AUSTIN (Nexstar) — The Texas House is back to work, thanks to a kickstart from a divide among Democrats. Late Thursday afternoon, enough of the Democrats returned to the chamber to restore quorum, clearing the way for the House to begin work on a series of bills.

The tipping point came when three Houston Democrats entered the chamber. Representatives Garnet Coleman, Ana Hernandez and Armando Walle arrived together. Coleman had been absent since before the end of the regular session in May, due to medical reasons that led to his right leg being amputated. Walle pushed Coleman in a wheelchair to his desk.

Moments before they entered the chamber, Coleman, Hernandez and Walle sent out a joint news release, laying out the reasons for breaking away from the Democrats breaking quorum.

“It is time to move past these partisan legislative calls, and to dome together to help our state mitigate the effects of the current COVID-19 surge…” the joint statement read in part.

Coleman gave the invocation at the start of Thursday’s proceedings in the House.

“We pray today, and pray for everyone here and all the officials that are doing what they believe is the right thing, and that God continue to give them a sense of what the right thing is,” Coleman said during the prayer.

After the prayer, it was time for business.

Within minutes, House members plowed through first readings of bills that had already moved through the Senate. They quickly assigned the bills to committees to schedule public hearings. After making those moves, Speaker Dade Phelan had a message for members in the chamber.

“I appreciate the members who made quorum today,” Phelan said. “It’s time to get back to the business of the people of Texas.”

Moments later, Phelan brought down the gavel, and adjourned the House until Monday afternoon.

The move by the three Houston-area members to return and restore quorum caught some of their fellow Democrats off guard.

“I felt very hurt. I felt betrayed,” Rep. Ron Reynolds (D-Missouri City) explained. He gave an interview via Zoom from Washington, DC, where he along with several Texas House Democrats remain.

Reynolds said the move will make it harder for Democrats to negotiate over legislation like the Texas elections bill.

“There’s no room for negotiation when the only thing Republicans wanted was a quorum,” Reynolds explained. “I think we lost so much leverage that we gained,” he continued. “I think it was a mistake.”

For now, Republican-led legislation seems poised to move forward quickly at the Capitol.

“I think we’ll bring the members together to the House floor probably to vote on a number of bills the same day,” said Rep. Jim Murphy (R-Houston), leader of the House Republican Caucus.

“There’s no reason to piecemeal them out. We’re all here,” Murphy added.

14 children with disabilities file federal lawsuit over mask mandate ban

Fourteen child plaintiffs and their families — including three from Central Texas — have filed the first federal lawsuit against Texas Gov. Greg Abbott and Texas Education Agency Commissioner Mike Morath, advocacy group Disability Rights Texas said Wednesday.

The suit alleges the state’s executive order, which prohibits school districts from enforcing mask mandates, puts children with disabilities “at significant risk, is discriminatory and violates the federal Americans with Disabilities Act and Section 504 of the federal Rehabilitation Act.”

According to the lawsuit, the order discriminates against students with disabilities and their rights to public education programs. Several of the plaintiffs, which have varying degrees of disabilities, could be at an increased risk of medical complications and death due to their underlying medical conditions, the lawsuit states.

The lawsuit seeks a federal temporary restraining order which would cease enforcement of the executive order and allow school districts and local public health authorities the ability to freely require masks.

There are 14 anonymous child plaintiffs ranging from seven to 11-years-old. Three plaintiffs are from Central Texas, including Travis, Hays and Williamson counties.

Austin mom Rebecca McCormick is filing on behalf of her 8-year-old son. He has down syndrome and a history of lung issues. The slightest cold sticks with him for weeks. So McCormick is terrified to send him into a building where unmasked students might easily transfer respiratory illness.

“We want to follow what the CDC is saying and what our pediatrician recommends, and that is for unvaccinated people to be wearing a mask,” McCormick said. “We as a community need to think about how our decisions impact other people and the consequences of those decisions. I believe that masking works and it helps prevent the spread of COVID and save lives.”

When asked for a response to the complaints within the lawsuit, an Abbott spokesperson responded: “Governor Abbott cares deeply about the health and safety of disabled students, as he does for all Texas students. Since his accident that left him paralyzed, the Governor has worked throughout his career to protect the rights of all those with disabilities in Texas.”

The Texas Education Agency refused to comment on pending litigation.

Many parents still side with Gov. Abbott’s executive order, saying they have no problem if other children wear masks, just don’t expect everyone to. Jennifer Stevens with the group Eanes Kids First pushed other families to rally for parental-choice.

“We need schools to teach reading, writing, arithmetic. What I don’t need them doing is teaching them things that I should be teaching my children,” Stevens said. “I do believe in freedom and I believe that’s worth fighting for.”

