- Associated Press - Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Houston Chronicle. Aug. 30, 2016.

Congress and Zika: Nero fiddled as Rome burned, and Congress’ response to the Zika epidemic is just as bad

While the U.S. Congress has been lying on its collective beach towel and soaking up the rays during its seven-week recess, the Zika virus has been busy causing harm.

The sheer numbers of those who have been infected in Puerto Rico are staggering. The U.S. territory has recorded more than 10,000 cases of Zika. Florida has experienced 29 cases of locally transmitted Zika, and the United States has seen more than 2,500 travel-related and home-grown cases, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. There have been seven cases in the U.S. of Guillain-Barre Syndrome, a rare autoimmune disorder associated with Zika.

Not only are the numbers of infected pregnant women growing daily, so are the casualties. This month, a mother in Harris County gave birth to a girl with microcephaly who died soon after delivery.

In contrast to our vacationing Congress, scientists around the world have been working on overdrive to try to pinpoint the extent of Zika’s reach. Italian doctors have reported detecting the virus in the sperm of a man six months after he showed symptoms of Zika, perhaps pointing to a lengthening of the period of possible sexual transmission.

Other scientists are examining the extent of Zika’s damage. A study published in the journal, “Radiology,” reports that scans of Brazilian babies found cavities of the Zika-infected brains of these babies so full of fluid, that “they blow up like a balloon” and could pop, causing the brain to “collapse upon itself,” as quoted in an article by New York Times writer Pam Belluck.

Perhaps even more frightening, the authors of the study identified additional areas of the brain that had been damaged by Zika, suggesting that even babies who are asymptomatic at birth, might be vulnerable to difficulties as they grow.

In addition, scientists at research centers around the nation have been working hard on vaccine creation, as described in an article in “The New Yorker” magazine written by Siddhartha Mukherjee. The early phase development of vaccines was estimated in the article to take between four and six years. Yet a team in Boston and in Maryland, along with collaborators, has managed in the area of Zika to, “take a little-known virus and develop an investigational vaccine in a hundred and eighty days.”

The need to create a vaccine is particularly acute as years of testing will be required to show that it is safe for use in the highest-risk population - women who are pregnant or might be, according to Peter Hotez, dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine and Texas Children’s Hospital.

Scientists around the world seem to understand the urgency. Yet, Congress has not yet been willing to sacrifice few days of vacation to find a permanent source of funding for research and prevention of this disease with such horrific consequences.

Scientists have been complaining for months that a lack of funding was going to slow down the preparation of a vaccine. President Barack Obama in February asked for $1.9 billion to fight Zika. Congress failed to pass a $1.1 billion measure before recess, with each party accusing the other of politicizing this crisis. Earlier this month, the Obama administration said it would transfer $81 million from biomedical research and anti-poverty programs to pay for development of a Zika vaccine.

It’s ridiculous that political leadership is reduced to shifting money from pot to pot to find reliable funding for this public health emergency. That our elected leaders have gone on vacation amid this growing catastrophe says something about the character of a political body and its values: Nero fiddles as Rome burns.

Our nation should never be in this situation again. “Congress managed to time their recess almost precisely at the time when arboviruses (mosquito-transmitted viruses) typically peak in the southern U.S. They abdicated their responsibility to pregnant women living on the Gulf Coast and Florida at the worst possible time,” according to Hotez.

When Congress reconvenes, it should act quickly to create a rapid response fund for infectious diseases, which public health officials can tap for future emergencies without having to wait on suntanned members of Congress to return.

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The Dallas Morning News. Aug. 29, 2016.

What’s causing Texas’ alarming spike in women dying after childbirth?

It’s hard to wrap your head around a statistic so troubling: The rate of Texas women dying of pregnancy-related causes nearly doubled in just four years. Almost as alarming: No one seems to know why.

The numbers come from a study being published in the September issue of Obstetrics and Gynecology. It pointed out that Texas’ maternal mortality rate in 2010 was 18.6 per 100,000 live births; that shot up to 35.8 by 2014 - a level, researchers wrote, “not seen in other U.S. states.”

A separate report released last week by Texas’ Maternal Mortality and Morbidity Task Force found that black women are more than twice as likely as white women to die within a year after their pregnancy. They deliver 11 percent of Texas’ babies but account for 29 percent of pregnancy-related deaths.

