Live COVID-19 updates: Texas sending more relief medical workers to hospitals, adding new antibody infusion centers

COVID-19 related signs are posted to the entrance to Ott Elementary School in San Antonio on Aug. 11, 2020.

Editor's Note: For the latest news about COVID-19 in Texas, click here. Updates on this page ended at 10 p.m. Aug. 19.

Texas Supreme Court temporarily allows school mask mandates to remain, in blow to Greg Abbott and Ken Paxton

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The Texas Supreme Court has dismissed Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton and Gov. Greg Abbott's request that it disallow mask mandates in Texas school districts — albeit on a technicality.

The Supreme Court's order Thursday temporarily allows school districts to require face coverings because it leaves in place previous temporary restraining orders issued by a Travis County judge, whom Paxton wanted the high court to overrule. Justices cited a provision that typically requires matters to go to an appellate court before it reaches the state's highest civil court.

State District Judge Jan Soifer issued temporary restraining orders against Gov. Greg Abbott’s ban on mask mandates, clearing the way for Harris County and eight school districts to enact their own mask-wearing rules. Soifer also barred Abbott from enforcing his order “against Texas independent school districts.” Abbott, who is vaccinated, tested positive for the coronavirus Tuesday but is not experiencing any symptoms.

In the past two weeks, Abbott and Paxton have sought to stem the tide of cities, counties and school districts challenging the governor’s pandemic executive order and putting their own mask mandates in place. Paxton's office argued to the state's Supreme Court that the patchwork of local mask mandates was causing "mass confusion" in Texas.

While Abbott and Paxton have had a few legal victories in temporarily removing some mask mandates, those victories have been short-lived. The high court has allowed the many legal challenges to continue playing out. Erin Douglas and Joshua Fechter

Texas sending more relief medical workers to hospitals and opening additional antibody infusion centers

Texas will double the number of state-funded relief medical workers that health officials are sending into hospitals and open more COVID-19 antibody infusion centers next week in an effort to keep hospitals from being overwhelmed by increasing numbers of seriously ill patients, Gov. Greg Abbott said Thursday.

Some 2,700 nurses and other medical staff are being deployed this week to hard-hit hospitals in areas like Dallas and Houston, where record numbers of unvaccinated patients suffering from the highly contagious delta variant of COVID-19 are threatening to overwhelm ICUs and emergency rooms.

That number goes up to 5,500 next week, an attempt to fill a critical nursing shortage that has left hundreds of Texas hospitals without the capacity to care for patients — during a surge many health officials believe is the worst to hit the state since the pandemic began.

After weeks of requests for help by hospitals, Abbott ordered the Texas Department of State Health Services on Aug. 9 to send reinforcements. The relief personnel will be paid for by the state through the end of September.

Abbott also announced new state-run antibody infusion centers would be open in Beaumont and Odessa next week, in addition to several that have opened or reopened recently in areas including San Antonio, Austin and Corpus Christi.

Monoclonal antibody infusions, which have emergency use authorization from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, are proven to reduce hospitalization rates and the severity of COVID-19 in people who tested positive for the virus, health care officials said.

"Front-line health care workers across our state are working tirelessly to keep Texans healthy and safe," Abbott said. "The substantial increase of infusion centers will reduce hospitalizations, and the added medical personnel will help treat COVID-19 patients already in hospitals.” Karen Brooks Harper

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton sues San Antonio school district for requiring employees to get COVID-19 vaccine

A San Antonio school district that made COVID-19 vaccinations mandatory for teachers and staff has drawn a court challenge from Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton.

Paxton sued San Antonio Independent School District and its superintendent Pedro Martinez Thursday for flouting Gov. Greg Abbott’s executive order that bans vaccine mandates, accusing them of “deliberately violating state law” in a lawsuit filed in Bexar County district court.

All San Antonio ISD employees must prove they have been vaccinated under a policy Martinez enacted Monday — in what’s believed to be the first attempt by a Texas school district to require vaccinations for employees.

Abbott has barred cities, counties and school districts from mandating masks or vaccinations — prohibitions that has prompted many districts in recent weeks to either ignore the governor or take him to court to at least put mask-wearing requirements in place.

