Texas COVID-19: How the state went from zero to a million cases, 20,000 deaths in 8 months
AUSTIN — Huddled with reporters and flanked by top emergency leaders in an underground operations center, a concerned but confident Gov. Greg Abbott assured Texans he and his team were ready to meet the challenge presented by a strange new virus.
"We are preparing for all possible contingencies," the governor said in front of the same backdrop he'd often used when leading the state's response to hurricanes and other disasters.
It was Feb. 27, one day after Vice President Mike Pence had been put in charge of the national task force to battle the coronavirus, which first appeared a few months before in China and had now found its way to the United States by way of international cruise ship travelers. The first known case in the United States came one week earlier and the nation's first known death would come one month later.
But in Texas, even as Abbott spoke, the virus that would come to be known as COVID-19 seemed more like a distraction than a danger. The state's only known cases were those of former cruise ship passengers who were being held safely under quarantine in San Antonio.
But eight days later, the threat from coronavirus would begin upending life in Texas. That's when Austin Mayor Steve Adler took the unprecedented step of canceling one of his city's signature and most lucrative events, the international South By Southwest festival, in an effort to keep the virus at bay.
Soon after, rodeos, livestock shows, music events and even the State Fair of Texas would be shelved.
And eight months after Texans were told the state would be prepared "for all possible contingencies," Texas is in the midst of its worst spike in COVID-cases to date. Two weeks ago, the state reported that one million of the state's 29 million residents had been infected and more than 20,000 of them had died from the virus.
And in the months since COVID-19 was declared a worldwide pandemic, Texas authorities have scrambled to get personal protective gear and medical supplies to health workers battling the virus on the front lines. Non-essential businesses across the state were shuttered for weeks before being allowed to gradually reopen.
Virtual learning replaced classroom curriculum. And work from home, for those fortunate enough to keep their jobs as the state's economy sputtered, has become more the rule and less the exception.
Texans have watched as political leaders quarreled over which course of action was best. They have seen and heard countless stories of heartbreak and hope, of despair and death, and of selflessness by the state's front-line medical workers and ordinary Texans who did what they could to help friends and strangers alike.
A spike out of the gate
When the virus finally established a beach head in Texas, its march was relentless. On the 10th day after Abbott's appearance at the operations center, 68 confirmed cases were reported, according to data compiled and maintained by Johns Hopkins University.
A week later, the number topped 1,100. Three days after that, Abbott issued his first shutdown order. Schools were closed. So were bars, gyms and massage parlors. Restaurants were limited to takeout service only and Texans were told not to visit nursing homes.
"We must strangle this expansion by reducing the ways we are currently transmitting it," Abbott said at the time.
Politics and the pandemic
The climbing caseload laid bare schisms between state and local leaders, and the response was fraught with politics.
Several urban county judges issued what became known as stay-at-home or shelter-in-place orders as a means to control the spread. By mid-March, Abbott stepped in with the first of what would be a flurry of executive orders, some either modifying or nullifying actions taken at the local level.
But the overarching effect was that the Texas economy screeched to a halt as businesses shuttered and layoffs mounted. Unemployment claims skyrocketed.
Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick drew national headlines when he told Fox News that "there are things more important than living" and that Texas should get back to work. Demonstrations popped up at the Texas Capitol and in several cities protesting stay-at-home orders.
Some merchants openly defied shutdown orders, including Dallas salon owner Shelley Luther, who was ordered to serve a jail sentence for reopening her business. The sentence was overturned, and Abbott modified his orders to make clear jail time was off the table for such actions.
Luther, a conservative Republican, is now running for the Texas Senate in a special election and has called Abbott a "tyrant governor" on the campaign trail.
Bill Miller, a longtime political operative and lobbyist in Austin, said the public's reaction to the pandemic has been so polarized that "you can't win the COVID argument." But, he added, Abbott will earn high marks for steadiness throughout.
"If there is such a thing as splitting the baby, he's done it," Miller said. "He's going to receive good marks when this is all said and done."
That's not how Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo sees it. Hidalgo is a Democrat who has seen some of her virus-fighting local orders overturned by the governor as the pandemic took hold.
