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The nursing home vaccination mandate

This just seems obvious to me.

President Joe Biden announced on Wednesday that he is directing all nursing homes to require their staff be vaccinated against Covid-19 in order to continue receiving Medicare and Medicaid funding.

Biden said he is directing the Department of Health and Human Services to draw up new regulations making employee vaccination a condition for nursing homes to participate in Medicare and Medicaid. The decision on nursing home staff represents a significant escalation in Biden’s campaign to get Americans vaccinated and the tools he is willing to use, marking the first time he has threatened to withhold federal funds in order to get people vaccinated.

“Now, if you visit, live or work at a nursing home, you should not be at a high risk of contracting Covid from unvaccinated employees. While I’m mindful that my authority at the federal government is limited, I’m going to continue to look for ways to keep people safe and increase vaccination rates,” the President said during a speech at the White House.

[…]

The move comes as the more transmissible Delta variant now accounts for 99% of Covid-19 cases in the United States and as data shows a link between low vaccination rates in certain nursing homes and rising coronavirus cases among residents.

The Delta variant has spurred a jump in daily new cases from a low of 319 on June 27 to nearly 2,700 on August 8, according to Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services. Many are in facilities in areas with the lowest staff vaccination rates.

In the seven states in which less than half of nursing home staff is vaccinated, weekly cases were 7.9 times higher in the week ending August 1 than they were in the week ending June 27. Meanwhile, in states that have vaccinated a larger share of staff than average (more than 60%), cases reported in the week ending August 1 were only three times higher than cases reported in the last week of June.

The new regulations could go into effect as early as next month, but Johnson said the CMS will work with nursing homes, employees and their unions to ramp up staff vaccinations before the regulations go into effect.

About 1.3 million people are employed by the more than 15,000 nursing homes that participate in Medicare and Medicaid. Some 62% of those workers are vaccinated nationwide, according to CMS data, but the figure ranges from 44% to 88% depending on the state.

“We have seen tremendous progress with low Covid rates within the nursing home population and I think we’re seeing signs that it is starting to tip the other direction. We don’t want to go backwards,” said Jonathan Blum, CMS’ principal deputy administrator.

Blum said CMS officials are “confident we have the legal authority” to implement the new regulation, noting that the law allows CMS to take action as it relates to the health and safety of nursing home residents.

As the story notes, this came a day after Biden directed the Education Department to get involved in the mask mandate fight. You would think, given how devastating the first wave of COVID was to the residents of nursing homes, that their staffers would be highly vaccinated as well, but you would be wrong.

Nationwide, most of the elderly and vulnerable in long-term care facilities have taken the coronavirus vaccine, but many of the staff caring for them have refused it. The federal program responsible for bringing vaccines to the vast majority of nursing homes and similar settings inoculated roughly half of long-term-care workers in the nation, and in some states a much slimmer percentage, as of March 15, according to new data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention provided to the Center for Public Integrity.

In seven states and the District of Columbia, the program vaccinated less than a third of staff members.

Now the federal program is winding down in the coming days, leaving states and facilities to figure out how to vaccinate the remainder of workers in settings where COVID-19 has already taken a heavy toll.

Though they represent a tiny fraction of the American population, long-term-care residents made up 34% of the nation’s COVID-19 deaths as of March 4, according to the Covid Tracking Project. Low vaccination rates among staff at these facilities mean that workers continue to have greater risk of contracting COVID-19 themselves or passing the virus to their patients, including residents who can’t be inoculated for medical reasons. Low staff uptake can also complicate nursing homes’ attempt to reopen their doors to visitors like Caldwell, who are striving for some sense of normalcy.

“Going into it, we knew it was going to be a problem,” said Ruth Link-Gelles, who led the team at CDC working on the federal initiative that’s now closing up shop, the Federal Pharmacy Partnership for Long-Term Care Program.

