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Free antibody treatment site opens in Waco for COVID-19 patients

A free clinic offering monoclonal antibody treatments, produced under the brand name Regeneron, will open Tuesday to COVID-19 patients in McLennan County.

Patients who have been confirmed as COVID-19 positive and have a referral from a primary care physician can get the treatment free of charge. The 10-chair facility, will be open from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. on the Texas State Technical College campus.

Waco-McLennan County Public Health District and Baylor Scott & White Hillcrest are partnering with the Texas Department of Emergency Management, which has contracted with the Gothams firm to run the clinic.

Dr. Umad Ahmad, chief medical officer for Hillcrest, said the treatment has helped the hospitals keep a “significant” number of people out of inpatient care.

Ahmad said patients need to meet certain criteria to be considered for the treatment.

Patients must have tested positive for COVID-19 and get treatment within 10 days of the onset of symptoms.

Those who have been hospitalized for their symptoms or who require oxygen for their treatment are not eligible. Ahmad said if patients use oxygen to treat another condition, that does not disqualify them. The patients recommended for the treatment usually have underlying conditions such as obesity or heart and lung issues as well.

Ahmad said Hillcrest’s staff has had days in which as many as 40 people get the treatment, but the numbers have fallen along with hospitalizations recently.

He said some patients who have refused the vaccine have chosen to go through with the treatment, which he said will still lessen their chances of complications and help reduce overall hospitalizations. However, there is no evidence the treatment does anything to reduce the virus’ transmissibility.

“In fact, vaccinated people sometimes don’t even have symptoms, or they get very minimal symptoms,” Ahmad said. “And with or without Regeneron, they’re less likely to get admitted or have complications.”

Health district spokeswoman Kelly Craine said treatment is free, but it’s only available by appointment. Primary care physicians can refer patients who are a good match for the treatment. The third-party vendor running the clinic, Gothams, will have doctors assess people who do not have a primary care doctor.

Patients without insurance or a primary care physician are encouraged to call the infusion center at (254) 867-2005 or send an email to

Craine said TDEM has run about 20 clinics such as this throughout the state. The public health district requested a site in Waco in early September.

Verner said monoclonal antibody treatments might be recommended for children 12 and older if they have underlying health conditions that make them more vulnerable to COVID-19.

Gothams is a firm mostly focused on aerospace and defense contract work. Gothams also served an advisory role for Curative, a company that runs COVID-19 testing clinics nationwide.

HOT Fair and Rodeo returns Oct. 7 after livestock show gets head start Friday

Masking is a choice but not a mandate at this year’s Heart O’ Texas Fair & Rodeo, which will host its first Mexican Rodeo Spectacular, put retailers from across the country in the new $30 million BASE, and give the livestock show a week’s head start.

The livestock show begins Friday, giving it a six-day head start on the HOT Fair & Rodeo, a scheduling change meant to reduce interaction between fair attendees and those delivering, showcasing and judging animals.

“We’ll have a thousand heifers arriving Oct. 1, which is a lot easier without a carnival in the way,” said fair president and CEO Wes Allison. “That’s the way things were handled last year, so it’s a little bit of hangover from all the COVID stuff.”

The HOT Fair & Rodeo itself runs Oct. 7 through Oct. 17, and Allison described it as “100% go” after a pared-down version last year that lacked a carnival, bands and many traditional events. Allison said the event industry is striving for normalcy and seeking a return to full capacity.

Allison said those choosing not to wear masks will suffer no consequences or limitations on their movements. With or without face coverings they can walk the grounds, ride rides, pet animals and gather inside the BASE, rodeo arena and livestock area, he said.

The State Fair of Texas took a different approach, choosing to require face coverings for those venturing indoors. Dallas County has a mask mandate, apparently bucking Gov. Greg Abbott’s order that neither a governmental entity nor a governmental official may require anyone to wear a mask.

Allison said he canvassed other venues statewide before forming policy for the HOT Fair & Rodeo. Most everything is back to normal for the 2021 version, Allison said, though accommodating rodeo crowds remains a horse of a different color.

“Basically, we’ll start out selling tickets for every other row in the HOT Coliseum, but we’re not going to stop selling tickets,” Allison said.

