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Texas Gov. Abbott pauses reopenings as state’s coronavirus cases spike

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott on Monday, June 22, 2020. Abbott said on Tuesday that Texas would set a daily record for new coronavirus infections -- more than 5,000. (Ricardo B. Brazziell/Austin American-Statesman/TNS)

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott again has moved to conserve hospital beds by halting elective surgeries, a day after a key coronavirus metric he’s been watching hit “red flag” territory.

He also announced Thursday that he’s pausing any further reopening of businesses and other public activities until Texas can “corral” a recent surge in COVID-19 infections.

“The last thing we want to do as a state is go backwards and close down businesses,” Abbott said in a written statement. “This temporary pause will help our state corral the spread until we can safely enter the next phase of opening our state for business.”

The Republican governor acted a day after the most recently reported seven-day average of the state’s “positivity rate” — the percentage of tests administered that produce a positive — exceeded 10% for the first time since April 18.

Throughout the coronavirus crisis and his decisions to try to halt growing joblessness by reopening business, Abbott has never specified what would trigger a rollback and renewed shutdown. On May 5, however, he said at a news conference, “If the positivity test rate is more than 10%, that’s one of those red flags that we begin to look at, not if it’s just a one-off day of testing more than 10% positive, but if there are multiple days that a trend line begins.”

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Late Wednesday, the Department of State Health Services reported on its dashboard that the seven-day average for positivity hit 10.42% on Tuesday. Texas’ high point for the metric was 13.86% on April 13.

For weeks, Abbott has stressed that reopenings could continue, as long as Texans take safety precautions, because the state still had ample hospital capacity to absorb any surge in infected people showing symptoms. He noted repeatedly that he could add to hospitals’ capacity, as he did in March, by again ordering postponement of elective surgeries.

Unlike the March order, though, the one he issued on Thursday didn’t apply statewide, just to Dallas, Harris, Travis and Bexar counties.

It applied to all licensed hospitals in the four counties. The March 22 order, which he lifted as of May 8, applied to both licensed health care facilities and “all licensed health care professionals,” which included dentists.

Thursday’s order used similar language about what’s being halted. Abbott told big-metro hospitals to “postpone all surgeries and procedures that are not medically necessary to diagnose or correct a serious medical condition of, or to preserve the life of, a patient who without timely performance of the surgery or procedure would be at risk for serious adverse medical consequences or death, as determined by the patient’s physician.”

There is again wiggle room. The order allows unspecified other procedures if they “would not deplete any hospital capacity needed to cope with the COVID-19 disaster. “

In a release, the governor’s office noted that Abbott can issue future proclamations, if needed, to “add or subtract from the list of counties … to address surges in hospitalizations that may arise in other parts of the state.”

In his statement, Abbott called the elective-surgery halt “a precautionary step.” It helps keep adequate supplies of hospital beds, he explained.

“These four counties have experienced significant increases in people being hospitalized due to COVID-19,” he said.

On business and public-activity reopenings, Abbott on Thursday froze in place the different restrictions on capacity currently in effect, such as 75% on restaurants that have less than 51% of their gross sales from alcoholic beverages and 50% for bars, retail stores, offices, amusement parks, sporting events, water parks and swimming pools. In small counties with minimal cases, freedom to operate virtually everything at up to 75% capacity kicked in June 12.

The protocols for different categories of businesses and different types of public activities are listed on the state health department’s website.

Businesses can stay at their current level but not expand capacity further, until further notice, Abbott said.

“As we experience an increase in both positive COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations, we are focused on strategies that slow the spread of this virus while also allowing Texans to continue earning a paycheck to support their families,” he said.

In both announcements, Abbott pleaded for Texans to comply with public health experts’ hygiene and distancing recommendations.

“I ask all Texans to do their part to slow the spread of COVID-19 by wearing a mask, washing their hands regularly and socially distancing from others,” he said in his business-reopening statement.

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© 2020 The Dallas Morning News

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.