San Antonio ISD officials declined to comment on the lawsuit, but said “it is our state and federal responsibility to protect children in our charge, and we will continue to act in the best interests of our students, families and community.” Joshua Fechter

Rice University and Houston Community College move classes online

Rice University in Houston is starting the fall semester two days later than previously scheduled and shifting all classes online for the first two weeks, citing rising COVID-19 cases in the Houston area and on campus, according to an announcement on the university’s website Thursday.

“I’ll be blunt: the level of breakthrough cases (positive tests among vaccinated persons) is much higher than anticipated,” wrote Bridget Gorman, dean of undergraduates. “And while it’s important to recognize that we can expect illness to be much milder among the fully vaccinated, it has become clear that as a campus community we need to take steps to further assess and recalibrate how we will manage this illness at Rice this year.”

The announcement at Rice is significant because the private university has stricter measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19 than most universities in the state. It is one of the few schools in Texas mandating masks on campus and requiring unvaccinated students to get tested twice per week.

Earlier this week, Houston Community College announced it was shifting classes online for the first four weeks of the fall semester. The college said it is reinstituting a health screening process for students, employees and visitors before they come on campus for any reason. Kate McGee

Houston ISD will give $500 stipends, additional sick days to vaccinated employees

The Houston school board voted Thursday to give employees a $500 stipend if they show proof of being fully vaccinated against COVID-19.

Employees with medical conditions or disabilities that are recommended not to take the vaccine will also be eligible for the one-time payment, according to the Houston Chronicle. The total cost is not expected to exceed $14 million, and officials will use federal coronavirus relief money, according to the district.

“The administration believes there is a public purpose for encouraging employees to become vaccinated,” the proposal from Superintendent Millard House II reads. “Vaccination affords protection from the virus, supports wellness, and lessens the need for absences from school and work, while reducing the potential spreading of the virus to students and staff.”

The board also approved an additional 10 paid leave days related to COVID-19 for employees during the 2021-22 school year. Employees must show proof of vaccination to be eligible for the additional sick days.

Giving employees money for being vaccinated and giving additional days off are two more strategies the Houston board has conjured to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 in its schools. The school district also has a mask mandate in place. Brian Lopez

State Rep. Steve Allison reportedly tests positive for COVID-19

State Rep. Steve Allison, R-San Antonio, has tested positive for the coronavirus, his office confirmed Wednesday evening.

The news was first reported by independent reporter Eva Ruth Moravec.

Allison, who is fully vaccinated and "doing well," according to his office in an email, is expected "to be back at work early next week," and the lawmaker has been quarantined since he tested positive for the virus.

Allison is getting Regeneron's monoclonal antibody treatment, his office said, which Moravec reported the lawmaker is taking on the advice of state Rep. Travis Clardy, a Nacogdoches Republican who recently tested positive for the coronavirus. Gov. Greg Abbott, who announced that he tested positive for COVID-19 on Tuesday, is also receiving that treatment.

Clardy, per Moravec, received the treatment a week into battling the virus, and has since returned to the House floor after testing negative for COVID-19.

Allison's office said the lawmaker's staff as well as his wife have all tested negative. Cassandra Pollock

El Paso makes masks mandatory in indoor spaces, defying Gov. Greg Abbott

El Paso County residents must wear masks in many indoor spaces like schools and businesses under a new countywide mandate — the latest major Texas metro to defy Gov. Greg Abbott’s ban on local mask orders.

Anyone over age 2 must don a face covering while indoors under an order issued by Dr. Hector Ocaranza, El Paso’s city-county health authority. The order, which took effect Wednesday, covers a county of more than 865,000 people; violations are a Class C misdemeanor, which carries a maximum fine of $500.

The order came after El Paso city officials convinced a local judge Tuesday to temporarily bar Abbott from enforcing his executive order banning cities, counties and school districts from imposing their own rules requiring mask-wearing.

The El Paso mandate includes a number of exceptions. For example, it doesn’t apply to people exercising in indoor gyms or attending religious services. — Joshua Fechter

Biden administration to offer vaccine booster shots beginning Sept. 20

The Biden administration will begin offering coronavirus booster shots the week of Sept. 20, top health officials announced Wednesday, after concluding that a third shot is needed to fight off waning immunity.

