Gov. Greg Abbott today announced a state of disaster for all counties in the state of Texas amid a rapidly evolving situation centered on COVID-19, or coronavirus.
The March 13 decision effectively authorizes the use of all available and necessary state government resources to help prepare and respond to COVID-19, Abbott said.
The announcement comes on the same day city of Austin officials confirmed two presumptive positive cases of coronavirus in Travis County, further signaling a need for a rapid response from state officials.
Alongside Dr. John Hellerstedt, commissioner of the Texas Department of State Health Services, and Nim Kidd, chief of the Texas Division of Emergency Management, Abbott said state officials have also asked health insurers operating in Texas to waive costs associated with testing and telemedicine visits concerning coronavirus.
"This will give the Texas Division of Emergency Management the ability to assign and fully utilize personnel where they are needed the most," Abbott said. "This will provide the immediate ability to move resources around the state, including resources obtained through the Strategic National Stockpile."
The declaration also empowers the Texas Attorney General's Office to pursue cases of price gouging related to the crisis and allows the governor's office to waive state laws hindering the ability of relevant agencies to respond to COVID-19.
Regarding uninsured citizens, Abbott said they have two options for testing, one being public health and the other being private laboratory testing.
If a person meets public health criteria, they could receive testing at no cost, Abbott said, adding private testing will likely come with costs.
"Very important to note: Texas is seeking waivers for federal regulations for the school lunch program to give districts flexibility to provide students food should a district need to shut down for a temporary period to respond to the coronavirus," Abbott said.
At this time, not including those who have been repatriated into Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Abbott said Texas has 39 confirmed cases of coronavirus across Collin, Dallas, Tarrant, Fort Bend, Gregg, Harris, Montgomery, Smith, Bell and Travis counties.
"220 Texans have been tested in Texas public health labs or through the CDC," Abbott said, "and we currently have approximately 75 Texans who are being tested as we speak."
Texas Public Health labs have the capacity to test 273 people per day, Abbott said. Starting next week, he added, private labs will be able to test several thousand per week.
Abbott also announced the opening of the first drive-thru testing facility happening in San Antonio on March 13. Right now, it is only open to first responders, health care workers, critical infrastructure operators and high risk patients.
"Since they've only been open, quite literally, only a few minutes, it is too soon to tell how many people they will be able test each day," Abbott said. "My team is also working with the cities of San Antonio and Dallas and is in conversations with the city of Austin to also implement drive-thru testing sites that will also be run at a local level."
Those drive-thru testing facilities should be up and running within two weeks, Abbott said.
Restricted visitation and other actions
Abbott said the state is also taking measure to prioritize the protection of Texas' most vulnerable populations from COVID-19.
"I am directing state agencies to restrict visitation at nursing homes, state-sponsored living centers, hospitals and day cares," Abbott said. "This directive allows limited exceptions for things like end-of-life visitation and requires all individuals to go through the proper screening."
Abbott is also directing all agencies to restrict visitation at prisons, jails and juvenile justice facilities as well as to take any action necessary to facilitate telemedicine and provide flexible work policies.
Abbott said internet demands will increase as a result of more people working from home during the COVID 19 pandemic, and his office has been addressing that possibility with the private sector.
"I applaud what AT&T just announced—that they are waiving internet data usages for any customer who doesn't have unlimited home internet access," Abbott said.
He also urged citizens to avoid stockpiling items at the grocery store, as it is, at this time, an unnecessary action.
"I want to assure the people of Texas that we're going to make it through this," Abbott said. "We made it through SARS, we made it through Ebola, we made it through H1N1, and we're going to make it through this, as well."
Gov. Abbott declares state of disaster for Texas
Dr. John Hellerstedt, commissioner of the Texas Department of State Health Services, left, and Gov. Greg Abbott addressed the media from the Texas Capitol on March 13. (Brian Rash/Community Impact Newspaper)