Screenshot from Texas Town Hall provided by Nexstar Media Wire
Gov. Greg Abbott held a virtual town hall Thursday night to discuss his statewide executive order and address public concerns over COVID-19.
Abbott’s executive order provides the following restrictions:
Social gatherings: 10 person limit
No dine-in restaurants, bars, or gyms
No nursing home visits
All schools closed
“We’re dealing with a very real challenge, a challenge that we collectively must respond to,” he said during the town hall. “Part of the confusion about this whole thing is we’re dealing with an invisible danger. Often you can see a hurricane come in, or you can see a fire taking part, or you can see a tornado, whatever the danger may be, you can often sense it with one of your senses. A communicable disease, you can’t really sense.”
Abbott was accompanied by Texas Education Agency Commissioner Mike Morath,
Texas Department of State Health Services Dr. John Hellerstedt, Texas Division of Emergency Management Chief Nim Kidd, and Medicaid Director at Texas Health and Human Services Stephanie Muth.
“This is a very rapidly spreading disease, but one we are prepared to respond to,” Abbott said. “We were ready in January before it first hit Texas in March.”
March 9 marked the date in which Texas tested its first positive COVID-19 patient.
Since then, there have been up to 160 new cases and a total of five deaths. Due to this, Abbott and state leaders are focused on both testing and ensuring the safety of Texans.
“We have already conducted thousands of tests, but we’re prepared to do 15 to 20,000 per week,” he said. “The tests are racking up quickly, but the main thing we’re focused on right now is really the only thing we can do to secure your safety and public health in the state of Texas, and that is to contain expansion and transmission of the disease, working together, we’ll get it done.”
COVID-19 testing and impact
According to Abbott, the tests are coming in quicker and quicker, but Abbott stresses that people only need to be tested if they are showing the symptoms: shortness of breath, fever, and cough.
“The only people who need a COVID-19 test are people who are showing signs and symptoms of having COVID-19,” he said. “There’s a singular reason why we want to test people, and that’s so we can identify who has COVID-19 and isolate them so they don’t communicate that disease to somebody else. We will be successful by limiting that communication, that’s the purpose of doing the test. There’s no healthcare benefit to having the test run because there is no medication or medical treatment for the person that has COVID-19.”
Tapping into the Texan spirit, Abbott refers back to how the state quickly responded to Hurricane Harvey in 2017 as a way to prompt similar proactiveness to COVID-19.
“We all remember what the state of Texas went through a couple years ago when we responded to Hurricane Harvey,” Abbott said. “We can remember what used to be roadways turned into river ways, so that nobody could escape. An entire region around Harris County was inundated, and yet even though people were homebound for weeks, what we saw was the heroism of fellow Texans stepping up and helping each other. Taking rowboats, or canoe boats, or kayaks, whatever the case may be, helping out their fellow Texans, and together we made it through. Together, we will make it through the coronavirus also.”
In order to help those whose jobs and businesses have been affected by COVID-19, unemployment benefits and small business loans are available to those who qualify.
“We need to be prepared for everything,” Abbott said. “I don’t think there’s anything that has to be put on the table, I don’t think there’s anything that has to be taken off the table. We don’t know if this is going to last two weeks or ten months. We do know that there’s going to be a temp downturn, hopefully that downturn will only be a complete week long.”
According to Hellerstedt, there are four major risk factors that are associated with contracting the virus.
elderly or underlying medical conditions
contact w known case
travelled from region where sustained community spread
hospitalized respiratory illness without definitive diagnosis
With no anti-viral or vaccine yet, Hellerstedt emphasizes COVID-19 treatment is only supportive.
“Unlike other diagnoses where you have a specific diagnosis and a specific treatment, knowing precisely what that diagnosis is in a timely way is extremely important,” Hellerstedt “We don’t have specific treatments, so we would provide that supportive care to someone who’s sick, either they have COVID-19 or not.”
While testing is free with a prescription by a doctor, Texas is home to five million uninsured people, the highest percentage in the country.
Muth says it’s not about insurance.
“I think it’s really important to remember here is what we’re dealing with is a public health crisis, and access to insurance is not going to resolve the immediate issue that we need to focus on,” she said. “The immediate issue before us is how we prevent the spread of the virus and that is through following the Governor’s executive order [and] listening to the advice of our public health professionals like Dr Hellerstedt.”
Abbott commits to the fact that people can get tested no matter their insurance, or lack thereof.
“We want to make sure that regardless of whether or not that you’re on Medicaid, regardless of whether or not you have access to healthcare insurance, if you have COVID-19, you’re going to be able to go get tested for it and go get treatment for it,” he said.
Another concern is a shortage of medical masks, and Hellerstedt and state leaders are doing everything they can to meet the demands for protective equipment.
“We’re leaving no stone unturned to find all the protective equipment that we can and we’re making steps to distribute what we have to the most critically needed circumstances,” Hellerstedt said. “We can’t wait for the day when our supply chain comes back to its normal robust levels, but that’s not here yet.”
Healthcare workers are needed in order to combat COVID-19, and as Abbott believes, without them, little can be done.
“One of our concerns that we want to make sure we are vigilant about as a state is to do all we can to protect the health and safety of our healthcare workers,” he said. “They are on the frontlines of dealing with COVID-19, so we are extra vigilant in making sure that they’re being tested, and evaluated and prevent them from getting COVID-19. If we lose our healthcare workers, we’re going to lose the ability to respond to this disease the way we need to do.”
