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Gov. Abbott discusses his declaration closing restaurants

Jonathon Tillove

Austin American Statesman

Texas Pool Reporter

Texas Governor Greg Abbott held a press conference Thursday to discuss is declaration closing restaurants, bars and schools.

He was joined by Texas Health Service director, Dr. John Hellerstedt, who was seated to Abbott’s right. and Texas Department of Emergency Management, led by Chief Nim Kidd, seated to his left. Standing behind the three were Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and House Speaker Dennis Bonnen, each of whom made brief remarks supporting the governor’s action.

Also standing behind the governor were his budget and policy advisor, Elizabeth Farley, and Sarah Hicks, his policy and budget director.Gov. Abbott: I want to let you where we stand with regard to the state’s response to the corona virus. I’m very proud that the Texas response is being led by the state Health Service director, Dr. John Hellerstedt. He and his team worked very closely with the Texas Department of Emergency Management, led by Chief Nim Kidd, to coordinate the state’s response to COVID-19.

ABBOTT  — Going back to the very beginning, I first began working on this in mid-January, when I first talked to Vice President Pence, and then the day after that when I talked to President Trump on the day that the first person who contracted COVID-19 in the United States was identified.

Couple of days later, on Jan. 24, the Department of Health Services began taking daily calls with public health authorities, health  care providers, city and county officials as well as school districts across the state of Texas. The next week, on January 31, the Department of Health Services activated the state Medical Operations Center. That was followed by the DSHS opening ten public health labs for COVID-19 testing throughout the state of Texas.

We’re proud to say that the state of Texas is filled with outstanding leaders at the local level, leaders who have done a remarkable job of safeguarding communities and responding to the early stages of the corona virus. Were also fortunate to have some of the premier local health officials in America who are advising their local officials. The first Texan who tested positive for COVID-19 who was not somebody repatriated from one of the cruise ships, tested positive on March the 4th.

A week later, I received the first request for a disaster declaration from a local official. The next day I declared a state disaster in response to the corona virus. Later that day, which was last Friday, the president declared a national emergency for the corona virus. That same day, last Friday in the afternoon, the CDC issued heightened standards for public health. To show you how swiftly moving this entire process is, what I just told you happened last Friday, the following Monday being the Monday of this week things began to change even more rapidly. The CDC further heightened health standards. Beginning this past Monday, the health standards including limiting gatherings to no more than 10 people, putting certain restrictions on entities like restaurants, bars, gyms, etc.

It’s important to now that since I made my disaster declaration last Friday, the fats in the state of Texas have also change. When I declared a disaster last Friday, there were 39 cases of Texans who tested positive for COVID-19. Today that number has grown by more than 300%.

Today we have we have more than 140 people in the state of Texas who have tested positive for COVID-10. When I declared a disaster last Friday, there were zero deaths related to COVID-19 in the state of Texas. Today there are at least three deaths

related to COVID-19. When I declared a disaster just last Friday, six days ago, that there were 10 counties in the state of Texas where COVID-19 had been identified. Today there are 27 counties where COVID_19 has been identified.

Texas, historically, is a proven model in the way that we respond to natural disasters. A lot of people don’t know that Texas actually leads the nation in natural disaster declarations. Through the numerous disasters we have worked our way through, we have a very effective system where a governor will make a disaster declaration and then local officials with proven experience are able to respond, knowing their communities better than anybody else.

And in doing so, the governor empowers local officials to  able to take the action swiftly, in order to help their communities. This worked well when we’re dealing with regional disasters where local officials know more about what’s going on on the ground.

It helps us respond more swiftly and more effectively to enormous natural disasters like Hurricane Harvey, but what we are dealing with now in Texas, is not a local disaster, or a regional disaster. It’s far more than a nationwide disaster. In fact, it is an international pandemic.

The traditional model that we’ve employed in the state of Texas for such a long time so effectively, does not apply to an invisible disease that knows no geographical and no jurisdictional boundaries and threatens the lives of our fellow Americans across the entire country. The appropriate response to these threats, is the very well articulated by respond by Dr. Fauci and Dr. Birx, two doctors who are leading the response for the United States of America. They have been emphatic that we as a country must swiftly elevate our response to COVID-19.

They say it is essential that all Americans comply with the CDC’s articulated standards. All jurisdictions must work to contain the spread of COVID-19 for at least the next

two weeks. That standards is echoed by Dr. Hellerstedt, the doctor who is in charge of the response for the state of Texas.

He insists that Texas needs a unified robust response to contain COVID-19. To achieve that goal, Dr. Hellerstedt earlier today declared a public health disaster in the state of Texas. Here is the declaration.

My recollection is the last time this was declared in the state of Texas was 1901.

It gives state and local officials important tools to ensure that we are going to be able to more and most effectively respond to this challenge.

