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Fifth COVID-19 death in McLennan County reported as case count climbs higher

A fifth McLennan County resident died Thursday from COVID-19, after three consecutive days of record high numbers of confirmed infections since the county started tracking the coronavirus in March, the Waco-McLennan County Public Health District reported.

The 46-year-old Hispanic man died at a Waco hospital Thursday morning. His death is the first COVID-19-related death reported in McLennan County since April.

The man’s death comes at a time when McLennan County has seen a marked increase in people testing positive for COVID-19, with 82 people reporting positive over the past four days. At least 245 McLennan County residents have tested positive for COVID-19 since March.

The health district reported Thursday that 23 more McLennan County residents have tested positive for COVID-19, bringing the total number of people actively sick with the disease to 105. That number is almost as high as the number of people who have recovered from COVID-19 — 135.

St. Francis on the Brazos Catholic Church announced Thursday on Facebook that two of its child care employees had tested positive for COVID-19. The church has closed the child care operation until further notice and notified all parents of children who attend. St. Francis plans to sanitize the facility, following U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines for cleaning and disinfecting. It is unclear if the two employees were included in McLennan County’s report of 23 new people testing positive for COVID-19 on Thursday.

In all, the health district is monitoring 400 people, including those who are currently sick and their close contacts. Three McLennan County residents are in the hospital, and three others are in local hospitals with the disease.

With more people contracting COVID-19, McLennan County Judge Scott Felton said he and the commissioners court would consider requiring local businesses to have employees and customers wear face masks when social distancing is not possible, similar to the orders issued Wednesday by officials in Bexar and Hidalgo counties.

The orders by Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff and Hidalgo County Judge Richard Cortez come two weeks after Gov. Greg Abbott issued an executive order June 3, banning local governments from imposing fines or criminal penalties on people who do not wear face masks in public, The Texas Tribune reported.

Felton said issuing a similar order for businesses in McLennan County would be a topic of discussion among the county commissioners and city leaders in the coming days, as they gather more information about where these new infections are coming from. Contact tracing of people sick with COVID-19 has found that some people likely came in contact with the novel coronavirus at graduation celebrations.

“Understanding the virus and how it’s being transmitted in our area is important,” Felton said. “Hopefully, this is just an aberration, but it may not be. My hope was that we could continue to educate folks on the benefits on using all the suggested ways to stay safe, such as wearing masks and social distancing.”

The health district’s investigation into the man’s death found no indication he had any underlying health conditions, unlike the other four people in McLennan County who have died from the disease, health district spokesperson Kelly Craine said.

McLennan County started seeing an uptick in people testing positive for COVID-19 last week as more people return to work and more businesses reopen, Craine said. The trend continues this week, as the health district is monitoring 400 people exposed to or potentially exposed to the virus.

“We’re seeing that wave we tried so hard to stop in March,” she said. “It’s like a wildfire.”

Nine of the 23 McLennan County residents who tested positive Thursday were in their 20s. That age group accounts for 24% of all confirmed local infections, more than any other age group. One individual who tested positive Thursday was younger than 10 years old, the first time the county has broken out people younger than 11 into their own category.

Thursday’s numbers also include:

  • 1 person ages 11-19
  • 3 people ages 30-39
  • 4 people ages 40-49
  • 5 people ages 50-59

Craine said it is important for people to acknowledge that anyone can become seriously ill from COVID-19, regardless of their age or health, and that the severity of the illness varies from person to person.

“This virus affects everybody,” she said.

Texas reported 3,516 more people had tested positive for COVID-19 and 43 more people had died, as of 4 p.m. Thursday, according to the Department of State Health Services website.

Statewide, at least 99,851 people have contracted COVID-19, and 2,105 people have died as a result of the disease. That number includes 722 Bell County residents, 304 Coryell County residents, 40 Limestone County residents, 46 Hill County residents, 21 Falls County residents and seven Bosque County residents who have tested positive for COVID-19. It also includes nine people who have died in Bell County, as well as two people in Coryell County and one person in each Hill County and Limestone County.

The state numbers do not include the most recent information from McLennan County.

New bridges take shape on I-35 through downtown Waco

The downtown segment of the Interstate 35 reconstruction project through Waco is beginning to take shape. Crews last week finished installing beams on the 11th-12th Street overpass and will follow suit with the Fourth-Fifth Street bridge next week.

As of June 10, $150 million had been spent on the $341 million project, state officials said.

