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Gov. Greg Abbott announced Thursday morning that he will pause any further phases of reopening businesses in Texas and that he is once again putting a stop to elective surgeries to preserve bed space for coronavirus patients in certain counties that are seeing a surge of COVID-19 cases.
Abbott's latest action does not reverse any of the reopening phases he's already allowed — meaning that bars, restaurants, malls, bowling alleys and other businesses can still remain open with some occupancy limitations. Restaurants can operate at 75% capacity, and virtually all other businesses, including bars, can operate at 50%.
“The last thing we want to do as a state is go backwards and close down businesses, ” he wrote in a Thursday press release, but the "pause will help our state corral the spread."
The latest ban on elective procedures applies to Bexar, Dallas, Harris and Travis counties, which have seen a rapid increase in the number of patients hospitalized with the virus.
Just Tuesday, Abbott stressed that hospital capacity in Texas was “abundant.” A day later, he acknowledged in a TV interview that capacity issues in some parts of the state "may necessitate a localized strategy."
Statewide, the number of hospitalizations has reached record highs for two weeks, soaring to 4,739 on Thursday morning and tripling since Memorial Day. On Wednesday, the state had 1,320 available intensive care unit beds and nearly 13,000 available hospital beds, but with regional disparities.
[Read more: The coronavirus positivity rate has exceeded the “warning flag” level that Greg Abbott set when businesses reopened.]
In hard-hit areas, some hospitals have begun moving coronavirus patients from crowded ICUs to other facilities, and local leaders have warned that hospitals could get overwhelmed if the number of infections keeps climbing. In the greater Houston area, the Texas Medical Center said Thursday that its intensive care units have reached 100% of base capacity. The center has said that once those beds are filled, its hospitals and care facilities can create an additional 373 ICU beds for "sustained use" and add another 504 temporary ICU beds for significant surges in COVID-19 cases.
Marc Boom, head of the Houston Methodist hospital system, said last week, “Should the number of new cases grow too rapidly, it will eventually challenge our ability to treat both COVID-19 and non-COVID 19 patients.”
On Thursday, Texas Medical Center leaders said the center is not in immediate danger of exceeding bed capacity. During a joint news conference, Boom said it does “have the capacity to care for many more patients.” David Callender, CEO of Memorial Hermann Health System, said officials there are used to “making adjustments on the fly.”
[Read more: Texas’ biggest public universities will require masks this fall. Enforcement will be a challenge.]
Travis and Harris counties are also reviving plans to create temporary hospital facilities to prepare for overwhelmed hospitals — plans that were largely put on hold earlier this year after widespread stay-at-home orders slowed the pandemic in Texas.
Other parts of Texas are also seeing available hospital beds dwindle.
Dallas Mayor Eric Johnson planned to meet with Dallas County officials and the Dallas-Fort Worth Hospital Council on Thursday to discuss reactivating a plan to use the Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Center as a pop-up medical facility.
Laredo TV station KGNS reported Wednesday night that Victor Treviño, the health authority there, has contacted the commissioner of the Texas Department of State Health Services to fast-track the diversion of COVID-19 patients to other hospitals because ICU units in the city's hospitals are reaching capacity.
The statewide elective surgery ban lasted about a month before Abbott eased it, allowing hospitals to resume nonessential procedures under certain conditions, as long as 15% of beds were reserved for coronavirus patients.
[Read more: Unemployment has nearly tripled in the Rio Grande Valley. The ongoing coronavirus pandemic has hit the area’s economy especially hard.]
Abbott announced the most recent phase of reopening June 3. That phase included a cascade of reopenings through June 19, when amusement parks and carnivals in counties with more than 1,000 cases were allowed to open at 50% capacity.
In recent weeks, Abbott has largely not previewed any additional phases, as he did earlier in the reopening process. A week ago, he discussed the possibility of soon allowing more visitors at nursing homes, though that seems unlikely given the rapidly increasing case numbers since then.
The Texas Democratic Party criticized Abbott's handling of the pandemic Thursday in a written statement, calling his reopening plan "reckless" and saying that pausing it now is "too little, too late."
Patrick Svitek contributed to this report.