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11 Waco fire and police staffers in quarantine after rescue in fatal crash

Three Waco firefighters, six Waco police officers and two crime scene technicians remain in various stages of quarantine this week after possible exposure to the novel coronavirus, all from working a single fatal traffic crash last month.

The 11 responders all helped rescue the driver of a car that collided with a tractor-trailer hauling gravel on April 24. The man later tested positive for COVID-19, Waco police officials said.

The driver remains hospitalized, while the passenger who died in the fatal wreck was identified as Ramon De Loera Hernandez, 25, of Bellmead.

Police would not identify the driver, citing privacy concerns because he tested positive for COVID-19 once he was extracted from the wreckage and taken to a local hospital.

Waco Fire Department reports state that the traffic crash about 8:30 p.m. at Idylwood Lane and East Loop 340 required “a long and very difficult extraction,” which involved using a heavy-duty wrecker to lift the tractor off the front of the car.

Two firefighters rode in an ambulance with the injured driver, while other first responders attended to De Loera Hernandez, who died at the scene.

The driver of the 18-wheeler fled the scene, police have said. Police have a suspect in the hit-and-run case but declined to identify him or give more details about the cause of the crash until after his arrest and the investigation’s conclusion, said Waco Acting Police Chief Frank Gentsch.

The first responders now in quarantine were tested after the incident for the COVID-19 virus, officials said. None of them have exhibited any symptoms of the coronavirus and some could return to work with no restrictions as early as Friday, said Waco Assistant City Manager Ryan Holt.

Once it was learned the crash victim tested positive, health care professionals interviewed the first responders at the scene to assess their levels of exposure and potential risks, Holt said.

Those with higher levels of risk remain quarantined, while some have returned to work on limited duty while being isolated from others, Holt said.

“We have been very lucky so far and we feel good that they will all be back at full force pretty fast,” Holt said.

He said the quarantined officers and firefighters have not created hardships for their respective departments because the city’s “continuity of operations plan” is designed for contingencies, such as when officers are sick or injured.

The pandemic has had harsh effects on some police departments, especially the New York City Police Department, which reported having nearly a fifth of officers sick or in quarantine in early April.

Negative test

In other local COVID-19 news, an employee of the China Spring branch of First National Bank of Central Texas whose possible exposure to COVID-19 forced the location to close on Monday tested negative for the virus, bank officials announced Tuesday.

“We are so thankful that one of our own will not be dealing with this virus,” bank officials said in a statement.

A crew performed a “deep cleaning” of the branch and the building will be ready for bank employees and customers on Friday. The lobby will remain closed but the drive-thru will be available for customers, according to the statement.

Texas hair salons can reopen Friday, gyms on May 18, says Gov. Abbott

Gov. Greg Abbott will allow hair salons in Texas to reopen Friday and gyms on May 18, moving more quickly than expected to further restart the Texas economy during the coronavirus pandemic.

The businesses will be required to follow certain rules, however, as the state continues to grapple with the novel coronavirus. For example, hair stylists will only be able to work with one customer at a time, while gyms can only reopen at 25% capacity, and their showers and locker rooms should remain closed for now.

Abbott announced the upcoming reopenings during a news conference Tuesday at the state Capitol in Austin, four days after he let stores, restaurants, movie theaters and malls reopen at 25% capacity. He had initially eyed May 18 as the earliest next date to start further reopenings, but in recent days he has faced growing pressure from some in his own party to move quicker.

Even as Abbott rolled out the additional reopenings, he braced Texans for “flare-ups in certain regions” and said the state has assembled “surge response teams” to dispatch to such problem areas.

After discussing barbershops and gyms, Abbott said state officials also want to reopen another type of business — bars — but are still figuring out how to do so safely. He said he wants feedback from bar owners, given that “not all bars are the same,” particularly when it comes to size.

Abbott also announced two other kinds of reopenings for May 18. He said office buildings can open with either five or fewer workers or 25% of the workforce, whichever is greater. Manufacturers that have been deemed “non-essential” can also reopen May 18, as long as they limit their occupancy to 25%.