Photo gallery: Interstate 35 widening project through Waco: 2019-2020

Waco advocates say DACA ruling offers temporary relief, no permanent solution

Local immigration advocates said Thursday the Supreme Court’s 5-4 decision blocking the Trump administration from ending the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program would lower the anxiety level for local DACA recipients, but more work was needed to make those protections permanent.

In a ruling written by Chief Justice John Roberts, the majority held that the Trump administration had not followed the correct steps to end DACA, a 2012 executive action by then-President Barack Obama that protects many undocumented residents brought to the United States as children.

The action provides a renewable stay of deportation for those who were 16 or younger when they came to the United States and were 30 or younger in 2012. Those winning DACA status, informally nicknamed “Dreamers” based on the DREAM Act that did not pass through Congress, had to have a clean criminal record and be in school or finished high school at the time of their initial application.

The court ruling Thursday would allow the Department of Homeland Security to submit a different order ending the program, though it likely would face new court challenges and would be unlikely to take effect this year.

“I’m not really sure if there will be any changes coming from this,” Waco immigration attorney Susan Nelson said. “Trump has the legal authority to end DACA but didn’t do it right. … It’s very much a procedural decision (by the court).”

For Waco school teacher Grecia Chavira, a former DACA recipient and graduate of both McLennan Community College and Baylor University, Thursday’s ruling eased fears of impending deportation for many, including her husband. She received permanent residency status last year.

“It’s a huge win for everyone else I’ve fought alongside,” Chavira said. “I’ve been a Dreamer and I still consider myself a Dreamer.”

DACA does not provide a path to citizenship for those brought to the United States as children and who grew up without status as legal residents. It provides a means to work or go to school by enabling a work permit, Social Security number and a driver’s license.

About 650,000 people are DACA recipients, and the court decision provides them a measure of relief from deportation after the president’s 2017 call to end the program. U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services statistics from last year show 107,020 registered DACA recipients in Texas, second to California’s 184,880. Nelson said there is no hard number of DACA recipients living in Waco or McLennan County, but estimated it might be close to 1,000 people.

In a statement released Thursday, Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, said the time is right for legislative action to put DACA recipients on firm legal footing.

“DACA recipients must have a permanent legislative solution. They deserve nothing less,” Cornyn wrote. “These young men and women have done nothing wrong.

“They’ve defended our freedoms in the United States military. Many of these young people are in their 30s now with careers, families, plans, hopes and dreams of their own. So the uncertainty about their status and what will happen to them is no less terrifying for them than it would be for any of us.

The Republican-led Senate, however, refused to consider the American Dream and Promise Act passed by the House in December, which would have set a path toward citizenship for DACA recipients and other immigrants.

U.S. Rep. Bill Flores, R-Bryan, in recent years has called for DACA protections as part of broader reform of immigration policy.

“Before discussing the Supreme Court decision, it is important to note that my long-standing position regarding Dreamers has not changed,” Flores said in a statemetn Thursday night. “Congress must work together on a bipartisan basis to pass legislation that secures our border and creates a permanent path to legal status solution for our Dreamer population.

“On the other hand, I believe the Supreme Court has once again ignored its constitutional role and improperly legislated from the bench. As such, I disagree with the court’s decision to rule that an Executive Order to reverse a previous Executive Decision was improper.”

However, since the court held that repealing DACA would not be unconsittutional, it is especially important that Congress “address the Dreamer issue in a fair and permanent manner,” he wrote.

DACA has shaped the last eight years of Chavira’s life, not only opening the door to her present work as a teacher at Cedar Ridge Elementary School, but hanging over the future of her husband, Enoc Hernandez, a current DACA recipient.

The 2009 University High School valedictorian remembers the day — June 12, 2012 — when she heard about DACA. A year later, after finishing a business management degree at Baylor University, she qualified.

“It was like a huge weight off my back. I could now plan for the future,” she said. “Once you have the ability to work legally, everything opens up for you.”

It opened doors to the career she is in now, school teaching. She was 7 years old when her family came to the United States from Mexico, then overstayed their visa. The daughter of an accountant, she found she could not follow in his career because she had no Social Security number and could not take the CPA certification test.

She had started a business management degree at Baylor University, figuring that going into business for herself was a safer option given her lack of legal documentation. DACA status allowed her to look into teaching. She earned certification after finishing her Baylor degree and has taught in the Waco Independent School District for the past four years.

