Twenty-six more people have tested positive for COVID-19 in McLennan County, marking the third-straight day with a record high number of confirmed infections since the county started tracking the counts in March, officials announced during a press conference Wednesday.
The county’s infection rate and hospitalization rate are both increasing with worrying speed that points to rapid community spread, said Dr. Mike Hardin, program director of the Waco Family Medicine Residency Program.
“It is true that we are testing more people,” Hardin said. “We have at least tripled or quadrupled our testing in the county. But as we test more people, we would expect to see that test positivity rate go down, not go up.”
Including the 26 new cases, the local rate of positive tests is up to about 5%, Waco Mayor Kyle Deaver said during Wednesday’s press conference. The rate had already ticked up to about 2% over this past weekend on a rolling 7-day average, up from less than 1% through early May. That 2% rate was before the 15 new positives Monday, 18 new positives Tuesday and 26 new positives Wednesday.
The total case count is up to 222, which includes 86 people with active infections, 132 who have recovered and four who have died, Hardin said. Nine people are hospitalized locally, including four who are in critical condition and four who are McLennan County residents. About 6% of McLennan County’s population has been tested for the disease, Hardin said.
The number of people with active infections, 86, is the most the county has seen yet, and the county’s positivity rate is now nearing the state’s overall rate, Hardin said.
Patients have contracted the disease in a variety of local settings.
“There have not been any hotspots,” Hardin said. “There have not been any spreading events. There is nothing that’s broken out in group living situations. This is just community spread.”
The Waco-McLennan County Public Health District is actively monitoring 353 people, including those who have tested positive and their close contacts, asking daily for their temperature and any other symptoms. Hardin said in some cases, residents who test positive will not give enough information for contact tracers to monitor them.
Some of the 12,521 tests that have been conducted in the county were taken by people who required a second test, including health care workers. However, the number of duplicate tests is not being reported locally or nationally.
Waco Mayor Kyle Deaver said the duplicates could throw the county positivity rate, but the effect would be “minuscule.”
In response to a question submitted during Wednesday’s press conference, Hardin said it would not be “better” to allow the virus to spread for the sake of building immunity. The virus is capable of spreading rapidly, to the point where its death rate would increase because hospitals would run out of resources to provide the best treatment.
“This is a brand new illness,” Hardin said. “The vast majority of people have no immunity to this illness whatsoever. If you get the flu one season, you’ve probably had it in the past. You probably have some immunity to it already. Older adults have an immunity to chicken pox, it was fine for their kids to get chicken pox. In this case, you get this illness, the death rate unfortunately for this illness is much higher than it is for influenza, and it’s certainly much more deadly.”
Hardin said the local statistics are cause for concern but not panic.
“The data clearly shows that we are losing the advantage we’d built here in McLennan County and Waco over the last several months,” Deaver said.
There also are worrying demographic trends in the new data, Deaver said. The share of cases among Hispanic and black residents has risen, he said. As of Wednesday, 47% of local COVID-19 patients have been Hispanic, 24% have been non-Hispanic white and 22% have been black. According to U.S. Census Bureau estimates, the county is about 56% non-Hispanic white, 27% Hispanic and 15% black.
The testing rate has been slightly higher among black and Hispanic residents but has been within a few percentage points of the general population, Deaver said.
“We are trying to understand what’s happening there culturally or from a workplace standpoint or living condition standpoint that we may be able to address,” Deaver said.
Nine Texas mayors have asked Gov. Greg Abbott for permission to enforce requirements to wear face coverings in places where social distancing is not practical. Abbott released a clarification Wednesday stating county judges and mayors cannot order individual residents to wear face coverings, but local governments can order businesses to require them.
Deaver said the way to avoid another economic shutdown is to continue to follow the same precautions including avoiding all unnecessary contact with others, wearing a mask when contact is possible and washing hands regularly. He said if the county’s positivity rate spikes dramatically or hospital capacity is in danger of being depleted, it might be time to reconsider closing things, but the city and county have contingency plans to handle surges that were not in place in March.
“Rules are made to be able to protect people,” McLennan County Judge Scott Felton said during the press conference. “People make the choice of whether they want to follow the rules or not. All that’s fine and good until it affects someone else, and I kind of think that’s the issue we’re facing now.”
Felton also said another shutdown would likely get a lot of pushback from McLennan County residents, and hospitals would have to be approaching capacity before local officials would consider it.
