Week of Aug 3-7

COVID-19 surge in nursing homes worries editor

Thank you for all the well wishes after my first “Capital Highlights” column last week. I also appreciate the emails suggesting topics of high interest.
Agriculture, oil, education and health care top the list so far, but please keep the conversation going about what’s happening in your corner of our big state and what is of highest interest to you. 
One editor emailed to say he was highly concerned about the spread of COVID-19 in nursing homes in his community. The data at the Texas Department of State Health Services for his county is about two weeks old, he said, even though the state website promises daily updates. 
Last week, the Texas Health and Human Services Commission released its first list of COVID-19 cases and deaths with details about individual Texas nursing homes. The initial release showed nursing homes accounted for about one-third of Texas’ COVID-19 deaths and the number of cases in the health care facilities had more than doubled during July.
In July, Texas reported 3,315 COVID-19 deaths and 252,884 cases. Both totals were more than all other months of the pandemic combined.

Don’t plant those mystery seeds
Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller urged Texans to take extreme precaution if the mail brings mysterious seeds from China. 
The packets, mailed to multiple states, including Texas, are falsely labeled as jewelry. The seeds could contain harmful invasive species or be otherwise unsafe. The mailings could be part of an online scam to bolster product ratings, Miller said.
People shouldn’t throw away the packets because the seeds could grow in the landfill. Instead, email SITC.Mail@aphis.usda.gov for more information.
In an interview with the Texas Tribune, Miller planted more seeds of doubt about China.
“I'm getting sick and tired of these surprises coming out of China,” Miller told the Tribune. “First, it was a China virus, then it was murder hornets. Then we had closed down their embassy because of espionage and spying. And now we, you know, we’ve got all these mysterious seeds.”

Doctors not on the front lines
The Texas Medical Association tweeted a MedPage Today story reporting there is no evidence the doctor group in a viral video had any expertise about COVID-19.
The video went viral last week after about 10 physicians, dressed in white coats with an embroidered America’s Frontline Doctors logo, spoke for 45 minutes in front of the Supreme Court building. The MedPage Today article detailed the doctors’ reported lack of credentials regarding the pandemic and the allegedly false information they spread.
The Texas Medical Association represents more than 53,000 physicians and medical students.

Texas A&M climbs aboard Operation Warp Speed
A Texas A&M University System subcontractor will mass produce COVID-19 vaccines as part of the federal government’s Operation Warp Speed.
A new federal task order, valued at $265 million, reserved production capacity in College Station through the end of 2021.
“The Texas A&M System is ready to save lives and help protect the country,” said John Sharp, chancellor of The Texas A&M University System. 
Operation Warp Speed aims to deliver millions of doses of COVID-19 vaccines by the end of the year if the U.S. Food and Drug Administration determines they are safe and effective.

The best in the country
The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center ranks as No. 1 in cancer care in the U.S. News & World Report’s 2020-21 “Best Hospitals” survey. The institution has been named one of the nation’s top two cancer hospitals since the survey’s inception in 1990.
“This incredible honor is especially impactful during these unprecedented times,” said Dr. Peter Pisters, MD Anderson president. 

Keep your eyes on the road plan
The direction of Texas roads and highways for the next 30 years will be mapped out at 10 a.m. Tuesday, Aug. 11, during a virtual public hearing .
This is a key opportunity to speak about the Texas Highway Department of Transportation 2050 plan. To register in advance to talk, call 1-855-839-2750 by noon Aug. 10. The WebEx link to attend the meeting is at TxDOT.gov.
The plan estimates Texas will grow from about 29 million to more than 47 million people by 2050, and its gross state product will rise from $2 trillion to $7 trillion by 2046. The document also predicts fast technological change in areas such as connected and autonomous vehicles.
The many rural readers of this column may want to weigh in on TxDOT’s strategic approach. Less than 10 percent of current state spending is on rural and multimodal connectivity. One of five options in the plan would increase that to almost 35 percent; the other four would devote considerably less to rural areas.

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