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Baylor quarterback Gerry Bohanon (11) rushes the ball against Baylor during the first half of an NCAA college football game, Saturday, Sept. 25, 2021, in Waco, Texas. (AP Photo/Jim Cowsert)


Local
Waco residents with breakthrough cases credit vaccines for milder symptoms

Amanda Thompson and her husband do not think they let their guards down against COVID-19 or its delta variant after they both received the Johnson & Johnson vaccine in February.

They both continued to wear masks, practice social distancing at work and have limited their outings to their grandkids’ sporting events.

However, like a small percentage of the vaccinated population, Amanda Thompson, 53, and Velton Thompson, 52, got hit with breakthrough cases of COVID-19 last month.

So did a 70-year-old Hewitt resident, who asked not to be identified by name, and her 68-year-old brother who lives in Bellmead. Both were vaccinated with Pfizer doses in February and March but both also contracted breakthrough cases at the end of August.

And also like the Thompsons, both brother and sister continued COVID-19 protocols after they were vaccinated, only venturing out to work and to the grocery store, she said.

All have underlying health concerns potentially making them more vulnerable but agree that because they had been vaccinated, their COVID-19 symptoms were milder and they did not experience hospitalization or worse.

“I would tell those unvaccinated folks out there that all the testimonials you hear about the vaccine are true,” the Hewitt resident said. “It is serious stuff and they better take care of it and try to prevent it. I was so careful for 18 months. I never got it and I was very lucky to have a mild case because I think eventually, everybody is going to get it. It seems to be everywhere. It is all around us. It just seems inevitable that people are going to get it.”

Doctors for Amanda Thompson and the sister and brother recommended they receive antibody infusions because of their existing health concerns. Velton Thompson, who had a heart attack in 2015, opted out of the infusion treatment because he did not want to deal with the crowds at the hospital, Amanda Thompson said.

“I think we were blessed to get a milder case, and I have no doubt it was because we got the vaccine,” she said.

Dr. Farley Verner, McLennan County public health authority, said it is hard to get accurate data concerning the number of COVID-19 breakthrough cases because most of the new cases go unreported because they do not require hospitalization.

“Because the vaccines are so effective, the number of breakthrough cases is very small,” he said. “The reason to get the vaccine is because it dramatically reduces our chances of getting COVID-19. You have to accept the fact that it is not 100% effective.”

Verner and Dr. Ben Wilson, associate chief medical officer and COVID-19 coordinator for Waco Family Medicine, continue to urge anyone who has not been vaccinated to do so.

“For those vaccinated, symptoms are milder, the risk of long COVID is decreased, that is the long-term side effects, and then your risk of severe COVID is markedly decreased,” Wilson said. “The latest studies that included infections predominately due to the delta variant state that there is at least a tenfold decreased risk in severe disease of vaccine breakthrough cases versus severe disease in the unvaccinated population.”

Wilson recommends that anyone who experiences a breakthrough case consult their physician to see if they are eligible to receive Regeneron Pharmaceutical’s antibody infusion, and if it is available. Currently, Ascension Providence and Baylor Scott & White Hillcrest are the only locations in Waco to administer the procedure, although Waco Family Medicine is working to obtain its own supply of Regeneron through the Texas Department of State Health Services.

“We are grateful for our partnership with Hillcrest and Providence, that our patients do have some access to this drug through them,” Wilson said. “There are also plans for a regional infusion center through the heath district.”

The landscape for booster shots is more complex, and experts are not in agreement, Wilson said.

“But there are certain areas that most experts agree on, and that is that you need an additional dose, or a third dose, if you are moderate to severely immunocompromised and received the Pfizer vaccine longer than six months ago and those 65 and older who got the Pfizer and those age 50 to 64 with chronic medical conditions,” he said.

Late in the week, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended a third Pfizer shot six months after the original two-shot regimen for anyone 65 and older, anyone 50 or older with underlying conditions, and any adult living in a long-term care setting. It also is allowing for the boosters for any adult with underlying conditions and any adult at risk of exposure because of “because of occupational or institutional setting.”

Booster recommendations for Moderna and Johnson & Johnson recipients also are expected at some point.


