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Texas coronavirus deaths top 200 as hospitalizations decline
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AUSTIN — The number of deaths in Texas due to the illness caused by the coronavirus increased by more than 200 on Saturday while the number of people hospitalized with the virus declined, according to the Texas Department of State Health Services.

There were an additional 227 COVID-19 deaths, more than 4,900 new cases and 7,535 hospitalizations, a decline of 222 people hospitalized, the department reported.

Texas has had more than 2.5 million coronavirus cases since the pandemic began, and more than 42,000 deaths due to COVID-19, the third highest death count in the United States, according to Johns Hopkins University.

The seven-day rolling average of new cases has fallen from nearly 18,980 per day to nearly 5,041 and the average of daily deaths had dropped from 305.7 per day to 127.3, according to the Johns Hopkins data.

During the past two weeks, the rolling average of daily new cases in Texas has fallen by 13,849.3, a decrease of 74.7%, according to the Johns Hopkins figures.


Hospitals confront water shortages in winter storm aftermath
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HOUSTON — Hospitals across the South grappled with water shortages Sunday as the region carried on with recovery efforts in the wake of a devastating winter storm, and the weather offered a balmy respite — temperatures as high as the mid-60s.

At the height of the storm, hospitals were left scrambling to care for patients amid record cold, snow and ice that battered parts of the country more accustomed to going through winter with light jackets and short sleeves. The icy blast ruptured water mains, knocked out power to millions of utility customers and contributed to at least 76 deaths — half of which occurred in Texas. At least seven people died in Tennessee and four in Portland, Oregon.

A rural hospital in Anahuac, Texas, about 50 miles (80 kilometers) east of Houston, lost both water and power.

William Kiefer, CEO of Chambers Health, which runs the hospital along with two clinics and a wellness center, said the facilities resorted to backup generators and water from a 275-gallon storage tank. They refilled it three times using water from a swimming pool in the wellness center.

On Monday, when temperatures were in the teens, a woman about to give birth walked into the hospital after she could not make it through the ice and snow to her hospital in suburban Houston. Emergency room staff delivered the baby safely, Kiefer said.

“It would have taken her another two hours to get to (the suburban Houston hospital) if our facility wasn’t there,” he said. “We can probably assume she would have had the baby in her car and the snow. Not a good situation.”

Water was restored Thursday, and operations had returned to normal on Sunday, he said. The health system plans to look into installing more sophisticated backup systems, he said.

Houston Methodist Hospital spokeswoman Gale Smith said water had been restored at two of the system’s community hospitals. The system is dealing with an influx of dialysis patients after their local centers closed, she added.

After temperatures plunged as much as 40 degrees below normal last week, the forecast for the Houston area called for a high of 65 degrees (18 degrees Celsius) on Sunday. The city lifted its boil-water advisory on Sunday afternoon.

Still, hundreds of cars lined up at NRG Stadium to receive food and water from the Houston Food Bank. The bank also delivered supplies to vulnerable citizens, including seniors and the disabled.

Memphis, Tennessee, saw 10 inches of snow last week. Memphis, Light, Gas & Water issued a boil-water advisory on Thursday out of concern that low water pressure caused by problems at aging pumping stations and water main ruptures could lead to contamination. The advisory was still in place Sunday; utility officials said they did not know when they might lift it.

About 260,000 homes and businesses were under the advisory. Hospitals and nursing homes have been forced to switch to bottled water. The Tennessee National Guard was supplying St. Francis Hospital with water.

Nearby Baptist Memorial Hospital has taken on some of St. Francis’ patients, particularly those who need dialysis, said Dr. Jeff Wright, a pulmonary and critical care physician at Baptist. That hospital has a water purification system for dialysis and has water reserves for tasks such as cooking and bathing patients, he said.

“We have gallon jugs of water that were already stocked and ready to roll on day one,” Wright said.

Methodist Le Bonheur Healthcare also reported problems at some of its Memphis-area facilities due to water pressure problems and the boil advisory. The system is using tanker trucks to boost water pressure and relying on help from facilities that have not been affected.

City officials planned to distribute water bottles at several locations Sunday. Grocery stores struggled to keep shelves stocked with bottled water. Many restaurants remained closed.

Flights resumed Saturday at Memphis International Airport after everything was grounded Friday because of water pressure problems. Some problems still lingered, but airport officials set up temporary restrooms.

The White House said about a third of the COVID-19 vaccine doses delayed by the storm were delivered over the weekend.

The weather created a backlog of about 6 million doses as power outages closed some vaccination centers and icy weather stranded vaccine in shipping hubs. White House press secretary Jen Psaki told ABC’s “This Week” that about 2 million of those doses have gone out.

