School’s Out Forever? Governor Extends Closures

With three press conferences Tuesday afternoon, there is a lot of ground to cover in today’s digest of novel coronavirus news, but if you’re looking for bullet points, we have them.

  • Abbott extends school closures through May 4
  • Jenkins issues plea for more tests, more PPE
  • We take a closer look at Dallas County COVID-19 numbers
  • Johnson now requires hospitals to give daily bed count
  • DART, USPS report workers tested positive for coronavirus
  • Two calendar items for today – City Parks Board public comment sign up, Rep. Colin Allred telephone town hall
  • W.T. White High provides a brief respite from all of the above
Abbott Extends School Closures Through May 4

In news that surprised nearly no one, Gov. Greg Abbott Tuesday announced the ongoing statewide school closures due to COVID-19 will continue through May 4.

Abbott, who was joined by Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath, State House Speaker Dennis Bonnen, Texas Department of State Health Services Commissioner John Hellerstedt, Texas Division of Emergency Management  Chief Nim Kidd, and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, also issued an executive order that will further explain what businesses and services are considered essential. The order renews and amends his previous order that tasked Texans with practicing social distancing and limiting gatherings to 10 or fewer.

News that schools would remain shuttered for more than a month longer at least may have made many parents and educators cringe – something Morath said he understands.

“Like many parents in Texas, I’m a parent who has two young children, and we are wrestling with a new reality,” he said. “For a little bit more time, we all must remain apart so that we can come back together.”

Morath said educators across Texas are doing everything in their power to support students amid school closures.

“As the President has made clear, we are not yet done with our response,” Abbott said. “We’ve come too far to falter now. We’ve made tremendous strides, but we have not yet reached our destination.”

The order continues directives that also close in-restaurant dining, tattoo parlors, beauty salons, and more. Drive-through and take out are still allowed.

Abbott said that examples of essential services include healthcare, grocery stores, banking and financial services, utilities, child care for essential service employees, and government services. The order follows a White House and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention directive to enhance social distancing guidelines and extend the shelf life of those guidelines to April 30.

“In short, what this provides is that Texans are expected to limit personal interactions that could lead to the spread of COVID-19, while also still having the freedom to conduct daily activities such as going to the grocery store, so long as you are following the presidential standard of good distance practices,” Abbott said, adding that he rejected the term “shelter-in-place” or “stay-at-home.”

In addition, the governor revealed that there have been at least 3,266 confirmed cases across 122 counties, 41 COVID-19 related deaths, and 42,922 Texans that have been tested. Of all the hospital beds available for treating COVID-19 patients, only about 2.4% are being used.

“Most of these numbers, very importantly, were the result of personal interactions in the state of Texas before the distancing practices that have gone in place the last couple of weeks,” Abbott said.

Kidd did acknowledge that while there are plenty of beds, personal protective equipment is another story.

“There’s no secret that the supply chain has taken quite a shot,” Kidd said, adding that hospitals are “on a rationing program right now so that they don’t completely run out.”

He added that normally providers would use a new mask per patient interaction, but that right now, healthcare providers should “try to use one mask per one provider per one shift,” unless the mask is compromised.

“On the front end, how we use it will help determine how much we have,” Kidd said. “On the backend, our team is working very hard at an international level to find the right personal protective equipment that’s going to come in and be distributed in a very rational and bed count and population-driven manner.”

Jenkins Issues Plea For More Tests, More PPE

Shortly after Abbott spoke to the press, Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins held a press conference to explain any differences between the county’s shelter-in-place order and the governor’s newly amended order.

In short, Dallas is already doing what the order asks. Although Abbott’s order does allow religious activities to continue by following guidelines restricting gatherings to less than 10 people, area religious organizations, in a spirit of cooperation, worked together to allow most churches to continue their services online.

Jenkins was candid about the shortage of personal protective equipment, saying that “we are critically short on PPE.”

The county also needs more tests – Jenkins said he is continuing to ask the federal government to send at least 400 more tests a day for Dallas County.

Jenkins also clarified his recommendations about families with loved ones in nursing homes – if your loved one lives in a facility that has had a positive novel coronavirus test, before you can take them home, they must test negative themselves.

If your loved one lives at a facility that hasn’t had a positive test, you can take them home without needing a test.

Parkland Hospital will test residents who live in facilities with positive cases, Jenkins added.

“We’re going to do everything we can to get those tests for you,” he said.

A Closer Look at Dallas County COVID-19 Numbers

While we file daily reports on the new cases of the novel coronavirus in Dallas County, we’re now going to start sharing more statistics on Wednesdays and Saturdays.

For one, we’re starting to get a better idea, so far, of how many of those positives end up in the hospital.

The aggregate data that the county provides twice a week gives further illumination, though.

Most of the cases so far have been between ages of 18 and 60, with the 18-40 and 41-60 age groups each accounting for 36.1% of the total cases. There were 352 men who were diagnosed with the novel coronavirus (or roughly 56%) and 279 women.

Close contact is the biggest risk factor for contracting COVID-19,  accounting for 76.1% of all cases. Domestic out-of-state travel and international travel are a distant second and third at 9.4% and 6.7%, respectively.

