Lesson from Texas: the race to reopen is a mistake

If you get a chance, be sure to check out an interesting essay that appeared on The Conversation yesterday by health researchers at Texas A&M University. In “COVID-19 messes with Texas: What went wrong, and what other states can learn as younger people get sick,” Professors Murray J. Côté and Tiffany A. Radcliff provide a cautionary tale about how a state that seemed to be keeping the pandemic at bay now finds itself in great big mess.

After noting the overwhelming evidence that the virus is spreading via community-based social interaction, that infections are afflicting young people at a particularly rapid rate and the publicly expressed regret of Gov. Greg Abbott at having allowed bars to open so fast (are you listening conservative North Carolina rapid reopen advocates?), the authors say this:

“The nature of the virus makes contact tracing challenging. The delay of up to two weeks between exposure and symptoms, if symptoms appear at all, means carriers are generally unaware they are spreading the virus to others. Texas is investing in more contact tracing to educate and isolate individuals who may have been exposed, but it only had 2,900 of the planned 4,000 contact tracers in place by June 1.

Because this latest spike in COVID-19 cases is linked to community-based spread, intensive contact tracing to target individuals needs to be matched with disease containment strategies in affected communities.

Statements from political and health leaders encouraging people to stay home, wear masks, wash their hands frequently and avoid large gatherings helped make the early response effective.

Reinforcing these strategies now so individuals, particularly those in the lowest risk categories for serious illness, understand their role in preventing the spread of the virus is critical to flattening the curve again. Knowing that there is a lag of one to two weeks from an increase in cases to the predictable consequences of more serious illnesses, hospitalizations and fatalities, makes this a huge challenge.

The unfortunate reality is that many Texans who now have COVID-19 but aren’t yet showing symptoms will become severely ill or even die of COVID-19 in July.

The authors then offer this lesson to people like the inhabitants of North Carolina and other states in which loud voices have called for mimicking the less restrictive policies of Texas, Florida and Arizona — all of which are now grappling with big spikes in infections and backtracking from their previous laissez-faire approaches:

Will these steps be enough to flatten the curve?

The answer depends largely on changing people’s behavior. Going forward, some of the most important steps are to reinforce the messaging of established public health practices:

  • If possible, stay at home.
  • Use precautions, such as wearing a mask, social distancing and frequent hand-washing when not at home, and avoid gatherings in spaces with limited airflow.
  • If you are showing symptoms or may have been exposed to someone infected with the coronavirus, quarantine yourself, and seek care if symptoms are severe or prolonged.

In other words: listen to Gov. Cooper, Secretary Cohen and do your civic duty people. We’re not out of the woods yet.

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