Texas lifted its mask mandate on March 10, allowing all businesses to open at full capacity, one week after Gov. Greg Abbott’s March 2 announcement that “it is clear from the recoveries, vaccinations, reduced hospitalizations and safe practices that Texans are using that state mandates are no longer needed.”
Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves made a similar announcement the same day. Both cited declining hospitalizations in their states and vaccine distribution as their rationale, which was repeated uncritically by some corporate media outlets reporting on the decision, including NPR and USA Today.
What these outlets failed to mention is that Covid-19 cases and deaths were rising significantly in Texas and Mississippi in the days leading up to their governors’ announcements. In Texas, average daily new cases rose from 4,252 on February 20 to 7,754 on March 1—an increase of 82% in nine days. Average daily deaths went from 127 on February 20 to 230 on March 1, an 81% rise.
Mississippi—whose per capita rate of Covid infection is similar to that of Texas—saw average daily new cases rise 42% in just six days before Reeves’ declaration, with deaths rising 68% over the same period.
What’s more, the test positivity rate in both states also put them among the 10 worst in the country at the time—as did their vaccination rates. At the time of Abbott’s announcement, Texas ranked last among the states in vaccines administered per capita. (Currently Texas is still last in terms of the proportion of its population fully vaccinated.)
But rather than pointing out that these states’ relaxation of Covid restrictions were coming in the midst of an alarming upswing in both cases and deaths, NPR (3/2/21) offered selective numbers that supported the governors’ arguments. After quoting both governors and a brief rebuttal from CDC director Rochelle Walensky, the report continued:
Both states have seen declines in the average daily number of new cases of Covid-19. In the past week, the New York Times reports, Texas has seen an average of 7,693 cases per day—down 18% from the average two weeks earlier. The average daily number of deaths has declined by 13% over that period.
In Mississippi, the declines have been more pronounced. The state’s average daily number of new cases declined by 27% over the average two weeks earlier, and average daily deaths declined by 34% in that same period.
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NPR picked a timeframe that gave the impression that cases were falling at the time the governors made their announcements. While average new cases were indeed lower than they had been at the peak of the pandemic in January, the declines had hit a trough, and case numbers were rising again when the governors announced their elimination of public health measures.
USA Today (3/3/21) gave more space to public health experts critical of the governors’ decision, but still included this data purporting to offer more context:
On Tuesday, 275 new coronavirus deaths were reported and more than 7,200 people tested positive for the virus. That is far less than the 22,000 people a day who were testing positive in January.
But 275 deaths is not many fewer than the 290 people on average who died from Covid per day in Texas in January.
In another brief USA Today article (3/2/21), headlined “Texas Isn’t Alone. These 15 States Also Do Not Currently Have a Statewide Mask Mandate,” the paper allowed Abbott’s argument to stand without criticism:
Abbott said on Tuesday that it is time for the state to completely reopen, as Covid-19 hospitalizations are declining across the state and more people are being vaccinated against the coronavirus.
Again, readers would never guess that people are being vaccinated in Texas at a slower rate than in any other state.