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Gregg County's COVID-19 situation differs from state picture

The local COVID-19 picture is different from the statewide situation that led Gov. Greg Abbott to reinstate some restrictions, says Gregg County Health Authority Dr. Lewis Browne.

This past week saw Texas break records in number of new cases and hospitalizations, and the statewide positivity rate — a measure of the ratio of tests that come back positive based on a seven-day average — reached 11.76% on Thursday, according to the Texas Tribune. That’s above the 10% level Abbott had said would be cause for concern in the state’s reopening process.

The state’s largest four counties are driving that statistic, Browne said, and the governor’s restrictions are pointed toward that. Populous areas tend to have more trouble, he said.

“We will have to do what the governor says, and we will get the restaurants back from 75% (capacity) down to 50%,” Browne said Friday. “If he says close the bars, the bars are closed. We will conform to what the governor says.”

Browne pointed to what he said is a low death rate in Gregg County: 14 people have died with COVID-19 or because of COVID-19 related complications, most of them nursing home residents.

Gregg County has never tried to calculate its positivity rate, he said. His office directed that question to NETHealth, the Northeast Texas Public Health District. That organization in turn instructed the News-Journal to calculate the rate itself.

Those calculations show Gregg County’s positivity rate has fluctuated widely at times, considering some days have more positives weighed against fewer tests and vice versa, or as tests from the Gregg County Jail were removed from the total.

Using the testing information and results the local health department have provided, Gregg County’s positivity rate was above 20% in early May, dropped below 5% in mid-May, climbed through early June to about 20%, dipped below 15%, shot up above 25% in mid-June and stood around 10% on Friday.

Local officials have said capacity at hospitals and ICUs has not reached the concerning levels seen in some bigger Texas cities. COVID-19 hospitalizations at Gregg County’s two hospitals stood at 35 on Friday, up from 33 the week before, Browne said, and he said most of those patients are not in the ICU. Most are in areas of the hospitals set aside specifically to treat COVID-19 patients, he said. Smith County hospitalizations were at 58 on Friday.

A 2019 report by the Texas Department of State Health Services says Christus Good Shepherd Medical Center in Longview has 425 acute care beds, and Longview Regional Medical Center has 224 beds. Browne said the two hospitals combined have about 50 ICU beds.

Libby Bryson, spokeswoman for Longview Regional Medical Center, said while patient numbers fluctuate daily, the hospital has not seen large declines or spikes.

“Our census has remained relatively stable over the past few weeks,” she said. “That being said, we are certainly aware of what is going in the densely populated urban areas of Texas.

“Longview Regional Medical Center’s hospitalization trends for COVID-19 patients are no different than what we have seen since the start of the pandemic.”

In Tyler, UT Health East Texas Chief Medical Officer Dr. Tom Cummins said COVID-19 has been one of the most challenging diseases that he’s seen in his 30 years of health care other than HIV/AIDS.

“People need to understand it’s a real disease and it’s fatal,” he said. “We can slow it down and make it less dangerous, but we’ve got to take action.”

UT Health East Texas and Christus Trinity Mother Frances officials said local hospitalizations are remaining fairly steady, but people should exercise preventive measures to reduce further spread.

A month ago, hospitalization numbers at UT Health East Texas were low, but since recent reopenings, hospitalizations have steadily risen, Cummins said.

For the past month, the number of patients has been between 21 to 25 people who have COVID-19 and are receiving treatment at UT Health East Texas.

The ages of patients have ranged from 20s to 80s and many have other health issues and are in close-knit families, Cummins said.

Dr. Mark Anderson, chief medical officer for Christus Health System, said hospitalizations have been fairly steady with a typical range of 12 to 18 patients since the beginning of COVID-19 cases in East Texas.

Some patients at Christus Trinity Mother Frances are in the ICU, while others are housed in intermediate care. Anderson said there have been a couple 18-or 19-year-olds hospitalized, and the oldest has been a 79-year-old patient.

He added that while people with underlying health issues could be affected more by the virus, there have been others hospitalized without preexisting health conditions.

Anderson said many hospital systems were concerned about reaching capacity early on, but there are no problems receiving personal protective equipment and supplies.

On Thursday the NET Health board of directors voted to recommend that Tyler and Smith County require people older than age 2 wear masks in public.

Browne said the importance of masks has become obvious to him during the months since COVID-19 appeared here.

“I think the masks are imperative if people want to continue,” to go to large grocery stores, pharmacies and hardware stores, he said.

He, County Judge Bill Stoudt and Longview Mayor Andy Mack, however, have maintained that masks are an issue of personal responsibility and not something they believe local government should take steps to require.

A call to action: Hundreds attend Longview prayer rally in response to global unrest

Hundreds of people gathered Saturday evening for a prayer rally outside the Gregg County Courthouse and heard from a minister that prayer is more than words.

“Many are saying that prayer is just an exercise in futility. We need to stop praying and take action,” Bishop Robert Evans of Bethel Temple in Longview told the gathering of about 300 people.