She said DACA status still comes with strings attached. Recipients have to renew it every two years with a renewal fee of $495, and there is no path to citizenship. Any criminal conviction, too, automatically ends it.

Chavira now has a green card, which gives her legal residency and a path to pursue American citizenship “as soon as I can become eligible,” she said.

Baylor Scott & White closing Bellmead, Moody clinics, moving doctors

Cost-cutting is hitting home at Baylor Scott & White Health, which confirmed this week it will close clinics in Bellmead and Moody and shift doctors serving patients at those facilities to Hewitt, Waco and Temple.

The moves come as the health care system with almost 43,000 employees, including almost 1,700 locally, follows through with announced plans to lay off 1,200 people and to cut the pay of executives and physicians to stem losses from the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Bellmead clinic to be closed is across Loop 340 from Baylor Scott & White Hillcrest Clinic, which will remain open.

Locally, an 85-year-old retiree living in Lacy Lakeview told the Tribune-Herald he makes almost weekly visits to the Bellmead clinic now set to close. He was diagnosed with leukemia more than a year ago and undergoes treatment for cancer affecting his mouth and nose. He can drive, but a “bone-on-bone” problem with a knee forces him to use a wheelchair. His wife also has health problems, said the man, who agreed to be interviewed but asked not to be named.

He said if he wants to continue seeing his favorite doctor, and he does, he will have to follow him to his new assignment across town. Fortunately, he has reliable transportation, he said. But he worries about others in the Bellmead-Lacy Lakeview area who may not.

Baylor Scott & White Health, whose flagship is Baylor University Medical Center in Dallas, operates 50 hospitals and more than 200 outpatient and surgery centers, according to information provided by Baylor Scott & White.

The system announced last month it would flex and furlough staff to match patient volumes, consolidate some functions, and cease underutilized services. A drop in patient volume as the system geared up for COVID-19 sent the system reeling, Baylor Scott & White CEO Jim Hinton said in a statement at the time.

The reassigned doctors will remain in the Waco area and available to longtime patients, McLennan County Medical Society President Dr. William McCunniff said by email. McCunniff said he had heard of Baylor Scott & White’s plans to close the Bellmead and Moody clinics as cost-cutting measures.

“From our perspective, we certainly empathize with those patients affected by these closures, particularly our senior citizen population who may have transportation issues,” he wrote. “We strive to push for quality health care for all of our local communities and would prefer to keep health care accessible to all individuals in these affected regions.”

Bellmead will not be left without resources, McCunniff said. At least three other clinics operate there “staffed by high quality physicians from Hillcrest, Providence and the Family Health Center systems,” he wrote.

That is not the case in Moody, a community of about 1,400 people.

Moody Medical Clinic Association President Glen Thurman said by email that a Scott & White-branded clinic opened there in 1978 and has provided medical services to residents in Moody, Oglesby, Bruceville-Eddy and the surrounding area more than four decades.

He said the association on May 28 was informed in a phone call that Baylor Scott & White would not operate the clinic after July 2, and later was told Baylor Scott & White would terminate its lease Aug. 14.

Thurman said he understands personnel staffing the Moody clinic will be transferred to Baylor Scott & White clinics in Temple or Hewitt.

He said the clinic serves more than 600 patients, including many who will face obstacles traveling to Temple or the Hewitt area for appointments. He said he expects some longtime patients to seek health care elsewhere.

The Moody Medical Clinic Association, meanwhile, is pursuing a new tenant.

Baylor Scott & White Health spokesperson Deke Jones confirmed the health care system plans to close the Bellmead clinic at 556 N. Loop 340 and the Moody clinic at 498 Avenue E.

“As community needs evolve, we continuously adapt how and where we deliver care,” Jones said by email.

Doctors and other staff members will transfer to Hewitt, Waco or Temple, he said.

“With these provider moves, more of our clinic locations will be able to offer extended evening and weekend hours to better serve our patients,” according to Jones’ email. “We are committed to facilitating a smooth transition of our patients’ care to our other locations.”

He said patients using the Baylor Scott & White clinic in Bellmead that is now set to close are welcome to seek care at a Baylor Scott & White Hillcrest clinic nearby, at 851 N. Loop 340, which will remain open.

They also may follow their doctors to clinics in Hewitt and Waco.

The presence of two Baylor Scott & White clinics near each other in Bellmead dates to before Baylor Health Care System and Scott & White Health Care merged in 2013, Jones said.

“Both Scott & White and Hillcrest legacy organizations owned clinics in Bellmead,” he said.

