In Lubbock, pandemic fatigue sets in as hospitalizations rise

A line forms outside of Mesquites Bar & Grill in Lubbock on Oct. 17, 2020. (Credit: Justin Rex for The Texas Tribune)

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LUBBOCK — Rambunctious drinkers fill a row of bars just off Texas Tech University’s campus Saturday. Bargoers sit mostly maskless at their tables. Others wait in line for a socially distanced spot inside.

It’s Homecoming weekend in Lubbock, one of the fastest-growing coronavirus hot spots in the state. Doctors have warned the hospitals are full, at times unable to take transfer patients, and medical staff are exhausted after slogging through more than half a year of the virus.

But that hasn’t stopped revelers from trying to find some normalcy.

Shelby Mayfield, a Texas Tech senior, was at Little Woodrow’s bar in southwest Lubbock with a few friends and one of their mothers Saturday. The group has decided to “live our lives,” she said, after the isolation wrought by coronavirus restrictions took a mental toll on them.

“After so many months — like from March to June — of staying at home and not doing anything, it began to drive me crazy and I was willing to take the risk because I’m in good health, I live alone,” said Mayfield, who is studying marketing. “And I know that for some people, they’re like, ‘Oh my god, you’re putting other people at risk’ but I don’t necessarily see it that way.” There’s a risk going to the grocery store, she said; the Texas Medical Association said bars are more dicey.

Experts and officials fault widespread pandemic fatigue for the latest surge nationwide, and have begged people to don face coverings, socially distance and take “personal responsibility” for keeping themselves and their neighbors safe. But eight months into the pandemic, some residents are disregarding those precautions and infections across ages have mushroomed, with group gatherings largely to blame, health officials say.

“They're tired of wearing a mask. They're tired of, you know: ‘I don't know anybody that's gotten sick. Why am I sitting at home? I want to go out and do things.’ Which I understand,’” said Lubbock’s public health director Katherine Wells.

In earlier months of the pandemic, outbreaks could be traced to individual places or events, and in the summer and early fall college-aged adults were the overwhelming majority of cases in Lubbock. Now, they’re more spread across the age groups and with 200 or more new cases a day, the overwhelmed public health department has had to start hiring 25 temporary employees to help track down people who might have been exposed and respond to the virus.

“They've been to dinner with friends, a barbecue, saw their parents, went to a big event — I don't know for sure where they contracted it” or who else might be exposed, said Wells, whose department has been working night shifts and weekends. Increases in infections among young people have typically been followed by a wave in the older population, she said.

Even before pandemic fatigue set in in conservative Lubbock, the region’s rugged sense of individualism and pioneer spirit — and a deep-rooted aversion to government mandates — caused some to cast a skeptical eye on wearing the face coverings that health experts say help staunch the spread of the virus.

“We pretty much take care of ourselves. We're willing to help anyone. But we've got that independent mindset,” County Commissioner Chad Seay told The Texas Tribune on Oct. 20, his first day back to work. He’d been quarantining at home after possibly being exposed to the virus.

He said he’s not “one of these people that say,’ Oh, you need to wear a mask all the time everywhere’” but does put one on in elevators or when in close proximity to others.

But after a swift rise in hospitalizations, Seay said in a subsequent interview that he was deeply concerned and that it was time to go a “step further.”

“As an elected official, I got to do my part to show that I'm willing to wear the mask, if it helps one person,” he said. “We have got to slow this down.”

A number of well-known residents have fallen ill in recent weeks.

The chancellor of the Texas Tech University System, a physician, tested positive this month. A longtime emergency room doctor was on a ventilator as of mid-October. A prominent news anchor who covers health was sickened in September and had two “very dark” days, said her husband, county commissioner Bill McCay. “If she had coughed deeply one more time I was about to call 911,” he said. She was taking precautions and has since recovered, he said.

At the football game Saturday, cheerleaders shook pom poms to a sparsely filled stadium. Fans watched from the stands, mostly unmasked, though face coverings are required. A grassy quad normally overrun with spirited tailgaters stood empty. Some peppered an open-air parking lot that is typically congested with RVs and game-day traffic.

“It’s usually elbow to elbow,” said Keith Kiser, a New Mexico resident who has come to Texas Tech football games for years. “We’re feeling the effects [of the coronavirus], there’s no doubt. We’re just trying to live our lives. I personally am not too concerned about my possibly contracting the C-19 — God forbid it happens — but I’m going to continue to live my life.”

