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Health officials investigating Legionnaires' disease cases; link to East Texas State Fair possible

TYLER — East Texas health care professionals are on notice to be on the alert for cases of Legionnaires’ disease.

The Northeast Texas Public Health District is reporting seven confirmed and five possible cases of Legionnaires’ disease in the Northeast Texas region, all of which could be connected to recent attendance at the East Texas State Fair in Tyler.

NET Health Disease Surveillance Division is working with the fair organizers and local health officials to determine connections of the cases with attending this year’s fair Sept. 20 to 29.

George Roberts, NET Health CEO, said the common element is the East Texas State Fair. NET Health is working with the Texas Department of State Health Services, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, event organizers and local health departments to narrow down the location within the fair.

Legionnaires’ disease is spread by inhaling water droplets in the air and caused by the Legionella bacteria, according to a written statement sent out Thursday by NET Health. Breathing in the water droplets can come from water in the air, steam, humidifier, cooling tower, sprinklers, lakes, rivers, streams and stagnant water.

The disease mimics pneumonia symptoms, and about 5,000 to 6,000 cases are reported every year, Roberts said.

Within a week’s time, five cases were noticed by health officials. Roberts said red flags come up when two or more cases occur.

Jason Geslois, epidemiologist with NET Health, said he and other health officials ask patients about where they have traveled recently to find a common denominator of the outbreak’s source. The process of narrowing down the location within the fair is ongoing, but the time frame is Sept. 20 to 29 and two to 10 days afterward.

“Now we narrow down our scope a little further,” Roberts said. “That’s why we’re trying to track this down.”

Roberts said NET Health has a strong confidence that Harvey Convention Center is safe because of the chlorine that disinfects the water for such bacteria as Legionnaires’ disease.

“Just because you went to the East Texas State Fair doesn’t mean you have Legionnaire’s disease,” Roberts said.

NET Health likely will be informing the public on investigation updates weekly, Roberts said.

The health district is urging anyone who attended the fair this year and is sick with Legionnaires’ symptoms to contact their health care provider immediately.

The patient’s primary clinical provider would run a urine-based test to determine if the patient has been infected by the Legionella bacteria, Roberts said.

Symptoms of Legionnaires’ disease could be cough, high fever, weakness, muscle aches, headaches and shortness of breath. People with Legionnaires’ disease are treated with antibiotics in a hospital or as outpatients, and most recover fully. However, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about one out of 10 people with Legionnaires’ disease will die from the infection.

The following groups of people are at a higher risk of contracting Legionnaires’ disease: people over the age of 50, current or former smokers (cigarettes and e-cigs), persons with chronic lung disease such as emphysema or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and those with weakened immune systems from a previous disease or medication.

For information, call the Disease Surveillance Division at NET Health at (903) 595-1350.

Fennell steps down as director of Hiway 80 Rescue Mission in Longview

Rusty Fennell

Rusty Fennell stepped down this past week as director of the Hiway 80 Rescue Mission in Longview, and the mission’s board is interviewing candidates for managing executive director to oversee both Longview and Tyler.

“I’m just grateful for the time I had at Hiway 80 Rescue Mission,” Fennell said. “I just feel like it is time for a new direction.”

Fennell, who started at the mission 15 years ago, was promoted in March from assistant director after then-Executive Director Eric Burger left his job of 10 years to be closer to family in Kansas City, Missouri.

Fennell and Dawn Moltzan, who is in charge of the rescue mission in Tyler, held the titles of co-director, said Brian Bunt, president of the Hiway 80 board.

“We have personnel that are currently in place that are leading and carrying out our program here (in Longview),” Bunt said. “We are currently interviewing candidates for a new managing director. Ultimately, this person would lead the mission as a whole, including Longview and Tyler.”

Bunt said the board hopes to bring in a new managing director by the end of November and is considering internal and external candidates.

“We are looking for someone who really, truly, has a heart for the homeless and the work of the mission,” Bunt said. The successful candidate has to have good managerial and financial management skills and, preferably, have a background as a minister.

He said Moltzan will stay on in charge of Hiway 80 in Tyler. She started in April after working for 11 months as development director of the East Texas Cornerstone Assistance Network.

