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Texans urged to limit holiday gatherings as state posts second-highest daily case total

By Nicole Cobler, Austin American-Statesman on

Published in News & Features

AUSTIN, Texas — The Texas Hospital Association on Friday urged Texans to keep Thanksgiving gatherings small as statewide COVID-19 hospitalizations continue to climb.

The Texas Department of State Health Services reported 11,738 new cases Friday, the state's second-highest single-day total of the pandemic. The record was set Thursday, with 12,256 new cases.

"We are counting on you to stay vigilant and protect yourself, so that we can remain ready and able to provide help to those who need us most," the association, which represents nearly 500 Texas hospitals, said in a statement. "This has been a long road, and while we have come a long way, Texas hospitalizations are sharply increasing, reaching almost 8,000 hospitalizations yesterday — the highest we've seen since the devastating summer outbreak in Texas."

A spokeswoman for the association said the group continues to be concerned about hot spots in El Paso, the Panhandle and elsewhere in West Texas.

State health officials reported 8,164 hospitalizations Friday, the first time since Aug. 7 that the number has exceeded 8,000. Hospitalizations reached a plateau of just over 3,000 through much of September before starting to steadily rise since the beginning of October.

Cases are increasing in much of the rest of the country ahead of Thanksgiving.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Thursday advised Americans to avoid traveling for Thanksgiving because the country has seen an "exponential increase" in cases, hospitalizations and deaths, said Dr. Henry Walke, COVID-19 incident manager at the CDC.

"We're alarmed," he said at a news briefing. "What we're concerned about is not only the actual mode of travel — whether it's an airplane or bus or car, but also the transportation hubs."

Local health officials likewise have urged residents to avoid traditional large Thanksgiving feasts with extended family and friends.

In the face of record infection numbers, Gov. Greg Abbott has made it clear that he will not move to shut down the state, as he did in April and as some other governors have recently done.

"Statewide, we're not going to have another shutdown," Abbott said in a Lubbock news conference Thursday, instead emphasizing improved treatment options and stressing wearing face coverings as well as avoiding crowds and extended family and friends.

Abbott has said he will continue his region-by-region approach, based on coronavirus hospitalizations in each area. When coronavirus patients reach more than 15% of an area's total hospital capacity for one week, restaurants and other businesses must reduce occupancy from 75% to 50%.

Bars can also reopen at 50% capacity with approval from local officials, again as long as COVID-19 patients take up 15% or fewer of available beds in the hospital service area.

 

On Friday, coronavirus patients made up more than 15% of the total bed capacity in five hospital service areas. Four of those areas — El Paso, Lubbock, Amarillo and Laredo — have been over the threshold for a week or more, meaning business occupancy must be restricted.

The virus's death toll has steadily climbed in recent weeks.

A new report from the University of North Texas Health Science Center at Fort Worth projects that 2,600 Texans will lose their lives from the virus in the next two weeks.

The pandemic toll in Texas surpassed 20,000 this week. State health officials reported 183 new deaths Friday, which likely occurred over the last 10 days.

The University of North Texas report, released Friday, said the recent coronavirus surge can be attributed to a lack of mask compliance in outdoor locations, to indoor social gatherings and to an increase in transmission at bars and restaurants.

Researchers recommended bar closures, additional dine-in restrictions and postponing holiday gatherings among families.

In El Paso, the state's top hot spot, officials were hiring additional morgue attendants to help move the bodies of those who died from COVID-19.

"Not only is this assignment physically taxing, but it may be emotionally taxing as well," a statement from the county said.

A Texas Division of Emergency Management spokesman said Friday evening that 36 Texas National Guard personnel will provide "mortuary affairs support" starting Saturday.

Nearly 40% of the El Paso area's hospital beds are occupied by COVID-19 patients, including in temporary field hospitals set up to handle additional patients.

In recent days, inmates from the El Paso County jail have helped take bodies to the morgue for $2 an hour. It's not clear if new morgue attendants will replace the inmate volunteers.

(c)2020 Austin American-Statesman, Texas Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC