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'Unsustainable situation': How Texas became virus hotspot

It became clear that Gov. Greg Abbott was in retreat when he closed the bars.

Ever since restarting the Lone Star state’s economy in early May, Abbott ignored the pleas of mayors and county leaders to impose strict rules to stop COVID-19. The 62-year-old Republican appeared repeatedly on Sean Hannity’s Fox News show to tout his commitment to keeping business open, while the pandemic quietly gathered strength.

During the past week, Texas saw record case numbers, and hospitals in Houston, its biggest city, neared their limits. Even then, Abbott agreed only to pause the reopening. He didn’t order people to wear masks or stop going out.

But Friday, he shut the saloons at high noon.

Abbott’s reversal underscored a crisis that was weeks in the making and driven by four distinct causes: the failure of public-health work like contact tracing, heavy economic pressure, the political neutering of its cities, and Abbott’s solidarity with President Donald Trump’s agenda. Every week of free commerce allowed more Texans to fall ill.

Now, the second-most-populous state faces the prospect of mortality like that seen in New York three months ago. Texas is fast becoming the new center of the pandemic in the U.S. The nation on Saturday saw total cases jump 1.9%, the biggest percentage increase in six weeks, with more than 45,000 new infections.

On Friday, the top official in Harris County, which includes Houston, declared an emergency, and thousands of cell phones buzzed with warnings to shelter in place. “Today, we find ourselves careening toward a catastrophic and unsustainable situation,” Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo said during a media briefing. “There is a severe and uncontrolled outbreak of covid-19. Our hospitals are using 100% of their base capacity now, and are having to start relying on surge capacity.”

The counties around Dallas, Fort Worth, Austin and San Antonio all saw their case numbers at least triple since the reopening began, although none started with as many as Harris. Across Texas, the rate of positive covid-19 tests has risen to 17.5%, far above the 10% threshold that’s considered concerning, according to data presented by the White House virus task force on Friday. The same day, the Texas state health department put the rate at 13.2%, still more than double the May 31 figure of 5.4%.

What’s happening in Texas “can happen anywhere,” said David Lakey, vice chancellor for health affairs and chief medical officer for the University of Texas system.

“The vast majority of people still have never been infected with it, and so are virologically naïve to it,” said Lakey, a former commissioner of Texas’ health department. “So it should not surprise us that given the right circumstances, that it will infect many more people.”

Harris County Commissioner Rodney Ellis said the state reopened too fast, while the virus was still spreading, and that the governor hobbled local efforts to control it.

“If ever there was a time when I wished my predictions about what would happen were wrong, this was it,” Ellis said. “The sentiment on the ground here is that we are scared to death.”

Abbott’s office didn’t respond to a request for comment.

More than six months into the pandemic, it can be hard to remember how quickly it became political. In late February, when an official at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta warned it would spread, conservative radio broadcaster Rush Limbaugh declared it nothing more than the common cold. Trump said was it under control and exaggerated by his foes.

In the U.S., the disease initially kept a low profile outside of big cities on the East and West coasts, where a state of alert over time turned to complacency. Texas reported its first five cases March 6; four were in Houston.

The nation’s energy capital sprawls over a metropolitan region of more than 9,400 square miles — larger than New Jersey — in swampy southeast Texas. Its population of about 7 million is one of the nation’s most diverse. Veined with freeways and largely unhindered by zoning, residential neighborhoods tumble into strips of businesses that tumble into industrial emplacements. It has at least three districts that could compete for the title of downtown. (That includes the official downtown.)

Like much of the South, Houston had a handicap going into the pandemic: the uninsured. Texas didn’t expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, leaving many residents without access to regular care. About 25% of residents under age 65 in the city of Houston lack health insurance, according to Census Bureau estimates.

The state’s Republican leaders also had a tradition of undercutting the power of its Democrat-led cities, particularly after Abbott took office in 2015, said Renée Cross, senior director of the Hobby School of Public Affairs at the University of Houston. “Arguing over a city ban on plastic bags or on fracking is nothing compared to this,” she said. “COVID takes it to another level.”

Local leaders were first to act against the virus, starting with the March 6 cancellation of the South by Southwest festival in Austin. Houston and Harris County then cut short the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo, a nearly-three week economic powerhouse that was already eight days into its run. “It’s like five Super Bowls,” said Ellis, the county commissioner. “That took some chutzpah.”Abbott largely stayed on the sidelines. Pressed to do what other governors had done to blunt the disease’s spread — issue a shelter-in-place order — he said that was up to local authorities. He ordered the vulnerable to stay home, banned nursing-home visitors and mandated quarantines for visitors from New York, where the virus was raging.

