Updated at 5:39 p.m.: to include Thursday’s single-day record for new COVID-19 cases in Texas.
AUSTIN — With new coronavirus infections breaking a record in Texas, Gov. Greg Abbott on Thursday rejected calls that the state take more aggressive action or that he yield more authority to local officials.
Shutdowns have deleterious side effects, Abbott said.
The Republican governor insisted that county judges and mayors who’ve sought more discretion — many if not all of them Democrats — haven’t fully enforced his existing coronavirus orders.
On Thursday, the Department of State Health Services reported 12,293 new cases, a single-day record that eclipsed the earlier record of 10,823, set Tuesday. The previous record, 10,791, was set on July 15 as the second wave of COVID-19 infections in the state peaked.
Also Thursday, department data showed that at least six hospital regions in Texas are burdened by worrisome loads of coronavirus patients.
Abbott — traveling to one such area, Lubbock — insisted that help’s on the way from pharmaceutical companies and the federal government. He hailed federal officials’ distribution of a new antibody treatment.
Bamlanivimab, a new therapy developed by Eli Lilly & Co., has arrived — not just in Lubbock but across Texas, Abbott said. The drug shows great promise for COVID-19 patients with mild or moderate symptoms, he said. Initially, it’ll be distributed to hospitals in “communities with high COVID-19 disease burden,” said a release from Abbott’s office.
“People need to be thankful for the way that the genius of the medical leaders in this country and the medical innovators in this country have been able to so quickly respond with the medicines that are needed to make sure that soon we will be able to put COVID behind us,” Abbott said.
People who aren’t infected or are in late stages of a COVID-19 infection wouldn’t qualify for the Eli Lilly treatment, a monoclonal antibody that is infused intravenously, Abbott said at a news conference at the Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center.
“Typically it’s those who are 65 years or older and with some other, health care-based issue and early-stage COVID,” he said.
A National Institutes of Health COVID-19 panel said Wednesday that data is insufficient to recommend either for or against the use of bamlanivimab.
Nationwide and in Texas, COVID-19 infections are increasing. The country’s death toll just passed 250,000. As of Thursday, the number of Texas deaths exceeded 20,100.
While governors in some other states have dialed back business reopenings and closed schools, Abbott made it clear Thursday he’s sticking with a “ratchet back” plan he unveiled in mid-September and fine-tuned early last month. It doesn’t scale back business activity until hospitalizations in one of the state’s 22 hospital regions reach worrisome levels.
“Everyone knows we have an increase in COVID-19 cases in Texas right now,” he said.
But the surge in July was greater, and Texans learned how to protect themselves — wearing masks, maintaining a social distance, washing hands, he said.
“We’ve been there before. We can do it again,” Abbott said.
State Democratic Chairman Gilberto Hinojosa, though, complained that Abbott was ballyhooing a treatment, not getting at “the source” of the problem, which is “ending the crisis as we know it” with tougher action.
“Governor Abbott has completely surrendered to the coronavirus crisis,” Hinojosa said in a written statement.
Under Abbott’s coronavirus orders, many nonessential businesses in Texas are operating at no more than 75% capacity.
Regions where more than 15% of hospital beds are taken up by coronavirus patients must scale back. The area that includes Dallas County is bobbing around just below that threshold; three areas have surpassed it for at least a week, the time period required for a rollback of reopenings to kick in: El Paso, Lubbock and Amarillo.
As of late Thursday, the Laredo and Midland-Odessa regions had been above 15% for at least a few days, while San Angelo dipped from 17% on Wednesday to a tad under 15% on Thursday.
Dallas-Fort Worth’s region was at 13%, down from 14% on Wednesday.
Ruling out lockdowns, Abbott has noted that under an executive order that took effect on Oct. 14, if a Trauma Service Region for seven consecutive days has COVID-19 patients occupying more than 15% of its beds, then these rollbacks occur immediately:
· Bars close, if the county judge in a county has consented to their reopening.
· Restaurants, retail stores, bowling alleys and movie theaters, currently operating at no more than 75% of capacity, must fall back to a maximum of half capacity.
· Elective surgery procedures are again postponed.
Asked why he hasn’t granted more discretion to local officials to issue business-closure orders and bans on gatherings, Abbott initially answered by saying he wouldn’t issue another statewide stay-at-home order as he did last March.
“Statewide, we’re not going to have another shutdown,” he said.
Isolation causes physical and mental health problems for many people, Abbott said.
Under his Oct. 7 order, county judges have discretion on whether to allow bars to reopen to half capacity, he noted. Mayors and county judges may limit outdoor gatherings of more than 10 people, except for certain religious, recreational and educational activities the governor exempted.
“There are plenty of tools in the toolboxes of local authorities to achieve the results that are needed,” Abbott said. “Local officials are not using the tools that are available to them.”
The toughest phase of the pandemic is in the coming few weeks as the weather turns cooler, pushing people inside who are already exhausted from months of restrictions, said Dr. Mark McClellan, director of the Duke-Margolis Center for Health Policy at Duke University and one of Abbott’s medical advisers.
”This is the time to really look at whether additional local steps in areas that are especially hard-hit could help prevent a very tough situation from getting worse,” he said.
As he said in radio and TV interviews last week, Abbott said the state can “surge” medical personnel, supplies and tests to hot spots. The governor said he understands Texans have “COVID fatigue,” but he pleaded with state residents to display fortitude and patience a while longer.
“The cavalry is coming as it concerns COVID-19,” he said, referring to new treatments and vaccines.
Abbott didn’t give Texans specific advice on holiday gatherings, just encouragement to be “personally responsible.”
“We’re engaged in a war against this infectious disease,” he said.
Allie Morris contributed to this report.