She cited past years’ low vaccination rates among long-term-care workers for diseases such as the flu. “We were disappointed, but I don’t think anyone was shocked to see the low uptake. … There is a stubbornly large portion of the population that really doesn’t want to get vaccinated, and we have a lot of work to do generally and in this community in particular.”

Federal agencies and states have poured resources into a #GetVaccinated educational campaign, hosting listening sessions, live chats and virtual town halls for long-term-care staff to get their questions answered.

In spite of all these efforts, many workers are reluctant to take the shots because they don’t trust information about the vaccines’ safety or they don’t wish to be among the first to take them, experts said.

“There are many reasons to blame nursing homes and the federal government,” said David Grabowski, a professor of health care policy at Harvard Medical School who studies long-term care. “We knew this coming in — that this was a group that was not very trusting of leadership and frankly not very trusting of the vaccine so it was going to take some work in terms of building that trust.”

That story was from late March, so things may be better by now. According to the map embedded in this story, as of that time about 54% of the long-term care workers in Texas who have been vaccinated got their shots through this federal program. But as usual, the overall story in Texas is not great.

The number of nursing homes across the state with at least one active COVID-19 case has shot up nearly 800% in the past month — while nearly half of nursing home employees in Texas remain unvaccinated.

Nursing home residents were among the hardest hit by COVID-19 last year as the virus tore through facilities at an alarming rate. More than 400 Texas nursing home residents died during a single week in August 2020; since the pandemic began, 9,095 have died after contracting COVID-19, according to the Texas Health and Human Services Commission. As of Aug. 11, that’s 17% of the state’s COVID-19 deaths.

To slow the virus’s spread, Gov. Greg Abbott shut down nursing home visitation in March 2020, then eased those restrictions five months later for facilities that didn’t have active cases in the previous two weeks. HHSC’s current visitation guidelines for nursing homes require visitors to wear a mask at all times and limits visitation to no more than two “essential caregivers” per resident.

But after seeing infections remain relatively low in recent months, the state’s more than 1,200 nursing homes are seeing a new wave of infections as COVID-19 cases explode around the state, driven by the highly contagious delta variant:

  • The number of Texas nursing homes with active COVID-19 cases has risen by 773% in the past month, from 56 in mid-July to 489 on Aug. 11. That’s still well below the peak in January, when more than 900 facilities had at least one active case.
  • Deaths are increasing as well. From July 21 to Aug. 11, 84 nursing home residents died from COVID-19, compared to seven deaths during the four-week period before.
  • Roughly 76% of nursing home residents in Texas have been fully vaccinated, putting the state 46th nationally. The national average is 82%.

But the current surge in nursing home cases hasn’t triggered renewed restrictions by the state.

“We continually assess what actions are necessary to keep people safe in the facilities we regulate,” HHSC spokesperson Helena Wright-Jones said in a written statement.

Meanwhile, just over half — 56% — of nursing home staff have been fully vaccinated, below the national average of 59%, which puts Texas 33rd nationally for nursing home staff vaccination rates.

In other words, the usual indifference from state government and general mediocrity, which puts a whole lot of people at risk. What do the nursing homes have to say for themselves?

Kevin Warren, the president and CEO of the Texas Health Care Association, whose members include both for-profit and nonprofit long-term health care facilities, said nursing homes are hesitant to require staff to be vaccinated because they are fearful of losing employees who might look for other jobs that don’t require vaccinations.

“Right now, we have a severely stretched workforce,” Warren said. “And when we see this surge occurring again, the stress and the emotional toll it places on staff and others that are in the building, the concern is: ‘If I put this vaccine mandate on, am I potentially going to lose staff?’”

The percentage of nursing home staffers who are unvaccinated is similar to the general population, Warren added, “so let’s not set them out to the side.”

