In the last two weeks, some Texas counties implemented new face mask orders and Gov. Greg Abbott ordered all bars to shut down — before eventually issuing his own statewide mask order.
Those actions might have been too little, too late. They might not be enough to flatten the rapidly rising curve.
Juan Gutierrez, chair of the mathematics department at University of Texas at San Antonio, paints a grim picture.
“Think New York City, but times four,” said Gutierrez, who has spent the pandemic creating predictive models for every county in the U.S. “Because we have four large metropolitan areas: Houston, Dallas, Austin, San Antonio.”
More than 40,000 Texans tested positive for the virus in the week leading up to July 1.
More troubling, though, is the surge in hospitalizations. On July 1 nearly 7,000 Texans were in the hospital with COVID-19, and hospital systems across the state are saying they’re under extreme stress and reaching their limits.
This week the entire hospital system in Laredo, a Mexican border city, hit capacity.
But that number is a moving target. It’s calculated by a combination of things, including beds, ventilators, medication, personal protective gear and people.
“Our nursing programs here in Laredo can't produce them fast enough,” said Dr. Ricardo Cigarroa, who works at the Laredo Medical Center. “Many that graduate move on to bigger cities for personal reasons.”
It’s a statewide issue — Texas simply doesn’t have enough nurses. But in Laredo, the problem is worse.
“In March we had nothing and (weren’t) able to do anything other than support them with a ventilator and breathe for them and watch the virus destroy the lungs from one organ system to another,” Cigarroa said. “The death would take 30 to 60 days. There's nothing sadder as a physician because you can't do anything.”
More than 150 employees, physicians, nurses, housekeeping cafeteria workers were infected early on. COVID-19 directly impacted Laredo’s already short-staffed healthcare system, but cases declined in March when Laredo took swift action.
The city rapidly rushed to deal with the outbreak; they were the first city to require facemasks.
After reopening most businesses in the state to at least 50% capacity, COVID-19 cases started surging. Hospitals like Laredo suffered under the weight of new patients. Some were transferred to San Antonio.
“And that's a whole other issue because it's difficult to transfer COVID-19 patients. Every city's having their challenge right now,” Cigarroa said. “San Antonio finally hit its surge, (and) Houston... We have to move more quickly to be able to expand our capacity here.”
More than 300 miles east, America’s fourth-largest city is also in crisis.
In June there were about 14,500 reported cases in Harris County alone, which accounted for nearly half of Houston’s total cases.
Last week, the Texas Medical Center reported capacity at 100%. But afterwards, officials backpedaled on those numbers as administrators deleted graphics about bed capacity from the Texas Medical Center website, according to reporters with The Texas Newsroom.
“Now is (the time) to be very alarmed about the spread of this virus. But instead it became a story about, ‘Hey, we don't have ICU beds and that's incorrect,’” said Dr. Mark Boom, CEO and president of Houston Methodist.
Boom and other leaders argue the focus on capacity is a distraction from efforts to mitigate the spread of the virus. But wait times are still high to make room for the continuous flow of patients rolling in.
“I don't think anyone could have prepared us for this,” said Dr. Stuart Kessler, Director of the Department of Emergency Medicine at Elmhurst Hospital Center. “You don't expect to see a huge influx of patients, the majority of whom are very, very sick. And that it just keeps happening — and it's happening every hour of every day for close to two months.”
He added that he believes Texas is still in the first wave of the pandemic.
“I don’t think this is a second wave,” he said. “And hopefully people will recognize that and try to stay apart for a little while longer.”
Maria Mendez with Texas Public Radio, Sara Ernst with The Texas Newsroom and Andrew Schneider with Houston Public Media contributed to this story. Petrie Dish is produced by Dominic Anthony Walsh and Michael Trevino. Our sound engineer is Jacob Rosati. Our digital news producer is Bri Kirkham. Our executive producer is Fernanda Camarena. Our news director is Dan Katz. This podcast is a production of Texas Public Radio.