Waco Mayor Kyle Deaver and McLennan County Judge Scott Felton praised residents’ voluntary compliance with COVID-19 containment measures Wednesday as the countywide hospitalization number for the disease hit zero. The leaders encouraged locals to continue their efforts even as they anticipated Texas Gov. Greg Abbott further relaxing statewide measures in the coming days.
They joined Waco Family Health Center CEO Dr. Jackson Griggs in attributing the county’s relatively low number of COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations over the past two months to measures including social distancing, hand washing and mask wearing in public — behaviors they hope residents will continue in the weeks ahead.
“This is a marathon, not a sprint,” Griggs said.
The latest figures from the Waco-McLennan County Public Health District show no new cases of COVID-19 reported Wednesday and no patients hospitalized. A total of 96 McLennan County residents have tested positive, including four patients who have active infections, 88 who have recovered and four who have died. Various entities had combined to conduct 4,593 tests as of Tuesday.
Deaver said McLennan County has a high number of COVID-19 recoveries compared to other counties of similar size, and it has not exceeded local hospitals’ capacity to handle serious cases, with eight hospitalizations and five ICU beds the highest amount over two months. Similarly, the percentage tests conducted that come back positive has been lower than the statewide average, he said.
“I interpret (those figures) with joy and with delight,” Griggs said. He attributed them to the county’s relatively low population density compared to the state’s major urban centers, the lack of major mass transit and international travel.
Griggs also said early action on hard decisions by city, county and school officials to order sheltering in place and to cancel in-person classes helped limit the number of local cases.
“We have won the first round, but there are more rounds to fight,” he said.
Asked about a racial breakdown of COVID-19 cases to date, Deaver said available data shows about 55% of patients with confirmed cases are white, 21% are black and 11% are Hispanic, compared to a county population that is 55.6% white, 13.9% black and 26.7% Hispanic.
More testing is expected in the days ahead with Abbott’s order requiring testing of all residents and staff members of nursing homes.
Griggs said the county has 28 long-term care facilities with 2,416 licensed beds and praised administrators for taking early action to limit outside access to their centers. Deaver also said Waco hospitals are now expanding testing to all patients scheduled for a surgery in their facilities.
Test numbers fluctuate locally, but never topped 100 in a single day until late last month. Since then, most days have seen more than 100 tests conducted.
As for what businesses and services would be allowed to reopen or expand their customer capacity starting Monday, both the mayor and county judge deferred to the governor’s upcoming announcements on relaxing statewide restrictions.
Deaver said city administrators are still calculating the timing and extent of reopening physical access to Municipal Court, the water department and libraries, noting that there is online and drive-thru access for the water department, and libraries are distributing books through curbside service. Reopening the Cameron Park Zoo would depend on input from the American Zoological Society, while the National Park Service would determine when the Waco Mammoth National Monument can open, he said.
Felton noted that the county tax office has reopened, observing social distancing protocols in its operation, but discussions are still ongoing on county courts.
Asked how county residents could help the local economy, Felton recommended they buy locally whenever possible.
“Let’s reach down and pull some of that money out and spend locally. … Say no to Amazon,” he said.
Deaver said the city had received 706 applications for its small business emergency loans, with 32 businesses awarded a total of $66,000 last week.
Both the city and county leaders said it is too early to determine the budgetary impact of tax revenues lost to the COVID-19 crisis. But they anticipate major belt tightening ahead.
The Family Health Center was one of 23 nonprofit health clinics in Texas recently awarded Episcopal Health Foundation grants for their COVID-19 work with at-risk populations. Griggs said the $100,000 that the center will receive will allow the center to maintain its staffing even as its patient numbers have dropped to half their usual size because of priority given COVID-19 treatment.
The money also will aid a pharmaceutical delivery program that will bring medicines to patients so they do not have to visit the center’s pharmacy, he said.
Asked about vaccines, Griggs said more than 100 trials of various vaccines are underway, a number that may yield more than one working vaccine. Given the scale of vaccinating millions against the disease, researchers need to ensure they are extremely safe to use, he said.
All three officials stressed that residents should continue social distancing, hand washing and wearing masks in public. Deaver said local officials had considered making mask wearing mandatory in public but realized the governor would not allow local enforcement.
“We would love to see some of our businesses require it, such as big box stores and grocery stores,” he said.
