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Texas now tied with California for most Covid-19 cases in country

In other coronavirus news: Democrats urge Vice President Mike Pence to isolate after aides test positive, and Dr. Fauci says keep mask on while talking.
Image: Houston Hospital Struggles With Coronavirus Surge In Texas
Medical staff treat a patient who is wearing a helmet-based ventilator in the Covid-19 intensive care unit at United Memorial Medical Center in Houston on July 28, 2020.Go Nakamura / Getty Images file

SAN ANTONIO -- Texas was neck and neck with California as the state with the most confirmed coronavirus cases since the start of the pandemic,the latest NBC News figures showed Monday.

The Lone Star State had reported 910,124 cases since the start of the pandemic while California, which had led the nation in this woeful category for months, had 909,161, according to the tally.

While the numbers were fluid and it remained possible that California could retake the lead, the number of new cases in Texas increased at a rate of 19 percent over the past two weeks, compared to 15 percent in California.

But if Texas were an independent country, it would rank ninth in the world for total number of cases -- just ahead of Mexico, its neighbor to the south, which has 891,160, according to the Johns Hopkins University Covid-19 dashboard.

The disturbing development comes with Election Day a little over a week away and with Texas, a once reliable Republican bastion, suddenly in play with the latest polls showing President Donald Trump holding only a small lead over his challenger Joe Biden.

Trump, whose re-election chances have been imperiled by his administration’s much-criticized response to the crisis that has infected 8.7 million in the United States and killed more than 226,000, has already said he does not plan to campaign in the state this week.

In other coronavirus news:

  • Democrats urged Vice President Mike Pence not to attend the Supreme Court confirmation vote for Amy Coney Barrett after five of his aides, including his chief of staff and his senior political adviser, tested positive for Covid-19. Pence, who tested negative, was not expected to preside over Barrett's confirmation, his spokeswoman later confirmed.
  • The White House announced that face coverings would be required at Barrett's swearing-in ceremony and anybody "in close proximity" to Trump, who has reportedly recovered from his Covid-19 infection, will be tested ahead of time, NBC News confirmed. There were no such requirements at last month's Rose Garden party to introduce Barrett, which later turned into a "superspreader event."
  • Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation's top infectious disease expert and a frequent Trump target, wrote in a JAMA editorial that people should wear masks while talking. “Respiratory droplets are produced not only by coughing and sneezing, but also when speaking and simply breathing," he wrote. "Therefore, the commonly observed practice of individuals removing their mask when speaking is not advisable.”
  • In Europe, which has been hit by a second wave of coronavirus cases, France registered a record 52,010 new infections over the past 24 hours and Spain declared a new state of emergency to try and curb its spiking Covid-19 numbers.
  • Colombia exceeded 1 million confirmed coronavirus cases over the weekend, becoming the latest Latin American country to report that number in less than a week. Argentina reached that grim marker earlier. Brazil ranks third after the U.S. and India with 5.4 million cases.
  • Stocks fell sharply on Wall Street as hopes for a fresh round of fiscal aid to help the millions of Americans left jobless by the pandemic fizzled.
  • Since the start of the pandemic, nearly 190,000 health care workers have come down with a case of Covid-19 and 767 have died, a new report from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention states.

In a flurry of early morning tweets, Trump insisted falsely again Monday that more testing is the reason for the dramatic rise of new cases.

He also pushed back against White House chief of staff Mark Meadows' admission Sunday that the Trump administration won't be able to "control the pandemic."

And, as he has done since the first U.S. cases were reported in February, Trump continued to contradict public health experts and insisted once more the crisis would soon end.

“We’re doing a great job, we are absolutely rounding the corner,” Trump said enroute to a campaign stop in Pennsylvania.

White House Deputy Press Secretary Brian Morgenstern elaborated on that point in a Fox News interview.

“People are not dying of this disease nearly at the rate that they were," Morgenstern said. "We know how to isolate the vulnerable. We know how to treat people, often times on an outpatient basis. And so the risks just aren't what they used to be.”

It was a different story in El Paso, Texas, where there has been a 200 percent rise in hospitalizations, where the convention center has been turned into a field hospital, and where residents have been urged to stay home for the next two weeks.

"If we continue on this trend, we risk detrimental effects to our entire health care system," the city's director of public health, Angela Mora, said. "For the sake of those hospitalized and the front line health care workers working tirelessly each day to care for them, we ask you to please stay home for two weeks and eliminate your interactions with those outside your household until we can flatten the curve."

Dr. Armando Meza, who works at Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center of El Paso, said that while the city had some spikes in cases early on they felt they had largely dodged the pandemic bullet. He said they spent much of the summer advising medical professionals across the border in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico.

“The dynamic has completely changed," Meza told NBC News. "Hopefully with the curfew being in place, if we can stop this, I think this is going to be an important lesson for the community, for all of us, we have to never lower our guard and be careful.”

Health care worker Angelica Martinez lost her 67-year-old “step” sister-in-law in late August to Covid-19. She told NBC News seeing El Paso’s hospitals once again overflowing with coronavirus patients filled her with a jumble of emotions.

“Part of it is a sense of just sadness, some of it is fear, some of it is a sense of empathy for my former colleagues in the health care community,” she said. “They are getting slammed.”

Martinez, who is a former executive director of a multispecialty physician's practice, said she knows of at least 10 other people who are sick with Covid-19 and said she is stunned that people still insist on gathering, not wearing masks and going out.

“I want to go out too," Martinez said. "My family is used to gathering in my home on Thanksgiving and Christmas," she said. "But I'm not going to violate basic, public health protocols just to indulge that behavior."

On the ground in Houston, doctors were bracing for another wave of new cases.

"We're seeing a slow, steady increase all over the city," Dr. Linda Yancey, an infectious disease specialist at Memorial Hermann Hospital, told The Houston Chronicle. "This is probably due to a combination of factors. First of all, the cold weather is finally beginning to hit and force people to be inside more often. We know that this virus spreads very readily in indoor spaces. Restaurants are beginning to open up more, and they are fantastic places for spreading the virus."

Texas is one of 42 states (plus Puerto Rico, Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands) across the United States that have seen a worrisome increase in coronavirus cases over the past 14 days, NBC News statistics show.

It is also one of the states that started lifting the lockdown in May, at the urging of Trump and to the dismay of public health experts, just as Covid-19 was cresting in the South and the Sun Belt.

Most of the cases in Texas –- and the 18,020 deaths -- were reported after Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican and Trump ally, reopened the state, NBC News statistics show.

Since then, he has reimposed some restrictions on bars and restaurants to tame the pandemic while continuing to reopen schools and other parts of the economy.

In July, when confronted with a rise in new cases, Abbott reluctantly reversed course and issued an order which requires “all Texans to wear a face covering over the nose and mouth in public spaces in counties with 20 or more positive Covid-19 cases."

As of Monday, Texas had an 8.87 percent rate of positive Covid-19 tests, according to Johns Hopkins tabulators. By contrast, California’s was 3.43 percent.

The World Health Organization advises governments to maintain a testing positivity rate of 5 percent or lower for 14 days before reopening.

Gamboa reported from San Antonio,Chiwaya from New York City, and Siemaszko from Montclair, New Jersey.