Gov. Greg Abbott on Sunday ratcheted up restrictions on travel from Louisiana, one of the growing hot spots for coronavirus in the U.S., and announced the state’s first pop-up hospital in Dallas to deal with the growing pandemic. He also said he was moving to “stop the release of dangerous felons” amid the outbreak.
The steps to both slow and manage the growing pandemic came the same day the state health department reported the number of confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Texas was 2,552 — an increase of 24% from the previous day. Cases were reported in 118 counties Sunday, up from 111 Saturday. Statewide deaths related to the coronavirus increased by seven to 34.
Reported cases of COVID-19 have increased 619% in Texas in the span of a week, according to state health department numbers.
As cases have continued to explode in the Shreveport area and across Louisiana, Abbott said Sunday that state troopers will begin patrolling highway entry points at the border and require “everyone stopped” in those cars to also self-isolate. Abbott’s order requires drivers to fill out a form listing where they will quarantine in Texas.
But how aggressively Texas troopers will patrol incoming traffic wasn’t immediately clear. Hours after Abbott’s announcement, traffic both in and out of Texas was freely moving across the border at several locations checked. No state troopers were seen patrolling any routes, although multiple highway electronic signs in both directions on Interstate 10 warned drivers that “Personal travel from Louisiana must quarantine.’ “
The move to curtail travel from Louisiana came just two days after a previous executive order that requires a 14-day self-quarantine for anyone flying into Texas from New York, New Jersey, Connecticut or New Orleans. Sunday’s order expanded the the quarantine requirements to those flying in from Miami, Atlanta, Detroit and Chicago, as well as anywhere in California and Washington.
Abbott said the new travel restrictions will be enforced by the Texas Department of Public Safety “at and near entry points from Louisiana.” The restrictions do “not apply to travel related to commercial activities, military service, emergency response, health response or critical infrastructure functions,” he said.
To address the growing need for hospital bed space in North Texas, he said the state’s first ad hoc health care facility to respond to the pandemic will be the Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Center in Dallas. The city now has about 500 confirmed cases of COVID-19. The convention center has capacity for 250 beds “with plenty of room to massively expand that number if needed,” Abbott said.
At the same time, Abbott said there is “plenty of hospital capacity” to deal with the outbreak statewide, and existing hospitals remain the “primary location” for treatment. He said the number of hospital beds available for coronavirus patients statewide more than doubled in the past week under orders to hospitals to curtail non-emergency treatment, and more than 16,000 beds were free as of Thursday.
Abbott announced the latest executive orders during a news conference at the capitol in Austin, but text of the orders was not immediately available. It was unclear, for example, how he was defining the kinds of prisoners who cannot be released.
“I have heard from law enforcement and citizens who are concerned about the release of prisoners because of COVID-19,” Abbott said in a news conference. “Releasing dangerous criminals into the streets is not safe and is prohibited by law.”
Abbott’s order comes as state and local officials continue to battle over whether to release thousands of inmates awaiting trial from the Harris County Jail, where at least one inmate has tested positive for the coronavirus and some 30 others are showing symptoms.
Advocates have fought for as many inmates as possible to be released from county jails, citing the increased risk of virus spread given close quarters and poor sanitary conditions. Abbott and Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton on Sunday asked to intervene in a federal lawsuit in Harris County in which a federal judge is weighing whether and how to release Harris County Jail inmates.
A 39-year-old inmate in the Harris County Jail tested positive for the coronavirus, marking the first case there, the county sheriff’s office announced Sunday. The inmate, who was booked into jail March 17 after being arrested for a parole violation, was placed into quarantine March 26 when a health assessment showed he had a high temperature.
Some 30 inmates in the jail are showing “symptoms consistent with COVID-19.” Roughly 500 inmates who may have been exposed to the virus but are not showing symptoms are in quarantine, the sheriff’s office said in a statement Sunday.
Inmates are at a particularly high risk for contracting and spreading the virus given the close quarters and unsanitary conditions in jails and prisons. The virus has already begun to spread in Texas lock-ups.
As of Saturday, 11 people in the Dallas County Jail had tested positive for the virus, including one detention service officer and 10 inmates.
There had been 25,483 tests for COVID-19 done in the state as of 8 p.m. Saturday, the latest information available from the state health department Sunday.