Three hundred seventy six residents in Kerr County were infected with the coronavirus since the start of the pandemic and seven county residents were hospitalized with the virus as of today, according to a Kerr County press release issued this morning.
Three of the hospitalized people were in ICU. There were 50 active infections as of today, and 298 people had recovered, according to the release.
Statewide active COVID-19 cases totaled approximately 145,291, according to the Texas Department of State Health Services, and 250 Texas counties had reported coronavirus infections. Fatalities from the disease totaled 6,274 and 3,609,474 had been tested in Texas. An estimated 260,542 people had recovered from the disease in Texas. Since the start of the pandemic, 412,107 infections had been reported in Texas. A total of 8,800 new cases and 322 deaths were reported on July 30.
Nationwide, 1,414,155 people have recovered from the disease, 4,496,737 have been infected and 152,074 have died since the pandemic began, according to Johns Hopkins University. In the U.S., 54,644,715 had been tested for the virus.
Worldwide, at least 17,325,093 had been infected since the pandemic began, 673,868 had died, and 10,167,559 had recovered, according to the university.
Top 10 Texas counties for confirmed infections since pandemic started
County records 100 or more new cases for 12th consecutive day
ANGLETON — Thursday marked the 12th straight day that Brazoria County officials reported 100 or more new COVID-19 cases, bringing the county’s total case number to 5,548 since mid-March.
County officials added 145 new cases of COVID-19 to the tally Thursday.
“I’m looking forward to the days that we’re below 100,” County Judge Matt Sebesta said.
Thursday’s report included the death of a woman in her 80s who was a resident of Creekside Alzheimer’s Center in Pearland, he said.
“It’s the worst thing we can see,” Sebesta said. “I hate getting my report every day and if there’s a death on it — it’s the first thing that draws my attention.”
Another resident of the same nursing home was included in the county’s new positive cases, as was one employee of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice and one inmate of the Brazoria County Jail. Sebesta did not know which prison unit the TDCJ employee works for, he said.
The county did not report any new probable cases, which are people who are exhibiting COVID symptoms and are linked to others who have tested positive, usually by living in the same household.
The greatest number of new cases was 37 in Pearland, closely followed in Alvin with 34.
Lake Jackson had 17 new cases while Angleton saw 15, according to county data. Freeport and Clute added 11 and seven new cases to their respective totals.
“We were doing every well for a few days prior to this and I think that’s up just a little bit,” Lake Jackson Mayor Bob Sipple said.
He believes that progress is being made against the virus by people following the protocol, he said.
“We emphasize and we emphasize and we emphasize, and as I told a group of people before council who were protesting the masks, there is not another cure that has been found yet,” Sipple said. “They said ‘How long are we gonna have to wear masks?’ and I said, ‘Until a vaccine is found.’”
Masks, social distancing and the frequent washing of hands are the only known defenses against COVID-19, and they have to be practiced, he said.
“It works,” Sipple said. “We’ve seen that it works.”
In the northern part of the county, Manvel saw five new people reported to test positive for the novel coronavirus, while Iowa Colony saw four.
Three new cases each were reported in Brazoria, Richwood, and Danbury. In West Columbia, Sweeny, and Brookside Village, two new cases each were reported Thursday.
Seven of Thursday’s cases were in children under the age of 10, while another 20 were in people under the age of 20.
People in their 20s accounted for 24 of the new cases, and there were 25 positive cases found in people in their 30s. There were 26 new cases in people in the 40s age range, and 21 cases were reported among people in their 50s. Altogether, 66 percent of the new cases was concentrated in people ranging in age from their 20s to their 50s.
Among those in their 60s, officials reported 12 new cases, with another seven among people in their 70s. Just three people in their 80s or older were included in Thursday’s report — less than one percent.
“I think more and more people are understanding the seriousness of this disease and therefore pay more attention to protocol,” Sipple said. “As I visit various stores, drive around town, I’m seeing more masks than I have before and I think that’s a very excellent thing.”
The new infections announced daily are from tests taken at least several days previously. On average, it takes two to four days for labs to return results, but some tests could take longer before the findings are reported to the county.
Officials reported 50 recoveries, which is a good thing, Sebesta said.
“I’d like to see more always, but recoveries are a good thing,” he said.
In all, Brazoria County has reported 5,548 cases of the novel coronavirus. Of those, 2,892 are active and 2,594 people have recovered. Twenty cases are considered probable and 42 people have died.
