The 25-county East Texas region saw a jump of 94 cases of the novel coronavirus on Thursday, due in large part to 61 newly reported cases in Titus County.
Other counties posting increases in positive test results included Gregg, Smith, Camp, Morris and Harrison, which also reported one more COVID-19 death Thursday.
Titus County recorded 59 new cases on Wednesday, followed by two new cases Thursday, according to County Judge Brian Lee said.
The county has has two deaths, according to the Texas State Department of Health Services.
Titus County became a Northeast Texas hot spot for COVID-19 a little more than a week ago — which surprised officials in the area where Mount Pleasant serves as county seat.
They expected the trend to begin earlier, Lee said.
The county logged its first case at the beginning of April, he said.
“We expected this to get started back then,” Lee said.
Case numbers didn’t started jumping until May, tied in part to the first free testing drive offered by the state on May 9 in Mount Pleasant.
Facebook posts Lee made showed that 40 cases on May 12 became 79 cases on May 13. Some days since then have showed jumps of 11, 17, 22 and Wednesday’s 59, ending at 220 cases as of Thursday.
Lee said the state’s totals for the county tend to lag behind what the county itself is able to count from positive test results.
More testing is taking place, Lee said, but that’s not the primary driver of the county’s increasing COVID-19 cases.
More people are sick, he said.
Lee said he and other officials he speaks with each day believe the increasing number of cases are connected to the county’s biggest employer, the Pilgrim’s chicken processing plant in Mount Pleasant where about 2,800 people work. But it’s not just Pilgrim’s, he said, because the area has other businesses with plant work environments.
“We knew whatever they had in force out there at the time (at Pilgrim’s),” delayed a larger outbreak in Titus County, Lee said. “What caused it to erupt here recently, we’ll never know.”
Lee said Pilgrim’s has worked to prevent the spread of COVID-19 among its employees.
“Despite the great job Pilgrim’s has been doing in staving this off for quite a while, I think it’s finally catching up,” he said, recalling a recent visit he made to the plant in which he saw all employees in masks and being screened for temperatures. Break rooms are closed.
The company sent its more vulnerable workers home with pay and has encouraged employees who aren’t feeling well to stay home, Lee said.
“A lot of those employees share residences with people that work in other plant environments in other locations in town,” he said.
He said Titus County’s population is more than 50 percent Latino.
“This is a tightknit social group,” he said.
Titus County, though, is an “industry-intensive community,” not just with Pilgrim’s, but with trailer and fence manufacturing, a chocolate plant and a nearby a Lowe’s distribution center.
“This is a Titus County problem,” he said of the number of COVID-19 cases that have developed there in the past couple of weeks. “It’s a manufacturing-related matter in many of these cases that we’ve been able to trace to.”
The state conducted voluntary on-site testing of Pilgrim’s employees at the plant earlier this week, but Lee said those results are not yet available.
Pilgrim’s corporate office, JBS in Greeley, Colorado, did not immediately respond to a phone message on Thursday.
A Facebook post by Titus Regional Medical Center showed it was treating 14 patients for COVID-19 as of Thursday.
In Gregg County, County Health Administrator A.J. Harris reported that three more people had received positive results for the virus, bringing the county’s total to 187 as of Thursday.
Harris said 1,904 total tests had been administered in the county as of Thursday, with 1,607 results returning negative and 109 results still pending.
The county’s recoveries stand at 57, and the it has had four deaths from the virus.
Gregg County Judge Bill Stoudt said the daily results show “our community spread is clearly going down.”
Recent spikes in the county’s totals were the results of cases inside nursing homes, he said.
“I think there’s a handle on everything,” Stoudt said.
The county has not yet received all the results from three days of drive-thru testing the state conducted in Longview last week.
In Harrison County, County Judge Chad Sims said the new death brings his county’s death toll to 23.
Sims also reported five new COVID-19 cases, raising the cumulative total for the county to 228. In addition, the county recorded 21 new recoveries, increasing that total to 60. The county now has 145 active cases.
He said 17 of the recoveries were from patients over 60 years old.
“This is great news that many in our older age group are overcoming the virus,” he said. “Please continue to join me in remembering all of these affected.”
In Smith County, coronavirus cases increased by three, pulling that county’s total up to 198, according to the Northeast Texas Public Health District.
The county has had 142 recoveries and now has 52 active cases. It has had four deaths.
Tyler hospitals on Thursday were treating 23 patients from East Texas for the coronavirus.
In Camp County, the number of positive cases rose by three for a total of 32, according to the state health department.
In Morris County, County Judge Doug Reeder posted one new case, raising that county’s total to 15. Reeder said the county’s total has risen by six in the past eight days. It has had five recoveries.
“Many of these are due to increased testing not only in Morris County, but in adjacent counties as well,” he said.
Across the 25-county region, the number of recorded COVID-19 cases was at least 2,349 by Thursday evening, up from 2,255 a day earlier. The region reported 108 total deaths as of Thursday, one more from Wednesday.