KILLEEN, Texas — The five metropolitan areas in the United States that now have the highest rate of new coronavirus cases relative to their population are all in South Texas, according to data compiled by The New York Times.
The communities all lie along the border with Mexico or on the Gulf Coast: Brownsville-Harlingen, Eagle Pass, Rio Grande City, Corpus Christi and Laredo.
Their numbers underscore the virulence of the virus in Texas, where officials have struggled to both keep the state open and curb infection. More than 300 deaths were announced on Wednesday in the state, which is approaching a total death toll of 10,000.
Representative Filemon B. Vela Jr., a Democrat whose district includes Brownsville and Harlingen, said that in late June he did not know anyone who had the virus. Now, he said, he knows hundreds. “In one day, I had four people who I knew die,” Mr. Vela said. “It’s just a really bad situation.”
Four of the five metro areas with the worst death rates in the country over the last two weeks were also in the South Texas border region — Rio Grande City, Brownsville-Harlingen, McAllen and Eagle Pass. The fifth was Payson, Ariz. In Rio Grande City in rural Starr County, which has only one overwhelmed hospital, the death rate was the highest, at 0.68 per 1,000 people.
In Laredo, health officials called it a crisis. Hospitals have been at or near capacity every day. The state turned a local Red Roof Inn into a 106-bed temporary hospital for coronavirus patients with mild cases, but local leaders have been urging officials to allow patients with more serious cases in.
The city’s five nursing homes have had 40 virus-related deaths. Officials were stunned by the citywide death toll of 102 in July, but with the number of deaths for August already at 57, they expect to surpass that this month.
“We see an unprecedented amount of death in the history of Laredo,” said Dr. Victor Treviño, the top health official in the city. “When the state opened, that’s when we saw the infection rate increase dramatically.”
Mr. Vela and other congressional Democrats in Texas have criticized Gov. Greg Abbott’s handling of the state’s reopening. When Mr. Abbott, a Republican, reopened the state in phases beginning May 1, he lifted the state’s stay-at-home order and prohibited local officials from adopting their own. After cases increased, Mr. Abbott paused the reopening, ordered bars to close and issued a statewide mask mandate for most Texans.
“Shutting down the bars isn’t enough,” said Mr. Vela, who called on the governor on Thursday to issue stay-at-home orders in hard-hit counties or allow local officials to put them in place.
On Thursday, Mr. Abbott met with officials in the West Texas city of Lubbock and warned the public about what he called “Covid fatigue.” In remarks to reporters, he urged Texans to continue to wear masks and practice social distancing. He was without a mask as he spoke, sitting near several local officials at an indoor news conference.
“If people do not continue to, in a very disciplined way, maintain the highest level of standards, what you will see is an acceleration of the expansion of Covid-19,” the governor said.
The virus has had a scattershot effect in Texas, with some regions seeing rising numbers and others reporting a decrease in cases.
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Frequently Asked Questions
Updated August 12, 2020
Can I travel within the United States?
- Many states have travel restrictions, and lots of them are taking active measures to enforce those restrictions, like issuing fines or asking visitors to quarantine for 14 days. Here’s an ever-updating list of statewide restrictions. In general, travel does increase your chance of getting and spreading the virus, as you are bound to encounter more people than if you remained at your house in your own “pod.” “Staying home is the best way to protect yourself and others from Covid-19,” the C.D.C. says. If you do travel, though, take precautions. If you can, drive. If you have to fly, be careful about picking your airline. But know that airlines are taking real steps to keep planes clean and limit your risk.
I have antibodies. Am I now immune?
- As of right now, that seems likely, for at least several months. There have been frightening accounts of people suffering what seems to be a second bout of Covid-19. But experts say these patients may have a drawn-out course of infection, with the virus taking a slow toll weeks to months after initial exposure. People infected with the coronavirus typically produce immune molecules called antibodies, which are protective proteins made in response to an infection. These antibodies may last in the body only two to three months, which may seem worrisome, but that’s perfectly normal after an acute infection subsides, said Dr. Michael Mina, an immunologist at Harvard University. It may be possible to get the coronavirus again, but it’s highly unlikely that it would be possible in a short window of time from initial infection or make people sicker the second time.
I’m a small-business owner. Can I get relief?
- The stimulus bills enacted in March offer help for the millions of American small businesses. Those eligible for aid are businesses and nonprofit organizations with fewer than 500 workers, including sole proprietorships, independent contractors and freelancers. Some larger companies in some industries are also eligible. The help being offered, which is being managed by the Small Business Administration, includes the Paycheck Protection Program and the Economic Injury Disaster Loan program. But lots of folks have not yet seen payouts. Even those who have received help are confused: The rules are draconian, and some are stuck sitting on money they don’t know how to use. Many small-business owners are getting less than they expected or not hearing anything at all.
What are my rights if I am worried about going back to work?
What is school going to look like in September?
- It is unlikely that many schools will return to a normal schedule this fall, requiring the grind of online learning, makeshift child care and stunted workdays to continue. California’s two largest public school districts — Los Angeles and San Diego — said on July 13, that instruction will be remote-only in the fall, citing concerns that surging coronavirus infections in their areas pose too dire a risk for students and teachers. Together, the two districts enroll some 825,000 students. They are the largest in the country so far to abandon plans for even a partial physical return to classrooms when they reopen in August. For other districts, the solution won’t be an all-or-nothing approach. Many systems, including the nation’s largest, New York City, are devising hybrid plans that involve spending some days in classrooms and other days online. There’s no national policy on this yet, so check with your municipal school system regularly to see what is happening in your community.
The Brownsville and Harlingen area of South Texas had the most new cases over the past two weeks, at 8,292, and an infection rate of 19.56 per 1,000 people. That is more than double the rate in other hard-hit metro areas in the country, including Bakersfield, Calif., which has an infection rate of 7.81 per 1,000 people.
Of the state’s 254 counties, only three have reported zero cases — Loving, King and Borden — all of which are small, rural areas in West Texas.
Farther north in the Texas Panhandle, one of the most prominent political figures in the region announced on Wednesday evening that he had tested positive for the virus. State Senator Kel Seliger, a Republican who is a former four-term mayor of Amarillo, wrote on Twitter that he had begun to exhibit symptoms on Tuesday night and was complying with social isolation and contact tracing guidelines.