For over a year now, scientists have been testing wastewater for COVID-19. Now, the public can access that information. Photo via Getty Images

In 2020, a group of researchers began testing Houston's wastewater to collect data to help identify trends at the community level. Now, the team's work has been rounded up to use as an online resource.

The Houston Health Department and Rice University launched the dashboard on September 22. The information comes from samples collected from the city's 39 wastewater treatment plants and many HISD schools.

"This new dashboard is another tool Houstonians can use to gauge the situation and make informed decisions to protect their families," says Dr. Loren Hopkins, chief environmental science officer for the health department and professor in the practice of statistics at Rice University, in a news release. "A high level of virus in your neighborhood's wastewater means virus is spreading locally and you should be even more stringent about masking up when visiting public places."

The health department, Houston Water, Rice University, and Baylor College of Medicine originally collaborated on the wastewater testing. Baylor microbiologist Dr. Anthony Maresso, director of BCM TAILOR Labs, led a part of the research.

"This is not Houston's first infectious disease crisis," Maresso says in an earlier news release. "Wastewater sampling was pioneered by Joseph Melnick, the first chair of Baylor's Department of Molecular Virology and Microbiology, to get ahead of polio outbreaks in Houston in the 1960s. This work essentially ushered in the field of environmental virology, and it began here at Baylor. TAILOR Labs is just continuing that tradition by providing advanced science measures to support local public health intervention."

It's an affordable way to track the virus, says experts. People with COVID-19 shed viral particles in their feces, according to the release, and by testing the wastewater, the health department can measure important infection rate changes.

The dashboard, which is accessible online now, is color-coded by the level of viral load in wastewater samples, as well as labeled with any recent trend changes. Houstonians can find the interactive COVID-19 wastewater monitoring dashboard, vaccination sites, testing sites, and more information at houstonemergency.org/covid19.

Houston can expect the new vaccine in the next week. WPA Pool / Getty Images

Here's when Houston can expect the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine

coming soon

Texas can expect to receive the first 200,000 doses of the coveted Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine this week. The company announced that it has started the rollout process on March 1 — after the FDA approved its Emergency Use Authorization.

The Center for Disease Control gave the developer, Janssen Pharmaceutical, the final greenlight Sunday, February 28.

What does that mean for Houston? Mayor Sylvester Turner said the Houston Health Department is also anticipated to be on the list to receive Johnson & Johnson doses within the next seven days.

"That will be a game changer," Turner said at an event on February 28 afternoon. "There will be more vaccines available in a shorter period of time. We anticipate that we will probably get a shipment in sometime this week that will add to the Pfizer [doses] that we are using at NRG."

Turner said other clinics with the Houston Health Department have been administering the Moderna vaccine.

The Johnson & Johnson vaccine does have noticeable differences from the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, experts said.

The MRNA vaccines each require two shots which are usually delivered weeks apart and stored in freezers. The Johnson & Johnson vaccine is a single shot that can be stored in a refrigerator for up to three months at 35 to 46 degrees.

However, Johnson & Johnson does not have as much of the COVID-19 vaccine produced as originally anticipated. ABC13 confirmed 3.9 million doses will be shipped out across the country this week. Johnson & Johnson announced roughly an additional 16 million doses by the end of the month.

"In the next few weeks, it won't have much of any impact because they only have at least three or four million doses available, and that's disappointing news," says Dr. Peter Hotez, dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine. "In the longer term, over the next few months, it's really important because we need a greater vaccine supply. We are not going to get there with the two MRNA vaccines. We need probably up to five different vaccines in order to vaccinate the American people."

Recently, there has been a decline in COVID-19 hospitalizations and COVID-19 cases reported statewide. As of Sunday, about 5,700 Texans are in the hospital due to COVID-19, which is half the number of hospitalization in the beginning of the month.

Infectious disease epidemiologist Dr. Catherine Troisi says it's important for people to not let their guard down and that people should get tested if they have been in a high-exposure situation, or if they have been in direct contact with someone who has tested positive.

"Get vaccinated, don't worry about what vaccine it is," Dr. Troisi notes. "It's true that unfortunately there are not as many doses right now of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine as we have hoped, but the company is saying that by the end of June, they will have a 100 million doses, and that's into 100 million people because you don't need two doses.

"So, we expect to have 600 million doses of the other two vaccines, that's 300 million people," she continues. "That should be enough for everyone who wants the vaccine to be able to get it. With one caveat and that is as of right now we do not have a vaccine for children under age 16. Those trials are going on, hopefully as we go throughout the year there will be a vaccine licensed to 12 year-olds and then maybe going down to 8 years or older."