The federal government will also direct all nursing homes to require vaccination for staffers or face loss of Medicare and Medicaid funds — an escalation by the Biden administration as it tries to get more Americans vaccinated amid the delta variant surge.

The booster shot plan, which applies only to the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines, calls for Americans to get a booster shot eight months after receiving their second doses. The officials said they expect that a booster shot will be needed for people who received the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, but they are still reviewing data and will announce plans at a later date.

Officials said the decision was driven by data showing a decline over time in the vaccines’ ability to protect against less serious disease; evidence that boosters work and that more protection may be needed against the dominant delta variant; and a desire to stave off any potential decrease in the shots’ effectiveness against severe illness.

The officials said the plan would only be implemented if the Food and Drug Administration approved boosters and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advisers recommended them. — The Washington Post staff

Biden will require nursing homes to mandate staff vaccinations or lose federal funds

The Biden administration will require nursing homes to mandate that all of their workers be vaccinated against COVID-19 as a condition for those facilities to receive federal funds, President Biden announced Wednesday afternoon.

“If you visit, live or work in a nursing home, you should not be at a high risk of contracting COVID from unvaccinated employees,” Biden said.

Biden is directing the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to develop the new regulations for long-term care workers who serve people enrolled in Medicare and Medicaid programs. The new regulations would apply to more than 15,000 nursing home facilities, which employ roughly 1.3 million workers, according to a person familiar with the announcement who requested anonymity to share details that were not yet public.

Earlier this month, The Washington Post reported the administration was considering withholding federal funds from institutions to push more Americans to get vaccinated. The conversations at the time focused on how to get more health care workers vaccinated. The effort is part of a far more muscular approach by the Biden administration to increase vaccinations amid spiking cases due to the highly contagious delta variant. Tyler Pager and Annie Linskey, The Washington Post

Northeast Texas school district adds mask requirement to its dress code in attempt to get around governor’s executive order

As Texas school officials figure out how to mandate masks in public schools without running afoul of Gov. Greg Abbott, one school district has taken a novel approach: make mask-wearing a part of the dress code.

Students, teachers and other school employees at Paris Independent School District — a school district in Northeast Texas with about 3,900 students — must don masks after the district’s board of trustees voted Tuesday to require masks under the district’s dress code, The Paris News reported.

“The Texas Governor does not have the authority to usurp the Board of Trustees’ exclusive power and duty to govern and oversee the management of the public schools of the district,” the board said in a statement posted on the district’s website.

In recent weeks, several Texas school districts, along with cities and counties, have mandated mask-wearing in schools in defiance of Abbott’s ban on local mask orders — citing their authority to respond to emergency situations like the COVID-19 pandemic.

School officials in parts of the state have grown desperate for ways to protect children too young to get vaccinated against the rapid spread of the highly contagious delta variant.

Paris ISD appears to be the first to use the district’s authority to set proper attire for students and employees to require masks. Joshua Fechter

Disability rights group files federal lawsuit against Gov. Greg Abbott over his ban on school mask mandates

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s ban on mask mandates could soon be taken up in federal court.

Disability Rights Texas filed a federal lawsuit Tuesday against Abbott and Texas Education Agency Commissioner Mike Morath over Abbott’s executive order preventing school districts from enacting their own mask-wearing requirements.

Abbott’s order, the group alleges in the suit, violates the Americans with Disabilities Act and federal protections for students with disabilities by preventing “students with disabilities from safely returning to school for in-person instruction without serious risk to their health and safety.”

Parents of “medically vulnerable students” will have to “decide whether to keep their children at home or risk placing them in an environment that presents a serious risk to their health and safety” if schools can’t implement mask-wearing, the lawsuit says.

“As a result, Governor Abbott and TEA have erected an unlawful barrier, which will impact many students with disabilities and prevent local school districts and communities from providing a safe learning environment for their most vulnerable students,” the lawsuit reads.

The disability rights group — which sued Abbott and Morath in the Western District of Texas on behalf of 14 schoolchildren who have disabilities or chronic diseases — wants a federal judge to block, at least temporarily, Abbott's prohibition on mask mandates so school officials can require students, teachers, staff and visitors to don masks.

Representatives for Abbott and Morath did not immediately return requests for comment.

