Express-News Editorial Board
We have only just begun Gov. Greg Abbott’s experiment in balancing the protection of public health from the further spread of COVID-19 with restarting the state’s economy. Given that only about 1 percent of Texans have been tested for the virus and that the state has failed to meet some benchmarks set by Abbott’s own advisers, this reopening, even in its measured three phases, is almost certainly happening too soon.
With a second and possibly even third outbreak possible, any date for reopening, however late in the year, would carry anxious uncertainty. But less of a risk would have been a date established after guidelines about actions such as increasing testing capacity and the number of contact tracers had been followed.
Guidelines such as the ones thoughtfully articulated in a report recently released by the local health team advising San Antonio and Bexar County officials on reopening. Led by Dr. Barbara S. Taylor, an infectious disease specialist at UT Health San Antonio, the COVID-19 Health Transition Team is made up of pulmonary critical care specialists, hospital leaders, epidemiologists, ethicists and public health experts. They have studied the existing medical literature and data on COVID-19 and other community reopening plans, and consulted advisers for technical expertise to inform their recommendations.
In the report’s guiding principles, the transition team recognized the linkage of public health and a strong economy while clearly stating its priority:
“Human health and economic prosperity are tightly linked. We prioritize human life in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic. We understand that continued, severe economic hardship undermines the health of the community as much as disease. We share San Antonio and Bexar County’s values of working safely, caring for people across the generations, protecting those who are medically at risk, and ensuring that no one is left behind. These shared values will guide a transition towards economic recovery, balanced by preserving the safety and integrity of our community.”
Under their guidelines, any local reopening of businesses must be preceded by four signs:
1. A sustained, two-week decline of COVID-19 cases.
2. The ability to test all people with COVID-19 symptoms, their close contacts and those in “public-facing” roles, such as grocery store employees.
3. Effective contact tracing capacity to identify all close contacts of people diagnosed with COVID-19 and offer them testing.
4. A prepared health care system that can safely care for all patients, and includes sufficient hospital capacity, workforce and PPE for health care workers.
The transition team’s pathway to reopening is detailed, cautious, forward-looking and guided strictly by data. Like Abbott’s plan, it would is reopen the city and county in phases, but unlike the governor’s plan, Friday’s openings wouldn’t have begun since the proposed benchmarks haven’t been reached.
While recognizing that anyone can be infected by COVID-19, but that some communities are especially vulnerable, the report recommends prioritizing the needs of those communities: Those with disabilities, the medically vulnerable, low-wage front-line workers, the incarcerated, the housing insecure, seniors, minority communities and many others.
“This is an intersectional strategy that ensures that all who are highest risk are reached,” it reads.
The health transition team’s reopening has four phases. Phase IV begins when COVID-19 is no longer a threat to our community and we can focus on being prepared for the next public health threat.
But the only way to ensure that COVID-19 is no longer a threat is to cautiously proceed through the first three phases. That’s what the city recommends, but is the state doing that?