‘They don’t deserve to die’: Jail inmates wait months for COVID-19 vaccine

Melinda Long says she’s dealt with her son’s mental illness and drug addiction for nearly 15 years. She spent most of that time fearing drug use would kill him. Her only relief over the years was during his repeated stints in jail and rehab.

“We knew he wasn’t getting the meth and the drugs,” said Long. “You know? And he wasn’t hurting anyone.”

Melinda Long holding a picture of her son and three grandchildren. (KXAN Photo / Ben Friberg)

Long’s son, a father to three boys, was booked into the Williamson County jail in November 2020. But this time what Long feared would kill her son was spreading inside the walls of the Williamson County jail.

“Fear that he is not going to make it out,” said Long. “Fear for the other families.”

Since the start of the pandemic, the Williamson County jail has reported outbreaks of COVID-19 among the jail population – not unlike other jails in Central Texas. One of its outbreaks is still ongoing.

The outbreaks don’t just impact the jail population. Since March 2020, more than 9,000 people have been booked into the Williamson County jail. Just as many have been released in the same amount of time. Many of those were released before vaccines were available in the Williamson County Jail.

Despite earlier outbreaks, the jail administration in Williamson County waited nearly seven months after the vaccine was first made available to the medically vulnerable and those older than 65 in Texas – to offer them to people housed in the jail.

Assistant Chief Deputy Kathleen Pokluda leads the corrections division for the Williamson County Sheriff’s Office. Pokluda says the vaccines were first offered to the jail population on July 26 of this year — a time when vaccines have gone from being available to those with preexisting conditions to available for those as young as 12.

It also came as the jail was experiencing a growing outbreak of COVID-19. At the end of July, Pokluda reported 29 people housed at the jail with positive cases and 14 staff members who also tested positive. Over the course of the pandemic, six people had been hospitalized due to complications of COVID-19. By the time of our interview, Pokluda reported cases in the jail were down to 12.

Pokluda says the months-long delay in offering the vaccines was because the jail administration only wanted to offer the Johnson & Johnson, which she says at the time was harder to get than Pfizer and Moderna.

“We had it out of the jail from February until we saw this uptick. We had no COVID, so it wasn’t an issue. It wasn’t an issue,” said Pokluda. “We had talked about it, but we had decided we wanted the J&J.”

Two months after the vaccine became available to people 65 and older and those medically vulnerable, on Feb. 19, Travis County jail started offering its jail population the COVID-19 vaccine. That was in February. In March, Hays County began offering the vaccine to its jail population. Bastrop County jail followed suit in April.

Some jails, like those in Blanco and Llano County, say they still do not offer the vaccine to those housed in their jails. Both agencies report having no cases of COVID-19 in the jail throughout the entirety of the pandemic.

In an email statement, Llano County Sheriff Bill Blackburn said, “we’ve been fortunate in that we have not had a single case of COVID-19.”

The Texas Commission on Jail Standards has been tracking COVID-19 cases at county jails in the state throughout the pandemic, including data showing the number of confirmed and suspected deaths related to COVID-19. But the commission says it stopped requiring agencies to report the data in June.

The last report from June 14 shows 88 people had an active positive COVID-19 test at jails across Texas. Nearly 4,000 people inside Texas jails were being quarantined. The report confirmed 24 deaths due to COVID-19.

Jails in Central Texas also differ in how they screen people coming into the jail. While Travis County quarantines all newly booked people in single-occupancy cells for the first 10-14 days, Williamson County jail’s policy is to quarantine any individual who both refuses a COVID-19 test and is showing symptoms.

“Now when the outbreak happened – we weren’t doing temperatures, but now we are back to doing temperatures every day. We do it twice a day – temperatures,” said Pokluda. “We have caught people that way, because that may be all that they have.”

Long’s son was released from the Williamson County jail in early August. He’s now in a rehabilitation facility, according to Long. His mother says he was one of the more than 60 people housed in the jail that chose to get a COVID-19 shot. It was offered to him for the first time just two weeks before his nine-month sentence ended.

“They don’t deserve to die,” said Long. “That has been the thing I have prayed would not happen. I know that I could not have handled it. I know his boys could not have handled it. At least they have that little bit of hope that their father can get better.”

COVID-19 cases on the rise in Texas nursing homes

COVID-19 cases were nearly nonexistent just a month ago in Texas nursing homes. But as the virus’ delta variant rages through the state, long-term care facilities are seeing a rise in cases yet again.

The escalating number of active cases has advocates for vulnerable long-term care residents concerned about the vaccination rate of facility staff and resident visitation rights.

Long-term care facilities were ravaged by COVID-19 in 2020. In Texas alone, there have been more than 70,000 total cases and about 9,000 resident deaths. Most of those cases and deaths occurred from June 2020 through January 2021, according to Texas Health and Human Services Commission records. But after the disastrous first two waves of the virus, state and federal officials pushed hard to get nursing home residents vaccinated quickly.

