May 2, 2020
County that's Gone Blue Has Huge Testing Lead
as Most Places Ranked High are Red and White
Fort Bend County has given Texas Democrats a shining example of the escalation in COVID-19 testing that they say the state and federal governments have failed to provide in the midst of a nationwide shortage that could prolong the battle with the disease for months.
The suburban county on the southwestern edge of the Houston area is the 10 largest in Texas with a population that's arguably the most diverse in the state. But Fort Bend had tested more people for the coronavirus on a per-capita basis than any other county in Texas by the time the state began to reopen on Friday.
Fort Bend ranks third in the state behind Harris and Dallas counties in terms of the total number of tests for the virus that have been administered there. But the testing rate in Fort Bend County is more than double those in the two largest counties in Texas and the state's as a whole.
After appearing to be an early hot spot with an outbreak in a Missouri City nursing home, the Democrats who've been running Fort Bend for the past 16 months responded with a proactive strategy that made testing the paramount priority before the rest of the state caught on. The county has been offering coronavirus tests free of charge for the past two weeks to all of the residents there regardless of whether they've had any symptoms. The county had established the testing site at the end of March in an initial partnership with a private firm before going 100 percent public.
But Fort Bend is an anomaly in more ways than one as a county that had been safety Republican until it seemed to go blue almost overnight when President Donald Trump lost to Hillary Clinton there by almost seven points in 2016 after Republican Governor Greg Abbott had won by 13 two years earlier.
The partisan transformation continued in the last election cycle when current Democratic County Judge KP George ousted a longtime incumbent for the GOP with 53 percent of the vote. While Democrats swept the entire local slate in 2018, George has clearly been the standout as an immigrant who'd grown up in a tiny village in India before moving to the U.S. in 1993 where he started in poverty before building a career as a financial consultant based in Sugar Land.
Fort Bend County has a population that's 33 percent white, 25 percent Hispanic and 21 percent Asian-American. The counties that rank second through sixth in per-capita testing in Texas all have more white residents than Latinos as well. But the only other five counties where the per-capita testing rate is higher than Harris and Dallas - Jefferson, Potter, Wichita, Galveston and Taylor - all voted for Trump in his first White House bid.
Democrats here have criticized Abbott and the Republicans for putting a greater emphasis on the state economy's revival than protecting the public health with a dramatic boost in testing that's affordable and accessible like it's been in Fort Bend.
While it might be a coincidence, the numbers could explain why the Democrats are upset. Hispanics account for only 29 percent of the population on average in the 15 major Texas counties with the highest virus testing rates. Fifty-one percent of the average populations in the 15 counties at the bottom of the pack when the rates for the largest 32 in the state are calculated.
Nueces County is ranked last among the 32 counties in coronavirus testing while Hidalgo County has the 30 lowest rate. Hidalgo and Nueces counties are both heavily Hispanic and have the seventh and 15th largest populations in the state.
Harris and Dallas are the only two counties in the virus testing top 10 with more Hispanics than whites. Harris, Dallas, Travis and Fort Bend are the only counties that are blue and ranked among the 10 highest in the per-capita number of tests that have been taken in Texas.
While Trump and Abbott have insisted that testing capabilities are on the verge of a major upswing, the lack of a sufficient testing supply during the pandemic's first two months in the U.S. appears to be one of the key reasons why the president's approval ratings have plunged in polls on his handling of the crisis.
The shift of attention to testing as states ease lockdowns and business restrictions appears to explain why places like Nueces County and border counties like Hidalgo and Cameron in the Rio Grande Valley have posted relatively low numbers of confirmed coronavirus cases and deaths.
Galveston and Lubbock counties - in contrast - have appeared to be hit harder by COVID-19 based the case and death. But Galveston and Lubbock rank among the top 10 in testing - and that could be a significant factor behind the more alarming numbers in those places.
Fort Bend has hovered slightly above the state average in confirmed coronavirus cases and fatalities as well. But George has been more focused on the end game with testing as the top concern in a county where he encouraged residents to cover their faces in public while stopping short of a mask order like those that were in place in most of the state's largest counties until Abbott overturned them when he allowed a statewide stay-at-home order to expire on Friday.