Abbott defends mask mandate to 'frustrated' delegates at Texas GOP convention
Gov. Greg Abbott delivered a firm defense Thursday of his coronavirus response to delegates at the Texas GOP convention who even he acknowledged have grown agitated with him.
Abbott addressed the discontent head-on as the virtual convention got underway Thursday afternoon, starting with the statewide mask requirement that he issued earlier this month. Since then, several Republican county leaders, including in some of the state's biggest red counties, have voted to censure the governor.
“Now I know that many of all you are frustrated — so am I," Abbott said in a video message to the delegates. "I know that many of you do not like the mask requirement — I don’t either. It is the last thing that I wanted to do.
"Actually the next to the last," Abbott added. "The last thing that any of us want is to lock Texas back down again."
Coronavirus has surged in recent weeks across the state, and Abbott sought to impress upon the delegates how dire the situation has become.
"Each day the facts get worse," he said. "If we don't slow this disease quickly, our hospitals will get overrun, and I fear it will even inflict some of the people that I'm talking to right now."
In addition to criticism of his mask order, Abbott has faced growing resistance from within his own party to his use of executive power in general. Abbott also tackled that critique in his address to delegates.
"Many of you say my orders are unconstitutional," said Abbott, who was the attorney general before becoming governor in 2014. "But remember: I was the attorney general who fought for your First Amendment, your Second Amendment and your 10th Amendment rights at the United States Supreme Court."
"I will never abandon the Constitution," Abbott continued, "and I haven't here."
To support his case, Abbott said there was a recent ruling by the conservative 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals — written by a judge appointed by President Donald Trump — that "upheld the constitutionality of my executive order authority." Abbott appeared to be referring to an early April ruling that let Texas enforce a ban on almost all abortions amid the pandemic, part of a broader order by Abbott to cancel elective surgeries and free up hospital space.
Abbott then acknowledged to delegates that they may have some differences — but "there is so much that we agree on," urging unity to reelect Trump and defeat presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden.
The state GOP convention is being held online through Saturday. The party moved forward with the virtual format earlier this week after losing a legal battle to hold it in person in Houston as originally planned. Local Republican delegates were gathering at the Fredonia Hotel to attend the virtual convention.
Abbott's handling of the pandemic has come under increasing scrutiny — from both sides — as the coronavirus has spiked in Texas. He issued the statewide mask requirement after banning local officials from instituting such mandates earlier in the pandemic. He later allowed local governments to require businesses to mandate mask-wearing by customers and employees.
5 percent of COVID-19 fatalities are in Cameron County
Texas’ southernmost county, Cameron, is home to just 1.5 percent of the state’s population, but it accounts for nearly 5 percent of its known COVID-19 fatalities.
Cameron County — where 89 percent of residents are Hispanic and nearly a third live below the poverty line — stands out as just one stark example of widespread disparities in COVID-19 outcomes. Across Texas and the nation, the novel coronavirus is deadlier for some nonwhite groups and low-income communities.
These disparities, and a wealth of other demographic information, became more apparent this week when new tallying methods at the state health agency revealed a more complete picture of who has died in Texas and where. Trends showing that black and Hispanic individuals had been disproportionately hit by the virus were clear nationally and apparent in local snapshots, but until earlier this week, the Texas Department of State Health Services’ limited demographic data had clouded the picture of those disparities statewide.
Hispanic Texans make up about 40 percent of the state’s population, but they account for 49 percent of its known COVID-19 fatalities. Black Texans also appear slightly overrepresented in the fatality toll, representing 14 percent of fatalities but just 12 percent of the state population. Texas reported a total of 6,274 fatalities Thursday evening.
By contrast, white and Asian Texans died at lower rates relative to their share of the state’s population.
Sometimes called the great equalizer, the novel coronavirus has been anything but — a deadly reality in a state like Texas, where the Hispanic population is expected to become the largest group in the state by mid-2021.
The disparities should not have been a surprise, said Jamboor Vishwanatha, director of the Texas Center for Health Disparities at the University of North Texas Health Science Center.
“What COVID did is essentially shined a bright light on existing disparities,” Vishwanatha said, citing disparities in rates of preexisting conditions like diabetes and cardiovascular issues, as well as social factors like income inequality and access to health care. “You would expect something like this to happen.”
Research has found that higher-paid employees are more likely to have the option to work from home, and that black and Hispanic employees are less likely to be able to work remotely.