Except they’re in close contact with the most vulnerable people in the state, and not enough of them are vaccinated, either. The DMN has a whole story on that, and while I can believe it to some extent, there’s a quote from a nursing home operator whose staff is 70% vaxxed, and I cannot see how this is any less urgent than getting hospital staff vaccinated. We’ve tried the carrot, now there needs to be a stick. There’s plenty of polling data to suggest that a non-trivial number of people who are vaccine hesitant will give in and get the shot if their workplace mandates it. Let’s put that to the test.

Houston Methodist tells its employees to get vaxxed or else

I’m okay with this.

Four out of five Houston Methodist employees are vaccinated against COVID-19. The sliver who are not will be suspended or fired if they refuse the shot, according to company policy.

The hospital required managers to be vaccinated by April 15 and all other employees — about 26,000 workers in total — by June 7, said Stefanie Asin, a Houston Methodist spokesperson.

With 84 percent of the staff vaccinated, the hospital is close to herd immunity, CEO Marc Boom wrote in a letter to employees this month.

“As health care workers we’ve taken a sacred oath to do everything possible to keep our patients safe and healthy — this includes getting vaccinated,” Boom wrote.

A little more than 4,100 employees have not received at least a first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine. The hospital does not know yet how many employees potentially will be suspended or terminated because of the mandatory vaccination policy.

Since 2009, a hospital policy has mandated its workers receive the flu vaccine each year, unless they have a medical or religious objection qualifying them for exemption.

[…]

Several nursing homes in Houston are requiring COVID-19 vaccinations of their workers, while other hospitals in the Texas Medical Center have not yet followed suit.

“UTMB is not mandating vaccination,” said Christopher Smith Gonzalez, senior communication specialist for the hospital. “But, in view of the high contagiousness of the some of the SARS-CoV-2 variants, UTMB has implemented enhanced respiratory precautions for all unvaccinated individuals caring for or evaluating patients for COVID.”

While 80 percent of Texas Children’s Hospital employees are vaccinated against COVID-19, the hospital does not require inoculation. St. Luke’s Health has vaccinated “thousands of our staff,” vaccinations are not mandatory, according to the health system.

But some are considering it to cut back on health hazards for employees and patients.

“As a provider of health care services, Baylor College of Medicine currently requires vaccination for employees for a variety of infectious diseases,” said Dr. James McDeavitt, senior vice president of Baylor College of Medicine. “For example, flu vaccination for employees has been mandatory for several years. With appropriately defined exemptions (medical contraindications, religious beliefs), we support mandatory vaccination for COVID-19. We do not yet have this requirement in place, but it is under active consideration.”

Memorial Hermann will make COVID-19 vaccines mandatory after it relaxes some of its COVID-19 protocols, such as mask-wearing and social distancing. However, it has not set a deadline for employees to receive the vaccine, said Drew Munhausen, a Memorial Hermann spokesperson.

This all makes sense to me. They’re health care workers, which not only makes them at high risk for catching COVID, it means they’re in very close contact with a lot of extremely vulnerable people as well. The story notes a recent incident in a Kentucky nursing home, where an unvaxxed worker was the cause of an outbreak. While most of the residents, who had been vaccinated, had only mild symptoms, one of them died. None of that should have happened. State law requires that health care facilities have a policy about vaccinations, but doesn’t require that they mandate them; federal law allows employers to require vaccinations, but also doesn’t mandate it. I for sure would want to know that the doctor or nurse or physician’s assistant who is giving me medical assistance, as well as all of the support staff, have been vaccinated for COVID. I understand that some of the employees may be hesitant about the vaccine, and I have some sympathy for them, but only so much.

There is also this:

Houston Methodist was one of several companies to offer incentives for its workers to get a COVID-19 vaccine. The hospital is granting $500 bonuses to anyone who worked during the pandemic and received the vaccine.

“Already we’re seeing positive results as the number of employee infections has dropped inversely with the number of employees receiving the vaccine,” Boom wrote.

