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Galveston County, city leaders issue joint stay-at-home order effective late Tuesday

GALVESTON

County Judge Mark Henry and the county’s 13 mayors came to an agreement Monday: all county residents would be told to stay at home.

The county will institute a stay-at-home order at 11:59 p.m Tuesday, officials announced Monday evening. The order will remain in effect until April 3. The order says nothing about how the government would enforce the provisions, however.

The order was signed by Henry, Galveston County Local Health Authority Philip Keiser and the mayors of every city in Galveston County. The leaders agreed to the order during a telephone conference Henry arranged Monday afternoon.

The order is meant to encourage county residents to limit their travel during a phase of the coronavirus pandemic when some health officials are predicting a soaring number of new cases, officials said.

Henry agreed to issue the order because it was recommended by the health authority, he said on Monday evening.

But while Henry signed and issued the order, he cast doubts about the forcefulness of the order.

“The local health authority asked that I do it and I did it in such a way that there are so many exceptions, most people will be excepted,” he said.

Under the county’s order, residents may only leave their homes to seek medical care, pick up essential items such as food — for either humans or pets — or household supplies, participate in solitary outdoor recreational activities or to work at an essential business.

Essential businesses include banks and retailers such as grocery stores, gas stations and convenience stores, in addition to healthcare providers, news organizations, restaurants providing takeout, delivery and drive-through services.

Essential infrastructure providers, such as local governments, trash collection and telecommunication systems providers also can remain on the job. Charitable organizations that provide help to those in need and child care providers also are exempted from the order.

Under the order, a manufacturing business that retools its operation to build ventilators can apply to become an essential business.

The order waives tolls at the San Luis Pass bridge at the West End of Galveston Island.

Galveston County’s order closely mirrors the one issued by Dallas County on Sunday afternoon.

The local order came down a little more than 24 hours after Gov. Greg Abbott declined to issue a statewide shelter-in-place order because of the coronavirus and deferred to local cities and counties to make their own decisions about shutdowns.

Other county leaders talked more forcefully about the seriousness of the order.

“We all agree that the county is at a tipping point,” Santa Fe Mayor Jason Tabor. “If we don’t do something now, the cases of COVID-19 will skyrocket.”

Galveston Mayor Jim Yarbrough called the order “serious stuff.”

“If you don’t have a reason to be outside your house, don’t go,” Yarbrough said.

The county order applies everywhere. Galveston or other cities could implement additional orders on top of the county’s rule, officials said.

Galveston is considering rules that would order short-term rental guests to leave the island, that would shut down game rooms and that would close fishing piers, Yarbrough said.

City leaders had discussed restricting access across the Galveston causeway, but on Monday didn’t anticipate such an order being drafted, Yarbrough said.

The agreement is one of the first examples of county leaders acting jointly in their response to the coronavirus pandemic.

At times over the past week, Henry deferred to the judgment of other local leaders — and the recommendations of the Galveston County Health District — to decide on what types of community precautions to take from the virus.

The result has been a patchwork of rules.

While Galveston and the mainland city of La Marque ordered a shutdown of bars and dining areas on March 17, other parts of the county didn’t go that far until forced to by an executive order by Abbott that went into effect on March 21.

The unified order was meant be an attempt to form “a single voice” for county residents. Yarbrough said he would rather be criticized for taking measures that were too strong than for not taking the crisis seriously enough.

Henry said he hoped the unified order would convince people who can stay inside during the crisis to do so.

The order does not include any language about enforcement or penalties.

“We’re hoping for voluntary compliance, and that’s the bottom line,” he said.

As of Monday, there were 18 confirmed cases of the coronavirus in Galveston County, according to the health district.

Reporter Keri Heath contributed to this report.


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Hospitals seek people to give blood as donations slip

GALVESTON

With local leaders urging people to stay home and keep their distance from others to reduce the spread of coronavirus, hospitals in Galveston County could face challenges in supplying enough blood for normal medical operations.

Closures of typical donation sites such as schools and fears about close contact with other people are discouraging people from donating, but donation drive organizers said the need is still there.

There’s no blood shortage yet in the Houston and Galveston regions, but donations have fallen off, said Kellye Moran, media coordinator for the Gulf Coast Regional Blood Center.