To achieve the goals established by the president and by the CDC, to fulfill the public health disaster (declaration) by Dr. Hellerstedt, to ensure that maximize safety and health for all Texas, I am issuing an executive order authorized by Chapter 418. This executive order adopts for Texas the standards that have been set out by the president and by the CDC. It provides the following:

Number 1: Every person in Texas shall avoid social gatherings in groups of more than ten.

Number 2: People shall avoid eating or drinking at bars, restaurants and  food courts, or visiting gyms. Simply put, there will be no dining it at bars and restaurants and gyms will be closed. However, and this is very important, the use of drive-thru, pickup or delivery options is allowed and, in fact, highly encouraged, through the limited duration of this executive order. Importantly, we want to emphasize, there’s one thing important for all Texans to be able to access right now obviously is food. Many Texans are having challenges getting food at grocery stores, always remember the availability of getting access for your food at restaurants, through all lot of different types of the process.

Number 3: People shall not visit nursing homes or retirement centers or long-term care facilities, unless it is to provide critical assistance.

And Number 4: All schools in the state of Texas will be temporarily closed, but this does not mean education stops. The state superintendent should continue to work with the Texas Education Agency to continue on-line or additional educational options.

This order is effective at midnight tomorrow, and continues through midnight, April the 3rd. It may be extended after that, depending on the status of COVID-19 in Texas and the recommendation of the CDC.

Very important for people to understand what I’m about I’m about to say. This executive order is not a shelter in place order. It does not prohibit people from doing things like going to the grocery store or gas station or to parks or banks. All critical infrastructure will remain open and operational. Domestic travel will be unrestricted. Government entities and businesses will continue to provide essential services. Offices and workplaces may remain open, but should only require essential employees to report to the place work and should, where feasible, allow and encourage employees  work from home, or other remote sites.

Also employees who do go to work should also practice both good hygiene, as well as best practices in order to minimize exposure to and transmission of Covid-19. The more that people do to reduce their public contact, the sooner the COVID-19 disease will be contained, and the sooner this executive order will expire.

Working together, we must defeat COVID-19 with the only tool that we have available to us. We must strangle its expansion by reducing the ways we are currently transmitting it. The executive order applies the CDC standards to achieve that goal. We’re doing this now, today, so that we can get back to business as usual, more or less. Lastly, Texans have always united in times of challenge. We saw this prolifically in the way that Texans responded to Hurricane Harvey. There were people around the city of Houston, the Harris County area, whose homes had been flooded, hundreds of thousands of people. At a time when streets had turned into a river, the way Texans responded, they got into bass boats, and went into those water streams in order to rescue and help others.

For several weeks at a time, business as usual, a bit was completely disrupted in the Harris County area. But that did not stop or deter our fellow Texans from stepping up and responding.

No one responds to challenges better than Texans.

So let’s muster our traditional Texas spirit and together defeat Covid-19.

Next I’d like to have Dr. Hellerstedt …

Dr. John Hellerstedt –  Thank you Gov. Abbott. The governor’s executive order as well as the declaration of public health disaster contains many details about exactly the type of steps we are asking people to make. I want to speak for  a little bit about why it’s necessary. It’s necessary because we can clearly see the trajectory that COVID-19 will follow if not effectively combated. There is now sound evidence that community-based spread of COVID-19 has begun in Texas. COVID-19 is the greatest public health challenge in living memory.

We are seeing the true original meaning of going viral being lived out around the world. COVID-19 is and will be lived out and Texas. It is moving. We must change  the course of COVID-19 before it impacts our state with maximum effect. As Texans, it is our duty to undertake the measures as specified in the public health disaster declaration.You must all endure the sacrifices we know are necessary and effective to protect ourselves, our loved ones and our communities.

The time to act is now. If we delay we will not only pay a higher price than necessary, but we’ll rue the day that  we, all of Texas, did not choose to act decisively. Keeping your neighbor and your coworker safe keeps us all safe. We are fighting back. We will win. Texas will show the world how it’s done. Thank you.

Q-What kind of powers, does this executive order and this declaration give the state? What does it mean for the average person?

Abbott:  This establishes the standards by which all Texans are required to operate their daily lives by. This is the expectation that people will not gather in groups of more than 10.

The state now has the quarantine authority but we are not going to exercise that authority right now because we are going to depend on the responsibility that all Texans will show. If Texans are irresponsible in their behavior, thought, there more tools, and we can use can be more aggressive only if we need to be.

Q -What about people without an employer who is paying them. What can the state to help those people?

ABBOTT – The most prolific thing the state of Texas can do … to get all people back to work as soon as possible is to bend the curve of COVID-19. We have to get back to business as usual as quickly as possible and we can only do that with everybody joining with us to reduce transmission of COVID-19.

We have accelerated the unemployment process so people can get their unemployment benefits faster. Also there many different packages that have been and are going to be worked on by the United States Congress, some have passed, some are still in the works, that will provide benefits to people across the country, including in Texas.

