We are far from writing the final chapters on the novel coronavirus pandemic, but seven months since the first diagnosed COVID-19 case in Texas — as deaths from the virus reach 16,000 and cases near a million — we can now look back and see how it all went so wrong.
As detailed in the three-part Chronicle series Exposed, public officials at all levels, some with the best intentions and others full of little more than wishful thinking and political calculations, were unprepared to face a foreseeable crisis, confusing Texans with mixed messages and using faulty information that led them to roll the dice and needlessly put lives at risk.
Although it had been more than a century since the 1918 flu pandemic brought the world to its knees, killing about 675,000 people in the U.S. alone and millions around the globe, the last decade alone had health experts facing two outbreaks that left them sounding the alarm and issuing dire warnings that went largely unheeded.
In 2009, the H1N1 pandemic claimed 240 lives in Texas. Experts found the state responded well but they cautioned of a potential shortage of personal protective equipment, including masks, gowns and gloves. Texas reacted by buying large quantities of protective equipment and hand sanitizer, placed them in caches around the state — and, the Chronicle found, largely forgot them.
In 2014, the Ebola virus response led medical professionals to warn about a lack of epidemiology staff and the need for more public health funding. There was an effort to bring up the number of epidemiologists to national standards — 1.9 per 100,000 residents — but Texas didn’t even reach half, stalling at .73.
Over the past 12 years, the federal government has also cut funding for emergency preparedness by more than half, and Texas did nothing to close the gap. A bill introduced in the Legislature after the Ebola pandemic would have placed the head of the Department of State Health Services in charge of a unified pandemic response. It died in a House committee.
In 2018, the Texas Task Force of Infectious Disease Preparedness and Response discussed having pandemic training. They did not meet again until COVID-19 was already on its way.
In Houston, officials tried to balance economic concerns with public safety, going forward with the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo with the belief they could monitor the situation and pull back once there was a confirmed case of “community spread.”
Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo was a constant voice of caution and safety, but even she now believes she should have been more aggressive. By the time that first community spread case was diagnosed, the Chronicle found there were already at least three dozen people infected in the region.
Houston got lucky that the rodeo, which was eventually shut down two weeks and 851,000 guests later, did not become a super-spreader event. Local officials drew the right lesson from the near-miss and have been consistently pushing for restraint ever since.
State leaders should have followed Houston’s lead.
Gov. Greg Abbott partially shut down the state in March, which undoubtedly helped slow the spread, but he chose to listen to people such as salon owner Shelley Luther over his own medical experts, such as Dr. Mark McClellan, and reopened the economy before the state’s own criteria were met.
Compounding the error was the state’s use of flawed data, which painted a far rosier picture and made it easier to follow the more politically palatable response. Over the past few months, the number of cases, of hospitalizations and the positivity rate, the percentage of how many people test positive in relation to the number of tests, have all been revised — adding to the confusion.
The number of deaths has also been affected. As the Chronicle investigation shows, while state officials were using the state’s comparatively low death rate to justify reopening, a lot more Texans were dying of COVID than were being reported. At its worst, the undercount reached 3,811 — roughly 44 percent of the deaths reported by late July.
The Chronicle series prompts us not just to look back — but forward.
There will be a time to hold our leaders accountable, and single out any who deserve praise, but we also must push ahead to make sure we are better prepared for what comes next, either from this pandemic or from another virus. Experts made many recommendations to the Chronicle reporters, including the proper funding of public health, shifting more protective equipment manufacturing to the U.S., expanding the state stockpile, and creating the position of Texas pandemic czar to have a strong single voice that can communicate the best way forward.
We failed to properly prepare this time and it has cost us dearly. We can’t let it happen again.