“Many of these folks, particularly early on, were exposed to the disease,” Dr. Georges Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Association, said Wednesday at an event put on by The Academy of Medicine, Engineering and Science of Texas.
Benjamin said a higher prevalence of chronic illnesses like hypertension and heart disease is contributing to disparities.
Geography has also played a role. Many of Texas’ deadliest hot spots have emerged in black and Hispanic areas: among immigrant workforces at the meatpacking plants in the Panhandle; in Houston, one of the country’s most diverse cities; and in the Rio Grande Valley, where the population is majority Hispanic.
In general, most deaths have been recorded where most Texans live — in big cities like Houston, Dallas, San Antonio, El Paso and Austin. But some counties, like Cameron and Hidalgo in the Rio Grande Valley, are mourning an outsized number of people relative to their population. Both counties are about 90 percent Hispanic.
Even in bigger urban areas, some whiter, wealthier counties seem to be faring better than poorer counties with more diverse populations. Travis County has some 400,000 more residents than El Paso County but fewer deaths, according to state data. According to census data, Travis County is about half white and a third Hispanic, with a median household income around $76,000 annually; El Paso County is 83 percent Hispanic, with a median household income around $44,000 annually.
And the virus’ true death toll is almost certainly higher than reported; for experts, the question is by how much.
The state may be showing a particular undercount in Hidalgo, a majority-Hispanic county in the Rio Grande Valley that is being ravaged by COVID-19. County health officials, using local medical records, report 576 deaths; the state, now relying on death certificates, revised its tally for the county down from over 450 to 312. Local officials said the difference is caused by delays in the issuance of death certificates.
Meanwhile, Vishwanatha said, access to testing has been more limited in nonwhite areas.
Pointing to local data from North Texas, Vishwanatha said there is a disparity between nonwhite groups not only in chance of getting infected but also in chance of dying from the disease. The gulf is even wider for mortality rate than it is for infection rate.
“We are currently facing a critical situation where some of our communities are really suffering. We need to do everything to overcome these disparities. But hopefully this COVID situation has brought out something that we should have been tackling all along — how to overcome these chronic health disparities that our communities suffer,” Vishwanatha said.
Texas Republicans tell President Trump "no" after he calls for delaying the election
WASHINGTON — In a rare moment in the Trump era, several Texas Republicans pushed back against President Donald Trump on Thursday when he floated in a tweet the idea of delaying the presidential election in November. The president does not have the legal authority to move Election Day; that power resides with Congress.
Trump's tweet came just 16 minutes after the U.S. Commerce Department released data showing the nation’s gross domestic product had fallen 33% in the second quarter of 2020. In it, he said, “With Universal Mail-In Voting (not Absentee Voting, which is good), 2020 will be the most INACCURATE & FRAUDULENT Election in history. It will be a great embarrassment to the USA. Delay the Election until people can properly, securely and safely vote???!”
Like voter fraud overall, examples of fraudulent voting using mail-in ballots remain rare. And there's no difference between mail-in voting and absentee voting, despite the framing in the tweet.
Democrats and Republicans respond
Democrats have long worried that Trump would move in that direction. Former Vice President Joe Biden, Trump’s Democratic rival, predicted as much in April. “Mark my words, I think he is gonna try to kick back the election somehow, come up with some rationale why it can’t be held,” he said at the time. “That’s the only way he thinks he can possibly win.”
Republicans, however, were privately stunned. Publicly, a cascade of Texas GOP officeholders pushed back against the president's suggestion.
Most notably, the state’s junior senator — who devoted much of his childhood years studying the Constitution — responded immediately. CNN quoted U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz as saying that, while election fraud is a “serious problem” that needs to be fought, “the election should not be delayed.”
U.S. Sen. John Cornyn downplayed the president's remark.
“I think it’s a joke, I guess, I don't know how else to interpret it,” he told reporters. “Obviously he doesn’t have the power to do that.
“So, I mean, so, all you guys in the press, your heads will explode and you'll write about it. I don’t know what his motivation is. He can’t do it,” he said.
The Texas Legislature has taken action to reduce the likelihood of voter fraud. In 2017, state lawmakers passed a measure to widen the definition of mail-in ballot fraud, boost penalties for certain offenses and strengthen rules for signature verification on those ballots. The legislation, which Gov. Greg Abbott signed into law, also requires local election officials to notify voters when their ballots are rejected and limits who can assist voters using the vote-by-mail option.