The nonprofit coordinates blood drives and supplies blood to hospitals across the Gulf Coast and East Texas.

“There is a national shortage,” Moran said. “We’re trying to prevent that from happening and affecting the 170 hospitals in our 26 counties.”

The blood center also supplies blood to the University of Texas Medical Branch.

Although elective surgeries have been largely postponed, hospitals will still need blood for emergency surgeries and other necessary procedures, Moran said.

The blood center’s biggest problem is that the normal drives at high schools and businesses were canceled when schools closed and many workers moved to telecommuting, she said.

Across the 26 counties, the blood center needs 800 to 1,000 donations daily to meet demand, Moran said.

At the League City United Methodist Church, 1601 West League City Parkway, on Monday, people drove up to the mobile blood donation center to give blood by appointment, said the Rev. Joel McMahon.

The church is an emergency back-up location for the blood center and also had donation days last week, McMahon said.

The need for blood donations is nationwide.

As of Thursday, partner organizations of America’s Blood Centers had logged 12,000 blood drive cancellations from March through the end of July nationally, said Kate Fry, CEO of the centers.

The Gulf Coast blood center is a member of America’s Blood Centers.

“We’re going to be down about 355,000 blood donations from now until July,” Fry said. “We’ve really been calling on healthy individuals across the country.”

People might be nervous to give blood because of the close contact with people, but blood donation centers are extremely clean, Fry said.

“We’re doing everything we can to increase our infection control procedures,” Fry said. “Blood centers are not general public spaces. We are highly regulated environments.”

No cases of coronavirus or flu have been linked to blood exposure, according to the Gulf Coast center.

The blood center is especially in need of O Positive and O Negative blood types, Moran said.

O Positive is given to patients more than any other blood type because it’s compatible with all red blood cells that are positive, and O Negative is a universally accepted blood type, according to the American Red Cross.

The center asked people to ensure they are healthy before they donate and to make an appointment in advance to help encourage social distancing practices, Moran said.


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Galveston couple stranded in Honduras by COVID-19 closures

GALVESTON

Crystal Janke and William Petterson had planned for their trip to a beach resort in Honduras to be short and sweet.

He proposed; she said yes; and when they left for Central America on March 14, they planned to return home two days later.

Because of COVID-19, their trip down south has become extended and a lot more stressful.

Honduras closed its borders March 15. Since then, the couple has been unable to find a plane to fly them out of the country, Janke said.

Domestic airlines, including Delta and United Airlines, have canceled their flights to the country, and charter flights are cost prohibitive, she said.

“With a private flight, you have to have at least eight people and it’s like $4,000 per person,” she said. “I don’t know who can afford that, but I can’t.”

Janke, a Galveston resident who owns a medical practice in Friendswood, said she and Petterson were one of the two final guests at a beach resort in Tela, Honduras. They had been asked to leave the resort Monday, and weren’t sure where they were headed next.

They had tried to book flights on four different airlines, only to have them canceled. They tried to drive out of the country, but were stopped, she said.

The couple has been in contact with the U.S. Embassy and have a letter that allows them to cross Honduras’ border, she said. But what they don’t have is transport, they said.

“All they’re basically saying is ‘good luck,’” she said.

Janke said her hope was the U.S. military would agree to pick up them and a few other COVID-19 refugees. The military had made at least two other flights out of the country in the past week, including one Saturday to retrieve the U.S women’s football team from Honduras.

In the meantime, Janke was trying to stay calm, she said. There have only been a handful of cases reported in Honduras as of Monday. One of Janke’s chief concerns was what she left behind in Galveston. Her 18-year-old son was home alone with her dogs, she said.

“We’re just trying to keep him sane,” she said. “We’re taking it one day at a time.”


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Tensions rise as $2 trillion virus aid stalls in Washington

WASHINGTON

Tensions flared Monday as Washington strained to respond to the worsening coronavirus outbreak, with Congress arguing over a nearly $2 trillion economic rescue package and an impatient President Donald Trump musing openly about letting the 15-day shutdown expire.

As the U.S. braces for an onslaught of sick Americans, and millions are forced indoors to avert a spike that risks overwhelming hospitals, the most ambitious federal intervention in modern times is testing whether Washington can act swiftly to deal with the pandemic on the home front. By evening, there were no further votes set for Monday, as talks pushed into the night.

