State of Texas: Lab ramps up efforts to track COVID variants in Texas

Coronavirus

AUSTIN (Nexstar) — On Wednesday, the first omicron case was officially detected in the United States. While Texas awaits more information on the latest variant, its sequencing efforts are ramping up this month.

It’s a new COVID sequencing network that was announced at the beginning of November, with the first samples being analyzed this week.

Previously, the Department of State Health Services depended on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for its virus sequencing. But thanks to a partnership with the University of Texas’ School of Public Health, the state is beginning to conduct its own sequencing to analyze which variants are already here.

The partnership will be funded by the federal government, funneled through the CDC, through May of 2023 and will increase the state’s sequencing by 25%.

“When the [viruses] replicate, they have the chance to mutate,” said Chief DSHS Epidemiologist, Dr. Jennifer Shuford. “Sequencing gives us the opportunity to see how, when and where those viruses are mutating.”

Dr. Shuford believes the new variant could already be in the state.

“It’s just a matter of detecting where it is,” Dr. Shuford said.

The sequencing process starts with samples from PCR tests.

“COVID samples get sent to the virology team for extraction, and then the RNA gets delivered to us, and we start the sequencing,” said Bonnie Oh, a DSHS molecular biologist.

Then, those samples make their way through a three-day analysis.

“What we do is look at each part of that genetic sequence. We can look for changes so we know the original one that came out in China and we know the changes that have happened since then,” Dr. Shuford said.

The new partnership also gives Texas more control over where the state will pull samples from.

“The CDC has done a fantastic job of really trying to sample all across the United States and getting a good number from Texas. When they use their contract labs, though, we don’t have the chance for input on really where that sampling across the state is happening,” Dr. Shuford said.

Pulling samples from a wide range of places is important given Texas’ size.

“We want to make sure that we will be able to recognize when a variant pops up in El Paso, even if it’s not over in Tyler,” Dr. Shuford said.

At just below 3%, Central Texas – Trauma Service Area O, for example, has a relatively low COVID hospitalization rate. But in the panhandle – TSA A – they’re reporting an 18% COVID hospitalization rate.

“We have a lot of small towns in our community in the Texas panhandle that refer patients to hospitals in Amarillo. And with that, then, we just aren’t able to accept all those patients that need to be transferred,” said Dr. Todd Bell, the health authority in the city of Amarillo with Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center.

He said, for now, the hospital systems there are strained, but not broken.

Dr. Shuford said the best way the state can fight the continued mutations and new variants of COVID is to get more of the population vaccinated, even if we’re not sure how effective it is against omicron yet.

“What we do know from previous variants, though, is that our vaccines have been effective, and that even if they aren’t 100%, effective at preventing infection, that they maintain protection against severe illness, hospitalization and death. And so we have reason to believe, based on previous experience, that vaccines will still be beneficial,” Dr. Shuford said.

License plate problems persist

From toll roads to meter readers, there appears to be difficulty in Austin distinguishing between certain characters on specialty license plates, KXAN found.

The mistakes could cost drivers.

“The city confused the O’s in my license plate for being zeroes,” said James Marsh, who was ticketed after going for a short hike even though he paid to park.

On Sept. 30, Marsh paid $6.25 to park for three hours at the Barton Creek Greenbelt, records show. His time expired at 12:51 p.m., yet he was ticketed at 11:13 a.m., records show, with almost two hours of time remaining.

The problem, it turns out, stems from his specialty license plate: T-B-O-D-R-O. The name, he says, is an old nickname of his back when he was into bodybuilding.

“Back in the day when Jesse ‘the Body’ Ventura was a big deal,” he said.

Now, “Bodro” is wrestling with the city of Austin.

The meter reader entered in his license plate incorrectly. Instead of typing the letter ‘O,’ the meter reader typed in the number ‘0.’ That showed Marsh didn’t pay even though he did, which landed him the ticket.

Unlike regular license plates, I’s and O’s are only available on vanity ones. The rest of us are assigned ones and zeroes instead. It’s supposed to help avoid confusion. Instead, it has created some challenges.

“I learned my letters and numbers when I was 5 years old,” said a frustrated Marsh at his Austin home.

In October, Stephen Heyman told KXAN it is “insanely frustrating” when toll scanners misread the I’s in his vanity plate as ones. His bills were sent to collections. In July, a meter reader ticketed a woman because she entered a hyphen in the ParkATX app. It ended up costing her $60.

Before KXAN’s report aired, another viewer wrote in to say he, too, is dealing with “unacceptable” problems regarding his vanity plate.

