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How Texas screwed it all up

That’s a more succinct headline for this story about how Texas went from having a low COVID-19 infection rate to one of the worst in the country. And the vast majority of the responsibility for this is on Greg Abbott.

In Houston, the largest medical campus in the world has exceeded its base intensive care capacity. In the Rio Grande Valley, elected officials pleaded this week for military intervention to avoid a “humanitarian crisis.” And in several major cities, testing sites are overrun, with appointments disappearing in minutes and hundreds waiting in line for hours.

Eight weeks ago, the White House lauded Texas as a model for containing the COVID-19 pandemic.

Now, Gov. Greg Abbott’s plan to reopen the economy has unraveled as the state struggles to contain one of the worst outbreaks in the country.

“We’re on the verge of a nightmarish catastrophe,” said Vivian Ho, a health economist at Rice University and the Baylor College of Medicine. “On May 1, I thought we actually had a chance to get this virus under control and get the economy opened up safely. I’m not sure we can get it under control anymore.”

Public health experts say the worst of the crisis was avoidable in Texas, where Abbott stripped local officials of the ability to manage their own outbreaks and until Thursday refused to mandate masks and other basic mitigation practices. The governor reopened before the state could adequately monitor the virus, health experts said, then ignored signs in late May that infections were beginning to run rampant.

“That is the point at which you say hang on a sec, we’re staying where we are, and are probably taking a step back to understand the scale of the problem here,” said Bill Hanage, an associate professor of epidemiology at Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

Without the tools in place to test quickly for infections and track those exposed, authorities believe the state was left blinded as the virus spread among younger Texans, who are less likely to develop symptoms.

Spokesmen for Abbott and state Health Commissioner Dr. John Hellerstadt did not respond to requests for comment. Asked at a televised town hall Thursday why he had not mandated masks sooner, the governor said the “data was only recently bad.”

“It was only in the past couple of weeks that we saw this spike in people testing positive,” Abbott said.

[…]

On April 27, Abbott said he would reopen the state in phases based on data and guidance from medical professionals, pledging not to simply “open up and hope for the best.”

His advisers laid out four criteria to guide the reopening: a two-week reduction in cases, hospital capacity for all patients, the ability to to conduct 30,000 daily viral tests and hire 4,000 contact tracers.

Abbott, however, did not commit to following them. Only in mid-June would the state begin meeting its testing goal. It has yet to hire enough contact tracers or see a sustained drop in infections.

He said the plan was designed to be applied regionally, with lighter restrictions imposed in areas with few cases, then overruled officials from large counties who tried to enact more restrictive edicts.

Abbott punctuated that point by effectively gutting Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo’s April 22 mask order when he stripped the ability of local governments to punish residents who violated such mandates.

Several prominent Republicans, including Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and U.S. Rep. Dan Crenshaw, had condemned Hidalgo’s order and its potential $1,000 fine as an abuse of power. They have continued to argue that the severity of the virus is being embellished, and some have even questioned whether masks are effective at stopping it from spreading.

The mask debate — which took another turn Thursday when Abbott issued his own statewide mandate — has sent mixed messages that may have left residents with the impression that face coverings are unimportant, said Dr. Gregory Tasian, an associate professor at the University of Pennsylvania Perelman School of Medicine.

“Without a clear direction from the state level, some of those masking policies become much less effective,” Tasian said.

There’s more, but you get the idea. I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again, Abbott never made any effort to meet those four metrics that he himself and his vaunted “Strike Force” laid out. (By the way, when was the last time you saw a news story about COVID-19 in Texas refer to the “Strike Force”?) Each time he relaxed another part of the previous restrictions in order to push reopening further, I pointed out that we had no plan and no reason to proceed as if everything was going to plan. All we had was hope and distraction, and look where that has gotten us. The extremely “mixed messages” (to put it lightly) about masking and social distancing was another huge problem, one that also didn’t have to happen. I get that Abbott felt pressure from Donald Trump and from the screaming howler monkeys of our state like Dan Patrick, but for Christ’s sake he’s the Governor, he’s got a gazillion dollars in his campaign treasury and by far the highest approval ratings of anyone in the state, and it’s his fucking job to be a leader. He failed at that at every step of the way.

What’s even more appalling is that he already had a model that was working for him, and that was to get out of the way of the local leaders, who were uniformly ahead of him on all the mitigation steps we first took back in March. It would have been perfectly consistent with his stated belief that some parts of the state needed more restrictions than others to let Lina Hidalgo and the other county judges impose face mask orders and keep a tighter rein on businesses as they saw fit. I believe it would have been politically expedient for him as well, since the raging assholes would have aimed all their fury and lawsuits at them instead of at him. It was when he caved in the most cowardly way possible to Shelley Luther, who was being held accountable to HIS OWN EXECUTIVE ORDER by a Dallas County judge that we all should have known what was coming next. Sure is funny how the cries for “law and order” get silenced when it’s a white suburbanite being taken to court.

I also want to note the bit in this story about nobody on Team Abbott responding to requests for comment. Another hallmark of this crisis, which has been a recurring theme of the Abbott reign in general, has been the way he operates in a closed and non-transparent fashion. He does the things he does, on his own and in consultation with no one outside his bubble, with no mechanism for feedback or consideration of other perspectives. I can’t help but think that this style has not done him any favors lately, and I expect it will result in a Legislature that doesn’t feel much need to defer to him or his priorities in 2021, and that’s even if the Republicans manage to hang onto the House. And, as some people have speculated, he could be headed for a challenge from the right in the 2022 primary. I doubt that my own preferences here would do anything to dissuade such a challenger. But a better outcome from the pandemic might go a long way towards shoring up his political position.

