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Coronavirus updates in Texas: Feds consider sending people economic stimulus checks; state has more than 70 known cases

Last updated on March 23, 2020

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Hospital workers sound alarm about capacity challenges
Texas has 76 cases; state reports its first coronavirus-related death
Texas National Guard to be activated to respond to outbreak
More cases of community spread reported

By The Texas Tribune, March 17, 2020

March 17’s biggest developments:

  • Hospital workers sound alarm about capacity challenges
  • Texas has 76 cases; state reports its first coronavirus-related death
  • Texas National Guard to be activated to respond to outbreak
  • More cases of community spread reported

Apprehended migrants at southern border would be sent directly to Mexico under new plan

[10:45 p.m.] The Trump administration is finalizing plans to immediately send undocumented immigrants apprehended on the southern border back to Mexico, The New York Times reported Tuesday.

The policy, which the publication said could be announced within the next two days, would apply to unauthorized crossers apprehended in between the ports of entry. The apprehended migrants would not be able to apply for asylum nor would they be detained.

The new effort by the Trump administration comes the same day Guatemala announced it is suspending flights from the United States of deportees and asylum seekers, the AP reported. The country entered into an agreement where it accepted some Central American asylum seekers who traveled through Mexico in route to the United States. — Julián Aguilar

The New York Times said the effort was part of the administration’s attempt to contain the spread of COVID-19 and to protect border agents from becoming infected.

The new effort by the Trump administration comes the same day Guatemala announced it is suspending flights from the United States of deportees and asylum seekers, the AP reported. The country entered into an agreement where it accepted some Central American asylum seekers who traveled through Mexico in route to the United States. — Julián Aguilar

Direct payments to Americans could be part of federal economic stimulus bill

[9:25 p.m.] President Donald Trump’s administration wants to include direct cash payments to Americans as the country reels from the economic beating people and businesses are taking amid a mounting social shutdown meant to stop the new coronavirus from spreading, The Washington Post reported.

“We’re looking at sending checks to Americans immediately,” Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin told reporters Tuesday. “And I mean now, in the next two weeks.”

While there is bipartisan support for sending Americans checks, lawmakers are split over other aspects of the roughly $1 trillion stimulus package, including bailouts to large industries, the paper reported.

Abbott: State-regulated health plans must pay telemedicine doctors equally

[7:37 p.m.] In an effort to expand access to telemedicine services, Gov. Greg Abbott announced Tuesday that state-regulated health plans must pay doctors who see patients remotely as much as they would pay for in-person visits.

“Expanding telemedicine options will help protect the health of patients and health care professionals, while help[ing] Texas mitigate the spread of COVID-19,” Abbott said in a statement.

Approximately 16% of Texans have health insurance through a state-regulated plan. The Texas Department of Insurance will issue the emergency rule, Abbott’s office said. — Edgar Walters

Community spread arrives in San Antonio, according to report

San Antonio officials on Tuesday night reported the first instance of community spread of the novel coronavirus in that city.

According to the San Antonio Express-News, the patient made contact with a previously diagnosed person.

Bexar County is the latest Texas county to report an instance of community spread, which is what health officials call cases where the source of exposure is unknown. Earlier today, Webb and Tarrant counties reported separate cases of community transmission. — Alex Samuels

Abbott trying to get small Texas businesses qualified for federal relief loans

[5:16 p.m.] Gov. Greg Abbott requested emergency designation this evening for small-business disaster loans from the U.S. Small Business Administration. If granted, according to Abbott’s office, the SBA would provide long-term, low-interest loans to “qualifying businesses” across the state.

“At a time when small businesses are hurting from the economic impact of COVID-19, the State of Texas is committed to helping these businesses receive the financial relief they need to continue operating,” Abbott said in a statement.

The request comes after major cities — Austin, Houston, Dallas and others — announced the temporary closure of bars and in-house restaurant service to curb the spread of the novel coronavirus. The partial shutdowns, in some cases, are expected to extend until May 1.

Read the full letter from Abbott here. — Alex Samuels

El Paso shutters bars; restaurants can stay open with restrictions

[4:20 p.m.] The El Paso City Council voted Tuesday to order bars, arcades and private clubs to close. Restaurants will remain open but will be restricted to allowing half of their posted occupancies and no more than six people at one table. The tables must also be 6 feet apart, and non-food surfaces must be cleaned hourly.

