As of Friday, Texas reported more than 3.2 million tests for the active COVID-19 virus had been completed. These tests are vital on several levels: for individuals, for those treating the sick, for first responders, for the health care system and for policymakers.
But this unprecedented testing effort hasn’t been quickly reported and analyzed, leaving our state and local elected representatives in position analogous to trying to fly a plane in rough weather with the instrument readout delayed by five minutes.
Having the most accurate COVID-19 data across Texas is essential in formulating actions to reduce deaths while preventing other negative consequences, such as a collapse of Texans’ jobs and a cessation of education for our children.
For instance, we still don’t have a true picture of who is catching the virus in Texas because only 8% of detected cases — or about 31,000 of the 370,000 cases confirmed statewide — have had their demographic data reported to the state.
That stale data suggests that Texas’ Black and Hispanic residents are catching the virus in rough proportion to their numbers. But even among the cases that have been investigated, race or ethnicity is marked as “unknown” for 19% of them.
Texas fatality demographics are in worse shape. As of Friday, the state’s official site lists demographic information for 776 fatalities. Texas surpassed 800 fatalities on May 1. The posted information suggests there have been no Texas deaths from COVID-19 under the age of 20. Is that still the case?
Other questions need answers. For instance, how many of Texas’ cases and hospitalizations originated in Mexico, where the medical system has been pushed beyond its limits? News reports describe U.S. citizens who live in Mexico but are crossing the border to get medical care at U.S. hospitals. A public health policy response that ignores this factor will be incomplete.
Testing and analysis are essential to understand this pandemic, which started its global spread out of China. Our perceptions of risk were first shaped by that nation’s purposefully false and opaque reporting. This issue was complicated by early test kit manufacturing failures by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) in Atlanta that resulted in a high percentage of false positives.
While test reporting and analysis need to be improved, Texas has done well in other areas. Gov. Greg Abbott asked Dr. John Zerwas to ramp up Texas’ hospital capacity. The effort expanded the beds available for COVID treatment by 89% from March through mid-June. Thankfully, in most regions of Texas, these “surge capacity” beds have yet to be used.
Testing issues have been compounded by cities and counties reporting to different standards and on different frequencies to state and federal health officials. For instance, test results from the San Antonio Metro Health District were delayed for weeks, then reported en masse on July 15, presenting the impression of a surge. To this day, the New York Times tally for Bexar County includes about 5,000 cases that aren’t on the official Texas Department of State Health Services dashboard.
Texas needs better virus reporting.