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Global Health Expert Says Reopening Puts Texas At Risk For Sharp Rise In Cases Over Summer

A sign outside Chupacabra Cantina tells customers the rules of reopening.
Gabriel C. Pérez
As bars and restaurants reopen in Texas, Dr. Peter Hotez of Baylor College of Medicine says Texans might be getting a "false sense of complaceny." A rise in cases during July or August could put the health care system and the economy at further risk.

From Texas Standard:

Memorial Day is the unofficial start of summer, and many Texans have been enjoying the holiday weekend at parks and beaches. But the COVID-19 pandemic presses on, with cases still rising in Texas, and public gatherings only increase the likelihood that that trend will continue.

Dr. Peter Hotez is founding dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine, and professor of pediatrics and molecular virology and microbiology, at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston. He told Texas Standard host David Brown on Monday that Texas still faces many challenges when it comes to COVID-19, despite the fact that the state has allowed many businesses to reopen.

For one thing, testing is still problematic. Too few tests have been deployed relative to the size of the U.S. population. He said at this point, though, practicing "syndromic surveillance" might be more effective at slowing the virus' spread.

"[You] get a better sense at who's popping up with fever, who's popping up with respiratory symptoms," he said.

Slowing the spread is an urgent matter as Texas opens up much of its economy. Hotez said that's happening sooner than it should, which means steep increases in new COVID-19 cases are likely in the next few months, especially in some of Texas' most populous counties.

"I'm really worried as we head into the summer," he said.

As the virus spreads, there are many ways to measure its impact. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott has used the rate of new cases as one way to determine whether the state can safely reopen. But Hotez said his primary measure is hospital and intensive care unit admissions.

"You can't hide those; that's something very real and tangible."

Social distancing measures have helped keep the number of hospitalizations in Texas lower than in other states like New York, which is currently the epicenter of the epidemic in the U.S. But that could change as social distancing rules are relaxed. Computer models project that cases and hospitalizations will spike as more people gather.

"Things will ... probably stay flat for another month, and people will get this false sense of complacency," he said. "And then the cases start to rise precipitously, and then it's too late."

For Abbott to successfully reopen the state, Hotez said "checks and balances" are necessary – things like more testing at workplaces, more contact tracing and implementing syndromic surveillance.

"I get his urgency to open things up, but ... if the cases start rising again everything's going to fold."

As a vaccine expert, Hotez said the clinical trials and studies currently underway for a COVID-19 vaccine aren't promising – at least not yet.

"But, again, it's still early, so there's still opportunities to improve them," he said.

But it's not realistic to expect a vaccine by the fall.

As Texas continues to reopen, Hotez doesn't want residents to let down their guard.

"People think it's all over and it's business as usual," Hotez said. "[But] we're not putting in place all the things we could be to ensure we could open safely."

Web story by Caroline Covington.

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