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Baylor scientists: 40% of campus COVID-19 cases could be British variant

Genetic sequencing revealed that four of every 10 cases on Baylor University’s campus could involve the highly contagious British variant of the COVID-19 virus, which researchers said could be a sign of things to come if people are too slow to get vaccinated.

The B.1.1.7. variant, first found in the United Kingdom, comes with 50% increased transmissibility and possibly more severe illness. Researchers performed genetic sequencing on COVID-19-positive samples taken from the university population in February and March, leading them to estimate that 41% of the 616 positive cases in that time were caused by the UK variant.

Local health officials say the findings suggest that the variant is well-entrenched in the Waco area, far beyond the confines of the university.

The samples came from the university’s surveillance testing program, which tests Baylor’s population each week, said Michael Muehlenbein, a Baylor anthropology chairman and tropical medicine expert who helped develop the program.

MyLabsDirect, the private company that handles testing for the Baylor population using conventional polymerase chain reaction tests, found on Feb. 22 that some viral samples were missing the “S-gene,” which indicated the U.K. variant.

“Viruses very typically try to evolve over time to exhibit increased transmissibility, and this was an example of it,” Muehlenbein said.

The results called for a more definitive analysis in the form of genome sequencing, a laborious process that maps the entire genetic code of the virus.

Even before the missing S-genes were reported, Muehlenbein had spoken to Baylor Provost Nancy Brickhouse and Associate Vice President Peter Granick about the possibility of getting access to genome sequencing.

Brickhouse got Muehlenbein in contact with the Baylor College of Medicine’s molecular biology and microbiology department, which agreed to handle which could handle the genome sequencing for a little less than $300 per test through its Human Genome Sequencing Center in Houston.

“It wasn’t probably two weeks later that the first test drops were reported,” Muehlenbein said. “So it was quite fortuitous timing.”

On March 1, the university lab sent 47 samples to the Baylor College of Medicine, which is not affiliated with Baylor University. The university received updates as the genetic sequencing progressed.

On April 5, nine of the original 47 samples were selected for a final analysis that revealed all nine were the U.K. variant.

“We’ve chosen not to send more at this time until we have reason to believe that other variants may be in the area,” Muehlenbein said. “And we don’t have reason to believe that yet.”

Since then, sequencing has revealed 25 more cases, which Muehlenbein said isn’t a surprise.

“These viruses mutate and perform what is called selective sweeps,” Muehlenbein said. “They will move across the world very quickly, and become the dominant lineages very quickly. The good thing is that there’s mixed evidence whether or not the UK variant is more virulent or more dangerous. And I have not seen reliable evidence whether or not it is.”

Dr. Farley Verner, the public health authority for the Waco-McLennan County Public Health District said about 70% of students live off-campus, meaning the results are a decent reflection of what variants are spreading throughout the community, where DSHS has only reported only a handful of variant cases in McLennan County so far.

“You could even say that it may be higher in the community,” Verner said. “Considering how much more Baylor has done to prevent on-campus spread, the portion of these people who test positive are more likely to have gotten it off-campus than on-campus.

Verner said as the virus continues to multiply, the chance of dangerous mutations increases, which means lowering the number of active cases as much as possible is key to lowering the risk posed by them.

“Now, we are currently having a relatively low number of cases and that’s very encouraging, but it remains important to focus on getting a higher percentage of people vaccinated and, in the meantime, to do what we can to avoid transmission as much as possible.

Muehlenbein said as he followed international trends, he realized there were going to be more variants and more variant cases. He said it’s also possible for the same variant to emerge in two places, independently forming twice.

“We have actually seen the same similar mutations, or identical mutations, evolving what seem to be independently in different regions of the world, specifically, in parts of the viral genome that are associated with increased transmissibility,” Muehlenbein said.

He said the United States has lagged noticeably behind other countries when it comes to genome sequencing. As of April 6, there had been just under 100,000 published viral genomes from the United States, with about 35,000 of them from within Texas.

