This story originally appeared in The Texas Tribune.
Texas surpassed 1 million cases of COVID-19 on Friday, according to state data, eight months after the first case was recorded in the state.
Texas joins California, which has 10 million more residents than Texas, as the nation’s leaders in coronavirus cases.
As the coronavirus pandemic continues a late-year surge in Texas, state officials have not imposed additional restrictions to curb the virus’ spread. Some local officials complain that they’re hamstrung by the governor’s executive orders, which override any city or county actions aimed at slowing COVID-19.
The Texas Tribune counts only confirmed positive cases of COVID-19, following methodology used by the Texas Department of State Health Services and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The state agency does not include probable cases in its total case count.
Cases surged in June and July in Texas, fueled in part by the reopening of restaurants and businesses. Gov. Greg Abbott later walked back reopening plans, required Texans to wear masks in public spaces and ordered bars to close, while holding regular press conferences to update the public on the state’s pandemic response.
New cases of the virus began to fall, then plateaued in late summer.
Now the coronavirus is surging again. On Friday, the state reported 7,083 people hospitalized with COVID-19. Hospital beds in West Texas are scarce, and area morgues are overflowing with bodies.
“Seeing the good data [in late summer] seemed to send a signal that we were in the right direction and we were in the clear,” said Angela Clendenin, an epidemiologist and biostatistician at the Texas A&M University School of Public Health. “And I think people lost their vigilance.”
Even as the number of people hospitalized statewide with COVID-19 reaches a level last seen in July, Abbott has shown little appetite to give more authority to local governments or announce new measures to slow the virus’ spread.
In October, he announced bars could reopen if local governments approved and expanded restaurant capacity to 75%. As part of his October order, stricter limits on businesses are permitted only when patients with COVID-19 comprise 15% of hospital beds in a region. Even then, restaurants can still operate at 50% capacity.
More than 19,000 Texans have died from COVID-19.
In El Paso, the situation is especially dire. The U.S. Department of Defense dispatched medical teams to the city earlier this month to help overwhelmed hospitals. Ten mobile morgues have been set up to hold bodies as local funeral homes scramble to ready refrigerated storage space. City health officials reported nearly 31,000 active cases among residents Friday.
Last month, El Paso County Judge Ricardo Samaniego imposed a mandatory two-week shutdown of nonessential businesses. He extended the order last week, but owners of local restaurants — and later Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton — sued the county judge, arguing that the businesses were adhering to necessary health guidelines and a shutdown could cripple them.
A state district judge allowed the shutdown to stand, but a state appeals court paused Samaniego’s directive Thursday pending a final decision on the lawsuit.
Local officials, like Samaniego and Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo, want the power to take more drastic measures, such as closing indoor dining at restaurants or ordering residents to stay at home.
“If it doesn't come from me because I no longer have the authority, if it doesn't come from the state because of a lack of will, I hope that the federal government will help us do that for the sake of the health and the economy,” Hidalgo said Thursday during her state of the county address.
Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins on Wednesday urged businesses to shift to telecommuting and asked residents to avoid restaurants and gatherings. But without power to mandate these actions, it’s unclear if people will heed that request.
“We are at a very dangerous point in the fight against COVID,” Jenkins said in a statement. “We are staring down the barrel of the largest spike that we have seen to date in COVID cases.”
Clendenin, the Texas A&M epidemiologist, said the recent rise in cases is largely because of “pandemic fatigue” as people become less likely to follow proper precautions, such as washing hands and wearing face coverings.
“If we continue in the behaviors that we’re behaving in right now without regulatory intervention, we’re going to continue in the direction that we’re headed,” she said.
Juan Pablo Garnham contributed reporting.
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