Texas has not flattened the curve — far from it — but there are signs of improvement. On Tuesday, Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner reported no new COVID-19 deaths in the city for the second day in a row, the first time that’s happened in Houston since the outbreak began.
In a press briefing the same day, Gov. Greg Abbott said the number of positive cases in the state appeared to be “leveling off” and said the number of new daily cases hasn’t surpassed more than 1,000 since April 9.
“It’s not because COVID-19 is suddenly dispersed from the geography of the state of Texas,” Abbott said. “The reason why it is leveling off is because our fellow Texans have done such a great job of reducing their interactions with others.”
In truth, it’s not just that fellow Texans are staying at home, it’s that local governments have ordered them to do so and have also closed businesses to prevent gatherings.
As Abbott plans the phased reopening of Texas and as President Trump pressures governors to “liberate” their states, local governments of major Texas metro areas remain wary about prematurely opening. Last week, Austin and Travis County’s stay-at-home order were extended until May 8. Dallas County commissioners voted on Tuesday to extend the county’s stay-at-home order until May 15.
In Harris County, where the county’s stay-at-home order is set to expire next Friday (the same day as the statewide order), County Judge Lina Hidalgo recently said she is still waiting for more data to make an official decision about extending or lifting the order. But in a Tuesday briefing, she warned of a recent uptick in hospital admissions and said the country needed to continue social distancing to flatten the curve, hinting at a possible extension.
“The idea with this is, of course, to open the economy,” Hidalgo said of flattening the curve. “But most importantly, it’s for us to keep the economy open once we do open it back up.”
“Right now we are winning this fight, but we don’t want to steal defeat from the jaws of victory,” Hidalgo said.
A second, bigger wave
Another sign of promise for Texas overcoming the outbreak are projections estimating the state has already likely passed its peak in new daily deaths. These models — one by the University of Texas and another by the University of Washington — base their projections on social distancing being maintained. So while they predict that deaths from the virus in the state will reach zero by mid to late May, the models also assume that the same level of social distancing in place right now — a statewide stay-at-home order with the closure of nonessential business such as bars and gyms — will be carried out until the virus is quashed.
That means these projections best serve as roadmaps for breaking the curve rather than a promise for a rosy future. For example, Georgia is also projected to be near or past its peak in daily deaths. With Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp announcing the reopening of gyms, nail salons, bowling alleys, and more, those estimates are now out the window.
Texas hasn’t announced anything that drastic, yet. State parks reopened Monday and retail curbside pickup will be allowed starting Friday. Still, many people who have Abbott’s ear, like Lt. Gov Dan Patrick, are clamoring for more. This week, Patrick may as well have joined protestors on the streets when he appeared on “Tucker Carlson Tonight” to encourage more Texans to die for the economy and to say that reopening the state was “long overdue.”
Others, like members of the Tea Party-aligned Texas House Freedom Caucus and Michael Quinn Sullivan, the CEO of the rightwing PAC Empower Texans, have joined Patrick in calls to rapidly and dangerously reopen the economy. Sullivan critcized Abbott earlier this week for not following in Georgia’s footsteps. He kept up his attacks on Wednesday following Abbott’s briefing:
Health experts are already warning of another looming spike in coronavirus in the U.S. as states begin to reopen without a vaccine or sufficient herd immunity. Peter Marks, director of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s Center for Biologics Evaluation and Research, recently told reporters it was possible the U.S. could see a second or even third wave of cases.
Those predictions were echoed by CDC Director Robert Redfield to The Washington Post on Tuesday. “There’s a possibility that the assault of the virus on our nation next winter will actually be even more difficult than the one we just went through,” Redfield said.
Texas will eventually have to reopen, but doing so before the virus is at least somewhat contained and without social distancing measures could see the trend quickly reverse and once again threaten hospital capacity. Cities in Asia further along the curve have seen exactly that happen as travel restrictions and social distancing measures were eased.
Wuhan, China, the city where the virus first emerged, ended its lockdown after 10 weeks. By then, residents had access to widespread PPE, testing, and only three cases were reported in the three weeks leading up to the end of the lockdown.
Texas is nowhere near that prepared for its reopening. The Lone Star State consistently ranks near the bottom in the U.S. for testing. Many healthcare facilities in the state are still facing a shortage of PPE.
As local leaders are demonstrating again by moving ahead of Abbott in their pandemic response, the best thing for Texas is to stay on course. The most tragic mistake for Texas right now would be for the state to become a victim of its own early signs of success.
Photo: Alissa Ecker/CDC