As hospitalizations for COVID-19 continue to climb to record numbers statewide, Gov. Greg Abbott Tuesday said Texas hospital capacity is "abundant" and ready to treat those who test positive for the virus. Still, the governor advises all Texans venturing out to wear a mask, though he's not in favor of making it an enforceable mandate.
Abbott said Tuesday during a news conference the number of COVID-19 patients hospitalized in Texas had reached 2,518 -- another new record and 192 more than the day before. The governor said that 24% of the 14,383 hospital beds in Dallas-Fort Worth are available.
The number of new positive COVID-19 cases reported Tuesday was 2,622 and is another record high for the state. Abbott said he and his team "remain laser-focused on maintaining abundant hospital capacity" and they are looking at each Texas county individually to assess how the virus is spreading and what risk that spread poses to the population.
"We are in the middle of a short period of time where all of us have to coexist with COVID-19. The reality is COVID-19 still exists in Texas … this is going to continue to be the case for at least a few more months until we have medicines that are able to treat people who test positive for COVID-19 and until we have medicines that prevent people from getting COVID-19."
Abbott said fewer Texans test positive for COVID-19 than residents of any other large state in the country and that Texas has the second-lowest death rate of the 25 most affected states in America. Fewer than 10% need to be hospitalized and when they do there's a bed available, Abbott said.
"Even though there are more people hospitalized, we still remain at the lowest threat level to our hospital capacity," Abbott said, pointing out that Texas is at the safest level on a five-number scale indicating the ability of Texas hospitals to respond to COVID-19 patients.
Dr. John Zerwas, executive vice chancellor for health affairs at the University of Texas System and advisor on the governor's panel, gave a presentation on hospital bed availability where he said there are 14,993 total beds available out of the state's 54,844 beds.
"What the governor said and what Dr. Zerwas said and the the numbers they gave, I think are fairly accurate," said Stephen Love, president and CEO of the Dallas Fort Worth Hospital Council. "What we're hearing from our hospitals is, we have seen an increase in the COVID-19 hospitalizations, there's not questions about it and we're monitoring it closely."
Love said for right now they're running about 65% occupancy in their medical and surgical bed count and between 65% and 68% occupancy in their ICU beds.
"Now of our total patient population, COVID-19 is running approximately 6%, here in North Texas, so we still have hospital capacity and then over above that we have the surge capacity that Dr. Zerwas talked about," Love said.
While the numbers are important, Abbott stressed the story behind the numbers is as important when it comes to understanding why the case numbers continue to climb.
Abbott highlighted anomalies in two counties, Jefferson and Pecos, who had an "outsized influence" for the number of positive tests. In Jefferson, he was referring to a federal prison in Beaumont where a number of inmates tested positive in a short period of time.
"I want you to know that this is the same type of analysis that we use on an ongoing basis as we look into each and every county across the entire state of Texas to figure out exactly what is going on," Abbott said.
There are some cases, the governor said, such as in Lubbock, Bexar and Cameron counties, where a majority of the people tested in the county are under 30 and this typically results from people going to bars, clubs or taking part in other social events. Abbott warned, however, that if bars and restaurants serving alcohol were violating the capacity restrictions in place they could lose their liquor license for 30 days for a first infraction and 60 days for a second infraction.
Dr. John Hellerstedt, the commissioner of the Texas Department of State Health Services, said state officials expected the increase in patients and that it's occurring at a manageable level but that that could change.
"The possibility that things could flare up again and produce a resurgence of COVID-19," which would stress the state's health care system "is still very real," Hellerstedt said.
As far as the spread of the virus goes, the governor continued to recommend that people with an underlying health condition or who are 65 and older stay home and that those who venture out should wear a mask while doing so, cautioning that even asymptomatic people can spread the coronavirus.
Regarding masks, during a question and answer session during his news conference, Abbott was asked about Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins who said the state's accelerated opening and lack of power to enforce recommendations has led to a rise in cases and hospitalizations. Abbott replied saying he wasn't interested in putting people in jail for not wearing masks.
"I make clear on a daily basis around the entire state of Texas that wearing a mask is very important. And local officials send that same message. So all of us have a collective responsibility to educate the public that wearing a mask is the best thing to do," Abbott said. "Putting people in jail, however, is the wrong approach, for this thing, and that’s exactly what I believe the Dallas County Judge wants to do, and that’s throw people in jail, and that’s wrong."
Abbott continued, saying "Judge Jenkins has had available to him other tools of enforcement and he hasn’t lifted a finger to use those other tools of enforcement. So he seems to be taking a somewhat two-faced approach as it concerns his pleas for enforcement. He needs to avail himself of the tools that are available to him for enforcement. What I’m talking about is the county judge, whether it be the county judge in Dallas or elsewhere, they do have the ability to impose fines, not for face masks, but for other strategies. For example, the types of gatherings that people gather at certain locations, they may not be in compliance with the protocols, and hence would be subject to fines. And even though Judge Jenkins or any other local official has had the authority to impose those fines, they haven’t lifted a finger to do so.”
Jenkins replied Tuesday afternoon, saying he doesn't want to argue with the governor but that he wasn't looking to put people in jail for not wearing masks. He said the governor's staff asked him Sunday night if he knew what was leading to an increase in cases or hospitalizations in Dallas County and Jenkins said he answered, "Yes. Increased activity and human contact. Loosening of masking and social distancing. Both brought about by the governor’s decisions to accelerate opening and limit our local ability to enforce recommendations from the governor or medical experts.”
Jenkins said the governor may have been offended by his honesty.
"Let’s be clear about masking. No one could be jailed for not wearing a mask under my or the City of Dallas' orders. Rather, we made requirements out of the governor's recommendations only to have his attorney Ken Paxton write us a letter demanding we rescind our efforts and saying they didn’t want the governor’s recommendations enforced or checked on," Jenkins said. "I’m simply asking the governor to lead on the masking requirement the medical experts say is the single most important thing we can do right now to prevent spread or allow local governments to lead on this important issue. I am pleased that other local leaders will also be calling on the governor to either require masks through gubernatorial action or allow local governments to make that decision for their communities."
On Tuesday, the mayors of Houston, San Antonio, Austin, Dallas, Fort Worth, El Paso, Arlington, Plano and Grand Prairie sent a letter to the governor asking for the power to require people to wear masks in public.
Plano Mayor Harry LaRosiliere said he signed in a show of solidarity.
"I think that there’s been a decision made that we’re going to tolerate living side by side with the virus," said LaRosiliere. "I think that’s clearly what the governor’s saying and what we have to do is really exercise personal responsibility."
The letter states that many people in their cities refuse to wear masks despite its proven effectiveness.
It reads in part: “We are writing you for the authority to set rules and regulations on the use of face coverings in each of our cities. A one-size-fits-all approach is not the best option.”
"I think it’s important that mayors have the flexibility and the authority to make real-time decisions for their cities," said LaRosiliere. "The dynamics in different cities are different. However, I think it’s important that we all have the ability to make that decision."