Between 2000 and 2013, while the maternal mortality rate dropped in 157 countries, it actually increased nearly 27 percent in the United States. (And that figure doesn’t include the sharp rise in Texas or California; those are analyzed separately.)

These numbers put the U.S. ahead of only Mexico of the 31 countries that report data to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development; on its own, Texas would trail Mexico, too.

Researchers were baffled by the spike - which, they noted, seems unlikely “in the absence of war, natural disaster, or severe economic upheaval.”

We did, however, have the 2011 Texas Legislature, which cut family planning funding by two-thirds; 82 clinics closed. However, a Department of State Health Services spokesperson told the Houston Chronicle that it’s “a complex problem” and “there is no evidence” to conclude that the clinic cuts caused the increase in maternal mortality rates. That certainly doesn’t close the book on the issue - although it is worth nothing that Texas’ rate first significantly spiked in 2011, while the cuts didn’t take effect until September of that year.

Other factors might play a role in the increase, including obesity-related complications, the rise of C-sections, and drug overdoses, which accounted for 11.6 percent of maternal deaths from 2011 to 2012.

Both reports noted the lack of affordable health care as a cause for concern, especially with Texas being home to more uninsured people than any other state. It’s worth noting here a difference in the two studies: While the national report only covered maternal deaths up to 42 days after pregnancy, the state task force studied women who died within an entire year after their pregnancy. They found that 60 percent of deaths occurred after 42 days. Half of Texas’ 400,000 births each year are covered by Medicaid, which typically expires 60 days after delivery.

The task force recommended increasing access to health care, including mental and behavioral health screenings, both before and after pregnancy. That’s no small ask - but something must be done.

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El Paso Times. Aug. 27, 2016.

How to fix Texas’ open records mess

The Texas Supreme Court has created a massive loophole in the state’s open records laws that threatens the foundation of government transparency. Fixing the issue must be a priority for the Legislature in 2017, but local governments can take some important steps in the meantime.

The problems stem from a 2015 decision in a case called Boeing vs. Paxton, which made it easier for businesses and governments to keep contracts involving public funds secret from Texans. Governments or vendors can now keep contracts secret by asserting that they could face competitive harm if the public knew of information in the contract.

Contract information that has long been available to Texans can now be shielded from public view. That is a recipe for corruption and bad governance.

That court ruling led the Attorney General’s Office this month to rule that University Medical Center in El Paso can keep secret its contract with a firm that led the recruiting for the hospital system’s new CEO.

The El Paso Times had requested the contract under the Texas Public Information Act. In its ruling allowing UMC to keep the contract secret, the attorney general made it clear that the outcome would have been different if not for the Boeing ruling.

The Public Information Act includes a reasonable exception to prevent a potential vendor from obtaining a competitor’s bid during the bid process. But that exception has been twisted beyond recognition to allow the bid details to be kept secret after the contract has been awarded.

Joe Larsen, a Houston attorney and board member of the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas, said previous attorneys general - including now-Gov. Greg Abbott - have been expanding the ability of governments to withhold information by claiming that doing so would create a competitive disadvantage for the government. The Texas Supreme Court cited prior attorney general rulings in its Boeing decision.

Solutions to the problem can be found at the local and state levels.

At the local level, governments should adopt purchasing policies that require potential vendors to waive the confidentiality loophole created by the Supreme Court ruling.

At the statewide level, open government advocates are proposing legislation to restore the original purpose of the bidding exception.

“However, governmental bodies will only part with their ‘governmental trade secret’ exception with great reluctance,” Larsen wrote in a column for Texas Tribune. “We must be vigilant that their lobbyists don’t insert language giving governmental bodies the right to claim they are competing in various marketplaces - thus allowing them to withhold basic information from the public.”

The courts and the Attorney General’s Office have made it far too easy for governments to keep contracts secret.

The Legislature must restore Texans’ ability to see contracts made by their governments, with only the rarest of exceptions. Until then, local governments can show commitment to transparency by changing purchasing rules to ensure third-parties don’t use the Supreme Court ruling to block public access to crucial information.

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Corpus Christi Caller-Times. Aug. 27, 2016.