In Nashville, Tennessee, local COVID-19 task force leader Dr. Alex Jahangir said more than 2,300 seniors and teachers got vaccinated Saturday as the city resumed offering shots after days of treacherous weather.

Due to the wintry mess, local health officials last week vaccinated more than 500 people with doses that otherwise would have expired, including hundreds at homeless shelters and residents of a historically Black neighborhood who were mostly seniors with underlying health conditions.

Nearly 230,000 customers across the South were still without power as of Sunday, according to PowerOutage.us, a website that tracks power outages. The largest blackouts were in Mississippi, Texas, West Virginia, Kentucky and Oregon. Each state had more than 30,000 customers without power.

President Joe Biden is eager to visit Texas, which was hit especially hard by the weather, Psaki said. Biden hopes to travel to the state this week but “doesn’t want to take away resources” from the response, she said. Biden declared a major disaster in Texas on Saturday.

“He is . . . very mindful of the fact that it’s not a light footprint for a president to travel to a disaster area.

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner told CBS’ “Face the Nation” that Biden can come anytime.

“We certainly would welcome him,” Turner said.

Texas Rep. Michael McCaul told CNN’s “State of the Union” that federal disaster relief can be used to repair burst pipes and flood damage and to help Texans hit with skyrocketing energy bills.

McCaul also criticized fellow Republican Sen. Ted Cruz’s decision to take his family on vacation amid the crisis.

“When a crisis hits my state, I’m there,” McCaul said. “I’m not going to go on some vacation. I know Mr. Cruz called it a mistake, and he’s owned up to that. But I think that was a big mistake.”


Snubbed as Obama high court pick, Garland in line to be AG
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WASHINGTON — The last time Merrick Garland was nominated by the White House for a job, Republicans wouldn’t even meet with him.

Now, the once-snubbed Supreme Court pick will finally come before the Senate, this time as President Joe Biden’s choice for attorney general. Garland, an appeals court judge, is widely expected to sail through his confirmation process, which begins today before the Democratic-controlled Senate Judiciary Committee, with bipartisan support.

“Judge Garland’s extensive legal experience makes him well-suited to lead the Department of Justice, and I appreciated his commitment to keep politics out of the Justice Department,” Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, said in a statement. “Unless I hear something new, I expect to support his nomination before the full Senate.”

Biden’s choice of Garland reflects the president’s goal of restoring the department’s reputation as an independent body. During his four years as president, Donald Trump had insisted that the attorney general must be loyal to him personally, a position that battered the department’s reputation. Garland’s high court nomination by President Barack Obama in 2016 died because the Republican-controlled Senate refused to hold a hearing.

Garland will inherit a Justice Department that endured a tumultuous time under Trump — rife with political drama and controversial decisions — and abundant criticism from Democrats over what they saw as the politicizing of the nation’s top law enforcement agencies.

The department’s priorities and messaging are expected to shift drastically in the Biden administration, with a focus more on civil rights issue, criminal justice overhauls and policing policies in the wake of nationwide protests over the death of Black Americans at the hands of law enforcement.

Garland plans to tell senators the department must ensure laws are “fairly and faithfully enforced” and the rights of all Americans are protected, while reaffirming an adherence to policies to protect its political independence, with the attorney general acting as a lawyer for the American people, not for the president. The Justice Department on late Saturday released a copy of Garland’s opening statement.

Garland will also confront some immediate challenges, including the criminal tax investigation into Biden’s son, Hunter, and calls from some Democrats to investigate Trump, especially after thousands of pro-Trump rioters stormed the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 as Congress was meeting to certify Biden’s electoral win. Garland, in his prepared remarks for the Senate committee, calls the insurrection a “heinous attack that sought to distrust a cornerstone of our democracy: the peaceful transfer of power to a newly elected government.”

A special counsel’s inquiry started by William Barr, while he was attorney general, into the origins of the Trump-Russia investigation also remains open. It will be up to Garland to decide what to make public from that report,

Garland was at the center of a political firestorm five years ago as part of a Republican gamble that eventually shaped the future of the Supreme Court. As Obama’s nominee to replace the late Justice Antonin Scalia, who had died unexpectedly in February of 2016, Garland was a moderate choice and generally well liked by senators.

But Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said hours after Scalia’s death that he would not consider any Obama nominee — and that the voters should decide by picking a new president that November. McConnell’s entire caucus went along. Many declined even to meet with Garland, even though some privately questioned the gambit.

It was a huge political risk. Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton was ahead in most polls and could have easily nominated someone more liberal than Garland had she won the White House. But she did not, Trump did and Republicans were elated as they voted to confirm Neil Gorsuch as a justice a year later. The bet later paid off unexpected returns as the Senate remained in Republican hands for the next four years and Trump had the opportunity to nominate two additional conservative justices, Brett Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett, reshaping the political balance of the court.

