Texas is being tested, and we are proving weak.
A new, quick-striking virus variant is raging across the state, challenging us all to get every Texan vaccinated, get everyone masked up and do everything it takes to keep hospitals safe and give exhausted healthcare workers a rest.
On Friday, Tarrant County hit the high-water mark of last winter, when local officials were allowed to limit indoor capacity, ban gatherings and order schoolchildren to wear masks.
Now, that’s all up to us.
County judges and mayors can no longer govern disasters. The state has chosen only a limited role.
Not only do we have to save ourselves and our families.
We also have to protect our hospitals.
“It’s getting worse by the hour — everybody in Texas is headed to a bad place pretty quickly,” said John Henderson, a former small-town hospital executive and now president of the Austin-based Texas Organization of Rural and Community Hospitals.
Tarrant County alone added about 5,000 coronavirus cases last week, about 250 of those in hospitals. Almost all were unvaccinated.
That was in a single week.
And this time, don’t go out to small towns seeking safety.
In this AP file photo from March 2, 2021, a mask required sign is displayed on the entrance to a business in Dallas. Hospitals across the state are feeling the crunch of the latest COVID-19 surge.
Except for Dallas and Denton counties, the towns around Fort Worth are even worse at getting everyone vaccinated. So rural residents are often sicker.
All the “I-me-my-mine” talk has hurt.
“It stuns me why we had to make this a political issue,” Henderson said.
“That’s the sad thing about this — it’s all political.”
A year ago, Gov. Greg Abbott responded to pushback and refused to let Dallas officials jail salon owner Shelley Luther for opening when it was unsafe.
Now, the question is whether he would punish any local officials who defy his orders and try to restrict crowds or require masks to preserve healthcare resources.
Local leaders reacted slowly late last week to a crisis that was not unexpected and completely unnecessary.
Tarrant County is offering to set up vaccine stations at any event and also hoping for Catholic Charities’ help reaching the unvaccinated, County Judge Glen Whitley of Hurst said.
“I’m not hearing anything from the state,” he said. “It’s all ‘personal responsibility.’ Well, if everything’s a matter of personal responsibility, why have any laws?”
Signs in McAllen, Texas, July 16, 2021.
Public health professionals had barely caught their breath since the last spike.
I talked with two Friday. Both held out some hope that vaccines will be required or at least routine after the Food and Drug Administration gives them full approval, expected next month. (Some folks still don’t want a vaccine authorized on an emergency basis.)
COVID-19 is “never going to go away — this virus is just too successful at what it does,” said Diana Cervantes, director of the epidemiology program at the University of North Texas Health Science Center in Fort Worth.
“This is not smallpox,” she said. “This is not something we’re going to defeat forever. This will be something where people get a vaccine that prevents most severe illness. We won’t even think twice.”
Until then, it’ll be up to businesses to require vaccines and protect safety, said Erin Carlson, director of the UT Arlington graduate program in public health.
“We’re going to see tensions between the vaccinated and the unvaccinated — between the educators and others within state government — between those who want masks required and those who don’t,” she said.
“In the meantime, I’m very worried.”
A lot has changed in a week.