Allison he’s not legally compelled to limit occupancy in the 4,800-seat rodeo arena to 50% or less, but will take steps to reduce contact when possible.

Allison said he expects packed houses on the two Saturdays of the rodeo’s run, and on the first Sunday, when the pageantry, horsemanship, dancing and celebration of culture embodied by Mexican Rodeo Spectacular grabs the Waco spotlight for the first time.

The bullfighting scheduled on that last Sunday, Oct. 17, traditionally draws very well, Allison said.

At the HOT Fair’s disposal this year is the new multipurpose center, the BASE, which flanks the Extraco Events Center along Bosque Boulevard. John W. Erwin Contractor built the BASE from voter-approved bonds backed by car rental and lodging fees. It will host everything from job fairs and luncheons to sporting events, but from Oct. 7 to Oct. 17, it will be available exclusively to the HOT Fair, and Allison said he’s excited about that.

He said visitors can tour educational displays or avail themselves of Big Top Entertainment’s traveling show featuring retailers from around the country it recruits to sell clothing, home decor and furniture, among other items.

Fair admission is $15 at the gate, but discounts are available on the HOT Fair & Rodeo website, Rodeo tickets, which include fair admission, cost $20 in advance and $25 on the day of the event.

To assist in crowd management, said Allison, all rodeo seating is reserved.

The rides, fair food, carnival games and musical entertainment will unfold under the Central Texas sky, said Allison, who believes locals are ready to celebrate their fair and will turn out in impressive numbers.

McLennan County Judge Scott Felton said Gov. Abbott has taken this bull by the horns, ruling that local governments may not impose mask mandates. He said Allison is applying guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in his approach to masking during the HOT Fair & Rodeo.

Felton said if the State Fair of Texas indeed is requiring patrons to wear masks upon entering a building, it is violating Abbott’s directive. He said he’s heard indirectly the State Fair is not vigorously enforcing the rule.

The State Fair of Texas has spent $75,000 this year buying masks and hand sanitizer and printing signs that say “masks required while indoors,” the Dallas Morning News reported. The fair was canceled last year due to COVID-19. Many animals bound for showing at the State Fair of Texas were diverted to other locations, including the HOT Fair.

The National Weather Service is forecasting showers this week, only days before the HOT Fair, but Allison said he’s not losing sleep.

“We’ve been purchasing rain insurance the past few years to offset any losses,” said Allison. “Knock on wood, it’s not going to rain, but we know we can’t control that. You have to live with it. Farmers need the rain.”

Waco mayor renews vaccine call as county sees first pediatric COVID-19 death

An 11-year-old boy has become the first pediatric patient in McLennan County to die of COVID-19, local public health officials said Monday in announcing seven new deaths from the disease in recent days.

The unidentified boy died Friday afternoon at an area hospital outside McLennan County, Waco-McLennan County Public Health District officials said.

In a statement, Waco Mayor Dillon Meek voiced condolences to the child’s family and urged the community to step up its fight against the disease.

“This tragedy serves as a sobering reminder that we must all continue to do what we can to protect the vulnerable from the spread of COVID-19,” he said. “I continue to urge all eligible community members who have not yet received a COVID-19 vaccine to talk to their healthcare provider and make a plan to get vaccinated as soon as possible.”

Dr. Farley Verner, health authority for the public health district, said 25% of McLennan County’s current COVID-19 cases are among people 19 and younger, raising the chances of that age group to become severely ill or hospitalized. Meanwhile, the delta variant’s reign has increased the number of children and teens hospitalized for COVID-19 by five times compared to previous variants.

“Whether or not we’re fortunate enough to avoid more pediatric fatalities is just not predictable,” Verner said.

Verner said that because children younger than 12 still can’t get vaccinated, the tragedy is an example of why eligible people should get the shot.

“It’s not necessarily to protect yourself, but to prevent you from giving COVID-19 to someone else, especially those who can’t get vaccinated,” Verner said.

Across Texas and the U.S., pediatric deaths account for about 0.1% of the death toll.

Statewide, the virus has claimed 11 children younger than 1, 17 ages 1 to 9, and 56 ages 10-19, the Texas Department of State Health Services reported Sept. 24. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that 579 people ages 0 to 17 have died of COVID-19 nationwide.

