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Delta variant pushes increase of new COVID-19 cases in region to 6-month high
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Public health officials again are encouraging East Texans to be vaccinated against COVID-19 as new cases in the past week — consisting largely of a highly contagious variant — increased at levels not seen in six months.

Northeast Texas Public Health District spokesman Terrence Ates said the past week saw the highest jump in new cases since January in each of the seven counties for which the district provides disease surveillance.

The health district, known as NET Health, released its biweekly update of COVID-19 case data Monday. Confirmed cases increased by 35 in Gregg County residents, and probable cases rose by 56. Those numbers are higher than on Thursday, when the district’s previous release showed 28 new confirmed cases and 35 probable cases in Gregg County.

NET Health serves Gregg, Smith, Anderson, Henderson, Rains, Van Zandt and Wood counties.

Ates said the Texas Department of State Health Services reported the Delta variant is the predominant strain in the new cases.

“This is important to note as the Delta variant is more contagious than the original strain of the COVID-19 virus,” he said in a statement.

Longview ISD Assistant Superintendent of Administrative and Pupil Services Dennis Williams said during a school board meeting Monday that COVID-19 cases continue to rise in the county and that the school district is remaining vigilant in preparing a back-to-school plan.

“Here’s what we know as of July 19, 2021, from the CDC, the Gregg County Health Department and NET Health,” Williams said. “Since the Fourth of July weekend, Gregg County has had about 10 cases per day, and each week since then, those numbers have doubled. Most of the cases confirmed have been in the age range of 16-35.”

Since June 28, Longview ISD has had four confirmed cases of COVID-19, Williams said.

Longview ISD Trustee Ted Beard asked Williams what protocols the district should take as the Delta variant of the virus is on the uptick. Williams said the district will continue to monitor the situation as it prepares its back-to-school plan. He noted the symptoms of the Delta variant remain similar to the original strain of COVID-19 though the variant is said to be more contagious.

When discussing whether the district would have any potential policies for vaccinated and unvaccinated children, Williams noted that Pfizer’s vaccine is only approved for children 12 and older and that some recommendations say children as young as 2 and older should wear face coverings when inside a building.

Williams said the school district will likely begin making a back-to-school plan in early August, though recommendations could change rapidly if cases continue to grow.

“We’ll continue to monitor the situation,” he said.

On Tuesday, NET Health reported two more counties in its surveillance area are at higher levels of community spread.

A graphic displaying the metric for July 13 through Monday shows “moderate community spread” in Gregg, Smith, Rains, Van Zandt and Wood counties.

According to NET Health, moderate community spread consists of between 10 and 35 new weekly cases per 100,000 residents and shows “sustained transmission with confirmed exposure within congregate settings and potential for rapid increase in cases.”

Gregg County’s seven-day rolling rate of infection increased to 17.75 from July 9 through 15, when it was 10.72.

The seven-day rolling rate is the average number of all positive cases from the previous seven days divided by the population of the county and then multiplied by 100,000.

Ates also said the number of COVID-19 patients in Tyler hospitals doubled from 45 on July 8 to 85 on Thursday.

Harrison County Judge Chad Sims on Monday said the county has seen an average of about four new cases per day.

“In Harrison County we’ve seen 28 new cases in the last 7 days for an average of 4 cases per day,” he wrote on his Facebook page. “We have had no new fatalities reported but our active case count is climbing.”

In Smith County, NET Health on Monday reported 50 new confirmed cases in residents since Thursday along with 45 probable cases.

“The COVID-19 vaccine is extremely effective even against the Delta variant,” Ates said Tuesday in a statement. “If you are 12 years of age and older, you are urged to get the vaccine as soon as possible.”

Ates also reminded residents that if they have been around a person with COVID-19 in the past 14 days, symptoms can take two to 14 days to form and can include fever or chills, cough, headache, loss of appetite, difficulty breathing, loss of taste or smell and others.

He also said good hygiene can continue stave off infection.

“The public health recommendations that were echoed throughout last year still ring true today, in that the general public is encouraged to practice handwashing on a frequent basis, social distancing from others not within their immediate daily activities, covering their face while around others, and staying home if and when ill,” he said.

Ates said there is no singular cause for the increase in new cases and noted that “the majority of Texas and of the United States is also experiencing an uptick in new COVID cases.”

According to the Texas Tribune, the positivity rate, which measures how prevalent the virus is in the state, has crossed a 10% “red zone” threshold.

