‘If People Die, People Die’: Texans COVID Hot Spots Keep Getting Worse
Tom Pennington / Getty
At the end of each day, Pranish Kantesaria takes off his N95 mask - sometimes contaminated with spit and mucus by COVID-19 patients - and drives home from an Austin, Texas hospital.
Months after the pandemic, the director of the pharmacy at the Baylor Scott & White Institute of Rehabilitation said his family's life had changed both trivially and seriously. The constant bubbling fear inspired a spin from wine to cocktails. His wife, a medical assistant, switched to the night shift so that one parent can always be at home with his children aged 1 and 6. Kantesaria started financial planning courses if one day he feels he has to leave the healthcare industry to protect his daughters, one of whom is immunodeficient.
"If either of us brought COVID home, she could end up in intensive care in a few days," he said.
But while Kantesaria, his wife, 71-year-old mother, and daughters have gotten used to living under the novel corona virus, other Austinites seem to have done their business. Kantesaria told The Daily Beast on Wednesday that it is frustrating to see people in the supermarket or to dine in restaurants without a mask or adequate social distancing.
This is a common complaint amidst a massive increase in COVID-19 cases in a number of states that public experts have said have been reopened too quickly and ruthlessly without following federal recommendations for deliveries, testing, and contact tracking. However, this is particularly noticeable in Texas, where officials reported 5,551 new cases on Wednesday - a new record - after breaking the 5,000-case mark a day earlier.
Residents, medical professionals and officials are increasingly concerned that Texas is facing a new border of horror - and that no one at the state level is ready to take the necessary measures to stop it.
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"Sometimes it feels like no one cares, no matter what you say or do," said Kantesaria. "We are more comfortable with fear."
Governor Greg Abbott, who has been harshly criticized for his aggressive reopening plan, has done little to stem this fear. Earlier this week he said "the closure of Texas will always be the last option".
Still, Abbott asked the Texans to stay home if they could on Tuesday; empowered local authorities to restrict gatherings of more than 100 people outdoors; and said Texas would create mandatory health standards for daycare centers because the rules have so far been voluntary, The Texas Tribune reported.
"COVID-19 is now spreading at an unacceptable rate in Texas and it needs to be corrected," Abbott said during a press conference this week.
According to national trends, urban centers are at their worst, with the largest outbreaks in Harris County, Dallas County and Bexar County. The number of patients admitted to hospital with COVID-19 in Texas more than doubled in just 24 days, totaling 4,389 on Wednesday. Travis County, home of Austin, has reportedly seen local convention centers, stadiums, and other facilities as temporary hospital overflow facilities when it comes to that.
Kantesaria pointed out the back and forth between state officials and local authorities trying to impose masking, social distancing and other restrictions - a struggle that has been taking place nationwide. To ensure that city officials continue with the governor's swift reopening plan, the Attorney General sent letters to heads of state in Dallas, Austin and San Antonio warning that "illegal" local requirements were stricter than the instructions of the state, could be prosecuted.
Abbott called on Texans to wear masks this week and has recently tacitly agreed that local officials will impose masking requirements on companies, if not in their communities. He refused to officially order residents to comply. Abbott did not immediately respond to a request for comment from The Daily Beast on Wednesday.
"It falls on us in healthcare," said Kantesaria. "We're pretty much alone. No cavalry is coming. No help is coming."
Outside of Austin, things are darker.
Some hospital officials in other parts of the state have already said that intensive care units are nearby, over or overworked. The Houston region has exceptional capacity and has the largest medical facility in the world at the Texas Medical Center. However, hospitals in the region have started moving COVID-19 patients to a local children's hospital to help other institutions cope.
The Mayor of Houston, Sylvester Turner, said at a city council meeting Wednesday that 97 percent of the capacity in the intensive care unit in Houston was occupied, 27 percent of it by COVID-19 patients.
In the beginning, while ordering at home, "we really flattened the curve," said Dr. Umair A. Shah, general manager of Harris County Public Health, which oversees the Houston region. "But things have got mixed up since the reopening of Texas and Mother's Day, Memorial Day weekend, protests, promotions, Father's Day, 50 percent open restaurants, the opening of bars and hair salons."
"It's not just about where we are today, it's about the fact that we will soon have to be able to build capacity, and at some point this will no longer be sustainable," said Shah.
And on Tuesday, Talking Points Memo reported that the federal government had dropped support for seven local test sites in Texas.
The sites - mainly in Dallas and Houston - were coordinated at the start of the pandemic to help local authorities after a series of missteps resulted in a national lack of available or affordable COVID-19 testing. As of June 30, however, the authorities will no longer provide test kits, laboratory access, personnel and other costs.
Four locations in Houston and Harris County, with FEMA support, offer up to 2,500 to 3,000 tests a day for the city, Shah said.
"We are very busy at these test sites right now," he told The Daily Beast.
In a letter to the federal government over the weekend, Shah asked the Ministry of Health and Human Services for a two-month extension. He found that the county is the third largest in the country and has the largest uninsured population in Texas, where 4.7 million people live.
"It is clear that our current health care system could soon be overwhelmed by this pandemic," Shah wrote in his letter. As he told The Daily Beast on Wednesday, "Given the current trends, this is not the time to lose community testing capacity." The Department of Health and Human Services did not immediately respond to a request for comment from The Daily Beast on Wednesday.
Meanwhile, hospitalizations in Dallas County have doubled since June 1, Judge Clay Jenkins told The Daily Beast on Wednesday. If federal aid dries up, the Metroplex and its surroundings would lose test capacity by around 2,000 per day. According to Jenkins and local health officials, COVID-19 is the third leading cause of death in the county after heart disease and cancer.
"We asked our federal partners to continue the partnership in other ways to provide us with reagents for our laboratories," said Jenkins. "If you are not ready for this, we would like to continue our partnership as it is now."
But if that doesn't work, it could be bad. And fast.
"If you get sick and need a bed, an intensive care unit, or a ventilator, we have a bed for you," Jenkins continued. "But if we stay on the path we have chosen in a month without any real requirements, we will face serious difficulties."
There is considerable fear among medical providers, Kantesaria told The Daily Beast. But there is also a kind of increasingly macabre resignation.
As he put it: "Our state has clearly decided:" Whatever, it is in God's hands. When people die, people die. "
Read more at The Daily Beast.
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