The number of coronavirus tests being done each day in Texas has dropped by the thousands in August, very much like the nationwide trends that have seen daily testing averages in the U.S. fall nearly 9% since the end of July, according to The COVID Tracking Project. The biggest problem is that there is less and less demand from citizens. Testing centers like CentroMed are no longer flooded by long lines that stretch for blocks, or closing hours early because tests run out.
Texas is one of the states where a presence of “anti-mask” movement among the population has been the most noticeable.
The dropoff comes as the U.S. nears 6 million coronavirus cases and has more than 170,000 deaths. It threatens to put the U.S. even further behind other countries that have better managed the pandemic through more aggressive testing among other things.
The trend is especially worrisome for health experts who fear that Texas risks flying blind into the fall if it doesn’t increase testing. Texas embarked on one of the fastest reopenings in the U.S. in May but retreated weeks later in the face of massive outbreaks, ultimately leading Republican Gov. Greg Abbott to impose a statewide mask order after previously saying he wouldn’t.
At one point, one overwhelmed hospital on the Texas border was airlifting COVID-19 patients hundreds of miles north in search of open beds, and Houston this month began threatening $250 fines for not wearing face coverings in an effort to drive down infection numbers.
In recent weeks, things have improved, including a nearly 40% drop in hospitalizations since July’s peak. But deaths remain high, and doctors in some parts still say they’re still stretched. Texas is averaging more than 210 reported new deaths a day over the past two weeks, according to The COVID Tracking Project. On Saturday, it reported 238 deaths. Overall, the state has recorded more than 9,800 fatalities.
The rolling average of people who test positive for the virus in Texas is firmly elevated at 16% — a figure that itself could be a sign of insufficient testing. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said a positivity rate under 10% is an indicator that a state has robust testing. Abbott has said that unless Texas gets below that number, bars are likely to stay shut.
Other states in the South overwhelmed by the virus this summer are also seeing improvements, including Alabama. Intensive care units remain unfortunately full there, but the average new confirmed cases each day has dropped below 1,000, which is a vast improvement from 1,800 in mid-July.
It’s not clear why testing numbers have dropped, even as many areas of the country are still experiencing serious outbreaks. Health experts suspect some Americans, jaded by images of long testing lines and the possibility of results taking a week or longer, are deciding not to bother unless they’re ill. Others have suggested that mixed messages about the disease — like President Donald Trump’s recent false claim that 99% of COVID-19 cases are harmless — could deter people from seeking tests.
“The good answer would be because we have less COVID, fewer people have symptoms. A bad answer might be that people gave up because it’s taking a long time,” said Dr. Junda Woo, medical director for San Antonio Metro Health. “We have the data, but we don’t have a lot of the answers behind the data.”
Some cities in Texas are now offering tests to virtually anyone after months of restricting limited supplies to only those with symptoms, and Abbott has said the state is working on rapid virus testing for nursing homes and schools. Some students are already back in classrooms and in football-obsessed Texas, which has by far the most high school football players in the nation with about 170,000, practices are underway.
“At this point, everybody’s a guinea pig,” said Jessica Light, a professor at Texas A&M University who ultimately decided to send her 8-year-old daughter and 5-year-old son back to classrooms when school opens Tuesday. “The teachers, the staff, the students, the parents. Because we’re not exactly sure how this is going to work.”
Sam Chama is anxious because his girlfriend’s 5-year-old son is getting ready to start kindergarten in a few weeks in Austin. As a former elementary school employee, he knows how easily younger children spread germs even with the best precautions.
And starting the year with virtual learning, the 35-year-old geologist says, is just buying time with the expectation that things will soon get better. He wonders: What happens if it doesn’t?
“This is assuming that there will be a decline or some type of control, which I don’t think will happen,” he said.
Even though Texas isn’t the worst US state hit by the virus, the fact that they are in third place and the tests numbers are dropping off is an indication of things possible getting much worse.