“We need the state to step in and lead or get out of the way and let us lead," Hidalgo told reporters in Houston last week as caseloads in her county were once again on the rise.
Dr. Britt Berrett, a former hospital administrator and now director of the University of Texas at Dallas' Center of Healthcare Leadership and Management, minimized such differences as leaders from the White House to local county courthouses sought to make their way though what would become an uncharted minefield.
"In March, we didn't know what we were getting ourselves into," Berrett said in a recent interview. "That criticism has been, 'you didn't do this and you didn't do that.' But we didn't know what we were up against."
Instead, he said, the focus should be on the logistical successes of establishing a medical supply chain while hospitalization rates soared and on the dedication of health professionals working around the clock while exposing themselves to a potentially deadly contagion.
A cautious reopening
Texas Democrats, including many of the party's elected leaders at the local level, have accused Abbott of paying too much attention to Republicans when he began gradually lifting his shutdown order as April was coming to a close.
But by then it was clear the economic slowdown was extracting a terrific toll. The state's unemployment rate reached nearly 13% and more than 1.3 million Texans had applied for unemployment benefits.
Not only were the retail and service sectors hammered by the shutdown, but so was the state's vital energy sector as travel was stopped in its tracks. The average price of gasoline in Texas sank from about $2.25 a gallon in January 2020 to less than $1.45 by mid-April.
Against that backdrop, Abbott began a phased opening of Texas, meaning some businesses could reopen with strict occupancy limits and social distancing guidelines in place for customers and employees.
Business groups applauded the announcement. And Abbott was invited to the White House on May 7 to showcase Texas' efforts to allow the economy to operate amid efforts to slow the virus' spread. The message dovetailed neatly with that of President Donald Trump, who had hoped that a vibrant economy would propel him to re-election in November.
"The best thing we can do is get our country open, get it going," Trump said as he sat alongside a smiling Abbott, whom the president called "one of the great governors in this country."
But within a month, the smiles would fade as a grim reality overtook center stage. In the weeks following the shutdowns, one-day COVID case numbers began to decline.
Then came Memorial Day. And with it came the social gathering that had been shelved for two months or more. Caseloads didn't just climb, they dwarfed the numbers of posted in in the spring. By mid-July, the seven-day daily average of new cases reached about 10,000.
Abbott, while recommending mask-wearing in public, at first resisted efforts to impose a statewide mandate after having stripped local officials of their authority to impose fines for not covering their face in public. Then he reversed course in July, and soon the caseload began to shrink again.
'I just broke down'
July 1 was Carlos Sanchez's 60th birthday. That milestone greeted him at daybreak with chills and a fever. A positive test for the virus followed. Before the month was out, he spent weeks in the hospital where he was given supplemental oxygen, blood plasma therapy and drifted in and out of consciousness. He told a friend who had called to cheer him up that he feared he would die.
"I think all of us feel we think we're going to live forever and it's not going to happen to us – until it does," said Sanchez, a longtime Texas journalist who is now director of public affairs for the government of Hidalgo County.
"When you are laying in bed, you become very reflective. Coming to terms with your mortality, COVID will do that for you."
Sanchez, who wrote about his COVID-19 experience in The Atlantic, said in an interview his recovery was arduous, and difficult for his wife and grown children. He worried that he might have infected them, along with his elderly father-in-law who lives with the family.
His lungs remain scarred, Sanchez said, and so too his psyche.
His doctor told him he suffers from post-traumatic stress. One night, Sanchez said, he was watching TV alone at home when on came a commercial designed to tug at the heartstrings so that the product will be purchased.
"I just broke down because I was so moved by it," said Sanchez, adding that the incident was not isolated.
Now, Sanchez said, he is back at work "preparing for the next wave" of COVID-19 to hit Hidalgo County.
'Yeah, I'll do my part'
Around the same time Sanchez awoke to fever and chills, Calily Bien saw a Facebook ad seeking volunteers to take part in Moderna's clinical trial for its COVID-19 vaccine. The summertime caseload spike was dominating the headlines, so Bien responded.
