Gov. Abbott shares coronavirus concerns, updates as of Sunday evening

Published 6:13 pm Sunday, March 22, 2020

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Gov. Greg Abbott took questions after he, state health commissioner John Hellerstedt and state emergency management chief Nim Kidd spoke for about 20 minutes Sunday.

In his prepared remarks, Abbott said he issued two new executive orders.

One tells health care providers to postpone all elective surgeries and medically non-emergency procedures. The other suspends certain state hospital regulations, such as limitations on the number of patients per room, to free up more beds.

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The governor also said he sees no need right now for a statewide shelter in place order, as North Texas hospital executives asked him Sunday to impose.

Abbott said he wants to see the full effects of the executive order he issued Thursday. It bans gatherings of more than 10 people and closes many establishments for two weeks.

Abbott noted some areas of Texas haven’t had many people test positive for the virus. What may suit one area of Texas may not be needed elsewhere, he said. Local officials are free to adopt more aggressive measures and he welcomes their doing it, he said.

“The peak depends completely on our ability to prevent the spread,” Hellerstedt said. “Without better hygiene and Texans’ avoiding social gatherings, the spread can happen ‘very fast,” he said. “What we know is the best thing to have happen is that we slow it down so that the peak comes later and lower.”

Do you expect schools will resume this [academic] year, Abbott was asked.

“It just depends upon whether or not there has been any reduction in the spread of COVID-19,” the governor replied.

“It’s impossible to tell right now because our stricter standards are just now going into effect. It will require at least several weeks of observation to see whether or not there may be some containment of the spread of COVID-19. If there is, there is a possibility for them opening. If there’s not, Education Commissioner Mike Morath is working on flexible strategies,” Abbott said.

Where it’s available, students could resume with online learning, he said. Where that’s not available, teachers would deliver packets to homes.

Abbott was asked about the Dallas area hospital executives’ request for a shelter in place order.

Is there a specific number of cases there would have to be for him to issue such an order statewide, he was asked. And similarly, is there a number of cases or some other judgment factor that local authorities should use?

“It will be an aggregation of factors that weigh into the decision about whether or not stricter standards are needed,” he said. The level of compliance with his Thursday order banning large gatherings, which took effect over the weekend, is something he’ll be watching closely, he said.

“If we see strict compliance with the current standard, that means that the current standard is working well,” he said.

“If you don’t have an essential reason to be leaving your home, you should not be leaving your home,” the governor said. “It’s pretty much that.”

If Texans refuse to comply, “if we see activities that promote further spread of COVID-19, then stricter standards will be needed,” he said.

Abbott was asked how much is the state’s economic condition weighing on his decision not to issue a statewide, shelter-in-place order – at least, not yet.

“The only thing that matters right now is public health and safety,” he said. “And so we are looking at what is in the best interest, statewide, for public health. But you have to understand this. I’m governor, not of Dallas, I’m governor, not of Houston. I am governor of those locations. But I’m also governor of all 254 counties. And so when it comes to statewide interests, I’m looking at what is in the best interest for people around the state of Texas.”

The governor was asked about the progress of a plan he and various public- and private-sector officials may be working on to increase hospital capacity and the number of available quarantine beds.

“There are several strategies that we are working on to ensure that we will have adequate bed supply as well as personnel supply to respond to COVID-19,” he said.

He noted that his Executive Order No. GA-09 would postpone for a month – until 11:59 p.m. on April 21, at least – all elective surgeries and other procedures – both medical and dental – that are not immediately necessary in the opinion of the patient’s physician or other health care professional. That will free up beds, he said.

The order also suspends seven Health and Human Service Commission regulations dealing with hospitals and “any other pertinent” rules or laws, upon written approval of the governor’s office.

“For the rooms and hospitals where this is possible, as opposed to having one bed in a room, they would have two beds in a room,” Abbott explained.

Without naming it, he said “one sizable hospital in the state” has said the waiver may allow it to increase available beds by 50%. “That will vary from hospital to hospital,” he said. “But we believe that those strategies will go a long way to free up beds.”

Other strategies the governor said hospital executives have told him they would like to see are medical tents and reopening vacant health-care facilities. “Then there are second- and third-tier strategies,” he said, such as his previously discussed idea of reopening closed hotels and motels for COVID-19 patients whose symptoms aren’t severe.

Abbott was asked whether, to free up more acute-care hospital capacity, he’ll recommend shifting from hospitals to ambulatory surgical centers some of the jobs they could handle, such as appendectomies, gall bladder and kidney stone surgeries where urgently needed, inserting catheter ports for cancer patients.

“We are looking at that as well as all strategies,” he said. Some medical procedures must go forward, Abbott said. “We are looking at alternative locations for them to take place.”

The final question was about how concerned is Abbott about the current supply of personal protective equipment for Texas’ health care and first responder workforce.

Abbott said he and other governors have been discussing that with President Donald Trump.

“We all need more PPE,” he said. People administering the test for COVID-19 need the equipment, he said. Texas’ attempt to limit the virus’ spread “is going to be limited if we do not have more PPE. That is why I am strongly urging our federal partners to step up the production and acquisition capabilities that they have in a way far superior to the state’s.”

Texas tried strategies to get more masks, gloves, gowns and shields, Abbott said.

“There’s delivery dates in July,” he said. “That’s not going to work. We need delivery dates tomorrow. The next day. And we have ready money today for anybody who can sell PPE to us. We’ll cut you a check on the spot.”