AUSTIN, Texas — Gov. Greg Abbott, responding promptly after a key coronavirus metric he’s been watching hit “red flag” territory, again has moved to conserve hospital beds by halting elective surgeries.
On Tuesday, he suspended all medical procedures performed in hospitals that are “not immediately, medically necessary” in four South Texas counties — Cameron, Hidalgo, Nueces and Webb. The action came five days after Abbott did that in Bexar, Dallas, Harris, and Travis counties.
“As these counties experience a surge in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations, we are committed to working alongside hospitals to help ensure that every COVID-19 patient who needs a bed will have access to one,” the governor said of the South Texas counties in a written statement.
On Thursday, he also announced that he’s pausing any further reopening of businesses and other public activities until Texas can “corral” a recent surge in COVID-19 infections. And Thursday afternoon, he hinted in an interview with Victoria TV station KAVU that Texans “should anticipate more orders up in the coming days.”
“The last thing we want to do as a state is go backwards and close down businesses,” Abbott said in a written 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.”
The Republican governor’s Thursday actions came a day after the most recently reported seven-day average of the state’s “positivity rate” — the percentage of tests administered that produce a positive — exceeded 10% for the first time since April 18. Meanwhile, there were 4,738 coronavirus patients in Texas hospitals on Thursday — the 14th straight day of record hospitalizations. There were 5,996 new cases, another record, with 47 deaths — the highest total since May 20.
“Over the course of the past week, literally, there’s been an explosion in the number of COVID-19 patients, whether it be in Lubbock or the large cities or even small communities,” Abbott told KLBK-TV in Lubbock. “And as a result, because we now have this massive Increase in spread, it is essential that we do several things, one, press pause, not open up anything even further, but at the same time even crack down on violations that are occurring.
“But also we are going to be working on other strategies because we simply cannot accept this dramatic increase in COVID-19 patients because pretty soon, it could begin to overwhelm our hospital capacity. We cannot allow that to happen,” he said.
Throughout the coronavirus crisis and his decisions to try to halt growing joblessness by reopening business, Abbott has never specified what would trigger a rollback and renewed shutdown. On May 5, however, he said at a news conference, “If the positivity test rate is more than 10%, that’s one of those red flags that we begin to look at, not if it’s just a one-off day of testing more than 10% positive, but if there are multiple days that a trend line begins.”
Late Wednesday, the Department of State Health Services reported on its dashboard that the seven-day average for positivity hit 10.42% on Tuesday. Texas’ high point for the metric was 13.86% on April 13. On Thursday, the positivity rate for tests reported for the day was 11.76%.
For weeks Abbott has stressed that reopenings could continue as long as Texans take safety precautions, because the state still had ample hospital capacity to absorb any surge in infected people showing symptoms. He noted repeatedly that he could add to hospitals’ capacity, as he did in March, by again ordering postponement of elective surgeries.
Unlike the March order, though, the one he issued June 25 didn’t apply statewide, just to Dallas, Harris, Travis and Bexar counties.
It applied to all licensed hospitals in the four counties. The March 22 order, which he lifted as of May 8, applied to both licensed health care facilities and “all licensed health care professionals,” which included dentists.
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The June 25 order used similar language about what’s being halted. Abbott told big-metro hospitals to “postpone all surgeries and procedures that are not medically necessary to diagnose or correct a serious medical condition of, or to preserve the life of, a patient who without timely performance of the surgery or procedure would be at risk for serious adverse medical consequences or death, as determined by the patient’s physician.”
There is again wiggle room. The order allows unspecified other procedures if they “would not deplete any hospital capacity needed to cope with the COVID-19 disaster.”
In a release, the governor’s office noted that Abbott can issue future proclamations, if needed, to “add or subtract from the list of counties … to address surges in hospitalizations that may arise in other parts of the state.”
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In his statement, Abbott called the elective surgery halt “a precautionary step.” It helps keep adequate supplies of hospital beds, he explained.
“These four counties have experienced significant increases in people being hospitalized due to COVID-19,” he said.
Dr. Diana L. Fite, president of the Texas Medical Association, praised Abbott’s order for being “sharper and more focused” than his March 22 order that forbade physicians from performing elective procedures for nearly seven weeks.
“This is critical because we cannot revisit a time when our patients got sicker because physicians had so few options to provide needed care,” Fite, who is from the Houston area, said in a news release.
“Combined with Governor Abbott’s announcement that the state will take no additional steps for now to reopen the economy, with his earlier decisions giving local officials more authority and with his continued insistence that all Texans take common-sense safety precautions, this order gives Texas additional tools to respond to this pandemic,” she said.
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Ted Shaw, president of the Texas Hospital Association, said the state’s hospitals “recognize and appreciate today’s efforts to further protect the people of Texas. Our hospitals will continue to do their part on the front lines to provide medical care and space for COVID-19 patients.”
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Democrats urged Abbott to go farther. Nine Democrats in the Texas Congressional delegation, including Fort Worth Rep. Marc Veasey, wrote a letter asking Abbott to reinstate tougher safety measures.
“As we’ve said before, Governor Abbott was slow to act, and, now, he is slow to stem the spread of this virus,” the letter said. “The governor’s approach leaves hospitals across the state at a critical juncture as ICU beds now begin to fill at a rapid pace. You should reinstate public mask mandates, require social distancing protocols and consider reinstating a stay-at-home order as recommended by health care experts in order to protect the people of Texas.”
The letter noted that according to Johns Hopkins University, Texas’ seven-day average of COVID-19 cases has jumped 86% compared with a week ago and the state has reported record hospitalizations and daily increases in COVID-19 cases.
Abbott told the Lubbock TV station that reopenings were not the only reason for the spike.
“There could be several reasons why there was a sudden spike, and if you go back into the latter part of May, the numbers in Texas were looking very good,” he said. “And I think as summertime came along, there was what I call COVID fatigue and people were just tired of the lockdowns turning and not getting out. They wanted to go out and thinking that, well, COVID-19 is not a serious problem in the state of Texas.”
On business and public activity reopenings, Abbott on Thursday froze in place the different restrictions on capacity currently in effect, such as 75% on restaurants that have less than 51% of their gross sales from alcoholic beverages and 50% for bars, retail stores, offices, amusement parks, sporting events, water parks and swimming pools. In small counties with minimal cases, freedom to operate virtually everything at up to 75% capacity kicked in June 12.
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The protocols for different categories of businesses and different types of public activities are listed on the state health department’s website.
Businesses can stay at their current level but not expand capacity until further notice, Abbott said.
“As we experience an increase in both positive COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations, we are focused on strategies that slow the spread of this virus while also allowing Texans to continue earning a paycheck to support their families,” he said.
In both announcements, Abbott pleaded for Texans to comply with public health experts’ hygiene and distancing recommendations.
“I ask all Texans to do their part to slow the spread of COVID-19 by wearing a mask, washing their hands regularly and socially distancing from others,” he said in his statement on business reopenings.
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