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Coronavirus
Vaccines could give economy shot in the arm

With the COVID-19 vaccine drawing closer and flu season around the corner, the most important thing Americans can do to help bolster and fully reopen the economy is to get vaccinated, an adviser in the largest public health initiative in the nation’s history told the Nacogdoches County Chamber of Commerce this week.

“We cannot really get to opening our economy unless we stop the flu and stop COVID,” said Steven Anderson, president and CEO of the National Association of Chain Drug Stores and a member of the panel advising the federal government on how to distribute the upcoming COVID-19 vaccine.

Polling by the drug store association indicates 90% of Americans understand the importance of protocols designed to curb the spread of the novel coronavirus, but only 67% receive an annual flu shot. Last year, around 65,000 people died of flu in the United States.

“If we hold up to those numbers this season, it will exhaust our health care system, which is highly fatigued,” Anderson said. “The idea of having a twin-demic between flu and COVID is really not going to be good for our country.”

The pharmacy group has been turning to local chambers of commerce to help get out the message that “we cannot fully open our economy” until the virus is under control, Anderson said.

Public health officials and state leaders including Gov. Greg Abbott have been pushing out the same message. Abbott, before flu season began, encouraged Texans to get a flu shot.

Texas Department of State Health and Human Services on Tuesday confirmed the COVID-19 related death of a Nacogdoches County resident, bringing the local death toll to 75.

Nacogdoches County is averaging 4.5 new cases per day, based on a 21-day moving chart released this week by the county emergency management office. Another five cases were confirmed Friday afternoon.

As recoveries from the virus outpace new cases, the number of estimated active cases has fallen from more than 400 in mid-summer to 61 on Friday. Nearly 200 tests for the coronavirus are being given daily, the Emergency Management Office reported.

“Our numbers are looking good and we hope to continue on that trajectory,” emergency management spokeswoman Amy Mehaffey said.

Twelve COVID-19 patients were being treated at Nacogdoches’ two hospitals as of Friday, according to the SouthEast Texas Regional Advisory Council. Of those, two were in intensive care.

Pfizer Inc. this week said its COVID-19 vaccine appears to be 90% effective based on early and incomplete test results that nevertheless brought a burst of optimism to a world desperate for a means to bring the catastrophic outbreak to an end.

A Dallas Morning News/UT Tyler poll conducted last month indicates that about half of Texans said they would take the COVID-19 vaccine when it becomes available. Around 27% said they would not take a vaccine, and the remainder expressed no opinion.

“As we roll out (the vaccine) over the coming months and into next year, reopening the economy is probably going to take longer than people thought. People are still going to be wary,” Anderson said. said.

Pfizer’s vaccine is among four candidates already in huge studies in the U.S., with still more being tested in other countries. Another U.S. company, Moderna Inc., also hopes to file an application with the FDA late this month.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the U.S. government’s top infectious-disease expert, said Pfizer’s results suggesting 90% effectiveness are “just extraordinary,” adding: “Not very many people expected it would be as high as that.”

Thursday, federal health officials reached an agreement with pharmacies across the U.S. to distribute free coronavirus vaccines after they are approved and become available to the public.

Thursday’s agreement with major pharmacies, which are presented by Anderson’s organization, includes grocery market pharmacies and other chains and networks covers about 3 in 5 pharmacies in all 50 states and U.S. territories such as Puerto Rico.

“The vast majority of Americans live within five miles of a pharmacy,” said Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar, calling the agreement “a critical step toward making sure all Americans have access to safe and effective COVID-19 vaccines when they are available.”

Federal officials are still working on how to best roll out the vaccine, and the U.S. military is leading the logistics.

“Getting 330 million Americans immunized is extraordinarily complicated,” Anderson said. “The different vaccines that will be coming out have very different requirements.”

For example, the Pfizer vaccine requires two doses and must be stored at a temperature of around negative 100 degrees Fahrenheit.

Pfizer says it expects to produce 50 million doses — enough to to inoculate 25 million people — by the end of the year. Around 1.3 billion doses are expected in 2021.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.


