The question is hardly hypothetical. The Associated Press reports, “Texas is lifting its mask mandate, Gov. Greg Abbott said Tuesday, making it the largest state to no longer require one of the most effective ways to slow the spread of the coronavirus … where the virus killed more than 42,000 people.” Abbott also will open businesses “100 percent” — apparently abandoning any social distancing requirements.
Local medical experts are not pleased. As Lauren Ancel Meyers, a professor of integrative biology and director of the University of Texas COVID-19 Modeling Consortium, told the AP: “The fact that things are headed in the right direction doesn’t mean we have succeeded in eradicating the risk.” Meyers pointed to Texas’s statewide power outage debacle (which Abbott tried to falsely blame on green energy) that left millions without heat, electricity or clean drinking water.
The AP reports: “She said the recent deadly winter freeze in Texas that left millions of people without power — forcing families to shelter closely with others who still had heat — could amplify transmission of the virus in the weeks ahead, although it remains too early to tell. Masks, she said, are one of the most effective strategies to curb the spread.”
It is not hard to imagine that Abbott is using the latest gambit to deflect attention from his responsibility for the energy grid disaster. Unfortunately, the rollback in mask and social distancing requirements could increase Texas’s death toll from covid-19 (already the third-highest in the country).
Texas also ranks a miserable 45th among states and territories in terms of the percentage of the population that has been vaccinated. That means many vulnerable people (the elderly, immunocompromised individuals, health-care workers, etc.) will have to navigate a state in which masks and other social distancing restrictions are widely ignored.
Abbott’s actions are directly contrary to the advice from Anthony S. Fauci, President Biden’s chief medical adviser, and Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Now is not the time to relax restrictions,” Walensky said at last Friday’s briefing. “We may be done with the virus, but clearly, the virus is not done with us.”
Appearing on CNN’s “State of the Union” on Sunday, Fauci had this discussion with Dana Bash:
BASH: As you know, Dr. Fauci, many governors across the country are beginning to ease some restrictions that you were just talking about. New York is opening movie theaters. Massachusetts and North Carolina are relaxing capacity restrictions on indoor dining. Is that premature?FAUCI: Well, I mean, amen to what Dr. Walensky said, because, if you look at the curve, Dana, it’s coming down sharply, but the last several days, it’s kind of plateaued at around 70,000 new infections per day.Let’s look at what history has taught us. If you go back and look at the various surges, whenever we hit a peak and start coming down, understandably, totally understandably, you say, well, let’s pull back.We’re going to ultimately be pulling back, but you want to get the level of baseline infections per day very low, because, if you look at that little plateau, particularly in the arena of having variants such as we have in California and such as we have in New York, it is really risky to say it’s over, we’re on the way out, let’s pull back, because what we can see is that we turn up.It isn’t hypothetical, Dana, because just look historically at the late winter, early spring of 2020, at the summer of 2020. When we started to pull back prematurely, we saw the rebound. We definitely don’t want that to happen.BASH: So, is this premature? Are the easing of those restrictions too...FAUCI: Yes, I would think it is. I think we — yes, I think, obviously, each individual state and city needs to look at the situation in their own location, where they are.But, in general, to think just because the cases are coming down on a daily basis, take a look at the pattern, and just watch over the next several days to a week. If we do this and start coming up, then we're going to go right back to the road of rebounding.So, that’s the reason why I agree completely with what Dr. Walensky has said.
Fauci, Walensky and virtually all other experts have told us that masking and social distancing remain essential both to prevent others from being infected and to tamp down on mutations, which occur when the virus is transmitted. Put simply, Abbott’s recklessness puts all Americans at risk. (This is the umpteeth example of “pro-life” Republican governors showing disdain for human life.)
Just hours after Abbott announced his rollback, Biden delivered remarks at the White House heralding the rollout of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine and an agreement that Merck will help manufacture it, ensuring we will have enough vaccine to inoculate all adults by the end of May. Biden reiterated, “Now is not the time to let our guard down.” He did not mention Texas specifically, but his warning could not have been more pointed.
At some point, we need to question the efficacy of giving massive amounts of covid-19 aid to governors who deliberately make it harder to control and wipe out the pandemic. While we do not want to harm further the people Abbott is imperiling (e.g., elderly Texans), some portion of the relief needs to be conditioned on maintenance of basic precautions. Maybe that should be included as a factor in the formula to dispense state and local aid.
At the very least, the covid-19 task force, which has understandably attempted to work cooperatively with governors, needs to be publicly candid: Abbott is endangering lives.