“We’ve got almost 21,000 cases of U.K. variants in the U.S.,” Muehlenbein said. “But I assure you that number is exponentially higher. And that’s a byproduct of the fact that we haven’t done enough sequencing.”

Muehlenbein said genetic sequencing may take time, but it’s important to keep track of different variants as the pandemic rages on worldwide, in case variants that resist current vaccines, treatments and therapeutics emerge.

He said the variants give people even more reason to get vaccinated.

“We can expect through population movement that these other variants will take up a larger percentage of the source code to cases in the future, especially if people choose not to get vaccinated,” Muehlenbein said.

There are 514,423 published sequences from across the United States published in repositories so far. Of those 40,864 came from Texas, which is only about 1.4% of the state’s cases.

Everything you need to know about COVID-19 vaccination

Nicki Collen (left), shown here instructing Atlanta Dream guard Renee Montgomery during the 2018 season, was named Baylor University’s fifth head women’s basketball coach in school history on Monday. Collen follows Hall of Famer Kim Mulkey, who left for LSU last month after 21 years at Baylor. Collen served as head coach of the WNBA’s Dream for the past three seasons. For more on the hiring, see Page B1.

Popular shoeshine man declared dead, twice in one day

Waco shoeshine pro Robert Pearson had an indomitable spirit. So much so he had to be declared dead twice on Monday.

Pearson, 76, known as Waco’s unofficial goodwill ambassador with his shoeshine stand, was found unresponsive in his apartment Monday.

First responders, police and a justice of the peace considered him deceased — until he moved, signaling that his spirit wasn’t quite ready to let go.

Pearson shined shoes at Waco Regional Airport for 14 years, and later at Extraco Bank and Magnolia Market, winning fans from Baylor coaches, a former congressman and a Magnolia founder. He called it “putting a glow on the toe,” but it meant something more to his customers than shiny shoes. He also radiated joy with his positive witticisms and friendly and helpful demeanor.

Jerry Larson, Tribune-Herald, file 

Robert Pearson, shown here shining shoes at Extraco Bank, died Monday. 

Pearson was been mostly sidelined for the past year because of the pandemic. Pearson’s friends and neighbors hadn’t seen him since Friday evening, and they didn’t hear back from texts or phone calls, so they went to check on him Monday morning.

After gaining entry to his small residence at the Whispering Oaks Apartments on North 19th Street, an apartment complex worker found Pearson lying on the bathroom floor. Police were notified. Feeling no pulse, the officers called Justice of the Peace Pete Peterson to the scene.

The officers told the judge Pearson was dead. So Peterson declared Pearson legally dead and told police to call Waco Mortuary to pick up the body.

Peterson left, and officers waited more than an hour until the mortuary workers arrived.

Only Pearson wasn’t dead, the workers soon discovered. When they lifted Pearson to put him on the gurney, Pearson moved.

The workers exited the apartment and told the officers standing by that Pearson needed an ambulance, not a hearse.

So more than 2½ hours after Pearson was discovered lying in his apartment, an ambulance arrived to take him to Baylor Scott & White Hillcrest Medical Center.

Peterson was called to the hospital about 4 p.m. Monday to declare Pearson dead — for the second time.

Peterson declined to speculate whether Pearson’s outcome would have been different had he been rushed to the hospital as soon as he was found unresponsive.

“You can second-guess all you want, but the fact was that he was a sick man,” Peterson said. “Things like this happen. But what can you say? It is just the way it is.”

Peterson, a retired longtime Department of Public Safety trooper, said he relies on police officers or paramedics to tell him a person is dead before declaring them dead.

“Long story short, it was just an oversight,” Peterson said. “They thought he was deceased. He was cold and his pulse was just so low that it was undetectable. It was a mistake. It just happened.”

Pearson was well-known to frequent fliers at the Waco airport. He greeted travelers, helped them with their bags, dispensed advice about Waco hotels and eateries and shined a lot of boots and shoes.

His fame grew in September 2019 after airport officials canceled his contract and forced Pearson to leave the spot he loved, resulting in a Tribune-Herald article about his plight.