"I'm not afraid of vaccines. I'm not afraid of being a guinea pig," said Bien, a communications specialists for Austin's city-owned electric company. "So I said, 'yeah, I'll do my part.' It seemed like a small thing to do."
Bien, who is of Asian descent, said she learned that the trials need a diverse group of people.
"We know COVID disproportionally affects people of color," she said. "Obviously, the Asian population is a lot smaller.
"I'm healthy, I'm reasonably young," added Bien, 38. "It was an easy choice for me."
Those in the group of 30,000 volunteers were told to live their lives as normally as they would during the pandemic if they were not part of the trial, she said. That means she observed the protocols outlined by health professionals, but did not isolate herself or refrain from routine trips to the store or from exercising at her gym.
Bien said she will not know if she was among those who received the vaccine or a placebo until the trials are complete.
If it turns out that she was in the placebo group, Bien said she would have no hesitation about receiving the actual vaccine. But, she added, it's important that front-line health workers and people in high-risk categories be first in line.
"As a 38-year-old, I know I wouldn't be the first person to get it (the vaccine) because there are people who need it more than I do," she said.
As the Texas summer drew to a close, so did the lull for COVID-19. In September caseloads began spiking again. According to Johns Hopkins, the state hit the 1 million mark on Nov. 11.
The three hardest hit areas in the latest spike are El Paso, Amarillo and Lubbock. Abbott and state health authorities have surged medical supplies, health care workers and other resources into the regions to battle what has become an out-of-control spread that is overrunning hospitals and wearing down health providers.
Local authorities are pleading with residents to heed the social-distancing, mask-wearing, crowd-avoiding warning from medical professionals.
"All of us have COVID-19 fatigue, especially our frontline responders," said Rep. Four Price, R-Amarillo, who is co-chairman of a select House-Senate committee on health and human services. "We all want our lives to get back to normal. However, we must understand that we are not past the gravity of the coronavirus."
Balancing the legal with the moral
As the caseload mounted in El Paso, County Judge Ricardo Samaniego issued stay-at-home orders that went beyond the limits of the directives handed down by Abbott. That's when Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton went to court and had them overturned.
A weary Samaniego had just returned from visiting with heath professionals caring for patients in overcrowded hospitals and with workers from the county medical examiner's office tending to bodies of COVID-19 being stored in mobile morgues when he convened last week's meeting of the commissioner's court.
In the face of the court's order, Samaniego said he was seeking "a balance of what we can do from a legal perspective and what we can do from a moral perspective."
"Understand that if we don't do the right thing, we won't be having an order for just (a shut down of) our businesses, we will shut down because of the collapse of the economy and the health care system," he said. "We don't want to get to that point."
The increase in both caseloads and COVID deaths, he said "is surreal." And, he added, he's in awe of the professionalism demonstrated by front-line health care workers in the county.
"Any time I feel that I'm a little stressed out because of what I'm doing," Samaniego said, "then I realize it's very little compared to some of our first responders and our medical examiners."
'We've been through this before'
With caseloads now well past 1 million and while hospitals are again short of space, Abbott is resisting calls for renewed measures to slow the virus' spread. Like health professionals and political leaders across the county, the governor called the coming vaccines and in the recent approval of new COVID-fighting medications "game-changing."
"We've been through this before," Abbott told Dallas-Fort Worth TV station KXAS last week. "We had that skyrocketing rise in July and people responded to that by following safe practices. People just need to return to those safe practices."
The advancements on the medical front, he said, "means fewer people will be getting COVID, people will be recovering from COVID quicker and fewer people will be hospitalized. And fewer people will die."
Diana Cervantes, an assistant professor who heads the epidemiology program at the University of North Texas Health Science Center at Fort Worth, said those glimmers of hope are not enough to abandon the safety protocols that now have become part of everyday life.
"I think we'll be doing it a while," said Cervantes, a former chief epidemiologist for the Texas Department of State Health Services for a 49-county region in North Texas. "It's going to take a while for the vaccine to distribute. But I think this virus is entirely too successful. It's not going to just fizzle out and go away."
John C. Moritz covers Texas government and politics for the USA Today Network in Austin. Contact him at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter @JohnnieMo.