On March 2, Gov. Greg Abbott announced a new executive order that would end the statewide mask mandate and all business capacity limits effective March 10.

Businesses and private entities will continue to have the authority to impose mask and capacity restrictions on their property, and the state’s disaster declaration remains in effect.

Under the order, county judges are only able to take preventive measures against the coronavirus if COVID-19 hospitalizations rise above 15%.

However, the governor’s order will supersede any conflicting order issued by local officials, and county judges may not limit capacities below 50% or impose jail time for residents who fail to follow COVID-19 guidelines or penalties for not wearing a mask.

As Comal County and city of New Braunfels leadership continues to formulate the local response to the order, area physicians voiced concerns that the decision will lead to a surge in coronavirus cases.

“It does not make sense in a time when we are finally starting to see a lowering [in COVID-19 cases],” said Dr. Emily Briggs of Briggs Family Medicine. “Just because the hospitals aren't overrun with sick people, it is not the time to stop doing what's working.”

In Trauma Service Area P, which includes Comal and Guadalupe counties, the percentage of hospitalizations attributed to COVID-19 has remained below 15% since mid-February.

On March 5, Comal County hospitals reported caring for 21 COVID-19 patients, and 10 remained in intensive care with eight on ventilators. A total of 47 county residents were reportedly hospitalized, though not all were in county hospitals.

Since Feb. 22, Comal County reported 405 confirmed and probable cases of COVID-19, with 38 of those having been backlogged. As of March 5, the county has reported a total of 294 coronavirus-related deaths and 365 active cases.

“I would expect for this to be followed by a spike in illness, perhaps even an increase in severity of illness and increased demands on the health care delivery system,” said Dr. Judith L. Thompson, a general surgeon in New Braunfels.

The risk of contracting COVID-19 increases significantly when masks are not worn and when only some people are wearing a mask, Briggs said.

As vaccination efforts continue to slowly increase in the county, Briggs said she expects the challenges of limited vaccine supply and stress over scheduling an appointment to be compounded by increased risk of contracting the virus from someone who chooses not to wear a mask.

As of March 5, Comal County health care providers had been allocated 19,800 first doses of COVID-19 vaccines and 10,700 second doses. In Guadalupe County, providers had been allocated 21,430 first doses and 11,545 second doses.

In Comal County, the Texas Department of State Health Services reported 22,494 residents had been given at least one dose of a vaccine and 12,713 were reportedly fully vaccinated as of March. 5. Those fully vaccinated represent 10.14% of the approximately 125,307 county residents over the age of 16.

As of March 5, the DSHS reported 18,805 residents of Guadalupe County had been given at least one dose and 8,452 are reportedly fully vaccinated. Those fully vaccinated represent 6.48% of the approximately 130,517 county residents over the age of 16.

“We are not expecting any increase in number of vaccines,” Briggs said. “All of this comes at a terrible time when there are so many people who were already worried about not receiving the vaccine because they didn't get on the list.”

Briggs and Thompson urged citizens to continue practicing physical distancing and wearing masks to protect themselves against the virus and worked with several other local doctors to release a list of ways to boost the immune system to prevent the severity of an infection.

Their recommendations include getting at least seven hours of sleep each night; spending 15-30 minutes outside daily; and taking 5,000-6,000 IU of vitamin D per day, 5,000-6,000 IU of vitamin C per day, 600 mg of N-acetylcysteine twice daily, 50 mg of zinc per day and 500 mg of quercetin daily.

The city of New Braunfels and Comal County have yet to announce how local guidelines will be impacted by the order and are expected to do so before March 10.

“I hope to see strong leadership from city officials with guidance directed at protecting the health of individuals and the community at large,” Thompson said. “Even though there’s not a mandate from the governor, that doesn’t mean it’s not a good choice to wear a mask.”

Individuals are now more responsible than ever for their own decisions and precautions regarding the virus, Thompson said, and she hopes residents will respect the choices of their neighbors and businesses, even if they disagree.

As case counts and coronavirus-related deaths continue to rise locally and throughout the state, Briggs believes the decision to reopen the state came much too early.

“It is not what's good for Texas and certainly not what's good for New Braunfels,” Briggs said. “We can we can be economically appropriate while wearing masks and physically distancing.”