Tuesday’s lawsuit marks a new front in the growing revolt against Abbott’s order.

To date, legal challenges to Abbott’s ban on local mask mandates have focused on whether cities, counties and school districts have the legal authority to require masks — no matter what Abbott says. Joshua Fechter

Texas hospitals may soon have more COVID-19 patients than they can handle

More Texas hospitals are reporting a shortage of intensive care beds than at any other time since the COVID-19 pandemic hit the state 18 months ago — just one sign among many that the health crisis is on track to reach its most dangerous phase yet, health officials say.

The latest surge of the virus has also caused new cases and COVID-19 hospitalizations to rise with record speed to just below their January peaks, as the highly contagious delta variant rips through the unvaccinated community at a rate up to eight times faster than earlier strains, officials said.

Between 93% and 98% of hospitalized COVID patients, depending on the area, are unvaccinated, officials said. With just under half of Texans fully vaccinated, the state still has some 16 million people who have yet to be protected from the virus.

New COVID-19 cases have reached a seven-day average of more than 14,000, still below the January peak of more than 19,000. But the number that worries health officials most is hospitalizations from COVID-19, which hit 12,227 on Monday — an increase of 2,186 since last week.

If the trend continues, the state could surpass the single-day record of 14,218, set on Jan. 11, before the end of the month. Karen Brooks Harper and Carla Astudillo

Gov. Greg Abbott tests positive for coronavirus

Gov. Greg Abbott tested positive Tuesday for COVID-19. Abbott, who is fully vaccinated, is not experiencing any symptoms and is isolating at the Governor's Mansion, spokesperson Mark Miner said in a statement. He is getting Regeneron's monoclonal antibody treatment.

"The Governor has been testing daily, and today was the first positive test result," Miner said. "Governor Abbott is in constant communication with his staff, agency heads, and government officials to ensure that state government continues to operate smoothly and efficiently."

Miner added that "everyone that the Governor has been in close contact with today" has been informed of his positive test. The first lady, Cecilia Abbott, tested negative. Patrick Svitek

Harris County offers $100 gift cards to encourage COVID-19 vaccinations

In a bid to jumpstart stalled vaccinations in Texas’ most populous county and provide relief to the region’s stressed hospitals, Harris County officials will offer $100 gift cards to residents who get their first COVID-19 shot.

“We’re making it as easy as possible,” County Judge Lina Hidalgo said at a Tuesday news conference. “There’s really no excuse.”

Across the state, local officials have grown desperate for ways to convince more people to get vaccinated as the highly contagious delta variant puts more people in hospital beds and hospitals scramble to find enough workers to care for a surge of COVID-19 patients.

The overwhelming majority of those hospitalized, hospital officials and health experts have said, are unvaccinated. Less than half of Harris County residents are fully vaccinated.

County officials have set aside $2.3 million for the county’s vaccine incentive program — enough to put first doses in about 23,000 arms.

President Joe Biden has encouraged cities and counties to dip into federal stimulus dollars to pay for $100 in incentives. In Texas, Austin will soon have a vaccine incentive program, and San Antonio is weighing a program of its own. Joshua Fechter

San Antonio school district requires teachers, staff to be vaccinated

The San Antonio Independent School District will require all staff to be vaccinated against the coronavirus, its superintendent, Pedro Martinez, said in a letter to staff Monday. It is believed to be the first large Texas school district to implement a vaccine requirement for its employees.

The move comes as Gov. Greg Abbott and state officials continue fighting legal battles over the options local governments have to mitigate the pandemic.

About 90% of San Antonio ISD employees are vaccinated, Martinez said in his letter to staff. Employees who have not yet received vaccine shots are required to be fully vaccinated by Oct. 15.

As part of his reasoning, Martinez cited the community’s high positivity rate — the share of people getting tested who are confirmed to have infections.

“We strongly believe that the best path forward as a school district is to require all staff to become vaccinated against COVID-19. And the timing is now,” Martinez said. “This is a profound moment where we can choose to lead by example.”

The announcement came the same day a Bexar County judge ruled that local officials can proceed with requiring masks in schools. That new temporary injunction is part of an ongoing legal challenge to Abbott’s statewide ban on mask mandates that the Texas Supreme Court allowed to continue Sunday when it overruled previous moves by lower courts that had also cleared the way for local mandates.