So here we are, and as bad as things are right now, they are certain to get worse in the short term, because that’s the way this virus operates. If we’re very lucky, the mask order and mild dialing back of reopening might make things be less bad. But it’s going to be bad. And it didn’t have to be. It’s Greg Abbott’s fault that it is.

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5 Comments

  1. brad says:

    So which super wingnut is going to primary Abbott first and make their campaign solely on the tyranny of the exec order of required masks?

    Lt Gov Dan Patrick, who hates science

    or

    Ag Commissioner Sid Miller, who was crying about disrupted Fourth of July BBQ’s over the weekend

  2. Wolfgang says:

    Very good summary of how we got into this mess thanks to terrible leadership at the state level. What might be added is the supporting role played by the all-Republican Texas Supreme Court as enablers of Abbott and the current attorney general.

    DON’T FORGET THE THIRD-BRANCH ENABLERS

    They never bothered to explain why the freed Shelley Luther, they just freed her on push-button demand, as it were (the case remains pending).

    They ruled in Abbott’s favor when the Harris County misdemeanor judges challenged Abbott’s order to assure that overcrowded jails would become petri dishes for COVID, In re Abbott, No. 20-0291, 2020 WL 1943226 (Tex. Apr. 23, 2020). That order was not to fight the spread of the pandemic, but was motivated by a desire to keep pretrial detainees who couldn’t post bond locked up.

    And they voted to deny all Texas voters the ability to vote from the safety of home while themselves conducting the oral argument on the baseless mandamus petition against the election clerks from the safety of their respective homes. In re State of Texas, No. 20-0394, 2020 WL 2759629 (Tex. May 27, 2020).

    In all three cases, the Texas Supreme Court used its considerably power AGAINST public health and AGAINST the interests of the public. They, too, took their cues from the SCIENCE DENIERS.

    In the vote-by-mail mandamus, they went into parsing of dictionary definitions, none of which even had an entry for COVID-19. While pretending that the meaning of “disability” under the Election Code in times of pandemic was “purely” a legal question, they nevertheless based it on Republican political positions, rather than medical and epidemiological insights.

    NOT GETTING IT

    From Chief Justice Hecht’s opinion: “for the population overall, contracting COVID-19 in general is highly improbable … Indeed, that improbability has justified the efforts throughout the state to reopen business and activities in a gradual return to normalcy.”

    So, instead of listening to the medical professionals who had submitted amicus curiae briefs, the high court judges took “judicial notice” of what the Governor was up to, without saying so, and without questioning it.

    And they claimed to have “clarified” the few lines of text in the Election Code for the benefit of the voters in a supposed “clarification” that spans dozens of pages, while leaving the voters at risk of being criminally prosecuted by the Attorney General if they don’t get the “correct” reading of the disability definition as purportedly explained to them in four separate opinions. The most fitting reaction of the proverbial man on the street would be: WTF!?

    But the vast majority of eligible voters is neither going to read the supremes’ assortment of four distinct “writings” quibbling over dictionary definitions, nor would they understand them. Justice Boyd, in his concurring opinion, nevertheless fully expects that the voters will apply the eligibility statute as the Court construes it. – What planet does he live on?

    And to drive home those certain countervailing risks for avoiding the risks of COVID infection at the polling places, this:

    “Voters who claim to have a disability under section 82.002(a) merely because they lack immunity to COVID-19 or have a fear or concern about contracting the virus would do so in violation of the statute.”

    So this is what the supreme court’s “We agree with the State” (in effect Ken Paxton d/b/a the State of Texas) boils down to in case in which the AG sued election clerks had done nothing wrong to warrant a writ of mandamus:

    ABIDE BY THE LAW WAS MUSHIFIED, OR ELSE

    If the voter applies for a mail in ballot, he or she is taking a risk that Ken Paxton will come after them for not having “correctly” read the disability clause in the statute, which now means not just one paragraph of statutory text, but the Court’s own prolix and anything-but “clarification” thereof.

    The Texas Supreme Court has in effect validated Ken Paxton’s campaign to intimidate Texas voters by giving a green light for prosecution of voters who fail to abide that the “correct” reading of the disability provision in the election code. To the extent the vote suppression campaign succeeds, it stands to benefit all Republicans up for election or reelection this year. It promises to help perpetuation of Republican hegemony at the state level, including the state supreme court, and more public policies and decisions antithetical to the interests of the public.

  3. Jen says:

    Well spoken!! What I don’t get is that a number of supposed Democrats have to be supporting and approving of Abbott in order for him to have those poll numbers. What is the logic? You approve of him just because he appears to be less crazy than Dan Patrick and his band of loonies? What the article makes clear is that he torpedoed all mask orders AND ignored his own metrics to reopen prematurely, causing the present crisis. IF he had let the mask orders stand he probably could have opened when he did and we would be ok, and the Republicans would have their wish that the virus was less of a negative for Trump. You just can’t fix stupid. You shouldn’t approve of it either.

  4. Jen says:

    Wait, there’s more! If you think that Greg Abbott is some kindly father figure caught between the Evil Right and the liberals, you are just plain wrong. The secrecy that Kuff alludes to is due to the fact that these public health decisions are being made by ice cold calculations on the basis of POLITICS, not science, human decency, compassion or common sense. He stopped the mask orders because that would please the Evil Right and lessen the chance he would be primaried. More people would die, but so what? Same with the Medicaid expansion. Every week 46 poor people die and 1200 poor families are ruined with impossible medical bills, all because Greg Abbott made a cold decision concerning the *political* consequences. Trump is doing the same thing of course, no science, or sense, just a cold, stupid political calculation that is backfiring all over him.

  5. Stephenie Weissinger says:

    Wow, what a bunch of whiners. And yes, you just can’t fix stupid.