Founded in 1955, the Hiway 80 Rescue Mission at 3117 W. Marshall Ave. in Longview provides emergency shelter services for men, women and children and offers a number of programs for them, Bunt said.

“We provide a medical clinic,” Bunt said. “We provide job training and counseling. We provide spiritual counseling and substance abuse counseling.”

Bunt said the Hiway 80 Rescue Mission was invited five years ago to take over the Gateway to Hope day mission in Tyler.

In February 2017, Hiway 80 announced plans for a rehabilitation center in Tyler and proposed Triumph Village to house men enrolled in the New Creations residential program in Longview.

Bunt said the rescue mission has completed two residential units — which each house about 20 men — and is developing a welcome center with classrooms and a small kitchen in Tyler.

“The Tyler community has been very receptive to the Hiway 80 mission, and Dawn Moltzan is doing a great job,” he said.

Les Hassell/News-Journal Photo  

Casa Flora owner Vickie Slover snaps a photo after having a metal balloon sculpture painted by artist Sharon Grimes installed outside her shop Thursday as part of the Gregg County Historical Foundation’s Liftoff 2020 program being held in honor of Longview’s upcoming sesquicentennial celebration.

Michael Cavazos  

Stephen Hensley and Derick Putney of D&H Home Surfaces install a balloon sculpture at Casa Flora in Longview on Thursday, October 31, 2019, as part of the Gregg County Historical Foundation’s Liftoff 2020 program being held in honor of Longview’s upcoming sesquicentennial celebration. (Michael Cavazos/News-Journal Photo)

Texas Democrats are suing the state over its move to end temporary voting locations

Worried about the suppression of young voters in 2020, national and Texas Democrats are suing the state over a newly implemented election measure that’s triggered the shuttering of early voting places, including on college campuses, in various parts of the state.

In a federal lawsuit filed Wednesday in Austin, the Texas Democratic Party — joined by the Democratic campaign arms for the U.S. House and Senate — alleges that the state’s move to effectively end the use of what were known as temporary or mobile early voting sites is unconstitutional because it discriminates against young voters by shrinking their access to the ballot box.

Republican lawmakers pushed the law, introduced during the last legislative session as House Bill 1888, to curb what they saw as abuse in school bond elections by requiring voting sites to remain open for all 12 days of early voting. Despite warnings from local election officials, HB 1888 was crafted broadly enough to outlaw the long-established practice of moving polling places during the early voting period to reach as many voters as possible near where they live, work or go to school.

As a result, both young and rural voters are losing access to early voting sites that were legitimately used to offer a day or two of early voting to places in places where it wasn’t practical or cost-efficient to maintain a site open for all of early voting.

“HB 1888 now mandates that, based on where they live, some voters will enjoy the same consistent access to early voting they had previously, but voters who live near now defunct temporary voting sites, especially young voters, will suffer reduced or eliminated access to the franchise,” the Democrats claimed in the lawsuit.

Citing violations of the First, 14th and 26th Amendments, the Democrats are asking a federal judge to block the state from implementing HB 1888.

The use of temporary early voting sites dates back more than a decade in some parts of the state. Counties used them to reach smaller, more rural communities or to bring early voting to various college campuses within a county. Others relied on mobile voting sites to provide a window of early voting at hospitals or government buildings that couldn’t host a permanent site or at senior living facilities where residents face increased mobility issues.

Focusing on young voters in their complaint, the Democrats allege the change in law “disproportionately reduces or eliminates” access for the tens of thousands of Texas voters who relied on on-campus early voting locations and “discriminatorily limits equal access to early voting” for young voters.

Ahead of the the state’s Nov. 5 constitutional election, the new law has prompted closures of temporary voting sites in both urban and rural communities and on several college campuses. And some officials are already warning of closures for the upcoming 2020 elections, which are expected to pack polling places like never before, because of the law.

Last year, Tarrant County split its early voting between six universities and colleges. Going into 2020, local officials have said there isn’t enough money in the current budget to make those sites permanent.

The election administrator in Cameron County previously told The Texas Tribune that they’ll likely limit on-campus early voting to one college campus. The county previously used temporary polling places to offer early voting for a full week at three colleges.