Local
Waco-area family encourages COVID-19 precautions to keep the vulnerable safe

For almost two years, Woodway residents Melissa and Jody Copp have had one mission: to keep their two boys, Lawson, 9, and Calan, 13, as safe as possible from COVID-19.

With the recent spike in cases, they have continued to advocate for people, like their children, who have compromised immune systems and are limited by the pandemic to a greater extent because they are at the highest risk for serious outcomes from an infection. They urge community members to do whatever they can to minimize the spread of the coronavirus, and to keep the vulnerable in mind when making decisions, in hopes they can rejoin the community more fully.

“If there is even a small chance that you can prevent and provide a better quality life for the vulnerable, to me that is a no-brainer,” Melissa Copp said. “We understand that people make a decision based on principle versus an understanding of the vulnerable and their quality of life. But that is why we are voicing this conversation because we don’t want to leave the vulnerable out of the conversation.”

Calan and Lawson were both born with an extremely rare disease that causes developmental delay and affects the mitochondria, which produce the energy for cells in the body. There are only a few known cases in the United States, and no cure is available.

“If they were to get a virus like COVID or the delta virus, it would instantly be hospitalization or risk of death,” Melissa Copp said. “We would definitely immediately need to be under observation at the hospital.”

After a hospitalization in 2015 for the H1N1 flu, known as swine flu, they know it could be life or death.

Before the pandemic, the family had their routine of preventive care, including vaccines, and other preventive measures, but they were able to be active in the community, in part through their Raising Wheels Foundation.

Now, they are back in quarantine.

They started quarantining in March 2020 and did not travel, taking as many precautions in their daily life as possible.

“When the pandemic for COVID came about, we did not even hesitate,” Melissa Copp said. “If there was a protocol to prevent illness, we were going to do that based on our past.”

Those protocols are now familiar. Masking, social distancing and vaccinations are all precautionary methods the Copps use to keep their children alive.

While the family had planned for Lawson and Calan to return to Midway schools for in-person learning this fall, their critical care team strongly urged them against it. Midway had no masking or social distancing guidelines, despite spread of the delta virus on the rise.

Jody Copp said while the family was excited to return to school, they contacted the district and applied for homebound learning.

“We knew it was the right decision especially after, when school started and we started to see the cases rise, and they still are,” Jody Copp said. “And they still are. They are kind of up and up.”

There are 76 students in Midway Independent School District participating in Midway Virtual School, the district’s remote instruction option, and nine more are slated to join the program this week, district spokesperson Traci Marlin said.

In addition to staying away from in-person school, the Copps have also limited interactions with friends and extended family.

“To me that is a sacrifice,” Melissa Copp said. “We have to sacrifice their social interactions and they’re missing out on school functions in order to keep them alive, but we know that there are things that people can do to limit contact and there are various protocols in place that will allow us to go back into the real world and interact with people again and we hope that comes soon, for their sake.”

Masking and social distancing are two of the simplest ways they urge the community to help in stopping the spread of COVID-19 in hopes that they will be able to rejoin the community in activities.

“Honestly, to me it seems like the simplest thing,” Jody Copp said. “If you have an aversion to masking, if you have an allergy or breathing difficulty that is understandable but it seems like a simple thing to do to protect others.”

Masks have become a flashpoint in political debates over COVID-19, and Texas Gov. Greg Abbott has forbidden public schools from requiring masks. Locally, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton has sued the Midway, Waco, La Vega and McGregor school districts over mask policies, though Midway officials have said they only had a nonbinding and temporary “directive” for masks at one school, and McGregor officials have said their mask requirement has not been enforced.

The Copps are not alone in pushing the message of keeping the vulnerable in mind during the pandemic.

Dr. Ben Wilson, assistant chief medical officer for Waco Family Medicine, said people with compromised immune systems are both at greater risk of contacting the virus, and if they are infected, at greater risk of a poor outcome, which could include hospitalization, prolonged symptoms or even death.

Wilson said he encourages everyone eligible to get vaccinated, including immunocompromised people, and to get vaccine boosters when they are available. Mask use is also important to keep people at higher risk safe, he said.

“It is important for all of us to get vaccinated to provide a cocoon of immunity around them,” Wilson said.

While the Copps do not preach vaccine mandates for all, all eligible Copp family members are vaccinated on recommendations from their health care providers.