Q – Up until today you had, as in past disasters, deferred to local wisdom to manage the crisis. In the past you have taken a very dim view of the patchwork quilt of various local regulations that you found intrusive and inconsistent. Do you think you should have applied that skepticism in this and done what you’re doing today earlier?

ABBOTT-  I’ve dealt with so many disasters as governor, as I said earlier, Texas leads the country  in natural disaster declarations. Working with groups that groups have tremendous experience in response, with Nim Kidd. We’ve seen the profound and  effective way that local leaders have expertise in responding to natural disasters, and we began working, this is very important, we … began working with these local officials back in January.

So, this isn’t anything that began yesterday.. So, we began to have  leadership meetings with county judges and mayors, began daily phone calls with local public health official dating back to January.

So we as a state knew everything that was taking place at the local level all the way through this minute.

As is said earlier, the local officials have done a fabulous job in their communities. It’s just with the rapid spread of this but also with the new mandates from Washington, D.C., about not only what the best practices are but what expected practices are I found it necessary that we as a state are doing exactly what is prescribed by the federal government.”

Q –What do you tell people to keep them from panicking when they see these numbers go up because we are seeing more people tested? How close are we to peak or that wave?

Dr. John Hellerstedt: I think the best answer for that is the way to have the best possible outcome for all of us to do the things we’ve been talking about all along. The hygiene practices, the social distancing practices, cleaning surfaces. Those are the things that matter to protect us as individuals and our loved ones and our co-workers and our entire community. That’s what protects us. So if we want this thing’s spread to slow down and reverse, then we need to carry out those practices.  When it occurs is entirely a function in how effective we are as Texans in doing the things we are asking. The interpretation of the numbers right now is that this is exactly the time to say here’s the standard for behavior, here’s the public health standard that we need at this point to prevent further spread and bend that curve.

Gov. ABBOTT – There will be multiple entities that will be doing testing. The state of Texas will be doing testing, a multitude of private entities will be doing testing, hospitals will be doing testing. All of this aggregated together will be in the range of at least 15,000 to 20,000 per week, with the expectation that it will continue to increase. So here’s the way its’ going to look, because more people are being tested, because there are more people who currently have it who will be transmitting it to others. That means that the public should expect a spike to occur, a rise to occur in the number of people testing positive. It will take a little while, could be a week or so, to see the thrust in that curve, and then our collective goal as a state is to see that spike level off.

I had the opportunity to visit with the CEO’s of all the major hospital systems in the state of Texas to get information from them about what strategies would be expand the capability of health care to respond by providing additional beds as well as additional resources, based on increased number of people testing positive.

Hotels were on there but it was not their first choice. There are other responses that easier and better. Hospital tents would be their first choice. Second, several hospitals, medical facilities, centers that have recently ended operations, where the facility is in perfect condition to take care of COVID-19. That was their second choice. .

Then after that, for patients who test positive for COVID-19 but are not in need of critical care, which is the overwhelming majority of people who contract COVID-19, a hotel room is a perfectly  acceptable place for people to isolate – one individual per room with bathroom as a person goes through the rehabilitation process.

We have identified hotels in various locations across the state of Texas. We continue to get calls from owners of hotels who are offering up their supply. And so this is something where I think we will see a very large supply that will meet needs we have in the state of Texas.”

Q – Are beaches at spring break covered?

ABBOTT –  So any place where anybody would gather, by this executive order they are prohibited from having more than ten people gather at any one time and location

Q – The next big question is hospital capacity. Have you got an inventory of hospital capacity. Do we have what we need if people get sick – rooms, staff, equipment, all of those things?

ABBOTT – in that meeting that I had with the CEOs of all the major hospitals in the state of Texas, we discussed hospital inventory and we got some information they shared with us … and we are getting additional information from them. I can tell you this, based on the information I got from our hospital leaders, I am very comfortable with where we are with the availability of facilities, if we were to get the worst-case-scenario.”

Q – As in past disasters, you try to be on the scene. You were in Arlington. Yesterday you were in San Antonio earlier in the week. Is that wise for you to be putting that wear on yourself, for exposing yourself as you are right now, in a group, that’s not quite, six feet apart. Would it be better for you to send a symbol of what’s going on by doing this press conference from home with the first lady in the first dog?

ABBOTT: Everyone love the first dog You make an insightful point. And it’s important for people to understand that because of the potential transmission of COVID-19. I will be reducing the amount of time and situations in which I will travel. Considering the magnitude of what happened in Arlington, I thought it was important that I be there.There will be situations like that where it is better to be present if possible. However, if at all possible, I will be refraining from traveling.

Q – How are you?

Abbott: Very healthy.

Q – No, I mean the enormity of this is it weighing on you because this disaster is so far beyond anything you could even contemplate with Harvey.

Abbott: I will tell you, as the victim of an emergency tragedy myself, I have experienced the internal test of responding to unique, pressing and urgent challenges and this is a situation I feel very comfortable in.”

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