Abbott asserted the integrity of the Texas election system in a statement. "Texas has adopted procedures and guidelines to ensure safe and fair elections, including extending the early in-person voting period, and the elections in Texas will occur on November 3rd," he said.
Texas schools are being compelled to reopen classrooms on the state's timetable, like it or not
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After weeks of confusion and conflicting signals, Texas has settled into policies that effectively compel schools to reopen their classrooms this fall no later than eight weeks after the academic year begins, whether they want to or not.
Teachers, parents, school administrators and public health officials have been seeking clarity for weeks on how the state will approach reopening schools safely as coronavirus infections and deaths rise across Texas.
Gov. Greg Abbott has not responded directly to questions from reporters about who has the authority to order schools closed in areas hard hit by the virus, and the Texas Education Agency has sent mixed messages on reopening guidelines.
But despite the lack of any formal announcement from the governor, the die was cast in in a rapid two-step process Tuesday. First, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton released nonbinding legal guidance saying local public health officials do not have the power to preemptively require all schools in their jurisdictions to remain closed, even as COVID-19 cases continue to climb in many Texas hot spots.
Then, state education officials reversed an earlier decision by announcing they will not fund school districts that keep classrooms closed for longer than the state allows even if ordered to do so by a local health mandate. Taken together, the actions put school districts in the position of reopening classrooms on the state’s timetable or losing funds and risking potential litigation.
Educators and families must once again rethink their back-to-school plans this fall. The education agency has given school districts up to eight weeks to limit the number of students permitted on their campuses, after which they must open classrooms to all students who want to attend.
That ninth week is looming large for superintendents who are not sure what the public health landscape will look like at that point. Now, they can’t depend on their local health officials to give them more time, without losing money.
“Starting in the ninth week of our respective school years, regardless of the status of the virus in our communities, as the guidance is written today, we would be faced with two options,” said Northside Superintendent Brian Woods in an interview with the San Antonio Express News editorial board Wednesday. “One would be to ignore a local health order, and in doing so likely put our students and staff and families at risk, or lose funding, which is essential to teaching and serving our families.”
At a school board meeting Tuesday night, Woods indicated he and other superintendents would consider filing a lawsuit seeking to keep their classrooms closed longer if necessary. Paxton’s decision to step into the fray weeks before the school year begins has prompted more questions than answers, including whether a deluge of lawsuits is expected to hit Texas courts demanding that health mandates be revoked or enforced.
In a statement Wednesday, Texas education officials said school districts will also be funded if they close due to a confirmed COVID-19 case on campus during the school year, as long as they provide remote instruction. "Lawful building closure orders will continue to enable a school system to be funded when providing remote-only instruction," said Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath. "Also, it's important to note that the school start date remains at the discretion of local school boards."
Across the state, some school districts are moving forward in compliance with local health orders while others are moving their start dates earlier in line with Paxton’s guidance. Just within Tarrant County, Fort Worth ISD remains undecided about whether to allow in-person classes in mid-August, while Argyle and Eagle Mountain-Saginaw ISDs said they would reopen next month despite orders from the Tarrant County Public Health department to remain closed for in-person learning until Sept. 28.
Officials from Harris County, El Paso County, Austin and Laredo did not respond to requests for comment or answer questions Tuesday about whether they would retract their mandates.
In a Tuesday press conference, San Antonio officials said they were confused about why Paxton chose to issue guidance now. “Every time, it seems, that our attorney general appears on the scene during this pandemic, it creates confusion and chaos and it leaves a wake. And that confusion and chaos could cost lives this fall,” said San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg of the health risks associated with reopening schools.
Junda Woo, medical director for San Antonio's Metropolitan Health District, who issued the mandate to shut down schools there, said her decisions are directly tied to public safety, and orders are “not up for a popular vote.”
Already, pastors and parents at a private San Antonio religious school are suing local officials, including the Metropolitan Health District and county judge, to force open all area public and private schools, according to the Express-News. Paxton’s guidance Tuesday said local health mandates also could not shut down religious or secular private schools.
San Antonio City Attorney Andrew Segovia, in a Tuesday press conference, did not indicate whether the city would pursue legal action against private schools and religious private schools that reopen. “There’s a range of enforcement mechanisms, obviously. We don’t want to use really any of them, but we will enforce the order if we need to,” Segovia said.
Segovia said he’s reaching out to school officials and expects that they will voluntarily comply with the order, which applies “equally, uniformly to all schools.”