Paying people to get vaxxed has its merits. One of the hesitant Methodist employees from the story says that some of her fellow hesitators are thinking about getting the shots to keep their jobs. Clearly, incentives work. Maybe that’s a lesson for us for the broader issue.

We don’t know enough about what’s happening at nursing homes

We’ve talked before about two of the main coronavirus hotspot types in Texas, prisons and meat processing plants. Now we’re going to talk about that third type, nursing homes.

As the death toll grows at Texas nursing homes, so has the number of requests for information kept by state health officials that would reveal which long-term care facilities have suffered coronavirus outbreaks during the worst pandemic in generations.

But the Texas Health and Human Services Commission, which regulates nursing homes and assisted living facilities, is attempting to keep its records secret, despite calls for more transparency from open-government advocates, some Texas lawmakers and family members worried about vulnerable residents.

“The public is being left in the dark, and we’re losing control of our ability to oversee the operations of our government,” said Joe Larsen, a lawyer with the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas, which published an open letter last month urging the health commission to release its records on nursing home infections.

In a May 4 letter to the Texas Attorney General’s Office, Carey Smith, a lawyer representing the health commission, said the agency has received more than two dozen public records requests for nursing home data about coronavirus infections, but that federal and state laws prohibit the release of the information because it might identify infected residents and violate their privacy.

However, Texas legislators who wrote one of the laws cited by Smith said it doesn’t prohibit officials from releasing statistical information about COVID-19 in nursing homes.

“The statute was not intended to create a blanket protection for all health-related information,” said former Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, who authored the bill in the Texas Senate last year.

The sponsor of the bill in the Texas House, Rep. Giovanni Capriglione, R-Southlake, said releasing statistical data from nursing homes could benefit both consumers and government authorities. And, like Watson, he said the bill they passed doesn’t prevent state officials from releasing that information.

“So long as you can’t get personal identifying information I don’t see why the current rules and statutes that we have don’t already allow that information to be released,” Capriglione said.

[…]

After facing criticism from families and advocates of nursing home residents, Texas began releasing statewide statistics that show the total number of coronavirus deaths at nursing homes, which provide round-the-clock care, and assisted living facilities, which are less intensive.

As of [May 1], 478 COVID-19 deaths — nearly half of the 1,042 reported in Texas — were at nursing homes or assisted living centers, records show.

But state health officials haven’t disclosed infection rates for each location, which has stymied families trying to protect their relatives. The lack of information also leaves hospice workers and other contract caregivers in the dark.

That story was from early May. Since then, we have gotten more numbers from the state.

More than 3,000 Texas nursing home residents have tested positive for the new coronavirus, as well as nearly 400 assisted living facility residents, according to data released Friday by the Texas Department of State Health Services.

Among the reported 311 nursing homes with confirmed cases, 3,011 residents have tested positive and 490 have died. Another 494 residents have recovered, according to the data. At 112 assisted living facilities in Texas with at least one confirmed coronavirus case, 382 residents have tested positive for the virus, and 95 have died.

Statewide, 1,272 people have died, but it was unclear late Friday if all of the long-term care facility patients’ deaths were included in that larger figure.

The state had previously released only the number of nursing homes with confirmed cases and fatalities, not the number of people who have tested positive.

The state is still not releasing the names of nursing homes with COVID-19 cases. Many families remain in the dark about whether their loved ones in nursing homes are at risk of exposure.

There are a lot of reasons why we need more and better reporting of this data. For one, just so that the people who have family and friends that live or work at these places can know what’s going on with them. For two, to better identify the places that are not up to standard on health and safety. For three, so we can learn from the places that are doing well as well as the places that are doing poorly, so the overall level of safety and care can be improved. This is not hard to understand, and at least it looks like there’s bipartisan agreement that the existing laws need to be upgraded for the future. Put that on the ever-lengthening to do list for the 2021 Lege.

How to become a coronavirus hotspot

It can happen to you, wherever you are.

