Texas Coronavirus Positivity Rate Just Reached 24 Percent, and It's Just Weeks Until Schools Reopen

The coronavirus situation in Texas has been described as "going from bad to worse" and that the state is entering "uncharted territory" in terms of the pandemic. In a Twitter thread, Ashish Jha, Director of the Harvard Global Health Institute, looked at the current situation in Texas—where testing has fallen significantly, despite no real decrease in case numbers.

Pointing to one projection created by an MIT scientist, Jha says the state is currently missing around 90 percent of cases.

5 days ago, I tweeted that COVID trends in Texas were concerning

Over past few days, data from TX has gone from bad to worse

And I don't understand. Why is testing falling off a cliff?

But the big picture here is this:

Texas is in trouble and has to turn things around


— Ashish K. Jha (@ashishkjha) August 12, 2020

The test positivity rate in the state has reached 24 percent. This means 24 percent of all tests carried out are returning positive results. For a region to safely reopen and ease mandates to reduce transmission, the World Health Organization (WHO) recommends a rate of below 5 percent—and that this should be maintained for two weeks before action is taken.

But Texas is pushing ahead with reopening. Last month, education officials gave public schools three weeks to reopen for in-person classes from the start of the fall semester. This was relaxed slightly after public backlash, so schools can now limit access to campus instruction for four weeks, with potential for an additional four weeks if it is approved by the Texas Education Agency.

Through August, the number of new daily cases in Texas has not fallen below 5,000. According to Johns Hopkins University, it currently has the highest number of new daily cases of all U.S. states.

In Florida, the state with the next highest number of cases, but where cases are now decreasing, politicians are pushing for their reopening. Richard Corcoran, Commissioner of the Florida Department of Education (Department), issued an executive order instructing schools to open. However, this has been met with a legal challenge by the Florida Education Association, with a hearing due Thursday.

Professor Lauren Ancel Meyers, Director of the University of Texas COVID-19 Modeling Consortium, told Newsweek that stricter measures relating to face masks and social distancing that were brought in June and July appear to have led to a decline in hospitalizations and the number of ICU patients.

There has, however, been a huge decline in testing. Johns Hopkins data shows a steady fall since the end of July. Earlier this week, the number of tests being carried out fell below 18,000, far below the peak in July, when daily tests exceeded 89,000.

This is a concern because the number of cases is not falling, which Jha had previously told Newsweek is a "really bad sign." He says that where testing is down but the positivity rate is going up, cases are being missed.

Meyers said the reason why testing is falling and the positivity rate rising in Texas is unclear. "An increase in positivity can reflect not only an uptick in the pandemic, but also a decrease in the rate at which people without COVID-19 seek tests, which may be influenced by general awareness or fear of the pandemic threat, the local availability of tests, or contact tracing efforts to test people who may have been exposed to the virus," she said.

As for case detection rates, Meyers said this varies from city to city and has been changing over time. "Because this virus spreads quickly and often silently, most infections go undetected in most cities," she said.

For reopening, she said schools and businesses need to consider the state of the local pandemic: "The more virus there is in the community, the more likely students, teachers or employees will arrive infected and spread the virus to others. Schools and businesses should also strictly adhere to guidelines from public health agencies like the CDC for evaluating and minimizing risks of transmission."

The University of Washington's Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) is currently projecting a significant increase in COVID-19 deaths in Texas over the coming months. By December 1, based on current mandates, it is forecasting 27,00 deaths. If mandates are eased, this figure rises to almost 48,000.

For Jha, Texas should not be considering restarting schools without new control measures. He said that to lower the levels of virus, there must be an enforced mask mandate, bars must be shut and indoor gatherings closed. Schools should be put on hold until the outbreak is under control and the testing situation must be improved. "My suspicion is that over the next week to two, hospitalizations will rise again and deaths will soon follow," he tweeted Wednesday.

texas coronavirus
Stock image depicting coronavirus in Texas. The state currently has the highest number of daily cases in the whole of the U.S. iStock