Keep Texas Communities Safe: Slow Down Reopening

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Dear Governor Abbott,

As a small, non-profit religious organization whose members have experienced the economic distress from the shelter-at-home policies, we appreciate your leadership on behalf of Texas as we continue to face challenges of COVID-19. We are also sensitive to the need to find a way to phase in economic activity in Texas. However, we are concerned about the current plan. Like you, our primary concern is about the safety and health of our community. We are concerned that by not extending the stay at home requirement, our community and the larger Texas community will be less safe. We offer our thoughts here, and seek your response.

First, we are concerned that your current plan, which went into effect on May 1, does not follow health experts’ advice, nor lay out measurable thresholds for evaluating the success of the plan. For example, CDC guidelines call for 14 days during which the number of cases declines before starting re-opening. The Department of State Health Services (DSHS) today announced a 23% increase in COVID deaths this week: from 662 in four days: from Monday April 27th to 815 deaths reported on Friday, May 1. DSHS data also shows the daily number of new cases INCREASING from 25,297 on Monday April 27 to 29, 229 on Friday May 1; or a 15.5% case increase over four days since you’ve announced the lifting of stay at home order.[1] We are concerned that with that order no longer in effect, the cases will grow even more rapidly as will the number of deaths in Texas.  These metrics  are not declining. The re-opening is happening too early.

In addition, Texas must have sufficient testing and the ability to do contact tracing to keep the number of cases down. Currently, Texas is among the 5 states with the least number of tests per capita. We lag behind other large states including New York, Florida and California. Our health departments are not ready to do the necessary testing and tracing. Finally, your plan proposes to expand the re-opening after only 2 ½  weeks. Because the virus is passed by people who do not know they have it, and it might take 2 weeks for symptoms to manifest, 2 ½  weeks is not enough time to evaluate whether the re-opening is causing a surge in cases.

Second, just as the federal government has allowed states to make the best decisions for their citizens, we believe that the state should likewise allow local governments and communities to make decisions about sheltering at home and wearing masks. Your actions eliminate that local option which strikes us as contrary to a principle Texas values. This one size fits all approach in Texas won’t accommodate localized hot spots and best public health practice. We are concerned that the plan does not allow cities or regions of the state to set more restrictive measures based on the case data for their area. The virus prevalence and spread are not the same throughout the state. What is the advantage of forcing the entire state to open at the same time?

Third, the plan is actually causing unnecessary stress and risk for small businesses and organizations, and their employees. The early opening date occurred just four days after it was announced. That is too fast for many businesses to evaluate whether they and their employees and customers could be ready, yet they may feel pressured to open. Further, businesses are worried that opening will trigger an increase in cases among employees or customers, and that they could be held responsible. Businesses must invest in inventory and protective equipment. If cases surge, and they have to shut down again, they will suffer further losses.

We were concerned that at-risk employees would feel pressured to work at the cost of losing unemployment insurance, so we are relieved to learn that on Thursday you provided new Texas Workforce Commission Guidance for Unemployment Claimants, clarifying that such workers could still stay home. Thank you for this new guidance.

We appreciate that you have emphasized that your decisions are data-based and developed in concert with public health experts and medical professionals. However, in this case Texas’ decisions are at odds with the recommendations of public health professionals[2]. For example, former CMS administrator and FDA Commissioner Dr. Mark McClelland is on record saying that more testing; more contract tracing capacity; and a 14-day trend of reduced cases should have been in place before allowing the stay at home order to expire. 

We ask that you exercise greater caution, that you carefully review the data, and at a minimum, allow local jurisdictions to make determinations about the best approaches to keep Texas communities safe. That approach provides flexibility for areas that choose to open up and those which choose a different path more aligned with the needs of their local communities.

Thank you for listening to our concerns; we would welcome a response to the issues we have raised here. We deeply appreciate the work you are doing on behalf of all Texans during this difficult time.

[Citations:

1. Found at total for cases by county at: https://txdshs.maps.arcgis.com/apps/opsdashboard/index.html#/ed483ecd702b4298ab01e8b9cafc8b83

2. Co-author of the American Enterprise Institute’s National Coronavirus Response: A Roadmap to Reopening found at: https://www.aei.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/03/National-Coronavirus-Response-a-Road-Map-to-Recovering-2.pdf

https://www.texasmonthly.com/politics/dr-mark-mcclellan-covid-19-reopening-texas-economy/

Sincerely,

Rev. Mako Voelkel, Austin Zen Center Head Teacher

3014 Washington Square Austin, TX 78705