“That seems to be a long way off for us today,” Felton said. “On an earlier call today, the hospitals said they feel comfortable and they’ve got a lot of room.”
State Rep. Charles “Doc” Anderson, R-Waco, joined in Wednesday’s press conference. He said there are 15,000 beds, 1,600 ICU beds and 6,000 ventilators available throughout the state.
“It’s a situation that does require monitoring, but the governor is going to use that as criteria,” Anderson said.
State Child Protective Services workers knew that it was unsafe for 2-year-old Frankie Gonzalez and his sisters to be alone with their mother.
In the months before Frankie’s body was found on June 2, Laura Villalon had repeatedly tested positive for opioids and methamphetamine, according to reports from a CPS investigator. Frankie’s younger sister had drugs in her system after her birth in January, while Villalon was on parole from state prison.
Caseworkers also knew Villalon previously had six children taken from her because of drug use.
While the public focus so far has largely been on Villalon, Waco police arrested the boy’s father, Lorenzo Gonzalez, 28, of Waco, late Wednesday on a felony charge of abandoning or endangering a child. He has no criminal record. Jail officials said Gonzalez was at McLennan County Jail being processed on the charge by 9:30 Wednesday night, and police said he is accused of intentionally leaving Frankie with Villalon despite signing a CPS agreement stating he would not leave the boy with her. Further details were not immediately available.
Because of Villalon’s ongoing drug use, CPS had required her to be supervised at all times while she was with her youngest three children, according to state court records the Tribune-Herald obtained.
But those measures failed to keep Frankie from dying while in the care of Villalon, who later hid his body in a metal trash bin and told police the boy disappeared during a park outing, police said.
Villalon, also known as Laura Sanchez, 35, remains in the McLennan County Jail on a first-degree felony injury to a child charge in Frankie’s death and on a state hold for an alleged parole violation.
Frankie’s death is still under investigation, and no autopsy report has been returned, leaving the details of the death unclear.
But the death raises questions about why Villalon had unsupervised access to the three children and whether the system meant to protect them failed.
John Lennan, a spokesperson for the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services, declined Tuesday to answer specific questions about his department’s interaction with Frankie’s family, including whether the agency failed in its duty to keep him safe. Lennan said “case-specific information” about CPS investigations is confidential by law, adding that any documents released are done so at the discretion of the courts.
In more general terms, Lennan said a CPS caseworker is required to make contact with a family at least monthly, but can visit “more frequently if needed.”
Associate Judge Nikki Mundkowsky, who presides over CPS cases in McLennan County, conducted a hearing via teleconference in the case this week.
CPS officials are seeking to terminate Villalon’s parental rights to Frankie’s sisters. The parties agreed to allow the girls to remain in state foster care for now and to forbid visitation by Villalon and the girls’ father, Lorenzo Gonzalez.
Mundkowsky also ordered Gonzalez, who previously has tested negative for drugs, to be tested randomly and for Villalon, should she be released from jail, to be drug tested regularly. She also ordered Gonzalez to take a paternity test to prove whether he is the girls’ father.
Mundkowsky sealed court records two weeks ago pertaining to CPS efforts to remove Villalon’s daughters. The judge has declined to unseal them and has not responded to Tribune-Herald requests to provide redacted copies. The judge has said she sealed the records in the interest of the children’s well-being.
The newspaper has since obtained those sealed records, which include an affidavit filed by a CPS investigator seeking emergency removal of Villalon’s 6-month-old and 3-year-old daughters.
Court documents show Lorenzo Gonzalez had primary legal custody of Frankie and his two sisters at the time of the boy’s death.
The older girl had been placed in his care after her birth in February 2017, when opioids were found in her system, court documents show.
Villalon was pregnant with Frankie when she entered prison in December 2017 after violating her probation on a burglary case, court records show. He was born the next month, and Gonzalez took custody of him.
Villalon was paroled from prison on May 9, 2019, and in January, she had her youngest daughter, who also went into Gonzalez’s care.
A CPS affidavit shows the mother had tested positive for drugs while pregnant, and that the baby was born with opioids in her system.
In an April 24 CPS hearing, state officials ordered that Villalon could be with her children only with supervision, leaving Gonzalez with primary custody of the three.
Police have said they believe Frankie died May 28 while in the care of his mother, who later disposed of his body in a trash bin near Park Lake Drive.
On June 1, Villalon reported that Frankie had disappeared during an outing to Cameron Park, setting off a frenetic law enforcement and communitywide search. Some family members and other volunteers searched the park all night.
