The expectation that Gov. Abbott will authorize a new wave of business re-openings sometime after the Labor Day holiday prompted an outcry from Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner Wednesday and elicited concern from Texas virus scholars who have kept a close watch over the state's COVID-19 metrics during the pandemic.
After reiterating his promise that Texas “wouldn’t have any more lockdowns” despite the pleas of Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo and Turner to be given back the authority to issue stay-home orders, Abbott wrote in a Monday night tweet that his statewide mask mandate in early July and his decision to re-close Texas bars have been successful in slowing COVID-19’s spread, which means it’s time to talk about loosening restrictions.
“Since my last orders in July, Covid numbers have declined—most importantly hospitalizations. I hope to provide updates next week about next steps,” Abbott tweeted.
It’s undeniable that the decrease in statewide COVID-19 hospitalizations — down to 4,149 as of Wednesday from 10,893 on July 22 — and daily new cases in Texas — down to 4,157 from 10,791 on July 15 — are good news and proof that Texans have been more serious about wearing masks and social distancing than they were during the pandemic’s mid-summer peak.
However, when it comes to whether or not it's time to open up Texas even further, infectious disease experts contacted by the Houston Press aren’t so sure.
“If we are reopening at a level that is far higher than we saw in April and May, that strikes me as pretty risky,” said Dr. Joseph McCormick, founder of the Brownsville campus of the UTHealth School of Public Health and professor of epidemiology, citing the rapid increase in cases and hospitalizations that came after the first phases of reopening, which happened back when daily new case numbers weren’t nearly as high as they are now.
“We have to remember that our businesses are not fully open now because of the surge, and the fact that we reopened not only too fast, but we were not prepared to practice the guidelines that were set for reopening. If we’re not there now, and we have higher levels than we had in April and May, then I don’t see how it’s possible for us to reopen without another surge,” McCormick cautioned.
On a day when he reported 18 more deaths in Houston attributed to COVID-19 (most of which occurred in July), Turner said he had been unsuccessful in finding out what Abbott exactly intends to do.
That didn’t stop Turner from already developing a statement – which he said he would not read Wednesday – although he hit the highlights during an afternoon press conference, sounding familiar points. Spread of the virus was under control when it was under local control. The numbers only shot up after Abbott stepped in and said the state would be in total control, Turner said. And he cautioned against any “unilateral decision” from the state instead of collecting input from local authorities first.
The local positivity rate stands at 7.8 percent which is an improvement Turner said, but is still not where the city needs to be before businesses can open up even more. And masks still need to be worn, he said.
“This is not the moment for people to think that we have reached our goals. We need to be very, very careful,” he said. He again issued cautions about the upcoming Labor Day weekend but did not mention possibly closing the city parks as he has done on other holiday weekends during the pandemic.
“I would certainly caution any movement to aggressively move forward without really looking hard at the data and quite frankly till that positivity rate is 5 percent or below.
The Press also contacted Dr. Jill Weatherhead, a Baylor College of Medicine assistant professor of infectious disease, who said while there's still room for improvement with the city's positivity rate, it's showing a promising downward trend, along with the number of coronavirus patients in local hospitals and new daily case counts.
Texas Medical Center data shows a multi-week decrease in COVID-19 hospitalizations and a general downward trend in new cases since June and July, which “is all really good news” Weatherhead said, adding this shows efforts to slow COVID-19’s spread in the Houston area have been working.
That said, Weatherhead stressed that other TMC metrics show COVID-19 isn’t yet fully under control across greater Houston.
In order to reach what the TMC calls "community control" of COVID-19, the Houston area needs to see significantly lower numbers of new COVID-19 cases each day and a reduction in the percentage of coronavirus tests that come back positive. Additionally, the TMC is hoping to see a decrease in the region's virus reproduction rate. Measured on a scale of zero to two, any reproduction rate above 1.0 means that COVID-19 is spreading at an unsafe level.
The good news is that TMC’s internal positivity rate of 5.8 percent as of Tuesday is close to its goal of a sustained rate of below 5 percent. Less encouraging are daily new cases, which were 1,116 across Harris County and the eight counties surrounding it on Tuesday, well above the community control threshold of less than 200 new daily cases in the region over 14 days. And the local reproduction rate sits at 1.11, the third straight day above 1.0 and a sign that the virus is still spreading.
“I think it’s a really difficult question,” Weatherhead said of deciding when and to what extent to reopen Texas safely. She referenced the obvious economic suffering caused by shuttered businesses and massive unemployment, as well as the reality that bringing more people into public settings will inherently cause more sickness and death in parts of the state where the virus isn't under control.
“Without that viral control, when you start to open up businesses and you allow people to come together, it may reverse all of that progress that was being made,” Weatherhead cautioned.
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During the city's press conference, Turner and Dr. David Persse of the Houston Health Department also announced a new antibodies testing survey the city is undertaking along with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Rice University, and Baylor College of Medicine.
City residents who are being selected randomly will be asked to agree to be tested during September 8-24 to determine if they have been exposed to COVID-19. There will be a follow-up survey next January which will involve other randomly selected residents as well as those who tested positive in the first survey. The purpose is to get a better idea of how widespread the pandemic has been in Houston.
Almost two hours after his public remarks Wednesday, Turner reversed himself after previously saying he'd hold off on his official statement until he knew exactly what Abbott's plan was, and instead released it. Turner's response to Abbott’s yet-to-be-announced reopening announcement crescendoed into a scathing indictment of the governor, as he accused Abbott of overreacting to COVID-19 trends just as he did months ago while cutting out local authorities.
“And now that numbers are better like in April, the Governor is about to embark on the same course again. It is frustrating that he is making decisions that impact all of us without including local officials in the process," Turner said. "The State is about to repeat its mistake, expecting a different result. Please tell that to the virus and explain that to the people who will suffer.”