Paxton’s letter was “welcome news” for the Texas Private Schools Association, which has been inundated with calls from private schools looking for guidance on how they can legally reopen, said Laura Colangelo, the organization’s executive director.
But Paxton’s guidance does not definitively allow private schools under a mandate to reopen. Colangelo said the association has advised schools to ask their local health authorities for an exception and get advice from a lawyer about how to proceed.
And some public school officials see Paxton’s letter as a benefit. Boerne ISD said it would open two elementary schools in Bexar County on Aug. 12 as originally scheduled following Paxton’s guidance, according to a written statement from district officials. The move defies a local health order mandating that they remain completely online until Labor Day.
Some local health officials have already indicated they don’t see Paxton’s letter as a mandate overruling theirs and will keep their own in place. In a Tuesday press conference, Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff said Boerne ISD and others should still comply with the local health order. Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins, whose county has also mandated that schools close through Sept. 7, said local officials will make decisions with student safety in mind "regardless of what opinion General Paxton comes up with."
The resulting confusion is yet another entry in the saga of state leaders’ consistent clashes with local officials over how to corral a fast-spreading virus. Abbott has repeatedly reversed his decisions, at times deferring to local officials to implement strict standards and at others criticizing them for failing to follow his lead.
Just after noon Tuesday, soon after Paxton’s letter was released, Abbott talked to reporters in Corpus Christi, where a tropical storm had flooded homes of families already fearing the pandemic’s impact. He chastised local officials for not taking the opportunity to enforce his statewide mandate on wearing masks, indicating their inaction was responsible for the continued spread of COVID-19.
When asked about making school reopenings safer, Abbott said local officials already have the flexibility and guidance they need to keep staff and students healthy. “The TEA has provided flexibility to school districts across the state of Texas and has empowered local school districts to make the decisions that are best in that particular region knowing that the spread of COVID-19 is going to be different in different regions,” he said.
“The best decision-making authority is going to be the local school board making decisions with the benefit of input from both local public health authorities as well as state health authorities.”
Meanwhile, school superintendents are looking for ways to circumvent what they see as restrictive state rules, with politics getting the better of safety in determining when schools must reopen. San Antonio ISD Superintendent Pedro Martinez told the Express-News editorial board Wednesday that he would consider advising families to keep their children home if forced to fully reopen classrooms at the end of eight weeks.
“I don’t want to get ahead of my [school board] but we would take the necessary actions because again, I am not going to put parents or staff at risk that I know as a professional is not right,” he said.
Disclosure: The Texas Private Schools Association and the city of San Antonio 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.
Colleagues feared U.S. Rep. Louie Gohmert would catch COVID-19. Sure enough, he did.
WASHINGTON — It was a shock, but no surprise.
Whatever semblance of normal business remained on Capitol Hill during the COVID-19 outbreak was upended when U.S. Rep. Louie Gohmert, a Tyler Republican, disclosed Wednesday he tested positive for the COVID-19 virus.
Several other members of Congress similarly tested positive to little fanfare over the last several months. But Gohmert’s diagnosis unleashed a commotion on Capitol Hill unlike anything the nearly two dozen staffers, consultants, lobbyists and members interviewed for this story could recall in recent memory.
Gohmert’s aversion to wearing masks and following other practices intended to mitigate the spread of the virus led many here to believe he might eventually contract the virus and potentially expose his colleagues. For months, members and staffers on the Hill watched with simmering fury as Gohmert and a handful of other Republican lawmakers made their rounds each day without masks.
“I just find it very disturbing that there are still many of my colleagues, especially in [the] Judiciary [Committee], that are just not following the attending physicians’ guidelines,” said U.S. Rep. Sylvia R. Garcia, a Houston Democrat who spent much of Tuesday in the same room as Gohmert in a hearing that included testimony from U.S. Attorney General William Barr.
“We’re going to have to find a way to make it a rule — and perhaps make it a rule with sanctions — because we’re spending too much time in Judiciary either arguing about it or talking about it, and we’re all on edge because they’re not wearing their masks,” she added. “I’m not sure why, but it’s just very disturbing.”
Gohmert responded to the drama in an interview with East Texas Matters, a local news outlet, saying he tested positive for COVID-19 and was asymptomatic.