Lamar County courthouse

Barely a week ago, rural Lamar County in Texas could make a pretty good argument for reopening on Friday.

Less than a dozen of the 50,000 residents of the area, which is right on the border with Oklahoma, had tested positive for the coronavirus – and none had died.

The mayor of Paris, Texas – a pit stop for drivers passing through to snap a selfie with the city’s miniaturized Eiffel Tower – had drive-thru virus testing in the works, just to give locals peace of mind. Some wore masks but many saw little reason to bother.

Then an outbreak at a nursing home turned up over the weekend, with at least 47 people at Paris Healthcare Center infected.

Now 65 people county-wide are infected and stores are second-guessing reopening as Lamar County becomes a cautionary tale of the fragility of Republican Gov Greg Abbott’s plan to get Texas back in business faster than many states.

[…]

Up until last weekend, Lamar County looked like a contender to begin to reopen under the loosest restrictions.

There had been just eight cases of coronavirus as of April 23, and six of those people had recovered.

“And then: ‘Boom,'” Paris Mayor Steve Clifford said, with the first positive case at the nursing home appeared the very next day.

“It hits us, like, right between the eyes, and all of a sudden we have this really huge, huge outbreak.”

According to The Paris News, there area fears of cross-contamination at another facility where an employee of Paris HealthCare also works.

“We are on the state’s radar now, and inspectors were at a second nursing home today,” Paris Mayor Pro Tem Paula Portugal told the newspaper.

“Austin knows our situation, and I believe they will help us with testing if we have a positive in a second nursing home.”

Now Clifford, a radiologist, worries about a second wave.

He worries about getting more testing kits, which has been a chronic problem that may have masked the true number of cases in his city from the start.

Recently, a courier drove 11 hours through the night to pick up testing kits.

Clifford had purchased 1,500 antibody tests – a big gesture for a city of 25,000 – and did a trial run of drive-thru testing April 23, in preparation for opening up for three days this week.

The nursing home outbreak scuttled those plans. One resident has died, but Clifford said if Texas doesn’t open back up soon, “every business in my city is going to go bankrupt and no one will have a job, and then there will be poverty.”

This is an Associated Press story. I saw it in the print section of the Saturday Houston Chronicle, but the only place I found it via Google News search was The Guardian, so go figure. I actually don’t intend for this to be a scare story. What happened in Lamar County could happen anywhere, but in most places it hasn’t happened, and God willing it won’t. We hate to admit such things because we all like to believe in our own virtue and fortitude, but sometimes it’s just bad luck, and this time Lamar County drew the short straw. The point of the risk mitigations we have taken against coronavirus – the shutdowns, the face masks, the social distancing, the hand washing, etc etc etc – have been about making the odds of such bad luck longer.

The parallels to what I do in real life in cybersecurity are striking. You can’t prevent all bad things from happening, but there are a lot of things you can do to make them less likely to happen, and to make them less damaging and easier to contain when they do happen. There are always tradeoffs – in IT security, they’re between stronger protections and ease of use. It’s one thing to weigh the risks when it’s your own personal safety or fortune on the line, and it’s another when the risks involve other people as well. This is why your corporate proxy server blocks certain URLs, and doesn’t let you send or receive executable files in your email.

I’m not asking you to believe that if you eat in a restaurant tomorrow you’re going to get sick and die. I am asking you to believe that your actions and decisions affect others as well as yourself, and the risks you are willing to take for yourself may impose an unbearable cost on someone else. That’s always been true – there’s a reason we have speed limits and laws about where you can legally shoot firearms, for example – but it’s a whole lot more visible to us now. I don’t know why this is so hard for some people to handle.

Treating COVID-19 patients at nursing homes

This is a huge can of worms.

When Larry Edrozo got a phone call from his mother’s nursing home in Texas City telling him she was being treated for the novel coronavirus with an unproven pharmaceutical drug, he had two questions: why was she getting the drug if she had not been showing symptoms, and who gave consent?

