Texas is facing a tipping point in the state’s battle with COVID-19.
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R), who is fully vaccinated, tested positive for COVID-19 this week as deaths in his state from the coronavirus have more than doubled in the last two weeks and hospitals have reached capacity.
While Abbott suffered a relatively rare breakthrough infection, less than half the state’s total population is fully vaccinated against the virus, putting them at heavy risk of getting COVID-19.
The massive spike in cases could also easily climb more, with unvaccinated students across the state returning to school this week amid a battle with Abbott over mask mandates in classes to protect children aged 12 and under, who do not yet have the option to be vaccinated.
The dynamics have put everyone on edge and have created heated political battles between Abbott and the Democratic leaders of several urban centers.
“We are concerned about escalating numbers. Our cases yesterday were higher than our seven-day moving average, our hospitalizations higher than our seven-day moving average, ICUs higher than our seven-day moving average, so we are still real concerned about the numbers we are seeing,” Austin Mayor Steve Adler (D) told The Hill on Wednesday.
“We do know that the best way, and really the only way, out of this long-term is for people to get vaccinated, so we are doing everything we can to get more and more people vaccinated.”
Austin is one of a handful of Texas cities that has fought back against Abbott’s executive order against mask mandates. The Texas Supreme Court earlier this week issued a temporary order banning mask mandates issued in cities, including Dallas and San Antonio.
Following the ruling, Abbott defended the decision to ban mask mandates, tweeting that “the ban doesn’t prohibit using masks. Anyone who wants to wear a mask can do so, including in schools.”
But at the same time, Texas is enduring a massive increase in COVID-19 cases. It's counting an average of 15,500 new cases per day, with hospitals and intensive care units nearing or at capacity in many areas.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) considers almost 94 percent of counties in Texas to have high transmission. Only eight of 254 counties don’t fall under the agency’s recommendations for fully vaccinated people to wear masks indoors.
Out of any state, Texas ranks second for both the most adults with confirmed COVID-19 in hospitals and intensive care units, trailing behind Florida, according to data from the Department of Health and Human Services.
The Lone Star State narrowly has the most hospitalized children with confirmed COVID-19 diagnoses, counting 196 children currently, compared to Florida’s 190 pediatric hospitalizations.
Democrat Mike Collier, who is running for lieutenant governor, called the COVID-19 situation in Texas a “nightmare” and blamed the current administration, saying Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick (R) did not motivate residents to get the vaccine.
“For political reasons only, they let this virus run wild,” Collier told The Hill. “And the scientists told us that there would be variants, and that's exactly what happened. And I lay this at their feet.”
Spokespeople for Abbott and Patrick did not return requests for comment.
President BidenJoe BidenBiden: Democrats' spending plan is 'a bigger darn deal' than Obamacare Biden says he's open to altering, eliminating filibuster to advance voting rights Biden: Comment that DOJ should prosecute those who defy subpoenas 'not appropriate' MORE has also called on Republican governors who have banned mask mandates, including Abbott and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantisRon DeSantisOvernight Health Care — Presented by Carequest — Key CDC panel backs Moderna, J&J boosters GOP senators call on Biden to back down from vaccine mandates DeSantis to call special session of legislature to fight vaccine mandates MORE, to “get out of the way” of schools and businesses that want to implement COVID-19 restrictions.
“Unfortunately, as we’ve seen throughout this pandemic, some politicians are trying to turn public safety measures, as children wearing masks in schools, into political disputes for their own political gain,” Biden said during a Wednesday speech. “Some are even trying to take power away from local educators by banning masks in schools. They’re setting a dangerous tone.”
“I’ve made it clear that I’ll stand with those who are trying to do the right thing,” the president added.
Adler said he hoped Abbott’s mild encounter with the virus — the governor says he is not symptomatic — would encourage Texans to get vaccinated.
“My hope is that the more people see breakthrough cases that do not result in hospitalizations and are relatively mild, that more people will trust the vaccines and be willing to take it,” Adler told The Hill.
But Jamarr Brown, the co-executive director of the Texas Democratic Party, said he doesn’t think Abbott’s experience is going to change the governor’s approach.
“He needs to make a change,” Brown said. “Will he? I don’t know.”
“He’s putting schools and children in harm's way for his own political gain,” he added.
Just 45.5 percent of Texas’s total population and 56.6 percent of adults are fully vaccinated against the virus.
The state’s lower vaccination rate plays a “huge role” in the current COVID-19 wave, said Angela Clendenin, an instructional assistant professor at Texas A&M University's School of Public Health.
She noted the state has reached a point where not enough residents are getting the jab, giving the virus a chance to mutate and develop more transmissible variants like the delta strain.
“It's just like this great, big open space for the virus to continue to infect people and even to mutate further,” she said. “The low vaccination rate, the lack of mask mandates, all that is doing is creating an opportunity for a more severe wave to happen in the future.”
David Dowdy, an associate professor of epidemiology at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, said Texas is not an “outlier” as much of the country struggles with delta but that COVID-19 has become more “widespread” in the state recently.
The back-to-school season could give “another jumpstart to the virus,” he said. He recommended that officials focus on finding where transmission is happening, such as in schools, and take action to prevent that spread.
“It's just important that we recognize that measures that are put in place right now don't have to be in place forever,” Dowdy said. “But as cases are going up, it's important for us to react before things get even further out of hand.”
Some school districts have already hit roadblocks this year, with Iraan-Sheffield Independent School District in West Texas announcing a two-week shutdown starting Tuesday and Leander Independent School District reaching beyond 100 cases in its first week of school.
Several school districts are finding ways to buck the governor’s executive order against mask mandates.
The school district in Paris, Texas, announced Wednesday that masks would be part of the dress code. The Austin Independent School District said ahead of the first day of school this week that masks would still be required, noting that the Supreme Court ruling did not apply to the district.
Adler stressed the need to get vaccinated and wear masks in order to “turn the tide” of the pandemic. He also said discussions were underway about how to handle mass events, such as the Austin City Limits music festival.
“I think that we are going to have to live with this COVID virus for a while and we are going to have to learn how to continue living with that presence in our lives,” Adler said. “What I think that is going to have to mean is more and more events and opportunities and activities that are really just open to people that have been vaccinated.”
“I hope it helps encourage some to get vaccinated that might not otherwise do,” he said.