murder are also apparently experiencing some kind of mental or emotional episode or break, doctors say, even if it’s not a diagnosable mental illness. If and when it might cross the line into violence is impossible, usually, to predict.

But Ramos’ actions on that day in May — as well as the experiences of B.R., the teen who waited for a counselor for a year after her suicide attempt — open a window into the dangerous gaps in health care. While these gaps may not be unique to rural America, they are especially difficult to solve there.

Holes in critical points of treatment leave vulnerable the 15 million Texans living in mental health shortage areas across the state — including the Robb Elementary victims. Ramos had warning signs that might have been recognized had more services been available — but he likely didn’t have those professional mental health supports when he needed them, said Tammy Heinz, senior program officer at the University of Texas Hogg Foundation for Mental Health.

“I do not in any way want to minimize the 21 victims and their families,” Heinz said. “But there’s also another person in this. Somewhere along the way we — the societal we — we missed something. This was a child up until a couple of months ago. And somewhere along the way he didn’t get something he needed.”

Early intervention

Early intervention, whether through mental services or even family counseling, can help turn troubled youth away from suicide or violence, experts say. When a child is at risk of dropping out of school or is sent to an alternative school program for acting out or has a history of police visiting the house on domestic calls, those can signal problems that a mental health professional, family counselor or social worker may be able to help solve.

In communities with stronger systems, those youth are often identified in the courts or at school for help before their problems turn into bigger issues. But in Uvalde, as with other underserved places, there are no formal mechanisms in place to do this. There are no automatic referrals to counselors for truancy, for example, or for alternative school placement.

The Uvalde school district has 18 counselors, but many of them must split their attention between academic duties and support for a student population of more than 4,000 — two thirds of whom are considered at high risk of dropping out.

Hill Country mental health’s CEO said early intervention plays a critical role in managing the mental health of a community, and particularly before crises reach a point at which someone is hurting themselves or others. But there is no room in the budget for any of those programs.

“We are very supportive of early intervention, but with the limited funding that we have historically received, that funding has had to be dedicated to serving those individuals with the greatest need and in the communities that have the greatest risk,” Citron said. “That has not left resources on the table for a lot of early intervention services, which we believe is one of the ways that we can truly address the mental health crisis in Uvalde, in our service area and across the nation, for that matter.”

This past spring, about year after B.R.’s suicide attempt, her mother noticed her daughter withdrawing again, refusing to come out of her room. In May, the two were poolside when the mother noticed the cuts on B.R.’s thigh.

She brought it up to the pediatrician two days later at the annual visit, and the doctor sent them immediately to the emergency room. They spent the next five hours waiting for a mental health assessment that would eventually lead B.R. to be accepted into counseling through the Hill Country center.

Days later, the pediatrician was in the same emergency room — saving the lives of children who had been shot at Robb Elementary.

B.R.’s mother wonders if help would have arrived too late for her daughter had she not been paying such close attention, or if the help she can get will be enough.

More care now than ever

In the wake of the Robb Elementary shooting, the mental health landscape is changing for Uvalde.

Help is pouring in from across the state. There’s a new state-supported crisis center. A child bereavement group is setting up for at least the next six months. There’s trauma counseling for the students and offers of partnerships from statewide health and advocacy groups.

Communities In Schools — which responded to the tragedy with licensed mental health clinicians from across the state arriving in Uvalde within 24 hours — will stay for trauma and crisis support and “psychological first aid” during summer school for students, faculty and staff at five schools, organization officials said.

Hill Country MHDD is working with the 38 other local mental health authorities to open up appointments “for anyone who walks in the door,” not just the severe cases it’s been limited to in the past, Citron said. It is also running a telephone hotline for Uvalde residents who have been affected by the shooting.

And in partnership with the city, the agency is attempting to move forward with plans it has had for years to build a 48-bed psychiatric hospital and crisis center to be owned by Hill Country Mental Health. The city is donating several acres for the site, which would include 16 beds for child and adolescent mental health services. The holdup has been getting the funds to move forward, Citron said.

Hill Country Mental Health officials plan to ask Texas lawmakers for about $12 million per year to fund the facility, which has the support of Uvalde city and county officials, Citron said.

“Our need in the community is exploding and we know this will be a long-term recovery process,” Citron said. “This will be a generational recovery for this community.”

The Uvalde Consolidated Independent School District has been invited to join a statewide youth telemedicine mental health program through the Texas Child Mental Health Consortium, which focuses on teaching education professionals how to identify children who may be in crisis and work with their families to get them expert-level treatment in areas where there is little access to mental health services.

And earlier this week, House Speaker Dade Phelan urged support for another $37 million annually to take the program statewide, as well as $30 million per year to increase state-funded pediatric mental health beds.

The trauma left behind in the wake of the Robb Elementary shooting will take years to unravel, doctors say, and likely will affect most of the town’s residents — the majority of whom are multigenerational, born and raised there, with plans to raise their children in the same neighborhoods and schools they grew up in.

They hope the help sticks around.

“There’s a number of us local providers that are here for the long run,” Citron said. “There is some anxiety over what’s going to happen after all these community services leave, after the funerals are done and the TV cameras leave, what kind of void is going to be left in this community. … We are here for the long haul and there are many other agencies that are, and we are all working in collaboration.”

Disclosure: Hogg Foundation for Mental Health and Texas A&M University have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

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This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2022/06/16/uvalde-shooting-mental-health/.

The Texas Tribune is a member-supported, nonpartisan newsroom informing and engaging Texans on state politics and policy. Learn more at texastribune.org.

If Supreme Court overturns Roe v. Wade, Texas will completely ban abortion

"If Supreme Court overturns Roe v. Wade, Texas will completely ban abortion" was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

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According to a draft opinion obtained by Politico, the U.S. Supreme Court intends to overturn Roe v. Wade, reversing nearly 50 years of constitutional protection for abortion, and let states set their own restrictions on the procedure.

If this draft reflects the final decision of the Court, expected this summer, it would virtually eliminate abortion access in Texas. Last year, the Legislature passed a so-called “trigger law” that would go into effect 30 days after the Supreme Court overturns Roe v. Wade, making performing abortion a felony.

The law would make an exception only to save the life of the pregnant patient or if they risk “substantial impairment of major bodily function.” Doctors could face life in prison and fines up to $100,000 if they perform abortions in violation of the law.

It’s unclear how closely the court's final ruling will hew to the draft opinion, the publication of which is unprecedented in the history of the court.

The case before the U.S. Supreme Court centers on a ban in Mississippi on abortions after 15 weeks. Since the 1973 ruling in Roe v. Wade, the court has consistently struck down bans on abortion before viability, the point at which a fetus could likely survive outside the womb, usually seen as 22 to 24 weeks of pregnancy. The 1992 decision in Planned Parenthood v. Casey upheld Roe v. Wade and ruled that states could not impose restrictions that created an “undue burden” on pregnant people seeking an abortion.

But with this Mississippi case, the court and its new conservative majority agreed to reconsider the precedent set by Roe v. Wade. While some court watchers predicted that they might uphold the 15-week ban but leave aspects of the precedent in place, this draft opinion indicates they intend to eviscerate both Roe and Casey.

“We hold that Roe and Casey must be overruled,” the draft obtained by Politico reads. “It is time to heed the Constitution and return the issue of abortion to the people’s elected representatives.”

This draft does not change anything about the legal status of abortion in Texas at this moment. The state has banned abortions after about six weeks of pregnancy through a unique civil enforcement mechanism that has, so far, withstood judicial review.