Helen Edrozo, 87, is one of 56 residents at the Resort at Texas City who tested positive for the coronavirus, and one of 39 residents being medicated with hydroxychloroquine, a drug typically used to treat malaria and lupus that has shown some evidence of possibly tamping down symptoms of the virus.

The use of hydroxychloroquine to treat coronavirus patients has drawn controversy globally as the medical community and public debate the ethics of testing a medication before significant research is available — and in the case of elderly patients such as those at The Resort at Texas City, on a population that is statistically more vulnerable to the virus. While President Donald Trump has touted the drug’s benefits, a large controlled study of hydroxychloroquine has not yet been completed, and some doctors warn the drug combination used for the experimental treatment could have severe, potentially deadly side effects.

Larry Edrozo was initially told by an administrator at the nursing home that Helen would not eligible for hydroxychloroquine treatment because she was not showing symptoms. But on Monday, a nurse at the facility phoned him to tell him that his mother’s carbon monoxide levels in her blood had elevated slightly and that she had already begun a hydroxychloroquine dose.

Edrozo was stunned. His mother has dementia, meaning that, as her power of attorney, he is supposed to sign off on any medical treatment she receives at the nursing home.

“I (told the nurse), ‘OK, well, since you’ve already started (treatment), I guess I would write in my notes that the question was raised about consent and what happened to that?’” Edrozo said. “I have not received a call back.”

Dr. Robin Armstrong, the medical director at The Resort, who prescribed the medication shortly after Amneal Pharmaceuticals donated 1 million tablets to the Texas Department of State Health Services pharmacy, said the decision was between him and his patients. He said he did not notify families before the drugs were administered because it was not necessary and time consuming.

“If I had to call all the families for every medicine that I started on a patient, I wouldn’t be treating any patients at all; I would just be talking to families all the time,” Armstrong said

But ethicists say informed consent is one of the most important factors in any treatment, and several people with family members at the Resort at Texas City being treated with hydroxychloroquine say that they were not asked to give consent, despite having power of attorney over their sick relatives.

Still, faced with the desperation of potentially losing his mother to the coronavirus, Edrozo felt he had no other choice than accept this course of treatment.

“When the people are blasting the doctors and the governor’s office about human guinea pigs, I’m sort of there with them,” Edrozo said. “But then I want to ask them, ‘What if it was your mother, or your spouse or your child?’”

As the kids say, there’s a lot to unpack here. At the most basic level, there’s nothing but anecdotal evidence that hydroxychloroquine has any effect on coronavirus. There are no studies worthy of the name showing that it would help. Maybe it will, maybe it won’t, we just don’t know. And that’s without taking into account the inability of these patients on whom the tratment is being tested to give informed consent for their participation. Or the fact that hydroxychloroquine is an actual drug used by people suffering from lupus and malaria, and Donald Trump’s obsession with it as an unproven treatment for COVID-19 means potential shortages for those patients. Did I mention that the doctor leading this effort is a Republican activist who got a supply of the drugs through political connections, and who therefore has a vested interest in making Trump and his hydroxychloroquine predictions look good? All this, and even if it does help some of these patients it won’t tell us anything about the effectiveness of hydroxychloroquine as a treatment because this isn’t a controlled study. Keep in mind, everyone who has recovered from COVID-19 has done so on their own. We’ll have no way of knowing whether the people at The Resort who recover would have done so anyway – that’s why doing controlled studies matter, so you can make valid comparisons. I very much get Larry Edrozo’s dilemma, but he and everyone else involved in this deserved to have full knowledge of the risks and benefits so they could make their own decision.

We still have no idea how many people have been infected

There’s just a real lack of testing being done.

Six times in three weeks, Marci Rosenberg and her ailing husband and teenage children tried to get tested for the new coronavirus — only to be turned away each time, either for not meeting narrow testing criteria or because there simply were not enough tests available.

