With clinical burns research involving patients suspended, grant money dwindling and an investigation into allegations of compliance violations dragging on, the University of Texas Medical Branch on Thursday eliminated the positions of more than 40 people.
The layoffs were the latest blow to a world-renowned program shaken by allegations of inappropriate treatment provided by medical branch faculty and staff for burn patients enrolled in human subject research studies at Shriners Hospitals for Children-Galveston.
Among the people out of a job this week were researchers, lab technicians and administrative assistants working in clinical research involving burn patients, along with other personnel. Most had been in limbo and on edge for months, unable to conduct clinical burns research involving patients after research was suspended in April last year.
That suspension came after whistleblower allegations regarding possible compliance issues in some research involving burn patients, although medical branch officials have declined to elaborate, citing an ongoing investigation.
After the suspension, money for clinical burn research was greatly reduced because some grants weren’t renewed, not funded or were in abeyance, medical branch officials said.
Medical branch officials on Thursday didn’t immediately have answers about how much research grant money had been lost to the suspension and investigation.
After the suspension, medical branch executives had temporarily reassigned personnel to other duties, and their salaries were paid through other medical branch funding sources, officials said.
But that funding situation wasn’t sustainable, leading to the elimination of 40 positions this week, medical branch officials said.
People laid off this week were encouraged to apply for other open positions at the medical branch, officials said.
The medical branch, acting on concerns prompted by allegations that rules governing human research had been violated, in April 2018 suspended three burn studies at Shriners Hospitals for Children.
After a subsequent investigation of burn research at the medical branch and Shriners, officials suspended all human-subject research involving burn-injured patients at the medical branch and Shriners, Dr. David L. Callender, medical branch president, announced in January in an internal correspondence to faculty and staff.
The move was unprecedented for the medical branch and Shriners, both world renowned for research and advances in treatment of burn patients.
The allegations involved possible inappropriate treatment provided by medical branch faculty members and staff for burn patients enrolled in human subject research studies at Shriners Hospital for Children-Galveston, Callender said at the time.
“Based on these concerns, UTMB’s Institutional Review Board immediately suspended research activities associated with three burn research protocols,” Callender said.
At that time, working with Shriners, the medical branch launched a comprehensive investigation of burn research at its campus and Shriners’, Callender said.
The medical branch in January declined to elaborate about the nature and scope of the treatment in question nor would it discuss personnel involved in the research at issue, the allegations or the investigation.
The medical branch in the Jan. 8 installment of the column “Inside UTMB,” which The Daily News publishes each week, had unceremoniously announced Dr. Randall J. Urban would assume the role of principal investigator for the Clinical and Translational Science program. Urban would build on the work begun by the program’s departing principal investigator, Dr. David Herndon, a legendary figure in burn research and treatment.
The brief announcement of Herndon’s departure from that post sent waves through the medical community.
Asked on Thursday whether Herndon was among those laid off this week, the medical branch said “no.”
The Clinical and Translational Science program, in the Institute for Translational Science, was established in 2007 to turn observations made in the laboratory, clinic and community into interventions to improve the health of people and populations.
Among other research, Herndon has studied the long-term use of propranolol in severely burned pediatric patients. Propranolol is a type of drug called a beta-blocker. It works by acting on nerve impulses in specific areas of the body such as the heart, according to medical resources.
The medical branch said all research on burn-injured patients would remain suspended until a formal review was complete, but did not answer questions about when that might happen.
Clinical burns research involving patients is the only research suspended at the medical branch, officials said.
Burn patients continue to be treated and cared for at medical branch burn treatment facilities, officials said.
A natural gas line exploded about 6 p.m. Thursday in Santa Fe, causing multiple injuries to a crew of workers in the area, police said.
The fire, a column of flame coming from what appeared to be a ditch line, was still burning at 7:30 p.m., said Lt. Greg Boody, police public information officer.
One injured man was awaiting Life Flight and two others were transported to a University of Texas Medical Branch hospital in Galveston by ambulance, Boody said.
A preliminary call to the police department reported that as many as five others were carried off in one ambulance, but Boody couldn’t confirm an exact number or whether the injured were working on the gas line or another project.
“Dispatch notified us after receiving several 911 calls from people in the area,” Boody said.
The damaged gas line is in the middle of a densely populated residential area in about the 5300 block of Avenue M, Boody said.
Santa Fe Police and CenterPoint Energy workers were at the scene, trying to gain control of the gas line at 7 p.m.
Santa Fe Volunteer Fire Department was first to respond to a report of flames coming from the ground. Firefighters immediately put out a call for medical transport, initially reporting one burn victim.