Education
featured
School board gets update on costly construction projects

Some Nacogdoches ISD board members voiced concerns this week over the possibility of cost overruns mounting as the three capstone projects funded by a voter-backed 2018 bond issue grind along, even though the district is within the projected budget agreed upon for the projects.

The concerns were driven by an analysis of the ongoing construction work that showed a $5.03 million overrun, even as savings elsewhere were accounted for, with several of the projects less than 30% finished.

“My concern there ... (is) we still have a lot of projects to go, and … we don’t know how those are going to hit,” said Pam Fitch, the board president. “We need to save every penny we can and try to make sure we hit all these other areas as well.”

Only one phase of the three capstone projects — purchasing land for the new Emeline Carpenter Elementary campus — is complete. The district has finished several smaller, albeit important, initiatives funded by the $77.9 million bond issue.

The capstone projects — those deemed most important to the district — include the new elementary school, additions, repairs and updates at McMichael Middle School and expansion of career and technology space at the high school. These projects were bundled together in 2019 in an effort to save money.

The district earmarked $49.75 million in bond money for that work, which is the guaranteed maximum price the district will pay for those projects, no matter what.

In a Nov. 19, 2019, meeting, then interim Superintendent Alton Frailey said the three biggest projects included in the 2018 bond election were projected to have a possible cost overrun of between $5 million and $5.5 million.

At a meeting two days later following extensive work to reach a guaranteed maximum price, Frailey said the district projected a $4 million overrun.

Rick Blan, a representative of PBK, the firm managing the projects for NISD, tried to assuage the board’s concerns.

“From the (price contract) that was signed, we’re actually in budget still and we’re starting to see some savings within our contingencies that we have within the projects,” he told the board. “We are early, so we have some contingencies set aside.”

Blan said the overages were caused by increased steel tariffs, “runaway” inflation and new code requirements, as well as changes to planned projects like the addition of classroom space at McMichael Middle School.

“At this point, we’re headed in the right direction for savings and then the administration and board can determine how those savings are used,” he said.

The school board bundled the projects in 2019 to save money with the intent that those savings would cover the cost of other work, such as permanent bathrooms and concession stands at McMichael and renovation of the press box at Dragon Stadium at the high school.

The additional McMichael projects are estimated at $500,000 and press box work is expected to cost around $1.4 million.

Those aren’t among the capstone projects, but during Monday’s workshop board members expressed concern that it would seem disingenuous of them to delay or cancel them since they were among the ways the bond issue was marketed to the public.

In November 2019, Frailey said the press box renovation would be the first thing to get cut if cost overruns became too severe.

“Should we have to — worst case scenario — sacrifice a project, it would be the press box,” he said in a meeting. “We would not build. We may renovate it, but we would sacrifice that if we have to. Worst case scenario if there’s a sacrifice we have to make, we begin with the press box.”

In 2019, savings generated by a lower-than-expected price on the Carpenter property as well as a lower price on the district’s revamped transportation center, covered more than half of $4 million in expected overages.

Currently, $8.01 million has been spent on the capstone projects, with $14.78 million spent on all the completed and ongoing projects as of Aug. 31, according to information presented to the board. That $14.78 million includes $131,260 in overspending, when overruns and savings are counted.

The school board will meet for an agenda review session via the video-streaming app Zoom at noon on Monday, Nov. 16. The next scheduled meeting is set for 5 p.m. Nov. 19. A link to the streamed meeting can be found at NISD.org.


Social_media
NISD’s Young elected to State Board of Education

Nacogdoches ISD’s director of student support services will become the newest member of the State Board of Education in January.

Dr. Audrey Young, who has been an educator for 27 years and has worked at all levels within public schools, will be sworn in this January as District 8 member of the board.

The State Board of Education sets curriculum standards in Texas, reviews and adopts instructional material and establishes graduation requirements for the state’s 5 million children attending public schools. It also oversees the Texas Permanent School Fund, an endowment established years ago to benefit public education in the state.

“We’re very proud of Dr. Young and her victory in the election,” said NISD Superintendent Dr. Gabriel Trujillo. “It means something, too, that one of our educators will play a vital role in helping craft some of the key decisions made in Texas.”

Young, who lives in Trinity County, was not on the local ballot on Election Day. Nacogdoches County is represented by Dr. Keven Ellis of Lufkin.

