Texas' COVID surge: GOP Gov. Greg Abbott tests positive as nursing home deaths spike

Texas requests five mortuary trailers after Republican Gov. Greg Abbott banned mask mandates

By Jon Skolnik

Staff Writer

Published August 17, 2021 5:38PM (EDT)

Texas Governor Greg Abbott (Tom Fox-Pool/Getty Images)
Texas Governor Greg Abbott (Tom Fox-Pool/Getty Images)

Texas Gov. Abbott, a Republican who banned local mask mandates, revealed that he tested positive for COVID on Tuesday. 

The announcement of Abbott's illness comes just days after the governor called for 2,500 out-of-state medical personnel to combat the coronavirus against a rapid decline available in hospital, specifically ICU, units. On Tuesday, NBC News reported that the Lone Star State had requested five mortuary trailers from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, expecting a significant influx of deaths. Long-term care facilities, in particular, have seen a significant spike in COVID-19 infections this past month, with less than half of all nursing home workers in the state reporting that they're vaccinated. 

Since the pandemic began last year, Texas has seen 9,095 nursing homes deaths – about 17% of the state's total death toll, according to the Texas Health and Human Services Commission, with most of these deaths occurring in June 2020 and January 2021. During that time, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott imposed public health restrictions on nursing homes and health officials coordinated a statewide push to get nursing home patients vaccinated, KXAN reported, until the two infection waves began winding down. In recent months, the coronavirus has been virtually nonexistent throughout nursing homes in Texas. 

However, this past month has been markedly different, with an approximate 800% increase in cases from 56 in mid-July to 489 in early August. Deaths have also shot up from seven on July 21 to 84 by mid-August. 

A number of public health experts have noted that the new wave stems largely from unvaccinated staff in long-term care facilities, who have spread it to more vulnerable residents. 

"The real challenge is on the staffing side and making sure that staff are getting vaccinated," Amanda Fredriksen, Director of Advocacy with AARP Texas, told KXAN.

According to the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, less than 60% of all nursing home workers are vaccinated. Less than 20% of all nursing homes have workforces with a 75% vaccination rate or higher, Fredriksen added. 

"[Staff] are bathing [residents]. They are bringing them their food trays. They are providing care that is very close to the member. Right in their face," Tarrant County Medical Society President Angela Self told WFAA. "They are the ones really who have access to these patients who are working closely with them."

Kevin Warren, the president and CEO of the Texas Health Care Association, told KWTX that many nursing homes are hesitant to enforce vaccine mandates for fear of losing staff as a result. 

"Right now, we have a severely stretched workforce," Warren explained. "And when we see this surge occurring again, the stress and the emotional toll it places on staff and others that are in the building, the concern is: 'If I put this vaccine mandate on, am I potentially going to lose staff?'"

The development comes amid the state's vehement Republican-led pushback against reinstating COVID restrictions, despite the state's latest surge in coronavirus cases. Gov. Abbott has undoubtedly been at the helm of this partisan brigade, blocking mask mandates in schools and businesses in a July executive order, which was upheld by state's Supreme Court.

By Jon Skolnik

Jon Skolnik is a staff writer at Salon. His work has appeared in Current Affairs, The Baffler, and The New York Daily News.

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Brief Coronavirus Covid Covid-19 Greg Abbott Mask Mandates Nursing Homes Surge Infections Texas