Texas Governor Halts Reopening With U.S. Nearing New Covid Peak

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Texas Governor Greg Abbott halted the phased reopening of the state’s economy amid mounting criticism that his swift relaxation of lockdowns gave rise to a surge in Covid-19 cases and hospitalizations.

Businesses that were already permitted to open can continue to operate, but won’t be allowed to increase occupancy limits, according to a statement from the governor’s office. Abbott also suspended elective surgeries in the state’s biggest cities to free hospital space as Houston ran out of intensive-care beds.

The measures were the first indications that the Republican governor is willing to slow or scale back some the reopening he initiated eight weeks ago. Abbott was quick to follow the lead of President Donald Trump, encouraging businesses to operate despite the pandemic and overruling local efforts to enact stringent controls. But the contagion is increasingly dictating events.

“We reopened too early,” said Peter Hotez, dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine. “Masks alone are not going to be adequate. We are going to have to prescribe some sort of social-distancing requirements.”

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The virus is racing across the U.S., extending its tentacles into places largely spared at the beginning of the outbreak three months ago. On Wednesday, America recorded 34,588 new Covid-19 cases, nearing the peak of 36,188 set April 24, when the virus was hammering New York. Now, Florida, Texas, California and Arizona account for almost half of all new cases.

Covid-19 deaths could rise by about 47% to 180,000 by October, according to the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation.

Across a growing number of states, nonessential businesses such as bars and nightclubs -- many already teetering on the brink of insolvency -- must wait to reopen fully, if at all. North Carolina also paused its reopening this week, along with Louisiana and Kansas, signaling a growing sense of caution nationwide.

Still, many state governments have refrained from tightening restrictions again, as some public health experts say they must.

Abbott’s turnabout came as Houston’s Covid-19 outbreak accelerated at an exponential pace that will swamp the city’s medical infrastructure by the Independence Day holiday, according to Hotez.

Community Transmission

“The last thing we want to do as a state is go backwards and close down businesses,” Abbott said in his statement. “This temporary pause will help our state corral the spread until we can safely enter the next phase of opening our state for business.”

Even as Houston-area intensive-care wards filled to capacity, the worst is yet to come because of “the huge amount of transmission going on in our community,” Hotez said in an interview Thursday.

Current trends in Harris County, which includes Houston, indicate the caseload will triple or quadruple by mid-July, Hotez said, citing modeling by the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia’s PolicyLab. Such a scenario would be “apocalyptic,” he said. “We can’t go there.”

Houston sprawls over hundreds of square miles of swampy southeast Texas, a landscape of freeways and shopping malls largely unhindered by zoning. It has a metropolitan area of about 7 million residents who compose one of the most diverse communities in the nation. And like other major cities in the state, its mainly Democratic leaders have found themselves at odds with Abbott and Republicans who have diluted urban power in politics.

U.S. Representative Veronica Escobar, an El Paso-area Democrat, said Thursday that Abbott “is far more interested in the economy than in human life.”

“You’ve got address the health crisis before you address the economic crisis,” she said. “If you ignore the health crisis, this is what you get.”

Football-Field Hospital

Abbott’s suspension of elective surgeries affects Harris, Dallas, Bexar and Travis counties, according to a statement from the governor’s office. Zimmer Biomet, Stryker and HCA Healthcare were among the worst performers in the S&P 500 Health Care Index Thursday morning after the news broke.

“These four counties have experienced significant increases in people being hospitalized due to Covid-19 and today’s action is a precautionary step to help ensure that the hospitals in these counties continue to have ample supply of available beds to treat Covid-19 patients,” Abbott said in the statement.

The Texas Medical Center -- a cluster of hospitals, research facilities and medical schools south of downtown Houston -- said the region’s intensive-care capacity had reached maximum capacity, a situation that will force medical authorities to convert other facilities to ad hoc Covid-19 wards. Harris County officials said they are prepared to reopen a field hospital at a professional football stadium if so-called surge capacity shows signs of strain.

The Medical Center can double its Covid-19 capabilities without overstretching staff or supply lines, Chief Executive Officer Bill McKeon said in an interview.

Youth Factor

”Obviously, when we see numbers that are growing exponentially, that’s always a concern to us,” McKeon said. “But remember, capacity is like a giant bathtub. Sooner or later, if water goes unchecked and the faucets are filling, then at some point any place, even the biggest medical city in the world, will overflow.”

The Medical Center is seeing more young patients admitted, which means they’re less likely to require intensive care, McKeon said. More concerning is that the trend probably indicates that young people aren’t practicing social distancing or masking up, whether because they’re socializing in crowded bars or have less ability to do so when they go to work, he said.

“If people do not change their behavior and really take this seriously across the entire community, then that will be a problem in the future,” McKeon said.

— With assistance by Billy House

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