More than a week after a powerful winter storm barreled through Texas, some experts say that the conditions — which forced hundreds of people across the state to huddle together in homes, cars and shelters to seek warmth — could lead to an increase in coronavirus cases.
The devastating storm almost collapsed the state’s power grid, leaving millions of people in dark and unheated homes during some of the most frigid temperatures recorded in the state’s history.
Coronavirus case reporting dropped precipitously for a week in Texas during the storm and has subsequently risen again sharply in the week since, so it is still too early too discern any specific growth or decline in case numbers there. But experts say that the conditions created during the storm raised concerns.
“It is possible to see an uptick from the Texas storm,” said Katelyn Jetelina, an epidemiologist at UTHealth School of Public Health in Dallas. “We had a lot of things going against us,” Dr. Jetelina said, noting that she, like many others, had to go from house to house when she lost power.
People stood in long lines for water and food at grocery stores and food distribution sites, stayed overnight in warming centers, and crashed with friends and family while electricity cut out and pipes burst in their homes.
Although it’s unclear how many people are still displaced because of the storm, reports from various cities suggest that thousands across Texas may have been forced to seek shelter.
In Fort Worth, almost 200 hundred people took refuge at a convention center. In Dallas, a convention center housed about 650 people, The Texas Tribune reported, and one site in Houston had almost 800 people, while some 500 people were living in emergency shelters in Austin, officials said. Even in Del Rio, a smaller city, officials reported that almost 40 people had to stay at the city’s warming center.
“There are very real possibilities that the coronavirus either had superspreader events or was more easily transmissible because people were congregated indoors for long periods of time,” Dr. Jetelina said. “It is a little bit worrying.”
But cases could also go the other way, she said, because millions of people were forced to stay home while work and school were largely canceled. With the data reporting lags, it is still too early to tell, she noted, so the full impact from the Texas storm on case numbers will not be known for at least another week. Even then, Dr. Jetelina said, it will be hard to tell whether an uptick in cases is related to the storm or to new, more contagious variants — or to a combination of both.
Although the average rate of daily new cases reported in Texas has returned to pre-storm levels, it remains about half of what it was in January.
That broader decline mirrors the fall in cases nationally in recent weeks, as the average daily new cases in the United States hovers around 70,000 — far below its peak of 250,000 last month.
The stories of people gathering together in desperate search of heat and water were ubiquitous across Texas.
In San Antonio, Diana Gaitan had more water and power than her relatives did. So several of them ended up crashing at her home, she said while waiting in a food distribution line at the San Antonio Food Bank last weekend. At one point, there were a dozen people staying overnight in Ms. Gaitan’s home.
“We were all stuck inside the house,” she said.