Martinez announced in a separate letter to San Antonio ISD parents Monday that the district would be issuing a mask mandate, “effective immediately.”

Abbott’s latest pandemic executive order bans government entities from requiring anyone to get — or prove they have received — a vaccine that has been cleared for emergency use.

In his letter to staff, Martinez noted that the Food and Drug Administration may soon grant full approval for the COVID-19 vaccines, instead of just emergency approval.

The Texas Education Agency released guidance earlier this month that does not mention vaccination requirements for district staff, but it does say that schools can test staff for the virus. Allyson Waller

West Texas school district temporarily cancels school amid coronavirus surge

A small school district in West Texas has apparently become the first in the state this school year to temporarily shut its doors due to rising numbers of COVID-19 cases in the community.

An official of the Iraan-Sheffield Independent School District, with fewer than 400 students, announced Monday that it will close as of Tuesday and aims to reopen Aug. 30.

“This decision was made to ensure the safety of our students and staff as well as to make certain that we have appropriate staff available for each campus,” Superintendent Tracy Canter said in the statement.

Two small East Texas school districts — Bloomburg and Waskom — also planned to cancel classes at some schools this week due to the coronavirus, The Dallas Morning News reported.

Iraan-Sheffield officials announced in June that they would discontinue virtual learning and wanted kids back in the classroom. In Monday’s announcement, Canter said the district will work with the Texas Education Agency to determine if the district can provide “home support” or return to campus before Aug. 30.

The TEA did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The district’s back-to-school plan said masks were not required but were strongly encouraged.

Over the last week, COVID-19 hospitalizations in Pecos County, where Iraan is located, have risen from 9.5% to about 14.5% of hospital capacity, according to the Texas Department of State Health Services.

Danny Updike, executive director of the advisory council for the trauma service area that includes Pecos County, said hospitalizations are worse than they were a year ago. Most patients being admitted are unvaccinated, and Iraan has a low vaccination rate, he said.

In some instances, Updike said, patients are being flown to New Mexico or Oklahoma because there aren’t enough beds in the region.

“People need to get vaccinated,” he said. “They think the government’s telling them to do it, and they need to not take that attitude.” Brian Lopez

El Paso plans to issue mask mandate, join legal fight against Gov. Greg Abbott

El Paso Public Health Authority Hector Ocaranza said Monday that he would implement a mask mandate for indoor establishments, including schools, El Paso Matters reports.

Ocaranza said the mandate would likely go into effect Wednesday at the earliest, and a notice will be issued to the public.

During an emergency City Council meeting, council members approved a motion that the city attorney challenge Gov. Greg Abbott’s executive order that bans local governments from imposing mask requirements.

“We hope to get in front of a judge early tomorrow morning,” city attorney Karla Nieman said.

Council member Cassandra Hernandez said during the meeting that Ocaranza has the authority to protect the El Paso community despite Abbott’s fight against local restrictions.

“Gov. Abbott has exceeded his authority,” she said. “... We also must remember that the common enemy here is to eradicate COVID-19. It’s not the partisan politics.” — Allyson Waller

Bexar County’s mask mandate in public schools can remain in effect, judge rules as challenges to Gov. Greg Abbott’s ban continue

After the state’s highest civil court nullified a mask mandate in San Antonio this weekend, a Bexar County judge ruled Monday that local officials can proceed with requiring face coverings in public schools.

“My thoughts continue to be with those children in our schools that don’t have access to the vaccine, but must attend school, coupled with the dire situation right here in Bexar County hospitals, and where we currently find ourselves,” State District Judge Antonia Arteaga said in making her ruling.

The new temporary injunction is part of an ongoing legal challenge to Gov. Greg Abbott’s statewide ban on mask mandates that the Texas Supreme Court allowed to continue Sunday when it overruled previous moves by lower courts that had also cleared the way for local mandates.

Officials in San Antonio and Bexar County successfully sued Abbott last week for the right to enact their own mask mandate. Upon winning, they quickly put one in place for public schools — a requirement soon replicated by three of the state’s other largest counties. Joshua Fechter

Disclosure: Houston Community College and Rice University 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.