On June 26, Texas was reporting 5,102 people had been hospitalized due to the coronavirus, breaking a new record for the state. The positivity rate — the portion of tests that come back positive — had hovered above Gov. Greg Abbott’s “warning flag” level of 10% for more than a week.
Abbott swept into action. For a second time in months, the Republican governor shut down bars and rolled back restaurant capacity. Six days later, he took arguably his most drastic action yet, announcing a statewide mask mandate.
This week, more than 7,400 Texans are hospitalized for COVID-19, and the positivity rate has exceeded 10% for over three weeks.
But the governor’s strategy as the state heads into the holidays is to stay the course, relying on a 2-month-old blueprint to claw back reopenings regionally based on hospitalizations. The mask order remains in place, but last week he ruled out “any more lockdowns,” and tensions are again rising with local officials who want more authority to impose safety restrictions.
“We need the state to step in and lead or get out of the way and let us lead,” Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo told reporters Tuesday.
Public health experts and elected officials acknowledge they are up against a stronger sense of “COVID fatigue” than ever — a malaise that appears to be reflected in the state response.
“The numbers are quite alarming, to be honest, because it’s not showing any sign of slowing down,” said Rajesh Nandy, associate professor of biostatistics and epidemiology at the University of North Texas Health Science Center. However, Nandy added, “it seems like at this point, there’s not a lot of will, even among people, for a full-scale stay-at-home [order] like [Abbott] did in March because, of course, it has other consequences.”
That much is true, as far as it goes. There are economic consequences for shutdowns. There are also economic consequences for letting the virus rage out of control – restaurants and bars and gyms and so forth may be open now, but lots of people don’t want to go to them because it’s not safe, and no amount of puffy-chested posturing from our Republican leaders will change that. At any time in the past six months, Abbott could have asked one or both of our Republican Senators – publicly or privately – to support another COVID relief bill, so that businesses and their employees that have been affected by COVID could safely shut down and not go bust. You would have to ask him yourself why he hasn’t done that, if he ever deigns to answer questions from the public or the non-sycophantic media again.
I mean, maybe we’ll get some kind of relief package from the lame duck session. Maybe the Dems will win both Georgia Senate runoffs and will have the ability to pass a real relief bill. Maybe enough people will stop doing dangerous things like attending indoor events and going about their lives un-masked, and the infection rate will drop again. Maybe we’ll manage to not die before the vaccines get circulated. Anything can happen, I guess.
Of course, one thing that could happen is that our hospitals get so overwhelmed that the death rate for non-COVID sufferers also spikes:
Since Abbott announced the 15% threshold, it has been the subject of some scrutiny. Abbott initially defined the threshold as 15% of “all hospitalized patients” in a region, though he later changed it to 15% of “total hospital capacity” — or total beds — in a region. That redefinition is problematic, according to hospital administrators in parts of Texas that have seen the most infections.
“They’re assuming that all those licensed beds can somehow be utilized for a COVID-19 surge, and that’s simply not true,” Dr. Brian Weis, chief medical officer at Northwest Texas Healthcare System, said last month during a coronavirus briefing for the city of Amarillo. “By using that number, that overestimates our capacity to handle COVID-19 patients.”
Exhibit A in the state-local tensions is hard-hit El Paso County. Attorney General Ken Paxton has gone to court to stop the shutdown order that County Judge Ricardo Samaniego issued late last month, saying it oversteps Abbott’s statewide rules. A state appeals court blocked the order for a second time Friday.
Abbott blasted the order shortly after it was issued, saying Samaniego “failed to do his job” enforcing existing rules to slow the spread of the virus “and is now illegally shutting down entire businesses.”
In an interview, Samaniego said the criticism from Abbott felt politically motivated and failed to address the biggest issue El Paso faces — that people are getting sick, being hospitalized and dying at staggering rates. Samaniego said he did everything within his power to limit the spread of the virus. He, like other local officials, wants more authority to take precautions in his county.
“It was about saving lives, not about whether I was right or wrong or he was right or wrong,” he said.
He also noted that El Paso’s share of hospital beds occupied by COVID-19 patients is several times Abbott’s 15% trigger, but it’s still artificially low because the county added 580 spots to its hospital capacity.
“This is a governor that issued a stay at home order,” Samaniego said. “And now he’s upset that I did when my numbers are 10 times worse than when he issued it. It’s just a political approach to our community.”
It’s not just El Paso County, though, where local officials are pushing for more latitude from Abbott. In Lubbock County, where cases have ballooned to more than 400 per day on average in the last week, the county judge, Curtis Parrish, said he is grateful for the state’s help with hospital capacity — the state has provided three large medical tents and personnel to go with them — but that he wants more enforcement power.
“My hands are tied,” Parrish said. “We operate under the governor’s order. We can’t do any detaining.”
In Laredo, the City Council voted Monday to limit private gatherings to 10 people plus household members. City Council member Marte Martinez said he would have liked to do more, such as implement a curfew and beef up enforcement for businesses that violate state rules.
“I felt powerless in my plight to save people’s lives,” said Martinez, a doctor. “You’re going to be in a full shutdown within a few weeks unless the state allows municipal governments and county governments to make more firm action.”
There is especially an urgency in Laredo and its hospital region, where the number of coronavirus patients has exceeded 15% of the capacity for the past three days. That means the state’s reopening rollback will kick in in four days if the figure remains above 15%.
What’s happening in El Paso right now is grotesque and disgraceful. Maybe what happens is that we begin to see death and misery like Italy had in the spring, at such levels and in so many places that even Greg Abbott will not be able to ignore it. I really hope it doesn’t come to that, but I don’t know what short of that will make him take this seriously.