He said he’ll put on a mask out of respect for others or when entering businesses, but at the moment wasn’t wearing one. Nor was Shane Scarbrough, a Texas Tech graduate, who said the tailgate was an outlet or escape for people exhausted at taking precautions and avoiding other social events.

“I think there are quite a few people who are more relaxed, you see it all the time — you go into stores, you go into gas stations,” said Scarbrough, who said he avoids dine-in restaurants. For some of his friends, the tailgating is all they do, he said.

“The rest of the time. They're, I wouldn’t say quarantined, but they're practicing caution,” he said.

Texas Tech is one of the few state universities that has allowed tailgating to continue with safety restrictions in place. Since the pandemic began, more Texas Tech students have been infected with the virus than at any other in-state university, according to a New York Times database — though the numbers decreased as the semester wore on. Texas Tech President Lawrence Schovanec said most of the spread is traced to off-campus activities.

The university has tried to “sincerely balance” safety with “the need and the desire of many people to have a somewhat more normal experience,” Schovanec said. University enrollment increased this semester — which he thinks is because they are offering a relatively large number of in-person or hybrid classes, that are part online and part face-to-face.

Schovanec arrived at the game Saturday in a red jeep with his wife, pulling into a spot right next to Kiser, who put on a mask that read “TRUMP” and “Keep America Safe.”

Kiser told Schovanec he was going to “live my life for whatever I have left and I’m going to enjoy it the best I can.”

Schovanec said he’s heard similar comments from students, upset at coronavirus restrictions. He tells them: “We have a lot of staff that are older, faculty that are older… and you have to think about them,” he said.

Two days after the homecoming game drew thousands to the university stadium, and a few weeks after a large state fair was held, Lubbock was forced by gubernatorial order to close bars and cut restaurant occupancy until the number of hospitalized coronavirus patients in the region decreases to 15% or less for a week.

Some local officials chafe at that limit, saying it’s arbitrary and that it unfairly penalizes Lubbock because its hospitals serve as a regional hub with sometimes a third of patients coming from out of state before the pandemic.

Because of its geographic isolation in West Texas, Lubbock has developed a more robust health care system than similarly sized cities, and it’s economy — built around agriculture, Texas Tech and the medical systems – has been largely insulated from economic swings, officials say.

City councilmember Steve Massengale said that shutting down the economy again is “not an option.”

“I think we've come to a point that those that believe this is an issue and that want to be a part of the solution are doing the things they need to do” — like wearing a mask, he said — “and I think there are those that choose not to do.” The latter group is growing in numbers, he said.

About a mile from Texas Tech, Covenant Health, one of two health systems in Lubbock, has four floors dedicated to coronavirus patients, more than at any previous point in the pandemic, and has opened three units for those needing intensive care. Doctors are drained, nurses have asked to move to non-COVID-19 units, and many have been quarantined after being exposed to someone in the community with the virus.

The hospital typically draws patients from small rural hospitals as far away as New Mexico who are sent to receive advanced care or better access to specialists — and during the summer surge, they received the sick from hard-hit McAllen and Houston. But with cases increasing steadily since August, the hospital has at times had to deny transfer patients because they lack the beds and staff to take them.

They try to avoid that, because “there’s just not a lot of redundant resources here, like you might see in the Metroplex, Houston, San Antonio. We don't have that many large tertiary hospitals that can buffer each other,” said Dr. Craig Rhyne, Covenant’s regional chief medical officer.

There were recently 20 or more patients waiting in the emergency room for COVID-dedicated beds at one point — a “huge strain” on a department not equipped to treat isolated patients for lengthy periods of time, said Dr. Shannon Turnbow, a pulmonologist who has worked with coronavirus patients since the first unit opened in March.

Three-quarters of those hospitalized with the virus there are Hispanic, and most others are elderly, heavily overweight and have other conditions that make them susceptible to being severely sickened, Turnbow said. Hispanics and Latinos — who make up some 35% of Lubbock’s population but up to 60% in neighboring counties — have been disproportionately sickened with the virus and suffer worse outcomes nationally compared to white Americans.

Abbott has sent medical staff to Lubbock and other new hot spots, like El Paso, where a field hospital is being erected and residents have been asked to stay home in the face of a record-breaking surge.

“We have a hope and a prayer that folks will continue doing social distancing, masking and, obviously, washing hands… we’re not asking them to build rocket ships,” said city council member and mayor pro tem Jeff Griffith. “Some folks are just tired of it. They want to get back to normal. And this really isn't normal yet is it?”

Disclosure: Texas Medical Association, Texas Tech University, Texas Tech University System and New York Times have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.