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said late Monday that negotiators still hoped to “close it out” as he left Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer’s office. Near 8 p.m., Schumer strode to the Senate floor upbeat over “very good discussions.” He said they would keep working.

“It’s time to get with the program, time to pass historic relief,” said an angry Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell earlier in the day as he opened the chamber after a nonstop weekend session that failed to produce a deal. “This is a national emergency.”

Fuming, McConnell warned Democrats — pointedly House Speaker Nancy Pelosi — to quit stalling on “political games,” as he described Democratic efforts to steer more of the aid toward public health and workers.

Trump, who has largely been hands off from the negotiations, weighed in late Monday from the White House briefing room, declaring that Congress should vote “for the Senate bill as written,” dismissing any Democratic proposal.

“It must go quickly,” Trump said. “This is not the time for political agendas.”

The president also sounded a note of frustration about the unprecedented modern-day effort to halt the virus’s march by essentially shutting down public activities in ways that now threaten the U.S. economy.

Even though Trump’s administration recommended Americans curtail activities starting a week ago, the president said: “We cannot let the cure be worse than the problem itself. At the end of the 15-day period, we will make a decision as to which way we want to go.”

“Let’s go to work,” he said. “This country was not built to be shut down. This is not a county that was built for this.”

Trump said that he may soon allow parts of the nation’s economy, in regions less badly hit by the virus, to begin reopening, contradicting the advice of medical and public health experts across the country, if not the globe, to hunker down even more firmly.

Pelosi assailed Trump’s idea and fluctuating response to the crisis.

“He’s a notion-monger, just tossing out things that have no relationship to a well coordinated, science-based, government-wide response to this,” Pelosi said on a health-care conference call. “Thank God for the governors who are taking the lead in their state. Thank God for some of the people in the administration who speak truth to power.”

The White House team led by Mnuchin worked on Capitol Hill for a fourth straight day of talks as negotiators narrowed on a bipartisan accord.

In the nearly empty building, the virus continued to strike close. Republican Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, who announced he tested positive for coronavirus, is now among five senators under self-quarantine. Several other lawmakers have cycled in and out of isolation. And the husband of Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., is in a hospital with pneumonia after testing positive, she said Monday.

First lady Melania Trump, meanwhile, has tested negative for the coronavirus, Trump said.

With a wary population watching and waiting, Washington labored under the size and scope of a rescue package — larger than the 2008 bank bailout and 2009 recovery act combined.

Democrats are holding out as they argue the package is tilted toward corporations and should do more to help suddenly jobless workers and health care providers with dire needs.

In particular, Schumer, D-N.Y., wants constraints on the largely Republican-led effort to provide $500 billion for corporations, which Democrats have called a “slush fund.” Schumer wants the bill to limit stock buy-backs, CEO pay and layoffs.

Yet, he said, “We’re very close to reaching a deal.” Even so, another attempt to move the package forward snagged, blocked as Democrats refused to quit negotiating.

Democrats won one concession — to provide four months of expanded unemployment benefits, rather than just three as proposed, according to an official granted anonymity to discuss the private talks. The jobless pay also would extend to self-employed and so-called gig workers.

But Republicans complained Democrats were holding out for more labor protections for workers, wanting assurances that corporations taking federal aid will commit to retaining their employees.

Pelosi came out with the House Democrats’ own sweeping $2.5 trillion bill, which would provide $1,500 directly to the public and $200 billion to the states, as governors are pleading for aid. She urged Senate negotiators “to move closer to the values” in it.

Trump has balked at using his authority under the recently invoked Defense Protection Act to compel the private sector to manufacture needed medical supplies like masks and ventilators, even as he encourages them to spur production. “We are a country not based on nationalizing our business,” said Trump, who has repeatedly railed against socialism overseas and among Democrats.

From his home, Democratic presidential rival Joe Biden criticized Trump for stopping short of using the full force of emergency federal authority .

“Trump keeps saying he’s a wartime president,” Biden said in an online address. “Well, start acting like one.”

On the economic front, the Federal Reserve announced Monday it will lend to small and large businesses and local governments as well as extend its bond-buying programs as part of a series of sweeping steps to support the flow of credit through an economy ravaged by the viral outbreak.