Abbott finally imposed a lockdown beginning April 1. It lasted only a month. He also said his orders pre-empted any city or county rules.

“One of the major ways that the governor miscalculated and caused the second wave is when he did open Texas, he took away the local governments’ ability to enact common-sense requirements,” said Clay Jenkins, the judge of Dallas County, its top elected executive position.

In Houston, the flash point was Harris County Judge Hidalgo’s mask order, which included a $1,000 fine. Hidalgo, a 29-year-old naturalized citizen born in Bogota, wasn’t the first local leader to mandate masks. But her order inflamed state Republicans, drawing protests, cries of tyranny and eventually an intercession from Abbott.

Texas reopened in phases, first with restaurants at 25 percent capacity, then bars and other businesses. The capacity limits gradually eased. Each phase brought a jump in cases 10 to 14 days later, said Marilyn Felkner, a public health professor at the University of Texas at Austin. “It’s real easy to see looking backward,” Felkner said. “It was probably a little bit harder going forward.”

Vivian Ho, a health economist at Rice University in Houston, is more critical. She called the situation “a disaster in so many ways.” Despite recommendations that the state ensure cases weren’t rapidly rising before easing limits, “that all was ignored,” Ho said. “Pretty much every Friday there was a new relaxation in the guidelines.”

Ho said the state’s testing and contact-tracing capabilities are inadequate and that Abbott should have allowed mask requirements and “shut down bars a long time ago.”

On June 16, as cases continued to climb, leaders of all the state’s major cities wrote Abbott, begging for the right to implement mask orders. He refused, but hinted that there was in fact a way they could do that already. He didn’t say what it might be.

In San Antonio, Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff found the loophole. On June 17, he ordered businesses to require masks or face fines, instead of putting the onus on the public directly. Abbott didn’t object. Cities and counties across the state enacted mask mandates within days.

For Houston, it was too late.

Texas has the second-largest number of hospital beds in the country after California. More than a fifth are in Houston, according to state data, but that robust medical infrastructure is facing strain.

Surging demand led the Texas Children’s Hospital system there to begin accepting adult COVID-19 patients Monday. On Thursday, Abbott suspended elective surgeries in Harris County and other major metropolitan areas to free hospital capacity.

Even Houston’s Texas Medical Center, a sprawling complex of hospitals, research facilities and medical schools that bills itself as the largest medical city in the world, is under pressure. Wary of people avoiding necessary medical care for fear of getting the virus, officials have sought to reassure patients that they are well-prepared and still have room for patients.

The center said late this week that the region’s intensive-care capacity of 1,330 beds had reached maximum capacity, a situation that will require the conversion of other facilities to COVID-19 wards.

The situation is less dire than it sounds, with three times that many beds available in surplus, Bill McKeon, the Texas Medical Center’s chief executive officer, said in a Thursday interview.

As of Saturday, Texas had 143,371 cases, of which 29,163 were in Harris County and Houston. That’s about half what New York state had in late April, at the peak of its outbreak, but the road ahead for Texas could still be long and grim. At an urgent-care center in South Austin, the line for rapid COVID-19 tests wrapped around the building at 5 a.m. Sunday. People sat in tailgating chairs and on top of buckets. One group of men was drinking beer from a cooler.

“It’s going to be a very busy month for the health-care systems,” said Lakey, the University of Texas official.

Event shows support for bar owners in Longview, Kilgore forced to close

KILGORE — Two East Texas bar owners say they have complied with every order from the state during the COVID-19 pandemic, but they both expect to have suspended liquor licenses Monday morning.

A crowd gathered Sunday afternoon at The Machine Shed Bar & Grill on Texas 31 in Kilgore to support Tee Allen’s Kilgore bar and to support Melissa Lynn Kelly, owner of Outlaws Longview Bar.

Kelly was issued a 30-day liquor license suspension Friday for staying open after Gov. Greg Abbott ordered bars, which were allowed to be open at 50% capacity, to shut down again. She said her bar does not cause any issues in the community, and she had no cases of employees or patrons contracting the coronavirus.

