While East coast states have found a moment of relief from disastrous COVID-19 infections, Texas has begun to surge as a new hotspot entering the second wave of the pandemic. The severity of its effects will depend on the population.
“Did we take the lesson we learned from the first wave into account? I don’t think so,” Sam Houston State University epidemiologist Dr. Khalid Khan said.
Originally, the first wave of the coronavirus was expected to blow off by this summer, with the second wave expected to return in late fall or winter. Vacations were rebooked and life was expected to return to a semblance of normalcy by now, however, due to the rapid movement of the virus, Khan estimates us to now be in the second wave of the pandemic.
“Historically, the second wave always brings more damage,” said Khan, adding that we also have to prepare for a third wave in the near future.
As New York, Massachusetts and Connecticut saw disastrous infection rates in the first wave, they have now begun reporting an all-time low of infection rates. A surge of coronavirus cases has now broken out throughout Texas, making it one of the highest growth states in the country with a 175% increase of confirmed cases in the past two weeks and an average of 4,013 new cases every day.
“The rate we are going at now, we’re still not at the peak, it’s going uphill and it will continue to go uphill in the next few weeks,” Khan said.
According to Khan, the government is not entirely to blame, despite slow responses and rushed business reopening. However, as a community, our reaction to what is happening around us and implementation of proactive measures have thus far determined the future course of the virus.
For Huntsville Memorial Hospital, the largest problem for Walker County is limited testing.
“The biggest problem we are having is that it is taking up to 10 days for people who are getting tested by the Texas Military Department at the fairgrounds to get their results back. That is causing a lot of problems, because many of those people aren’t going into quarantine, they are staying in the community until their test is returned,” Huntsville Memorial Hospital CEO Steve Smith told the Walker County Hospital District on Wednesday. He added that the hospital is in the early stages of a plan to partner with the county and the city to provide more testing.
Additionally, some less affected by the virus may attribute their symptoms to allergies or a cold, while others may shrug it off, choosing to not get tested and instead continuing the spread of COVID-19 throughout the community.
“If we have 1,000 cases reported, the true number of cases could be a couple of times higher than that – it could be 2,000 or 3,000 cases. That is the problem with COVID-19, it is hard to know the true picture of this disaster,” Khan said.
The quick progression of the virus has taken a heavy toll on the healthcare system, with little to no time to adjust between waves. Hospitals are facing shortages in much needed supplies as their resources are becoming over exhausted.
Neighboring Harris County reports that hospitals have reached 97% occupancy in its Intensive Care Units. While HMH has not yet exhausted its capacity, Smith and Khan agree that it is likely the hospital’s capacity will become exhausted in two weeks’ time if the virus continues to spread in the community.
“If we could take some civic intervention measures that we could put into place sooner than later, the lesser damage we could probably expect, but at this point it is not very good,” Khan said.
“The infections in Texas are getting worse because we are at the initial phase of infection surge, which means that the alarming level of infection has started to go up, and it will continue to go up even if we have intervention in place,” Khan said. “Even if we become very careful, do all of the social distancing and do all of the other intervention measures like using masks, this infection rate of hospitalization and rates of death will continue to go up.”
The grim silver lining according to Khan, is that the quicker we reach the peak of infection, the more rapidly it will start slowing down. Looking at the same states that saw disastrous infection rates in the first wave of the virus, all time low infection rates are now being reported as they reach the other side of their peak.
However, preemptive steps could slow and reduce the spread, helping alleviate the strain on healthcare systems.
Locally, Huntsville Memorial Hospital has seen a 117% increase of COVID-19 cases since June 1, and it’s not due to the prison system.
“The trends are night and day in June as compared to in May,” Smith said. “In May, most of the COVID cases in the hospital were from TDCJ. Their response to contain the pandemic has seen great results. Now, most of the COVID cases originate from the community.”
After weeks of record breaking confirmed cases in conjunction with Texas’ aggressive three part reopening plan beginning in May, Governor Greg Abbott has paused economic reopening procedures in an effort to tame the outbreak.
Despite speculation about another lockdown, Abbott has remained adamant about keeping the economy open.
“Reopening has to happen, no question about it, because as a country our economy has to survive, so reopening is with no doubt, absolutely essential,” Khan said. However, he notes that Texas’ execution was not a well designed strategy and that the community overindulged in its newfound freedom.
“This is a reality check, anything that is too much is not good for a sustainable life. We can say there are so many unnecessary deaths that we could have potentially avoided if we had better safety practices and better responsibility,” Khan said.
It was just two weeks ago that Abbott allowed restaurants to open at 75% capacity, and as of Friday, they have been rolled back to 50%. Bars like Shenanigans and Confetti’s Beach Club, where an outbreak quickly materialized after reopening earlier this month, have been indefinitely closed once again and river-rafting activities have also been suspended. Otherwise, more in-depth policies have been left to local governments’ discretion.
THE MASK DEBATE
Face mask requirements have been of heated debate as of late. Abbott has urged the use of them in public spaces, however it is up to local governments now on whether they choose to make them a requirement. According to the CDC, while non medical grade face masks will not protect one from the virus, they will help prevent it from being spread from those who are infected and may not know it.
“I wear a mask in public just in case I am asymptomatic,” Sally Splawn Dowis said in a community Facebook thread initiated by The Item.
Recent COVID-19 graduate Steven Myers advises using the same precautions for others.
“Wear a mask, use a lot of sanitizer, use some common sense and just go out there in the world and live a normal life,” he said.
Splawn Dowis and Myers’ proactive measures help families like Christina Kellems Silvas, who adds that her child is one of high risk to the coronavirus. For Kellems Silvas’ family, face masks are only a single part of their new way of life. Since the beginning of the pandemic, Kellems Silvas has adopted new protocols for groceries coming into the house, holding off on visitors, limiting trips out, taking showers when returning home from work and changing clothes before entering the main part of their home. They also wear masks and gloves when out and dispose of them properly in their car.
“It’s not very fun, but worth it … My child’s health is my top priority,” Kellems Silvas said, adding that four of her friends have lost their parents or grandparents to COVID-19.
However, not all agree with the use of the face masks, refusing to be “sheep.”
“I refuse to wear a mask and I will never vaccinate, nor (be) chipped,” Teresa Green said in the same thread.
The nation-wide disagreement has led many looking to state and local governments to give the final say on the face mask debacle.
Following Harris County’s ordinance a week prior, neighboring College Station Mayor Karl Mooney signed an emergency order requiring face masks to be worn by workers and customers inside College Station businesses Thursday.
While the city of Huntsville has yet to declare a similar ordinance, Sam Houston State University President Dr. Dana Hoyt has embraced the face mask policy as the school prepares to fully reopen its campus this fall. As of Monday, students, employees and visitors will be required to wear face masks when entering university facilities.
According to Khan, health and preventative measures coming into play are likely long term practices that will have to be adapted into daily life.
“We were so reckless before (the pandemic),” Khan said. “This is a good lesson that discipline, health and safety is so important … Moving forward, if we learn from these mistakes, if we learn from these disasters, I think eventually, in the next few decades, mankind can enjoy the benefit out of it,” Khan said.
Khan is optimistic that a vaccine could arrive by early next year, however until then, the community should remember to social distance, wear masks, avoid touching your face, stay home and hand wash – in other words, “we have to S.M.A.S.H. the virus.”