The council also voted to ban gatherings of more than 50 people, although the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention lowered its recommendation to 10 people Monday.

The city confirmed its third case of COVID-19 on Monday, and health officials said it has tested 33 patients. There is also one confirmed case across the border in Ciudad Juárez.

The council also ordered price freezes on groceries; medicine; toiletries; gas and electric generators; most construction, plumbing and building materials; and other essential products until its disaster declaration expires. — Julián Aguilar

Texas Capitol to be closed

[3:45 p.m.] The Texas Capitol will be closed to the public beginning Wednesday morning, the State Preservation Board announced Tuesday afternoon.

Elected officials and staff will still be able to enter the building, as will state agency personnel with state IDs. Vendors and other deliveries will be allowed as well, so long as staff meets them at the entrance of the building. The Capitol Visitors Center and the Texas State Cemetery, along with all gift shops and the Capitol Grill, will also be closed. — Cassandra Pollock

Hospital workers sound alarm about capacity challenges

[3:02 p.m.] The front lines of Texas’ health care workforce are preparing for the possibility of widespread COVID-19 infection — and sounding the alarm about the state’s limited number of hospital beds.

Texas’ hospital capacity — the number of beds available per person in the general population — is about 2.9 beds per 1,000 Texans, according to state regulators. The U.S. rate is about 2.8 beds per 1,000 people.

“If we can get people to stay out of crowds, stay out of crowded environments to slow down the transmission of this virus from person to person, we should be able to stretch our resources to the point where we can take care of the entire population that needs hospitalized care,” said Craig Rhyne, the Lubbock-based regional chief medical officer for Covenant Health. — Edgar Walters

Abbott suspends part of Texas Open Meetings Act

[2:57 p.m.] Gov. Greg Abbott suspended a part of the Texas Open Meetings Act — which guarantees the public can access and participate in government meetings — Monday in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic. All sections of the Texas Open Meetings Act remain in place except for the requirement of a physical gathering space for people to watch the meeting and ask questions.

While social distancing practices are in place, governmental bodies — like the city council and school board — are expected to conduct meetings by phone or video conference, Attorney General Ken Paxton said in a statement. It’s likely the case that “regular citizens aren’t clamoring to go to a large gathering of people either,” said Kelley Shannon, executive director of the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas. — Stacy Fernández

Texas parents struggle as school closings keep kids at home

[2:52 p.m.] As more school districts plan to keep their doors closed long-term, with COVID-19 cases and panicked responses ramping up quickly, families are cobbling together childcare solutions and finagling other forms of financial support. Many don’t know where to leave their young children for a full work day, much less how they will be educated weeks down the line.

School districts are offering free meals at sites within their boundaries, and preparing to switch to online education to ensure students keep learning. But, in a majority Hispanic public school system like Texas’ where almost 61% of students are economically disadvantaged, some will likely slip through the cracks. And in many cases, the news is moving too fast for families to keep track. — Aliyya Swab

State reports its first coronavirus-related death

[1:15 p.m.] The current COVID-19 total for the state is 76 cases as of noon Tuesday. Webb and Tarrant counties are now reporting community spread, following Dallas, Brazoria, Matagorda and Montgomery. In total, 19 counties — and Lackland Air Force Base — are reporting at least one coronavirus case. And the state reported its first coronavirus-related death, an elderly patient in Matagorda County, late Monday night. — Raga Justin

Texas National Guard to be activated to respond to outbreak

[12:38 p.m.] Gov. Greg Abbott announced Tuesday that the Texas National Guard will be activated in response to the novel coronavirus outbreak in the state, which had at least 69 positive cases as of Tuesday morning. While there is no need to deploy them yet, he said, Guard members will be standing ready.

First responders and health care workers will be excluded from the activation, Abbott added.

