Abbott Embraces Metric that Medical Experts
Viewed as Antiquated in Spanish Flu Outbreak
By Mike Hailey
Capitol Inside Editor
September 17, 2020
Governor Greg Abbott hit the restart button for the Texas reopening on Thursday with the apparent junking of testing positivity as his major guiding metric in favor of a pandemic measuring stick that experts viewed as archaic during the Spanish Flu rampage more than 100 years ago.
Abbott gave non-essential businesses the green light to expand capacity while permitting the resumption of elective surgeries and relaxing visitation rules at nursing homes in the first lifting of restrictions since he put the reopening on pause almost three months ago when Texas had replaced New York as the American coronavirus epicenter.
But the Republican governor ordered the current restrictions to remain in place in deep South Texas along the Mexican border from Laredo to the Rio Grande Valley on the grounds that it wasn't safe enough for that part of the state to move forward with the economic jump-start.
Abbott left the statewide mask mandate in place - and he stopped short of giving the bars across Texas the nod to get back in business after being shuttered by the state since late June.
Abbott as expected drew criticism from the left and the right with the latest executive orders that hardline conservatives are portraying as token and Democrats say are unjustifiable based on a state reporting system that has lost its credibility with a governor who's been manipulating flawed data for political convenience and cover.
“Now, after months of being lied to, the governor wants local leaders and Texans to trust him," Texas Democratic Party Chairman Gilberto Hinojosa said in the wake of the Abbott announcement. "He wants them to believe it is safe to reopen their businesses and go back to work without good information to keep their employees or customers safe."
Abbott noted that the number of new cases here had been falling since mid-July due in large part to the face-covering requirement that he'd implemented two weeks earlier and a collective adherence to other basic safety protocols like social distancing hand sanitization.
"But, Texans should remember that a steady and significant decline in COVID-19 cases is not a sign to let up in our vigilance against the virus," the governor added.
Abbott said nothing in the formal announcement today - however - about the coronavirus testing positivity rate that he'd cited frequently during the pandemic's first six months as his chief standard in the determination for the locking down and reopening of the nation's second largest state.
Experts widely recognize the positivity rate to be the most telling gauge on whether cities and states have made strides in containing the spread through a sufficient testing program. But Texas has taken longer than other states to figure out how to calculate the percentage of positives with inconsistent and inaccurate data that's been a major embarrassment for the governor. The state has done such a poor job with the positivity rate that Johns Hopkins University showed the seven-day average in Texas to be minus 40 percent - a number that's impossible to achieve.
The governor said that he's embracing regional hospitalization rates as the new top metric for the easing or increasing of restrictions. Abbott said the percentage of COVID-19 patients compared to the total number of people who've been admitted to hospitals for all reasons must be below 15 percent for seven consecutive days in Trauma Service Areas before counties can move into the new reopening phase that permits 75 percent occupancy at businesses that Abbott had declared to be non-essential.
Abbott suggested that doctors and medical experts have been using the same "data driven hospitalization" rates as their leading metric for containing the virus spread.
But that had not been the case in 1918 when local officials in Dallas and a few other cities were depicted as dinosaurs for focusing on hospitalizations instead of preventitive and proactive metrics to measure the Spanish Flu spread.
The massive Texas Medical Center doesn't consider the hospitalization ratios to be one of the three metrics that it uses to gauge progress or regression in the fight to contain the virus in the Houston area where it's based. The TMC relies on the testing posivitity rate, the daily count of new cases and the reproduction rate that measures how well the area is faring in the pandemic based on changes in collective behavior like social distancing and the wearing of masks.
The latest revision in the testing positivity methodology revealed this week that the rate had been much higher than Abbott had claimed when he moved Texas into Phase 3 of the reopening on June 3 when the number of new cases had been going up for a week. Abbott and his top advisors remained in a state of denial for several weeks before the governor ordered masks to be worn statewide as a desperation catch-up measure.
State Rep. Chris Turner - a Grand Prairie lawmaker who chairs the House Democratic Caucus - criticized the governor for failing to mention the state's contract tracing program or the possibility of expanding Medicaid in a state where the coronavirus has exposed the vast inequities in health care access here.