“We must stay vigilant and not let our guard down. The virus is not going away with summertime,” the mayor added, showing the neck gaiter he uses as a mask when he is out in public.”I wear this not to protect me, but to protect you from me.”
Care Net Pregnancy Center of Central Texas has adapted in the time of the COVID-19 pandemic to continue providing assistance to pregnant women and women who have recently given birth by going to them.
The Christian nonprofit organization recently began offering curbside pickup services for families who need items including diapers, baby wipes and formula, CEO Deborah McGregor said. But this week Care Net decided to hit the road in its mobile clinic to serve people beyond Waco and McLennan County who may not be able to afford the gasoline to drive to Care Net’s offices.
“We’re a conduit,” McGregor said. “A lot of people want to help but don’t know how to help.”
Care Net started off the week in Marlin, the seat of Falls County, on Monday, serving more than 20 people there. The nonprofit distributed at least 150 large packages of baby wipes, 60 cans of formula and 20 big boxes of diapers, McGregor said.
Some of the people McGregor encountered in Marlin had “blank stares” and hollow expressions, grateful for the help from Care Net but unsure of how they are going to survive after their supplies run out, she said.
McGregor knows Care Net could run out of supplies to give to clients, too, but she said the nonprofit would keep serving Waco and its surrounding communities for as long as possible. Care Net does not take any state or federal funding directly, so it relies solely on donations and the help of other nonprofits.
“We can only serve as people give,” she said.
In addition to the mobile services, Care Net has been able to serve more than 400 clients with curbside pickup of diapers, wipes, formula and other items in the first month of the curbside operation, McGregor said. More than 120 of those 400 people were new clients.
Care Net plans to visit the five counties surrounding McLennan County at least once, with the hope to return to each county every other week as long as COVID-19 limits social interactions, McGregor said. She said people can donate money or items, or can “get you some of this whiskey hand sanitizer and a mask and go to work” with Care Net as a volunteer.
Balcones Distilling in Waco and other distillers around the country have turned their production capacity to making alcohol-based sanitizer during the crisis.
“We just squeeze our whiskey 80-proof and go serve somebody and make them smile,” McGregor said with a laugh. “We don’t know if we’re going to have the supplies to do it next week, but we’re going to operate like we are. We’re not going to operate out of a deficit. We’re loving being able to do it, so as long as people continue to give we’re going to keep doing it.”
To donate money, visit PregnancyCare.org/Support. To donate supplies, can drop them by Care Net’s offices at 1818 Columbus Ave. or 800 W. Waco Drive, or email McGregor at Deborah@PregnancyCare.org about arrangements.
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On April 1, a researcher at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention emailed Nevada public health counterparts for lab reports on two travelers who had tested positive for the coronavirus. She asked Nevada to send those records via a secure network or a “password protected encrypted file” to protect the travelers’ privacy.
The Nevada response: Can we just fax them over?
You’d hardly know the U.S. invented the internet by the way its public health workers are collecting vital pandemic data. While health-care industry record-keeping is now mostly electronic, cash-strapped state and local health departments still rely heavily on faxes, email and spreadsheets to gather infectious disease data and share it with federal authorities.
This data dysfunction is hamstringing the nation’s coronavirus response by, among other things, slowing the tracing of people potentially exposed to the virus. In response, the Trump administration set up a parallel reporting system run by the Silicon Valley data-wrangling firm Palantir. Duplicating many data requests, it has placed new burdens on front-line workers at hospitals, labs and other health care centers who already report case and testing data to public health agencies.
There’s little evidence so far that the Palantir system has measurably improved federal or state response to COVID-19.
Emails exchanged between the CDC and Nevada officials in March and early April, obtained by The Associated Press in a public records request, illustrate the scope of the problem. It sometimes takes multiple days to track down such basic information as patient addresses and phone numbers. One disease detective consults Google to fill a gap. Data vital to case investigations such as patient travel and medical histories is missing.
None of this is news to the CDC or other health experts. “We are woefully behind,” the CDC’s No. 2 official, Anne Schuchat, wrote in a September report on public health data technology. She likened the state of U.S. public health technology to “puttering along the data superhighway in our Model T Ford.”
This information technology gap might seem puzzling given that most hospitals and other health care providers have long since ditched paper files for electronic health records. Inside the industry, they’re easily shared, often automatically.
