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Texas is 'flying blind' as schools reopen amid decline in COVID-19 testing

"Lemon Tree" singer Trini Lopez was killed by the coronavirus, while big house party busts occurred in New Jersey and Nashville.
Image: Texas EMS First Responders Face Higher Caseload Amid COVID-19 Pandemic
Medics with Austin-Travis County EMS transport a nursing home resident with coronavirus symptoms on Aug., 3, 2020 in Austin, Texas.John Moore / Getty Images

Texas may be flying blind as it prepares to reopen schools because there has been a huge drop in COVID-19 testing even as the number of confirmed cases has climbed over 500,000 and the death toll from the virus is closing in on 10,000.

Even more worrisome, the positivity rate of the tests that have been administered in Texas of late is rising, which suggests there may be many more cases out there that have not been detected.

“Yes, any school district that does not test its own students is flying blind,” said Vivian Ho, a health economist at Rice University and Baylor College of Medicine. “But public schools don’t have the resources to do that kind of testing under the current circumstances.”

While some smaller companies are hard at work developing $5 tests for diagnosing COVID-19, right now most school systems “are stuck with $100 PCR tests and they can’t afford to give those to every student,” said Ho.

How would Ho solve the testing problem? “You could maybe throw a billion dollars at this problem, but that would be too good of an idea,” she said.

Last weekend, the Houston Astros baseball team and the Texas Department of Emergency Management opened up a COVID-19 testing center near Minute Maid Park that administered thousands of tests per day.

“So we had a gigantic uptick in testing, 30,000 or more,” Ho said.

But that’s not nearly enough in a city of 2.4 million that’s already reported more than 50,000 cases, she said.

As a silver lining, major Texas cities like Austin have reported a drop in demand for COVID-19 tests, opening the door for people who don’t have symptoms to get tested. Local health officials had stopped offering testing to people without symptoms at the end of June when Austin and the rest of Texas experienced a dramatic spike in new cases that threatened to overwhelm the hospital system.

“We’re getting the sense from other jurisdictions that they’re also seeing a decrease in those who are seeking testing,” interim Austin-Travis County Health Authority Dr. Mark Escott told the local paper.

Why are people not getting tested? Escott said frustration over waiting times figures into that equation and it’s not just a Texas issue.

“We are seeing what is being seen in many parts of the country right now and that’s a significant decrease in the testing that’s being done,” Escott said. “This is not because tests are not available, it’s because less individuals are signing up for testing.”

Texas administered an average 36,255 coronavirus tests per day in the week ending Aug. 8, The Texas Tribune reported. That was a drop of some 42 percent from two weeks prior to that, when the average number of daily tests was 62,516.

At the same time, there was a 20 percent jump in positive tests in the week ending Aug. 8. That was a six percent increase over the previous two weeks, when the positivity rate was around 14 percent.

And on Saturday, more than half of the 14,000 COVID-19 tests were positive — a new state record.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, a staunch ally of President Donald Trump, has been accused of sending conflicting messages to local school superintendents about returning students to classrooms.

On one hand, Abbott has said he trusts them to decide when and how to return students to the classroom. But Abbott has also “moved to block local health authorities from shutting down classroom before the school year has started,” The Texas Tribune reported.

“Districts, I think, are very concerned about creating these rolling situations where people come back on campus and then get sick and then everybody has to leave again,” Joy Baskin, director of legal services for the Texas Association of School Boards, said in a recent podcast.

As for why Texas is seeing a rise in new cases, Abbott on Tuesday said it’s because some Texans feel like they can let down their guard “if they’re just with family members.”

“And that turns out not to be the case,” he said.

Nearly 5.2 million cases of Covid-19 had been reported in the U.S. as of Wednesday afternoon along with 165,680 deaths, according to the latest NBC News numbers. The U.S. has accounted for about a fourth of the world's more than 20 million cases and nearly 745,000 deaths.

  • Singer Trini Lopez, who scored hits in the 1960s with his versions of songs like “Lemon Tree” and “If I Had a Hammer,” died Tuesday from complications related to the coronavirus. He was 83 and had been battling to survive for some six weeks, his songwriting partner Joe Chavira said. Their last song, "If By Now," was performed for a coronavirus fundraiser expected to air over the weekend on local television in Chavira's home city of Santa Barbara, he said."He passed trying to tell people about COVID," Chavira said.

  • A Florida sheriff has barred his deputies from wearing masks in most work situations. Marion County Sheriff Billy Woods insisted there's no conclusive evidence that wearing masks curbs the spread of the virus, even though the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, along with most of the medical establishment, have said the opposite. Even Trump has started wearing a mask during public appearances. But Woods, who is not a doctor, was adamant. “This is no longer a debate nor is it up for discussion,” he wrote in a memo that appeared Tuesday, the same day that Florida reported 277 more coronavirus deaths.
  • A New Jersey homeowner and an event promoter were busted after they allegedly hosted a house party Sunday where the 250 or so guests were charged $35 admission. It was the third big, paid-admission bash that police in New Jersey shut down in the last week. The owner, Jeffrey Davis Jr., and the promoter, Marheem Miller, were charged with violating the state's order against large social gatherings and local ordinances. Earlier this month, Gov. Phil Murphy, whose state was able to flatten the coronavirus curve but has seen an uptick in new cases of late, tightened restrictions on the number of people who can gather at indoor venues or parties from 100 to 25.

  • New Jersey isn’t the only state where people have been endangering the public by holding big house parties. In Nashville, two men were arrested for throwing an Aug. 1 party to promote an outfit called The Fashion House that drew hundreds of people who took part in photo shoots and got tattoos. Christopher Eubank and Jeffrey Mathews were charged with violating health orders by hosting a gathering in excess of 25 people, not requiring social distancing and not requiring face coverings. Nashville Mayor John Cooper called the party "irresponsible" and local code enforcement slapped a "Stop Use Order" on the property for "illegally operating a commercial business in a residential district."

  • Man's best friend is apparently not immune to COVID-19. A North Carolina dog that died after suffering an "acute illness" earlier this month has tested positive for coronavirus. It's still not clear what exactly killed the dog. Only a handful of animals in the United States have contracted the disease, according to the Department of Agriculture. Most of those infections happened after the animal had contact with people who had COVID-19, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. What should a dog owner do prevent passing on COVID-19 to a pet? Avoid “petting, snuggling, being kissed or licked or sharing food.”