While the search for Frankie was ongoing, Gonzalez told a CPS investigator he and Villalon recently had reconciled because he thought she was doing better and had shaken her drug habit.
He said he left the three kids with her but said he thought the CPS-approved supervisor was supposed to come to the house to make sure Villalon was not alone with the kids, the CPS investigator’s affidavit states.
As the search turned up no leads, police began to doubt Villalon’s story, and on June 2, she led them to the trash bin where Frankie’s body was found wrapped in trash bags, police have said.
While the cause of Frankie’s death has not been reported, a CPS affidavit states the 3-year-old sister talked about it in a forensic interview on June 1.
She “stated that her brother Frankie fell in a pool and hurt his arm and closed his eyes and didn’t open them back up,” the affidavit states.
In an interview in Spanish with the Tribune-Herald early Wednesday before his arrest, Gonzalez, the father, said he still does not know how Frankie died.
He said he and Villalon were living together, but he left the children with her while he was working because he trusted her.
He said Villalon told him on May 28 that Frankie had gone to stay with Villalon’s adult son in Killeen, a statement he later found out was a lie.
Midway Independent School District staff, family and community members called for more hand-washing and sanitizing stations in hallways in a COVID-19-related survey distributed by the district, as well as the reconsideration of student and teacher attendance incentives that may encourage people to come to school sick.
Midway ISD used a different kind of survey to seek feedback from families, teachers and others on what the school district should consider regarding COVID-19 as it plans for the upcoming school year.
Instead of a traditional survey in which respondents answer questions, Midway ISD used a platform called Thoughtexchange to pose a single question and solicit responses from the community. The interactive discussion platform allowed people to submit answers, rate others’ responses or simply browse through the conversation, Thoughtexchange Account Executive Laura Milne said.
“It’s really designed to solicit a wide range of diverse perspectives,” Milne said. “We’re organically prioritizing as a group and without bias what is most important to most people.”
Midway ISD posed this question: “As we navigate the implications of COVID-19 for our district, what are some important things we should consider as we plan for fall 2020 and beyond?”
Milne said the district had a high rate of participation, with 2,558 people involved in the interactive discussion. About 76% of the people who participated were parents or other family members, and 19% were teachers or other staff members.
Thoughtexchange rooted out the most popular comments for Midway ISD administrators to examine as they plan for next school year. These are the seven most highly rated comments in order:
That is just a small sample of comments people left. The discussion garnered more than 3,000 unique thoughts or comments, but as people rated them, those seven rose to the top of the list, Milne said.
Thoughtexchange also noted a significant split between people who think school should return to some version of normal and those who believe it is too soon to send their children back to school because of all the uncertainty about COVID-19. About 650 people said they wanted school to reopen in the fall, while about 460 people said reopening schools is too risky and that they are more concerned with safety.
The platform also pulled together comments that fit into a central theme, such as parents who are concerned about having to teach at home again while working.
Milne said the benefits of asking an open-ended question, rather than a “yes or no” question is that the school district can see why people responded the way they did and understand their thought processes. A traditional survey would not get that information from people.
Midway ISD will examine the data from the responses as it moves forward with planning for next school year to inform future district decisions.
Celebrating her birthday in Galveston, Melinda Prince walked out of Yaga’s Cafe on Thursday full of coconut shrimp. What she didn’t realize was one of the employees at the restaurant may have been working while infected with the coronavirus.
Prince found out three days later through a post from the restaurant’s Facebook account.
“I freaked out,” saidPrince, who plans to quarantine for two weeks and get tested if COVID-19 symptoms arise.
Facebook posts from Yaga’s Cafe, whose managers did not respond to requests for comment, indicate other employees have since been tested for the coronavirus, the restaurant voluntarily closed, a professional cleaning crew was hired and recent customers were also encouraged to get tested.
The Galveston eatery is not alone. Restaurants and bars across Texas — including in Austin, Dallas, Houston, San Antonio and San Marcos — have closed recently due to concerns about potentially spreadingthe coronavirus, according to social media posts and local news reports.
Those voluntarily closures come weeks into Gov. Greg Abbott‘s phased approach to letting businesses reopen in hopes of igniting the state’s economy, which took a catastrophic hit from local and statewide business shutdowns in March and April. It also comes as local officials ask the governor to allow them to require that people wear face masks in public and as Austin Mayor Steve Adler is encouraging reopened businesses to voluntarily operate their indoor spaces at 25% or less of their full capacity.