“This indicates that the highly transmissible delta variant of COVID-19 is spreading rampantly among the unvaccinated,” the Tribune reported. “The positivity rate hasn’t been this high since February, and in mid-June it was as low as 2.8%. Statewide, hospitalizations have increased in the last three weeks.”

The Associated Press reported Tuesday that health officials say the Delta variant accounts for an estimated 83% of new COVID-19 cases in the United States.

That’s a dramatic increase from the week of July 3, when the variant accounted for about 50% of cases.

Gregg and other area counties continue to lag behind the state in COVID-19 vaccination rates.

The state reported Wednesday that more than 51% of the state’s population of residents 12 and older have been fully vaccinated.

No area county is close to the state rate, with the highest being Smith at 38.87% of residents 12 and older being fully vaccinated. Gregg County trails slightly at 38.14%.

And the more rural the county, the fewer number of residents vaccinated.

Harrison, Rusk and Upshur counties show vaccination rates at 31.1%, 29.95% and 27.13%, respectively. Just shy of 26% of residents age 12 and older in Panola County, which has the smallest population in the area, are fully vaccinated.

Christus Good Shepherd Medical Center in June shut down its weekly mass COVID-19 vaccine hub at the Longview Exhibit Center and transitioned to offering shots on weekdays at its clinics as the demand at the hub slowed to a trickle.

In Tyler, NET Health also shut down its vaccine hub at Harvey Hall Convention Center in June.

Christus Health continues to schedule vaccines through its website at vaccinate.christushealth.org. NET Health offers vaccines at its clinic on North Broadway Avenue by appointment. To make an appointment, visit NETHealthCOVID19.org.

Vaccines an also be scheduled using the National Vaccine Finder at vaccines.gov or at the Texas Public Health Vaccine Scheduler at getthevaccine.dshs.texas.gov/.

PHOTOS: Longview Public Library holds Summer Reading Club end party
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The Longview Public Library closed its Summer Reading Club in style Wednesday during the annual end party.

Along with games, food and more for children, parents went home with free school supplies.

The annual event usually is held at the branch library at the Broughton Recreation Center, but it was moved outside the main library on West Cotton Street because of renovations at Broughton.

In 2020, the library shifted its Summer Reading Club to an entirely virtual program because of COVID-19 concerns. This year, the program offered a mixture of in-person and online activities, including storytimes and concerts at the Longview Arboretum and Nature Center.

For information about library events and activities, go to longviewtexas.gov/3888/Library .

Abbott says he won’t impose new mask mandate despite increasing COVID-19 cases
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Gov. Greg Abbott says he will not impose another statewide mask mandate, despite COVID-19 cases being on the rise again.

“There will be no mask mandate imposed, and the reasons for that are very clear,” Abbott told KPRC-TV in Houston on Tuesday. “There are so many people who have immunities to COVID, whether it be through the vaccination, whether it be through their own exposure and their recovery from it, which would be acquired immunity.”

It would be “inappropriate to require people who already have immunity to wear a mask,” he said.

During a news conference Wednesday in Houston, Abbott went further and expressed blanket resistance to any new restrictions to fight the virus. He said Texas is “past the time of government mandates” and “into the time for personal responsibility.”

While the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says fully vaccinated people do not need to wear masks indoors in most settings, the World Health Organization is still encouraging everyone to wear masks while inside.

As the delta variant has spread, some key pandemic indicators have increased in Texas. On Sunday, the state’s positivity rate — the ratio of cases to tests — went above 10% for the first time since February, a threshold that Abbott has previously identified as dangerous.

Abbott lifted the statewide mask requirement in March. The mandate had been in place since summer of last year.

Two months later, he announced he was banning government entities — including public schools — from mandating masks. Abbott reiterated Tuesday that Texas schoolchildren will not face mask requirements as they return to school later this summer.

“Kids will not be forced by government or by schools to wear masks in school,” Abbott said. “They can by parental choice wear a mask, but there will be no government mandate requiring masks.”

Pelosi bars Trump allies from Jan. 6 probe; GOP vows boycott
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WASHINGTON — House Speaker Nancy Pelosi on Wednesday rejected two Republicans tapped by House GOP leader Kevin McCarthy to sit on a committee investigating the Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection, a decision the Republican denounced as “an egregious abuse of power.”

McCarthy said the GOP won’t participate in the investigation if Democrats won’t accept the members he appointed.

