Last week, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott sought to reassure Texans that recent statewide spikes in key coronavirus metrics shouldn’t cause alarm.
Six days and a more than 1,300 patient increase in state COVID-19 hospitalizations later, the governor’s tone was noticeably less confident.
“To state the obvious, COVID-19 is now spreading at an unacceptable rate in Texas, and it must be corralled,” Abbott cautioned in a Monday afternoon press conference.
Abbott cited sustained, troubling increases in coronavirus hospitalizations, positive COVID-19 case counts and the positivity rate of COVID-19 tests across the state since late May as the cause for his newfound sense of urgency.
According to Department of State Health Services statistics referenced by the governor, the rolling seven-day average of COVID-19 cases in Texas has risen from around 1,500 cases in the last half of May to 3,500 cases over the first five days of June. The positivity rate of COVID-19 tests across the state has also risen to 9 percent, up from 4.5 percent in late May, while the seven-day average hospitalization rate spiked from around 1,600 a day to more than 3,200 a day over that same time period.
Despite these trends, Abbott chose not to call for a statewide order for Texans to wear protective face masks in public. He instead continued to encourage Texans to don face masks voluntarily, albeit more forcefully than he has in the past.
Abbott also stressed the need for “flexibility” in statewide guidelines due to the varying levels at which the virus is spreading in different regions of the state. “What may be true in Austin, Texas is different in Austin County,” said Abbott.
However, between now familiar platitudes about how Texans “don’t have to choose” between public health and the continuing to reopen the state economy at a rapid pace, Abbott indicated that if Texans don’t follow best practices like wearing masks and practicing social distancing, and if coronavirus cases and hospitalizations continue to skyrocket, “additional measures” may need to be taken, up to and including shutting down parts of the state economy again.
“Closing down Texas again will always be the last option,” said Abbott. Nonetheless, the fact that he even mentioned such a drastic retreat as a possibility speaks to the magnitude of the crisis in Texas. The governor said that COVID-19 test positivity rates, positive case counts and hospitalizations will be the metrics that will dictate his administration’s recommendations.
“There’s been pretty much a doubling of the numbers in those three categories. “If we were to experience another doubling of those numbers over the next month, that would mean that we are in an urgent situation where tougher actions will be required,” Abbott said.
Abbott ally and state Speaker of the House Dennis Bonnen chimed in on the topic of masks after Abbott’s press conference with a fiery rebuke of those Texans who are opposed to wearing protective face coverings.
“If these so-called patriots persist in flaunting their disregard for others,” Bonnen said in a prepared statement, “we’re in for a very long, dark summer with a deadly array of medical and economic consequences — not because of government restrictions, but because these agitators have fueled uncertainty and fear within decent and responsible individuals who understand the health risks and the consequences of our medical resources being strained beyond capacity.”
Local officials and experts in the Houston area have been increasingly somber when discussing the sharp turn for the worse the pandemic has taken in the region over the past few weeks. Baylor College of Medicine infectious disease expert Dr. Peter Hotez warned on Twitter this weekend that if the spread of the virus continues at its current trajectory, Houston could realistically “become the worst affected city in the U.S.”
Houston Mayor Turner echoed that alarm in a Monday afternoon press conference just minutes after Gov. Abbott’s remarks. The Houston Health Department reported an additional 1,789 new COVID-19 cases between Sunday and Monday, which raised Houston’s total cumulative case count to 14,322 and was described by Turner as “another grim reminder that the virus is very much alive in our community, and that our numbers are moving in the wrong direction.”
Dr. David Persse of the Houston Health Department joined Turner to give an update on the Houston region’s hospital capacity. Persse referenced Harris County hospitalization statistics from the SouthEast Texas Regional Advisory Council that show significant upticks in both general and intensive care bed usage by coronavirus patients in recent weeks, as well as startling increases in COVID-19 intensive care unit occupancy from Texas Medical Center member hospitals across the nine counties in the greater Houston area.
Turner alleged there was a connection between the rapid increase in Houston’s COVID-19 metrics from mid-April to now and the fact that it was around that time that Gov. Abbott’s statewide reopening guidelines reduced local authority to implement strict public health guidelines at the city and county level.
“We were on the low end, and people nationally, across this country, were talking about our numbers, and then our power on the local level was stripped away, and we started opening up,” said Turner.
“I said two months ago I thought we were moving too quickly, too fast,” he continued. “And now we find ourselves where we are today.”
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While Abbot’s guidelines allowed County Judge Lina Hidalgo to implement a narrowly tailored mask mandate that put the onus on county businesses to require their customers and employees to wear face masks, Turner’s options to respond to the crisis gripping his city are limited.
The state reopening rules specifically prohibit individuals from being penalized for failure to wear masks, so other than enacting a similarly constructed business-focused mask order for Houston companies that would be redundant to Hidalgo’s, Turner said his only real option right now is to continue to encourage Houstonians to follow the advice of medical experts by practicing social distancing, exercising proper hygiene and using of face masks, before it’s too late.
“I am hoping and praying that people in our city will exercise individual responsibility,” Turner said.
Besides the media platform he wields, those hopes and prayers might be the last tools Turner has left.