Texas followed White House guidelines for reopening. It saw a spike in cases anyway.

by | Jul 1, 2020 | Coronavirus, Policy

In an interview with Fox News on Tuesday, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick attacked Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease specialist who under a vacuum of leadership from President Trump, has somewhat unwillingly become the country’s most sobering voice on battling the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Fauci said today that he’s concerned about states like Texas that skipped over certain things,” Patrick said in the interview. “He doesn’t know what he’s talking about. We haven’t skipped over anything. The only thing I’m skipping over is listening to him.”

Patrick was inaccurately referring to comments made by Fauci during a U.S. Senate hearing on Tuesday. Fauci did not specifically mention Texas by name, he simply said some states with a rise in coronavirus cases were, “going too quickly and skipping over some of the checkpoints.”

Those checkpoints, a series of mild non-binding guidelines by the White House, gave states the option to choose from two goals before reopening. The first was a downward trajectory of documented cases for two weeks before reopening — which Texas never met — and the second was a two-week downward trajectory in the percentage of COVID-19 tests that came back positive, which Texas did meet.

“The challenge is that looking at the positivity rate and looking at case numbers are two very different things,” Christine Crudo Blackburn, Texas A&M’s Pandemic and Biosecurity Policy Program Deputy Director, told the Signal. “Saying its one or the other is where you get into trouble, especially in Texas because if you’re looking at the positivity rate, if you’re conducting more tests and you have a similar rate of spread or only a small increase, you’re not really going to see an increase in that positivity rate.”

“But at the same time in Texas — this is very publicly stated by our health officials — each time you test the same person, that counts as new tests,” Blackburn said explaining how the number of tests could get inflated. “So, I think following the positivity rate is not the same as following your confirmed case count numbers in terms of knowing where you are in the outbreak and how it’s going on around you.” 

Did Texas ignore White House guidelines?

When looking at the COVID-19 positivity rate in two-week stretches since the data became available, Texas saw a decline in the state’s positivity rate in April and May as Gov. Greg Abbott kicked off the first three phases of Texas’ reopening.

In other words, Texas did follow at least one of the White House benchmarks for reopening. It’s now clear only meeting one of two gating criteria was a costly decision.

Texas is now seeing a massive surge in cases. On Tuesday, it saw its highest-ever daily total for new cases, 6,975 in a single day. That same day, the state also reported a record-breaking 6,533 Texans were being treated in hospitals for COVID-19. And the positivity rate for COVID-19 tests jumped to 14 percent this past week — putting Texas right back to square one when it comes to the state’s infection rate.

With Texas barreling towards disaster, it’s become increasingly clear Abbott and Patrick’s biggest mistake when reopening was listening to the Trump Administration. That’s because the White House guidelines for reopening are sparse in detail, something they were criticized for back in April when they were released.

One of the leading criticisms for the guidelines was that they failed to include specifics on adequate testing, a mistep Harvard Global Health Institute director Ashish Jha predicted would become a problem. 

Conversely, the World Health Organization is more specific and recommends governments see a COVID-19 test positivity rate under 5 percent for two weeks before reopening. If Texas would have followed those rules, it would have never have reopened in May. 

Likewise, there were other reopening guides that were produced by health and policy-related institutions, that if followed, would also have slowed Texas’ reopening. John Hopkins advised governors have a two-week decline in cases and sufficient contact tracing for all new cases. The American Enterprise Institute, a Washington-based think tank, also provided a road map to reopening with similar recommendations to John Hopkins. Again, if their advice was heeded, Texas would not have reopened due to pitifully weak per capita testing and insufficient contact tracing.

With 2,481 fatalities and counting, Texas has so far managed to escape the level of death seen in coastal states where the pandemic hit first. But there’s still time to hit the breaks, go backward, and start anew with more consideration for people than profits, and with less advice from a president whose pandemic response began by calling the virus a hoax.

Photo: Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images

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