Texas passes 4,000 deaths, but Houston sees rates steady

AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — Texas surpassed 4,000 deaths in the coronavirus pandemic Monday but officials in Houston, one of the hardest-hit cities in the U.S., say they are cautiously optimistic about recent trends following weeks of alarming surges at hospitals.

Texas reported more than 7,400 confirmed new cases and at least 62 new deaths. The virus continues taking a particularly hard toll along the Texas-Mexico border: Hidalgo County has reported more than 140 deaths over the past week, and the county judge on Monday signed a shelter-at-home order.

The new order, which goes into effect Wednesday, sets a curfew, limits travel and gatherings and recommends all nonessential businesses cease any activity that can’t be provided at curbside or by takeout.

“This action will help us do the right thing to save and protect each other from this deadly disease by sheltering at home,” said Hidalgo County Judge Richard Cortez.

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In nearby Starr County, where the Department of Defense had sent one of five teams of Navy doctors to help the only hospital, County Judge Eloy Vera said they were considering creating an ethics committee to discuss rationing hospital resources.

“It sounds cold, and I hate to think that we would even have to do it, but we need to at least consider what chances a patient has of surviving,” Vera said.

But in Houston, officials say they are seeing signs of optimism. Dr. David Persse, Houston’s health authority, said during a news conference that the positivity rate for COVID-19 testing has slightly dipped in recent days and the number of people requiring hospitalization “seems to have tapered off a bit.”

The positivity rate was at 24.5% on Friday, slightly down from a high of 25.9% earlier this month, Persse said, adding that the positivity rate was still “very high.”

Persse said some of the reasons why hospitalizations might have leveled off recently include hospitals doing a better job of treating patients and the length of time people are staying at medical facilities is getting shorter.

“I think this is good news. This is no reason for us to take our foot off the brake, however,” Persse said. “That’s probably my biggest fear. My fear is that anytime there’s good news, I don’t want people misinterpreting that we’re winning the battle. Right now, we’re kind of at a stalemate. If we want to win this battle, we need to keep doing everything that we do that we know works: wear the mask, no large gatherings, wash your hands, etc. Those things work.”

The economic toll of the virus on Texas also sharpened into focus a little more Monday as the state’s budget forecast plummeted to a projected $4.6 billion shortfall, less than a year after state officials had expected a surplus.

Republican Comptroller Glenn Hegar said the forecast remains highly uncertain and depends on whether the outbreak continues to spread in Texas. “Consumers and businesses must be confident the virus is controlled before economic output, employment and revenues return to pre-pandemic levels,” Hegar said.

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Associated Press writer Juan A. Lozano in Houston contributed to this report.

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