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Texas Projected To Have Highest Number Of Coronavirus Cases Of Any U.S. States

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

To Texas now, the first state in the U.S. to reach 1 million reported cases of COVID-19. And the pandemic there is still surging, both in urban and rural areas. We're going to speak with Texas Public Radio health reporter Bonnie Petrie. She joins us now from San Antonio.

And, Bonnie, why are the coronavirus numbers so large in Texas?

BONNIE PETRIE, BYLINE: Yeah, so every - 1 out of every 10 confirmed coronavirus infections in the United States right now is here in Texas. Now, that's slightly higher than the proportion - the Texas percentage of the U.S. population. And it is bad right now. In El Paso in West Texas, it's seeing a massive surge in cases. Hospitals have been overwhelmed by sick patients pouring into ERs. And local officials there have had to bring in four mobile morgues to deal with deaths. But it's not just an urban problem. Smaller towns and communities all across Texas are getting hit hard, too.

CORNISH: What are local and state officials trying to do to get the infection rate under control?

PETRIE: Well, see, this is the problem. Let's take El Paso, for instance. The top elected official in that county shut down businesses two weeks ago because of the surge. And immediately, it angered the governor and the state attorney general, who sued over that. And that sort of conflicting guidance doesn't help matters. So instead of the state swooping in to help get infections under control, the opposite happened. It was the state demanding that everything go back to normal, which was causing these infections to spike to begin with.

CORNISH: Is there anything - is there any precaution that has worked up until this point?

PETRIE: Yeah, we had a big summer surge, if you recall, in July, and mask mandates did help. Closing businesses like bars and limiting the numbers of customers in theaters and gyms - a way to break the chain of transmission - that helped, too. It worked. We saw here in Texas that big summer surge of cases was brought under control. But - and this is big - people then got comfortable. They stopped paying attention to the guidelines. And, you know, there you go. When restrictions eased, the virus gets an opening and - pop - the case counts zoom up again.

CORNISH: Can you give us more detail about what's going on in the rural parts of Texas?

PETRIE: Sure. So part of the problem there in these more isolated rural areas is that it seems to be a lot more information is going around about the virus and how to fight it. For instance, in a rural place like Kerr County, there's been a lot of pushback on mask mandates. It's often framed in these areas as an issue of freedom and liberty. A doctor there, Will Rector, though, says that's not really a fair comparison.

WILL RECTOR: Well, there are many instances where our personal liberties have been impugned because of greater good. Wearing a seatbelt is one. Driving the speed limit is one. Placing a child in a child carrier in a vehicle - those are all things that are against our personal liberties, but we do them because we realize that they save lives.

PETRIE: Right. So his point there that - is that if more people get on board with wearing masks and other limitations, a little bit of curbed liberty now creates more freedom in the future because it ends up saving lives.

CORNISH: That's Bonnie Petrie of Texas Public Radio, host of the health pandemic podcast Petrie Dish.

Bonnie, thanks for your time.

PETRIE: Thank you so much.

(SOUNDBITE OF CITY OF THE SUN'S "VENTURA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.