President Joe Biden this week said Texas Gov. Greg Abbott's decision to lift most of his state's remaining COVID-19 restrictions was "a big mistake" that reflected "Neanderthal thinking" about the pandemic. Biden inaccurately suggested that Abbott was dismissing the value of face masks because he was no longer legally requiring them, when in fact Abbott "strongly encouraged" Texans to continue covering their faces in public when they are in close proximity to other people.
Abbott fired back on Twitter with an equally misleading charge against Biden, accusing him of promoting virus transmission by "recklessly releasing hundreds of illegal immigrants who have COVID into Texas communities." That policy, he averred, is a "callous act that exposes Texans & Americans to COVID."
Fox News host Jeanine Pirro echoed that charge on her show last night. "We've got people being released at the border right now who've got COVID," an outraged Pirro shouted at Geraldo Rivera, who unsuccessfully tried to get in a word of rebuttal. "Wait a minute, I listened to you; you listen to me! They've got COVID! They've got all kinds of diseases! They are being released into the United States!"
Abbott and Pirro seem to have been reacting to reports that a small fraction of asylum seekers released in Brownsville have tested positive for COVID-19. The city, which tests migrants at the bus station after they are released from Border Patrol custody, this week said 108, or 6.3 percent of the total tested between January 25 and March 1, were carrying the coronavirus. Like anyone else who tests positive for COVID-19, they were urged to quarantine themselves.
To put that number in perspective, Texas has recorded nearly 2.7 million COVID-19 cases since the beginning of the pandemic. COVID-19 modeler Youyang Gu estimates that the actual number, taking into account people who have not been tested, is more than 9 million. The state's estimate of active cases is more than 170,000, while Gu thinks the total is close to 300,000. The seven-day average of newly identified infections in Texas, per Worldometer, was about 6,600 as of yesterday.
Based on the official numbers, those 108 COVID-positive migrants represent about 0.06 percent of current infections in Texas. Based on Gu's estimate, their share is more like 0.04 percent. The foreign-born COVID-19 carriers who sent Pirro into a fit of apoplexy represent less than 2 percent of the new cases that Texas detects every day.
The notion that such a tiny cohort is contributing significantly to the epidemic in Texas, even assuming that they completely ignore the recommended precautions, is hard to take seriously. But it jibes with hoary stereotypes about immigrants, who have long been feared because they supposedly carry "all sorts of diseases."
Today former House Speaker Newt Gingrich complained that he "just got suspended by Twitter" because of a post "saying that having illegal immigrants come in without any controls is a public health issue in the time of COVID." Gingrich's account actually seems to still be active. But the offending tweet has been removed for an unspecified violation of Twitter's rules.
"If there is a covid surge in Texas," Gingrich said, "the fault will not be Governor Abbott's comon [sic] sense reforms. The greatest threat of a covid surge comes from Biden's untested illegal immigrants pouring across the border. We have no way of knowing how many of them are bringing covid with them." Or as Gingrich put it more pithily in a Fox News interview with Tucker Carlson yesterday, "If there's a problem with COVID in Texas, it's not Gov. Abbott; it's Biden's illegals."
It is simply bonkers to argue that admitting "hundreds" of COVID-positive asylum seekers poses a grave "public health issue," let alone that it will by itself cause a COVID-19 "surge," in a country with millions of active carriers, all of whom are just as free to disregard quarantine advice. Abbott likewise is weirdly fixated on an infinitesimal share of people infected by the coronavirus. If he is guilty of "Neanderthal thinking," this is a much better example than his decision to lift the face mask mandate.