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Coronavirus in Texas

Analysis: Casting nervous looks at Texas’ medical charts as numbers worsen

State leaders knew COVID-19 cases would rise as businesses and other public places opened, but steady increases over the last two weeks have everyone watching the numbers very closely.

Gov. Greg Abbott waits backstage before holding a press conference on the COVID-19 pandemic in Texas on May 5, 2020.

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Gov. Greg Abbott didn’t predict that the number of COVID-19 cases would fall as the state allowed businesses and cultural centers to reopen. In fact, he said allowing more people back into public places could increase the spread of infection.

And so it has, with several of what the governor has called the “key metrics” of this pandemic’s effect on Texas rising over the past two weeks — ever since the Memorial Day weekend. The increases are turning heads, increasing scrutiny on Abbott and other public officials who have been attempting to keep Texans safe without destroying the state’s economy or trampling on people’s civil liberties.

One big question was, and is, whether Texas has the medical resources to keep up — whether there are enough doctors, nurses, hospital beds and other medical assets for the people who need them at any particular time. Maybe it seems like a long time ago, but that “flattening the curve” slogan we all learned in March was all about making sure the disease doesn’t spread faster than our health system’s ability to respond.

Drops in the numbers encouraged policymakers to reopen various public gathering places they had temporarily closed. They still want us to wash our hands and wear masks and socially distance ourselves, even as life in Texas gets a little bit more like it was at the first of the year.

Increases, however, raise concerns, and in some cases, alarms. On Thursday, Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo unveiled a way to rate the threat of COVID-19 in that locality. Out of four colors, she pegged it on orange: “Significant and uncontrolled transmission of COVID-19. Minimize all contacts.”

The recent increases might be attributable to any number of changes in behavior, but it’s too early to tie increases in the number of cases to specific events. More people are out and about, with the state easing restrictions on everything from restaurants and bars to outdoor sports venues. The Memorial Day weekend brought big crowds out of their socially distanced lairs. And the large demonstrations for police reform and racial justice have drawn large crowds together every day for nearly two weeks.

Case numbers in Texas hit a new daily high Wednesday, and the seven-day average of cases reported daily has been rising steadily for the last two weeks.

As of Thursday, there were 2,008 people in Texas hospitals who tested positive for COVID-19, a number that also reflects a two-week upward trend in cases in Texas.

The rate of hospitalizations — the ratio of hospitalized patients to the total number of current cases in Texas — has been relatively flat and was at 8.5% on Wednesday. The number of hospitalizations has risen to all-time highs, though officials say hospitals have enough capacity to spare for now.

The infection rate, a measure of positive cases against the number of tests conducted, has been on an upward trend since mid-May and was at 11.9% on Tuesday. The seven-day average was lower, at 6.9%. Public health experts and the governor have said 6% or less is a goal or, as Abbott put it, an “encouraging sign.” The governor, who calls this number the “positivity rate,” has also said anything over 10% is a “red flag.” Testing in Texas is still inconsistent, with people outside of the big cities reporting delays and planning snafus.

July 4, the next big holiday weekend, is three weeks away. Memorial Day offered the people watching the numbers a chance to see what would happen if social distancing restrictions were relaxed even more than they had been in the first phase a few weeks earlier. Some of that might be what’s showing up in the numbers now.

There’s more ahead. Restaurants can let 75% of their customers in now. There’s a professional golf tournament underway in Fort Worth, albeit without the fairway gawkers, who’ve been relegated to their living rooms and their TV sets. Shopping centers are open.

And the crowds have continued to gather for demonstrations after the death of George Floyd, who was killed in the custody of Minneapolis police.

Getting large numbers of people together for long periods of time was just what the doctors ordered us to avoid at the start of the pandemic. The risk was clearly worthwhile to a large number of people, in Texas and elsewhere.

And those key metrics that the governor has us all watching will surely tell us, between now and Independence Day, how much risk we took when we reopened those restaurants and bars, barbershops and bowling alleys, shopping centers and water parks and with days and days of large and vivid protests against racial injustice and police violence.

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