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Doctors Say Texas Leaders Failed To Stop COVID-19 From Spreading

File Photo: Gov. Greg Abbott leads a roundtable discussion on public safety priorities at the Texas Department of Public Safety headquarters in January 2021.
Gabriel C. Pérez
File Photo: Gov. Greg Abbott leads a roundtable discussion on public safety priorities at the Texas Department of Public Safety headquarters in January 2021.

You can read this story in Spanish by clicking here.

Texas schools have amassed more than 50,000 confirmed coronavirus cases in students in just a couple of weeks. More than a dozen school districts have closed temporarily as a result of the disease, and Texas is a leader in child deaths from COVID-19 with 59 as of Sept. 3.

But state leaders have spent weeks of the surge pushing through controversial bills around abortion, voting restrictions and bail reform while Gov. Abbott has been fighting local governments over their efforts to stem the spread of the disease.

Hospitals across the state are running low on pediatric intensive care unit beds. Texas’ Department of State Health Services says only 81 of them remain — and just a couple hundred more regular ICU beds are available in the state of 29 million people.

“Governor Abbott has failed us. A republican state legislature has failed us," said Dr. David Portugal a cardiologist in Sugarland, Texas. “These leaders should be held accountable and be asked to explain how they can justify taking actions that are killing their fellow Texans.” 

Portugal and other Texas members of the advocacy group the Committee to Protect Health Care called on the governor to rescind his executive order barring local governments from mandating masks in schools. They are just a few of the many healthcare workers and local governments frustrated by the state's lack of action on preventing the spread of COVID.

State officials recently admitted the bans were unenforceable by them, leaving it to local district attorneys. But the continued litigation and threats to school districts has left confusion and patchwork of policies that many doctors see as exacerbating the COVID surge.

“Hospital staff and resources are stretched to the breaking point,” said Dr. Elena Jimenez-Gutierrez, an internal medicine physician in San Antonio.

The surge has led to canceled surgeries, overwhelmed staff and preventable hospitalizations and deaths.

“Doctors and other health care workers see every day how too many Texans are needlessly getting sick, including many children when we know this disease can be prevented,” she said

The governor’s office has recruited more doctors and nurses from out of state to help. He authorized more monoclonal antibody therapy centers — though doctors say the wait to get the treatment is as long as 10 days.

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Abbott promotes vaccination as the real prevention. He got vaccinated on TV. But he draws the line on mandates — vaccines or masks — which are very unpopular with conservative primary voters as he faces two far-right challengers early next year.

“We will continue to vaccinate more Texans and protect public health and we will do so without treading on Texans personal freedoms,” said Abbott in an April tweet where he also announced he would ban private companies from asking for proof of vaccination.

He reissued the order last month.

“Among Texas children who are eligible, the seven-day moving average of doses administered has gone from just over 10,500 in July to now over 15,700. We continue to strongly encourage all eligible Texans to get vaccinated,” said Renae Eze, the governor’s press secretary.

She also pointed to recent legislation that made remote learning possible for immunocompromised kids. She said schools have learned and implemented safety precautions, too.

And yet the number of cases continues to rise. And those kids are also an unfortunate disease vector for their teachers. Two teachers in Connelly Independent School District died recently, causing the district to shut campuses.

San Antonio is still fighting to regain its emergency powers. Andy Segovia is the city attorney and he says the Texas disaster act — which the governor is using to suspend local power — is about the state helping to coordinate in the wake of a disaster.

It's novel because usually the governor's acting on an emergency not saying government has no role, said Segovia.

Five mortuary trailers were dispatched to San Antonio to assist hospitals across the state that had run out of room. San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg said the forethought on deaths should have been used to stem the spread.

"The fact is, the state is planning that more people are going to die of COVID. So much so that they anticipate local hospitals across the state are not going to be able to handle the amount of death they are going to see," said Nirenberg.

Eight counties across the state are using refrigerated trucks to store the bodies of the dead. Bell County which includes Temple, Texas, has requested a second FEMA trailer with an extra storage capacity of 50 bodies. Several smaller trailers have been donated by the state funeral directors association.

As more schools see spikes in COVID transmissions, more teachers and students will become infected and could die.

Doctors and many local leaders wish the state would do more to prevent that.

Paul Flahive can be reached at Paul@tpr.org