“I’ve been dealing with an issue since June,” wrote Will Townsend. “The TxTag system assigned a ‘1’ instead of the letter ‘I’ with my vanity plate and generated an erroneous bill that has been accruing late charges. Calls to customer service are never answered. Despite my connecting with someone that acknowledged the issue with my license plate after 5 months of following up and no reply, I’m simply told I owe the money which they turned over to a collection agency.”

KXAN forwarded his complaint to TxTag to try to help. A spokesperson said the Department of Motor Vehicles lists his license plate as WILLYT, with the letter I, but TxTag lists his license plate as W1LLYT, with a one.

“A TxTag Customer Service Representative will contact the customer directly regarding the account,” a spokesperson said.

As for Marsh, his ticket was ultimately tossed out. Still, he worries the same thing will keep happening. He says he explained his situation to an officer with the Austin Municipal Court and was told to enter a zero in the ParkATX app next time, instead of an O, in order to avoid any more ticket troubles.

“To me, that felt incorrect, because you’re basically lying to avoid a problem,” said Marsh. “So, I really felt in a Catch-22. What do I do now?”

What he did, was turn to KXAN for help.

“KXAN has a great reputation for being citizen advocates, for having resources to contact people in positions to make change,” Marsh told KXAN investigator Matt Grant. “And, I had seen a story by you that had mentioned this issue before. So, I knew you were the right guy to contact.”

A city spokesperson admits Marsh was given “incorrect information” due to a “miscommunication.”

“Mr. Marsh was initially given incorrect information based on a miscommunication,” the spokesperson said. “That information was corrected shortly afterwards by the original hearing officer. The case was referred to the supervisor for review and Mr. Marsh was again contacted and informed that he should enter his correct license plate when using the ParkATX application.”

  •  James Marsh shows the license plate that was ticketed, TBODRO. (Courtesy James Marsh)
  •  James Marsh hiking before he was ticketed. (Courtesy James Marsh)
  • James Marsh's receipt showing he paid to park for three hours when he was ticketed

KXAN contacted the Austin Transportation Department. A spokesperson confirms one of its parking officers “did not follow” procedure. The entire staff will now be retrained following KXAN’s findings, ATD said, even though it believes the issue is “not widespread.”

“[W]e will be speaking with the officer and providing retraining… on the issue with the [entire] Parking Enterprise staff… to ensure individual mistakes such as this one do not happen in the future,” said ATD spokesperson Jack Flagler.

“We’re pleased to hear Mr. Marsh successfully contested his parking ticket to eliminate the fine after he paid for his parking session,” Flagler added.

Over a million specialty license plates were issued last year, according to data from the Texas Department of Motor Vehicles. That’s about 4% of all vehicles in the state, ATD points out.

It’s unclear how many other tickets are given out incorrectly.

KXAN investigates requested the parking ticket court records in Austin for this year. We found out of 2,509 citations issued in the city this year, which were contested in court for failing to pay or going over the paid time, 1,387 (55%) were dismissed, suggesting they were issued in error.

In total, so far this year, 79,860 parking tickets were issued for failing to pay the meter, ATD said.

Marsh is hopeful things will begin to turn around.

“It makes me feel better,” he said of the city’s efforts to improve. “But let’s see what turns out.”

The Austin Transportation Department provided the following statement to KXAN:

“While standard Texas license plates do not include the letters “I” and “O” to avoid confusion with the numbers “1” and “0,” specialty plates in Texas can contain these letters, and the ParkATX system is able to read these characters.

A ticket was issued on Sept. 30 to Mr. Marsh when a parking officer manually entered the license plate number incorrectly. ATD has a procedure for officers when manually entering a specialty plate which the officer did not follow, and we will be speaking with the officer and providing retraining on the issue to ensure individual mistakes such as this one do not happen in the future.

Mr. Marsh can correctly input his license plate into the ParkATX system with the letter O as ‘TBODRO,’ and when officers scan his plate, his parking payment will register…We’re pleased to hear Mr. Marsh successfully contested his parking ticket to eliminate the fine after he paid for his parking session.

ATD would be happy to work with Mr. Marsh directly to help him re-enter his plate correctly into the ParkATX app. Anytime customers have questions about using the app, they can reach our Parking Enterprise Division at 512-974-1551.

…Most customers who feel they receive a ticket in error call the Municipal Court, which is the number listed on the citation. This is the first we’ve heard of this specific issue with a parking enforcement officer manually mis-entering the letter “O” as the number “0.” Regarding whether this is an isolated issue or a problem that has happened to others, the factors that led up to the citation point to the issue being one that is not widespread. According to data from the Texas Department of Motor Vehicles, there were about 1.1 million specialty plates issued in 2020, or about 4% of all 22 million registered vehicles in the state. That pool of vehicles narrows further when considering that this issue could only happen with a customized, specialty plate in which the driver has selected the letter “O” or “I,” since the state does not issue plates with those letters. Finally, while the automatic scan would have successfully read the customer’s payment, the error occurred when an officer mis-entered the information manually. We will speak with the officer and do some retraining on the issue with the Parking Enterprise staff, and customers are always welcome to give us a call if they experience any issues regarding the app.”

