Let’s start with some good news, which comes wrapped in a warning.
The number of coronavirus patients crowding hospital wards in the Houston area is now in its sixth week of steady decline, a welcome reversal of the virus’ alarming surge in June and July.
The headcount of COVID-19 patients has fallen by half since its mid-July peak in hospitals affiliated with the seven systems based in the Texas Medical Center. And the number of intensive care patients at those facilities has dropped by a third.
The subsiding wave has merely shifted civic leaders’ concerns, however — and not only because hospital headcounts, new cases, and other metrics remain well above their levels before the spike.
Worried that Houstonians will invite another crisis by concluding it is safe to attend cookouts or crowd onto restaurant patios, public officials and medical leaders are stressing that the best measures of success are not empty intensive care beds but an absence of widespread infections.
“I do worry about people listening to this news and taking it the wrong way, saying, ‘Whew that’s over, now let’s go back to life as normal,’” said Dr. Esmaeil Porsa, CEO of Harris Health, the county’s public hospital district. “This is not the time.”
In every case, these metrics suggest the Houston region remains well short of containing the virus. The testing positivity rate, for instance, is about 15 percent in the city and county, and 10 percent among TMC institutions.
What about case counts? Harris County over the last week has averaged more than two and a half times as many daily cases as the 400 it would take to step down from Hidalgo’s top threat level. And the nine-county Houston region is averaging almost nine times as many new daily cases as the TMC goal of 200.
Another of Hidalgo’s metrics calls for the share of intensive care patients who have COVID-19 to not exceed 15 percent; the share of ICU patients in the county who have COVID-19 remains more than double that.
We’re headed in the right direction, but we’ve still got a long way to go. Stay home. Maintain social distancing. Wear a mask. Wash your hands.
And while case numbers may be coming down, fatality numbers are higher than we’ve counted.
Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in Texas, the state’s death toll from all causes has soared by thousands above historical averages — a sobering spike that experts say reveals the true toll of the disease.
Between the beginning of the local pandemic and the end of July, 95,000 deaths were reported in Texas, according to U.S. Centers for Disease Control data. Based on historical mortality records and predictive modeling, government epidemiologists would have expected to see about 82,500 deaths during that time.
The CDC attributed more than 7,100 deaths to COVID-19, but that leaves roughly 5,500 more than expected and with no identified tie to the pandemic. The CDC’s chief of mortality, Dr. Bob Anderson, said these “excess deaths” are likely from a range of pandemic-related problems, including misclassifications because doctors did not initially understand the many ways that COVID-19 affects the circulatory system and results in a stroke or a heart attack.
“It can cause all sorts of havoc in the body,” he said.
The CDC data offers an opaque but important estimate of how deadly the virus has been in Texas, which suffered from testing shortages for weeks as COVID-19 case counts climbed.
“It has shocked me to see people think that there’s overcounts of the COVID deaths, because I can’t even imagine that that’d be the case,” said Mark Hayward, a professor at the University of Texas who studies mortality trends. “The undercount is so dramatic.”
And there is a clear racial disparity in the undercounts. Between March and the end of July, Texas recorded more than 21,000 deaths of Latinos — more than 5,000 higher than epidemiologists predicted. Of those, about 2,100 were attributed to COVID-19. That leaves more than 3,000 deaths in excess of the expected number, many of them in border counties that lack resources for testing.
This is a phenomenon we’ve seen literally around the world. We’ve certainly known that it’s happening in Texas. The expert opinion is that we’ve already passed 200K deaths nationally, or about 25% more than the official count. If you could read one of the names of those 200K dead Americans every second, it would take you over 55 hours, nonstop, to read them all. Think about that for a minute. Or for 55 hours.
Also, too, we still suck at testing.
After plummeting for days, the number of COVID-19 tests reported in Texas suddenly jumped by 124,693 on Thursday, which state health officials said was a result of coding errors and a system upgrade.
Backlogs at a hospital lab and a commercial lab accounted for most of the tests, which could not be added to the state’s official tally until the coding errors had been fixed, said Lara Anton, spokesperson for the Texas Department of State Health Services.
Of the 124,000 tests reported on Thursday, approximately 95,000 were from a lab that served several hospitals, Anton said, adding that the lab sent files containing an error in one of the data fields, which DSHS’ electronic system could not read.
DSHS doesn’t know when the tests were actually conducted and is working with local health departments to find out, she said.
Whether because of human error, shifting benchmarks or bureaucratic changes, it’s not the first time that Texas officials have corrected their data since the beginning of the pandemic. Almost every major data point has come with caveats, sometimes blurring for days the big picture of the pandemic in Texas.
It is what it is. I don’t know what else to say.
Finally, the coin shortage is real, y’all.
Some retailers have started posting signs notifying customers that they might not be able to provide exact change for their purchases, and instead ask for them to pay with a credit or debit card or exact payment.
“It’s not like coins are not there,” said Venky Shankar, professor and director of research at the Center for Retailing Studies in Texas A&M University’s Mays Business School. The coins are just being used less as business has slowed and more people stay home.
Another hurdle for coin usage, Shankar said, is the fear that money could carry the novel coronavirus, even though experts don’t know definitively whether cash actually poses a threat.
In order to keep coins circulating, the U.S. Mint has asked people to pay with exact change. “We ask that the American public start spending their coins, depositing them, or exchanging them for currency at financial institutions or taking them to a coin redemption kiosk,” the mint said in a news release. A new task force — the U.S. Coin Task Force — has also been charged with determining how to reinvigorate the supply chain.
According to Shankar, roughly 45 to 50 percent of sales in smaller stores — places such as convenience stores — are made in cash. But big grocers such as H-E-B, Kroger and Walmart have also faced a shortage of coins.
In response to the shortage, some retailers and restaurants have started to pay or reward customers for their coins.
The U.S. Mint has also increased production from 1.2 billion coins in June to 1.35 billion coins per month for the rest of 2020, according to a Statista review.
But that doesn’t solve everything.
“That still will not unlock the coins that are already in the drawers and the banks,” Shankar said.
Laundromats, which rely heavily on coins to function, are among the businesses directly impacted by the coin shortage.
Yeah, that would suck if no one has any damn quarters. This is a problem all over, and offhand I have no idea what to do about it. I normally like paying for things in cash, but have barely used any since March. This is a teeny tiny reason for saying this, but we live in very strange times.