For more details on the Johnson & Johnson vaccine rollout, visit the FDA's website.

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This article originally ran on CultureMap. For more on this story, visit our news partner ABC13.

The City of Houston is making it easier to get free COVID-19 vaccinations. Photo courtesy of ABC13

City of Houston launches online registration for free COVID vaccinations

calling the shots

Since COVID-19 vaccinations arrived in Houston, locals have been clamoring for the inoculations. Now, the City of Houston has made it easier for those at highest risk to receive the injections.

The Houston Health Department launched online registration on January 4 for residents at highest risk of coronavirus disease to schedule appointments to receive free vaccinations. (A Spanish version is anticipated to launch as well, according to the city.)

Those in Phase 1B of the State of Texas' vaccine distribution are advised to use the new service. This includes those 65 and older or 18 and older with at least one chronic medical condition putting them at increased risk of severe illness or death.

Frontline healthcare workers — classified as Phase 1A in the distribution plan — who have yet to receive the vaccine also are eligible to sign up to get the shot through the health department, per a press release. The department currently offers the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine. More information can also be found here.

Meanwhile, appointments are also available through the health department's COVID-19 call center by calling 832-393-4220. The call center is open Monday through Saturday from 7:30 am to 4 pm and until 5 pm on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

Users will receive an appointment time and the location of the vaccination clinic site during the registration process. Staffers will screen visitors and direct them to a secure area to receive the vaccination and monitor them for any adverse reaction for 15 minutes, according to the city.

"The Houston Health Department is doing a phenomenal job getting the vaccine directly to people," said Mayor Sylvester Turner. "The new online registration, in addition to the call center, will make the process more efficient. While there is great public demand for the COVID-19 vaccine, there is also a lot of hesitancy. I understand the concerns, but I encourage all eligible Houstonians to get vaccinated to help stop the spread of the deadly virus."

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

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Greentown Labs hires former Houston sustainability exec

new hire

The country's largest climatetech startup incubator has made a strategic new hire.

Lara Cottingham is the new chief of staff for Greentown Labs, a Boston-area company that opened in Houston earlier this year. Cottingham previously served as the city of Houston's chief sustainability officer and the chief of staff for the city's Administration and Regulatory Affairs Department for the past seven years. In her new role, Cottingham will oversee the day-to-day operations and communications for Greentown's CEO Emily Reichert, along with key stakeholder engagements and strategic initiatives for the incubator.

"Lara brings a tremendous wealth of knowledge and experience to our team from her dynamic leadership role at the City of Houston," says Reichert in a news release. "Her breadth of knowledge in sustainability, climate, and the energy transition, and her expertise in regulatory and stakeholder aspects of the energy industry, will be incredibly valuable to our team and community."

Under her leadership at the city of Houston, Cottingham was the chief author of Houston's Climate Action Plan, an initiative aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions in Houston, and getting the city to a point where it meets the Paris Agreement goal of carbon neutrality by 2050. Cottingham helped the city move to 100 percent renewable electricity, according to the release, and helped turn a 240-acre landfill into the nation's largest urban solar farm.

"In leading the Climate Action Plan, Lara helped spark Houston's leadership in what has become a global energy transition and was a passionate advocate for climate action in Houston," says Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner in the release. "While she will be missed, this new role will only strengthen our partnership with Greentown. I look forward to working with Emily, Lara, and the Greentown team to meet our climate goals and make Houston the energy capital of the future."

Before her work at the city, Cottingham worked at Hill+Knowlton Strategies' Houston office range of clients across the energy sector. Earlier in her career, she served as communications director for two congressmen in the U.S. House of Representatives. She began her work with the city in 2014.

"In working with Mayor Turner and Climate Mayors across the U.S., I saw how important partnerships are to helping cities decarbonize," says Cottingham in the release. "There is no better partner or place for climate action at work than Greentown Labs. Greentown is 100 percent committed to attracting and nurturing the energy companies of the future and making Houston the energy transition capital of the world. I'm excited to join the team and see how climatetech can help cities reach their climate goals."

Greentown Labs first announced its entrance into the Houston market last summer. The new 40,000-square-foot facility in Midtown across the street from The Ion opened its prototyping and wet lab space, offices, and community gathering areas for about 50 startup companies opened in April. Greentown was founded in 2011 in Somerville, Massachusetts, and has supported more than 400 startups, which have raised more than $1.5 billion in funding.

