Amid rising hospitalizations and COVID-19 cases, Gov. Greg Abbott hit pause on plans to continue to reopen Texas on Thursday and suspended elective surgeries in the state’s largest counties.
The surgery order, which goes into effect at 11:59 p.m. on Friday, halts all elective surgeries and procedures that are not medically necessary in Travis, Bexar, Harris and Dallas counties.
"These four counties have experienced significant increases in people being hospitalized due to COVID-19 and today’s action is a precautionary step to help ensure that the hospitals in these counties continue to have ample supply of available beds to treat COVID-19 patients," Abbott said in a statement Thursday morning.
Roughly one hour later, Abbott announced he would temporarily pause the state’s additional reopening phases, declining to roll back previous orders that allowed businesses to expand their occupancy levels.
"The last thing we want to do as a state is go backwards and close down businesses," Abbott said. "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 state is in Phase 3 of Abbott’s plan to reopen the Texas economy, which allowed restaurants to increase occupancy levels to 75% and most businesses to move to 50% occupancy. Those capacity numbers won’t be affected under Abbott’s new announcement.
Phase 3 also allowed amusement parks and carnivals in counties with more than 1,000 cases to operate at half-capacity beginning June 19. There are no capacity limits for houses of worship, child care services, local government operations, youth camps and recreational sports for adults and youths.
State plans still include reopening schools this fall, though amid the growing number of COVID-19 cases, the Texas Education Agency on Tuesday delayed releasing public health guidelines on how districts should safely do that.
Abbott banned elective surgeries across the state in March but reversed that order in April, giving the go-ahead for surgeries to resume in facilities where the procedures would not deplete hospital capacity or medical resources needed for coronavirus patients.
When he lifted the statewide elective surgery ban in April, Abbott required health care facilities to show in writing that they would be able to reserve at least 25% of its hospital capacity for the treatment of COVID-19 patients and show that it will not need to request personal protective equipment from any public source.
On Wednesday, local health officials warned that if the coronavirus continues spreading at its current pace, Austin-area hospitals may reach their capacity by mid-July.
A spokesperson for the three Austin-area health care systems —Ascension Seton, Baylor Scott & White Health and St. David’s HealthCare — said their total 2,470 staffed beds are at 71% occupancy. ICU bed capacity in the area is at 70%.
"Our health systems are committed to providing capacity in these unusual times and collaborating closely with each other and with local and state leadership and public health experts," the spokesperson said in a statement, adding that hospitals reach capacity, they could adjust staffing and make other changes.
Texas broke its record for hospitalizations for the 13th day in a row Wednesday, with state health officials reporting 4,389 patients in Texas hospitals. Likewise, the Texas Department of State Health Services reported a record 5,551 new COVID-19 cases Wednesday.
Abbott took to daytime TV this week to warn that the growing number of cases and hospitalizations could lead to a "massive outbreak."
Democrats criticized Abbott for his decision to pause further reopenings, pointing to the state’s record breaking numbers and calling the governor’s plan "too little, too late."
"Instead of listening to doctors and experts from day one, it took 13 straight days with rising hospitalizations, nearly overran ICU units, and over 10,000 new cases the last two days for (Abbott) to finally listen to reason," Abhim Rahman, spokesman for the Texas Democratic Party, said in a statement. "Abbott’s mismanagement of the coronavirus pandemic has led Texas into this mess."