Gov. Abbott discusses his latest directives

Bob Garrett

Texas Pool Reporter

Gov. Greg Abbott said Sunday that Texas has more than doubled the number of hospital beds available for patients who have tested positive for the novel coronavirus in a recent week.

He announced the state’s first pop-up hospital for COVID-19 patients will be erected by at the Kay Bailey Huchison Convention Center in downtown Dallas.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will lead the effort, assisted by the Texas National Guard, Abbott said.

Dallas County has the most COVID-19 cases of any county in Texas, a key consideration in expanding hospital capacity there. On Sunday, Dallas County reported 49 more known cases of coronavirus, bringing the total to 488.

The corps initially will create 250 beds, Abbott said. Not even that many beds are needed now, the governor said. However, the convention center will be able to house as many as 1,400 beds if needed, according to Abbott and Brig. Gen. Paul Owen, a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers leader who has helped Texas scour for possible sites for more pop-up hospitals.

Abbott said the state would begin looking for sites for pop-up hospitals in Houston, San Antonio, Austin, the Rio Grande Valley and El Paso — wherever “COVID-19 has spread the highest” in Texas.

In other locations, he urged elected officials and health care leaders to “contact us about locations that could be temporary health care facilities,” by going to www.texas.gov.

Abbott also broadened his executive order requiring out-of-state air travelers from COVID-19 hot spots to self quarantine in Texas for 14 days or the duration of their stay, whichever is shorter.

Travel by road from any location in the state of Louisiana into Texas will require 14-day self quarantine, he announced.

The road travel order is the same as the earlier order for air travelers from New Orleans. Some exceptions include commercial, military and first responder travel, he said.

And air travelers from Miami, Atlanta, Detroit, Chicago and any site in California and Washington state will have to self quarantine for 14 days in Texas, just like those quarantines he announced last week for those fliers coming from greater New York City and New Orleans.

Another executive order from Abbott calls for an end to the release of dangerous felons from jails in Texas, saying inappropriate release of some jail prisoners complicates the state’s response to the coronavirus outbreak.

“Releasing dangerous criminals into the streets is not the right solution,” he said.

Abbott took more than the usual number of questions from your poolers, saying he wants Texans to have information on the virus and state efforts to combat its spread.

Abbott said 25,483 Texans have been tested for the coronavirus as of Sunday. Of them, 2,552 tested positive. Texas now has cases in 118 of 254 counties, he said. There have been 34 deaths “that have a connection to COVID-19” in Texas, he said.

The number of hospital beds available in Texas for COVID-19-positive patients has more than doubled in past week, Abbott said.

There were more than 8,100 as of March 18 but there now are more than 16,000 as of Thursday, he said.

Abbott and the five state and federal officials seated or standing – at least six feet – away from fielded these questions:

  1. 1: With the Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Center in Dallas currently being used as a homeless shelter, is there going to be a problem having COVID-19 patients and Dallas area residents experiencing homelessness in the same facility, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Southwest Division Commander and Chief Engineer Brig. General Paul Owen was asked.

“I think that’s very feasible and I don’t think that’s a problem,” Owen said. “I think that there’s plenty of space at the Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Center where you can partition those patients effectively to not have any conflicts between those two groups.”

  1. 2: Asked to elaborate on the four locations in the Dallas-Fort Worth area he earlier said were considered as sites for a COVID-19 pop-up hospital, Owen ticked off the Walnut Hill Medical Center, a hospital that closed in 2017; the Embassy Suites on Stemmons Freeway; and the Lumen Hotel near Southern Methodist University.
  2. 3: Asked if would consider ordering sheltering in place statewide, Abbott pointed to his March 19 executive order banning gatherings of more than 10 people, restricting visits to nursing homes and closing schools, bars and restaurants (except for carryout and to go service) and gyms.

“Know this, that standard wasn’t one that was drawn out of a hat,” Abbott said. “That standard was drawn out of conversations with Dr. Hellerstedt (state health commissioner John Hellerstedt), as well as it was based almost word for word on the standard that was issued by the White House strike force team in response to COVID-19. And that was in consultation with Dr. [Deborah] Birx.”

Abbott noted that President Donald Trump might change its earlier guidance (which it did later Sunday, extending guidelines for people to stay at home and not to gather in groups of more than 10 until April 30).

“We are waiting to see what if anything they announce,” Abbott said. “And then our analysis in the state of Texas will be based in part on what the CDC announces, what the president’s strike force team in response to coronavirus announces and then in consultation with Dr. Hellerstedt. Just know that we constantly monitor this. We are ready and flexible to take any action that may be needed to make sure that Texans remain safe.”

  1. 4: Will Abbott order public schools to remain closed for the rest of this academic year?

 

Abbott said that this week, he will confer with Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath and “then I will make a decision based on consultation with Dr. Hellerstedt.”

  1. 5: Asked if he’s heard from Mexican state governors saying they want him to restrict Americans from crossing into Mexico across the Texas border, Abbott said he understands the U.S. and Mexico made an agreement – similar to one the U.S. made with Canada – “it was intended to basically eliminate all nonessential travel across either of the two borders. It’s my understanding that commercial travel was continued to be allowed and certain types of essential travel would be continued to be allowed, but with the same standard going both ways – meaning that the travel limitations on those coming from Mexico also applied to travel limitations of those going from Texas into Mexico.”

There is no need then for Abbott to act, he was asked? “When we’re dealing with international travel, the ability to constrain that and act upon that is established by the federal government,” he said.

  1. 6: Asked how many ventilators Texas has, Abbott said the state is still trying to learn how many there are and where.

“We are also working aggressively to add to the supply that we have,” he said, offering no numbers.

  1. 7: Abbott was asked whether the many requests he’s receiving from different business sectors – asking that their employees be deemed essential – is a factor in his not ordering a statewide lockdown to contain the spread of COVID-19.

“My decision with regard to the standard established by the state of Texas as an entity is based upon the advice and the instructions by the CDC, by Dr. Deborah Birx in consultation with Dr. Hellerstedt about what is appropriate for the state as a whole for the best interest of public health and safety,” he said.

Because of local shelter-in-place orders, he said, “About 75% of the state of Texas is under the umbrella of what would be categorized as a stay-at-home policy,” he said, referring the local orders and what percentage of state population they cover.

“This is all driven by science, data and medical assessment,” he said.

  1. 8: Should a grace period for all renters and those with home mortgages be enacted statewide, Abbott was asked?

“Things like that are being looked at,” he said. Abbott said Texas officials need to evaluate the raft of COVID-19 bills just passed by Congress.

  1. 9: Asked when businesses might be able to reopen, Abbott said “it’s hard to assess right now.”

He repeated his earlier statement that the worst scenario would be for businesses to reopen in two weeks, only to have to be shuttered a week thereafter because of “a massive increase” in infections. “Let us get a hold of the data and the medical conditions on the ground before we make these decisions,” he said.

  1. 10: Asked about anecdotal accounts from Bell County physicians that the number of people there, including at Fort Hood, is escalating, University of Texas health science centers’ chancellor John Zerwas, who is helping Abbott expand hospital capacity, referred the question to Hellerstedt.

 

Hellerstedt said he had no such information.

“At present, I don’t have any data indicating that’s a hot spot,” he said.

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