Texas should stop its voter suppression

If only pride in everything being bigger in Texas applied to voter turnout. Instead, its political leaders persist in trying to be the Rhode Island of voter participation. Gov. Greg Abbott and Attorney General Ken Paxton keep looking for creative ways to defend the discredited, turnout-suppressing voter ID law.

The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, the friendliest court at its level that Abbott and Paxton could hope to find, ruled the ID law to be too discriminatory to remain in effect as is for the presidential election. The Fifth Circuit’s hard-right tilt is the only plausible explanation for why it didn’t find the discrimination to have been intentional. The cover story for why Texas felt the need for picture IDs - to prevent vote fraud - should have been enough proof of discriminatory intent because it is an indefensible crock of subterfuge. No one commits vote fraud by showing up in person to vote fraudulently - at least, no one that anyone can find.

The majority-Republican Legislature put a lot of effort into making it difficult and expensive for low-income registered voters who don’t drive - and who tend not to vote Republican - to obtain an ID that the state would accept. For example, the Legislature decided not to accept student or workplace IDs or expired driver’s licenses. Seriously, when does the person pictured on an expired license stop being the person pictured on the license? The Legislature ignored the obvious solution - putting photos on voter registration cards. The only discernible drawback to that solution is its lack of imposition on the card holder.

The Fifth Circuit referred the question of discriminatory intent back to District Judge Nelva Gonzales Ramos in Corpus Christi, along with instructions to implement a nondiscriminatory plan for the election. The plan ordered by Ramos allows voters who don’t have picture IDs to vote if they can show a voter registration card, birth certificate, government check stub, current utility bill or bank statement, or an expired driver’s license less than four years past expiration.

Paxton’s latest strategy was to threaten an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court and seek to put off a hearing on discriminatory intent until summer. He has not filed the appeal or disclosed when he intends to do so. His premise was that the Legislature needed an opportunity to redo the ID law and the appeals process needed the time to play out.

Ramos was having none of it and decided to schedule a hearing for January. Good for her and for justice and democracy. This discriminatory law has been in effect since 2011. That’s five years of damage that can’t be undone. The best that can be done is to stop the damage it can do to the elections that lie ahead.

Earlier this month when Paxton’s office announced its intent to appeal to the Supreme Court, a spokesman for Paxton said the reason for appealing was “to protect the integrity of voting in the state of Texas.” It was never about that. It always has been about retaining power through suppression. If Texas leaders want to salvage a shred of integrity and decency, they should end this fight now. Unfortunately, that’s about as likely as finding someone trying to vote fraudulently in person.

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San Antonio Express-News. Aug. 29, 2016.

Texas’ welcome mat: Stay away

Texas has no authority to thwart the federal government’s resettlement of Syrian refugees into the state. Texas knows this because it lost a legal battle over the matter, with a judge this year saying the state had failed to prove it had any standing to veto resettlement.

The state’s latest effort to “block” resettlement is about the optics. Unfortunately, to anyone not prone to painting with broad brushes, the posturing here signals intolerance and lack of grace and charity, and not much else.

Texas says it will not admit the refugees “without assurances from the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Department of Homeland Security and the Director of National Intelligence that the refugees do not pose a security threat to our citizens.” This rehashes the state’s contention in the last attempt to block resettlement. And it didn’t fly.

And those assurances have been given. The process can take up to three years. And while no ironclad guarantee can be given that any émigré is entirely risk-free, the process is as secure as it can be.

Here’s what the state’s stance ignores:

More than half of Syria’s population has been displaced by civil war. More than 4.5 million Syrian refugees are in five countries - Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Egypt. Others are flocking to Europe.

The United States has pledged to take in 10,000 this year and appears to be on track to exceed this slightly. If anything, the U.S. should take more.

Basically, the state’s position is: Be afraid, be very afraid. In this view, Muslims fleeing the people that the United States is battling are threats, though the basis for this fear appears to have little foundation.

Federal officials have said that 2,677 refugees were resettled in Texas between October 2015 and early this year. If Texas has been significantly harmed by this, it’s been kept tightly under wraps.

Being tough on terrorism doesn’t require being tough on refugees, particularly people fleeing enemies they have in common with the United States.


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