“When the ambulance arrived, they found several more injured,” Boody said.
At least some of the injured are believed to have sustained second- and third-degree burns, Boody said.
At 7:20 p.m., the medical branch confirmed it was awaiting arrival of two burn victims from the fire.
The names of those injured and the name of the company they worked for had not been released.
CenterPoint was monitoring power lines above the point where the fire is burning, Boody said.
Vision Galveston, the nonprofit that has spent the past nine months asking what kind of city Galveston wants to be, kicked off its next 20 years of community building at an event Thursday at the Hotel Galvez.
A crowd of about 200 listened and occasionally broke into applause as a string of Vision Galveston participants revealed and explained a master plan for the group’s work, beginning back at its roots.
Grant Mitchell, representing the Cynthia and George Mitchell Foundation, and Lauren Scott of the Harris and Eliza Kempner Fund, gave onlookers a peek into the workings of the Galveston Roundtable of Foundations when, two years ago, it began considering a collaborative program in support of the city’s future.
“The question became: Is there a way we can work together for bigger impact toward betterment of this great place?” Mitchell said.
He hosted early organizers on a trip to Detroit to see how that city had conducted a similar project, leading to the formation of a committee dedicated to starting a visioning process in Galveston.
“Vision Galveston became a priority, an imperative,” Mitchell said.
Twelve foundations financed the project’s first phase, the community outreach work of the past year, characterized by Mitchell as “a preview of what’s to come.”
“We’re gathered today not to hear a plan but to hear the crack of a starting gun in a race to the future,” he said.
Early presentations to the community made very specific promises, Scott said.
“We said this wouldn’t be another plan to sit on a shelf in someone’s office somewhere in Galveston,” Scott said. “We came to think of Vision Galveston as vocalizing and mobilizing optimism about the future.”
Lindsey White, executive director of the United Way of Galveston and Vision Galveston’s steering committee chair, expressed gratitude for the philanthropic presence in Galveston that allowed the project to happen, and extolled the size and diversity of the project’s community outreach.
“You can’t get harmony when everyone sings the same note,” she said.
A team of Vision Galveston consultants walked through five key visions for the city condensed from more than 8,000 interactions with residents, and introduced community leaders already engaged in at least one action identified to achieve those visions.
Matt Singer of the Galveston Bay Foundation and a board member of Galveston’s Artist Boat spoke to the community’s wish for Galveston to be and remain a place that values its history, livability, environment and unique natural setting.
Shirlyn Thomas, pastor of God’s Kingdom and Restoration Ministries on the island, spoke about an overwhelming concern about making Galveston a place where residents can find quality jobs and all workers can find quality places to live.
Thomas’ daughter, brother and nephew, all career people looking to move back to their hometown, had been unable to find affordable housing in Galveston.
“Galveston, we have a problem,” Thomas said.
A common goal of strengthening and expanding entrepreneurship and incubator programs for emerging companies and technologies on the island was addressed by Jeff Sjostrom of the Galveston Economic Development Partnership.
Rodger Rees of the Port of Galveston focused on the need to make the urban waterfront more accessible to both tourists and locals.
“As a biker, I want to be able to ride a bike through the port without getting run over by a train or by a person pulling a suitcase,” Rees said.
A sustainable tourism strategy for Galveston, beyond simply attracting 7 million bodies per year to the island, ranked high as a priority among project participants.
“We believe residents want more nature-based tourism,” Park Board Executive Director Kelly de Schaun said. “We believe they want more fishing piers, more access to canoeing and kayaking, walking and biking on the island.
“Tourists want those things, too. Why not build a world-class recreational system paid for by tourism?“
Patrick Louchouarn, chief academic officer at Texas A&M University at Galveston, spoke about the opportunity for academic institutions in Galveston to partner with those along the Interstate 45 corridor to help solidify Galveston’s importance to the region and the nation as a coastal resiliency research center.
Vision Galveston is solidifying its organizational model and will continue community outreach through the end of the year with an upcoming speakers’ series sponsored by the Mitchell Foundation, said the project’s director, Keath Jacoby.
The plan that Vision Galveston has compiled represents “an opportunity of a lifetime for Galveston,” said Galveston City Manager Brian Maxwell, the event’s final speaker.
“City leadership is subject to change every couple of years, and visions can become lost and blurred,” Maxwell said. “You can’t have good vision unless you have focus, and that’s what Vision Galveston can provide the city.
“Those of you here who have kids and grandkids, they are going to benefit from what happened here today.”