“I have not had a single case of COVID, and I do not know of a single person in my bar or knew anyone who had COVID. I was letting 17 (customers) in at 25% capacity (under the orders), and then 37 in at 50%. I couldn’t do a half person. so I stopped at 37. But during that time, I didn’t even have 37 people inside, and most of them were outside,” Kelly said. “We do not have trouble, we do not tolerate trouble, we are a neighborhood family bar. In our bar, 95% of the people who are there were there the day before and the day before that and the day before that ... for a lot of them it’s their home away from home.”

Kelly said she will appeal her suspension today. When she opens, she will become a “restaurant” by obeying the rules.

“I figure, maybe I need to just start charging $20 for a bag of peanuts so my food sales are higher than my alcohol sales. As crazy as that sounds, we can’t open a bar, you can get a tattoo,” Kelly said, adding she had five visits from the Texas liquor board after she made headlines for defying Abbott’s orders. “I intend to fight it Monday morning. I have made my whole bar outdoors. The tables, bar stools, the bar, popup tents ... I had less than 40 people, and they shut me down. (On Saturday), there were hundreds on the courthouse lawn in Longview during a prayer vigil. Meanwhile they served me a 30-day suspension.”

Kelly had a lot of people thanking her Sunday at the The Machine Shed Bar & Grill as bands played outside, patrons came up in motorcycles and cars and the inside was open with T-shirt sales.

“Tee is a big supporter, and she has been with me every step of the way. It’s nice to have someone who cares enough to back you,” Kelly said. “I would like for Gov. Abbott to know my name, know the spelling and know where I came from. I bought (Outlaws Longview) in December after bartending for 19 years. I put everything I have into that bar. We are very thankful today. It’s amazing these people. They are not just supporters, they are family.”

Allen took to the stage before and after the national anthem and thanked the crowd and explained she is helping other bar owners thanks to Sunday’s donations.

“Let’s talk about Black Lives Matter. Is someone Facebook-living me? Because I need you to, and tag me in it,” Allen said to the crowd outside from a stage. “I want to give them a shout out. Yesterday, a bunch of ‘libtards,’ the people on Facebook, were trashing me and bashing me and threatening to come out here, but I don’t see them!”

A few in the crowd said, “They scared!”

Allen continued, “They didn’t contact me, they didn’t say that I stole their logo because I didn’t. I made sure every one of my shirts say ‘Bar Lives Matter.’ ‘Bar Lives,’ because we matter, they matter, but we matter, too.”

“We are going to stay open until midnight, I haven’t seen the TABC yet. But if he does show up, be nice to him, he’s nice to us,” Allen continued. “The bands donated their time. We are going to keep the bar open, we are going to party. They are going to suspend me, and I know that, but I’m doing this for every bar owner.”

As for the money that was donated during Sunday’s event, Allen said, “We are going to donate part of your money to Outlaws Bar. We are going to keep this place (The Machine Shed) open. We are going to pay the electric, the utilities and I’m going to make sure my employees get a paycheck and they are going to continue to get a paycheck like I’ve done through this whole shutdown. My cafe in White Oak is still closed, but they still get a paycheck. We are going to make a legal fund and help other bar owners.”

Community Healthcore offers free crisis counseling for those affected by COVID-19

Community Healthcore has begun a free program to help East Texans and their families recover from the impact of COVID-19.

The Crisis Counseling Assistance and Training Program is funded by a Federal Emergency Management Agency grant through the state of Texas.

“It’s a crisis counseling-type program for people who have had some difficulty managing their stress related to maybe anxieties about getting the virus or having had the virus, having lost work, experiencing financial difficulties because of it,” said Kim Durham, intake/aftercare program manager at Community Healthcore.

Community Healthcore serves clients and works with local governments from the Red River south to Lufkin, and from Paris, Canton and Crockett east to the Louisiana state line.

The state applied for the grant when COVID-19 was declared a national disaster, Durham said.

“It’s not unlike programs that have happened when we have tornadoes and FEMA comes in,” she said. “The biggest one that was what most people remember is when Hurricane Harvey happened in Houston. FEMA also granted a CCP program down there to go door to door, knocking on people’s doors that were affected by the hurricane, asking how they could help. The tricky thing with this one is it’s not as easy as that. COVID is kind of silent and it’s kind of ubiquitous. It’s everywhere. So we’re trying to get outreach to the community, let people know we’re here for them.”

The program offers short-term counseling. Durham said they will do four to five sessions over the phone, and if somebody needs more than that, they will be referred on to a counselor who can continue helping them.

“We do short-term interventions that involve counseling, just crisis counseling and assisting disaster survivors, understanding their current situation and reactions, help them mitigate their stress,” Durham said. “But we also can connect them with various community resources for if they’re lacking things, like if they’ve lost their job and they’re lacking income and they’re having a hard time with their bills.”