The Friday reopenings, Abbott said, apply to “cosmetology salons, barbershops, hair salons, nail salons and tanning salons.” In addition to limiting stylists to one customer at a time, Abbott recommended salons use an appointment system only, and if they accept walk-ins, those customers should only wait inside if they can practice social distancing. Stylist stations should also be 6 feet apart, and Abbott said he “strongly” recommends stylists and customers wear masks.

When it comes to gyms, in addition to limiting capacity and keeping locker rooms closed, Abbott said all equipment must be disinfected after each use. Customers should wear gloves that cover their entire hands, including the fingers. Customers should maintain social distancing. And if customers bring their own equipment into the gym, such as a yoga mat, it must be disinfected before and after each use.

Tuesday’s news conference came as the number of coronavirus cases in Texas increased to at least 33,369, including 906 deaths, according to the latest numbers from the Texas Department of State Health Services. The virus is present in 216 out of the state’s 254 counties.

The total of tests conducted in Texas stands at 427,210, the DSHS figures show.

While the state’s testing numbers are increasing, “we’re not quite there yet,” Abbott said, expressing hope that forthcoming federal assistance, as well as state efforts like National Guard mobile testing teams, would further ramp up testing. He continued to focus on infection and hospitalization rates, noting they are holding steady or on a downward trend.

After the news conference, Democrats said Abbott was moving too quickly to further open up the economy, especially so soon after the initial reopenings.

“I thought we were waiting to see if the first round of re-opening caused COVID-19 spikes before making decisions on additional openings?” tweeted state Rep. Chris Turner of Grand Prairie, chairman of the House Democratic Caucus. “It’s been four days.”

The Texas Democratic Party said Abbott was forging forward with the “premature opening of more of the state” despite the own acknowledgements that it could lead to an increase in cases. “Republicans like Greg Abbott are not here to protect your family,” the party’s executive director, Manny Garcia, said in a statement.

At the news conference last week where he announced the initial reopenings, Abbott said a second phase could start “as early as May 18” if the state continues to slow the spread of the virus.

“We need to see two weeks of data to confirm no flare-up of COVID-19,” Abbott said at the April 27 news conference.

Yet within hours after that news conference, Abbott was teasing potentially earlier action, and the ensuing days saw mounting intraparty pressure, including from several state lawmakers, to at least let barbershops and salons open immediately. Earlier Tuesday, two Republican state representatives, defied Abbott by getting haircuts at a Houston-area salon.

In media appearances over the past several days, Abbott has warned the state could see a jump in cases as it reopens, both due to the increased testing and the transmission that comes with allowing more people out into the open. Shortly before Abbott’s news conference, Democrats seized on audio of a recent call with lawmakers where he reiterated that sentiment, saying “pretty much every scientific and medical report shows that whenever you have a reopening ... in the aftermath of something like this, it actually will lead to an increase in spread.”

Abbott said the surge response teams will be prepared to address any spikes, including in places like the meatpacking plants in the Panhandle that have seen a high concentration of cases. The teams will be spearheaded by the Texas Division of Emergency Management, the state Health and Human Services Commission and the National Guard. The teams will be able to do things like provide more personal protection equipment and testing supplies, as well as work with local officials to put in places additional standards to contain the outbreak.

As he announced the further reopenings, Abbott sought to clarify some of his executive order that went into effect Friday. For example, he said weddings may begin again, but if they take place indoors somewhere beside a church, they must be limited to 25% capacity.

Lawmakers’ locks

In an act of defiance against Gov. Greg Abbott’s continued shutdown of barbershops and other businesses, two Republican lawmakers sat in a Houston-area salon Tuesday while getting illegal haircuts.

State Reps. Steve Toth, from The Woodlands, and Briscoe Cain, from Deer Park, added fuel to the movement against state and local restrictions intended to slow the spread of COVID-19.

As long as businesses can reopen safely and follow Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines, “there’s absolutely no reason” why they should be kept from getting back up and running, Toth said in an interview with The Texas Tribune while getting his haircut.

