Analysis: Reopening Texas as hot spots multiply

Protesters at the state Capitol have defied city and state mandates to demand the reopening of the Texas economy during the COVID-19 pandemic. Jordan Vonderhaar for The Texas Tribune

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A social distancing experiment is underway in Texas, where outbreaks are mounting in places where people are close together: prisons, meatpacking plants and nursing homes among them.

Public policy is going the other way. The state government — countermanding directives from city and county officials in Texas — is slowly reopening the state, loosening shelter-at-home policies and easing into go-ahead-and-shop policies.

It has government officials talking out of both sides of their mouths: The new coronavirus is still raging, but it’s safe to venture into public places.

The consequences of reopening closed businesses and some social and cultural life will be apparent in a month or so, but hot spots are flaring right now across the state. It’s evident that putting lots of people together can give the coronavirus places to thrive, spreading rapidly to new victims.

Earlier outbreaks among people in close quarters elsewhere foreshadowed what’s happening now in Texas, among them a nursing home in suburban Seattle, a cruise ship denied permission to port, a meatpacking plant in South Dakota, state prisons in Ohio and the aircraft carrier Theodore Roosevelt.

Situations like those are stacking up in Texas. The Texas Tribune has reported fresh examples of what can happen with the coronavirus in places where people are physically close together without sufficient protection against infection. Gov. Greg Abbott said as much Tuesday, announcing that "surge response teams" were available to tend to hot spots just like those — even as he was proclaiming that hair salons, barber shops, gyms and bars will soon be able to open their doors to limited numbers of customers.

In Texas, 303 people had died in long-term care centers as of a week ago, but the state won’t release details about where that’s happening — either to the public or to the families of people in those centers, the Tribune and ProPublica reported. Health officials here won’t name places with known cases and won’t even report the total number of infections in all centers.

As of last week, deaths in those homes accounted for 40% of all of the COVID-19 deaths in Texas. All the state would say at the time was that 23% of nursing homes and 4% of assisted living facilities had reported at least one infection among patients and staff. No statistics have been provided about the extent of testing in those places, either.

The JBS Beef meatpacking plant in the Texas Panhandle is the locus of an outbreak that has made Moore County the site of the state’s highest known coronavirus infection rate. State and federal health officials have been dispatched to Amarillo to try to control the flare-up there and in other plants in that area. Cases tied to a Tyson Foods chicken-processing plant in Shelby County — on the Texas-Louisiana border — prompted state health officials to investigate earlier this month.

Texas hasn’t tested all of the people in its prisons, but 70% of the inmates who have been tested have the coronavirus. More than 1,700 inmates and employees in the prison system have confirmed cases (as of Monday, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice said, 1,275 inmates and 461 prison employees had tested positive); more than two dozen have died. Inmates, their families and a federal judge are among those calling for more protection and for more testing to see where and how big the outbreaks really are.

As with nursing homes and factories, the increases in prisons aren’t confined within the walls of the buildings where they occur. Guards and other prison employees come and go, just like the staffers in nursing homes and the workers in meatpacking plants. In places like East Texas’ Anderson County, with five state prisons, that puts a new spin on the risks of already dangerous work.

Those increases also highlight a potential risk of reopening businesses and encouraging Texans to get out and support those enterprises and get back to work, to get the economy going.

People moving back and forth from hot spots to public places don’t automatically make it more hazardous to leave home. But without widespread testing in the state — it’s improving, but remains thin, given the size of the population — it does increase uncertainty about what’s safe and who’s been exposed.

Mark it as one more missing piece of information — an obstacle to making Texans more comfortable about returning to some of what used to be normal.