All the while, the Bellaire family of four grew sicker as their fevers spiked and their coughs worsened. They said they fell one by one into an exhaustion unlike any they had felt before.

By March 18, Rosenberg was desperate and pleaded with her doctor for a test. Dr. Lisa Ehrlich, an internal medicine physician, told Rosenberg to pull into her office driveway. But Ehrlich warned Rosenberg, “I can only test one of you.” She swabbed her throat through an open car window. The result came back the next day: positive.

The rest of her family was presumed to be positive but untested – and thus excluded from any official tally of the disease.

As the number of confirmed cases of the potentially deadly virus continues to explode across the Houston region – tripling from 1,000 to more than 3,000 in just the past week – there is mounting evidence that the true scope of the disease here could be far worse than the numbers indicate.

A Houston Chronicle analysis of testing data collected through Wednesday shows that Texas has the second-worst rate of testing per capita in the nation, with only 332 tests conducted for every 100,000 people. Only Kansas ranks lower, at 327 per 100,000 people.

In cities across Texas — from Houston to Dallas, San Antonio to Nacogdoches — testing continues to be fraught with missteps, delays and shortages, resulting in what many predict will ultimately be a significant undercount. Not fully knowing who has or had the disease both skews public health data and also hampers treatment and prevention strategies, potentially leading to a higher death count, health care experts say.

[…]

As the pandemic’s march quickened, Texas was slow to ramp up testing.

The first confirmed case in Texas, outside those under federal quarantine from a cruise ship, was March 4, striking a Houston area man in his 70s who lived in Fort Bend county and had recently traveled abroad. By month’s end, the Houston area had more than 1,000 confirmed cases. A week later, the number had pushed past 3,000.

Yet it was not until March 30 that the rate of testing per 100,000 people in Texas topped 100. As of Wednesday, the state was testing 327 per 100,000, according to a Chronicle analysis of data from The COVID Tracking Project, which collects information nationwide on testing primarily from state health departments, and supplements with reliable news reports and live press conferences.

Twenty-six states in the U.S. are testing at least double the number of patients per capita as Texas, in some cases six times more. New York, for instance, is testing 1,877 per 100,000 people while neighboring Louisiana is testing 1,622 per 100,000. Even smaller states, such as New Mexico, are testing triple the rate of Texas.

Texas officials defended the state’s response.

“We’ve consistently seen about 10 percent of tests coming back positive, which indicates there is enough testing for public health surveillance,” said Chris Van Deusen, a spokesman for the Department of State Health Services, in an email, “If we saw 40 or 50 percent or more of test coming back positive, we’d be concerned that there could be a large number of cases out there going unreported, but that has not been the case.”

It is unclear if that is a reliable measure. Nearly 41 percent of New York tests were positive, the second-highest rate in the country. In Texas, about 9.4 percent of tests were positive — roughly the same as Washington state, where one of the largest outbreaks of coronavirus has occurred.

Not the first time we’ve talked about this, and it won’t be the last. This also means that the official number of deaths attributed to coronavirus is likely too low. This has been the case globally, especially in the hardest-hit places, where the difference between the normal daily mortality rate and the observed mortality rate during the crisis is a lot bigger than the official count of COVID-19 deaths. The good news is that as yet our hospitals have not been overwhelmed, but we can’t say with confidence that that will continue to be the case.

The number of people hospitalized with COVID-19 in the Houston area is continuing a steady climb, not close to crisis levels but unnerving enough that experts still aren’t sure when the area’s grand experiment in social distancing will start showing up in daily counts.

After a week in which COVID-19 hospitalization numbers more than doubled in Harris County, epidemiologists and infectious disease specialists said it likely will be another week to 10 days before they know if the stay-at-home orders and closures are reducing the rate at which the coronavirus is spreading and keeping health care facilities from being overwhelmed.