Amy Hagstrom Miller, president and CEO of Whole Woman’s Health, which operates four clinics in Texas, said they have been providing abortions up to that six-week mark since the Texas law went into effect Sept. 1, and they will keep providing abortions as long as it’s legal. She said it’s critical for people to realize that this is not a final ruling.

“When news like this comes out, it confuses people and scares people, and I think there are people who will read these stories and think that abortion is already illegal,” said Hagstrom Miller. “I think it’s important for us to speak to these people and let them know this isn’t final, and at least for now we can still offer them the care they deserve.”

Abortion opponents in Texas are cautiously optimistic about the release of this draft ruling. Joe Pojman, executive director of the Texas Alliance for Life, said it’s “encouraging,” but he’s still holding his breath.

“We’ve been burnt before,” said Pojman, “I’m waiting to see the final opinion.”

In 1992, then-Justice Anthony Kennedy, a conservative, had indicated that he was going to vote with the majority of the court to overturn Roe in Planned Parenthood v. Casey. Then he changed his mind, and the court voted to uphold the ruling.

“Assuming the draft is legitimate, I’m reminding myself that this is far from the court’s final opinion,” Pojman said. “So it’s encouraging, but it is not definitive in my mind at all."

John Seago, legislative director for Texas Right to Life, said the fight is “not done yet.”

“This was was probably leaked to put pressure on the justices, to cause backlash that would possibly make them take a step back from this categorical victory for the pro-life side,” he said. “That’s what we’re concerned about, and [we] won’t fully celebrate until we see the final opinion actually released.”

University of Texas law professor Liz Sepper also cautioned against certainty in the wake of the leak, reiterating that this draft, dated Feb. 10, may not reflect the current or final opinion of the court. But based on the oral arguments of the case in December, she said it wasn’t surprising to see several of the justices endorsing this full-throated rejection of Roe v. Wade.

“This would effectively end abortion access in much of the United States, at least in people’s home states,” she said. “For people in the southern states and the Midwest, it would mean a very long-distance to travel to access abortion.”

More than half of all states are expected to ban abortion if Roe v. Wade is overturned. According to the Guttmacher Institute, an abortion advocacy research group, that would mean the average Texan would have to drive 525 miles, each way, to obtain an abortion.

Sepper said politicians on both sides of the aisle will be closely watching the response to this draft as they prepare to respond to this summer's ruling.

Former Texas state Sen. Wendy Davis said she hopes Democrats, who have been struggling in the polls, capitalize on the outrage that this draft will likely generate.

“Our rage is going to do us absolutely no good if we don’t put our votes behind it,” she added. “And if Democrats cannot use that to their advantage in this election cycle, something’s broken.”

Abby Livingston contributed to this story.

Disclosure: Planned Parenthood and Politico have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

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This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2022/05/02/texas-abortion-law-roe-wade/.

The Texas Tribune is a member-supported, nonpartisan newsroom informing and engaging Texans on state politics and policy. Learn more at texastribune.org.

Abortion providers in Texas are apocalyptic over Supreme Court ruling: 'This is a dark day'

Abortion providers and activists bashed the U.S. Supreme Court's decision to leave Texas' new abortion law in place, arguing the high court's ruling failed to dismantle the Lone Star State's novel enforcement method that has citizens file lawsuits against physicians and clinics suspected of violating the new law.

"This is a dark day for abortion patients and for physicians and providers," said Marc Hearron, senior counsel for the Center for Reproductive Rights. "It is also a dark day for anyone who cares about constitutional rights."

On Friday, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a decision that kept a new law restricting abortion to about the first six weeks of a patient's pregnancy but ruled abortion providers could continue their legal challenge of the law.

While the Texas law is about abortion, the fact the majority opinion did not shut down how the law is enforced — via lawsuits filed by private citizens against abortion providers — was one of the most troubling aspects of the court's decision, Hearron said.

"If a state can prohibit the exercise of any constitutional right that's disfavored in that state and get around federal court review by allowing private citizens to sue someone for exercising that constitutional right, then it's hard to say where this scheme ends. Today's decision is a marker that says every constitutional right is now at risk."

Amy Hagstrom Miller, president and CEO of Whole Woman’s Health, which operates several clinics in Texas and is the chief plaintiff in case before the Supreme Court, said the decision presents even more problems for clinics. "This does not feel like a green light, and the risks for clinic staff and physicians remain great," she said.

Julia Kaye, staff attorney for the Reproductive Freedom Project at the American Civil Liberties Union, calling the decision "shameful." She said the decision ignored 50 years of legal precedent and empowered states who have enacted more than 100 restrictions on abortion across the county just this year.

"There was no reason for the Supreme Court to accept this case at all, if not to undermine Roe," Kaye said, referring to the landmark 1973 case, Roe v. Wade, which legalized abortion.

For now, officials at Whole Woman’s Health say they will continue to abide by the Texas law that now bars abortions once an embryo's cardiac activity is detected — at about the six-week mark in a pregnancy — because the law has not actually been blocked in the courts.

For now, providers said, the battle continues.

“Our fight against this law is not over, and Whole Woman’s Health is here for the long haul,” Hagstrom Miller said. “We hope this law is blocked quickly so we can resume the full scope of abortion care we are trained to provide.”

If the court does eventually strike down the law, medical providers can go back to performing abortions up to the 20th week of pregnancy.

But the law, providers say, has already had a chilling effect on staff who want job stability, on patients who remain unclear what their rights are and on the funding and longevity of the clinics themselves.

"While I’m glad that we are able to move forward with the suit, the [Supreme Court] ruling today does very little for Texans who are pregnant today," said Dr. Stephanie Mischell, a Texas family medicine physician. "We are practicing in the same reality of the past 100 days: Patients must access abortion within an incredibly narrow window or be forced to continue an unwanted pregnancy."

When Texas imposed the most restrictive abortion law in the nation in September, doctors and clinics were forced to move quickly to get their patients to out-of-state providers as they waited to see if the law would pass constitutional muster at the nation’s highest court.

“It's going to take a long time for Texas to rebuild,” Hagstrom Miller said. “And this is the damage that is intended from this law.”

Prolonging the uncertainty is the fact that the decision could mean little in the long term depending on how the Supreme Court rules on a Mississippi law, a decision that could result in an overturning of Roe v. Wade.

When Gov. Greg Abbott signed into law what was then known as Senate Bill 8 on Sept. 1, it became illegal to perform abortions when the fetus is showing cardiac activity, around six weeks into a pregnancy.

But the law came with a unique enforcement feature. It relies not on the government to enforce the legal restrictions, but citizen lawsuits against providers and anyone who helps someone access an abortion. As a result, physicians and clinics now face costly legal battles if anyone believes they have violated the restrictions and performed an abortion beyond that period of about six weeks.

Many physicians have already dropped out of abortion care networks, providers say, or reduced the level of care they can give desperate patients because of the threat posed by these lawsuits.

Also, abortion providers have seen a significant drop in the number of women they are able to serve under the new restrictions, and there are fewer calls for those services as well.

Patient numbers for the four Whole Woman’s Health clinics in Texas have dropped by about two-thirds since the restrictions were put in place, Hagstrom Miller said.

Texas has fewer than two dozen abortion clinics, but there are individual providers who perform them at other types of medical facilities or at private practices. All of them are affected by the new law.

"I hope that this ruling and the state ruling from yesterday mean that the courts are recognizing the harms of this law and more good news will come as we continue this fight," Mischell said. "But given the harm of being denied the legal right to abortion, people need and deserve more immediate relief."

Unvaccinated Texans make up vast majority of COVID-19 cases and deaths this year, new state data shows

New data from the Texas health department released Monday proves what health officials have been trying to tell vaccine-hesitant Texans for months: The COVID-19 vaccine dramatically prevents death and is the best tool to prevent transmission of the deadly virus.