Central to the emerging rescue package is as much as $350 billion for small businesses to keep making payroll while workers are forced to stay home. The package also proposes a one-time rebate of about $1,200 per person, or $3,000 for a family of four, as well as extended unemployment benefits.

Hospitals would get about $110 billion for the expected influx of sick patients, said Mnuchin. But Democrats are pushing for more health-care dollars for the front-line hospitals and workers.

The urgency to act is mounting, as jobless claims skyrocket and financial markets are eager for signs that Washington can soften the blow of the health-care crisis and what experts say is a looming recession.

For most people, the new coronavirus causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia. The vast majority of people recover from the new virus. According to the World Health Organization, people with mild illness recover in about two weeks, while those with more severe illness may take three to six weeks to recover.


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UTMB adds beds, triage centers, braces for virus cases

GALVESTON

The University of Medical Branch was bracing Monday for a wave of COVID-19 cases, laying plans to add beds, establishing remote triage centers, and urging people to call before they sought care at any of its facilities, interim President Ben Raimer said.

As of Monday morning, 21 patients were under investigation for COVID-19 in the medical branch’s four area hospitals and two had tested positive for the virus at Jennie Sealy Hospital on the Galveston campus, officials said.

The medical branch, which has 600 beds at various hospitals, plans to increase that number substantially in coming weeks, including the number of intensive care beds, Raimer said.

All of the medical branch’s campuses were ready for more virus-related admissions and that number was expected to go up exponentially by the end of this week, Raimer said.

Also as of Monday morning, about 8 percent of patients tested for the virus showed positive results, meaning they are infected with the COVID-19 virus, up from 4 percent over the weekend, he said.

“If that number is solid, more people having positive tests would mean the virus is spreading pretty rapidly through the community,” he said, cautioning the percentage of positive patients tested could continue to climb.

“We’re looking at our estimates on viral replication, and by the end of next week we expect to see large numbers of people presenting with the virus,” Raimer said.

As of Monday, Galveston County health officials have reported 18 positive cases.

Raimer borrowed a saying attributed to hockey great Wayne Gretzky to illustrate what’s happening at the medical branch in preparation for a surge in cases.

“Success in playing hockey is knowing where the puck is going to go in the next few seconds,” Raimer said. “We’re trying to look at where the disease is going to go in the next few weeks. We’ll be constantly updating and bringing new things online.”

Among those new things will be triage units housed in tents outside medical branch hospital emergency rooms and outside urgent care centers, Raimer said.

“The idea is to create two different access points of care,” he said. “This will automatically separate out patients who fear they might have COVID-19 and are symptomatic, keeping them from going into the emergency room.

“Remember, we have to remain open to broken bones and other health crises at all times.”

Patients suspecting they might have COVID-19 should call first, and if they need to be seen will be told exactly where to go, Raimer said. They will be assessed and sent to testing sites, or to evaluation sites to make a prompt diagnosis, although testing requires a day to wait for results.

“Most people, if they’re not ill, will simply be sent back home to await their test results,” Raimer said. “If they’re positive, we’ll treat them based on their symptoms. Remember, 80 percent of people who have coronavirus are likely to complete a course of care without going into the hospital.”

But even 20 percent of a widely infected segment of the population within the county, with a total population over 300,000, could mean a lot of hospital beds will be needed, he said.

Keeping medical branch personnel safe, uninfected and able to work is a top priority and requires a surplus of personal protective equipment such as masks, gowns and gloves, Raimer said.

“At all our major sites, behind the scenes we’ve been amassing a stockpile of N-95 masks, special gowns and gloves, the things healthcare providers wear to remain safe,” he said.

“We’ve been concerned about having enough available, then this weekend we got calls from people with products to sell as well as an incredible number of people in the community who stepped up to donate to the university.”

Raimer cautioned that staying away from other people is the only way to avoid becoming infected, along with good hygiene practices like regular hand washing and spraying countertops and other surfaces with disinfectant.

He urged anyone thinking of going into one of the medical branch’s clinics, the emergency room or urgent care facilities to call first to receive instructions on where to go and what to do. The medical branch’s COVID-19 access center can be reached day or night at 800-917-8906 or 409-772-2222.