“Some of these people are being forced into bankruptcy. These are small businesses where the owners of these franchises have mortgaged their homes, they’ve gone into debt, and if they don’t get some relief, they’re going to go bankrupt,” Toth said.

Toth said restrictions were in place initially to slow the spread of the virus, and “it was never about being able to stop the spread of COVID-19.” At-risk populations, like older people and those who are medically fragile, should be protected and isolated while everyone else goes back to work, Toth said.

Hailey Lankford, a stylist at Tune Up: The Manly Salon in Montgomery County, where Toth and Cain got haircuts, said it’s “essential” for her to go back to work.

“If I do not go back to work, my car will be [repossessed], I will be evicted, I have no choice,” Lankford said. “I’m not getting the money from the government along with a lot of other hairdressers I know.”

The salon reopened over the weekend but was quickly shut down by local law enforcement officers who threatened to arrest Lankford and her colleagues if they didn’t close, Lankford said.

Photo gallery: Today's top pics — coronavirus outbreak and more

Today’s top pics: Coronavirus Outbreak and more

Waco health district to receive $428K for more COVID-19 monitoring

The Waco-McLennan County Public Health District will receive $428,000 in state funding to hire more staff and bolster its local efforts to monitor COVID-19 cases.

The Waco City Council on Tuesday approved a contract between the Texas Department of State Health Services and the health district that will make funding available to the district through March 2021.

“As the council is well aware, our health district staff and (epidemiology) team specifically have really been working literally around the clock these last few weeks, and these funds will help them get some much needed assistance,” Deputy City Manager Bradley Ford said.

The initial funding amount of $211,426 will allow the health district to hire graduate assistants to report case data, monitor disease activity and its characteristics, and continue the all-important step of contact tracing after cases are identified.

“This is quite a benefit to our community,” Ford said.

An additional $216,971, added by an amendment during the meeting, will buy more personal protective equipment and supplies for the health district, build storage for the equipment and help pay for hotel rooms for homeless people who need to isolate or quarantine. The funds will also go toward hiring a marketing consultant to create targeted ad campaigns to reach vulnerable populations and hiring nursing staff on a contract basis.

“This money will also go to education and data research, which is very important for our community, for our council members,” District 2 Councilman Hector Sabido said. “We’ll be able to more or less have a better handle on the data we’re providing our constituency, our community members and our city as a whole.”

According to health district spokeswoman Kelly Craine, the health district has 30 staff members trained to conduct contact tracing. Contact tracing involves identifying and contacting everyone that may have had contact with a confirmed case of COVID-19, possibly asking them to isolate or quarantine to stop any potential spread, and staying in contact throughout the isolation or quarantine period.

The council also approved a grant through the U.S. Department of Justice that will provide $161,000 to the city to reimburse overtime expenses and personal protective equipment.

Assistant City Manager Deidra Emerson presented the latest local COVID-19 data to the council. As of Tuesday, the county had one new positive case, bringing the cumulative total to 92. Seven of those cases are active, 81 cases have recovered and four have died. Meanwhile, 3,208 tests have been conducted in McLennan County so far.

Assistant City Managers Paul Cain and Ryan Holt presented a general timeline for when city facilities may reopen. From May 18 to May 31, the city will consider opening playgrounds, splash pads, basketball courts, parks facilities, restrooms and Sul Ross Park’s skate park. If all goes well, practice fields, community fields, senior centers and others would reopen June 1, but the Brazos Nights concert series and Fourth on the Brazos may be canceled.

“The problem here is the contractual side of things, getting events organized and getting performers to come to the concert and trying to get those contracts in place,” Cain said. “Having not known what was going to happen, we’re very challenged at this point.”

The parks and recreation department’s summer camps and summer track program may also be canceled.

“I agree it’s a decision that needs to be made, and we’re trying to read the tea leaves on that, so to speak,” Holt said. “It’s one of those things that looks like it will be forthcoming very quickly.”