Out of nearly 29,000 Texans who have died from COVID-related illnesses since mid-January, only 8% of them were fully vaccinated against the virus, according to a report detailing the Texas Department of State Health Services' findings.

And more than half of those deaths among vaccinated people were among Texans older than 75, the age group that is most vulnerable to the virus, the study shows.

COVID-19 was deadlier for unvaccinated Texans across age groups

Reported deaths from mid-January to October show that most COVID-19 deaths occurred among unvaccinated younger and older Texans.

COVID-19 deaths among Texans
Age groupUnvaccinatedVaccinated
18-29 years339< 10

Note: Most people became eligible for COVID-19 vaccines in late March.Source: Texas Department of State Health ServicesCredit: Mandi Cai

"We've known for a while that vaccines were going to have a protective effect on a large segment of our population," said Dr. Jennifer A. Shuford, state epidemiologist. "By looking at our own population and seeing what the impact of the vaccines have been on that population, we're hoping just to be able to reach people here in Texas and show them the difference that being fully vaccinated can make in their lives and for their communities."

The state health department study covers most of the positive cases and COVID-19 deaths reported in Texas among residents from Jan. 15 to Oct. 1. It's the first time state officials have been able to statistically measure the true impact of the vaccine on the pandemic in Texas — which has one of the highest death tolls in the nation. The majority of Texans ages 16 and up didn't become eligible for the vaccine until late March.

State health officials also found the vaccine greatly reduced the risk of virus transmission, including the highly contagious delta variant that ravaged the state over the summer.

Only 3% of 1.5 million positive COVID-19 tests examined since mid-January occurred in people who were already vaccinated.

State researchers matched electronic lab reports and death certificates with state immunization records, and measured cases and deaths since mid-January, a month after the first shots were administered in Texas.

The study was done using data similar to those used by other states that conducted similar studies and methods recommended by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Shuford said.

And while the outcome was not particularly surprising, Shuford said, officials hope that the new data will increase trust in the benefits of the shot.

"Texas is a unique place; it's got a lot of diversity, geographic and population-wise," Shuford said. "We know that some people want to see actual numbers and that they want to see it for their own community. And so we are hoping that this reaches some of those people who have been hesitant and really just questioning the benefits of the vaccines."

In Texas, it literally requires a disaster — like a pandemic — before the state records precise information about vaccinations. As a result, there is a record for every single COVID-19 vaccine dose of the name and age of the person who received it plus the date it was administered. Normally, vaccination records are shown to schools by parents, but details of all vaccinations are not regularly kept by a state registry in Texas, unlike nearly every other state, because it's a voluntary system.

However, state officials still don't have official numbers on how many vaccinated people were hospitalized with COVID-19 because hospitals are not required to report that level of data under state law.

But the state's largest hospital districts and counties have reported that at least 90% of the hospitalized Texans with the virus were unvaccinated.

The state's new health data comes as Republican state leaders grapple with local cities and school districts about masking, which has been proven to reduce transmission of the virus, and with federal officials over vaccine mandates.

About 53% of the Texas population is fully vaccinated. More than 70,000 Texans have died from COVID-19 since the pandemic began.

Immunity heading into the holidays

The new report is particularly well-timed, officials say, because gatherings throughout the holiday season could touch off another surge as families get together — many of them for the first time since last year — and around 9 million Texans remain unvaccinated.

Texas saw its deadliest surge of the pandemic in January, when more than 400 deaths were reported daily at its peak, a trend health officials said was likely a direct result of the holidays.

The recent Texas Coronavirus Antibody Response Survey, commissioned by the state health department in partnership with the University of Texas System, estimated that about 75% of Texans — roughly 22 million people — likely have some level of protection against the virus, either by natural immunity from being infected or through vaccination.

But that doesn't mean infected people are immune indefinitely or that they shouldn't get the vaccine, health experts say.

In fact, doctors, scientists and health officials urge those who have been infected to get vaccinated anyway, saying the vaccine provides a strong boost in immunity even to those who have some level of natural protection.

The Texas CARES study found that fully vaccinated participants showed significantly higher antibody levels than those who were unvaccinated but had been infected.

A week ago, the CDC found that while both vaccination and natural infection provide about six months of protection from infection by the virus, the vaccine provides a "higher, more robust, and more consistent level of immunity" than natural infection does.

And while the fact that a solid majority of Texans are estimated to have some protection from the virus bodes well for the state in its fight against the pandemic, Shuford said, it still means that millions of Texans are vulnerable to severe illness or death from the highly contagious virus, without any vaccine or natural immunity.

"Those susceptible populations can still get infected, and the holidays are the perfect time for that," she said. "Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year's. These are all times that people gather together, and COVID-19 can easily be transmitted at these gatherings."

Mandi Cai contributed to this report.

Disclosure: University of Texas System has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

It’s cheap, easy to make and in demand overseas. So why can’t this Texas-born COVID-19 vaccine break into the US market?

The day before COVID-19 claimed its first Texas victim in 2020, Dr. Peter Hotez was a guest on the popular Austin-based podcast "The Drive."

After 10 years of research into coronavirus vaccines, Hotez and his Houston team needed an infusion of cash to build on their past work and make a vaccine that could, as Hotez told listeners then, "rescue the world" from the deadly emerging coronavirus pandemic.

"You'd think that people would be pretty eager to support us to move this forward, but so far it hasn't happened," the Houston pediatrician and vaccine scientist told the host, Dr. Peter Attia, on March 14, 2020.

By the following week, major cities in Texas began to shut down to avoid widespread community outbreaks.

But Hotez's plea worked. The donations started coming in support of efforts in the deadly new pandemic at the Baylor College of Medicine at the Texas Children's Hospital Center for Vaccine Development, co-directed by Hotez and Dr. Maria Elena Bottazzi in Houston — both of whom are celebrated pioneers in the area of vaccines for neglected tropical diseases like chagas and schistosomiasis.

Among the gifts was a $1 million infusion of cash in May 2020 by the philanthropic arm of Texas-based Tito's Handmade Vodka, whose director of global impact and research, Sarah Everett, was tuned in when Hotez asked for help in reviving their research.

"We decided that somebody should help restart that work immediately," Everett said.

Now, nearly 18 months later, the Houston team's vaccine, called Corbevax by its maker in India, is cheap, has no patent, can be made by many vaccine producers globally — including those in low- and middle-income countries — and is poised to receive approval for widespread global use.

The Indian government has promised the biopharmaceutical company Biological E Limited, which is making the vaccine in that country, that it will buy 300 million doses with the potential for more.

A halal version of the vaccine, for use in Islamic countries because it doesn't contain animal-based ingredients, is also about to start clinical trials in Indonesia.

And later this year, the company hopes the vaccine will be endorsed by the World Health Organization for use globally, which could open the doors to quicker authorization in several countries that need it.

But here in the United States, this "truly Texas vaccine," as its creators like to call it, has no home.

A Texas-style vaccine

The fact that the vaccine even exists can be traced to a lot of Texas money, including funds from The Robert J. Kleberg, Jr. and Helen C. Kleberg Foundation and the M.D. Anderson Foundation. Several high-level and anonymous individual donors pitched in, as well as the JPB Foundation in New York.

Those donations funded a vaccine prototype with the initial doses mixed in the Houston lab and transferred to Biological E in India in May 2020. By November, BioE began clinical trials of the vaccine in India, where the delta variant was first identified and which has one of the lowest vaccination rates in the world. Total cost from creation to market was between $5 million and $7 million, Bottazzi said.

