Well, there’s more of it.
Gov. Greg Abbott announced his third phase Wednesday of reopening Texas businesses during the coronavirus pandemic, allowing virtually all of them to operate at 50% capacity.
That is effective immediately, and there are “very limited exceptions,” Abbott’s office said.
Restaurants were already permitted to be open at 50% capacity. Abbott is allowing them to immediately increase their table size from six people to 10, and on June 12, they can ramp up their capacities to 75%.
Abbott’s latest order also brings news for professional and college sports that are played outdoors, letting the former shift from 25% capacity to 50% capacity at their stadiums and allowing the latter to resume for the first time, also at 50%.
“The people of Texas continue to prove that we can safely and responsibly open our state for business while containing COVID-19 and keeping our state safe,” Abbott said in a statement.
Sounds lovely. However:
The announcement came as the state sees record numbers of new daily cases of COVID-19. On Wednesday, the seven-day average for new daily cases hit 1,466, up from 1,280 in mid-May, a Houston Chronicle data analysis shows.
Abbott said nearly half of all new cases are isolated at jails and prisons, meatpacking plants and nursing homes, environments where he says outbreaks can be contained as the reopening progresses. The state has moved to increase testing at many of those locations, though testing as a whole remains stagnant, well below the governor’s goal of 30,000 tests per day. The state has averaged about 23,000 tests per day for the past three weeks.
Hospitalizations, another key measure, were down on Wednesday but have been rising steadily in the past week. They were still well below statewide capacity.
The state reported 23 COVID-19 deaths per day over the past week, down from nearly 40 in mid-May.
Abbott has said he would watch deaths and hospitalizations closely as he reopens the Texas economy.
Still, public health officials have said the state is at best plateauing, with new cases neither falling nor surging. And they have worried that the Memorial Day holiday and protests over police brutality, which have drawn tens of thousands to the street in major Texas cities, may also hasten the spread of the disease.
Dr. Peter Hotez, an infectious disease expert at Baylor College, warned last month that the state is moving too quickly.
“I understand the importance of opening up the economy,” he told the Chronicle. “The worry I have is that we haven’t put in place a public health system — the testing, the contact tracing — that’s commensurate to sustain the economy.”
I’ll get to the contact tracing in a minute, but first let’s review that hospitalization metric, because it’s always been the one metric of four that the state has actually met. But it too is going in the wrong direction.
The state reported 1,487 people hospitalized for COVID-19 on Wednesday, the lowest since April. But that figure did not include about 300 patients in the Houston area, who were omitted because of a software glitch, according to the Southeast Texas Regional Advisory Council, which collects the totals and sends them to the state.
With those patients included, the number on Wednesday was likely around 1,800, just shy of the state’s peak in early May.
Hospitalization data are one of the key measures that Abbott has said he’s watching as he allows more of the state to reopen. Virtually all businesses in the state can now operate at 50 percent of their maximum occupancy, and late next week restaurants will be able to move to 75 percent.
Lori Upton, the advisory council’s vice president of disaster preparedness and response, said the state informed it on Wednesday that a nationwide software upgrade had caused the error, lowering the preliminary count. A correction will take time because the data has to be recounted manually, Upton said.
She said technical issues are not common.
The governor’s spokesman did not respond to questions about whether the governor knew about the inaccuracy. Abbott, a Republican, has repeatedly advised against using single-day data points, explaining that weekly averages better capture trends over time.
On Friday, the seven-day average was 1,729, the highest number since the state began publishing data on hospitalizations. It has been increasing since May 27.
Though hospitalizations are up, average daily hospital admissions have been flat or slightly down over the past week, according to state data compiled by the nonprofit Texas 2036. Lauren Ancel Myer, a professor of integrative biology at the University of Texas at Austin, said that would be a positive indicator.
Myers said daily admissions in Central Texas, though, where her research is focused, have been up slightly in recent days.