Baylor Scott & White hospitals and clinics throughout Central Texas use a single electronic medical record “allowing for seamless and safe care for our patients.”

Operating locally amid this clinic shuffling is Ascension Providence, another sizable provider of health care services to Greater Waco and beyond.

“Ascension Providence has not made any COVID-19-related layoffs to employed staff,” spokeswoman Danielle Hall wrote in a statement. “We have opportunities for currently employed clinical staff to be retained and reassigned should their current departments be impacted by a slower pace of recovery within their department and the changing realities of health care.”

She said Ascension clinics remain open, and virtual visits are possible.

Talks of local elections separate from November general election still preliminary

City of Waco, Waco ISD and Midway ISD officials are continuing to weigh the idea of holding their Nov. 3 elections separately from that day’s general election that includes the presidential contest, but discussions remain preliminary.

McLennan County Elections Administrator Kathy Van Wolfe told county commissioners during their meeting Tuesday that a separate election for the city or school districts likely would create additional costs, require additional poll workers, and could force voters to wait in separate lines to cast separate ballots in each election. In an interview Thursday, Waco Mayor Kyle Deaver said he was not sure why Van Wolfe made the presentation when she did. He said city staff had not requested the presentation and were not aware she was giving one. At that stage, city officials were only gathering information about what a separate election would entail, Deaver said.

“This is a council decision,” Deaver said. “Several of the council members hadn’t even heard about this, and I’m sure some members of the school board hadn’t either.”

Deaver said he met once with City Secretary Esmeralda Hudson, Van Wolfe and McLennan County Judge Scott Felton to discuss the possibility of conducting a separate election. After May elections were postponed to Nov. 3 because of COVID-19, Waco was among several Texas cities that requested, to no avail, that Gov. Greg Abbott allow cities to choose a date in July instead. Deaver said he is concerned the partisan nature of the presidential race could be detrimental to nonpartisan local races farther down the ballot.

“There could be some real advantages to it (separate elections), in that it helps to maintain the sanctity of the local elections that are not Republican or Democrat,” Deaver said. “They’re nonpartisan, and I have some real concerns about being thrust into a general election ballot.”

While countywide turnout for November general elections is consistently low, turnout for Waco’s May elections is consistently abysmal. In 2018, countywide turnout in November was 54%, compared to 5.7% for that year’s May city of Waco contest. In 2016, countywide November turnout was 59%, compared to 2.5% for May turnout in Waco.

Deaver said he has discussed the possibility with Waco ISD school board President Angela Tekell and Midway ISD school board President Pete Rusek, and the three organizations have been discussing how to handle the election since the date was moved.

“We’re trying to sort through all of this stuff for, as far as I know, the first time in our city’s history, and trying to get the information so we can make the best decision for how to proceed,” Deaver said.

Waco ISD spokesperson Kyle DeBeer said the district is in an information-gathering mode right now as well and has not made a final decision.

“A November election is a new thing and we’re gathering information about what the options for conducting that election would be and what each of those options will entail,” DeBeer said.

Hudson, Waco’s city secretary, said she has been tasked with coming up with plans for a hypothetical separate election to present to Waco City Council, but she has only started recently and was equally surprised by Van Wolfe’s presentation.

“Across the state, cities back in 2012 were given the option to move to November, and some did, but many decided it was really important to keep the integrity of a local election in a May timeframe.” Hudson said.

While the city typically hires the county to conduct its elections, using its election machines, she also said she is reviewing quotes from companies that rent voting machines. Leasing equipment and the campaign to recruit election workers would be the biggest costs to the city.

“I know it’s definitely going to be more expensive than if we were to contract with the county, but just meeting with Kathy last week about the number of machines we would need, the number of locations, I’m getting quotes in from the companies now,” Hudson said.

The city would have to give voters the option to vote at all 34 vote centers proposed by the county, Hudson said. This route would require voters to fill out one ballot, then move to a second voting site at the same location and fill out the nonpartisan ballot, she said. The goal would be to provide enough voting machines to keep lines moving and allow for physical distancing between participants.

“We have to look at all of the traditional voting locations that might be too small to hold a few machines, that might be too small to do appropriate physical distancing,” Hudson said.

She said the city and county have also discussed moving voting to larger spaces for the sake of safety, like the still-closed Waco Convention Center or unused schools gyms.

“It’s challenging,” Hudson said. “You don’t want to change things up for voters very much, but at the same time so much is different.”