The U.S. government has yet to get on board. Operation Warp Speed, the public-private partnership created by the federal government to accelerate treatments and vaccines for COVID-19, spent none of its billions at the Houston lab.

Most experts, including Hotez and Bottazzi, agree that's because most of the funding and the attention — and the bets — are on the vaccines made earliest in the pandemic, and with the newest technology, by Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson and a few others.

"We're pushing the new ways because they're better and faster," said Dr. Benjamin Neuman, a Texas A&M University virologist who has been doing coronavirus research since 1996, though he was not involved in any of the approved vaccines' development. "Why wouldn't you want to have it all?"

Competition from new tech

The mRNA vaccines by Pfizer and Moderna use messenger RNA, a molecule the virus needs to produce a "spike protein" and bind to human cells, to prompt the immune system to produce antibodies against that protein. Five years ago, Neuman said, that process hadn't been made effective yet.

But by the time Hotez was making his plea on Attia's podcast, Moderna was already starting up clinical trials of its mRNA vaccine in partnership with the National Institutes of Health, the biomedical research arm of the U.S. government and the largest center of its kind in the world.

And by late 2020, when BioE was rolling out its phase 1 clinical trials with Corbevax in India, Pfizer was already getting emergency use authorization from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

The Bottazi and Hotez vaccine relies on a production process very similar to the way the Hepatitis B vaccine is made that's been produced and used around the world for decades. The two argue that the familiarity with the process and the ease with which the materials can be gotten makes it easier to quickly ramp up global production compared to the newer vaccines, even if they came onto the market a little later.

But aside from a handful of philanthropies who can see the value of the domino effect — more vaccinations outside this country help lower infections around the world and here — Hotez and Bottazzi have heard nothing about producing or distributing here at home.

"Why weren't conventional vaccine technologies given the opportunity of being at the same table as all these other technologies?" Bottazzi said.

The answer, Neuman says, is that while conventional technologies — or what he jokingly derided as "the obvious answer" — have a role in global vaccine development, the newer vaccines are stronger than the traditional types that Bottazzi, Hotez and other scientists around the world are developing.

Newer vaccines also have a quicker production process than the conventional vaccines, said Neuman, a member of the international committee that named SARS-CoV-2, the virus behind the COVID-19 pandemic.

But Neuman agrees that the newer vaccines have distribution challenges: the tangles of intellectual property patents, the availability of materials to produce billions of doses in a short period of time and the logistics of a more complicated transport and storage process.

Those challenges can be solved, Neuman said, but until then, the majority of the planet should be vaccinated "by any means necessary," including with conventional vaccines like the one created by Bottazzi and Hotez, if it proves to be safe and effective.

"Whatever gets the job done the fastest as long as it's safe for everybody involved," he said.

'One plane flight away'

While the Houston team waits for a production and distribution partner, the team fields calls every week from other countries asking them for help getting access to the vaccine, Bottazzi said.

They ask if they can get the spare doses that Americans are declining or if they can get connected to BioE to export to them from their Indian-made stocks — or if the scientists will share the formula for the prototype.

The scientists share the formula with any country or lab who asks for it and help in other ways, however they can.

"We're kind of practicing our own version of Texas vaccine diplomacy," Hotez said.

Vaccination rates for developing countries are still in the single digits. About 38% of the world population is fully vaccinated against COVID-19. Many African countries, such as Sudan, Kenya and Ethiopia, have a rate below 2%.

In India, where nearly a billion doses of three different vaccines — Covishield, Covaxin and Sputnik V — have been distributed, more than 80% of the population remains unvaccinated. In Brazil, less than a third of the country is inoculated.

"We're one plane flight away from seeing a variant that developed in a country that has very little vaccine end up on our shores and set off a new wave of the pandemic," said Dr. James Cutrell, an infectious disease expert at UT Southwestern Medical Center.

Right now, the World Health Organization is already monitoring several variants that have been traced to developing countries including Indonesia (21% fully vaccinated), Peru (with one of the highest COVID-19 mortality rates in the world), Colombia, the Dominican Republic and South Africa.

"Much of sub-Saharan Africa, large swaths of Latin America and other places like that — they really don't have access to the [mRNA] vaccines," said Cutrell, an associate professor in the department of internal medicine. "That makes it really important and attractive to have some of these cheaper, easier-to-distribute — but hopefully similarly effective — vaccines with more traditional technology, which I think this vaccine and other vaccines like it can contribute."

American problem, international solution

As the world scrambles for doses to meet the vaccination demand elsewhere, this nation's vaccination effort has flagged, hitting a wall of hesitation by a significant portion of the American public that is declining the new vaccines, although they have proven to be safe and effective.

Hotez and Bottazzi believe their vaccine would likely be more accepted by those who don't trust a vaccine that is unfamiliar to them, like those by Pfizer and Moderna.

But from the start, inoculating reticent Americans was never the Houston team's first priority.

Bottazzi and Hotez began their work developing coronavirus vaccines as part of their mission at the National School of Tropical Medicine, where Hotez is dean and Bottazzi is associate dean, to inoculate developing nations against tropical viruses.

Fast forward to January 2020, when SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, was setting off alarms in the U.S. medical community. Bottazzi and Hotez began working to repurpose their coronavirus research program to develop a vaccine against the new virus and distribute it to the same countries they'd focused on throughout their careers.

The speed with which the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines were developed and the fact they used newer formulas seemed to spook some Americans and helped fuel politically motivated misinformation campaigns that chipped away at public acceptance. And as this nation's vaccination rate hovers around 57%, it's a matter of debate what is needed to achieve a higher level of immunity as a country.

Neuman said he isn't so sure that a more familiar vaccine formula would change a lot of minds in the United States, where the resistance appears to be more political than scientific.

"I think that comes from a lot of different places, and I think the main place is sort of, 'You're not the boss of me,'" he said. "'Who says you get to tell me what to do?' And I don't think it matters what it is."

Even if it would make a difference, the path to emergency use authorization for a COVID-19 vaccine in this country starts with money — for research, for trials, for materials — and ends with firm commitments from the U.S. to support its mass production.

The Bottazzi-Hotez shot, at this point, has neither.

And so Hotez, who is an internationally known and outspoken warrior against the anti-vaccine movement, and Bottazzi redouble their attention abroad to protect Americans who can't or won't protect themselves. If they can get more of their vaccine overseas within a few months, they can keep the variants from percolating and landing on U.S. soil.

"It's a pretty ambitious, audacious goal," Hotez said. "But I think we could get there."

Disclosure: UT Southwestern Medical Center has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

At least one major Texas abortion provider resumes procedure lawmakers tried to prohibit -- after judge blocks near-total ban

"At least one major Texas abortion provider resumes procedure lawmakers tried to prohibit, after judge blocks near-total ban" was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

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At least one major abortion provider on Thursday resumed providing the procedure to patients who had been previously shut out by Texas' near-total ban, less than a day after a federal judge temporarily halted enforcement of the law.

"Last night we reached out to some of the patients that we had on a waiting list to come in and have abortions today," Amy Hagstrom Miller, founder and CEO for Whole Woman's Health, which runs four clinics in Texas and half a dozen in other states, said during a Thursday press call. "Folks whose pregnancies did have cardiac activity earlier in September, and we were able to see a few people ... right away, when we opened the clinic."

Whole Women's Health is also booking consultation and abortion appointments for the coming days for patients who were unable to get abortions because they were too far along in their pregnancies, Miller said. Some other clinics in Texas have told her they're doing the same, she said.

But many other providers and doctors affiliated with Whole Woman's and other clinics are waiting until more solid rulings come, she said.

