Analysis: Muted holidays in Texas, as pandemic threatens and vaccines raise hopes

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Travelers at George Bush Intercontinental Airport in Houston on July 21, 2020. Credit: REUTERS/Adrees Latif

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That moment when the idea that the pandemic would be vanquished well before the holidays was replaced, somewhere along the way, by the thought that this “new normal” would be the norm for a long, long time.

The holidays are here. What we once called the “novel coronavirus” is still here, too. The dangers of spreading the disease are painfully and obviously clear, as many of us prepare for a quiet Thanksgiving without the usual crowd of family and friends.

But relief has taken shape, too, with promising vaccine results for those who haven’t had COVID-19 and antibody therapies for those who are already infected.

Those drugs are not widely available — and won’t be for a while, as The Texas Tribune has reported. State officials and appointees are already preparing rollout plans for the vaccines as they become available; health care workers will be first in line for those, the rest of us sometime later.

Meanwhile, limited doses of bamlanivimab, an antibody therapy made by Eli Lilly & Co., are being distributed to hot spots in the state. Gov. Greg Abbott announced on Tuesday that 1,000 doses were being sent to El Paso as part of a federal-state pilot program.

It’s a promising change in fortune, but it’s going to be a slow one. And it coincides with the most threatening growth spurt in the short history of the coronavirus — an advance that mixes worries of a winter upswing in cases, holiday gatherings of families and friends, college students returning home, crowded airports and the relaxed precautions of people fatigued by months of COVID-19 restrictions.

The Texas Tribune’s dashboard tells the story:

  • The number of cases, hospitalizations and deaths are all rising.
  • The seven-day average of new cases rose above 10,000 this month, for the first time since the pandemic began.
  • Cases have now been reported in each of the state’s 254 counties.
  • Earlier this month, the state recorded its one millionth case; this week, it had already passed 1.1 million.
  • Hospitalizations have more than doubled since the start of October.
  • As of Monday, almost one of every eight hospital beds in Texas was occupied by a COVID-19 patient.
  • More than 20,500 people in Texas have died from COVID-19 since the beginning of the pandemic.

The governor won’t lock down the state again. He has said so repeatedly, saying he will stick to the guidelines he settled on in September. And state officials have skirmished with local officials who want tighter restrictions to counter rising case numbers.

Hot spots are sprinkled throughout the state — Amarillo, Lubbock, Tarrant County and so on — but El Paso has become emblematic of the dangers still posed by the pandemic.

It has been disproportionately deadly in communities of color; El Paso’s population is more than 80% Hispanic. Hispanic people account for 55% of the state’s COVID-19 deaths, but only 40% of its overall population.

In El Paso, the coronavirus has all but outrun the safety net. As of Monday, the county had reported more than 80,000 cases during the pandemic — more than a sixth of those in the last two weeks. Temporary medical facilities have been erected. More than 980 people have died from COVID-19 in the county, so many that mobile morgues are supplementing overrun permanent ones. Jail inmates and Texas Army National Guard troops have been mustered to move bodies.

It’s hardly confined to the state’s westernmost city; that’s just one of the worst outbreaks. The medical advances are real reasons for hope. It’s going to take a while, and while we’re waiting, the coronavirus continues to spread, rising in danger as it goes.

Mind the medical warnings and stay safe. Be thankful for your health and the health of your darlings, if you can. Too many among us can’t do that this year.