Officials with the Texas Department of Transportation are cautioning drivers to expect long waits this weekend while crews close the southbound side of Interstate 45 to repaint stripes and move a concrete barricade as part of an ongoing project, said Danny Perez, spokesman for the department.
Crews will close all lanes of the interstate heading south near FM 646 starting at 9 p.m. Friday until 5 a.m. Monday, Perez said. Drivers heading south will have to get onto the frontage road and continue through an intersection and get back on the interstate south of FM 646.
The closure is part of work to replace the former FM 646 overpass with a street running under the interstate, officials said.
Crews have already closed Interstate 45 several times while they continue work on the area, creating traffic backups over several weekends.
Business operators along the interstate for months have said they’re concerned about sales with closure of the the FM 646 overpass and related traffic problems.
And city officials have said the work could be to blame for new estimates that the city might finish 2019 with about $400,000 less sales tax revenue than initially projected.
Officials are now predicting FM 646 will reopen sometime in the late summer or early fall, Perez said.
The closures are both part of the department’s $120 million effort to expand the interstate between FM 517 and FM 518. The plan to widen Interstate 45 through Galveston County will take place in several phases.
Organizers of Galveston’s Pride weekend expect a couple of thousand visitors to celebrate an island LGBTQ community that’s becoming more organized and gaining more recognition from city leaders, they said.
The island has long been considered an open, accepting place and is gaining a regional reputation as a close-knit LGBTQ community, a term used to describe lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer or questioning people, local community members said.
“You pretty much know everybody,” said Terry Fuller-Waymire, an organizer of Pride Galveston. “The island is a little bit more intimate.”
Galveston Pride weekend begins Friday and is part of International Pride Month in June. The month celebrates gender and sexual diversity and commemorates the June 1969 Stonewall riots in New York City.
The event, in which patrons of the Stonewall Inn fought back against police raids on LGBTQ bars, often is considered by historians as the start of the modern Pride movement.
The island always has been an accepting place of diversity, but recent years have seen an organization in the community that have allowed Pride Galveston to grow, said Jamie Fuller-Waymire, an event organizer and Terry Fuller-Waymire’s husband.
This is the third year for Pride Galveston. A low-key beach bash occurred in previous years, Jamie Fuller-Waymire said.
There’s more vocal support from the city, as evidenced in two rainbow murals painted on the streets in front of city hall, 823 25th St., Jamie Fuller-Waymire said.
“It seems like this year, they came together as far as people reaching out to us,” he said.
The rainbow sidewalks were envisioned by several community partners and funded through private donors, said Trey Click, who helped fund and organize the sidewalks.
Click is executive director of the Historic Downtown Galveston Partnership.
“It’s our opportunity to demonstrate that Galveston is a diverse and open community,” Click said.
Galveston has always been relatively accepting, but the public art marks the 50th anniversary of Stonewall, District 3 Councilman David Collins said. Collins represents downtown.
“We want Galveston to be known as a welcoming and diverse community for visitors and as a place to live,” Collins said.
There has been more organization lately by the community, said Jim Greaser, owner of event sponsor 23rd Street Station Piano Bar, 1706 23rd St.
Seeing a public display of support for the community is amazing, Greaser said.
“I’m in my mid 50s, and as a gay man, we’ve fought for our rights to just be treated like everybody else,” Greaser said. “It’s really nice to see the community is really coming together.”
Having an organized event has helped the community come together and make partnerships to make things like the rainbow murals happen, he said.
There aren’t really hate crimes in Galveston, said Todd Slaughter, owner of Rumors Beach Bar, 3102 Seawall Blvd.
“It’s fortunate we haven’t seen that kind of activity,” Slaughter said. “It’s been a very safe community.”
As a port city, Galveston has attracted diversity since the city’s founding, said Dwayne Jones, executive director of the Galveston Historical Foundation.
“It was much more forgiving of people’s behaviors and interests,” Jones said. “Austin and Galveston both jumped out there pretty early as liberal, accepting places.”
One of the last major raids in Galveston on LGBTQ bars happened July 4, 1976 at the Kon Tiki Club and Baths, when several men were arrested, Jones said.
“That event was a pretty important one,” Jones said.
As a tourist town, it also makes sense that the Galveston of today is open to diversity, said Craig Rutherford, bookkeeper at LGBTQ bar Robert’s Lafitte, 2501 Ave. Q.
“We are a tourist town and dollars are dollars, including gay dollars,” Rutherford said.
Every year, the Pride Galveston celebration is growing and Rutherford expects that to continue, he said.