Texas appealed U.S. District Judge Robert Pitman's Wednesday night's ruling that put a temporary block on the law, the most restrictive in the nation because it allows abortion only in about the first six weeks of a pregnancy, before most realize they are pregnant. If the Texas law is ultimately upheld by higher courts, it won't protect providers who perform those services during the legal pause on enforcement while the law makes its way through the legal process.

The case is now before the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans.

"That is part of why you don't see every clinic in the state opening immediately," Miller said. "Many of our physicians and staff are afraid that would, if the injunction is knocked down in the future, allow for these vigilantes to come back and sue us for every abortion we did in the interim. ... It's really the retroactive clause that gives people pause."

Miller said her company is trying to serve as many people as possible for as long as the temporary injunction issued by Pitman lasts. Patient phone calls began pouring into the clinics on Thursday as word of the federal court in Austin's action spread.

"The phone call volume has increased," she said. "There's actually hope from patients and from staff, and I think there's a little desperation in that hope. Folks know that this opportunity could be short lived."

Molly Duane, staff attorney for the Center for Reproductive Rights who is working with Whole Woman's, said cases like this one could take years to shake out, but patients and clinics are running out of time.

"The fact remains that providers and patients in Texas cannot wait until this case or any other is finally adjudicated to final judgment — that process takes years," Duane said. "What we know is that there are many brave providers out there in Texas who are relying on the assurances they got [from the ruling], and that number I believe will continue to grow."

The new Texas law — Senate Bill 8 — went into effect Sept. 1, forcing all major abortion clinics to stop offering abortions after an embryo's cardiac activity is detected, which can happen before many people know they're pregnant. Some providers have stopped offering the procedure altogether out of fear of litigation, while others have had to curtail their services and shut down access to anyone beyond about six weeks into a pregnancy.

SB 8 relies on enforcement not from the state, but by private citizens who would sue abortion providers and anyone involved in helping someone get an abortion after a “heartbeat" is detected. Medical and legal experts say embryos at this developmental stage don't yet possess a heart.

Wednesday's order from the federal court in Austin opened the door, at least temporarily, to expanding those services to people seeking to terminate their pregnancies up to 18 weeks. But the law is constructed in such a way that people who violate it, even while it is being temporarily blocked, could be vulnerable to litigation if the law's enforcement were to be reinstated and any existing suits could continue. The lawsuits can be filed up to four years after the procedure.

Already, abortion opponents have threatened to file suits and watch for potential violators to sue if the law is ultimately upheld.

A decision from the 5th Circuit on whether to uphold the law or further weaken it could come as early as Thursday.

Officials with Planned Parenthood of Greater Texas, which offers reproductive health services to people across the state, could not be reached immediately on Thursday. But officials with the national organization said late Wednesday that the organization was “hopeful" that the ruling would lead to a return to previous services — although no timeline was offered.

“This fight is far from over," Alexis McGill Johnson, president of Planned Parenthood Federation of America, said in a Wednesday statement.

Until Wednesday's order by Pitman, Texas' new law successfully flouted the constitutional right to have an abortion before fetal viability established by Roe v. Wade in 1973 and subsequent rulings. That's because of that novel private-citizen enforcement layer.

It capped conservative lawmakers' decadeslong war to block access to the procedure, and Texas' fast appeal to the 5th Circuit was expected.

Disclosure: Planned Parenthood has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

Correction, Oct. 7, 2021: In a previous version of this story, the name of the federal judge who issued a Wednesday ruling was misspelled in one instance. His name is Robert Pitman, not Robert Pittman.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2021/10/07/Texas-abortion-law-providers/.

The Texas Tribune is a member-supported, nonpartisan newsroom informing and engaging Texans on state politics and policy. Learn more at texastribune.org.

The delta variant is wreaking havoc on most of Texas — but not El Paso. Here’s why.

El Paso resident Carlos Martinez was relieved in June when the number of COVID-19 hospitalizations and deaths were dropping in his community.

Martinez, 25, started going to restaurants for the first time in months, seeing friends and going out again after being careful for more than a year.

Then the highly contagious delta variant began to take hold across Texas and the rest of the nation in July, and the numbers started to climb again across the state.

Martinez, who is vaccinated, said he went back into isolation to help reduce the spread of the virus in El Paso, where COVID-19 killed so many people late last year that the county had to use inmates to help with the overflow of bodies at the morgue.

But while delta raged through most of the state's 254 counties in July and August, breaking records and overwhelming hospitals in both rural conservative areas and sprawling liberal metros, El Paso — with one of the highest vaccination rates in the state — has been relatively unscathed by the most recent surge.

"We held our breath after July Fourth, but we didn't see the increase we thought we'd see in terms of hospitalizations," said Martinez, a local government employee.

While some other metro areas like Austin reported record high numbers of COVID-19 patients in their area hospitals just last month, and while statewide hospitalizations came close to eclipsing the January peak of 14,218, El Paso-area hospitals, which serve nearly a million West Texas residents, haven't come close to their previous highs.

El Paso's peak for COVID-19 hospitalizations was just over 1,100 in mid-November, said Wanda Helgesen, director of BorderRAC, the state's regional advisory council for local hospitals. On Thursday, the number of people hospitalized for COVID-19 in El Paso was 127. In fact, the city's daily hospitalization numbers haven't broken 200 since March, according to the Texas Department of State Health Services. Hospitals are seeing an increase in patients, have occasionally seen their ICUs fill up and are having the same staffing problems as the rest of the state, she said, but have so far been able to handle the uptick. Most of the pressure is related to non-COVID patients, many of whom had been waiting to get treatment for other problems, she said.

"We do have a surge of patients but not to the extent that other parts of Texas are having," she said.

Helgesen and others say much of the credit can be attributed to the area's high vaccination rate, widespread compliance with masking and social distancing, and a strong partnership among local community and health care leaders.

"It is amazing," Helgesen said. "It is absolutely a credit to our community. I really think it was an all-out effort."

The share of COVID-19 tests in El Paso that come back positive is hovering around 6%, while the statewide positivity rate is three times that at 18%.

And while COVID-19 patients, most of whom are unvaccinated, took up more than 30% of hospital capacity in some areas and more than 20% statewide last week, in El Paso they accounted for only 7% of patients in local hospitals.

For a city with one of the state's highest per-capita COVID-19 death counts, the numbers present a rare glimmer of good news for the traumatized residents of this West Texas border city.

"Compared to the rest of Texas, we're in heaven," said Gabriel Ibarra-Mejia, assistant professor of public health at the University of Texas-El Paso. "That doesn't mean we are free from COVID, but we're doing much, much better than most of the rest of the state. The numbers don't lie."

Civic and health leaders say they aren't ignoring one important fact: El Paso's surges have been weeks behind the rest of the state throughout the pandemic, so it's possible that the region's own delta-fueled spike could still be ahead.

"We aren't letting our guard down," Helgesen said.

El Paso Mayor Oscar Leeser, who lost his mother and brother to COVID during the winter surge, said the reason the city and county have enacted recent mask mandates, in defiance of Gov. Greg Abbott's ban on them and in spite of lower numbers, is because the potential for another surge is still real.

"We do worry and we want to make sure that we don't have any spikes," he said. "You always want to be proactive and you always want to be prepared."

Sense of community helps COVID response

El Paso was in the national spotlight in November when it had one of the highest COVID-19 death rates in the country.

Images of county jail trustees in black-and-white stripes moving body bags into eight mobile morgue trucks outside the understaffed medical examiner's office were a shocking illustration of the heavy toll the virus took on the community.

During the fall, the number of hospitalized coronavirus patients in El Paso shot up nearly tenfold between September and November, at a time when the numbers dropped and restrictions were relaxed in most other parts of the state.

