Texas sees lowest daily average in COVID cases since last June three weeks after mask mandate was lifted

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An update to last week’s post about case counts declining in the Lone Star state. Not only have cases continued to fall in Texas since then, the seven-day average is now the lowest it’s been since June 18, 2020 according to Worldometer. Yesterday the state was averaging just 3,263 daily confirmed infections. On March 10, the day Greg Abbott’s order lifting Texas’s mask mandate took effect, it was averaging 4,895.

Average daily deaths are also the lowest they’ve been since November — and deaths lag cases by several weeks so they might well continue to fall throughout April.

Is there a “vaccine effect” at work here? Well, sure, partly. Every person that’s vaccinated is almost completely immune from infection and millions of Texans have been vaccinated by now. But if inoculations were driving this, we’d expect to see cases falling even more dramatically in states with higher vaccination rates than Texas and we don’t. On the contrary: Just 27 percent of Texans have received at least one dose, which places it in the bottom 10 of U.S. states by that measure. Michigan has immunized 30 percent of its population and it’s enduring the nastiest wave in the country right now.

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Gotta be more to Texas’s brightening outlook than vaccines, then. Last week I speculated that there’s a weather effect suppressing cases in the south: Since it’s warmer there now than in the north, people are spending more time outdoors, reducing transmission. Here’s a map to show you what I mean based on this NYT tracker. States in blue are where cases are either beginning to rise or already “high and staying high,” per the Times. States in red are where cases are “low and staying low.” There’s a clear pattern, notwithstanding a few outliers;

Weather’s not the only variable, obviously. Florida’s an outlier because it has an unusually high number of cases involving the more contagious British variant. But it’s the one and only state along the southern border that’s seeing an uptick right now.

Back to Texas. Apple’s mobility data also suggests more outdoor activity there lately, as there’s been a surge in walking route requests relative to January 2020, before the pandemic began. As the weather gets warmer, people are naturally more willing to be out in the open air.

In Michigan, by comparison, walking route requests are up only 42 percent from January 2020. Meanwhile, despite Abbott lifting the mask mandate and allowing businesses to reopen at full capacity, Texans aren’t spending noticeably more time in commercial spaces now. From Google’s mobility data:

More time outdoors and *not* much more time, if any, in indoor public spaces: That seems to be Texas’s successful formula lately. Abbott may have given them the green light to take more risks but they seem to be holding back, possibly because the vaccine is now generally available and it’s silly to stop taking precautions when you may be only weeks or days away from being immunized.

Very much relatedly, Texans also don’t seem to be cutting back on wearing masks even though state law no longer requires them to do so. Quote:

James Henson, director of the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas at Austin, says the newest poll his team is working on shows that Texans mask usage hasn’t dropped drastically since the mandate ended.

“We still have about 80% of Texans, as recently as this month, reporting that they are wearing masks when they go out,” Henson said…

In February, 81% of Republicans and 98% of Democrats said they wear a mask when in close contact with people outside of their household.

Good news. Not so good news: The same poll shows 25 percent of Texas Democrats are reluctant or opposed to getting the vaccine versus … 59 percent of Texas Republicans, a clear majority of the party. In theory, Texas will never have another wave of COVID because the state will reach herd immunity before the outdoors becomes unbearably hot again, driving people inside. In practice, there may be enough vaccine refuseniks still holding out come June to seed another major statewide outbreak among the unimmunized. And there’s no reason to think Texas is the only red state where that’ll be true.

In fact, we could see two-track pandemics in various Republican states this summer, with bluer urban areas relatively safe due to higher vaccination rates and more mask-wearing by locals and redder rural areas more at risk due to fewer masks and lower vaccine uptake. A Twitter pal pointed out this morning that, while Texas’s cases statewide are down, there’s early evidence that the trend may be reversing in rural areas already:

Southerners (and Californians) have been given a respite from the pandemic by their climates that most of the rest of the country doesn’t get to enjoy. If they take advantage by using that respite to get immunized en masse, they’ll beat COVID before another summer wave can gather. If they squander it by resisting the vaccine due to whatever odd suspicions they have about it, they’ll be back in the soup when the weather turns again. I think it really is as simple as that.

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