He drew applause when he said, “This is action.”

Evans was among a succession of preachers and others who roused the crowd with sermons, prayers and songs. Participants stretched out their arms, clapped and swayed during a rally that concluded with people gathering in small groups.

The rally, dubbed A Solemn Assembly and organized by Gregg County Judge Bill Stoudt, took place amid the backdrop of the COVID-19 pandemic and racial strife.

Stoudt introduced Longview Mayor Andy Mack, who started with a question, “Why are you here today?”

Some people yelled back, “Jesus!”

Mack said people came to show they care about their neighbors and about injustice.

He said people are showing willingness to talk about subjects that make them feel uncomfortable.

“People are trying to do better, to love their neighbors,” Mack said. “Your presence tonight shows that you want to live better.”

Stoudt followed and told the crowd that COVID-19 remains a concern in Gregg County and said face masks were available. He also encouraged attendees to maintain social distancing.

However, few people at the rally wore face masks, and one pastor urged attendees to touch their ministers, which goes against advice from health officials to maintain social distancing. And at the end of the event, some attendees broke into small, tight groups to pray.

“We are here today to show our hearts, Stoudt said. “We have all experienced adversity in our lives. ... None of us have all the answers.”

Stoudt drew applause when he said, “Always remember: We are Gregg County strong.”

He asked participants to join him in reciting Psalms 51, copies of which were circulated.

The next speaker, the Rev. Eric Love of Church on Purpose in Longview, said the nation is in “turmoil.” He referred to the pandemic and businesses shutting down.

“We are here because we are all God’s people,” Love said. “We are here to humble ourselves. I believe God has a plan. He wants to do it right here.”

Following Love, Stephanie Hollis, a member of New Covenant Church in Longview, gave a long prayer.

“We need you, Lord,” she said. “The city needs you. This nation needs you.”

The Rev. Lewis Thompson Jr. of Antioch Baptist Church took to the podium to recognize law enforcement officers and firefighters, calling Gregg County Sheriff Maxey Cerliano, Longview Police Chief Mike Bishop and Longview Fire Chief J.P. Steelman by name.

About 25 law enforcement officers and firefighters lined up in front.

“I urge you to pray for all these people,” Thompson said. He urged the crowd to raise their hands and point toward the first responders.

“The Lord is lifting them up right now,” he said.

The final preacher, the Rev. Charles Hunt of Woodland Hills Baptist Church in Longview, said he has preached for 49 years, 16 years locally.

“The only thing that is going to save America is to repent,” Hunt said.

One member of Hunt’s congregation, Nathan Mathias of White Oak, said afterward that he came because “We love the Lord and we just want to be part of what the Lord is doing. ... Jesus wants to start a revival in all our hearts.”

The prayer rally was “amazing,” said Alicia Adams of the Church at Grace Street and an aspiring minister. “I think the most powerful thing is all churches coming together .

“That is something that is so powerful,” Adams said. “Everybody is coming into agreement and worshiping. I’m on fire with the love.”

Longview bar that defied shutdown order has permit suspended

A Longview bar that defied a statewide order Friday to close has had its liquor permit suspended 30 days by the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission.

Outlaws Longview owner Melissa Lynn Kelly said Friday that her bar would maintain business hours unless an authority enforces Gov. Greg Abbott’s order to shut her down.

Abbott on Friday ordered bars to shut down again and also scaled back restaurant capacity from 75% to 50% because of rising COVID-19 cases.

Chris Porter, spokesman for the TABC, said in a statement that Outlaws was one of two bars in the state that decided to remain open Friday after being visited by TABC agents.

“TABC agents visited 628 bars across Texas Friday night, finding just 30 bars open in violation of the governor’s executive order,” Porter said. “After TABC agents spoke with management and provided them with the executive order, 28 bars agreed to shut their doors. Two remained open, defying the governor’s executive order. TABC issued an emergency order to suspend the liquor permits of those bars for 30 days.”

The Whiskey Girl in Abilene is the other bar that had its permit suspended.

“We want to thank bar owners across the state who are making great sacrifices to protect their fellow Texans,” TABC Executive Director Bentley Nettles said in the statement. “We know bar and restaurant owners have been suffering mightily throughout this pandemic. By taking these extraordinary steps to limit capacity and close doors, lives will be saved and we can increase the chances of successfully reopening businesses in the future.”

Porter said the agency has the authority to suspend any license that poses a continuing threat to the public welfare with the first infraction resulting in a 30-day license suspension and the second resulting in a 60-day suspension.

Kelly defied the initial order that shut bars effective midnight March 20 by reopening Outlaws Longview at 4 p.m. May 15, a week before Abbott allowed bars to open back up at 25% capacity.

“I am not going down easy. I am going down with a fight,” she said Friday. “If I shut down after being shut down, I might as well turn in my license.”

A GoFundMe page has been started to help raise money for Kelly’s attorney fees.

The TABC asks residents to report possible violations by emailing complaints@tabc.texas.gov or by calling 1-888-THE-TABC.