Analysis: Despite vaccine hopes, lawmakers plan for more months of pandemic

by Ross Ramsey, The Texas Tribune.

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We’re holding two opposing ideas in our heads at the same time: The vaccines are promising, and the danger of the pandemic has never been higher.

The good news is really good: Breakthroughs on COVID-19 vaccines and treatments are legitimate. There will be plenty to crow about. Those medicines won’t be widely available at first, and the pandemic will be with us until they are, but they’re on the way.

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And the bad news is bad indeed: The spread of the coronavirus, measured by rising numbers of new cases, has accelerated — a combination of fatigue with social restrictions, holiday gatherings and all the rest. Hospital and medical workers across the state are sounding alarms about their dwindling capacity. Local officials are trying to persuade residents to wear masks, stay at home, keep their distance and wash their hands.

The pandemic’s roller coaster of rising and flattening curves in cases, hospitalizations and deaths is rising again, an expansion that pays no attention to our hopes and intentions.

The state’s elected officials are haphazardly modeling behavior for the rest of us, but theirs is a confusing model.

As they steer clear of mask mandates and allow commerce and entertainment, they’re also requiring COVID-19 tests for the visitors to their own offices. They let us shop and dine out, as they figure out how to restrict access to the Texas Capitol during a regular 140-day session next year fraught with the complexities of debating legislation at a safe social distance. Gov. Greg Abbott has said he won’t order new statewide lockdowns.

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They’re eager to share good news. During a presentation on the state Capitol’s coronavirus preparations, state Rep. Charlie Geren, R-Fort Worth, shared some gossip with a gathering of lobbyists Tuesday — that the governor, lieutenant governor and speaker of the House might get vaccinated together at a news conference, just as soon as the shots are available.

The signals they are sending this holiday season are mixed, at best. Lawmakers don’t all see this the same way, which contributes to the muddle. Restricting access to the state government’s main building, for instance, is not universally popular. “Some members would like to lock the building down and some would like to throw the doors open,” Geren said Tuesday.

Meanwhile, there’s news of a Washington, D.C., task force sounding alarms about the “unsustainable increase in hospitalizations” from COVID-19’s “full resurgence” here. According to a White House Coronavirus Task Force report obtained by the Center for Public Integrity, “Texas continues to be in a full resurgence and mitigation efforts must intensify. Texas is in the red zone for cases, indicating 101 or more new cases per 100,000 population, with the 34th highest rate in the country. Texas is in the red zone for test positivity, indicating a rate at or above 10.1%, with the 21st highest rate in the country. Texas has seen an increase in new cases, stability in test positivity at a high level, and an ever rising, unsustainable increase in hospitalizations.”

During the first three weeks of November, almost 2 of every 5 new COVID-19 cases in Texas were in El Paso, Tarrant and Dallas counties, according to the report. But its warnings were statewide — not local. More than half of the state’s 254 counties were in the pandemic “red zone.”

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The news is mixed. The direction isn’t. This pandemic is going to be with us for a while longer, and we know how to control the spread. We’ve already done it a couple of times in 2020.

You can see it in the planning underway at the Texas Capitol. Legislators, like millions of Texans, are eager to see the new medicines and to get vaccinated themselves. That’s what they’re talking about.

But look at what they’re doing: They’re getting ready for a legislative session that will start in January and continue — with restrictions on public access to the Capitol and all of the protections they can concoct for themselves — through May.

They have two ideas in their heads, just like the rest of us. And while they wait for the vaccines, their attention is on keeping the pandemic at bay.