“Even though we’ve been social distancing for three weeks, it’s too early to know when we’ll be on the downward slope,” said Catherine Troisi, a professor of epidemiology at UTHealth School of Public Health. “The numbers we’re seeing now reflect people who were exposed to the virus up to four weeks ago.”

Peter Hotez, dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine and Texas Children’s Hospital, said the social distancing has paid off in terms of keeping hospital volumes under control so far but added that the pay-off in terms of ending the pandemic is unclear. He said that “we need to continue stay-at-home orders until the end of the month, then reassess whether to extend them longer.”

Hotez and others said that aggressive social distancing is more important now than ever, given modelers are projecting that the number of COVID-19 cases in the Houston area should peak in the next few weeks. They said people venturing out during the peak period will put themselves at high risk of contracting the virus.

[…]

The study, released on March 24, originally said the virus’ spread in the Houston area would peak April 7 and burn out by mid-May if stay-at-home orders are continued until May 12. It was not clear Tuesday when the study projects the virus will burn out now.

Eric Boerwinkle, the lead researcher, could not be reached for comment Tuesday and UTHealth officials had no update on the study. Boerwinkle, who did not make the original modeling publicly available, has briefed top local government officials on the work.

Another modeling study, conducted by the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, now projects that the Texas peak use of hospital resources for COVID-19 will be April 19, some two weeks earlier than it previously projected. The study, reportedly relied on by the Trump administration, foresees no bed shortage in the state, including in intensive care.

“That’s why you shouldn’t place too much weight on any one model,” said Dr. James McDeavitt, Baylor’s dean of clinical affairs. “They depend on assumptions plugged in and can show everything from Houston being able to handle the surge to a New York City-like situation.”

McDeavitt noted the wild cards that go into modeling — the number of people admitted to a hospital, the percentage that need intensive care, how long it takes to get patients off ventilators, how long they need to recover in a regular bed once they move out of intensive care. Those are the assumptions that drive models, he noted.

McDeavitt said he doesn’t think the number of cases will come down in the Houston area until the end of the month.

That story was from earlier in the week, so all of the numbers are a bit out of date by now. But the bottom line remains that we don’t know where we are on the curve because we don’t really know how many people are or have been sick. Models all rely on data, and we’re also not good with the data.

The information Texans are working with is too damn thin.

Where to start? Not enough tests have been completed, or taken, to really know who has or doesn’t have the disease, where the Texas hotspots are, or whether people who have died of respiratory problems had COVID-19. The relatively small number of test results also means we don’t know which people had the disease and recovered (and how many people have recovered) and whether the projections being made with that skimpy data are accurate enough to guide our public health decisions.

It’s not enough to say that the testing is getting better, that we know more than we knew just a few days ago. What we still don’t know overshadows what we do know.

We’re like pilots flying in clouds without instruments. We know a little bit, but not enough to make really solid decisions or to figure out what’s next. We’re learning as we go. As of Thursday, Texas was reporting 10,230 cases and 199 deaths, 1,439 hospitalized COVID-19 patients and 106,134 tests conducted.

Given the level of testing right now, it’s hard to know how many cases Texas really has. Because the best way to get tested for the new coronavirus is to show symptoms that a medical professional finds troublesome, it’s probably safe to say we’re not testing many people who are carrying the virus but don’t have symptoms.

It’s easier — because it’s more obvious — to map the institutional cases. When someone in a nursing home or a state supported living center or a prison tests positive, testing everyone in that location is simple and smart. It’s simple to figure out that everyone in a given building or campus might have been exposed.

Even that data isn’t always available. The state of Texas initially wasn’t sharing details about the data it has collected from nursing homes where COVID-19 cases have been found. But a few days after The Texas Tribune’s Edgar Walters and Carla Astudillo wrote about it, the state revealed 13% of nursing homes have at least one confirmed case.

We’re doing a lot of flying blind. If we want to make good decisions about things like when and how to restart the economy, we need a much better understanding of where we are, and where that means we’re likely to be going.