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Harris County Department of Public Health and Environmental Services

Good luck avoiding mosquitoes

You can’t stop them, you can only hope to contain them.

Living in an area with so many mosquitoes means local officials can’t just ignore them, right? Harris County tries to lower the number of bugs both by spraying and introducing natural predators. The county can’t eradicate them entirely, but it can try to control bugs that have tested positive for diseases like the West Nile virus.

In Harris County, the mosquito problem peaks during the late summer months.

“It spikes up August and September, when it’s high time for hurricane weather that may trigger mosquito breeding to occur,” said Eddie Miranda, a Harris County Public Health spokesman.

Public health trucks rumble through the streets, spraying low-dose pesticides like pyrethrin and malathion to poison mosquitoes. It doesn’t hurt humans to the same degree, although people sensitive to pesticides should go indoors when crews come around. Crews spray one or twice a week in some parts of Midtown, downtown and the Northside.

The county has an app (iOSAndroid) that lets residents enter a ZIP code and find out where spraying is planned. It also includes a digital form to request mosquito breeding site inspection.

There are also other new, natural strategies from county teams to eliminate the pests, such as introducing carnivorous plants and predator bugs to chew them up. Which is good, considering a recent study found a species of mosquitoes found in the South are laying eggs that are better able to survive winter months.

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The New York Times’s Wirecutter has good options for mosquito repellants that aren’t meant to be applied to flesh. Top among their recommendations are Thermacell products, which release a scent-free vapor into the air and rids the immediate vicinity of mosquitoes.

You can spray and kill clouds of mosquitoes in your yard with pyrethrins spray, which targets the nervous system, but it won’t do much for repelling bugs. Citronella candles are also bunk — researchers have disproven the myth that the smell turns mosquitoes off.

Eliminate any still water that’s been outside your home for more than two days. Harris County Public Health recommends replacing the water in your pet’s bowls and birdbaths frequently to avoid mosquito larvae. Check flower pots, open barrels and toys as well.

Bugs need a cozy hiding place such as leaves clogging storm drains. The county recommends sweeping up the first signs of autumn to keep larvae from having a place to feed.

The story has more info about staying skeeter-free – wear long sleeves and long pants, always a delightful prospect in the Houston summer, and slather yourself with DEET – but do mind thosen prevention steps. The big guns around here include high tech traps, dragonflies and damselflies, and mutant mosquitoes. We’re playing the long game, y’all.

There’s always time for an attack on Planned Parenthood

This one comes with an attack on local control, so it’s a twofer.

Right there with them

Texas and its local governments would no longer be able to partner with abortion providers or their affiliates — even for services like sexual health education and pregnancy prevention initiatives — under a bill the Texas House passed in a preliminary vote late Friday after hours of emotional debate.

Senate Bill 22, which critics call the biggest threat to Planned Parenthood this legislative session, would forbid a government entity from transferring money to an abortion provider, even for services not related to the procedure. It would also bar a transfer of goods or services and any transactions that offers the provider “something of value derived from state or local tax revenue.” Abortion rights advocates fear that the bill could even prohibit privately funded programs held on government property, like pop-up sexual health education booths at community colleges.

The controversial bill dominated the lower chamber’s agenda Friday for more than seven hours and tentatively passed in an 81 to 65 vote.

“This is a taxpayer protection bill,” said Rep. Candy Noble, R-Allen. “Taxpayers who oppose abortion should not have to see their tax dollars subsidizing the abortion industry.”

The bill needs one more vote in the lower chamber before it heads back to the Republican-controlled Senate. State Rep. Jonathan Stickland, R-Bedford, added an amendment that clarifies the bill would not restrict a city or county from banning abortions. If the upper chamber agrees with that change, the bill will then head to Republican Gov. Greg Abbott’s desk.

The bill would also apply to an affiliate of an abortion provider, so no Planned Parenthood clinic could partner with a local government — even clinics that don’t provide abortions. That would include programs like one in Dallas County where Planned Parenthood staffers have provided sexual health education, including information on how to prevent sexually transmitted diseases, at juvenile detention centers.

[…]

Planned Parenthood partners with Texas cities and counties to provide services like HIV testing, teen pregnancy prevention initiatives, and breast and cervical cancer screenings — along with assistance in public health crises. During the 2016 Zika outbreak, the Harris County Health Department provided mosquito repellent and prevention brochures to Planned Parenthood patients. After Hurricane Harvey, Houston city government offices distributed vouchers for no-cost care at local Planned Parenthood clinics.

Opponents of the bill say providers like Planned Parenthood are an integral part of the healthcare safety net for low-income residents in a state that has the highest rate of uninsured adults in the country. Furthermore, they say low-cost and free reproductive health services are especially critical given Texas’ high rate of teen pregnancy, maternal mortality, and sexually transmitted diseases. Cutting off birth control services, they argue, could even drive up abortion rates. And many bill opponents called the measure “an attack on local control.”

