New coronavirus infections in the Lone Star State have trended upward since late May.
(CN) — The number of people hospitalized with Covid-19 in Texas has hit record highs each day this week as the state enters a third phase of reopening its economy, a situation that the Republican governor acknowledged is worth keeping an eye on.
“I’m concerned, but not yet alarmed,” Governor Greg Abbott said Tuesday during an interview with Dallas CBS affiliate KTVT.
Numbers from the Texas Department of State Health Services show 2,153 people were hospitalized with the disease caused by the novel coronavirus on Wednesday, up from 2,056 the day before and 1,935 on Monday.
Before Monday, the state’s previous record of 1,888 hospitalizations was set back in early May.
The uptick in hospitalizations comes just over two weeks after the Memorial Day holiday and days after widespread protests against racism and policy brutality erupted over the death of George Floyd, a black man who died after a Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes.
It’s been more than a month since a statewide stay-at-home order in Texas expired and businesses began reopening.
Public health officials in the state’s capital city of Austin said Wednesday that recent local spikes in Covid-19 cases were not tied to protests there, as people who went to the protests were just starting to get test results back, according to public radio station KUT.
Texas is in the midst of a third phase of reopening, with almost all businesses now allowed to operate at 50% of their normal capacity and restaurants allowed to further open up to 75% capacity starting Friday. The governor has stressed that the state still has plenty of hospital beds available — more than 13,000, according to the state — and that officials could ramp up hospital resources in certain regions if needed.
“Every Texan who needs access to a hospital bed will have access to a hospital bed,” John Wittman, an Abbott spokesperson, told Courthouse News.
Abbott has previously pointed to the state’s hospitalization rate as one of the key metrics he is eyeing when considering how and when to lift restrictions on the economy.
New coronavirus infections in Texas have also trended upward since late May, according to seven-day average analyses from the Texas Tribune. The figures show the number of new deaths from the virus each day dropped from a peak in mid-May and have generally plateaued into this month.
A rolling average of the state’s positivity rate – the number of positive coronavirus cases compared to the number of people tested for the virus – dipped below 6% for most of May but grew back above that number last week, according to the state health department’s data.
Catherine Troisi, an infectious disease epidemiologist at the UTHealth School of Public Health in Houston, said that while the increase in positive cases and hospitalizations isn’t surprising, it is still concerning, particularly because people seem to be taking the pandemic less seriously as time goes on.
“We’re all tired of it, I’m tired of it!” she said. “People are not hewing to those physical distance guidelines and masking that they were at the beginning.”
Troisi, who said she herself attended a protest in recent days, said there remains a risk that hospitals in some cities could become overwhelmed with Covid-19 patients at the local level, even if other parts of the state have plenty of open beds.
Houston’s Texas Medical Center said Tuesday that if current trends continue, intensive care units at its hospitals could be maxed out by Covid-19 patients within five weeks.
“The thing about transmission is that it’s exponential,” Troisi said. “It can start out very small, and then all of a sudden you’re looking at really big numbers, that’s the concern.”
Chris Van Deusen, a spokesman for Texas’ health department, said the state is watching the hospitalization numbers closely.
“The good news is that hospitals currently have the capacity to treat everyone who needs care for Covid-19,” he said. “We’re in regular communication with the organizations that coordinate the trauma system in each area of the state, and individual hospitals, to review the local situation, ensure they are able to meet demand, and determine what state assistance may be necessary.”
During Tuesday’s TV interview, Abbott suggested that officials would be taking a closer look at what exactly has driven the recent increases in hospitalizations. The governor pointed to progress made on a onetime coronavirus hotspot in rural Amarillo, Texas, but acknowledged that major cities like Houston and Dallas have seen jumps in positive test results.
“We need to drill down and find out exactly why that is,” he said. “Is it because of Memorial Day? Is it because of 10 days ago? We did have the beginning of these large-gathering protests with thousands upon thousands of people in a situation where Covid-19 could be transmitted.”
Abbott said he had not yet seen anything in the numbers to warrant changing the state’s overall reopening plan. State officials say they plan to increase coronavirus testing in parts of the state where underserved communities have been “disproportionately impacted” by the pandemic.
A spokesperson for the Texas Democratic Party slammed the governor’s handling of the pandemic amid the increase in hospitalizations.
“Our governor has consistently prioritized short-term economic gains and political expediency over the advice and caution of public health experts,” spokesperson Abhi Rahman said. “We are now paying the price.”