March 13's biggest developments:
- Gov. Greg Abbott says Texas is on the verge of ramping up testing capacity.
- UT-Austin president says his wife tested positive and he's self-quarantining.
- Several parts of the state see their first positive cases.
- Dallas County officials: Community spread has occurred in North Texas.
Students can still get meals from shuttered schools, thanks to waiver
[8:34 p.m.] School districts can now get permission from the state to serve students lunches if their schools are closed due to the new coronavirus that has put Texas in a state of emergency.
Federal officials gave the Texas Department of Agriculture authority to waive usual restrictions on the federal lunch program on a case-by-case basis, TDA Commissioner Sid Miller said in a statement Friday.
"Whether it's Hurricane Harvey or coronavirus, if a school decides to shut down, they need the flexibility to keep serving students the best way they see fit," Miller said.
By law, schools are only allowed to serve lunches on campus as a part of school activities, according to Mark Loeffler, a spokesperson for TDA. But now schools can serve lunches to students individually after getting permission from the state.
This allows students to eat and practice social distancing, a practice health officials recommended to slow the spread of coronavirus.
“There are some instances [where] the only meal [a student] may get will be at the school. That’s why it’s important that option is still there,” Loeffler said. "We’re making sure that the regulations don’t get in the way of schools having that flexibility to offer that service to students and to families.” — Carrington Tatum
Emergency order allows Texas courts to change deadlines, take other steps to avoid risks
[7:42 p.m.] In an emergency order Friday evening, the Texas Supreme Court and Texas Court of Criminal Appeals directed that all courts in the state may, "without a participant's consent," change deadlines in cases, require remote participation in cases or relocate court proceedings, among a host of other steps that may be necessary to avoid risk to court staff and the public. That includes extending the statute of limitations in any civil case for a period ending no later than 30 days after the governor's state of disaster has been lifted. — Emma Platoff
Some fear recent federal immigration raids will keep sick migrants from seeking medical care
[6:36 p.m.] EL PASO — A Texas-based immigrant rights group asked federal immigration officials to halt enforcement raids during the coronavirus crisis, saying recent enforcement actions may prevent sick immigrants from seeking medical attention that could help stop the virus' spread. — Julián Aguilar
San Antonio gets Texas' first drive-through coronavirus testing facility
[6:10 p.m.] Texas’ first drive-through testing facility for the new coronavirus opened Friday in San Antonio to first responders and health care workers who qualify, city officials confirmed.
The drive-through testing is not open to the general public. In order to use the drive-through test, a person’s employer must confirm he or she is ill and meets the criteria to be tested — having symptoms of COVID-19 and testing negative for the flu. — Sami Sparber and Raga Justin
Officials, businesses say raids on grocery stores aren't necessary
[6:04 p.m.] Texas officials and grocery industry representatives say Texans don’t need to rush out and stock up on food or household items. There’s no shortage if everyone takes only what they need, they said.
"There is absolutely no need to go out and stockpile supplies,” Gov. Greg Abbott said Friday as he declared a statewide emergency. “This isn’t the type of situation like where we see with an oncoming hurricane." — Carrington Tatum
Coronavirus casts shadow of uncertainty over airlines, including Texas' American and Southwest
[5:51 p.m.] Texas-based airlines and carriers with a large presence in the state, already battered by the coronavirus pandemic that has prompted people across the globe to stop traveling, could find themselves reeling further until President Donald Trump's European travel ban is lifted and normal travel resumes.
The International Air Transport Association estimated that the new coronavirus' disruption to carriers, including Fort Worth's American Airlines, could erase $113 billion in revenue.
Ray Perryman, an economist with the Waco-based Perryman Group, said the ban will only add to the economic uncertainty the domestic airline industry has already dealt with since the coronavirus pandemic began. That includes Dallas-based Southwest Airlines, whose first-quarter revenue he said will be $200 million to $300 million less than what the company previously expected.
But the steps toward normalcy are largely out of the industry’s hands.
“So much of what we’re seeing is how the government and the public choose to respond at a time of fear, or in the creation of fear,” said Samuel Engel, senior vice president of the aviation division at the global consulting firm ICF. “So that has nothing to do with airline expertise.” — Julián Aguilar
Three more people test positive in Fort Bend County
[4:30 p.m.] Three more people tested positive for the new coronavirus in Fort Bend County, bringing the county total up to nine as of Friday.
The new cases include a woman in her 50s, a man in his 40s and a man in his 70s. All the new patients have a history of international travel and are isolated in their respective homes, according to a statement by Fort Bend County’s health department.
Fort Bend County had the first confirmed case of COVID-19 outside of the federal quarantine site in San Antonio. The first six cases all came from an Egypt cruise trip. — Stacy Fernández
Gov. Greg Abbott names Phil Wilson acting health commissioner
[4 p.m.] Gov. Greg Abbott announced Friday afternoon that Phil Wilson will be the acting executive commissioner for the Texas Health and Human Services Commission. Wilson, who will take on the new role immediately, currently serves as head of the Lower Colorado River Authority and previously served as executive director of the Texas Department of Transportation. — Cassandra Pollock
Texas lawmaker says legislators missed chance to be better prepared for coronavirus
[3:14 p.m.] A Texas task force formed years ago to study the handling of disease outbreaks highlighted the urgent need to stockpile personal protective equipment, known as PPE; establish an agile and more centralized public health authority in times of crisis; and give the government expanded powers to stop the movement of infected people and quickly quarantine the sick.
