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Community spread confirmed in Northeast Texas; more area cases of coronavirus revealed

The number of COVID-19 cases confirmed in Northeast Texas increased by at least five Friday as health officials confirmed community spread of the virus, the first cases were announced in Upshur and Cass counties, and Smith County added another three.

Late Friday, Upshur County Judge Todd Tefteller told the News-Journal his county's first case of the disease caused by the new coronavirus had been confirmed. He said a second case had been confirmed in a person who works in Upshur but lives outside the county.

"Both individuals are in self-isolation per doctors' orders," Tefteller said in a statement. "Don't be afraid. Listen to Governor Abbott and follow his orders."

He declined to identify the second case's county of residence, but said it was travel related. If the patient is a resident of Northeast Texas, it would mean the region's total jumped by six Friday, to 15 in seven counties.

Earlier Friday, officials in Smith County and Cass County said there was evidence of community spread, which means the virus is being spread between members of a community. It was the first time such transmission has been confirmed, marking a new phase in the region's outbreak.

“The public has the responsibility, more than ever, to follow recommendations from health officials, such as social distancing and hand washing," said George Roberts, CEO of the Northeast Texas Public Health District.

NET Health's Friday afternoon report showed three new cases of COVID-19 in Smith County, bringing the county's total to eight cases. Health officials said the three patients had travel history within Texas and were in isolation. 

Smith County Judge Nathaniel Moran declined to offer specifics, but said community spread was involved in more than one of his county's cases.

Also, Cass County Judge Becky Wilbanks said the first confirmed case of COVID-19 in her county was contracted through community spread. She declined to offer further details, saying the Texas Department of State Health Services was investigating.

"We will get information to you as timely as possible, but we need you to heed the advice of those asking you to stay home and practice healthy behaviors," she said during a media briefing in Texarkana.

Also at the briefing, Bowie County Judge Bobby Howell addressed a rumor that the National Guard is planning to enact martial law and close state borders.

"This is not true," he said. "The National Guard has a medical team responding to this crisis, but they are not shutting down stores or keeping people in their homes."

According to the Friday report from the Texas Department of State Health Services, as of 8 p.m. Thursday, the statewide count of confirmed cases was 194, with five deaths. The report also showed 5,277 Texans had been tested for the disease.

Some Longview-area day cares stay open, implement extra safety precautions

In a world rocked by fears of COVID-19, people who work in health care, emergency services and in some other professions can’t work at home. And someone has to watch the children.

Some child care facilities closed along with East Texas public schools this past week. Other day cares, however, have taken on additional safety precautions issued by the state to try to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, COVID-19, while still serving their families.

“Our clientele — we have several people that work in doctors’ offices. We have some that work in pharmacies. We have so many that their jobs won’t allow them to be off,” said Steve Faber, who owns Jordan Country Day School in Longview with his wife, Regina. “There’s still a need for us. We put out a letter saying these are the steps we’re going to have to go through and you’re going to have to cooperate with us on this.”

They’ve also told their parents, though, on behalf of the “greater good,” “If you don’t need us, keep your children with you,” Regina said.

“The world is still turning out there, albeit, a little bit slower,” Regina Faber said. “We’re doing our part to help keep it going as well. If there’s nobody in the doctors’ offices, no nurses, no one to work in the pharmacies — we still have to have those people out there working.”

The state now requires such child care facilities to check the temperatures of anyone, including teachers and students, entering the building. Parents must drop off and pick up children outside the facility — they’re not allowed to enter unless there’s a “legitimate need,” according to state guidelines.

That process required Jordan to adjust its operating hours some so that all staff members could be present to help with the morning drop-off.

“We’ve had total cooperation from all our parents,” Regina said. “They’ve been wonderful, thankful.”

The center has about 190 children enrolled, and about 50 to 60 are attending each day.

“We do have a lot of teachers’ children, and those parents are keeping their children home,” Regina said. “We have a few that have grandparents in town that they can make arrangements.”

She praised her staff members for everything they’re doing and their willingness to help with the situation — staying late to sanitize, for instance.

The facility is following the state’s directions to minimize risk, the couple explained.

“That’s why they put all those protections in place,” Steve Faber said,

Still, Alice Hunt, who owns Kids World in Kilgore, didn’t come to the decision to stay open lightly.

“I had to pray about it and think about it,” she said, explaining she had concerns for her staff and the illness possibly spreading. It was her parents, though, who helped her determine she should remain open — for the children.