On Election Day, Young easily secured the post, beating Libertarian Audra Rose Berry by capturing 570,858 votes, or about 74%. The victory will allow Young to replace Barbara Cargill, a four-term board member who did not seek reelection.

Young ran on the Republican ticket and said she went through an exhaustive process being vetted by a number of local and state party officials connected to the district. That meant some late night phone calls with state elected officials who wanted to know more about Young than that she was simply a public educator.

“Just because I’m an educator with 27 years experience … that wasn’t enough,” said Young.

The starting line for getting on the ballot began a few years earlier, Young said. While completing her doctorate in education at Stephen F. Austin State University, Young landed an internship in the offices of District 57 State Rep. Trent Ashby of Lufkin.

“My interest was in public education and politics,” Young said.

The internship took place in 2016 while Ashby was seeking a third term in the Texas House, and Ellis, a Lufkin chiropractor, was challenging for the District 9 seat on the board of education against Mary Lou Bruner. In that race, Bruner nearly took the GOP primary outright, but Ellis squeaked into a run-off. He eventually won the Republican nomination.

Seeing that race up close got Young’s attention and when Ashby — as part of the internship program — asked what she wanted to do next, the answer was easy: “Get on the State Board of Education.”

“It’s the pinnacle of volunteering where a school board is concerned,” she said.

Young, who served on the Apple Springs ISD Board of Trustees until October, made an initial connection with Cargill. A couple years later, when word came that Cargill wasn’t seeking reelection, Young was ready to get on the ballot.

“I told her that I, of course, would have never run against her,” Young said.

That started the screening process as well as a lot of night-time and weekend travel for Young. That part wasn’t exactly new. Her kids had been involved in all manner of school activities, she said, including FFA, 4-H, UIL academic and athletics.

“However, it expanded,” Young said.

District 8 covers a lot of territory, both in geography and socioeconomics, ranging from Houston County in rural East Texas all the way to metro areas of Houston, reaching as far west as the Katy area along Interstate-10 and Baytown to the east. The district stretches nearly to League City on the east side of I-45 between Houston and Galveston.

While the geographic size of State Board of Education districts vary, the population represented doesn’t. The current set up was based on each district having roughly 1.7 million population, established during redistricting following the 2010 Census.

“I’m thrilled for Dr. Young,” said Dr. Daya Hill, NISD’s Chief Academic Officer. “She’s worked hard for this and is positioned to provide for state leaders the much-needed perspective of an active educator.”

The state panel really isn’t that much different than being on a local school board, Young said. The role is just on a larger scale.

“I look forward to serving all the children of Texas and being able to apply my knowledge of an active public educator and as a former local trustee,” she said.

In January, Young will be sworn into office by Trinity County Judge Doug Page, and a ceremonial swearing-in will take place in Austin later on in the month.


Coronavirus
Gohmert says 'election was stolen.' Fox News disagrees.

U.S. Rep. Louie Gohmert stepped up his defense of President Donald Trump during a Thursday morning appearance on “Fox and Friends First” in which he called Americans who reject unsubstantiated claims of widespread voter fraud “ignorant” and “biased.”

“I believe the election was stolen and anybody who says the allegations of fraud are unfounded is either ignorant or so biased that they’re trying to affect outcome,” said the Tyler Republican who East Texans recently reelected to a ninth term in the House.

“Fox and Friends First” host Jillian Mele fired back at Gohmert.

“To be fair, while this is still legally playing out, it’s not exactly factual to say this election is stolen,” she said.

The Trump campaign has insisted that massive voter fraud has occurred in Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Georgia. So far legal challenges by the president’s team of lawyers have been shot down over lack of evidence. Gohmert insisted Thursday that 10,000 ballots in Michigan were cast in the names of dead voters.

“We’re not talking about allegations. We’re talking it’s been confirmed,” Gohmert said of voter fraud in Michigan.

The Michigan Secretary of State’s Office has denied any voter fraud and says that the ballots of dead voters — including those who cast an absentee ballot and died before before Election Day — are rejected.