In total, 1,264 Texans have been tested for COVID-19 so far, Abbott said. That’s a significant jump from the roughly 400 people in total the state reported Monday. By the end of the week, he expects the state to be able to test 10,000 people weekly. — Patrick Svitek

Austin closes bars, restaurants

[12:30 p.m.] The city of Austin shuttered bars and restaurants in the state’s capital Tuesday on the heels of similar shutdowns in Dallas and Houston

The partial shutdown aims to halt the spread of the new coronavirus. It is the latest blow to the state capital’s economy, which is still reeling from the aftershocks of canceling South by Southwest, an annual weeklong festival and a staple for Austin. The move also limits gatherings of more than 10 people. — Raga Justin

Banks to temporarily limit access to lobbies

[12:01 p.m.] Following the lead of other industries implementing social distancing policies recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Texas-chartered banks will temporarily limit access to their lobbies and to tellers. Drive-through lanes and ATMs are expected to remain open, the San Antonio Express-News reported.

Texas Department of Banking Commissioner Charles G. Cooper said state banks “will take the necessary measures to continue meeting the financial needs of their customers and those affected, while protecting the health of their employees,” according to the Express-News.

The Texas Financial Code gives Cooper the authority to allow banking institutions to limit physical access in times of emergency, and Cooper’s decision came after Gov. Greg Abbott on Friday declared a disaster declaration in Texas. — Mitchell Ferman

More cases related to community spread in Dallas County

[11:45 a.m.] The number of coronavirus cases tied to community spread in Dallas County is continuing to climb.

Nine more people in the county have tested positive for the new coronavirus. One patient had traveled abroad. Three patients are “close contacts” of a previously confirmed patient. And five patients were likely infected through community spread.

Five of the new patients are hospitalized, including three in critical care units. The patients range in age from two women in their 20s to one woman in her 70s.

As of 10 a.m. Tuesday, 24 Dallas County residents have tested positive for the new coronavirus, according to the Dallas County Health and Human Services website. — Alexa Ura

Community spread of coronavirus reported in two more Texas counties

[8:50 a.m] The novel coronavirus appears to have begun spreading through the community in at least two more Texas counties: Webb, along the U.S.-Mexico border, and Tarrant, in North Texas.

Laredo has its first case, an individual who has not traveled to any affected areas recently and is considered a case of community transmission, according to local reports. And Tarrant County declared its sixth positive COVID-19 case, a Grand Prairie resident who “contracted the virus in Tarrant County with no known exposure to a confirmed case and no recent travel history,” according to local officials. — Emma Platoff

Austin mayor in favor of closing bars and restaurant dining rooms

[Editor’s note: The press conference originally scheduled for 11 a.m. was rescheduled to noon.]

[5 a.m.] Austin Mayor Steve Adler and Travis County Judge Sarah Eckhardt could decide the fate of area bars and restaurants Tuesday. Officials in Dallas and Harris County shuttered bars and clubs and prohibited restaurants from offering in-person dining Monday. Shortly after, Adler tweeted that he backs those moves and would make an announcement with Eckhardt at noon Tuesday. As officials continue tightening measures to slow the new coronavirus’ spread, many Texans’ job security is being wiped out.

Texas appears to lag behind other states in testing for new coronavirus

[5 a.m.] So far, public and federal labs have tested only 439 people in Texas for the new coronavirus, according to figures released late Monday by the Texas Department of State Health Services. That does not include “hundreds” more tests conducted by private labs, officials said. That presumably leaves the number of Texas tests somewhere north of 700 people, but The Texas Tribune could not pin down officials on a precise count.

But figures provided by DSHS, together with statistics gathered by The COVID Tracking Project, appear to put Texas, the second most populous state, toward the bottom of the country’s top five states, depending on which figures for Texas are used. As of late Monday, California had tested at least 8,300 people; New York had tested 7,200; Florida had tested 1,300; and Illinois had tested 1,025, figures show.

Where Texas ultimately lands on the testing spectrum won’t be clear until the dust settles a bit on all the fast-moving coronavirus developments and the reporting of data from states improves. Nationwide, the Trump administration said, almost 2 million tests would be available to some 2,000 labs by the end of this week.

Disclosure: Steve Adler, a former Texas Tribune board chairman, and SXSW have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

“Coronavirus updates in Texas: Feds consider sending people economic stimulus checks; state has more than 70 known cases” was first published at by The Texas Tribune. The Texas Tribune is proud to celebrate 10 years of exceptional journalism for an exceptional state.

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