“For the most part, the children are here every day,” she said. Her center has 93 children enrolled. About 30 of those are typically there for after-school care only, but instead need full-time care now that school is on extended break.

The parents, she said, are thankful. Some of them had started asking about the day care’s plans when school closure were announced a week ago. Some work at the prison in Henderson. Some are nurses.

“It’s kind of like right now, they don’t have a choice” but to go to work, Hunt said.

Misty Evans also kept her two Carthage child care facilities open — Kid’s Journey and Peppermint Fence.

“Most of our parents at both centers have to work,” she said. “We have a lot that are in the health care industry, and they don’t have any other option.”

Then, there are the people who financially must go to work.

“We made the choice to stay open as long as we can,” she said, so long as the state licensing agency says the centers can.

“The parents have been extremely pleased and patient,” she said, describing a morning scene where everyone has to stop outside the door so the children’s temperatures can be checked.

“We went so far as to get portable hand washing stations for outside, so the kids can wash before they go inside and the parents can wash before they pick up their child in the afternoon,” she said. All employees have to wash their hands before entering as well.

“We’re trying,” Evans said.

Kid’s Journey has 91 registered students and Peppermint Fence has 187, but about 20 and 35 to 40 children are attending each day, respectively.

“Some of the parents have chosen to withdraw their children and some have chosen to keep them at home until we figure out what’s going on,” Evans said. “I understand that. We’re doing everything we can to help the parents for this time. It’s not easy on anybody.

“We’ve gone so far as to prepare (in case the day care must close for some reason). We’ve asked employees ‘would you be willing to babysit these children?’ We have a list put together. If we get the call (that day cares have to close), we’re going to send those to parents as options.”

Area police don't expect traffic backups for takeouts after coronavirus shuts down Texas eateries

Today marks the first day of a statewide in-restaurant dining ban set in place Thursday by Gov. Greg Abbott to help battle the growing spread of COVID-19, but three local police departments say they don’t anticipate traffic problems from hungry drivers lining up to buy takeout meals.

Police departments in Longview, White Oak and Hallsville said they have no plans in place in case of traffic backups because of shuttered front doors at restaurants. Abbott’s executive order, which took effect at midnight Friday and will remain through midnight April 3, prohibits eating and drinking at restaurants and bars, while still allowing takeout.

An official with the Texas Restaurant Association in Austin said restaurants play a big role in how Americans get their food.

Restaurants account for 52% of all meals nationwide, said Anna Tauzin, chief revenue and innovation officer with the restaurant association.

Brandon Thornton, interim spokesman for the Longview Police Department, said Longview police will respond to any traffic problems on a case-by-case basis.

“If something comes up, we will figure it out,” he said.

He said he does not know whether police have reached out to restaurants in response to the Abbott’s order.

White Oak Police Chief Terry Roach echoed Thornton’s thoughts.

“I don’t think we are going to have much of a problem here,” Roach said. “All the parking lots (at restaurants) here are pretty well maintained.”

Roach said a number of White Oak restaurants closed sit-down service earlier this week in advance of Abbott’s decision.

Hallsville restaurants have been handling more takeout orders since earlier this week, Hallsville Police Chief Wesley Freeman said.

“I’m not really worried about it,” Freeman said. He said some restaurants are located on side streets, which would reduce traffic problems on U.S. 80, the major thoroughfare connecting Longview, Hallsville and White Oak.

Many restaurants that don’t have drive-through windows are planning to offer service curbside or at the door. Some offer deliveries.

Tauzin said the restaurant association put together resources to help restaurants switch to curbside service. The association conducted a webinar Wednesday that drew more than 700 participants.

“We are able to get the restaurants that have questions in touch with other restaurants that are doing curbside, and we are also just taking questions,” Tauzin said.

Tauzin said restaurants can help customers by displaying signs telling them where to go to pick up orders and offering clear communication on their websites and other social media.

“I hope people are going to be patient enough to sit in line,” Tauzin said.

Texas has more than 50,000 restaurants that employ 1.4 million people, according to the association.

Additional directives in Abbott’s order included a 10-person limit on social gatherings, closed gyms, a visitor ban at nursing homes except for critical care and temporarily closed schools.

Virus cancellations


Find our updated list of local coronavirus-related cancellations and postponements at tinyurl.com/LNJlist or Page 3B.

March 21

March 21, 1958: Five thousand public school teachers from a 29-county area of East Texas arrived in Longview for the general sessions and workshops of the District VIII Texas State Teachers Association. Pine Tree Superintendent James T. Ogg, president of the district association, presided.