Anyone who needs help recovering from the impact of COVID-19 may call Community Healthcore at (903) 399-5202 to be connected with a crisis counselor.

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Coronavirus in Texas
Abbott acknowledges 'dangerous turn' COVID-19 has taken in Texas

Vice President Mike Pence, during a trip to Dallas on Sunday, promised Texas would bounce back from a recent surge in cases of the coronavirus while urging Americans to turn to their faith during a tumultuous period for the nation.

“Working with your governor, we will put the health of the people of the Lone Star State first, and every single day we’ll continue to reclaim our freedom and our way of life, as each day we are one day closer to the day we put this pandemic in the past,” Pence said during an event at First Baptist Dallas. “And when we do, with this governor and this president, we’ll bring Texas and America back bigger and better than ever before.”

After the event, Pence — who chairs the White House Coronavirus Task Force — Gov. Greg Abbott and his coronavirus response advisers briefed Pence on the situation in Texas.

Speaking with reporters afterward, Abbott said the virus has taken a “very swift and a very dangerous turn in Texas over just the past few weeks,” while Pence praised Abbott for his leadership — which has come under heavy fire from Democrats — and pledged the full support of the federal government.

Pence also emphasized the importance of wearing a mask to reduce further spread.

The talk was a last-minute addition to Pence’s agenda. For over a week, the vice president had been scheduled to appear at First Baptist for its annual Celebrate Freedom Sunday, but he added the meeting with Abbott in recent days as the state confronted its worst week yet for the pandemic.

The number of daily new cases hit a record high Thursday of nearly 6,000, and the number of hospitalizations has reached new highs every day for the past 16 days.

The positivity rate — the ratio of tests that come back positive — has also spiked. The rate, presented by the state as a seven-day average, reached 13.23% on Friday, which is nearly as high as it was in mid-April when it hit an all-time high of 13.86%.

The numbers led Abbott to begin reversing the state’s reopening process Friday, shutting down bars and ordering restaurants to scale back their capacity to 50%, among other measures.

In his remarks at First Baptist, which lasted for about half an hour, Pence thanked Abbott “for his courageous and compassionate leadership for the people of Texas during this challenging time.”

Pence doubled down on his praise for Abbott later in the day, telling reporters after the briefing at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center that the governor had demonstrated “decisive action” in reopening the state.

But he and Dr. Deborah Birx, the response coordinator for the White House Coronavirus Task Force, also expressed gratitude for the governor’s recent decision to reverse course to thwart the prolonged rise in cases and hospitalizations.

Pence said Texas has been “testing at an enormous scale” but he also said he had spoken with Abbott about how to “accelerate” testing and results.

After weeks of falling short, the state has finally started regularly averaging over 30,000 tests a day, the threshold that Abbott set when he began to reopen the state at the end of April.

Pence’s trip coincided with a growing debate in Texas over requiring people to wear masks. Abbott has resisted calls to fine individuals who do not wear masks but has allowed local governments to order businesses to require customers to do so.

Speaking to reporters after their meeting, Abbott, Pence and Birx all urged Texans to wear masks. Birx was particularly emphatic, saying she was “appealing to every Texan to wear a mask. ... Every single one of them.”

Pence, Birx and his two other high-profile travel companions, Texas Sen. John Cornyn and U.S. Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson, all had face coverings on when they disembarked Air Force Two in Dallas on Sunday morning, as did their three greeters: Abbott, Texas House Speaker Dennis Bonnen and Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton. All appeared to remain masked while seated at the church, according to video broadcast by the church.

Pence has made headlines for not wearing a face covering at other public appearances during the pandemic. President Donald Trump has also refused to wear a mask in front of cameras.

Across East Texas

In Gregg County, eight new cases of COVID-19 were reported Sunday, raising the county’s cumulative total to 352, County Health Administrator A.J. Harris said.

Harris also reported 145 recoveries, 3,115 total tests administered, 2,605 negative tests with 158 tests pending. Gregg County has recorded 14 deaths.

Harrison County Judge Chad Sims said in a statement that although he was not notified of any new coronavirus cases Sunday, there are new cases at a nursing home, and he expects “a large number of those unreported cases to be reported” today.

Titus County Judge Brian Lee also reported no new cases Sunday and said 283 people were tested Sunday at a mobile testing site at the Mount Pleasant Civic Center.

The walk-in screenings that require no registration continue from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. today.