A spokesperson for the Texas secretary of state, a named defendant in the lawsuit, did not respond to a request for comment. Marc Rylander — a spokesperson for the attorney general’s office, which represents the state in court — did not specifically address the lawsuit but instead indicated the agency was “committed to ensuring that our society’s most fundamental and important rights are protected.”

During the legislative session, a lawyer with the secretary of state’s office told lawmakers that the measure would “limit substantially” the use of temporary voting sites that were being used for legitimate purposes.

State Rep. Greg Bonnen, the Friendswood Republican who authored HB 1888, previously defended the measure by emphasizing that counties didn’t necessarily have to close temporary polling places; they just needed to keep them open for the entire early voting period.

(Some county officials have said they can’t afford the hefty price tag to make temporary sites permanent. Others said they wouldn’t have enough election workers, voting machines or suitable building space to do that for all 12 days of early voting.)

In pushing HB 1888, Bonnen cited a “selective harvesting of targeted voters” in school bond elections as justification to get rid of temporary polling places. But in their complaint, the Democrats chided Republican lawmakers for rejecting amendments to the measure that would have carved out college campuses, which proponents of the law never cited as venues for such targeting of voters.

“In direct contravention of the Twenty-Sixth Amendment, Texas enacted HB 1888 with the intent and effect of preventing newly-enfranchised young Texans from effectively exercising their right to vote,” the Democrats alleged.

Sabine voters to decide on 1.5% sales tax levy for firefighters; early voting ends today

From Staff Reports

Gregg County voters in Emergency Services District No. 2 will decide Tuesday whether a 1.5% sales tax is needed in the Liberty City area to support the Sabine Fire Department.

Early voting ends today for all ballots in Tuesday’s general election. Besides the ESD No. 2 issue in Gregg County, voters statewide are considering 10 state constitutional amendments, while voters in three school districts, one city and another emergency services district will make their choices.

Early voting sites are open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. today in Gregg, Harrison and Upshur counties and 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. in Rusk and Panola counties.

Sabine Fire Chief Richard Sisk has been making his case for the 1.5% levy since pursuing an initial petition campaign to put the measure on ballots in spring 2018. ESD No. 2 board members ultimately opted for November polling.

If successful, the effort will raise sales taxes inside the district to a total of 8.25%, similar to surrounding cities and other communities statewide. For every $1 spent inside the ESD, 1.5 cents will go to the Sabine FD.

“We believe it’s important,” Sisk said earlier this week. “We believe if we pass this, it will change the level of emergency services that the Sabine Fire Department can provide to this community 24 hours a day.”

Sisk said it could mean between $300,000 and $400,000 annually for the department, according to “rough” figures from the state comptroller’s office. The department now is funded by a tax of 10 cents per $100 valuation adopted by voters four years ago.

With early voting at Gregg County Courthouse, Sisk is looking ahead to Tuesday, when voters can cast their Election Day ballots between 7 a.m. and 7 p.m. at the old Sabine Elementary School cafeteria.

So far, “It seems to be going well. We think we’re seeing positive results,” he said. “We hope that the people who support us turn out to the ballot. There’s always a few people that don’t support, but overall the majority, from what we feel, are supportive.”

Three school districts have issues before the voters on Tuesday.

Union Grove ISD is holding a special election to fill its vacant Place 2 trustee position, with William Slim Matthew and Justin Smith vying for the post.

Henderson ISD also has a trustee election. District 5 incumbent Jon Best is fighting to keep his seat against Adam Duey.

Best, 59, was arrested Sept. 27 on a felony charge of criminal mischief of between $2,500 and $30,000 in damage after police say he paid two teenagers to damage Duey’s pickup and steal his campaign signs. Best was released on $10,000 bond from the Rusk County Jail.

The Hallsville ISD administration is hoping the voters will pass a $55 million bond that will allow the district to build a new West Elementary School, high school performing arts center, junior high safety upgrades and make other districtwide improvements.

In the city of Henderson, incumbent Tommy Goode is vying to keep his District 1 council post against challenger Chris Wheeler.

Voters in Rusk County Emergency Services District No. 1 will vote to decide whether to adopt a sales tax not to exceed 2% in any location in the district.