Despite significant increases in COVID-19 hospitalizations and cases across Texas in recent weeks, Governor Greg Abbott remains confident that there’s no need to slow down statewide business reopenings and the continued loosening of state rules around business occupancy levels due to the state’s as of yet sufficient hospital capacity to deal with a surge of coronavirus patients.
In a Tuesday afternoon press conference, Abbott repeatedly expressed that the responsibility for preventing the spread of COVID-19 in Texas lay with individual Texans, not the state government, all while arguing that increased business reopenings wouldn’t come at the expense of public health.
“Jobs can be maintained without jeopardizing the health of the community if everyone follows the same strategies to prevent the spread of COVID-19,” Abbott said. “The more that Texans protect their own health, the safer our state will be, and the more that we will be able to open up Texas for doing business.”
The governor’s remarks came the same day that the number of COVID-19 patients in Texas reached 2,518, the highest count since the pandemic began, according to the Department of State Health Services. That count also represents an almost two-thirds increase in the number of hospitalized COVID-19 patients in Texas since Memorial Day.
Abbott mentioned that while recent increases in COVID-19 hospitalizations “does raise concerns,” he still feels “there’s no reason to be alarmed” due to the overall capacity levels of hospitals across the state.
“We remain laser-focused on maintaining abundant hospital capacity,” Abbott said. He then turned over the microphone to the University of Texas’s Dr. John Zerwas, who provided statistics about Texas’s hospital capacity.
In a short slideshow, Zerwas showed that there has been a 78 percent increase in available hospital beds in Texas since March 18, resulting in 14,993 total beds available. That number equals 27 percent of the available beds in the state, a count that includes children's hospital beds but not beds from psychiatric healthcare facilities. He then described a five-tiered measure of hospital capacity that state health officials are using to measure statewide capacity. According to this scale, Texas’s capacity still sits at Level 5, the lowest of the five, since measures like increasing bed counts by opening up non-traditional care areas like operating rooms and post-anesthesia care units haven’t been necessary.
Reaching the most dire capacity level, Level 1, would entail the creation of alternate care sites like the recently shuttered NRG Park field hospital, which Zerwas and Abbott said isn’t imminent in their view.
According to statistics shared by Zerwas, the Houston area still has 2,675 regular hospital beds and 247 ICU beds available, which represents 21 percent of total hospital beds in the region. There are currently 795 patients hospitalized with lab confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the greater Houston area, said Zerwas.
Data from Harris County public health authorities show that there are currently 10,029 active cases of COVID-19 between the city of Houston and the county as a whole. 6,969 area residents have recovered from the disease, and 284 have died as a result.
While Abbott told Texans that “doing the right thing” to limit the spread of coronavirus means wearing face masks in public in addition to social distancing and frequent hand washing, he still opposes enforcing individual mask-wearing under penalty of state law. He also isn’t considering giving mayors and county judges the authority to require face coverings in their jurisdictions, as Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo attempted to do before Abbott’s statewide reopening rules prevented her from making not wearing a mask in public an offense punishable by a fine.
Abbott instead told local officials that they should use other enforcement measures such as fining businesses. He also described a new state strategy of threatening the liquor licenses of bars and restaurants that serve alcohol that don’t comply with occupancy requirements. He said the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission has been instructed to do this at the state level.
Without providing specific statistics, Abbott also claimed that in “certain counties” including Lubbock, Bexar, and Cameron, “the majority” of people who have tested positive in recent days are under the age of 30, which aligns with the public scolding he gave Texans in their 20s for not being vigilant enough about maintaining social distance and wearing facemasks in a Monday interview with a local news station in Lubbock.
Other than maintaining a steady eye on state hospital capacity and surging state resources to coronavirus hot spots that may crop up in the future, Abbott’s remarks seemed to reflect a view that the main priority coming from the Governor’s Mansion is keeping Texas’s economic reopening plowing ahead at full-speed, while telling Texans that whether or not COVID-19 cases continue to surge in the weeks ahead is up to them.
“Every single individual in Texas has the unique ability and responsibility to make sure they don’t get COVID-19,” Abbott said.
Keep the Houston Press Free... Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Houston with no paywalls.