Paused Texas reopening may not be enough to stop surge of COVID-19: 'We need to go back,' UT epidemiologist says
Gov. Greg Abbott's announcement that he would pause the reopening process for Texas at its current Phase 3 may not be enough to slow the spread of the coronavirus, according to University of Texas Health epidemiologist Katelyn Jetelina.
"You're going to have to go back" to Phase 1, Jetelina said, if the state hopes to get a hold of the rapidly spreading virus.
The source of the surge
In barely a week, Gov. Greg Abbott went from saying Texas had "abundant" hospital capacity for additional COVID-19 patients to "pausing" Texas' reopening and suspending elective surgeries.
The coinciding of Memorial Day and the Black Lives Matter protests with the beginning of Phases 1 and 2 of reopening, respectively, makes it hard to pinpoint the true origin of the recent surge in cases. But cases started growing, based on data Jetelina studied, when the state moved to Phase 2 of reopening and allowed restaurants to open at 50% capacity, bars to reopen at 25% capacity and salons start doing business again.
"I really think we need to go back on our reopening phases, which is unfortunate, but this growth started way before Phase 3 reopening," she said.
A predictable curve
The effects of reducing social distancing on the spread of the virus have been predicted as far back as mid-May, Austin Public Health told Austonia Thursday. Before the state began reopening, Austin stood at a social distancing rate of 95%, but experts at UT predicted that if that reduced to 50%, the city would see the exponential rise in cases happening in June.
"You can see that so far [the model] has been really, unfortunately, quite accurate," Austin-Travis County Interim Public Health Authority Dr. Mark Escott told the Travis County Commissioners Court earlier this week. "We also have the potential that it could increase faster with projections—now that we have the potential, if we don't change substantially by the middle of July, [we could exceed] our threshold of capacity for our health care system."
Hospital capacities by region in Texas with the top of the chart, 1, representing full capacity. Each region represents a separate Trauma Service Area, which are used to analyze how different parts of the state are affected by the spread of the coronavirus and other hospitalizations. (Katelyn Jetelina)
Jetelina said suspending elective surgeries, which Abbott did for four large Texas counties—including Travis—on Thursday, will be a huge help to hospitals that have seen beds filled up in recent weeks.
When hospital capacity cracks 70%, that's when public health officials start to worry, Jetelina said. When it cracks 80%, that's when hospitals begin to need "surge centers." Austin's three main hospital systems said Wednesday that together the three networks are at 71% total capacity and 70% ICU capacity.
But Abbott's decision to pause the state's reopening will not do much to slow the spread of coronavirus, Jetelina said, especially since the governor has yet to release an official Phase 4 plan.
If Texas wants to truly "flatten the curve" again, Jetelina said, Texas leaders must reinstate protocols that require social distancing, like lowering restaurant capacity to 25% and closing bars and beauty salons.
"Really anywhere that people are coming together and conversing, especially if face masks are not required or mandated, you're just going to get human-to-human spread so much easier than if these places weren't open," she said, adding later, "if that means bars need to be closed or at least [reduce] capacity, then so be it. It's just a matter of getting as far away from each other as possible."
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