“On rare occasions, a ballot received for a living voter may be recorded in a way that makes it appear as if the voter is dead,” the secretary of state’s site reads. “This can be because of voters with similar names, where the ballot is accidentally recorded as voted by John Smith Sr when it was actually voted by John Smith Jr; or because of inaccurately recorded birth dates in the qualified voter file.”

Gohmert also pointed to a Pennsylvania postal worker who claimed after the election he was ordered by his supervisor to tamper with ballots. In an interview with federal agents, the postal worker recanted his claim.

Media organizations like The Associated Press and Fox News, once a favorite of Trump, have called the presidential election in favor of Joe Biden.

Trump took to Twitter Thursday afternoon to deride his former favorite news outlet.

“Fox News daytime ratings have completely collapsed. Weekend daytime even WORSE. Very sad to watch this happen, but they forgot what made them successful, what got them there. They forgot the Golden Goose. The biggest difference between the 2016 Election and 2020 was Fox News,” Trump said.

A top Fox News executive told investors on Election Day that he expected the channel’s audience to fall off once the hotly contested election was over.

“I would expect that as we enter a more normal news cycle, which will happen eventually, that appetite for news will shift,” said Lachlan Murdoch, executive chairman and CEO of Fox Corporation, media industry news outlet Variety reported.


Local
Street work targets Raguet, Park, Pearl

A portion of Raguet Street is closed for repairs near East Austin and is expected to reopen by mid-December, city officials say.

City Council in March approved nearly $300,000 in drainage repair and other work on Raguet Street between Brookshire and Millard drives.

In a project that requires closing the street for an estimated 45 days, Austin-based DIGG Commercial is replacing a headwall, a structure that protects against erosion, as well as rebuilding a section of sidewalk and part of the street.

Work began last week near the busy intersection of Raguet and East Austin, less than two weeks before nearby SFA dismisses classes for the Thanksgiving break and holds the remainder of its fall classes remotely.

“That worked out well,” said assistant City Engineer Case Opperman. “It should be done by mid-December; they are moving along at a steady clip.”

While residents of Brookshire Street can access East Austin Street to the south, other traffic must go around by taking either Lakewood or Myrtle to North Pecan.

Also underway is $205,000 in road resurfacing within Sunset Cemetery, funded through a 65-year-old cemetery trust that was dissolved last year by the Legislature so that the money could be accessed by the city, solely for maintenance of the cemetery.

Upcoming street projects

Once the Sunset Cemetery paving project is complete in a few weeks, city crews will move on to repairing or resurfacing an ongoing list of streets prioritized by a grading system.

Among those is Pearl Street, a section of which received attention last year.

“We’re going to finish that street heading north from West College to West Austin,” Opperman said.

Park Street will be redone from its western end at Mound Street to University Drive.

Work on these streets will likely begin before the end of the year, and drivers should watch for crews and expect some delays, he said.

The city’s road improvement funding got a healthy boost nearly two years ago with the implementation of a street maintenance fee on utility bills, doubling the street maintenance budget to roughly $1.1 million per year.

Other than funding, a key factor in road work is weather. Cold weather may be inching closer, but crews can lay asphalt until the temperature drops below 40 degrees, Opperman says.

“As long as it stays mild and dry, we can get the work done,” he said.

High on the radar

Engineers assign city streets a grade of A through F, much like grades in school.

Failing streets — those receiving an F and described by City Engineer Steve Bartlett as “horrible” — are addressed first. D-labeled streets, those that are nearing failure and not recommended for coffee drinkers, also make the repair schedule.

The ordinance that established the street maintenance fee on water bills also requires regular reporting of street prioritizing to the city council, which has the ultimate say. The number of complaints on a particular street are taken into account.

High on the city’s priority list but not yet on the schedule is West Starr Avenue, not to be confused with the state-maintained East Starr Avenue that was closed to traffic twice in the past five years — once for widening and again to replace the bridge over Lanana Creek.

West of North Street, however, the narrow, two-lane corridor is maintained by the city.

“We realize it’s in bad shape,” Bartlett said. “There’s a sidewalk project there that’s going out to bid (followed by) pavement improvements. Widening is a challenge because of the utility easements, but we’re going to do the best we can. It definitely needs attention and is high on our radar.”


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