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After Gov. Greg Abbott announced he was rolling back COVID-19 restrictions in Texas, frontline workers say they’re worried for what this new reality could mean for them — and others.
Brittany Smart is an ICU nurse in Texas who’s spent months treating some of the pandemic’s sickest patients. She told CNN the governor’s move is “nerve wracking.”
“We’re all pretty exhausted and I’m scared of what this is going to look like,” she told the outlet.
Tuesday, Abbott said he’d signed an executive order lifting the statewide mask mandate and allowing businesses and facilities to operate at 100% capacity. The rollbacks go into effect March 10.
“Make no mistake, COVID-19 has not disappeared,” he said. “But it is clear from the recoveries, vaccinations, reduced hospitalizations, and safe practices that Texans are using that state mandates are no longer needed.”
Since the onset of the pandemic, Texas has logged 2,304,081 confirmed cases of COVID-19 as of Thursday morning, according to data from the state department of health services. More than 43,000 people have died.
Keeping in trend with much of the nation, the number of new cases in Texas took a steep plunge in the new year, with the state’s seven-day average of new confirmed cases hovering around 4,500 as of Thursday — down from nearly 20,000 in January.
What health care workers have to say
Despite the drop in cases, Smart says Texas isn’t out of the woods.
“It’s not like the COVID patients are gone,” she told CNN. “It’s not like they’re not dying. It’s just that we no longer need a refrigerated truck outside, is the deal.”
“We don’t have people in the hallways anymore, stretchers,” she added. “So, breathing is a little bit easier but ... it’s not better.”
Many hoped the rollout of several COVID-19 vaccines was a light at the end of the tunnel for health care workers — and the nation — but many view what’s happening in Texas as a setback.
National Nurses United, a registered nurses union and association with more than 170,000 members, slammed Abbott’s decision, warning that it could cost lives.
“We are appalled that Gov. Abbott could take such an ill-advised step at a time when people are still dying, and the virus continues to spread throughout Texas, including in communities where our members live and work,” NNU President Jean Ross said in a news release.
Juan Anchondo, a registered nurse at Las Palmas Medical Center, said hospitals are struggling to stay staffed.
“The worst message we can send to our community is to let down our guard by stopping the wearing of masks and stopping the practice of physical distancing,” he said. “It is urgent that we discourage any behavior that will put more of our neighbors in our hospitals.”
Dr. David Persse, with the Houston Health Department, said he also fears the announcement puts Texans at risk.
“I’m at a bit of a loss for words,” Dr. Persse said, according to KHOU. “Let’s remember that somewhere in the neighborhood of 40 percent of the people who are infected have no symptoms and have no idea they are spreading it.”
What other frontline workers have to say
Workers on the frontline say the rollback in Texas puts them between a rock and a hard place.
Fidel Minor, a bus driver in Houston, said dropping the mask mandate could spark “mass chaos” for himself and other bus drivers who still have to enforce the federal mask mandate for public transit, the Houston Chronicle reported.
“It’s already a hard enough job as it is without having conflicting directives,” Minor told the newspaper.
Now that the mask mandate is being pulled, Stacy Brown, who manages the bakery at Phoenicia Specialty Foods in Houston, said she’s bracing for attitude when asking customers to wear face coverings.
“We’re gonna have people come into the store, not wanting to comply just because of what (Abbott) says,” Brown, who is in a high-risk group due to her diabetes, told the newspaper.
Small business owners have expressed similar concerns.
Danette Wicker owns Danette’s Urban Oasis, a spa in Fort Worth, and said she expects the lack of COVID-19 restrictions will make her job much harder.
“As a small business owner, it’s putting us in the firing line where you have to make the best decision for you and your business and you’re going to be fighting people who are literally celebrating in the streets,” she told KSAT.
“Here in Fort Worth people are having temper tantrums, knocking stuff off counters. People have had to be physically removed from businesses around here. I’m not one to be played with. You do anything in my personal business, I will not allow that foolishness.”
What federal officials have to say
During a Wednesday town hall, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert, called dropping mask mandates at this point in the pandemic “quite risky,” McClatchy News reported.
“That’s a dangerous sign because when that has happened in the past, when you pull back on measures of public health, invariably you’ve seen a surge back up,” Fauci said.
He warned in a Wednesday interview with CNN that the move is “ill-advised.”
“Just pulling back on all of the public-health guidelines that we know work — and if you take a look at the curve, we know it works — it’s just inexplicable why you would want to pull back now,” he said.
President Joe Biden also criticized Texas — and Mississippi, whose governor made a similar announcement Tuesday — for ending mask mandates.
“The last thing we need is neanderthal thinking that … everything’s fine, take off your mask and forget it. [Mask use] still matters,” he said, McClatchy News reported.
He cautioned that the country is still vulnerable and will be for months to come.
“We’re going to lose thousands more. ... We’ll not have everybody vaccinated until sometime in the summer.”
Since the pandemic began, the U.S. has logged nearly 29 million confirmed cases of coronavirus as of Thursday morning, according to data from Johns Hopkins University. More than 518,000 people have died.
Nearly 27 million people in the U.S. have been fully vaccinated — about 8% of the population, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.