Category Archives: Public Health

“Half of the Family Just Disappeared Overnight”

HOUSTON — It was 9:08 p.m. when Michael Negussie’s phone rang. Twenty minutes had passed since he called 911 asking for emergency crews to check on his cousins and their two children, fearing that they had fainted from carbon monoxide poisoning in their Houston home during a massive winter storm.

A fire captain at the dispatch center told Negussie that an emergency crew had arrived at the two-story town house. But, he said, no one was answering the door.

“It’s one of those things, if they get there and they have to force entry, they’re going to break the door, displace the lock,” the captain said, according to a recording of the 911 call.

Negussie was baffled. Why would emergency responders expect someone to come to the door if the reason for the call was that the family was unconscious?

“Yeah, that’s fine. Do that as soon as possible,” Negussie, 21, responded, trying to convey the urgency. “We think that they might have inhaled carbon monoxide in the garage.”

At any other time, Negussie would have driven the 24 miles from his home in Pearland, Texas, to his cousins’ southwest Houston neighborhood. But local government officials had urged Texans not to travel the ice-coated roads on this frigid Feb. 15 evening, concerned that they would endanger themselves and first responders.

So Negussie and his parents put their faith in the emergency responders who had arrived at their cousins’ home. As the fire crew waited for more information about why the family was not answering the door, the captain at the dispatch center asked Negussie what made him believe his relatives had inhaled carbon monoxide.

The power was out, Negussie explained. Their car, he had learned from someone who had spoken with the family earlier in the day, was running in the attached garage so they could charge their phones.

“All right, well, we have units out there. I’ll let them know. I’ll make a tactical decision on that incident, and I’ll get HPD out there,” the captain said, referring to the Houston Police Department, which often assists when emergency responders must force entry into a home.

“And you’ll keep us updated?” Negussie started to ask. The fire captain hung up before he could finish.

Less than five minutes later, the fire crew was gone

Texas Enabled the Worst Carbon Monoxide Poisoning Catastrophe in Recent U.S. History

Leland Foster for ProPublica/The Texas Tribune/NBC

HOUSTON — When Shalemu Bekele awoke on the morning of Feb. 15, the town house he shared with his wife and two children was so cold, his fingers felt numb.

After bundling up in extra layers, Bekele looked out a frosted window: A winter storm had swept across Texas, knocking out power to millions of homes, including his own, and blanketing Houston in a thin layer of icy snow.

“It was beautiful,” Bekele, 51, recalled thinking as he headed outside to snap photos of his two children, ages 7 and 8, playing in their first snow. After a few minutes, he sent them back inside to warm up under blankets as he cleared ice off his car, unsure if he would be expected to drive into work.

Bekele’s wife, Etenesh Mersha, 46, meanwhile, made a fateful decision, one repeated by scores of Texas residents who lost electricity that week. Desperate to warm up, she went into their attached garage and turned the key to start her car. As the engine hummed, it provided power to run the car’s heater and charge her phone while she talked to a friend in Colorado — at the same time, filling her garage and home with a poisonous gas.

There was no carbon monoxide alarm in place to warn the family of the invisible danger. None was required under local or state law.

Continue reading at ProPublica.

Texans Recovering From COVID-19 Needed Oxygen. Then the Power Went Out.

After three days with little power, no heat and inadequate oxygen that left him gasping for air, Mauricio Marin told his wife, “Honey, at least I’m going to die with you and my kids and not alone at the hospital.” Credit:Brandon Thibodeaux for NBC News

HOUSTON — Mauricio Marin felt his heart tighten when the power flicked off at his Richmond, Texas, home on the evening of Feb. 14, shutting down his plug-in breathing machine. Gasping, he rushed to connect himself to one of the portable oxygen tanks his doctors had sent home with him weeks earlier to help his lungs recover after his three-week stay in a COVID-19 intensive care unit.

Between the two portable tanks, he calculated, he had six hours of air.

Marin, 44, and his wife had heard there might be brief, rolling power outages — 45 minutes or an hour, at most — as a massive winter storm swept across Texas last month, overwhelming the state’s electric grid. After more than two hours without electricity, he started to worry.

Marin tried to slow his breathing, hoping to ration his limited oxygen supply as he lay awake all night, watching the needle on each tank’s gauge slowly turn toward zero. The next morning, his wife, Daysi, made frantic calls to the power company and Marin’s doctor’s office, but nobody was answering in the midst of the storm.