March 21, 1963: Longview bank deposits jumped by $2.5 million in the previous year, according to a report from the Comptroller of the Currency. Combined deposits at Longview National, First National, Longview Bank and Trust and East Texas bank were $59.34 million, up from $56.82 million a year earlier.

Gregg jury trials canceled through May 1; tax offices closed

Judges in Gregg and Rusk counties have extended cancellation of court dockets through May 1, and all Gregg County tax offices have closed to the public.

“I encourage people to go online or make payments through the mail,” Tax Assessor-Collector Kirk Shields said Friday afternoon. “We’ll be there in the office if they want to call us, but we’re closed to walk-ins.”

Shields had restructured office staffs last week to keep his doors open to the public but chose Friday to close the offices until further notice as a prevention measure against the spread of the coronavirus.

Meanwhile, only essential court hearings will be held in Gregg and Rusk counties, and judges will seek to hold those hearings through teleconferencing when possible.

In Upshur County, parties scheduled to appear in any court proceeding before May 1 are asked to contact their attorneys. Attorneys scheduled to appear in court are asked to contact the respective judge’s chambers by phone, and people with probation and pretrial service appointments are asked to contact the Upshur County Community Supervision Department for guidance and instructions.

Gregg County judges had previously canceled jury trials and non-essential court proceedings through the end of March.

The Gregg County Clerk’s Office also has asked anyone seeking a marriage license to call (903) 236-8430 and schedule an appointment. Also, all documents to be recorded with the clerk’s office should be mailed to P.O. Box 3049, Longview, TX 75606.

People needing a birth of death certificate are asked to go online to co.gregg.tx.us and click on the county clerk’s tab, where they will find an application and fee.

“The judges understand that these actions will be inconvenient and cause delays in our judicial system. However, these actions are being taken to reduce the possible spread of the virus to the degree possible,” according to a statement from Gregg County.

`Accept it': 3 states lock down 70 million against the virus

Illinois and New York state joined California on Friday in ordering all residents to stay in their homes unless they have vital reasons to go out, restricting the movement of more than 70 million Americans in the most sweeping measures undertaken yet in the U.S. to contain the coronavirus.

The states’ governors acted in a bid to fend off the kind of onslaught that has caused the health system in southern Europe to buckle. The lockdowns encompass the three biggest cities in America — New York, Los Angeles and Chicago — as well as No. 8 San Diego and No. 14 San Francisco.

“No, this is not life as usual,” New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said as the death toll in the U.S. topped 200, with at least 35 in his state. “Accept it and realize it and deal with it.”

Cuomo said that starting Sunday, all workers in nonessential businesses must stay home as much as possible, and gatherings of any size will be banned in the state of over 19 million people. California likewise all but confined its 40 million residents on Friday, and Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker announced a similar order set to take effect on Saturday for the state’s 12.6 million people. The governor of Connecticut, New York’s neighboring state, said he also was poised to issue a comparable directive.

Exceptions were made for essential jobs and errands, such as buying groceries and medicine, as well as for exercise.

The lockdowns sent another shudder through the markets, where many fear a recession is a near certainty. Stocks tumbled on Wall Street, closing out their worst week since the 2008 financial crisis. The Dow Jones Industrial Average fell more than 900 points, ending the week with a 17% loss.

The increasingly drastic measures in the U.S. came as gasping patients filled the wards of hospitals in Spain and Italy, and the global death toll surpassed 11,000, with the virus gaining footholds in new corners of the world. Over a quarter-million people worldwide have been infected, according to a count kept by Johns Hopkins University, though close to 90,000 of them have recovered.

Italy, the hardest-hit country in Europe, reported 627 new deaths, its biggest day-to-day rise since the outbreak began, and said new cases also shot up. Italy now has seen over 4,000 deaths — more even than China — and 47,000 infections. The soaring numbers came despite a nationwide lockdown.

The World Health Organization highlighted the epidemic’s dramatic speed, noting it took more than three months to reach the first 100,000 confirmed cases but only 12 days to reach the next 100,000. Among those infected was a member of Vice President Mike Pence’s staff. The White House said that staffer did not appear to have “close contact” with either Pence or Trump.

Across the U.S., where the number of infected topped 17,000, governors and public health officials watched the crisis in Europe with mounting alarm and warned of critical shortages of ventilators, masks and other gear at home.

In New York City, health officials told medical providers to stop testing patients for the virus, except for people sick enough to require hospitalization, saying testing is exhausting supplies of protective equipment.

As promised earlier in the week, President Donald Trump officially invoked emergency wartime authority to try to speed production of such equipment.