But data collection for infectious-disease reports is another story, particularly in comparison to other industrialized nations. Countries like Germany, Britain and South Korea — and U.S. states such as New York and Colorado — are able to populate online dashboards far richer in real-time data and analysis. In Germany, a map populated with public data gathered by an emergency-care doctors’ association even shows hospital bed availability.
In the U.S., many hospitals and doctors are often failing to report detailed clinical data on coronavirus cases, largely because it would have to be manually extracted from electronic records, then sent by fax or email, said Johns Hopkins epidemiologist Jennifer Nuzzo.
It’s not unusual for public health workers to have to track patients down on social media, use the phone book or scavenge through other public-health databases that may have that information, said Rachelle Boulton, the Utah health department official responsible for epidemiological reporting. Even when hospitals and labs report that information electronically, it’s often incomplete.
Deficiencies in CDC collection have been especially glaring.
In 75% of COVID-19 cases compiled in April, data on the race and ethnicity of victims was missing. A report on children affected by the virus only had symptom data for 9%of laboratory-confirmed cases for which age was known. A study on virus-stricken U.S. health care workers could not tally the number affected because the applicable boxes were only checked on 16% of received case forms. In another study, the CDC only had data on preexisting conditions — risk factors such as diabetes, heart and respiratory disease — for 6% of reported cases.
Missing from daily indicators that CDC makes public is data such as nationwide hospitalizations over the previous 24 hours and numbers of tests ordered and completed — information vital to guiding the federal response, said Dr. Ashish Jha, director of the Harvard Global Health Institute.
“The CDC during this entire pandemic has been two steps behind the disease,” Jha said.
Instead of accelerating existing efforts to modernize U.S. disease reporting, the White House asked Palantir, whose founder Peter Thiel is a major backer of President Donald Trump, to hastily build out a data collection platform called HHS Protect. It has not gone well.
On March 29, Vice President Mike Pence, who chairs the task force, sent a letter asking 4,700 hospitals to collect daily numbers on virus test results, patient loads and hospital bed and intensive care-unit capacity. That information, the letter said, should be compiled into spreadsheets and emailed to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which would feed it into the $25 million Palantir system.
On April 10, Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar added more reporting requirements for hospitals.
Those mandates sparked a backlash among stressed hospitals already reporting data to state and local health departments. Producing additional cumbersome spreadsheets for the federal government “is just not sustainable,” said Janet Hamilton, executive director of the Council of State and Territorial Epidemiologists.
HHS Protect now comprises more than 200 datasets, including reporting from nearly three-quarters of the roughly 8,000 U.S. hospitals, according to Katie McKeogh, an HHS press officer. It includes supply-chain data from industry, test results from labs and state policy actions.
But due to limited government transparency, it’s not clear how accurate or helpful HHS Protect has been. Asked for examples of its usefulness, McKeogh mentioned only one: White House task force coordinator Dr. Deborah Birx receives a nightly report based on what the system gathers that provides “a common (nationwide) operating picture of cases at a county level.”
“We will continue to work to improve upon the common operating picture,” McKeogh said when asked about holes in HHS data collection. Neither HHS nor the CDC would provide officials to answer questions about HHS Protect; Palantir declined to discuss it on the record.
Farzad Mostashari, who a decade ago oversaw the federal effort to modernize paper-based medical records, said it would be far more efficient to fix existing public-health data systems than to create a parallel system like HHS Protect.
“We have a lot of the pieces in place,” Mostashari said. A public-private partnership called digitalbridge.us is central to that effort. Pilot projects that automate infectious disease case reporting were expanded in late January. Overall, 252,000 COVID case reports have been generated so far, said CDC spokesman Benjamin N. Haynes. In December, Congress appropriated $50 million for grants to expand the effort, which is already active in Utah, New York, California, Texas and Michigan.
Going forward, the CDC is evaluating how to spend $500 million from March’s huge pandemic relief package to upgrade health care information technology.
In the meantime, public-health officers are still doing things the hard way. Up to half the lab reports submitted for public health case investigations lack patient addresses or ZIP codes, according to a May 1 Duke University white paper co-authored by Mostashari.
“We’re losing days trying to go back and collect that information,” said Hamilton of the epidemiologists’ council. “And then we’re reaching out to hospitals or physicians’ offices that, quite frankly, are saying ‘I’m too busy to tell you that.’ ”
A divided Bellmead City Council chose Council Member James Cleveland this week to serve as the city’s next mayor.