In a city-by-city breakdown, Dallas still comes in with the highest number of cases – 391, or 62%. Highland Park has 13 cases so far, and University Park has 12.

Carrot Health, which bills itself as a “leading provider of healthcare solutions powered by consumer data,” has created a dashboard it says can identify populations that are most vulnerable to critical illness if they contract COVID-19.

You can find the full map by clicking the image below.

Johnson Now Requires Hospitals to Give Daily Bed Count

Dallas Mayor Eric Johnson Tuesday announced that he would now require hospitals to report available beds each day, so that the city can stay on top of emerging needs if a surge in hospitalizations due to COVID-19 occurs.

“Transparency and facts are key to slowing the spread of this virus,” Johnson said. “With the data that hospitals will be providing pursuant to these new orders, we can effectively manage our resources in the event of a surge in hospitalizations.”

Dallas’ Office of Emergency Management is working with the Texas National Guard to set up a 250-bed hospital inside Kay Bailey Hutchison Center, should that surge happen and local hospitals become full. The convention center location can hold up to 1,400 patients.

Texas National Guard officials are also inspecting additional sites, including the now-shuttered Walnut Hill Medical Center.

“This is tough, and this insidious virus is going to test us,” Johnson said.”But it will not break us.”

Johnson also addressed the crowded – despite the shelter-in-place orders – city parks and trails, especially at White Rock Lake and the Katy Trail. He stopped short of saying he would shut the popular trails down completely, unless the medical community asks him to.

“Not everyone lives in a single-family home,” he said. “Can you imagine being in a two bedroom-apartment like I grew up in with six people in it? How crazy it might be with kids needing to get out and burn off steam? Having a park to go to or going to the trails that we have is probably the only place you can do that safely.”

“We’re talking about these other issues, about whether or not we should shut down parks and trails and why people aren’t adhering to physical distancing,” Johnson continued. “Well, part of it is, I think some people really don’t understand what’s going on, and how serious this is … seeing daily numbers in terms of hospital capacity, might help. I’m almost certain it will help people understand once this situation gets to a point where it is critical.”

Johnson said that he is also urging city staffers to come up with more options for citizens who just need to get out of the house – and will even consider shutting down select streets to vehicle traffic in densely populated areas to people who want to go for a walk have more room to do so.

Dallas may also move from issuing warnings to people to actually issuing tickets – with fines of up to $2,000 – for violating city rules regarding social distancing.

Johnson also asked landlords to “have a heart” when it came to renters who have found themselves out of work because of COVID-19.

“I want to say something directly to you. Have a heart, have a heart. These are incredibly difficult times for everyone,” he said.

But he also told renters it’s a two-way street.

“I want you to remember your landlords have bills to pay too, so I am encouraging everyone to work together,” Johnson said.

DART, USPS Report Workers Tested Positive for Coronavirus

The United States Postal Service said Tuesday that an employee who works at its North Texas processing and distribution center in Coppell tested positive for COVID-19.

A USPS spokesperson said that it has reached out to local public health officials for guidance, but that risk was believed to be low for other employees at the center.

Two Dallas Area Rapid Transit employees have also tested positive, the agency said Tuesday. Both workers – a police officer and a bus driver – have contact with the public.

The agency said both are self-quarantining at home, and the vehicles they drove are out of service.

“DART remains committed to doing everything possible to keep our patrons and employees safe and will continue enhanced cleaning protocols for buses, light rail and paratransit vehicles, as well as all DART office and maintenance facilities,” the agency said in a statement.

Two Calendar Items for Today

The deadline to sign up for public comment for the April 2 Dallas Park and Recreation board meeting is noon today.  For information on how to register to speak, click here.

Rep. Colin Allred will host a telephone town hall and briefing on the novel coronavirus today at 6:30 p.m. Joining him will be Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins; Dr. Philip Huang, director of Dallas County Health and Human Services; Dr. Trish M. Perl, the chief of the division of infectious diseases at UT Southwestern Medical Center; and Susheel Kumar, public information officer at the Small Business Administration

The group will answer questions about the response to the coronavirus and to discuss resources available to individuals and small business owners. This is Allred’s third town hall event on the coronavirus response.

To access the town hall, and to RSVP, go to allred.house.gov/live.

W.T. White Provides Uplifting Messages

Thanks to the magic of Twitter, W.T. White High School’s tweet from Tuesday can be shared, and that’s how we’ll end today’s digest – with a bit of gratitude.

Bethany Erickson

Bethany Erickson, Digital Editor at People Newspapers, cut her teeth on community journalism, starting in Arkansas. Recently, she's taken home a few awards for her writing, including first place for her tornado coverage from the National Newspapers Association's 2020 Better Newspaper Contest, a Gold award for Best Series at the 2018 National Association of Real Estate Editors journalism awards, a 2018 Hugh Aynesworth Award for Editorial Opinion from the Dallas Press Club, and a 2019 award from NAREE for a piece linking Medicaid expansion with housing insecurity. She is a member of the Education Writers Association, the Society of Professional Journalists, the National Association of Real Estate Editors, the News Leaders Association, the News Product Alliance, and the Online News Association. She doesn't like lima beans, black licorice or the word synergy. You can reach her at [email protected].

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