Countries frantically prepared for a deluge of patients in the coming weeks.

In Britain, the government asked 65,000 retired nurses and doctors to return to work. A convention center and hotels in Madrid were being turned into field hospitals for nearly 10,000 patients. France’s military worked to build a makeshift medical center in the hard-hit town of Mulhouse. The U.S. readied military hospitals for civilian use.

Trump also announced the closing of the Mexican border to most travel but not trade. That brings it in line with the restrictions on the Canadian border earlier this week. The federal government also moved the income tax filing deadline from April 15 to July 15.

“We’re about to enter into a new way of living here in Los Angeles,” Mayor Eric Garcetti said as California went into lockdown. “What we do and how we do it and if we get this right will determine how long this crisis lasts.”

The streets of America’s cities were quieter than normal, even in many communities not under lockdown.

In New York, Edjo Wheeler said he knew two people very sick with flu-like symptoms, which can indicate the coronavirus.

“That makes me walk around with my hands in my pocket to make sure I’m not touching things,’ said Wheeler, 49, who runs a nonprofit art center. He added: “If everyone doesn’t cooperate, it’s not going to be effective.”

At the Paramount Drive-in near Los Angeles, Forrest and Erin McBride figured a drive-in movie was one of the few ways they could responsibly celebrate their anniversary.

“We were like, what can we do? Everything’s closed,” Forrest said before a showing of “Onward.” “We were like, ‘Well, a drive-in theater is kind of like a self-quarantined movie date.’”

The virus has struck at the very identities of many countries: closing down cafes, restaurants and boulevard life in France, ending la dolce vita in Italy, shutting down England’s pubs and the ceremonial changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace, damaging sales of tulips from Holland and shuttering the Statue of Liberty in the U.S.

Governments are trying to balance locking down residents with the need to keep food, medicine and other essentials flowing.

In Britain, the category of vital workers includes doctors, nurses and paramedics — and also vicars, truckers, garbage collectors and journalists. In New York, people venturing outside will have to stay at least 6 feet apart. And while they will be free to get some exercise to keep their sanity, there will be no “playing basketball with five other people,” Cuomo said.

“These provisions will be enforced,” the governor said. “These are not helpful hints.”

In Bergamo, the epicenter of the Italian outbreak, cemeteries were overwhelmed. Patients at the city’s main hospital lined up in a narrow ward, struggling for breath as doctors and nurses moved swiftly from one beeping machine to the next.

“When the virus arrived here, there was no containment, and it spread through the valleys very quickly. ... Some said it was the normal flu. We doctors knew it was not,” said Dr. Luca Lorini, head of intensive care at the hospital, where nearly 500 beds were dedicated to people suffering severe symptoms. Eighty patients were in intensive care.

While the illness is mild in most people, the elderly are particularly susceptible to serious symptoms. Italy has the world’s second-oldest population, and the vast majority of its dead — 87% — were over 70.

Still, even younger people are at risk.

“You’re not invincible,” WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus warned them. He noted that many countries are reporting that people under 50 make up a “significant proportion” of patients needing to be hospitalized.

Some of the only good news came from Wuhan, the Chinese city where the outbreak began and where hospitals were struggling just weeks ago. For the second day in a row, no new infections were reported and only 39 cases were recorded nationwide, all brought from the outside, the government said.

With the crisis waning there, China has begun sending medical supplies to Europe.

The shutdown of whole swaths of the world economy took its toll, from millions of unsold flowers rotting in piles in Kenya to the slow emptying of the world’s skies. Canada received 500,000 applications for unemployment benefits, versus 27,000 for the same week last year.

In the U.S., lawmakers and the White House sought to put together a $1 trillion economic rescue plan that would include the dispensing of relief checks of $1,200 for adults and $500 per child. The British government likewise unveiled a huge package under which the country for the time in its history would help pay the wages of those in the private sector.

Iran’s official toll of more than 1,400 dead was rising quickly as well amid fears it is underreporting its cases.

As the virus strengthened its foothold in Africa, the continent’s busiest airport, in Johannesburg, announced that foreigners will no longer be allowed to disembark.


Associated Press reporters around the world contributed to this report.


The Associated Press receives support for health and science coverage from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Department of Science Education. The AP is solely responsible for all content.


■ A story on Page 1A Friday about local restaurants’ response to Gov. Greg Abbott’s order to close sit-down service effective midnight Friday misspelled the name of Rudy Kiapeta, owner of Tuscan Pig Italian Kitchen.