COVID-19 is spreading in Texas at an alarming rate and must be brought under control without shutting down the state, Gov. Greg Abbott and local officials said Monday. But they disagreed about how best to flatten the new spike.
COVID-19 cases have increased in 23 states this month, according to data from Johns Hopkins University, including Texas, California, Florida and Arizona, where President Trump is expected this week.
California this month saw the most people hospitalized with COVID-19 (more than 3,500) and test positive in one day (4,515) since the pandemic's start, according to the state health department.
Unlike California, Texas is among a number of states whose governors have resisted mask requirements. Abbott, who rarely appears in public wearing a mask, never issued a stay-at-home order and was quick to start reopening businesses last month.
He arrived Monday at a COVID-19 briefing at the state Capitol wearing a red, white and blue cloth mask that he quickly removed; officials seated around him removed theirs, too.
“COVID-19 is now spreading at an unacceptable rate in Texas, and it must be corralled,” Abbott said. “We have several strategies for reducing the spread without shutting Texas down.”
Texas has reported 3,500 new COVID-19 cases and more than 3,200 hospitalizations each day for the past week, record highs for the pandemic, Abbott noted, with 9% of people testing positive — twice the rate reported at the end of May.
“If those spikes continue, additional measures will be necessary to ensure the health and safety of all Texans,” he said.
The statewide increase in COVID-19 infections and hospitalizations has been driven by spikes in Dallas, Houston and the rest of the state’s largest metro areas. Some mayors and county leaders have required masks at businesses, while others have not, including beach areas like Galveston County, which saw large crowds during the Memorial Day weekend and expects more for the Fourth of July (the mayor of Galveston city issued a mask order at businesses this week).
Some visitors arriving at Texas airports, malls and restaurants this week refused to wear masks.
Acknowledging that “some people feel that wearing a mask is inconvenient and an infringement of freedom,” Abbott urged people to wear them but stopped short of a mandate or of slowing the state’s reopening. As of this week, most Texas businesses had reopened, including malls, movie theaters, bars and restaurants.
Abbott said authorities had increased enforcement at bars and riverfront areas and would be stepping up testing in possible hot spots with help from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and 3,500 Texas National Guard troops. He insisted Texas hospitals had “abundant” capacity to treat COVID-19 patients.
“We don’t have to choose between jobs and health — we can have both,” Abbott said.
But at a briefing an hour later, Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner took a tone that was far more alarmed as he urged residents to comply with a new order requiring them to wear masks at local businesses.
“It’s critically important for everyone to mask up,” Turner said. "This is a healthcare crisis.”
Houston reported about 900 new COVID-19 cases Monday and each of the previous two days, a record.
“During this entire pandemic, we never reported those kinds of numbers. So it’s serious. We have to reverse those numbers,” Turner said. “We are moving very fast, and we are moving in the wrong direction.”
More than two dozen Houston COVID-19 testing sites equipped to test 500 people a day were running out of tests within hours. Some local hospitals were near capacity, forced to transfer COVID-19 patients for care elsewhere, city health officials said.
Turner praised state officials for cracking down on crowded bars that flouted conditions for reopening, even posting defiant messages online. But he said requiring masks “may not be enough to stem the spread” of the virus. More needs to be done, he said, but local officials don’t have the power to ban mass gatherings like those expected on the Fourth of July.
“That has been taken away,” he said, by state officials, who so far have refused to stop crowds from congregating at beaches and rivers.
Turner cited a prediction by Dr. Peter Hotez, professor and dean of Baylor College of Medicine’s National School of Tropical Medicine, that Texas COVID-19 infections could surpass those of other American cities and rival Brazil as the region with the most in the world.
“The trajectory is extremely worrisome — very aggressive, almost vertical,” Hotez said Monday. “There’s a real need for a culture shift here in order for people to take this seriously.”
Hotez said Houston has plenty of hospital beds at Texas Medical Center — 2,600 — but about half are full now. The city and state need more COVID-19 testing, contact tracing, urban monitoring and daily updates from the governor and other leaders.
Otherwise, he said, “we will be facing a dire public health crisis.”