The lessons, for the most part, were not heeded, The Texas Tribune learned. Now, as hospitals nervously eye their dwindling supplies of masks and other protective gear and public concerns mount over COVID-19, the author of a 2015 bill that would have enshrined many of the task force's ideas into Texas law says the state remains ill prepared to fight infectious disease. The bill, Senate Bill 538 by Sen. Charles Schwertner, R-Georgetown, passed the Senate but died in a House committee.
“I think we'd be positioned a lot better because we would have PPE equipment that would have been already bought and stockpiled. We would have had an inventory of equipment available,” Schwertner said in an interview this week. — Jay Root and Shannon Najmabadi
D/FW Airport to receive flights from restricted European countries
[1:45 p.m.] The Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport is among 13 airports in the country that will be receiving flights from the European countries that are subject to travel restrictions that start at midnight Friday, according to a directive issued Friday by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. The Washington Post reported that health officials were still finalizing what screening procedures would be put in place. — Alexa Ura
UT-Austin president says his wife tested positive and he's self-quarantining
[1:05 p.m.] University of Texas at Austin President Gregory Fenves announced Friday that he’s self-quarantining after his wife tested positive for the new coronavirus.
“The first case of COVID-19 [coronavirus] within our UT community was confirmed this morning,” Fenves wrote. “It is difficult for me to write this because the person who tested positive is my wife Carmel.
“And a second member of my family [who works at UT] is presumed to have COVID-19 as well. I have now been tested for the virus, and the three of us are in self-isolation.”
Shortly after his disclosure, Austin health officials said that a third person in the region, a woman in her 60s, had tested positive.
In his note, Fenves said he and his wife have compiled a list of individuals who might have been in recent contact with the couple. Nurses with the university will reach out to those affected, Fenves said.
Fenves encouraged people who have had close contact with him, his family members or others with COVID-19 to “self-isolate starting today,” even if they are not experiencing symptoms.
“You should continue to do so until it has been 14 days since your last contact,” he said. — Alex Samuels
Abbott says Texas is on verge of ramping up testing capacity
[12:55 p.m.] Declaring the new coronavirus a statewide public health disaster, Gov. Greg Abbott said Friday that Texas is on the verge of ramping up its testing capacity.
In a press conference Friday, Abbott also said that he was directing day cares, nursing homes and prisons to limit visitations. He also said San Antonio is opening the state's first drive-through with testing capabilities, initially prioritizing health care workers and high-risk patients.
Abbott added that 220 Texans have been tested, either by a state public lab or by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Another 75 Texans are undergoing testing. On Friday, the state's testing capacity was 272 people per day, but he said that capacity will expand into the thousands next week. — Edgar Walters
Three people in Tyler test positive for new coronavirus
[10:50 a.m.] Three people in Tyler have tested positive for the new coronavirus, the city announced Friday morning.
According to East Texas Matters, one of the three patients is in critical condition.
With Friday’s latest cases, there are now four confirmed cases of COVID-19 in East Texas. Earlier this week, a man in Gregg County, east of Dallas, tested positive for the respiratory virus, according to The Longview News-Journal. The Northeast Texas Public Health District reported that the patient traveled domestically, has mild symptoms and is self-quarantining at home.
According to Tyler city spokeswoman Jenny Wells, the immediate risk of transmission in Smith County remains low. There is no evidence of community spread at this time. — Alex Samuels
Fiesta San Antonio postponed until November
[10:40 a.m.] Fiesta San Antonio has been postponed to the fall, event organizers announced Friday morning.
The city’s signature event was scheduled to take place April 16-26. It will now take place Nov. 5-15, Jeanie Travis, president of the Fiesta San Antonio Commission, said at a press conference.
The postponement came less than an hour after San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg confirmed the city’s first travel-related case of COVID-19 and issued a declaration of public health emergency prohibiting gatherings of 500 people or more.
A cancellation could be devastating: A 2017 study found that Fiesta supported 3,464 full-time-equivalent local jobs, mobilized 75,000 volunteers, contributed $340 million in sales to the local economy and attracted 2.5 million attendees.
“For almost 130 years, our citizens and visitors have enjoyed this glorious celebration, except during World War I and World War II,” Travis said. “We have concluded that the tradition must continue but on different dates.”
Tickets already purchased for the 2020 event will be honored, organizers said. — Sami Sparber
San Antonio announces its first travel-related coronavirus case
[10:15 a.m.] The city of San Antonio announced the first travel-related case of COVID-19 in the city Friday. It is also the first case in San Antonio unrelated to the 11 others in Lackland Air Force Base.
San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg also issued a public health emergency declaration, prohibiting gatherings of 500 people or more.