As the Texas legislature has rolled back funding for abortion providers, lawmakers have boosted funding for state-run programs like Healthy Texas Women, which provides free or low-cost family planning services. Bill supporters hope to divert women away from abortions clinics and their affiliates and instead direct them toward these state-run alternatives.

But abortion rights advocates argue that such programs are ineffective because they don’t reach enough people. Almost half of the approximately 5,400 Healthy Texas Women providers saw no patients in the 2017 budget year, according to the Texas Observer. If less women can access reproductive health care, some lawmakers unsuccessfully argued, abortion rates would ultimately rise.

So just to recap, this will have no effect on abortion, but it will make it harder to stop Zika outbreaks. How much more pro-life can you get?

The one possible piece of good news here is that according to Scott Braddock, the Stickland amendment may make SB22 vulnerable to a point of order. If that’s true, it’ll happen this morning when the bill comes up for third reading. Hope for the best. And remember, the only way to prevent shit like this from happening is to elect a Democratic majority in the Lege. Nothing will change until that happens. The Observer has more.

UPDATE: On the plus side, vote suppression bill SB9 is not on the House calendar today or tomorrow, so it will not get a House floor vote before the deadline. It could still get in via the back door of being tacked onto another bill, but it’s on life support now.

The mosquitopocalypse is coming

It just keeps getting better and better.

Harvey’s rain may have left Houston behind, but there’s another storm headed our way. It’s a cloud of mosquitoes, which breed in standing water and soon will be hatching by the millions.

“It’s going to be horrible in two or three weeks,” said Cory Barcomb, operations manager for Mosquito Squad, a Houston mosquito control service. He’s bracing for the onslaught, bringing in heavy-duty insecticide sprayers from Austin that can cover a whole neighborhood in a couple of hours.

You know all that standing water we have right now? Mosquitoes are laying eggs in it right now – as many as 500 eggs at a time. In a week or two, all those eggs will start to hatch. And before long, we’ll see a mosquito boom that will have us swatting and scratching for weeks.

“There’s no way around them,” said Dr. Mustapha Debboun, director of Harris County Public Health’s mosquito and vector control division. “Once they find water, they’re going to lay eggs.”

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Our local mosquitoes could be carrying five different viruses, according to Debboun: West Nile, St. Louis encephalitis, dengue, chikungunya and Zika.

That’s why Harris County Public Health will be studying the mosquito population to figure out where they’re the most concentrated, then strategically spraying insecticide to get rid of them.

Mosquito Control staffers will head out across Harris County soon after this new round of mosquitoes has hatched, Debboun said. They’ll do what’s called a “landing count,” which involves a brave Mosquito Control technician standing still for one minute and counting the number of mosquitoes that land on him. If it’s five to 10, there’s not a problem. If it’s 100 or more, Debboun said, “that’s a situation.”

Oh my God, there is no amount of money you could pay me to do that job. Those people are damn heroes. There will be insecticide sprayed from trucks and possibly planes to combat the buzzing menace, and we didn’t all scratch ourselves to death following other large flood events, so maybe we’ll survive this time, too. Cover yourself in DEET and empty any standing water you have on your property in the meantime. God help us all.

Don’t let the mosquitoes bite

That’s going to be a challenge.

Mosquitoes don’t breed in flood waters. They drown in them, said Dr. Mustapha Debboun, director of the Mosquito Control Division at Harris County Public Health and Environmental Services.

But it’s after the flood waters subside that mosquito breeding becomes an issue, he said. And with the Zika virus on everyone’s radar over the past few months, Debboun said they’ll be heading into neighborhoods to mount an education campaign once the high waters recede in order to keep the spread of the virus under wraps as much as possible.

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Debboun said that, even after the floods, there is no need to panic. There are several things that people can do to keep potential Zika-carrying mosquitoes away. For one — and this one’s a bit of a no-brainer — people should wear insect repellent, especially as the temperatures begin to rise in May, Debboun said, if they don’t want to get bitten. Most importantly, though, people need to drain any small or large containers that filled with water during the flood, Debboun said. The mosquitoes like to breed in shallow, stagnant water, whether in big buckets or flower pots or even a water bottle left outside. And mosquitoes that carry Zika are exactly the types of mosquitoes that live in your backyard, who like these environments. “People have to help us in denying mosquitoes the chance to breed in those containers full of water,” Debboun said.

At a meeting in Greenspoint Wednesday night, Mayor Sylvester Turner also urged residents not to leave wet debris and ruined furniture from their homes out on the curb or their front lawns so as to not attract mosquitoes. He said Waste Management has pitched in by providing dozens of large dumpsters in those worst-hit neighborhoods.

As the story notes, Zika is already here. How much of a problem it becomes remains to be seen. I’m sure there will be plenty of spraying and other mitigation done by the city and the county, but do your part, too. Get rid of standing water, and use mosquito repellent. Let’s try to keep the little bastards under control.

Bondings

Congratulations, Montgomery County!