After the story ran, he was flooded with phone calls from well-wishers and an offer from Sam Brown, then an executive at Extraco Bank.

Brown offered Pearson a new spot for his shoeshine stand in the bank lobby on Valley Mills Drive. Pearson did well there, and after getting a call from celebrity renovator Chip Gaines, expanded his business to work Saturdays at the Magnolia Market at the Silos.

But the pandemic hit Pearson hard, as the bank closed its lobby and the Silos also closed for months. While the pandemic hurt Pearson financially, it also shut him off from his connection to his customers and others he loved to visit with.

As he liked to say, “You pay for the shine but there’s no charge for the conversation.”

“I am a better person today because of my friendship with Robert Pearson,” said Brown, now senior vice president at First National Bank of Central Texas. “Robert had a true servant’s heart that loved helping people. Our world would be a much better place if it had more Robert Pearsons in it.

Former U.S. Rep. Chet Edwards, another of Pearson’s longtime friends and admirers, went by Pearson’s apartment about 11:45 a.m. Monday to check on his friend and to bring him some chicken from Bush’s Chicken. He got no response. Edwards had been calling and texting Pearson over the weekend and had not heard back from him.

That was unusual, Edwards said, so he called apartment management to express his concerns. Edwards said he is saddened by Pearson’s death.

“Robert’s customers became his friends,” Edwards said. “While he was putting a shine on our shoes, he brought sunshine into our lives by sharing his faith and his always positive outlook on life. At the age of 76, even with failing eyesight, he was thrilled that this month he could go back to shining shoes at Extraco Bank, whose lobby had been closed during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“For 14 years, Robert was our community’s ambassador at the Waco Regional Airport, greeting residents and visitors alike with his cheery welcome. He might not have been rich, but he worked hard and enriched the lives of all of us blessed to know him,” Edwards said.

Waco's shining ambassadors keep lost art form alive

The man who calls himself Brother Silent blesses his patrons by anointing the soles of their shoes with a bit of frankincense and myrrh oil and guarantees his customers depart feeling like Johnny Cash, Brad Pitt or Barack Obama.

Waco police officer Garen Bynum said police are reviewing Monday’s events.

“We are very saddened by the loss of such a staple in our community and are currently investigating the cause of his death,” he said in a statement. “We are also reviewing our policies and practices to ensure our response to possible death calls include the assessment of medical professionals.

“At this time there is no known next of kin. If anyone has information regarding next of kin for Mr. Pearson, please contact the Waco Police Department at 254-750-7500.”

Former Beverly Hills police chief indicted, arrested on theft charge

Former Beverly Hills Police Chief Thomas Eugene Schmidt was arrested Monday morning by Texas Rangers on a charge of theft by a public servant.

According to an indictment unsealed Monday, a grand jury indicted Schmidt on charges that he stole money and firearms from the Beverly Hills Police Department and the City of Beverly Hills on or around March 26. Department of Public Safety Sgt. Ryan Howard confirmed that Texas Rangers investigated the case.

Schmidt was charged with theft by a public servant of $2,500 or more but less than $30,000. The third-degree felony charge is punishable by two to 10 years in jail and up to $10,000 in fines.

City Secretary Renee Flores said Schmidt began his career with the Beverly Hills Police Department as an officer in August 1997.

He was later promoted to assistant police chief before being sworn in as chief in 2018, following the retirement of Chief Debra Bruce.

The city of Beverly Hills formally announced in mid-March that Schmidt would no longer be employed but did not provide additional comment.

A criminal justice official with knowledge of the case said Schmidt was fired March 3, weeks before the estimated time of the theft.

Former Bellmead Police Chief Lydia Alvarado began serving as interim chief in Beverly Hills on March 15 as the city pursued hiring a new chief.

Alvarado said the city’s police department was not handling the case and referred comments to the Texas Rangers.

Beverly Hills Mayor David Gonzalez could not be reached for comment.

Schmidt was taken to McLennan County Jail and released on Monday afternoon after posting a $3,000 bond.