“I can’t help but wonder if by keeping a mask on and keeping it in place, if I might have put some … of the virus on the mask and breathed it in. … But the reports of my demise are very premature,” he said. “If somebody feels strongly about everybody should wear a mask, then they shouldn’t be around people that don’t wear masks.”
By evening, U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced she would mandate masks on the House floor. But leadership had already mandated wearing masks in hearings, only to have some Republicans ignore the rules.
The outrage toward Gohmert was not restricted to Democratic circles. Current and former Texas Republican staffers interviewed by the Tribune expressed horror that widespread Capitol Hill fears about Gohmert had become reality.
Gohmert thrives on controversy. Usually, his provocations are met with eye rolling and private commentary within the close-knit Texas Republican Congressional world about “Louie’s being Louie.”
On Wednesday, it all became existential.
Throughout the day, current and former delegation insiders widely circulated via text a screenshot of a Politico story quoting a Gohmert staffer.
“When you write your story, can you include the fact that Louie requires full staff to be in the office, including three interns, so that ‘we could be an example to America on how to open up safely,’” wrote the Gohmert staffer. “When probing the office, you might want to ask how often were people berated for wearing masks.”
Politico also reported that Gohmert tested positive while at the White House, then chose to return to the Capitol complex to personally inform his staff.
“I don’t think that’s helpful for all the reasons,” said Texas GOP consultant Brendan Steinhauser, echoing a number of Republican staffers concerned about mask avoidance but not authorized to speak on the record. “It’s not good for their health. It’s not good for their staff. It’s not setting a good example, and it is irresponsible.”
The mask debate is not new; whether the state or local government should mandate the wearing of masks has opened an ideological divide. But a number of Texas members are more than eager to post photos of themselves wearing masks on social media, if only to set an example.
One Texas staffer observed that early on, it was mostly only female Republican members who embraced masks in the GOP conference. But as the virus began to rampage through conservative regions of the country, he noticed an uptick in mask-wearing among Republicans — to the point that now, members who avoid them are outliers.
And on Capitol Hill, wearing a mask is a national security issue.
The U.S. House includes a member of the presidential succession, U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, and Gohmert participated in a hearing Tuesday in which the person who is seventh in the line of presidential succession, Barr, testified.
Additionally, the District of Columbia recently mandated the wearing of masks while in public.
Moreover, the Capitol, with its dependence on relationships and communication, is a uniquely problematic place for transmission. At the same time, members must travel mostly on planes and trains to Washington, interact with each other, and then return home to the same grocery stores that their constituents frequent.
And most worrisome of all, members of Congress tend to be older, and there are more than a few cancer survivors in the chamber — both factors that can translate into more severe complications from the virus.
“I wish that all the members of Congress would wear a mask, as we’ve been asked to do, to protect each other’s safety,” said U.S. Rep. Joaquin Castro, D-San Antonio.
Even among conservatives who often express an aversion to a government mandate, there is enthusiasm for masks.
“I take the necessary precautions based on the situation, whether it’s social distancing or wearing a mask,” said U.S. Rep. Jodey Arrington, R-Lubbock. “I just don’t see the need right now for universal masking, especially not mandated by government.”
Gohmert is, indisputably, the most controversial Texan serving in Congress. A friendly presence around the Capitol, he was best known early on in his U.S. House career for his tours of the Capitol dome and his skill at barbecuing ribs. He even has a Democratic friend or two.
On Wednesday, though, the snark and eye rolls about Gohmert shifted to pure outrage. And it had been a long time coming.
Early on in the pandemic, members watched anxiously when Gohmert was potentially exposed at a conservative gathering. A physician cleared him to return to the Capitol, but it added a layer of anxiety when Congress was still operating normally and the medical profession was still learning about incubation periods and proper quarantining procedures.
About a month ago, Gohmert told CNN, “I don't have the coronavirus, turns out as of yesterday I've never had it. But if I get it, you'll never see me without a mask.”
His colleagues found that logic problematic: People can have and unknowingly spread COVID-19 without having any symptoms.
In recent weeks, Gohmert had taken to wearing a bandana. Bandanas are not considered as safe as masks, and members noticed he frequently had the cloth pulled below his nose.
And in the lead-up to Wednesday, a Democratic member of Congress grew increasingly concerned for the Gohmert team after spotting Gohmert and a junior staffer walking and interacting with each other; neither wore masks.
As they heard the news, members frantically retraced their day, trying to remember any potential interactions with Gohmert and whether he was covering his face with the bandana.