And the closures come as the virus continues to spread in Texas. Tuesday was the fifth straight day of record-high hospitalizations ofTexans with coronavirus, a worrying confirmation for health experts who predicted cases would rise after the state started reopening. Also Tuesday, the state reported that at least 2,000 Texans have died from the COVID-19 disease caused by the new coronavirus.
Many restaurant owners have been trying to balance feedback from their staffs, their patrons, state guidelines and local officials, said Melissa Stewart, executive director of the Greater Houston Restaurant Association.
“There’s just so many things that these owners and operators are trying to navigate,” Stewart said. “Restauranting is never easy, this is an exponential degree of that.”
The Texas Department of State Health Services and health departments for Dallas, Harris and Tarrant counties did not respond to requests for comment about there is a trend in infections being contracted at bars and restaurants.
At a press conference Tuesday, Abbott said the state has an ”abundant” hospital capacity to deal with people who get sick from the virus. He did not issue new requirements that Texans wear face masks in public or allow local officials to do so in their counties and cities, but Abbott urged people to consider if they must venture out and to take precautions if they do.
“They still have to be practiced because COVID-19 hasn’t suddenly magically left the state of Texas,” he said.
In addition to prisons and meatpacking plants, Abbott blamed people in their under 30 for recent surges in coronavirus cases, yet he also acknowledged it has been difficult to tell where those infected contracted the disease.
“It could be Memorial Day celebrations, it could be a bar setting, it could be some other type of gathering,” Abbott said.
The governor partially attributed recentinfections in Texas to people younger than 30 testing positive in Hays County. On Tuesday, the county reported that 568 of its 1,093 cases have come from people in that age group.
KXAN earlier this week asked Hays County health officials if restaurants there are becoming common sources of the virus’ spread, but leaders there declined to disclose that information.
“We understand the basis for questions regarding trends that point toward potential clusters or hot spots,” the county health department told the TV station. “However, we do not believe providing this type of information will assist with policy decisions or messaging. In fact, it could be harmful to businesses that are already struggling and trying to get back on their feet.”
But state Rep. Erin Zwiener, D-Driftwood, said not disclosing such information can actually cause more economic harm.
“We’ve created this situation where we told people it was safe to go back to restaurants and bars and now they’re figuring out they’re not safe,” she said in an interview Tuesday. “That ricochet affect could be the most damaging thing to businesses.”
For weeks, economists have said that reopening businesses will not lead to a quick economic recovery — especially as the pandemic rages on and people worry about venturing out.
Regardless of Abbott allowing restaurants top open, some are closing on their own. Louie’s Beer Garden in San Marcos closed on June 7 after “a couple of employees” tested positive for the coronavirus, according to the bar’s Facebook page.
In Addison near Dallas, an employee at Zoli’s NY Pizza tested positive for the coronavirus over the weekend.
“We are hopeful that our strong cleaning, required masks and no-contact procedures that were implemented at the beginning of the pandemic have contained the spread,” the restaurant posted on Facebook, “but we will be closing this restaurant effective immediately, while we assess the situation.”
The sports bar Chicken N Pickle in San Antonio isn’t taking any chances, either, after an employee tested positive for COVID-19 on Friday.
“In an abundance of caution,” the bar posted on Facebook, “we immediately closed our property, as we wanted to fully assess the situation and ensure the safety of all who enjoy the food and fun of Chicken N Pickle.”
Rebecca Fischer, an infectious disease epidemiologist at the Texas A&M University School of Public Health, warned that dining out has become increasingly dangerous. “The risk is higher now than it was when restrictions were first implemented,” Fischer said in an interview, adding: “It’s not safer out there.”
It’s a reckoning for restaurants in Texas, one of the state’s largest and most visible industries impacted by the coronavirus. More than 680,000 workers in the restaurant industry have lost their jobs during the pandemic, according to the Texas Restaurant Association.
“It not only employs a ton of people and brings in an incredible amount of revenue, it’s also part of our national brand,” Stewart said in an interview.
In places on the Gulf Coast like Galveston, some worry that tourists could also be spreading the virus as they travel.
“I think that’s everybody’s main concern here — the tourists,” said Kate Sullivant, a resident on the island whose son works at a popular restaurant on The Strand in Galveston. “That was my only real concern with him working in the service industry.”
So when Sullivant found out one of her son’s co-workers was infected with COVID-19, she feared it might just be the beginning.
“Oh, here we go,” Sullivant said. “It’s happening. It’s happening.”