KXAN reached out to the Texas Department of Transportation about the problem with I, 1, O and 0’s. A spokesperson says the agency is working to fix the issue for drivers with specialty plates.

“TxTag is aware of the issue and continues discussions internally and with partnering agencies to gain a comprehensive understanding of the license plate discrepancies in order to mitigate future issues.

License plates issued by Texas Department of Motor Vehicles (TxDMV) distinctly contain letters O and I or numbers 0 and 1, the characters are used interchangeably in the TxDMV database to identify the owner. For example, plate ABCOI2 containing letters is listed as four different plates (ABCOI2, ABC012, ABCO12 and ABC0I2) with the same owner record in the TxDMV database. For the majority of the tolling agencies in Texas, including TxTag, the letters O and I are seen as distinctly different characters from the numbers 0 and 1. If a plate…listed on a TxTag account is ABCOI2 (letters O and I), but the plate keyed through image review was ABC012 (numbers 0 and 1), the toll will not post to the TxTag account because it is seen as a different plate.”

Texas Railroad Commission will require most natural gas producers to weatherize

Roughly nine months after the devastating February winter storm, the state agency that regulates natural gas is changing conditions as to which facilities must take extra precautions for extreme weather.

The Texas Railroad Commission voted Tuesday to require many, but not all, natural gas producers to weatherize facilities.

The commissioners deemed those that are “critical” must be able to keep power on in the event of rolling blackouts. Those that are “less critical” will still be able to opt-out of weatherization and pay a $150 fee.

Commissioner Jim Wright defined “super critical” facilities as the largest ones in Texas providing more than the amount of gas Texas needs on a given day. Wright estimated the “super critical” facilities to be about 19,000 natural gas providers.

“This group includes pipeline operators, gas processing facilities and natural gas storage infrastructure,” he said. “These leases and facilities are so important, so critical, that they will not be allowed to opt out of the rule, period.”

The second group is comprised of “less critical” facilities, ones that produce a marginal amount of gas. The final group is “not critical,” consisting of facilities producing a low volume or no gas at all — a little over 1% of daily gas production in Texas. Wright said the noncritical facilities are “excellent candidates” for load-shedding to keep electricality flowing to larger facilities in a severe weather event.

Both of those groups will have to submit an application asking for exemption and if granted, pay the state $150.

“They will be required to present objective evidence of a reasonable cause and justification for such a request. And each of these requests will be scrutinized by the commission,” Wright said.

These changes come after backlash from Republicans and Democrats alike by allowing the $150 exemption fee. Commissioners argued Tuesday they do not have the authority to raise the fee price, proposing these exemption conditions as a solution.

But the changes are still met with criticism, many saying the regulations are not only long overdue, but should have come immediately after the February storm.

Luke Warford, a Democratic candidate for the RCC, called the changes a “continuation of the same voluntary system that we had.”

“This is not gonna have an impact on securing our grid for this winter. And the result is just that we’re still at risk as we head into as we head into the winter,” Warford said.

“We betrayed them” – Texas congressman pushes for help to U.S. allies still in Afghanistan

It’s been less than four months since Taliban forces took over in Afghanistan, but already attention has fallen away from the work to get answers about what led up to the chaotic evacuation of American troops and our Afghan partners .

One Texas Congressman is trying to change that. Michael McCaul, the ranking Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, called upon Secretary of State and Antony Blinken and at least nearly three dozen American officials to testify about the American withdrawal out of Afghanistan.

“We want answers to the questions about how many Americans are still left behind enemy lines, how many Afghan partners that worked with our military, how many of those were left behind that can be slaughtered by the Taliban,” McCaul said. He added that getting testimony is part of the constitutional responsibility of oversight and investigation for Congress.

With the political divisions on Capitol Hill, it will be difficult to get answers about what happened in Afghanistan without the debate devolving into a political sideshow.

McCaul acknowledges that many Democrats have worked to try to get American citizens and Afghan allies out of the country. He’s hoping to get bipartisan support for subpoena power to get witness testimony.

“The reason why this is important is so it never happens again,” McCaul said.

“This was the most catastrophic evacuation ever conducted by the United States of America, and the consequences are real,” he continued, pointing to the risk facing allies still unable to get out of Afghanistan.

“How did they get this so wrong is what we want to know, so we can prevent it from ever happening again,” McCaul concluded.

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