“When it came to this, it was a no-brainer for me,” Jody Copp said. “I think that vaccines work. You can think what you want politically but luckily it was there and it was there quick enough.”

Seeing COVID-19 as a community issue, Jody Copp said politicizing the virus has made it harder for everyone to come together to eradicate it.

“This was the political virus and in more ways than one it has tainted so many discussions that probably could have been had that would have led to a more thoughtful medical outcome rather than pointing fingers,” he said.

Melissa Copp said her own personal beliefs do not add up to much when weighed against the value of her children’s lives.

“This is a spreadable infectious disease. … We can’t control any of those things, so I am only hopeful that masking stays and that vaccinations are still promoted and anything else that shows what we can do to prevent this from happening, and science and facts, is how we base our decisions,” Melissa Copp said. “I have to put my beliefs, whatever they are, aside, because I want their quality of life to be equal as anyone else’s.”

With the introduction of vaccinations, the family had strong hopes of returning to the kinds of interactions they miss.

“I was excited for people. I was excited for our boys because what that meant for us was to maybe join the community again like before,” Melissa Copp said. “Life will never be the same but it gave me hope that it would one day.”

While some people opposing vaccinations and masking have used the term “living in fear” to address those who participate in precautionary measures, Melissa Copp said her motto is “living with no regrets.”

“I’ve only known one type of parenting style which is giving them the best quality of life, protecting them at all cost,” Melissa Copp said.

Jody and Melissa Copp said they hope the conversation about masking, vaccines and other preventive measures does not leave out families like theirs.

“We are more strong advocates for the vulnerable. Just take steps that you can that you are comfortable with to look beyond yourself and help protect the community,” Jody Copp said.

He said he encourages people to remember that many others are in a similar position as his family.

“This pandemic is bigger than ourselves. It involved the community coming together to do something,” Melissa Copp said. “I cannot protect them 100%. There are reasonable risks to get them out. There are things that have to be done and I am only hopeful the community will come together to get that done.”


National
Committee OKs $3.5T spending plan

WASHINGTON — Democrats pushed a $3.5 trillion, 10-year bill strengthening social safety net and climate programs through the House Budget Committee on Saturday, but one Democrat voted “no,” illustrating the challenges party leaders face in winning the near unanimity they’ll need to push the sprawling package through Congress.

The Democratic-dominated panel, meeting virtually, approved the measure on a near party-line vote, 20-17. Passage marked a necessary but minor checking of a procedural box for Democrats by edging it a step closer to debate by the full House. Under budget rules, the committee wasn’t allowed to significantly amend the 2,465-page measure, the product of 13 other House committees.

More important work has been happening in an opaque procession of mostly unannounced phone calls, meetings and other bargaining sessions among party leaders and rank-and-file lawmakers. President Joe Biden, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., have led a behind-the-scenes hunt for compromises to resolve internal divisions and, they hope, allow approval of the mammoth bill soon.

Pelosi told fellow Democrats Saturday that they “must” pass the social and environment package this week, along with a separate infrastructure bill and a third measure preventing a government shutdown on Friday. Her letter to colleagues underscored the pile of crucial work Congress’ Democratic majority faces in coming days and seemed an effort to build urgency to resolve long-standing disputes quickly.

“The next few days will be a time of intensity,” she wrote.

Moderate Rep. Scott Peters, D-Calif., joined all 16 Republicans on the Budget committee in opposing the legislation. His objections included one that troubles many Democrats: a reluctance to back a bill with provisions that would later be dropped by the Senate.

Many Democrats don’t want to become politically vulnerable by backing language that might be controversial back home, only to see it not become law. That preference for voting only on a social and environment bill that’s already a House-Senate compromise could complicate Pelosi’s effort for a House vote this week.

Peters was among three Democrats who earlier this month voted against a plan favored by most in his party to lower pharmaceutical costs by letting Medicare negotiate for the prescription drugs it buys.

Party leaders have tried for weeks to resolve differences among Democrats over the package’s final price tag, which seems sure to shrink. There are also disputes over which initiatives should be reshaped, among them expanded Medicare, tax breaks for children and health care, a push toward cleaner energy and higher levies on the rich and corporations.