U.S. Rep. Kay Granger, R-Fort Worth, quickly announced she would self-quarantine when CNN reported she sat next to Gohmert on a Sunday plane ride to Washington. Granger, 77, is the senior-ranking Republican on the House Appropriations Committee and a player in negotiations over the coming spending package aimed at saving the economy amid the outbreak.
One former Republican House chief of staff speculated that Gohmert may have single-handedly impacted those negotiations, as members are frightened for their own safety, losing their trust their colleagues, and want to get out of the complex as soon as possible. In effect, there’s a sense the social contract of Congress is breaking down in real time.
Another former Republican staffer expressed frustration that members, staffers and reporters at the Capitol are not regularly tested before entering the premises.
CNN reported that U.S. Rep. Chip Roy, R-Austin, was recently spotted on the U.S. House floor chatting with Gohmert, and neither man wore a mask. Roy said he would not self-quarantine but wore a mask Wednesday.
Roy added that he's not concerned "any more than the interactions with perfect strangers on an airplane with circulating air. With cotton masks on an airplane, where everybody is pretending like they're doing something noble to try to save people from a virus on a cylinder with 50 people on it flying through the air."
He questioned the effectiveness of masks but told CNN he is “happy to wear a mask.”
Earlier this summer, Republicans widely scorned Democrats for engaging in a newly implemented practice of designating colleagues to vote on their behalf. Castro now anticipates Democrats will more fully embrace the practice.
“I’ve talked to several members who are going to be proxy voting for the foreseeable future because of the potential health threat,” Castro said.
There is also potential political fallout — but likely not for Gohmert.
He regularly wins reelection in conservative East Texas by margins of nearly 50 percentage points, and he rarely faces serious primary challenges.
And it’s in his and other Texas districts where wearing a mask is perceived by some as crossing President Donald Trump, and where more than a handful of residents are skeptical of medical expertise or even consider the virus to be a hoax.
But even the president, who for months avoided face coverings, wore a mask while on a trip to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center.
Some Republicans worry about the public’s perception of Wednesday’s events. A number of consultants have tested mask-wearing in internal polling, and it is overwhelmingly popular in competitive districts.
“Failure to wear a mask while working in close proximity to members of Congress, administration officials, staff and reporters is breathtakingly stupid and gives liberals a tool to attack all Republicans for the troubled response to the COVID-19 epidemic,” said Michael Steel, a former spokesperson for former U.S. House Speaker John Boehner.
Steel, however, agreed with other Republicans who say there is an opportunity for members and candidates to separate themselves from those who shirk masks.
“There’s some candidates in some races who will be able to use that as a point of differentiation if they are acting responsibly, and there are benefits to that,” he added.
U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz was a member of the travel party to Texas and told reporters on Air Force One’s return to Washington on Wednesday evening that he learned of the news when Gohmert was not on the flight.
“I think the question of masks is overly politicized. I wear a mask regularly, particularly when I go out in public, and when I’m on the Senate floor I usually wear a mask,” he said. “When I’m out at the grocery store I wear a mask. I think it’s strange to see masks treated as this political talisman.”
“I don’t particularly understand folks who say, ‘I’ll never wear a mask no matter what,’ but I also don’t understand a lot Democrats who treat a mask as a sign of virtue.”
Business-minded Republicans have pushed hard for masks in Texas, in hopes that they will staunch the spread of the virus and allow the state to return to a more normal economy. Many members and their staffers say they wear masks and embrace quarantines both for safety and to set an example.
U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, who is seeking reelection this year, regularly posts on social media photos of himself wearing a mask at public events.
“It starts at the top,” said Cornyn campaign spokesperson Travis Considine, in reference to his candidate. “We’re taking the health and safety of everyone we’re going to interact with very seriously.”
Garcia, the Houston congresswoman, has had two COVID exposure scares and self-quarantined until tests cleared her.
And the profile photo on the Twitter account of U.S. Rep. Pete Olson, a Sugar Land Republican, showed the retiring congressman in a mask.
Back home in Texas, Austin-based Democratic consultant Jason Stanford watched the events in Washington from afar in dismay.
“There’s a reason Texas is a jump-ball state,” he said. “The reason is all of us are living this reality.”
After voluntarily publishing its data, UT-Austin now has the unwelcome distinction of leading U.S. colleges in COVID-19 cases
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As higher education institutions nationwide navigate their fall returns to campus in the midst of a pandemic, the University of Texas at Austin made a bold choice to publish the latest data about all of its known coronavirus cases — a number that topped 450 as of Thursday.
