The combination of colder weather and holiday gatherings was always going to be a perfect storm during the pandemic.
Dr. Aliza Norwood, a physician and assistant professor at UT Austin’s Dell Medical School, said cold weather generally forces people inside, and many families will find it hard to resist holding gatherings in the coming weeks.
“2020 has been an incredibly tough year,” she said. “It’s completely understandable that people want to see their loved ones.”
But right before the holiday season, the stakes of gathering got higher as COVID-19 cases started to rise.
Even though Texas has had one of the highest case counts in the nation for months, Norwood said, we’re entering a different phase that is “very, very concerning.”
“There is evidence of more community spread,” she said. “So, whenever you are gathering with people, because there is more community spread, there is a higher risk that someone in that cohort that you are gathering with may be exposed to COVID or have COVID and not know it.”
More hospitalizations and more death
If behaviors don’t change, Norwood said, there is going to be a strain on hospitals. She said medical staff will have to focus their energy on treating COVID patients, while people with other illnesses get less attention.
And as more people get sick from COVID, Norwood said, there will be more deaths.
“As a primary care physician who is caring for people who have had loved ones die, or who themselves have been in the hospital, it’s just completely devastating to individuals, to families, to the community,” she said. “Seeing that up close and personal, I wouldn’t wish that on anybody.”
That’s why policy experts say they hope it’s not only individuals who change their behavior, but also state and local officials.
Tension Between State And Local Officials
Luis Figueroa, legislative and policy director with the Austin-based think tank Every Texan, said he wants to see the state working more collaboratively with officials in the state’s big cities and counties.
“There’s no question that cities and counties – particularly urban cities – are on the front lines of trying to determine how to contain this global pandemic,” he said. “You know, from the get-go it would have been ideal for there to be a clear understanding of what role cities and counties could play and what role the state would play.”
Figueroa said that lack of clarity has made it harder for local officials to respond to outbreaks in their communities – for example, whether to further restrict indoor gatherings, what to do about schools and when to consider fully locking down.
“We are believers in letting cities and counties set their priorities for things like that based on data-driven policy,” Figueroa said.
But state officials haven’t seen it that way. When cities like El Paso tried to shut down during a dangerous surge in cases, local officials were met with resistance.
Gov. Greg Abbott has said flat-out there won’t be another statewide shutdown and that he doesn’t think they work.
“There’s an overestimation of exactly what a shutdown will achieve and there is a misunderstanding about what a shutdown will not achieve,” he said during a press conference last month.
Abbott said there are financial and mental health consequences associated with lockdowns, too.
But Figueroa said there’s also a cost associated with state and local officials going back and forth on what to do.
“We saw that with the Rio Grande Valley earlier in the year, where the hospitals became completely overrun and the state wasn’t taking enough action to address the situation,” he said. “So many lives could be saved if we worked with our local communities, instead of trying to fight them over power and authority.”
igueroa said what lies ahead depends greatly on how the branches of government react.
Abbott recently accused local officials of not enforcing the restrictions they already have available to them, like limiting capacity in bars and restaurants.
“Some local officials are not using the tools that are available to them to make sure they are taking every step they need,” he said.
Abbott said there’s no point giving officials the ability to restrict more things if they don’t enforce the restrictions already in place.
Figueroa said this is not how things should be handled, especially as cases continue to rise.
“That’s not working together; that’s pointing fingers,” he said. “And that’s what we need less of.”