The new coronavirus has killed more than 2,000 people in Texas

Coronavirus patient
Posted at 5:30 PM, Jun 16, 2020
and last updated 2020-06-16 18:30:23-04

Enough people to pack the bleachers at Faith Christian’s football stadium in Grapevine.

To fill the freshman and sophomore classes at Rice University.

To populate the entire city of Marfa and then some.

By the state's official count, the coronavirus pandemic has now killed 2,029 people in Texas, a toll experts agree is an undercount. It is now routine to add two or three dozen deaths to the tally every afternoon. And each day, more Texans are catching the virus that might kill them.

The state’s focus is not on preventing all deaths at all costs, but on reopening gradually enough that hospitals do not become overwhelmed. The question is not how much death can we bear, but how many deaths can our system manage?

Tragedy has not been spread evenly around the country. Connecticut, a state with one-eighth of Texas’ population, is mourning twice as many known fatalities.

Nor has death been distributed evenly across the state. Most Texans died where most Texans live, state data show. The highest death tolls have been recorded in Dallas and Houston, with other big cities grieving high totals, too. And dozens have died in the Panhandle, where spread has been tied to meatpacking plants.

Even the grim milestone reached this week is an understatement, experts say. Provisional death counts from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show that Texas saw 1,749 more deaths than usual from March 15 to May 9 of this year — but reported just 1,049 deaths linked to the coronavirus during the same time.

Who are they? The state health department has collected only limited data about them, reporting demographic information for just 664 lost Texans. The limited picture shows they were overwhelmingly elderly — 72% over 65 — and the majority were male, 55%, with gender unknown for 4%. At least two died before celebrating their 20th birthdays.

It is difficult to definitively discern whether the state follows nationwide trends that see people of color, and particularly black Americans, disproportionately affected by the virus because of the state's limited efforts to collect that information. The state reports an unknown race for 18% of those who died of the new virus. Of those for whom race and ethnicity were reported, 12.8% were black and 25.8% were Hispanic, compared with 12% and 40% of the state as a whole. Black lawmakers have called on the state to improve its accounting of racial disparities in virus spread and outcomes, including by reinstating an Office of Minority Health Statistics and Engagement that state lawmakers defunded in 2017.

Nearly half of Texas’ known fatalities were residents of nursing homes or assisted living facilities, which have proved hotspots for the virus. One was Estela Aguirre, 91, a Jehovah’s Witness who died in March after becoming sick in a College Station assisted living facility that saw one of the state’s worst outbreaks. After her death, her son Art Aguirre began to crusade for more public information about hot spots in nursing homes.

Texas prisons, with their close quarters and poor hygienic conditions, have seen dozens of inmates and a handful of staff members die of the disease. The first was 72-year-old Bartolo Infante, an inmate at the Telford Unit near Texarkana, who died in early April after being hospitalized for pneumonia. Seventy-year-old Akbar Nurid-Din Shabazz, a Muslim chaplain for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, died later that month, hours before the start of the holy month of Ramadan.

Meatpacking plants in the Texas Panhandle and elsewhere in the state have also proved petri dishes. Pwar Gay left behind four children and a dangerous job cutting meat at a Tyson plant in Amarillo when she died of COVID-19. Her family believes she, like thousands of others, contracted the virus from working in the plant’s cramped quarters.

And the virus has not spared the health care workers toiling to keep it in check. Thirty-three-year-old pediatric nurse Karla Dominguez made a final trip to Disney World this year, a month before she died in the same El Paso hospital she had worked in for five years.

Texas has been spared some of the worst. But grim precautionary measures warn that could change — a refrigerated tractor-trailer sitting unused in the parking lot outside the Fort Bend County Medical Examiner’s Office, a temporary morgue outside a Baylor Scott & White hospital in Fort Worth. Neither has been used, but both stand ready.

Even still, protocols of death and mourning have already been disrupted.

At Mabrie Memorial Mortuary in Houston, staff members have become accustomed to placing veils over the faces of the deceased so that loved ones don’t try to kiss their foreheads in a goodbye. Medical examiners arrive at homes in protective suits, double bagging the bodies they retrieve. Across the country, families are mourning their loved ones over video chat.

“Funeral services are where you get hugs and try to be close to people, but you can tell that there’s been an effect on that,” said Jim Kennerly, president of Greenwood Mount Olivet Funeral Homes in Fort Worth. Now, he said, “people aren’t as willing … to be close.”

Some funeral parlors said they are seeing slight increases in business, but many are not; coronavirus-related restrictions limited traffic accidents and even drug overdoses for much of this spring, medical examiners said.

Jammie Pruitt, a 30-year veteran of the funeral industry who leads Pruitt and Pruitt Mortuary in Houston, has noticed other things, too: shorter ceremonies, more cremations. Mourners who do attend memorials seem not to lose themselves fully in the service, gripped by an unrelenting anxiety. He calls it “pandemic grief.”

That’s only more pronounced when a family is mourning a COVID-19 fatality. Loved ones are careful not to touch each other, attentive to social distancing protocols and greedy for hand sanitizer. They are not able to shed their sadness the way he wishes they would. He wishes he could do more.

“You can see it in the walk to their car,” he said, describing distanced family members headed to separate vehicles. “It’s a walk of hurt.”

Disclosure: Rice University and Baylor Scott & White Health have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2020/06/16/texas-coronavirus-deaths-2000/.

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