El Paso's COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations remained relatively high well into the early springtime while the rest of the state was experiencing a decline as vaccines became available.

"Today, El Pasoans may be taking the delta surge more seriously than residents in other areas that were less hard hit because of that traumatic time," said Chris Van Deusen, spokesperson for the Texas Department of State Health Services.

"El Paso experienced one of the biggest crises of the pandemic with hospitals absolutely overrun by COVID patients last year, and the communal memory of that period and the measures that helped the city and region cope may be helping people take the current situation more seriously," he said.

There are several other factors that likely play into El Paso's relative success at keeping the delta variant at bay and people out of the hospital, state and local health officials and residents say.

There may be a high level of natural immunity among local residents, which medical experts say appears to keep COVID-19 sufferers out of the hospital in the slight chance they are reinfected, health experts say.

There has been wide acceptance of the monoclonal antibody treatments, which Helgesen said kept at least 300 people out of hospitals during the last surge and, because the area never closed its regional infusion center as other areas did when numbers went down in the spring, is likely keeping people out of hospitals now, too.

The city's geography is also a factor: It is hundreds of miles from the nearest major population center, and it borders New Mexico, which has one of the highest vaccination rates in the nation at 61% fully vaccinated.

And the Walmart mass shooting two years ago, in which 23 people were killed on Aug. 3, 2019, contributed to an increased sense of community and empathy that tends to lend itself to widespread compliance with masking and vaccinations, said local resident Steven Wysocki.

"That El Paso Strong thing has been resonating ever since the Walmart shooting," he said. "So that's another thing. 'Let's protect our community.' It's on a personal level. It's a strong sense of family and community responsibility. Even though El Paso's population is close to a million, we're still a small town."

Van Deusen said the tragedy likely engendered trust in the local pandemic response.

"There does seem to be a sense of community and trust in local leaders and public health … that can go a long way to helping promote a cohesive community response to a crisis," he said.

When Abbott lifted statewide mask mandates and business limits in March, civic leaders in El Paso begged their residents to keep wearing masks, and most businesses continued to limit their services voluntarily throughout the spring, Leeser said.

Wysocki, a 51-year-old disabled Army veteran, says most people seem to be taking the latest statewide surge seriously.

"Any store I go to, every place I go, people have got their mask and they put it on," he said.

El Paso among most vaccinated counties in Texas

But it's the high vaccination rate in El Paso that most are saying is the main factor in the community's relative success at tamping down the impact of the delta surge.

Nearly 62% of all El Paso's residents are fully vaccinated, compared with 49% statewide. Of those who are eligible to get the vaccine, ages 12 and up, the rate of fully vaccinated residents climbs to nearly 75%. And almost 97% of all El Pasoans age 65 and older, the age group at the highest risk of hospitalization and death, have had at least one shot.

By contrast, only about one-third of residents in the Panhandle and East Texas are fully vaccinated.

"We've done a really, really good job of making sure our community was vaccinated, and that's made a huge difference," Leeser said. "And when we talk about 'we,' it's not just the city of El Paso. It's the county, the county judge, University Medical Center, the private providers, everyone in the area. We all rallied together, and it's been one continuous message we've been getting out to the community."

The COVID-19 vaccines do not guarantee that recipients won't get the virus, but they are highly effective at keeping infected patients out of the hospital and almost 100% effective at preventing death from the virus.

Wysocki got his vaccine as soon as he could, as did the rest of his family.

He caught the virus several months before the vaccine came out and was bedridden for several days, an episode he said motivated his whole family.

"Everyone in our family immediately got the shots [when they were available]," Wysocki said. "No one wanted to go through that."

El Paso County Judge Ricardo Samaniego said a big part of the success is because El Paso residents are used to looking out for each other.

"We know how to do this," he said. "We know how to come together. We've done it before, and we're going to do it again."

Chris Essig contributed to this report.

Verbal and physical attacks on health workers surge as emotions boil during latest COVID-19 wave

When the security guard at Methodist Hospital San Antonio met the visitor at the door of the children's emergency room on a Saturday afternoon in early August, the officer's request was simple: The man needed to get a temperature screening to make sure he showed no early signs of COVID-19 before entering the hospital.

The man refused, became agitated and began angrily shouting, pulling out his camera to record the guard and hospital staff.

The scene got so tense that San Antonio police were called, but the man — whose identity and reason for wanting to enter the hospital weren't included in a police account of the incident — stormed off in anger before the officer could arrive.

It was, relatively speaking, a small blow-up, but Texas hospital workers and health care officials say incidents like it have been rising in both number and intensity this summer as tensions boil during the delta-fueled fourth surge in COVID-19 hospitalizations.

"Our staff have been cursed at, screamed at, threatened with bodily harm and even had knives pulled on them," said Jane McCurley, chief nursing executive for Methodist Healthcare System, speaking at a press conference five days after the incident in the children's ER. "It is escalating. … It's just a handful at each facility who have been extremely abusive. But there is definitely an increasing number of occurrences every day."

Nurses and hospital staffers are historically vulnerable to workplace violence due to the nature of their jobs, where they deal with people who are having bad reactions to street drugs or mental breaks and often have to give bad news to patients or family already in extreme pain or emotional distress.

Half of all Texas nurses reported verbal and physical abuse at work in 2016 - the last year Texas health officials surveyed them about it.

But the pandemic has exacerbated the stress that can escalate into threats and violence, as people are now contending with not just the virus but also job loss and other stresses, said Karen Garvey, vice president of patient safety and clinical risk management at Parkland Health & Hospital System in Dallas.

Garvey said confrontations at Parkland just this year have included "people being punched in the chest, having urine thrown on them and inappropriate sexual innuendos or behaviors in front of staff members. The verbal abuse, the name-calling, racial slurs … we've had broken bones, broken noses."

Visitors and patients assaulting hospital staff "was an epidemic before the pandemic — it was just silent to the public," she added. "Health care workers have been dealing with this for years, and it's become more pronounced with the COVID pandemic."

The pandemic-related rise in tensions across the U.S. is not unique to the hospital industry. Airlines are reporting an increase in aggressive passengers as flight attendants take self-defense classes. Police are reporting an increase in violent crime and road rage incidents.

A similar phenomenon emerged last year when retail and grocery workers became front-line enforcers of mask mandates and limits on gatherings and indoor activities. And it resurfaced last month when parents aggressively confronted teachers at schools over oft-changing mask rules.

But unlike airlines, which can permanently ban passengers, hospitals are more limited in how they can respond or prevent those instances.

A 2013 Texas law made it a felony to assault an emergency room nurse, but legislation that would have expanded that to include nurses in other areas of a hospital died in the Texas Senate earlier this year. A bill addressing the issue is currently being considered in Washington by the U.S. Congress.

With hospitals reporting historic nursing shortages as the pandemic drags on, the fear is that the "alarming rate" of escalation will be the last straw for nurses who are physically worn out after fighting a pandemic for 18 months, thin on compassion for people who need care after choosing not to be vaccinated and afraid for their own personal safety, said Houston pediatrician Dr. Giancarlos Toledanes.

"With the escalation of this violence toward health care workers, we're going to lose the workers that are deemed essential," Toledanes said. "If the problem continues to compound, then I think it's going to make it much more difficult to staff these hospitals."

"Tempers are high"

The Texas Department of State Health Services doesn't track incidents of aggression against hospital staff outside of its regular surveys, the next of which will be done next year, a spokesperson said.

But as health officials across Texas watch hospital ICUs and pediatric units overflow with record numbers of mostly unvaccinated people, they say the surge in aggression toward health care workers is obvious.