Active resident cases plummeted in January from a high of nearly 7,000 down to just 34 in June 2021, according to the state.

While most residents in nursing homes are vaccinated, many of the elderly people living in those facilities have underlying health conditions, making them more vulnerable.

Amanda Fredriksen, Director of Advocacy with AARP Texas, said, “the real challenge is on the staffing side and making sure that staff are getting vaccinated.”

About 56% of nursing home staff members in Texas have gotten their COVID-19 shots, according to federal data from the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services.

About one in five nursing facilities has more than 75% of their staff vaccinated, said Fredriksen.

“The flip side of that is that means four out of five facilities are at some level below that,” she said. “That’s really concerning. And for that reason, AARP is now essentially saying that nursing facilities should be requiring staff and residents to get the vaccine.”

Advocating for a vaccine mandate in nursing homes is a new position for AARP, said Fredriksen, but it’s “too risky” having unvaccinated staffers in close contact with vulnerable residents.

Fredriksen said the pandemic has spotlighted chronic nursing home staffing problems. However, those payroll issues should have improved since state and federal authorities injected more than $1 billion, including financial incentives for staff retention and hazard pay, to help pay and keep workers.

“It’s really going to be important to see what facilities do with that money, and to ensure that they really invested in getting the right staff in the building and making sure residents are safe and well cared for,” she said.

Even with high vaccination rates, facilities are still seeing COVID-19 cases.

Longhorn Village, a retirement community with a skilled nursing facility, said it has nearly 100% of its residents and more than 70% of its staff inoculated. State data shows that location had nine staff and two resident cases as of July 29, which is the latest available data from HHSC.

“The positive cases have affected our vaccinated residents and staff,” Longhorn Village said in a statement.

HHSC’s data does not show breakthrough COVID infections, which are cases among vaccinated individuals.

Longhorn Village is not alone. Throughout Texas, 84 facilities had at least one case, according to the state’s July 29 data. At that time, Inspiration Hills Rehabilitation Center in San Antonio had 32 active resident cases — the most in the state.

According to Austin Public Health’s long-term care dashboard, more than 130 cases had been reported at nursing homes, assisted living facilities and state supported living centers in the area over the last month. Half of those cases were reported in the last two weeks.

A spokesperson for APH said the number of cases being investigated as breakthrough infections is “small, in comparison to the population that is fully vaccinated.”

Dr. Desmar Walkes, the city’s health authority, told city council and commissioners they were not seeing as many severe cases and hospitalizations because of a high rate of vaccination among these residents.

Texas has 13 State Supported Living Centers for medically-fragile people and those with developmental disabilities and behavioral problems. There are currently seven confirmed cases in residents, six of those in Austin. There have also been 50 confirmed employee infections, according to HHSC data.

Tammie Parker visits her sister Jackie in the Austin State Supported Living Center (Photo provided by: Parker family)
Tammie Parker visits her sister Jackie in the Austin State Supported Living Center (Photo provided by: Parker family)

Tammie Parker’s sister, Jackie, lives in an SSLC due to her intellectual disability. Over time her sister has developed additional underlying health problems and Alzheimer’s disease. In an interview with KXAN, Parker credited the state facility with saving her 68-year-old sister’s life after she contracted COVID-19.

“Had she not been in the center, with that stellar care, I really have my doubts that she would have survived this,” Parker said.

She said the facility leadership told families that 98% of their staff was vaccinated against the virus.

Parker cried at the thought of hugging her sister again one day, without a mask.

“I hope that it happens. I don’t know that it will, but I hope,” Parker said. “I just love that girl.” 

Mary Nichols, with nursing home visitation advocacy group Texas Caregivers for Compromise, said the new surge in delta variant cases should not close nursing homes to visitation.

Mary Nichols mother, who lives in a nursing home, pictured prior to the pandemic. (Photo provided by: Nichols family)
Mary Nichols mother, who lives in a nursing home, pictured prior to the pandemic. (Photo provided by: Nichols family)

Nichols’ organization advocates for nursing home visitation rights and has the slogan “isolation kills, too.”

Not only does visitation give residents the contact and mental stimulation they need, it also brings “outside eyes” to provide an extra layer of vigilance for neglect or abuse that may be happening, she said.

Nichols said her mother is in a nursing home in an advanced state of Alzheimer’s disease. During the COVID lockdown, while Nichols said she was shut out of the facility, her mother’s condition went downhill fast.

“She lost the ability to recognize me,” Nichols said. “She lost the ability to make eye contact, and she fully and completely lost her speech capacity.”

As cases escalate again, Nichols said facilities must follow state guidance and continue allowing essential caregivers, such as herself, access to their loved ones.