About an hour earlier, though, there was a more baffling announcement from Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R). He was issuing an executive order “to lift the mask mandate and open Texas to 100 percent” — in other words, to completely rescind efforts to keep the virus contained.
The timing of Abbott’s announcement is hard to parse. It’s been known for months that the vaccines will soon be widely available, meaning the frustration at containment measures like business limitations and masks will soon ebb as we achieve herd immunity through effective inoculations.
This is one reason Rochelle Walensky, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said on Monday that states should be cautious about scaling back containment measures. Another was the spread of more contagious variants, three of which have already been confirmed in Houston, Texas’s largest city.
“At this level of cases with variants spreading, we stand to completely lose the hard-earned ground we have gained,” Walensky said. “These variants are a very real threat to our people and our progress.”
It’s clearly not the case that Texas has achieved sufficient immunity to disregard these concerns. The state has done one of the worst jobs in the country of vaccinating its residents, though that was negatively affected by the recent winter storm. That’s the asterisk to the Biden announcement, of course: Vaccine ability doesn’t mean uniform ability to quickly distribute it.
Abbott is instead appealing to the ability of Texans to take necessary precautions on their own, an optimism that recent history suggests is not warranted. Abbott announced a stay-at-home order in late March, moving quickly to lift it once Donald Trump’s administration began advocating for broad reopenings. By summer, Texas had become an epicenter of new case spikes nationally. Abbott implemented a mask mandate on July 2, when the state was seeing about 6,300 new cases a day. Over the next few weeks, as existing infections became symptomatic, new case totals topped 10,000. By early September, though, they’d fallen again.
In early October, Abbott began scaling back restrictions on restaurants and bars. Nationally, a third wave of cases was just beginning, and Texas ended up seeing more than 23,000 new cases a day and, at the worst moment, more than 336 new deaths each day.
In recent weeks, the number of cases and deaths in Texas have dropped, as they have elsewhere in the country. Today, data from the COVID Tracking Project indicates that the seven-day average of new cases is at more than 8,000, well over the number when the mandate was first implemented as journalist David Gura noted.
The trend is good, but a plunge in testing due to that storm has made it hard to know how much of a drop the state has seen. Hospitalization data, which tends to be more stable, indicates that there are 6,000 Texans currently hospitalized — but that’s down from 14,000 or so in the middle of January and is below the level seen in early July.
Until that summer spike, Texas was actually seeing relatively few cases given how much of the population it constitutes. By October, though, Texas made up a larger percentage of coronavirus cases than did the country. (The number of coronavirus deaths is still slightly lower than the percentage of Texans.) Then the spike came.
Walensky’s point was that the country (and states) shouldn’t settle for “better than January” as a benchmark, given how bad January was. Texas has other advantages that not all states share, like usually moderate weather in early spring facilitating outdoor activities. But particularly given how close the country is to being able to resume normal activity while containing the virus, it’s hard to understand why Abbott has decided to suddenly take his foot off the brake.
It also risks the thing we can least afford: providing an opportunity for the virus to spread widely enough that another, more dangerous variant might emerge. Perhaps even a variant that is resistant to the available vaccines. There’s a very small risk, in other words, that Texas isn’t only already celebrating a victory it hasn’t attained, but that it might also push the finish line even further away.