While some universities nationwide and in Texas are still refusing to disclose cases, UT-Austin set up a digital dashboard allowing community members to see updated student, faculty and staff cases.
But the transparency has already proven to be a double-edged sword, as the eye-popping numbers have contributed to a growing unease among students and faculty returning for in-person classes in less than a month.
Further complicating things for the flagship school, on Wednesday morning, The New York Times gave UT-Austin the unwelcome distinction of having the most cases of any university in the country, based on a survey that relied on volunteer participation. UT officials say the article, which has created a wave of bad publicity for the school during a time when students are making critical decisions about the fall, is misleading.
“It is not a comprehensive comparison of American universities and it doesn’t measure prevalence,” spokesperson J.B. Bird said of the survey.
Bird said UT is offering a public service by making its case data easily accessible.
“UT-Austin diligently tracks and transparently reports COVID-19 cases. Regardless of how other universities choose to approach these numbers, UT-Austin will do what’s best for public health and the health of its community,” he said. “We believe that’s the right way to do it, and we’re going to continue to do that.”
Out of nearly 1,000 universities The New York Times asked to self-report case information, only 270 colleges responded. The University of Central Florida, with 438 cases, and the University of Georgia, with 390 cases, were among some of the other schools at the top of the list.
According to UT-Austin’s dashboard, 172 faculty and staff members and 287 students have tested positive for the coronavirus since March.
Annisa Salsabila, a rising sophomore at UT-Austin, is not returning to campus in the fall, instead electing to take all her classes online. As someone with a history of respiratory issues, returning would be a “bad idea,” Salsabila said.
“To me, it doesn’t matter if we’re No. 1 or No. 500 on the list,” Salsabila said. “The fact that UT has more than 400 cases is concerning.”
However, the option to go online-only may not be possible for all UT students; only one-third of courses are being provided online.
UT’s case count appears disproportionately high compared with the limited available information about case numbers at comparable peer institutions, like Texas A&M University and the University of Houston, both of which have similar enrollment numbers.
A spokesperson for Texas A&M said there have been 307 coronavirus cases associated with the College Station flagship and its 11 satellite campuses. Most of those cases are concentrated in College Station.
The University of Houston has reported only seven cases, according to the Times’ survey. But in an email to The Texas Tribune, a spokesperson for the school declined to release case numbers and said the school is keeping them internal for now, though they will be published regularly in the fall.
Robert Kelchen, a higher education professor at Seton Hall University who has been studying university responses to COVID-19, said he has not seen anything similar to UT’s reporting system.
“It’s hard to say if they’re unique, but it’s certainly unusual to be this transparent this early,” Kelchen said. “One of the reasons UT looks so bad is that a lot of universities have refused to release that information or haven’t done that kind of testing.”
The school is tracking cases among UT-affiliated individuals even though most students are not on campus yet, Bird said. One of the largest outbreaks came from a spring break trip to Mexico in March, which resulted in dozens of UT students testing positive for the coronavirus. Another outbreak stemmed from student athletes returning to campus in June to begin voluntary summer workouts in preparation for the fall sports season.
UT-Austin reported its first death, a custodial services staff worker, earlier this summer.
It’s in a school’s best interest to self-report “because they get to put those numbers into context,” Kelchen said. “Otherwise, you’ll get people trying to get information through other means, or they’ll have things go through the rumor mill.”
He said ultimately, all schools will have to answer these same questions.
“Colleges are going to have to be transparent. ... If they aren’t transparent, then students, faculty and staff aren’t going to trust the college, and there will be a pretty significant backlash,” Kelchen said.
UT-Austin is still planning an in-person return in less than a month. On Wednesday, interim President Jay Hartzell announced that students returning to Austin will need to self-isolate for 14 days after coming to campus.
School officials are reassuring community members that they will be taking every precaution against the virus come fall. They point to testing as a key part of containing spread this semester.
While the Texas A&M System recently announced it would distribute 15,000 free tests across its 11 campuses, UT-Austin has not yet changed its test fees. Its health service site lists a COVID-19 nasal swab test at $88 and a blood test for COVID-19 antibodies at $53.
Students whose health insurance doesn’t cover the tests can receive subsidies from the universities, a university spokesperson previously said.
Disclosure: Texas A&M University, The New York Times, the University of Texas at Austin and the University of Houston 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.