Houston edtech nonprofit grows its technology with $440K grant from Kinder Foundation

student-focused

As the learning landscape shifted from in-person to virtual, the ability to provide students with necessary support systems and resources became compromised. However, one Houston edtech company worked hard to close that gap.

ProUnitas, a Houston-based nonprofit, partnered with Thoughtworks, a global technology consultancy, to expand its PurpleSENSE platform to mobile. This partnership was ensured through significant private investment, including a one-time gift of $440,000 from the Kinder Foundation.

ProUnitas promises that this expansion will allow student support teams to take the power of PurpleSENSE with them on the go for easier, real-time response using the new PurpleSENSE mobile app.

"A mobile version of PurpleSENSE will empower student support teams to work more rapidly, efficiently and effectively towards their mission and goals," Chris Murphy, CEO of Thoughtworks North America, says in a news release.

Committed to ensuring that no students fall through the cracks, ProUnitas' purpose is focused on providing all students, including those most impoverished, with support services such as food assistance programs, mental health counseling, and after-school clubs.

"Every day many of our students carry the burden of poverty on their shoulders to school, and despite the availability of services, schools do not have the technology infrastructure necessary to connect students to resources in a coordinated way. We want to change this reality," says Adeeb Barqawi, president and CEO of ProUnitas, says in the release.

Engaged in similar work, the Kinder Foundation was a natural partner.

"The Kinder Foundation believes that children cannot succeed if they are juggling significant personal challenges," says Nancy Kinder, president and CEO of the Kinder Foundation, in the release. "As a result of the pandemic, we are seeing mental health and the impact of stress with fresh eyes. Now is the time to support our children and help them thrive and learn. We are proud to help elevate the work of ProUnitas to reach more schools and more students in this critical time of need."

In a press release, ProUnitas states that through these new mobile capabilities, up to 60 percent of administrative work in providing social service options is eliminated. It also shortens the response time for a student to be identified and receive services by 90 percent.

The expansion of PurpleSENSE to mobile is a critical step for ProUnitas to effectively support more schools and students.

Renewables are Houston's next chapter, says this expert

guest column

Houston has long been known as an innovative city — from medicine to technology to creative cuisines (see Viet-Cajun). I am always proud to see how cultures, education, and change come together to build the fabric of our city. As we look forward to a new future, we need to look no further than one of our strongest industries: energy. As many before me, I've sat down to ask: What does that next chapter look like for Houston?

Renewable energy has rapidly grown in Texas and across the country. Emerging technology has furthered this innovation, bringing wind and solar projects that are more powerful and reliable online from the Panhandle to deep in the Rio Grande Valley. As these new projects come online, aging wind facilities built in the early 2000s are beginning to be revitalized, gleaming bright white with newer, longer blades. And, similar to cleaning out your closet of old clothes, the current blades have to go somewhere. Where others see a problem, we saw an opportunity: We've made a business out of recycling them.

At Everpoint, we are demolishing and removing blades all across the US, with projects in North Dakota, Colorado, and even here in another Texas city, Sweetwater. In this rural Texas town, wind investment took Nolan County market value from $607 million in 1998 to $3.2 billion as development peaked in 2009. This growth enabled the school districts, county, and hospital district to expand and upgrade their facilities. As a trailblazer in the industry, we worked closely with the Sweetwater team to handle a smooth transition, allowing their community to look forward to a breezier future.

The industry is quickly innovating to meet the demands of Texas' future, and new opportunities are forming every day, something we're proud to be a part of, especially as a veteran-owned company. We are driven to make the future of energy more transparent and traceable, that's why we partner with firms like Media Sorcery which uses sensors and an ESG based blockchain built by another Houston firm, Topl, to maintain full accountability throughout the decommissioning process.

Beyond our company, the renewable energy industry employs veterans at a higher rate than the national average, with more than 11,000 in the wind industry alone. As a veteran myself it only made since to team with another veteran founded company to pursue this opportunity. I appreciate meeting fellow veterans every day that are applying the skills they learned in the military: a technical knowledge base, teamwork, and discipline.

Across Texas, renewable energy is powering 40,200 well-paying careers that I know are building toward a better, brighter Houston. It's in our blood to continue the Texas legacy of welcoming energy industries, like wind and solar, into our state. I believe in an all-energy approach to the energy transition. Renewable energy is about more than hearts and minds, it's about dollars and cents.

In honor of that, we are celebrating American Clean Power Week this week, October 25-29, and we hope you will join us. Not to celebrate one industry, but to embrace an all of the above, made in Texas energy future — a future that I know we can all be proud of, and where Houston will be the Energy Capital of the Future.

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Kevin Doffing is the chief commercial officer of Everpoint Services.