Many of our emails and texts these days start with messages of safety and health — "Hope your family is healthy and safe." It's a telling signal of the toll the coronavirus pandemic has taken on everyone in the country, where we have lost as many as 1 in 650 people in some areas and where 1 in 5 are infected with the virus.
Unfortunately, families in Texas are not safe and healthy. After many chaotic weeks with infections, deaths and power and water shortages, Gov. Gregg Abbott announced Tuesday that "state mandates are no longer needed" and that "it is now time to open Texas 100 percent."
As a Texan born and raised with elderly parents in San Antonio, countless colleagues and friends working in military bases and hospitals around the state, and family and friends boiling water in Houston, I know how palpable the stress is, how infuriating and frankly unnecessary.
The unexpected announcement, staged in a packed restaurant in Lubbock, left much of the nation speechless. Yes, people desperately want to get back to normal. But instead of outlining a sensible reopening strategy — which is now realistically within reach thanks to the Biden administration's accelerating vaccine supplies to have enough shots for all Americans by the end of May — Abbott has purposefully injected a new infection into the state in the form of irresponsible policies that will promote unnecessary infection, hospitalization and death.
Texas, like much of the rest of the country, is seeing meaningful progress in vaccinating residents and decreasing daily infection rates. But, also like much of the country, it is by no means in the clear.
Houston became the first city in the country to demonstrate genetic proof of all five of the troubling new variants. Eleven of the top 20 counties with the most infections per capita are in Texas. Texas also rank seventh in the country in terms of Covid-19 deaths, and the numbers of cases themselves still indicate that Texas is in the throes of an active outbreak. All of this indicates that the state should not reopen but should rather keep taking measures to limit the spread of the virus.
Physicians and other health care professionals are equally outraged; intensive care units are still treating people of all ages in critical condition and close to death. Clinics around the state are still diagnosing thousands of people with infections, and while infections do not equal death, they absolutely do translate into uncertainty about the future.
Physicians have started national petitions asking Abbott to reinstate the mask mandate. The very people taking care of Texans in their most fragile days, the only front line we have until we can reach broader immunity, are opposed to these irresponsible actions. Millions of people are suffering from post-acute sequelae of Covid-19 (PASC), or "long Covid syndrome," which leaves people with fatigue, new onset diabetes, joint pain, dental issues and countless other medical problems that have no definite treatment or endpoint.
Some might reasonably ask, "Why not reopen when cases are decreasing?" After all, the economy has been battered and we must try to get back to normal at some point. But here is the critical issue: In public health, signs of progress, such as decreasing case numbers, signal that those very measures — i.e., masks, limits on gatherings, etc. — are actually working and must be continued. When you see numbers decreasing because the horizon is near, it means reopening will be possible sooner — if we adhere to those same public health measures that led to this progress in the first place.
Lifting all restrictions, particularly a mask mandate, which we now know is the most important single action people can take to protect themselves, is unfortunately going to damage more businesses. When the number of infections increases, consumers will feel more nervous about their safety and health and will be less likely to have confidence in patronizing businesses.
Finally, Texas is big. Its gross domestic product and population are equivalent to those of many E.U. countries. Actions taken in Texas do not necessarily stay in Texas. This means that travel in and out of Texas, which hosts several domestic and international airport hubs and hundreds of miles of coastline, not only will leave Texans vulnerable but also could help propagate the spread of more infectious and deadly variants to the entire country and to the world.
Intentionally or not, Abbott has left the lives of Texans in their own hands. Some commercial chains have said they will still require masks on their premises — but there is no accountability for the many people who not likely to take any precautions.
So, Texans who doubt the science of masks, at least consider the ultimate personal responsibility: to protect others, those who are vulnerable — people who might have chronic conditions, loved ones undergoing cancer therapy with a shattered immune system or people who have lost someone to Covid-19. It should not be left to regular Texans to provide their own basic protection, but Abbott has left us with no other choice.