Before the high court drama, Garland had been repeatedly praised by some Republicans as exactly the sort of moderate nominee they could support.

The criticism, such as it was, came from liberals, who had hoped Obama would pick someone more progressive, or diverse, than Garland. Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, then seeking the 2016 nomination against Clinton, said he wouldn’t have chosen Garland. Liberal activist groups were tepid in their support.

Sen. Lindsay Graham, R-S.C., was one of a handful of senators who met with Garland, but didn’t budge from his position that a president should not choose a Supreme Court nominee in an election year. Graham reversed course when his party had the chance, ramming through Coney Barrett’s nomination in record time during a global pandemic with just weeks to go before the 2020 election, which his party then lost.

Graham said in a tweet that Garland would be a “sound choice” to lead the Justice Department. “He is a man of great character, integrity, and tremendous competency in the law.”

Garland is a white man, but two other members of the Justice Department leadership, Vanita Gupta and Kristen Clarke, are women with significant experience in civil rights. Their selections appeared designed to blunt any concerns about Biden’s choice for attorney general and served as a signal that progressive causes would be prioritized in the new administration.Garland is an experienced judge who held senior positions at the Justice Department decades ago, including as a supervisor in the prosecution of the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing. But he is set to return to a department that is radically different from the one he left. His experience prosecuting domestic terrorism cases could prove exceptionally handy now.

Garland probably will face pressure from civil rights groups to end the federal death penalty after an unprecedented run of capital punishment during the Trump administration. Thirteen federal executions were carried out in six months, and they became superspreaders during the coronavirus pandemic.

There could be questions, too, about the department’s handling of a federal criminal and civil rights investigation examining whether members of New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s administration intentionally manipulated data about nursing home coronavirus deaths.

The new chairman of the Senate committee handling the nomination, Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., said Garland was well deserving of the post.

“And in light of his past treatment of the United States Senate, his day before the microphones is long overdue,” Durbin said.


U.S. coronavirus death toll approaches milestone of 500,000
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The U.S. stood Sunday at the brink of a once-unthinkable tally: 500,000 people lost to the coronavirus.

A year into the pandemic, the running total of lives lost was about 498,000 — roughly the population of Kansas City, Missouri, and just shy of the size of Atlanta. The figure compiled by Johns Hopkins University surpasses the number of people who died in 2019 of chronic lower respiratory diseases, stroke, Alzheimer’s, flu and pneumonia combined.

“It’s nothing like we have ever been through in the last 102 years, since the 1918 influenza pandemic,” the nation’s top infectious disease expert, Dr. Anthony Fauci, said on CNN’s “State of the Union.”

The U.S. virus death toll reached 400,000 on Jan. 19 in the waning hours in office for President Donald Trump, whose handling of the crisis was judged by public health experts to be a singular failure.

The first known deaths from the virus in the U.S. happened in early February 2020, both of them in Santa Clara County, California. It took four months to reach the first 100,000 dead. The toll hit 200,000 deaths in September and 300,000 in December. Then it took just over a month to go from 300,000 to 400,000 and about two months to climb from 400,000 to the brink of 500,000.

Joyce Willis of Las Vegas is among the countless Americans who lost family members during the pandemic. Her husband, Anthony Willis, died Dec. 28, followed by her mother-in-law in early January.

There were anxious calls from the ICU when her husband was hospitalized. She was unable to see him before he died because she, too, had the virus and could not visit.

“They are gone. Your loved one is gone, but you are still alive,” Willis said. “It’s like you still have to get up every morning. You have to take care of your kids and make a living. There is no way around it. You just have to move on.”

Then came a nightmare scenario of caring for her father-in-law while dealing with grief, arranging funerals, paying bills, helping her children navigate online school and figuring out how to go back to work as an occupational therapist.

Her father-in-law, a Vietnam vet, also contracted the virus. He also suffered from respiratory issues and died on Feb. 8. The family isn’t sure if COVID-19 contributed to his death.

“Some days I feel OK and other days I feel like I’m strong and I can do this,” she said. “And then other days it just hits me. My whole world is turned upside-down.”

The global death toll was approaching 2.5 million, according to Johns Hopkins.

While the count is based on figures supplied by government agencies around the world, the real death toll is believed to be significantly higher, in part because of inadequate testing and cases inaccurately attributed to other causes early on.

Despite efforts to administer coronavirus vaccines, a widely cited model by the University of Washington projects the U.S. death toll will surpass 589,000 by June 1.

“People will be talking about this decades and decades and decades from now,” Fauci said on NBC’s “Meet The Press.”


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