Democrats’ wafer-thin majorities in the House and Senate mean compromise is mandatory. Before the measure the Budget panel approved Saturday even reaches the House floor, it is expected to be changed to reflect whatever House-Senate accords have been reached, and additional revisions are likely.

The overall bill embodies the crux of Biden’s top domestic goals. Budget panel chairman John Yarmuth, D-Ky., cited “decades of disinvestment” on needs like health care, education, child care and the environment as the rationale for the legislation.

“The futures of millions of Americans and their families are at stake. We can no longer afford the costs of neglect and inaction. The time to act is now,” Yarmuth said.

Republicans say the proposal is unneeded, unaffordable amid accumulated federal debt exceeding $28 trillion and reflects Democrats’ drive to insert government into people’s lives. Its tax boosts will cost jobs and include credits for buying electric vehicles, purchases often made by people with comfortable incomes, they said.

“This bill is a disaster for working-class families,” said Rep. Jason Smith of Missouri, the committee’s top Republican. “It’s a big giveaway to the wealthy, it’s a laundry list of agenda items pulled right out of the Bernie Sanders socialist playbook.”

The unusual weekend session occurred as top Democrats amp up efforts to end increasingly bitter disputes between the party’s centrist and progressive wings that threaten to undermine Biden’s agenda.

Biden conceded Friday that talks among Democrats were at a “stalemate,” though Pelosi and Schumer have been more positive in an apparent effort to build momentum and soothe differences. A collapse of the measure at his own party’s hands would be a wounding preview to the coming election year, in which House and Senate control are at stake.

To nail down moderates’ support for an earlier budget blueprint, Pelosi promised to begin House consideration by Monday of another pillar of Biden’s domestic plans: a $1 trillion collection of roadway and other infrastructure projects. Pelosi reaffirmed this week that the infrastructure debate would begin Monday.

But many moderates who consider the infrastructure bill their top goal also want to cut the $3.5 trillion social and environment package and trim or reshape some programs. They include Sens. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz.

In response, progressives — their top priority is the $3.5 trillion measure — are threatening to vote against the infrastructure bill if it comes up for a vote first. Their opposition seems likely to be enough to scuttle it, and Pelosi hasn’t definitively said when a vote on final passage of the infrastructure measure will occur.


Challenger Little League director Lupe Rosas goes over drawings of league's two new fields planned as part of a new $6.7 million Lake Air Little League complex.


Education
Baylor survey examines emotional response to COVID-19

A national Baylor Religion Survey found increased worry is the leading emotional response to COVID-19 regardless of age, gender, religious or political views, followed by heightened levels of sadness, loneliness and anger.

That is hardly surprising, but survey researchers said those emotions, left unresolved, could lead to more serious mental health issues such as depression, suicide and spousal or child abuse for years to come.

The findings come from the latest mail and web survey, conducted by polling company Gallup Inc. between Jan. 27 and March 21 for Baylor University’s Institute for the Studies of Religion. The survey contacted 1,248 people, randomly sampled, in a wide range of demographic groups. It is the sixth such survey since 2005, held to provide data on long-range trends on Americans and religion.

This year’s survey also covered topics including Christian nationalism, prayer, masculinity and perceptions of God, belief in conspiracy theories, and perceived threats to social unity.

In the questions concerning an emotional response to COVID-19, participants were asked how often they feel “happy, sad, confident, tense, relaxed, lonely, cared for and angry” now compared to before the COVID-19 pandemic. A solid majority, 63%, felt more worried, followed by 45.4% who felt sadder, 43.3% lonelier and 34% angrier.

Upenieks

Laura Upenieks, Baylor assistant professor of sociology, and sociology graduate student Rebecca Bonhag led the research into the emotional responses.

The survey’s timing gave researchers a chance to measure a national reaction to a major event while it was happening. While anxiety might seem the understandable reaction to a pandemic that has caused job losses, housing evictions, changes in work and education and widespread illness and death, being able to quantify it is significant, Upenieks said.

“When generalized to all Americans, this doesn’t bode well for mental health down the road. This could have potential long-term consequences,” she said.

Bonhag, who is examining the relations between social inequality and mental health, said the survey results were not that surprising, given the pandemic’s sizable disruptions of daily life across the country.