For the next two days, Marin struggled for air and shivered under a pile of blankets. On the morning of Feb. 17, as they were still without power, his wife begged him to return to the hospital. But they feared driving on icy roads, and by then neither of them could get a consistent signal to call for help, as the widespread outages had knocked cellphone towers offline. And Marin didn’t want to go. He was terrified by the prospect of another hospital stay without visitors.

Marin’s skin was slowly turning purple, and he began to cry.

“Honey,” he later remembered telling his wife, straining with each word, “at least I’m going to die with you and my kids and not alone at the hospital.”

Marin said his life was spared when a neighbor showed up at the door with an oxygen tank a few hours later, sustaining him until the power returned. But he said his doctors fear that the weeklong ordeal inflicted additional damage on his lungs and jeopardized his already tenuous recovery.

Medical experts say Marin is part of a particularly vulnerable group who suffered significant hardships and potentially lasting harm as a result of the outages: those recovering at home from COVID-19.

Continue reading at ProPublica.

‘It Cost Me Everything’: In Texas, COVID-19 Takes a Devastating Toll on Hispanic Residents

Hispanic residents in the Houston region, including Valery Martinez and her family, have been hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic. Photo credit: Brandon Thibodeaux for The Texas Tribune/ProPublica/NBC News

HOUSTON — Two weeks after Valery Martinez’s 41-year-old cousin was rushed to a hospital with severe symptoms of COVID-19, Martinez wrote a post on Facebook, thanking the doctors and nurses at Memorial Hermann Southeast Hospital in Houston who were working to save him.

“You are the real heroes putting your life on the line in this difficult time,” Martinez wrote. “May God continue to cover and protect you and your families.”

Afterward, she started getting messages from friends — nearly all of them Hispanic, like her — who said their loved ones were also sick with the coronavirus. One friend’s aunt was in intensive care at Memorial Hermann Southeast.

The friend’s family was planning a prayer vigil outside the hospital that weekend, so Martinez asked to join. Then members of another family they knew came forward, asking if they, too, could come pray for a loved one hospitalized there with COVID-19.

Martinez choked back tears that Sunday afternoon this month as she and 40 others stood in a parking lot outside Memorial Hermann Southeast, faces covered with masks, hands lifted in prayer for the three patients hospitalized in ICU rooms 2, 11 and 22 — all Hispanic, all connected to ventilators.

The moment made Martinez feel like she wasn’t alone, she said, and helped her realize just how rapidly the virus was spreading through her community.

“Pretty much everyone who I know has had coronavirus or has a family member who’s been sick or is in the hospital,” said Martinez, who by early this week could list 45 Hispanic friends, family members and acquaintances who’ve been sick with the virus in the Houston area — including four who’d died.

As the coronavirus tears disproportionately through Latino communities in Texas, data released this week by state health officials reveals that an outsized share of these residents are also suffering the worst outcomes. Hispanic Texans make up about 40% of the state’s population but 48% of the state’s 6,190 confirmed COVID-19 deaths, according to Department of State Health Services data.

In the Houston region, where COVID-19 hospitalizations surged in June before beginning to decline in recent days, data released by the Harris County health department showed a disproportionate share of those requiring hospital care — as high as 65% of newly hospitalized patients during some weeks in June — were Hispanic, despite the fact they are 44% of the population.

Continue reading at ProPublica.

Officials Knew Coronavirus Could Spread at the Houston Rodeo and Proceeded With the Event Anyway

The Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo on March 6, five days before officials would cancel the event because of COVID-19 concerns. (Mark Felix / AFP via Getty Images)

Days before the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo kicked off, area politicians celebrated this great piece of Americana — dubbed the world’s largest livestock show — which was going forward in the age of the coronavirus.

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo, a 29-year-old rising political star, posted on Facebook on Feb. 28 how “pumped” she was for rodeo season, sharing a list of her favorite songs. “Look forward to seeing y’all there! #RodeoHouston.”

She also reassured residents that “the overall risk of COVID-19 to the general public within our counties remains low at this time.”

Not to be outdone, Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner donned a black suit and cowboy hat and posted a video of himself line dancing to the “wobble.”

But over at the Rodeo Houston headquarters, organizers worried that the 20-day event would have to be shut down early as they watched a global increase in coronavirus cases.

While COVID-19 had not been confirmed in Houston at that point, they knew it was a matter of time.

Continue reading at ProPublica.