Texas lifted its mask mandate and business restrictions about four weeks ago. Spring break ended about three weeks ago. However, local COVID-19 case counts have become almost a trickle, in contrast to the spikes that occurred after Thanksgiving and Christmas, for instance.
Thousands of cases hit the area — in Gregg, Harrison, Panola, Rusk, Smith and Upshur counties — during each of those holiday seasons compared with fewer than 800 total in those six counties during the past three weeks. If a spike was going to happen, it would have already shown up in case counts, said Dr. Lewis Browne, Gregg County Health Authority.
“I am surprised (that there hasn’t been a spike in cases), because people immediately decided it was all over with the moment the governor said the mandate was lifted,” he said.
He and Terrance Ates, spokesman for NET Health, the Northeast Texas Public Health District in Tyler, cited a variety of reasons for lower new case counts. They also cautioned people to remain diligent to prevent the spread of the coronavirus that took the world hostage a little more than a year ago. Gregg County’s first case of COVID-19 was diagnosed in March 2020.
“All respiratory viruses, flu and stuff like that, drop off in the spring,” Browne said.
That’s partly because people can spread out in the outdoors instead of being “huddled” up in buildings together during colder weather. Also, ultraviolet rays are likely helping with sterilization and helping prevent the spread of COVID-19.
The number of people who have already been infected and who are getting vaccinated is probably playing a role, with some degree of herd immunity developing, Browne said.
“Hospital admission rates have gone down, also a good sign, likely meaning we are seeing less severe cases,” Ates said in an email. “Testing rates did have a drop from their high in January and February, but they’ve leveled off, and the positivity rate of those being tested has also gone lower, so that’s also a good sign.”
Ates also pointed to a Google report, which uses mobile phone data to compare places people are visiting now versus the weeks before COVID-19 hit the United States.
“Looking at the mobility data from Google, in each of the categories for Smith and Gregg counties, it doesn’t look like there was a lot of public movement beyond the baseline, and in some categories there’s a decrease, with the exception of an increase in people going more to parks. And being outdoors is generally lower risk than being indoors,” he said.
He and Browne cautioned that people still need to take precautions.
“There are still some people and businesses still wearing masks and taking precautions, despite having the mask mandate lifted, and we don’t know what percent of the population that is continuing to wear them,” Ates said.
Browne warned that fewer cases does not mean COVID-19 is less dangerous. It can be “very deadly” for certain sets of people who catch it.
“I think you’ve got to be careful of how you get together,” he said.
Also, he said if people continue to get vaccinated, “life will go back to where we knew it before.” He noted that the flu pandemic in 1918-1919 burned itself out in two seasons.
People shouldn’t get “too comfortable yet,” Ates said.
“But with all the continued vaccinations, and continued other protective measures, we hopefully can see further declines to return to a more normal time,” he added.