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More Public School Students Are Getting COVID In Texas As Fights Over Masks Ensue

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

In the past month, there were more than 73,000 confirmed coronavirus cases among Texas students. More than a dozen school districts have temporarily closed as a result. And Texas is leading the country in child deaths from COVID-19. Amid the surge, state lawmakers pushed through strict bills on abortion, voting restrictions and bail reform, while Governor Greg Abbott publicly fought local governments over their efforts to stem the spread of the disease. And that has frustrated many Texans, as Paul Flahive of Texas Public Radio reports.

PAUL FLAHIVE, BYLINE: Hospitals across the state are running out of pediatric ICU beds. Texas' Department of State Health Services says only 100 remain. And just a couple of hundred more regular ICU beds are available in the state of 29 million people. Dr. David Portugal is a cardiologist in Sugarland, Texas.

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DAVID PORTUGAL: Governor Abbott has failed us. A Republican state legislature has failed us. These leaders should be held accountable and be asked to explain how they can justify taking actions that are killing their fellow Texans.

FLAHIVE: Portugal and other Texas members of the advocacy group The Committee to Protect Health Care called on the governor to rescind his executive order barring local governments from mandating masks in schools. State officials have admitted the bans are only enforceable by local district attorneys, many who disagree with the governor's order and are choosing not to enforce it. But the continued litigation and threats have left confusion and a patchwork of policies that many doctors see as exacerbating the COVID surge.

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ELENA JIMENEZ-GUTIERREZ: Hospital staff and resources are stretched to the breaking point.

FLAHIVE: Dr. Elena Jimenez-Gutierrez is an internal medicine physician in San Antonio. She says the surge has led to cancelled surgeries, overwhelmed staff and preventable hospitalizations and deaths.

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JIMENEZ-GUTIERREZ: Doctors and other health care workers see every day how too many Texans are needlessly getting sick, including many children when we know this disease can be prevented.

JIMENEZ-GUTIERREZ: The governor's office has recruited more doctors and nurses from out of state to help. He authorized more monoclonal antibody therapy centers, though doctors say the wait to get the treatment is as long as 10 days. Governor Abbott promotes vaccines as the best prevention. He got vaccinated on TV. But he draws a line at mandates - vaccines or masks. These policies are very unpopular with conservative primary voters. And he faces two far-right challengers early next year.

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GREG ABBOTT: We will continue to vaccinate more Texans and protect public health. And we will do so without treading on Texans' personal freedoms.

FLAHIVE: Despite Abbott's personal freedom concerns, he had no problem curtailing the rights of women seeking an abortion. Texas enacted the nation's most restrictive law earlier this month.

On the coronavirus, Abbott's office points to vaccination numbers continuing to climb and the seven-day positivity rate falling. Still, the state remains at near record-high hospitalizations. Some cities are doing what they can to try to mandate masks. San Antonio's fighting to regain its emergency powers, which the governor suspended. City Attorney Andy Segovia compares it to a hurricane.

ANDY SEGOVIA: Imagine if you have a Category 5 going toward the Texas coast, and the Texas governor issues an order that simply says local entities cannot issue curfews or evacuation orders because it's a personal choice as to whether you stay in your home or not. That's essentially where we're at with COVID.

FLAHIVE: Ahead of the school year, the state requested five mortuary trailers from federal emergency managers. Now all five are being used at hospitals that have run out of room for bodies. San Antonio Mayor Ron Nironberg said the state's forethought on deaths would have been better used on stemming the spread of coronavirus.

RON NIRONBERG: The fact is, the state is planning for more people to die of COVID, so much so that they anticipate that local hospitals across the state are not going to be able to handle the amount of death that they're going to see.

FLAHIVE: Eight counties across the state are using refrigerated trucks to store the dead. And as more schools see spikes in COVID transmissions, more teachers and students will become infected, and more will die. Doctors and more local leaders wish the state would do more to prevent that. For NPR News, I'm Paul Flahive in San Antonio. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.