“It would not be surprising at this point if we are beginning to see that the relaxation of social distancing measures, if that has actually increased the spread of the virus and has led to more patients needing hospital care,” she said.
So what happens if we do get close to the occupancy limits we have set? Well, maybe contact tracing can help with that. Oh, wait.
As Texas moves forward with a new phase of Gov. Greg Abbott’s plan for reopening businesses, the state has fallen more than 25% short of its goal for a workforce of disease detectives that experts say are crucial for tracking the spread of the new coronavirus.
One of Abbott’s reopening metrics for June 1 called for up to 4,000 Texas contact tracers, who work to identify people with possible exposure to the coronavirus and call them to get tested and self-quarantine.
But Texas officials said Thursday there were roughly 2,900 contact tracers working around the state. Of those, some 1,140 are working for the Texas Department of State Health Services, 1,170 are working for local health departments or their nonprofit and university partners, and about 600 are working for a company recently hired by the state.
State officials downplayed the importance of meeting the initial goal despite the public health agency’s statements last month assuring that health departments were in a “phase of hiring that will get us up to 4,000 in the coming weeks.”
The 4,000-person figure was an estimate taken from a national association of public health officials that was determined by the state’s population, Texas Department of State Health Services spokesman Chris Van Deusen said.
“Texas has had significantly fewer cases per capita than the national average, and we want to match the number of contact tracers to the actual workload,” Van Deusen said in an email, adding that the state has enough personnel to contact all new cases in its jurisdiction.
But other groups have suggested that Texas needs a far higher number of contact tracers. One model from George Washington University put the number at more than 8,000.
And it turns out that the firm the state gave a $295 million contract to do contact tracing is sketchy.
More than a dozen Republican legislators are bucking Gov. Greg Abbott by calling for termination of a controversial $295 million coronavirus-related contract that was hastily awarded to a company whose CEO falsely claimed he had a Ph.D.
At least two top Democrats — including the party’s leader in the Texas House of Representatives — are also criticizing the deal with MTX Group Inc., saying the state needs to demonstrate the company is up to the vital job of tracking down people who have been exposed to COVID-19, or else it should pull the plug.
The bipartisan criticism comes as the agency that oversees the contract, the Texas Department of State Health Services, acknowledges that MTX “mistakenly uploaded” job training documents to its contact tracers that they were never supposed to get, a move some lawmakers say potentially raises privacy concerns.
Another potential privacy issue: MTX workers are using their own computers and personal email addresses, fueling worries — unwarranted worries, the state says — that private medical information about the people they investigate could be inadvertently divulged.
State Rep. Steve Toth, R-Conroe, like many conservative Republicans, already had privacy concerns about COVID-19 contact tracing before MTX got the job. But he said when he learned that MTX CEO Das Nobel had falsely claimed on his online LinkedIn bio that he had a doctorate from Colorado Technical University, he moved into the end-this-now camp even as Abbott staunchly defends the emergency contract.
“Up until that point, I was like, OK, I’m not good with this, but let’s just chill and find out more,” Toth said. “That pushed me over the edge.”
I mean, look. The overall numbers are still fairly modest, and the hospitals have done well so far. Treatment has improved as we have learned more, so people are spending less time and need less intensive therapies in hospitals. It is true that a large percentage of infections are in limited locations, and the risks of various activities, mostly outdoor activities, is understood to be fairly small. My point is this: The state hasn’t met its own metrics, contact tracing is a mess, and as far as I can tell there’s no plan except “clap harder!” to deal with any significant upticks in the infection rate. If I felt better about there being a plan for if and when the curve started going up again, I’d have fewer complaints. I just don’t know what we are going to do if things do not get better but do get worse. I admit, maybe that won’t happen. But that kind of hope appears to be all we have right now. I’m worried about it because I don’t think our state leaders are worried enough about it, never mind the dumpster fire in Washington. So yeah, I’ll hope for the best. What else can I do right now?