At a press conference Friday, Metropolitan Health District director Dawn Emerick said the case does not indicate community spread. The patient is in quarantine with family and is in stable condition. The patient tested positive Thursday night after showing symptoms for a month.
The city is conducting an "extensive" investigation into the patient’s history and said further updates will be released periodically, Emerick said. “We’ve been preparing for this for weeks,” she said. "We have to stay the course."
Emerick also announced the city will be loosening local testing criteria to make tests more accessible. The new criteria are expected to be released later Friday. — Raga Justin
Bell County identifies positive coronavirus case
[9:15 a.m.] Bell County identified its first case of a person testing positive for COVID-19 late Thursday night, officials said Friday morning.
The individual is a 29-year-old man with a travel history in Barcelona and Paris from March 4-10, officials said in a press release. The county health department has initiated self-isolation protocol and contact tracing for this case, which is in the process of undergoing confirmatory testing with the CDC, officials said. — Sami Sparber
U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz extends self-quarantine
[8:45 a.m.] U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, has extended his self-quarantine to Tuesday after learning he interacted with a second person who has since tested positive for the new coronavirus.
In a statement released Friday, Cruz said that on March 3, a Spanish official visited his Washington office, where the two had a roughly 20-minute meeting, shook hands and took photos together.
Cruz said he was informed Thursday night — the date his first self-quarantine ended — of the official testing positive for COVID-19.
“I’m still not feeling any symptoms,” Cruz said in his statement, adding that he had decided to extend the self-quarantine for the same reasons he did it the first time — “out of an abundance of caution and to give everyone peace of mind.” — Cassandra Pollock
Collin County sheriff suggests avoiding arrests for nonviolent crimes
[8:30 a.m.] In an effort to slow the spread of the coronavirus, Collin County Sheriff Jim Skinner has asked police departments to keep petty criminals out of jail. He directed officers to cite and release some people who commit nonviolent crimes instead of arresting them, The Dallas Morning News reported Thursday. — Emma Platoff
Two in Austin test positive; UT and Austin schools close for the day
[8:01 a.m.] Two people in Austin tested positive for the new coronavirus, officials announced Friday morning, marking the first cases in Central Texas. At a news conference Friday, an official said the two cases are not related to each other. One patient is a woman in her 30s believed to have caught the disease from a Houston-area coronavirus patient.
The other patient is a man in his 60s who is critically ill. He was diagnosed in an Austin-area hospital after being transferred from a rural region of the state.
Officials said that neither case is believed to be community spread, meaning the illness did not come from an unknown infected person.
After the announcement from the city, the Austin Independent School District said that schools and offices would be closed Friday. After initially saying it would remain open Friday, the University of Texas at Austin announced later Friday morning that it would be canceling operations and classes for the day, tweeting that “essential personnel only should work today.” — Regina Mack
Dallas County officials: Community spread has occurred in North Texas
[6:15 a.m.] Five more people in Dallas County have tested positive for the new coronavirus — and one of them had no recent travel history, Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins said late Thursday.
Officials there declared a local disaster and have set restrictions on gatherings that will go into effect at 11 a.m. Friday. Gatherings of 500 people or more will be prohibited, but officials said Thursday that they strongly recommend local residents to generally avoid large gatherings and practice social distancing throughout the county. The order runs through March 20.
“We have community spread, and now it is incumbent on us to do everything that we can to keep that from accelerating,” Jenkins said. — Alexa Ura
Governor, health commissioner and emergency chief to discuss coronavirus response
[5 a.m.] Gov. Greg Abbott is scheduled to discuss how the state is combating coronavirus at a noon press conference in Austin.
His comments will come as that state enters an unprecedented period of school district closures, event cancellations and official suggestions that Texans practice social distance amid the growing number of COVID-19 cases, including the first instances of community spread, identified in the state's two largest urban areas.
Abbott will be joined by Texas Division of Emergency Management Chief Nim Kidd and Texas Department of State Health Services Commissioner Dr. John Hellerstedt.
Texas officials have yet to say how many Texans have been tested
[5 a.m.] Now that Texas health officials have identified two suspected cases of community spread, in Montgomery and Dallas counties, scrutiny of the state’s limited coronavirus testing network is fiercer than ever. Three state lawmakers said Gov. Greg Abbott told them that 104 people were being tested or monitored for the virus, but a Texas Department of State Health Services spokesman said he could not “confirm that number.”
While a lack of testing has been a nationwide issue, Texas’ limited disclosures about the scope of its efforts stand in stark contrast to those of several other states. Unless a patient is sick enough to be hospitalized, state criteria for lab testing are difficult to meet — even for health care workers. — Edgar Walters
As cancellations mount and social distancing sets in, Texans worried about economic impact
[5 a.m.] Economists say it's too soon to tell the full financial impact coronavirus will have on individual Texans, on regions with higher concentrations of the virus or on the state economy as a whole. Many business owners have already started to feel the pinch. And as travel restrictions, prohibitions on large events and numerous school district closures snowball across the state, it's becoming clear that Texans may just now be on the front end of major disruptions that could rattle businesses even further. — Mitchell Ferman
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