Abbott suggests that the state may soon resort to hotels to isolate positive COVID-19 patients.
“Hotel rooms, we have had plenty of offers to this day already that we could use since nobody’s going to a hotel anymore, so there are a lot of vacant hotels,” he said. “They would be used for the type of situation for someone who has been identified as positive of having COVID-19 but don’t have extreme health-based issues, they just need a place where they can isolate for two weeks in their own room with access to a bathroom that will allow them to convalesce and reenter wherever they were living before that. We want to make sure that we have facilities for that across the state of Texas.”
Along with expanding domestic isolation tactics, deployment of the Texas National Guard to combat the virus would be if there is an urgent need to put together medical facilities.
“I’ve been working with the general of the Texas National Guard since early February to make sure that we are all on the same page plan wise about exactly what we would do,” Abbott said. “They are prepared to respond to different types of situations. Right now we typically respond to requests for support, and that would be if there needs to be a certain pop-up of a medical facility, you could have the National Guard go in there and prop that up in one day basically.”
On the educational side of the crisis, Morath makes no promises on the timeline in which students will return to school.
“We want to make sure we’re making public health decisions based on the best science, how do we keep our students, staff, and community safe,” Morath said. “We need to wait and see how the spread of the virus unfolds and what the data tells us as we get closer and closer to April 3 before we determine whether a longer closure might be necessary.”
Programs like free and reduced breakfast and lunch will still be provided to students who need it, and resources for such can be found on School Meal Finder.
“Our school systems have responded to this crisis with compassion and organizational excellence that we would expect from Texans,” Morath said. “Over a thousand meal service sites have then stood up as of today in communities all over the state of Texas, so that students who were dependent upon their school for lunch and in some cases breakfast still have access to that in their communities.”
In addition to free and reduced meals, there are other ways to access food, as restaurant takeout and drive-thrus, as well as grocery stores will remain in operation.
“If the restaurant is doing the sorts of things that it’s supposed to do in terms of the standards of food preparation and handling, there should be no contamination of the food with the virus or any other germs to speak of,” Hellerstedt said. “It’s about congregation but it’s also about distance and time. We know that it’s really important that people have access to restaurant food, so this is one of the best ways to do it, to have that drive thru or takeout service.”
Childcare services will also remain in operation with heightened standards of where to drop off and limitations on visitors.
“We’re going to be working to maybe create additional child care centers that will be in close proximity to where these people are working,” Morath said. “It’s going to be easier to accommodate the shift in their lifestyle with their child being at home. there will be multiple pathways to make sure that we’re going to be able to accommodate the unique challenges that our fellow Texans are facing, so that people who have a job will be able to continue to go to work and have their child taken care of.”
While there are growing concerns about food security and childcare, Kidd assures the public that hardships are nothing new to be handled in Texas.
“We’re not strangers to disaster,” Kidd said. “We lead the nation in a number of presidential disaster declarations. What we’re seeing now isn’t just a local problem, or a state problem, or even a national problem, but a global problem. And that’s why the Governor’s executive order today, I think, gives a level planning field for all of our mayors and judges to work from. We didn’t take their authority away, we gave them a tighter box to be working within so we can all focus on the problem at the same time to achieve a better outcome and results.”
While public closures have occurred due to Abbott’s executive order, the separation of church and state allows places of worship to independently decide how to go about the crisis.
“There was nothing specific in the executive order about churches because there is freedom of religion in the United States of America,” Abbott said. “What we find almost all churches are doing, and that is churches obviously care about the health of the people that go to their church, and they care about safety standards in societal standards, so what we’re finding most churches do is provide online service, alternative services, or seating situations that ensure they’re not endangering anyone else there. We really only have one simple goal and that’s to make sure you’re not going to communicate a disease to somebody else. The way to achieve that goal is maintaining your distance to somebody else.”
Restrictions have been put in place for jails and prisons in order to protect those who are both incarcerated and employed by them.
“There’s the inmates and then the staff there. We’re working on protecting both and working towards different options depending on what happens,” Abbott said. “We obviously want to make sure that the inmates don’t contract COVID-19 because if they did it could move very quickly through a jail, and in addition to that, we want to make sure that the staff don’t contract. One thing that we have done is to make sure there’s no visitors to jails. We don’t want anyone importing COVID-19 into jails, so only staff and prisoners can be in.There are isolation strategies where you could isolate those who are in jail who do have COVID-19. You could provide special cells for them where they are unable to communicate that COVID-19 to anybody else.”
One of the last topics covered during the town hall was taxes, and when asked if he would raise them, Abbott was quick to answer.
“No, we have been responsible in the budget process and ensuring that we have billions of dollars in the rainy day fund to respond to this,” Abbott said. “It’s not as if Texas is an isolated entity dealing with the multitude of financial challenges here. This is now among other things a FEMA based response and there’s a lot of federal funds flowing to help us respond to this through FEMA. I would say right now, money is not the problem, it’s public health safety and if everyone does their job from a public health safety standpoint, there won’t be a money problem in the end.”
Call to action
Abbott concluded the town hall with a call to action for all Texans.
“Your public health and safety is at risk,” he said. “We need your collaboration and cooperation to make sure we contain the spread of COVID-19. If we do this for just the next few weeks,, we will be able to make sure we get this whole challenge behind us. Working together, we will keep Texas the best state in the United States.