While Abbott has touted the improvement in his state’s numbers, Texas and Mississippi are still faring worse than most states. When considering four metrics — new cases, test positivity rate, hospitalizations and deaths from covid-19, the disease caused by the virus — both states have worse numbers as a function of population than the national average. What’s more, the numbers of cases, deaths and rate of positive tests have been fairly flat for the past few weeks, accounting for the massive winter storm that paralyzed much of the region.
On the most stable metric for evaluating the pandemic, hospitalizations, both Texas and Mississippi are improving. But both states also have higher rates of hospitalization than the national average, and hospitalizations, like deaths, trail changes in new case totals.
(The data above, from the COVID Tracking Project, includes some anomalous data irrelevant to the point.)
The decisions to trust state residents to take the proper preventive measures — a confidence that has proven faulty elsewhere — threaten to accelerate new infections even as the vaccine rollout picks up steam. An increase in new infections has a correlated threat: the evolution of more dangerous or more resistant variants of the virus.
Unsurprisingly, Biden was critical of the decisions, particularly given the imminent increase in vaccine supply.
“The last thing we need,” he said on Wednesday, “is Neanderthal thinking that, in the meantime, everything is fine, take off your mask.”
In short order, Abbott attempted to blame Biden for the spread of the virus in his state. To do so, he made a tangential allegation.
“The Biden Administration is recklessly releasing hundreds of illegal immigrants who have COVID into Texas communities,” Abbott wrote on Twitter. “The Biden Admin. must IMMEDIATELY end this callous act that exposes Texans & Americans to COVID.”
This assertion that immigrants to the United States are vectors for dangerous disease is a well-worn one. There’s been academic research about the way in which immigration was attacked through the lens of public health. In 2014, when a surge of minors arrived at the U.S.-Mexico border fleeing violence in Central America, the same refrain emerged in conservative media: The immigrants are bringing illness.
In this case, Abbott’s intent may be less about attacking immigrants than attacking Biden. Or perhaps it’s a convenient twofer. But the effect is the same. The governor is suggesting it is immigrants who are spreading the virus in his state.
He repeated the claim in an interview on Fox News.
“The Biden administration was releasing illegal immigrant — illegal immigrants into our communities who had covid,” he said on “Fox & Friends” Thursday morning. “The Biden administration was spreading covid in South Texas yesterday because of their lack of constraint, of testing and quarantining people who’d come across the border illegally. The Biden administration was exposing Texans to covid.”
“That is Neanderthal-type approach to dealing with the covid situation,” he added.
In a separate interview on the network, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick (R-Tex.) made a similar assertion about immigrants coming into the state.
It’s obviously the case that someone crossing the border into Texas who is infected with the virus can spread it. But it is not obviously the case that this poses the biggest threat to the state. (It’s also not clear how many migrants might have the virus; one testing regimen in McAllen, Tex., identified no active cases.) As of Wednesday, the state was still averaging more than 7,000 new cases a day. Those are almost exclusively infections that occurred before Abbott scaled back restrictions on containment, given the latency period of the illness.
In the state’s most populous county, Harris County, there were more than 1,600 new cases on Wednesday. That’s the county where Houston is, and it’s not particularly close to the border.
The spread of the virus in Texas, in other words, is a function of Texans.
It’s politically convenient for Abbott to impugn Biden’s immigration policies as a spur for new infections. But it’s impossible to think that immigrants being processed by the federal government are in reality a substantial cause. It is similarly impossible to think that, should there be a substantial increase in new cases, the primary reason is detained immigrants and not unconstrained Americans.