After rejecting two bond measures for new and improved roadways in four years, including one last spring, traffic-weary voters on Tuesday overwhelmingly backed a $280 million plan to unplug bottlenecks in rapidly growing Montgomery County.

With all precincts reporting, the road bond received the support of more than three-fifths of county voters – a ballot-box reversal that officials attributed to the increasing difficulty in driving the once mostly rural county’s outdated roads.

“It’s a recognition that we’re growing rapidly, and congestion is getting worse every day,” County Judge Craig Doyal said. “It’s time for us to move forward.”

County leaders intend to use the money on 54 projects, including the widening of Texas 105 east of Conroe, a half-loop bypass for Magnolia and improvements along increasingly congested Rayford Road southeast of The Woodlands.

The previous road bond proposal, for $350 million, was defeated by a 14-point margin in May, primarily because of heavy opposition to a proposed extension of Woodlands Parkway for 6 miles through mostly undeveloped land west of The Woodlands. The project riled Woodlands residents who believed it would worsen the master-planned community’s traffic woes.

Backers rushed to get another bond measure before voters this fall, contending that drivers couldn’t wait for new and improved roadways.

The revised bond package didn’t include the controversial project, but opponents argued that it was still a flawed proposal because county leaders placed another measure on the ballot before the completion of two studies identifying the county’s most urgent road needs.

A special prosecutor is investigating whether county officials put the bond package together outside the public view in violation of the state’s open meetings law. Chris Downey, the prosecutor, said Tuesday he does not know when the inquiry will be complete.

The measure was placed on the ballot after Doyal reached a last-minute agreement with the Texas Patriots PAC on the new proposal. The tea party group, which had opposed the bond in May, campaigned for the trimmed-down improvement plan and focused on winning over voters in The Woodlands, where the previous bond failed by a nearly 9-to-1 margin.

So there you have it. What do you think will come next – the bond money will all get spent, or the next bond issue will get put on the ballot because the traffic up there is still too damn bad? Good luck, MontCo, you’re going to need it.

Harris County also scored some bond money.

The four bond measures – $700 million for roads and bridges, $64 million for flood control improvements, $60 million for parks and $24 million to update the overcrowded animal control facility – scored decisive victories in complete but unofficial returns.

The bonds will not result in tax increases.

“Citizens of Harris County spoke volumes tonight that they understand the growth that has occurred and the challenges that loom,” said Precinct 3 Commissioner Steve Radack. “In a county that hasn’t had a property tax increase in almost 20 years, these bond proceeds will help the county build the infrastructure people need.”

Radack said “the county will spend this money prudently, over numerous years, not quickly.” He said it will be structured wisely.

About 1 million more people now live in the county than in 2000 and 75 percent of those new residents live in the unincorporated portions of the county where government-funded roads and infrastructure projects have had to hustle to catch up with vast commercial and residential development.

Radack said the burden will continue to grow if Houston continues its recent non-annexation policy, citing statistics showing that 51 percent of county residents now live in Houston, down from 77 percent 50 years ago.

I’m sure sometime before Harris County starts spending their bond money, they’ll tell us what they plan to spend it on. Those of us here in Houston don’t need to worry ourselves about it, since none of it will be spent here anyway.

Pollution prosecution

Not really sure what to make of County Commissioner Steve Radack’s proposal to create a new pollution control department that will more aggressively pursue violators.

“We have people out there violating the law and they’re polluting,” Radack said. “They’ve been getting away with it for a long, long time while it’s been under the health department, and it’s time to change that.”

Last March, Commissioners Court approved a recommendation to study how to strengthen pollution control, but no report has been issued. Radack said he has waited long enough.

“We study, we study and we study, but eventually, we have to take the test,” he said.

Radack proposes the new department at a time when the county is grappling with potentially tens of millions of dollars in budget cuts.

The six-term Precinct 3 commissioner said he believes the department can be created without additional cost by simply moving the pollution control specialists out of the Public Health and Environmental Services office and setting them up in their own shop.

Both the county attorney and Radack support a separate department, as prosecutions of polluters have declined in recent years.

County Attorney Vince Ryan has been gung ho about chasing polluters, so I’m not surprised he supports this. I certainly favor the philosophy behind this plan, but it’s not clear to me how this reshuffling of personnel will make a difference. So for now, I agree with this:

“I don’t know what to make of this,” said Matthew Tejada, executive director of Air Alliance Houston, when asked about the proposal. He said he had hoped there would have been some sort of public debate in advance of a vote at Commissioners Court because the new agency will have such an impact on everyone in the Houston area.

“I really hope that whoever’s pulling the trigger on this is doing it in the best interests of Harris County,” Tejada said. “I hope this isn’t being done for the purpose of behind-the-scenes political maneuvering.”

On the one hand, I don’t have a lot of faith in Steve Radack. On the other hand, if Vince Ryan is on board I’m willing to believe there’s something to it. Commissioners Court has delayed action on this until next month, so at least we’ll have some time to figure it out. What do you think?