Pelosi cited the “integrity” of the probe in refusing to accept the appointments of Indiana Rep. Jim Banks, picked by McCarthy to be the top Republican on the panel, or Ohio Rep. Jim Jordan. The two men are allies of former President Donald Trump, whose supporters laid siege to the Capitol that day and interrupted the certification of President Joe Biden’s win. Both of them voted to overturn the election results in the hours after the riot.

Democrats have said the investigation will go on whether the Republicans participate or not, as Pelosi has already appointed eight of the 13 members — including Republican Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming, a Trump critic — and that gives them a bipartisan quorum to proceed, according to committee rules.

Pelosi said she had spoken with McCarthy and told him that she would reject the two names.

“With respect for the integrity of the investigation, with an insistence on the truth and with concern about statements made and actions taken by these members, I must reject the recommendations of Representatives Banks and Jordan to the Select Committee,” Pelosi said in a statement.

Pelosi has the authority to approve or reject members, per committee rules, though she acknowledged her move was unusual. She said “the unprecedented nature of January 6th demands this unprecedented decision.”

The move is emblematic of the raw political tensions in Congress that have only escalated since the riot and raises the possibility that the investigation — the only comprehensive probe being conducted of the attack — will be done almost entirely by Democrats. The House voted in may to create an independent investigation that would have been evenly split between the parties, but Senate Republicans blocked that approach in a vote last month.

McCarthy said Pelosi’s move will damage the institution of Congress.

“Unless Speaker Pelosi reverses course and seats all five Republican nominees, Republicans will not be party to their sham process and will instead pursue our own investigation of the facts,” McCarthy said.

It is unclear how McCarthy would lead a separate investigation, as the minority does not have the power to set up committees. He said the panel has lost “all legitimacy” because Pelosi wouldn’t allow the Republicans to name their own members.

McCarthy wouldn’t say for weeks whether Republicans would even participate in the probe, but he sent the five names to Pelosi on Monday.

Pelosi accepted McCarthy’s three other picks — Illinois Rep. Rodney Davis, North Dakota Rep. Kelly Armstrong and Texas Rep. Troy Nehls. But McCarthy said that all five or none would participate.

Like Jordan and Banks, Nehls voted to overturn Biden’s victory. Armstrong and Davis voted to certify the election.

Banks recently traveled with Trump to the U.S.-Mexico border and visited him at his New Jersey golf course. In a statement after McCarthy tapped him for the panel, he sharply criticized the Democrats who had set it up.

“Make no mistake, Nancy Pelosi created this committee solely to malign conservatives and to justify the Left’s authoritarian agenda,” Banks said.

Democrats whom Pelosi appointed to the committee earlier this month were angry over that statement, according to a senior Democratic aide familiar with the private deliberations and who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss them. They were also concerned over Banks’ two recent visits with Trump, the person said.

Jordan, the top Republican on the House Judiciary Committee, was one of Trump’s most vocal defenders during his two impeachments and last month likened the new investigation to “impeachment three.” Trump was impeached by the House and acquitted by the Senate both times.

The back-and-forth came after all but two Republicans opposed the creation of the select committee in a House vote last month, with most in the GOP arguing that the majority-Democratic panel would conduct a partisan probe. Only Cheney and another frequent Trump critic, Republican Rep. Adam Kinzinger of Illinois, voted in favor of the panel.

Cheney told reporters she believes that the rhetoric from McCarthy, Jordan and Banks is “disgraceful” and she agrees with Pelosi’s decision to reject the two Republicans.

“At every opportunity, the minority leader has attempted to prevent the American people from understanding what happened — to block this investigation,” Cheney said of McCarthy.

The panel will hold its first hearing next week, with at least four rank-and-file police officers who battled rioters that day testifying about their experiences. Dozens of police officers were injured as the violent mob pushed past them and broke into the Capitol building.

Mississippi Rep. Bennie Thompson, the chair of the panel, said the committee would carry out its duties.

“It has been more than 6 months since the attack, we owe it to our democracy to stay the course and not be distracted by side-shows,” Thompson said in a statement. “That is exactly what we will be doing next Tuesday, when the bipartisan committee members take testimony from frontline heroes who put their lives on the line to protect our democracy.”

Seven people died during and after the rioting, including a woman who was shot by police as she tried to break into the House chamber and three other Trump supporters who suffered medical emergencies.

Two police officers died by suicide in the days that followed, and a third officer, Capitol Police Officer Brian Sicknick, collapsed and later died after engaging with the protesters. A medical examiner determined he died of natural causes.