Did Texas Close Too Early?

Like most Americans- we locked down on March 14th here in the Texas Hill Country.
Sixteen weeks later, rural Texas is exploding with COVID-19,  the state Health and Human Services tracker map is blooming in Blue.

There is consensus that Governor Abbott opened Texas too early (on June 3rd), and criticism of his refusal to reverse that step on June 12th as cases started to soar. Although he may not admit it, his re-shuttering of bars (and limits on other industries) on June 26th  suggests our Governor might agree that Texas opened prematurely.

As we prepare for the 4th of July, the entire country is exhausted. Quarantine has wreaked havoc on our careers, businesses, kids, and communities. Fears of a second wave tarnish any glimmers of hope we are on the other side of this crisis, but still, the firecrackers this weekend will be celebrating independence in more ways than one.

Those of us in rural Texas* who have been meticulous about CDC precautions are as weary as everyone else, but our COVID crisis is just beginning.  We are entering our 5th month of lockdown right when our compliance becomes imperative.

Which brings a question to my mind I haven’t been brave enough to say out loud until now- Did Texas close too early too? Have we been wrong on both sides of this pandemic?

*The experience of Texas is echoed in current rates of disease across Florida, Arizona, and most of the south and southwest- I am writing about Texas. Still, the same is true for much of the bottom half of this country.

It is April, and the Rural Tide of COVID is “Looming”

The American College of Healthcare Executives [ACHE] invited me to write a blog in April on the (then only predicted) wave of COVID-19 cases in rural America. That article is my marker when I look at where we are now.

While I wrote, Governor Cuomo was announcing a plateau in New York, Dr. Anthony Fauci believed the number of U.S. Deaths would be less than initially projected, and Treasury Secretary Munchin predicted US business could open again in May.

Here in Central Texas, my town of Fredericksburg (population 10,140) had one confirmed case of the virus. Even so, we hunkered down, waiting for “the second shoe that is about to drop.” [quote]

Experts everywhere supported that prediction. Forbes envisioned the virus taking an “all-American road trip through the interstate system to cross the country and infiltrate rural communities.”

Still, there was an uncanny quality to life in this rural corner of the world. With all my speaking engagements canceled and my 95-year-old Mom locked into her Assisted Living facility a mile away, our usual activities stopped.

We waited- and nothing happened.*

Yes, we did have 1 case, as was true in more than two-thirds of rural counties in America. A month later, we had gone from 1 case to 5, but each of those could be explained by a trip out-of-town for a wedding, a funeral, work in a distant city. We had a few imported cases, but none were “ours” (i.e., community-spread).

As much as we care about our fellow Americans, watching the horrors of New York City became increasingly removed from us.

*Houston and Dallas became “hot spots” much earlier than other cities in Texas, and much earlier than rural portions of the state.

Chicken Little

I have tracked this disease as intensely as anyone I know, but I admit that over the weeks, I began doubting my conviction that a COVID breakout was imminent in our community.

Easter Sunday came and went with no bump in cases. Memorial Day I counted 67 tourists within 3 blocks of our sweet little Main street (2 had covered their faces). And still- we remained COVID quiet.

It wasn’t only vacationers laughing off the CDC guidelines. Most locals weren’t social-distancing, and masks became political.

Setting aside those who won’t ever believe in science and public health, there were large swaths of our population that wouldn’t take precautions until the danger became real. That’s only human.

Nothing promotes compliance like fear. We slow down when we suspect there is a radar on us; we tighten our seatbelts when the air is turbulent; when we know the Boss will be on the floor, we dress accordingly.

So, it made sense when three weeks ago, I started hearing people as committed as me say, “is it possible it won’t come here?” I asked that myself.

My judgment in the grocery store (where my mask is a minority) started sliding toward feeling foolish. I kept true to all the COVID rituals and disciplines- but Chicken Little started frequently appearing in my mind.

My pride in my ACHE blog started yellowing about the edges- had all the predictions been wrong? Had we all been played for fools by this misunderstood virus?

I noticed I wasn’t as obsessively compulsive about guidelines anymore.

Texas Catches Fire

Just as I started wavering, Texas exploded.

When I posted on April 16th, there was 1 case in my county, on June 10th there were 5, today there are 42. Our cases increased by 44.8% since last week- at that rate, the implications for the next two weeks are dire (given bars here shut down only 5 days ago).

As illustrated in this graphic from Johns Hopkins, the increase in Texas cases is certainly related to the State reopening in early June:

But is the opposite correlation as exact?

That we were disease-free from March 5th to June 3rd because we were so adept at quarantine? Having lived with marginal compliance with CDC recommendations since March- I doubt rural Texas dodged the bullet for so long because we were good at social distancing.

Is it possible the virus- lightning-fast perhaps in the world of microorganisms, was not as fast as we envisioned in our 24/7 news cycle world? That it really did take the back roads to rural Texas?

Rural Texas is Entering Its First Wave & We are Already Tired

I can’t imagine what it has been like to live amid this virus in New York, Boston, Seattle, New Orleans, and other hard-hit locations throughout the country. I know COVID is a true and present danger in other regions- and in some communities more than others.

I do not mean to negate anything you have witnessed and learned; I am not dismissing the losses you have sustained.

But as I have watched my friends & family in New England, I have noticed it is easier to follow arduous guidelines when you can see the danger, when you sense it lurking around every corner. As they wind down their 17 quarantine weeks, they have lived through something that made sense.

Here in Rural Texas, we are just ending a 17-week Dress Rehearsal.

Did Texas close down too early? Should quarantine have come in waves?

I am sure that raising that possibility makes no sense epidemiologically (I can hear eyes rolling).

A large percentage of our tourists originate from Houston and Dallas, which have been hot spots long before now. If nothing else, we had to quarantine to protect ourselves against these “contaminated” vacationers. And my question is meaningless- we could not (and would not) change what we did in the face of an unknown viral outbreak of this magnitude. I know the premise of this Fontenotes is wishful thinking.

But here is my point.

It is easy to dismiss my fellow Texans when the news shows footage of full restaurants and crowded beaches – but I don’t think the characterization of my neighbors as careless, even stupid, is always fair. For many of them- this crisis is just becoming real.

As happened with the boy who called wolf, just as sickness and death are pouncing on us- many of the people we have been shouting at have stopped listening.

Want to Know More?

  1. As I write this, I will admit it is hard to get good numbers here in Texas. THHS is hopelessly behind- I assume that is because of the tidal wave of case reports coming in from every little corner of the state.I find the best place to get accurate numbers is the local press. I am saying that to any of you who are expecting to do some domestic travel this summer- the large centralized sites (and I am sure Texas isn’t alone) are not the best place to look. Find the Main Street paper- and you might just call and ask.

    For national reporting (and international), I highly recommend the hard-working team at the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center. You can get their tracking map, demographic analysis, trends, and much more here.

  2. Although there is a fringe minority that wants you to believe this is a “Plandemic,” what we are experiencing is a Pandemic, which is defined as “an epidemic occurring worldwide, or over a very wide area, crossing international boundaries and usually affecting a large number of people.” [World Health Organization]The Association for Professionals in Infection Control and Immunology [APIC] website has a lot of useful information on both pandemics and epidemics, with links to a variety of resources directly related to COVID-19.