In McLennan County, the health district reported 146 new cases Saturday, 77 new cases Sunday and 64 new cases on Monday. The total active case count Monday stood at 703, a little more than half the 1,392 active cases reported a week before.

The seven-day average for new daily cases has remained below 200 since Sept. 1 and currently sits at 116.

The percentage of hospitalized COVID-19 patients in Trauma Service Area M, a five-county region including McLennan County, was at 25% Monday, down from 35% a week before.

Verner said those numbers reflect marked improvement, but not enough.

“We’re having fewer new cases per day than we were having two weeks ago, but it’s decreased down to a place that we used to call ‘bad,’ ’’ Verner said.

There are 139 COVID-19 patients in McLennan County hospitals, 114 of whom are county residents and 85% of whom are unvaccinated. There are 37 COVID-19 patients in county ICUs and 29 on ventilators.

The McLennan County death toll stood at 639 Monday. In addition to the 11-year-old boy, new deaths over the weekend and Monday included a 59-year-old white woman, 89-year-old Asian man, a 78-year-old Black man, a 58-year-old Hispanic woman, a 32-year-old Hispanic woman and a 39-year-old white man.

Most new cases reported over the weekend and Monday fell between the ages of 20 and 29.

Midway, McGregor dropped from state mask lawsuit as judge mulls TRO for Waco, La Vega ISDs

A district judge in McLennan County on Monday dismissed Midway and McGregor independent school districts from Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton’s lawsuit over school masking policies but did not rule on the state’s request to block mask mandates at Waco ISD and La Vega ISD.

Wearing a mask while sitting on the bench in an empty courtroom, 414th State District Judge Vicki Menard heard arguments via Zoom from the Office of the Attorney General for a temporary restraining order against Waco and La Vega until hearings can be held on the merits of granting an injunction against them.

An assistant attorney general told the judge that the districts showed blatant disregard for Gov. Greg Abbott’s order banning school mask mandates.

Midway and McGregor ISDs also were sued, but the attorney general’s office agreed to dismiss them from the lawsuit.

Midway officials argued that while they strongly encouraged students and staff members to wear masks, there was no true mandate in place. McGregor schools did require mask-wearing but at Paxton’s request did not enforce the mandate, Superintendent James Lenamon has said.

The defendants have sought to delay the proceedings until the Texas Supreme Court rules on the school mask mandate in similar lawsuits statewide, but Menard did not rule on that request Monday. Paxton has sued more than a dozen school districts statewide with mixed results so far.

The Texas Supreme Court has blocked lower court rulings — at least temporarily — that allowed Dallas and San Antonio to issue school mask mandates while the lawsuits continue. However, a state district judge granted temporary restraining orders that override Abbott’s orders as it applies to Travis, Harris and eight other school districts. The Texas Supreme Court ultimately will decide the issue.

Will Wassdorf, an assistant attorney general, argued Monday in a hearing held via teleconference that the issue is not whether people agree that wearing masks helps guard against the spread of COVID-19. He said no one complained when Abbott instituted preventive measures in 2020, regardless of whether they agreed with his strategies in the war against the pandemic.

The issue, Wassdorf said, is whether Abbott’s orders are within his authority under the disaster act, which he said has the effect of law.

Carlos Lopez, who represents Waco and La Vega schools, said he took offense to Paxton’s Twitter posts that he said took a “condescending view” of judges who ruled against his lawsuits seeking to enforce the mask bans.

Lopez questioned whether Abbott’s mask ban complies with the disaster act, saying it does nothing to combat the disease. He added that Abbott’s “hands-off approach” and “let-the-people-decide” philosophy likely are not valid under the Texas Disaster Act.

Dr. Farley Verner, McLennan County public health authority, wrote a letter in support of Waco ISD’s mask mandate and submitted an affidavit for the defendants in the Paxton lawsuit. Lopez described Verner’s assessment of the delta variant’s threat to children as “scary.”

The state’s request for a TRO boils down to “per se dignitary harm” to the state vs. life-and-death decisions being made by school officials, Lopez argued.

Before recessing the Zoom hearing, Menard explained that in wearing a mask during the hearing she was in no way making a comment on the merits of the case. She said the judiciary is governed by different rules than the legislative branch.