Many of the problems being reported in recent months include disagreements over masking and screening protocols that people don't have to follow in other places, particularly after most mandatory protocols were banned in recent months by Gov. Greg Abbott, officials said.

Confrontations are sometimes caused by hours- or dayslong waits in emergency rooms that are so full of COVID-19 patients that there is no room for anyone else, health care workers said.

"Tempers are high," said Carrie Kroll, director of advocacy for the Texas Hospital Association. "To the point where some systems are putting a security guard at check-in because family members are getting so abusive over the masking and some of the other screening things they need to do."

Families are often upset when they can't visit someone due to COVID-19 rules that limit the number of people who can be bedside or even come inside the hospital, said Serena Bumpus, director of practice at the Texas Nurses Association.

"When our family members are sick, we want to be there by their side, and it's not that easy to be by our loved one's side anymore because of this increase in the number of COVID patients in our facilities," she said.

At the Katy campus of Texas Children's Hospital west of Houston, Toledanes said some parents get verbally abusive over rules that require them to wait for COVID-19 test results before more than one parent is allowed into a room with a sick child.

"With their child in the hospital and they're the only ones handling everything, it obviously gets stressful," he said. "It's escalated a lot more, especially now that we've gotten a little bit stricter with our policies" due to the surge.

Health workers face online harassment

The threats follow health care workers online as well, and often have to do with philosophical differences over what have become political hot buttons such as masking and vaccinations, Toledanes wrote in a recent column for the online medical magazine MedScape.

"Online, healthcare workers, who advocate for masking or vaccination, are often subject to death threats, threats to family members, and verbal abuse on social media," he wrote. "Veiled threats of 'we know who you are' and 'we will find you' follow physicians who advocate for masking in schools."

At Parkland, some of the administration's actions to protect the workers include a staff of six mental health peace officers — known as the Law Enforcement Intervention for Environmental/Patient Safety staff — who are specially trained to respond to high-risk incidents, Garvey said. Administrators have developed a flagging system in the patient record which identifies patients who have been identified as known risks to staff, she said.

Some hospitals have hung signs in hallways reminding families to be courteous and patient with the overworked staff.

In mid-August, the escalating reports prompted the Texas Hospital Association to take to social media with an image of an exhausted nurse's face, mask pulled below her chin.

"Don't forget the person behind the mask," the image reads.

Inline article imageThe Texas Hospital Association distributed this message on social media in response to a surge in verbal and physical attacks on medical workers. Credit: Gorodenkoff Productions OU

McCurley said that the increasing violence this year is made worse by the contrast in attitudes workers are seeing now compared with a year ago, when the public seemed to understand that nurses and hospital staff were standing between them and the deadly pandemic.

"We were seen as health care heroes and our community responded with love and support, food and gifts, drive-by parades, buses and motorcycles and airplanes, and we felt so much love and support. It gave us the courage to go in and face our own fears of the unknown in the beginning," McCurley said at the August press conference. "Today, those health care workers are experiencing abusive behavior by patient families. It's unfathomable that it's occurring, and it has to stop."

Disclosure: Texas Children's Hospital and the Texas Hospital Association have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

Desperate Texas doctors turn to antibody treatments to slow down surging COVID-19 hospitalizations

What surprised Texas retiree Kathy Hardman most was not that she got COVID-19 five months after being fully vaccinated.

And it was not even that she qualified to receive an increasingly popular — yet still largely unfamiliar — experimental treatment that had been prescribed to some of the most powerful people in the country.

What shocked the 66-year-old grandmother of four was that the monoclonal antibody infusion therapy, estimated to decrease chances of hospitalization by up to 70%, was available to her at her hometown hospital in Mount Pleasant, a community of 15,000 in rural Northeast Texas.

"It's amazing to me that we have this available to us in little old Titus County," Hardman said on Friday, less than 24 hours after she was diagnosed and got her infusion at Titus Regional Medical Center.

The infusions are, in fact, more available and accessible to Texans than ever before, with ever-loosening restrictions on who may qualify, more people hearing about them and an increasing number of doctors across the state learning about the therapy and prescribing it to their patients suffering from COVID-19.

The Regeneron treatment, the therapy being used by state-run infusion centers, was used by both then-President Trump last fall and Gov. Greg Abbott last week after they each were diagnosed with COVID-19. Houston-area Congressman Troy Nehls posted on social media he received the treatment Saturday, after testing positive for the virus. The therapy uses antibodies developed in a lab and injected into the patient, usually through an IV drip, to help their own antibodies fight the virus.

Abbott and other state leaders, including the directors of the state's health department and emergency management divisions, have pushed the experimental infusion therapy since it was given emergency use authorization for certain patients by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in November.

But after a slow response by an initially skeptical medical community and by hospitals that were too overwhelmed by the pandemic to devote time or space to offer the hourslong treatment appointments, the therapy is finally being recognized as an important part of the arsenal against a virus that has roared back this summer.

Demand has increased across the country as COVID-19 cases have exploded. The therapy's distributor, AmerisourceBergen, has sent 136,932 treatment courses of monoclonal antibody therapies to Texas since December. More than a quarter of them, nearly 37,000 treatment doses made by Regeneron, arrived this month, according to the Texas Department of State Health Services.

There are now about 140 doctors' offices, hospitals, clinics and infusion centers in Texas that can not only administer the drug, but order it directly from the company, making it easier to keep it in stock.

The treatment is free for patients, who are required to have a prescription and meet certain guidelines.

"We prescribe it all the time," said Dr. Emily Briggs, a private physician in New Braunfels who was hesitant about the therapy at first but began prescribing it in March after learning more about it. "We're using it a lot. The unfortunate truth is that my patients who are unwilling to get the vaccine want us to throw everything at them when they get this virus."

And more are catching the virus every day in Texas, where the delta variant is being blamed for what health care officials describe as the worst surge in infections that the state has seen since the pandemic began.

The result is twofold: a spike in hospitalizations of unvaccinated people, who represent more than half of the Texas population but more than 95% of patients hospitalized with COVID-19, and a strain on intensive care units. More than 100 hospitals have reported few or no ICU beds available in the past week.

On Thursday, 10,772 new confirmed cases and 3,285 new probable cases were reported across the state, and 12,841 people were in Texas hospitals with COVID-19.

COVID-19 surge prompts state to reopen infusion centers

Those grim statistics are the main motivator behind the sudden re-emergence of previously shuttered mass infusion centers as a primary tool in helping keep the hospital system from buckling under the strain of too many patients.

Most of the centers supported by the Texas Division of Emergency Management that had opened at the end of 2020 and early 2021 were closed or turned over to locals months ago, when hospitalizations and deaths dropped in the wake of mass vaccination efforts.

Mobile treatment units and hospitals kept offering infusions, but the mass centers weren't needed as much because the hospitals were able to handle patient loads once again. In June, Texas providers received fewer than 2,000 monoclonal antibody treatment courses, according to the Texas Department of State Health Services.

Throughout the January surge, Abbott and other state leaders criticized the low rate of prescriptions that physicians were writing for the therapies, which were arriving to the state on a weekly allotment through the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

State and national leaders repeatedly suggested that part of the reason hospitals were becoming overwhelmed during the winter surge was that not enough doctors were prescribing the treatment, which they argued could keep patients from requiring a hospital bed.

Physicians at the time complained that the criteria set by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the manufacturers of the treatment limited their ability to prescribe it. A patient's age, the timing of their symptoms and their risk factors all had to be considered. Doctors said too few met all the criteria — and some patients weren't showing up at their offices early enough after the onsent of symptoms for the therapy to work properly.

