If you wanted to point a red-hot, highly-infected finger right at the region of the country where vaccinations are lowest and Republican governors are at their most obnoxiously pro-virus, it would be hard to do better than the latest map from the CDC Data Tracker.
The Southeast is currently being crushed not just by a wave of delta variant cases, but also by massively destructive policies that are turning these states into an experiment in blasting the curve into the stratosphere. Across the Gulf from Texas to Florida, ICUs are full to near capacity with COVID-19 patients. Even normal hospital beds are in short supply, and, in one of the horrific new facets of this wave of the pandemic, pediatric beds are absolutely unavailable.
As of Tuesday, the Texas Tribune reports that hospitals in that state are under more stress than at any point in the pandemic. In the middle of what one doctor on Texas’ COVID-19 Task Force describes as “the fourth round of what should have been a three-round fight,” not only are Texas hospitals seeing record levels of COVID-19 patients, the numbers are still going up more steeply than ever.
While data from some highly vaccinated nations may be showing an increase in breakthrough cases, the statistics out of Texas still show this is very much a “pandemic of the unvaccinated.” With 55% of the state’s population having received at least one dose of vaccine, hospitals report that between 93% and 98% of hospitalized COVID patients are from the 45% of those who are yet unvaccinated.
The strain on the healthcare system is evident at every level. Patients are waiting for attention because ambulances are unavailable. More patients are sitting in ERs or hospital parking lots because hospital beds are unavailable. Critical care patients are parked in hallways because ICU beds are unavailable. And, as NBC News reported on Monday, five mortuary trailers are on their way to Texas to handle the inevitable result of a healthcare system overwhelmed by a killer virus and deadly bad decisions.
The same thing is happening in Florida, where The Miami Herald reports that hospitalizations have broken records, with over 17,000 hospitals beds and 3,600 ICU slots currently occupied by COVID-19 patients. Both numbers show a massive increase in the last week. As WPTV in Palm Beach reports, at least one county has declared a “local state of emergency.” Of the 13 hospitals in Palm Beach County, not one could be found which would accept another COVID-19 patient. Ambulances were reportedly waiting outside ERs for hours, unable to unload the patients they were already transporting.
Meanwhile, CNN reports that there are no ICU beds in the entire state of Alabama. With 1,557 staffed beds available and 1,568 patients desperately needing those slots, the Alabama healthcare system has become a game of musical chairs in which the tune might as well be a funeral march.
One thing has been the same since the outset of the pandemic: When ICU-level care is unavailable, especially respiratory care such as ventilators, the case fatality rate of COVID-19 moves up to match the level of those who need respiratory assistance. That’s a much higher number than the rate of deaths when ICU care is available.
There are steps that states across the South could take to rapidly decrease the spread of COVID-19 and provide some relief to those beleaguered healthcare systems. Those steps are: wear masks, limit people in gatherings, and restrict indoor activities. All of these would help provide some literal breathing space, which the states could use to promote and dispense the one option that best protects everyone: vaccination.
But Republicans continue to do the opposite of what’s best. That includes Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis pushing the State Board of Education to “punish” school boards who defy his executive order by instituting mask requirements for students and staff. According to CNN, exactly what those punishments will look like isn’t clear, but the BOE could withhold funds or even remove local officials from their seats. Effectively, the state board has decided that requiring masks is “political activity.”
Meanwhile, as The New York Times reports, Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee signed an executive order on Monday that guts mask mandates across multiple districts by saying that individual parents have the “right to opt-out” of any requirements. That order came just as Tennessee hit record highs for new cases of COVID-19, and as Republicans threatened health experts simply for providing evidence on the efficacy of masks.
In Texas, where Republican Attorney General Ken Paxton has been more than happy to sue the growing number of school boards who have defied the anti-mask orders of COVID-positive Gov. Greg Abbott, one school thinks it has a way to use the state’s own actions to protect kids. As The Fort Worth Star-Telegram reports, the Paris, Texas, school district, which represents 4,000 students in an area north of Dallas, has made masks part of the school’s dress code. “The Texas Governor does not have the authority to usurp the Board of Trustees’ exclusive power and duty to govern and oversee the management of the public schools of the district,” the district said in a press release. “Nothing in the Governor’s Executive Order 38 states he has suspended Chapter 11 of the Texas Education Code, and therefore the Board has elected to amend its dress code consistent with its statutory authority.”
That maneuver is almost certain to be tested, as AG Paxton never met a child whose face he didn’t want to expose to COVID-19. However, Paxton may have a new federal suit to keep him busy.
That’s because, as CNN reports, President Joe Biden moved on Wednesday afternoon to require all workers at nursing home facilities to vaccinate their full staff or face a loss of federal funds. As the AARP noted last week, in some states less than one-quarter of facilities have reached a goal of having 75% of their staff vaccinated. At the bottom of the list when it comes to getting nursing home staff vaccinated: Florida, Louisiana, and Missouri. In Florida, only 5% of facilities have at least 75% of their staff vaccinated. Across the state, only 45% of healthcare workers in nursing home facilities are currently vaccinated.
But a particularly big clash could be coming in Texas. That’s because back in April, Abbott signed an executive order banning “state agencies and state-funded organizations” from requiring any proof of vaccination. That order has been read as preventing nursing homes that get state funding from requiring their staff to be vaccinated. However, the new rule from Biden would certainly represent a bigger “stick” to all these facilities. So expect Paxton to file a new federal lawsuit in favor of the virus in 3 … 2… 1…