Bonhag

The researchers observed that the four emotional responses evaluated in the survey are often evaluated for mental health, with sadness and loneliness in questions of depression and anger and worry for anxiety.

Upenieks said research done in the aftermath of the 2008 recession showed the emotional ripples from that economic disruption reverberated for five or six years. Given that the pandemic not only overturned the economy, but social life and health care as well, its emotional impact could be much greater or longer, she said.

The survey also found respondents in poor or fair health registered higher levels of worry, sadness and anger than those in better health, with those in poor health twice as likely as those in excellent health to feel increased anxiety and anger.

Broken out by age levels, adults 18 to 34 years old were more affected emotionally than those 35-64 and 65 years and older. Younger adults led those in the older age categories in feelings of greater worry, 69.4% for 18-34, 64.5% for 35-64 and 52.9% for 65 and older; sadness, 50.2% to 47.6% to 35.5%; and loneliness 53% to 41.6% to 35.5%.

When marital status was considered, parents living with children were most likely to experience increased worry with 70.1% acknowledging greater anxiety due to COVID-19, followed by those married at 63.1%, single at 63.1% and parents in general at 60.6%.

Singles were more likely to feel angrier, at 34.8%, and sadder, at 49%, compared to married couples and parents, with a majority, 53.8%, feeling increased loneliness, compared to parents with at-home children at 38.5%, parents at 36.8% and married couples at 33.5%.

When political orientation was considered, Democrats registered higher levels of emotional reaction to COVID-19 with a majority feeling increased worry, 71.8%, sadness, 53.3%, and loneliness, 52.2%. Among Republicans and independents, increased worry was the only emotional reaction registered by a majority, at 56.6% of Republicans and 58.3% of Independents.

Where one lived also seemed to make a difference with rural respondents less likely to report an increase in negative emotions from COVID-19 compared to those living in small cities, suburbs or large cities.

The survey findings do not surprise Waco counselor Christina Gibson. She is seeing the emotional impact of COVID-19 on the ground every day in her work as a crisis counselor for Texans Recovering Together, a free over-the-phone counseling service aimed at addressing mental health issues spurred by the pandemic. The Heart of Texas MHMR Center runs the state and federally funded program.

Tanya Ledesma, provided 

Gabby Walker (left) and Christina Gibson, seen in this January photo, are two of the counselors who field calls through the Texans Recovering Together program.

“Whatever issues people had before the pandemic, now there’s a magnifying glass focused on it,” Gibson said.

She and her colleagues have seen a local uptick in cases of depression, substance abuse, suicidal thoughts, spousal abuse and child abuse, due in part to increased stress from worrying about COVID-19 and its effects on jobs, education, family, finances and health.

Gibson has worked with law enforcement, first responders, teachers and nurses over the last year who have found the pressures they have encountered on the job in dealing with COVID-19 have continued at home, church or in their social circles.

The recent surge in cases, hospitalizations and deaths due to the delta variant and despite readily available vaccines is causing emotional fatigue among those who thought they had put the worst behind them.

“There was a hopeful trajectory that existed that doesn’t right now,” Gibson said. “People are able to survive in a way, but not thrive. … The problem is if the situation normalizes, you don’t notice it’s eating you alive.”

Gibson recalled working with a group of senior adults at an assisted living center to talk about issues of grief. Several shared the impact of not being able to attend the funerals of friends and family members last year and how that made working through their grief and sadness much more difficult.

What was sobering to Gibson were the people who felt they could not do it again.

“It’s like a war, but the bullets are invisible,” she said. “And because the bullets are invisible, we don’t know where to go to protect ourselves.”

Compounding the problem is a social polarization, largely along political lines, that has poisoned relationships and broken family ties. Those broken relationships not only increase the possibility of personal isolation, but take away a source of healing for some mental health issues.

“I’ve never seen anything so divisive,” she said.

Upenieks, the Baylor researcher, said engaging in pro-social activity, such as trying to help others, can strengthen interpersonal connections. Taking time to consider what one is grateful for also can help moderate moods, she said.

Gibson agreed that human connection is important.

“We find healing in the context of relationships,” she said. “One of the best things we can do for others is to listen empathetically … instead of convincing others to change.”


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