Several, like Briggs, the New Braunfels physician, did not want to use their patients "like guinea pigs" and preferred to wait until the therapies were more proven.

Then delta hit, driving hospitalizations back up, and this time, the health care community is embracing antibody therapy — and even encouraging each other to use it by putting together public awareness campaigns and training sessions.

On Thursday night, nearly 250 people attended a private virtual town hall for the medical community hosted by the Travis County Medical Society and the Dell Medical Center at the University of Texas at Austin. Its purpose: to answer questions from doctors and nurses about the therapy and encourage them to start prescribing it.

New criteria mean more people qualify for therapy

In May, the FDA expanded the criteria for who can receive it, dropping the qualifying age from 55 to 12, which gave more discretion to the doctors who would be writing the prescriptions. The changes also included new weight guidelines that allow some 75% of Texans to qualify to receive it; the majority of Texans are overweight, which increases the risk of hospitalization for COVID patients.

Regeneron is most effective on people with COVID-19 who have had symptoms for less than 10 days, but the FDA's broad guidelines largely leave the decision of who should receive it up to physicians, health officials say.

In an email to staff at Houston Methodist hospital system on Wednesday, Dr. Robert A. Phillips, executive vice president and chief physician executive, said the hospital has scheduled 867 infusions for this week — more than double the highest number for a single week during the last surge.

The Texas Department of State Health Services sent Houston Methodist 17 nurses to help administer the treatment, he said in the email. They arrived last week.

"As you may know, Gov. Abbott is receiving monoclonal antibody treatment after testing positive for COVID-19. This likely will bring more attention to this treatment, which has proven to cut down on hospitalizations," he wrote.

Nim Kidd, chief of the Texas Division of Emergency Management, said he's glad to see the enthusiasm.

"We've been trying to push these therapies for all Texans, all along," he said. "They work. I'm a 100% believer in that [treatment], personally."

Doctors and state leaders point out that the benefits of the infusion last only about three months and that it should not be used as a substitute for vaccines.

"We are continuing to focus on vaccines as the goal," Kidd said.

"It's kept people out of the hospital"

The mass infusion center at the Bexar County fairgrounds near San Antonio had closed in March, but reopened on Aug. 10 and in just over a week, more than 500 people showed up with prescriptions for the infusions, county officials said. There are nearly 1,400 people in San Antonio-area hospitals with COVID-19, just under the peak the county saw in January.

Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff said daily new hospitalization admissions have been holding fairly steady in recent days, instead of climbing exponentially as they have been for the past month, and he says it's likely that the antibody infusions are contributing to that.

"It is a significant tool," Wolff said. "What it does is it helps keep people out of the hospital, so I think we're beginning to see some effect of that."

At Titus Regional in Mount Pleasant, Dr. Fritz Thurmond believes the same.

Thurmond oversees all COVID-19-related operations at the hospital, which for weeks has been teetering on the edge of its capacity in a county that's only 28% vaccinated. The number of daily antibody infusions has more than tripled what they were administering earlier in the year, officials there said. The hospital has done about 160 in the past three weeks.

The therapy's "remarkable" efficacy at keeping people with COVID symptoms from becoming seriously ill is likely helping the hospital avoid a critical tipping point, Thurmond said.

"It's kept people out of the hospital, and you know that real estate, especially now, is almost unavailable anywhere," Thurmond said.

Hardman, the Mount Pleasant patient, experienced symptoms for just a few days before she had a fever over 101 degrees, body aches and other flu symptoms. Within a few hours of the treatment, on Thursday evening, her fever was gone. By Friday, she said she felt "almost normal."

"It feels like a miracle," she said. "I'm so very grateful. I've told all of my friends, retirees, if you get COVID, go do this."

Now that the therapy is much more mainstream than it was six months ago, the idea that only the exceptionally needy or the extremely influential can get it isn't true anymore, Thurmond said.

"The reality is that the rest of us can get it, too," he said.

Disclosure: The University of Texas at Austin has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

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US Supreme Court refuses to hear Ken Paxton’s challenge to California law banning state-funded travel to Texas

The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday rejected an attempt by Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton to challenge a California ban on state-funded travel to states with discriminatory laws — a list Texas landed on in 2017 after the Legislature approved a religious-refusal law for adoptions in the state.

The move comes as the Texas Legislature grapples with a slate of anti-LGBTQ bills that business leaders warn could be harmful to Texans and a threat to the state's economy, which is still reeling from the recession that accompanied the coronavirus pandemic.

On Monday, the court, charged with hearing disputes between states, declined to hear Paxton's challenge, filed early last year. The ban prevents California agencies, public universities and boards from funding work-related trips to Texas.

There was no reason given for the denial of Paxton's request, but Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito dissented. Both were appointed by then President George H.W. Bush, the first Houston Republican elected to Congress. Paxton couldn't be immediately reached for comment late Monday.

In June 2017, shortly after the Texas Legislature moved to allow foster care agencies to use religious reasons to deny same-sex couples the right to foster children, California Attorney General Xavier Becerra blasted the law that he said "allows foster care agencies to discriminate against children in foster care and potentially disqualify LGBT families from the state's foster and adoption system."

The law was authored by state Rep. James Frank, a Wichita Falls Republican who now chairs the House Human Services Committee, and allows faith-based organizations to deny services for certain contraceptives and refuse to contract with organizations that don't share their religious beliefs. It requires providers to refer parents or children to a different agency if they refuse to provide services themselves.

Paxton, who has made religious liberty a top priority of his office, at the time criticized the California statute as an unconstitutional and misguided attempt to police other states.

"California is attempting to punish Texans for respecting the right of conscience for foster care and adoption providers," he said.

But if the move by the Golden State was meant to curb Texas' appetite for anti-LGBTQ legislation, it has not had the intended effect.

Last fall, under recommendations from Republican Gov. Greg Abbott, a state board that oversees behavioral health workers stripped three categories from the code of conduct establishing when a social worker may refuse service to someone: On the basis of disability, sexual orientation or gender identity.

Abbott said at the time that those protections went beyond state law, but the move set off such a firestorm of criticism that the board reinstated the protections two weeks later.

Then last week, members of the business group Texas Competes — composed of more than 1,450 Texas employers, business and tourism groups and backed by big tech companies like Houston-based Hewlett Packard — listed 26 proposals winding through the Texas Legislature that they say will infringe on LGBTQ Texans' rights, "tarnish Texas's welcoming brand" and scare away tourism and business.

They include restrictions on access to gender confirmation health care for transgender children, which is awaiting a debate in the Texas Senate. A bill already passed by that chamber would prevent public school students from participating in sports teams unless their sex assigned at birth aligns with the team's designation.

While that bill would only affect students in K-12 schools, two similar bills in the House would include colleges and universities in that mandate. Last week, the chair of the House committee assigned the Senate's sports bill told the Houston Chronicle that the lower chamber's companion legislation likely doesn't have enough support to leave committee.

The Texas Senate passed the bill on transgender athletes shortly after the NCAA announced that they would only hold national championships in states where transgender student-athletes are allowed to participate.

If Texas lands on that list as well, the state could lose out on as much as $1 billion dollars of economic impact if the NCAA canceled its events currently slated to take place in Texas — such as the 2024 College Football Playoff National Championship game set for Houston and the 2023 Women's Final Four in Dallas, said Lisa Hermes, CEO of the Chamber of Commerce in McKinney, north of Dallas.

Among the states California has targeted with its travel ban is North Carolina, after the state enacted a law requiring state agencies to maintain separate-sex bathrooms and changing facilities.

Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick has championed similar legislation in the past, even making the so-called "bathroom bill" a legislative priority in 2017, but it did not pass.