Waco City Hall, the Dr. Mae Jackson Development Center, the city’s operation center, convention center, libraries and recreation centers remain closed. Reopening hinges on Governor Greg Abbott’s phased plan to reopen the state’s businesses based on each county’s COVID-19 data.

In the event of a severe spike, businesses and facilities may close again, but city officials haven’t laid out out the conditions or case numbers that would trigger closures.

Mayor Kyle Deaver said case counts may increase as testing and reporting improve, but that may not necessarily constitute an emergency.

“The Texas Department of State Health Services has not yet adopted CDC’s recommendation that we look at diagnosed cases a little bit differently to include cases that physicians thought were probably positive, but were never tested positive,” Deaver said. “We may see an uptick in our numbers just because of that at some point.”

Today’s top pics: Coronavirus Outbreak and more

Today’s top pics: Coronavirus Outbreak and more

Baylor rural hunger pilot program expanded to millions of weekly meals

The U.S. Department of Agriculture announced Tuesday it will ramp up a program to feed rural low-income children, started by the Baylor University Collaborative on Hunger and Poverty, to provide five million weekly meals through June 30.

The expansion of the Meals-to-You program from 12 to 35 states plus Puerto Rico is expected to feed approximately a half million children missing free or reduced price school meals due to coronavirus-related school closures.

Jeremy Everett, executive director of the Baylor collaborative, said the program and its expansion will feed students in areas where distances and logistics create particular problems for summer food programs requiring in-person attendance or meetings.

“Instead of bringing kids to food, we had to bring food to kids,” he said.

Low-income families eligible for the Meals-to-You program receive a box of food every two weeks, delivered by UPS, the United States Post Office, FedEx and other services. Each box contains shelf-stable, prepackaged food such as milk, fruit cups, crackers and chili, cereal and the like to make 10 breakfasts and 10 lunches.

The hunger collaborative first tried the program in selected districts in East and West Texas last spring, then tested it last summer in tribal areas of New Mexico and in Alaskan villages unreachable by roads.

Planners were working with the Department of Agriculture in early February to expand the program to more states when word of a possible pandemic led them to consider adapting it to rural areas where schools might be closing.

A month later, Everett was in Washington, D.C. during spring break to talk about those plans when districts across the country began shutting down to slow the spread of the coronavirus, several hundred at first, then more than 1,300 in two weeks’ time.

Ramping up to a scale that could serve rural areas in 12 states brought new challenges, said Doug McDurham, the collaborative’s director of strategy and programs. In some areas, the number of boxes to deliver each week surpassed the total number of packages delivered in a month’s time. Federal privacy rules forced both school districts and participating families to sign off on eligibility requirements. Orders of suitable shelf-stable food for tens of thousands of boxes flooded some supply chains.

“I think we ordered almost all the shelf-stable milk there was in the country,” McDurham recalled.

Essential to the program expansion was the participation of McLane Global, with its considerable packaging muscle and distribution networks, and PepsiCo’s Food for Good program, which has supplied meals for after school and summer school food programs for years.

“It really required all hands on deck,” McDurham said, quipping, “We didn’t know what drinking from a fire hydrant was like.”

Meals-to-You has distributed 3.5 million meals this spring and the expansion will mean five million meals per week through June 30.

Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue praised the combination of private and public resources to meet hunger needs exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Uncertain and difficult times call for unprecedented actions and big picture ideas. Rural children affected by school closures faced food insecurity, but these great American groups and companies stepped up to help their fellow countrymen by delivering boxes of food across the country,” Perdue said in a press release. “This program has been so successful and faced such high demand that we are expanding to 5 million meals a week.”

The program will need Congressional approval and funding to continue once its existing authority expires June 30 and Everett said the lessons learned over the next two months should guide its immediate future. If schools are allowed to return to in-person operations this fall, many student food programs will start back up at that time, he said.

Everett added, however, that past experience shows a long way back for some low-income families during an economic recession with many families not reaching food security for six years after the 2008 recession.

Today’s top pics: Coronavirus Outbreak and more

Today’s top pics: Coronavirus Outbreak and more