The council typically chooses a mayor from among its members after each municipal election in May, but this year’s election has been delayed until November as a precaution against COVID-19. Since Cleveland is up for election in November, it is possible the council would have to make another pick for mayor in a matter of a few months.
“I was surprised, too,” Cleveland said of his selection Tuesday. “This is going to be a challenge, but I am looking forward to a little change and hopefully everyone can come together, because honestly it feels like everyone has been all over the board lately.”
Division among council members, and often contentious disagreement, has been on display in recent meetings, including during the selection process for new City Manager Yost Zakhary. That dynamic continued during the meeting Tuesday, though outgoing Mayor Travis Gibson was quick to congratulate Cleveland and welcome him to the mayor’s seat at the center of the council dais once members voted.
Cleveland, a welder at Utility Truck Equipment Manufacturing LLC in Hewitt, was appointed to the council in December 2018, filling a seat after a former member stepped down. The council voted 3-2 to appoint Cleveland as mayor, with Cleveland abstaining from the vote. Council members Gary Moore, Doss Youngblood and William Ridings voted in favor, while Gibson and outgoing Mayor Pro Tem Alfreda Love voted against the appointment.
Bellmead’s selection process for Mayor has generally been held in closed session, but Gibson requested that it be held in public, as he did lat year for his own selection.
During the discussion Tuesday, Gibson nominated Love to serve as mayor, but his motion did not receive a second, so it went no further. Love has served as mayor pro tem, taking on mayoral duties in the mayor’s absence, for the past two years, and council members, including Ridings, said last year after Gibson’s appointment that they expected Love to take the next term as mayor.
“I was unclear as to if we were going to go back to executive session still or not. Otherwise I would have seconded for myself,” Love said. “I thought it was unclear and we were in a gray area, but I know for a fact I have the experience to serve as mayor.”
Despite the confusion, the council moved forward and selected Cleveland as mayor. Quickly, Gibson stood up from his seat at the center of the council, congratulated Cleveland and moved over to Cleveland’s seat.
“Go take your spot, mayor,” Gibson said.
Shortly after Cleveland sat down, Youngblood made a motion to select Moore as mayor pro tem.
Moore seconded the motion. The council split 3-2 on Moore’s appointment along the same lines as the vote for mayor. Cleveland again abstained from the vote. Moore previously served as mayor pro tem from 2014 to 2015, then as mayor from 2015 to 2017.
City Attorney Charles Buenger advised the council to move forward with the selection of a new mayor Tuesday, despite the postponement of the city council election. The city charter only allows for mayoral appointments to last a year, Buenger said. In the event that Cleveland or Moore is not reelected in November, the council would be able to appoint a new mayor or mayor pro tem, he said.
In other business Tuesday, Moore informed the council and Police Chief Daniel Porter that campaign signs he had placed in the city had gone missing. Moore said he plans to pursue charges if he is able to find evidence of who has removed the signs.
The father of a girl who was injured two years ago while playing at a car show sponsored by the Greater Hewitt Chamber of Commerce is suing the chamber for damages associated with the girl’s injuries.
Thomas Morales, of Waco, is seeking from $100,000 to $200,000 in damages from the Hewitt chamber after his daughter was injured May 12, 2018, at Warren Park while attending the Nacho Daddy Car Show, which the chamber has sponsored the past six years.
Alissa Cady, executive director of the Greater Hewitt Chamber of Commerce, declined comment on the lawsuit.
The suit, filed this week in Waco’s 170th State District Court, alleges the girl, who is identified only by the initials I.M., was injured after she fell head first while exiting a “bouncy house” set up for the event.
“As plaintiff I.M. attempted to brace herself, she suffered serious injuries,” the lawsuit claims.
The girl’s age and injuries are not specified in the lawsuit, and the family’s attorney, Michael Zimmerman, declined comment Wednesday because he said the girl is a minor.
The suit alleges the chamber knew or should have known of the dangerous condition created by the bouncy house, that it presented an “unreasonable risk” of harm to patrons and that the chamber failed to make the condition reasonably safe and failed to provide the girl with adequate warning.
The suit also alleges the chamber failed to supply proper safety equipment, such as soft mats near the exits and sides of the bouncy house or steps, and that the child was injured because of the “negligent, careless and reckless disregard of duty” by the chamber or its employees.
The family is seeking compensation for medical expenses and past and future mental anguish and alleges the girl suffered physical pain and suffering and physical impairment.