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A quiet surge hits Galveston County's death investigators

TEXAS CITY

At no time in the past five years has the Galveston County Medical Examiner’s Office encountered so much death.

Through the end of July, the office has investigated 579 deaths, officials confirmed Friday. In July alone, the office received reports of 118 deaths.

It’s the highest single number of deaths reported by the office since the beginning of 2016. The next highest total was 93, in January 2018.

For weeks, there have been more bodies to pick up, more autopsies to complete, more paperwork to file, more phone calls to families, said Dr. Erin Barnhart, Galveston County’s chief medical examiner.

“Everybody’s just super-exhausted around here,” Barnhart said.

And while COVID-19 deaths are constantly in the news and on the minds of Americans, coronavirus infections alone don’t explain the sharp, sudden spike in death underway here, officials said.

The medical examiner’s office doesn’t track coronavirus deaths. It reviews the deaths of people who die outside of hospitals to make a determination when cause isn’t initially clear.

But while the office is not handling coronavirus deaths, officially, one thing has become clear: More people in Galveston County are dying this year compared to years past.

NUMBERS

Depending on which source you look to, somewhere between 72 and 93 Galveston County residents have died of COVID-19-related causes this year. This week, the Texas Department of State Health Services began reporting the higher figure, citing information gleaned from death certificates.

What is being seen at the medical examiner’s office, however, is larger and may speak to the secondary effect the pandemic has on people, even if they’re not falling ill with the virus.

Through July 31, the medical examiner’s office recorded 579 reportable deaths, about 100 more than had been reported by the same time in any year between 2016 and 2019. The medical examiner’s office saw a five-year high in reportable deaths in March, April, May, June and July. The 118 deaths reported in July were the most deaths recorded by the medical examiner’s office at any time since 2016.

CAUSES

Some of the deaths might have been people who contracted coronavirus and did not seek medical care, Barnhart said.

Others might have been people who had the virus, were treated and recovered, only to later die of some other adverse health effect. Still others might have died of virus-adjacent reasons, like failing to go to a hospital for treatment for an illness because of concern about the risk of catching the virus.

“It’s not necessarily the COVID-related deaths,” Barnhart said of the spike.“Most of those people are dying in the hospital, although there are exceptions to that. I think what’s going on is several things.

“People are not going to the doctor like they should be. People are waiting until they’re super sick to go to the ER, whereas before they would have gone to see their primary care doctor,” she said. “There might be a component of people not being able to afford their medications.”

Whatever the reasons, a surge of all deaths is not unique to Galveston County. In Houston, New York, Boston, Detroit and other cities, reports of at-home deaths have coincided with increases of coronavirus cases.

Earlier this year, during outbreaks in the northern states, statistics reported to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention noted steep increases in overall deaths in New York, New Jersey and Michigan, among other places.

Like in those places, it’s possible that people who die outside hospitals in Galveston County will never definitively be ruled in or out of the county’s coronavirus statistics.

The medical examiner’s office is able to test post-mortem for COVID-19, Barnhart said. But the office doesn’t do tests on every person whose body is brought in. Because of poor ventilation in the medical examiner’s office, investigators only conduct external exams to look for injuries and toxicology tests, Barnhart said.

In cases where a person possibly had COVID-19 but died in a way that requires a full autopsy, such as a homicide, the medical examiner’s office can use morgue facilities at the University of Texas Medical Branch that are equipped to protect against highly infectious diseases.

Some people whose bodies go through Barnhart’s office might have died from COVID-19 but might not be screened for it.

“I think that’s possible,” Barnhart said. “We have access to post-mortem testing, but we don’t have a ton of it, so we’re not doing it on everybody.”

Investigators do try to determine whether a person who is found dead had COVID-19 symptoms, she said. But in cases where a person lived alone or didn’t tell anyone about an illness, that might remain a mystery.

Despite the high number of deaths, the medical examiners’ office has not been overwhelmed, Barnhart said. Earlier in the pandemic, when there were a large number of cases at local long-term care facilities, the office had arranged to have a refrigerator unit to be used in case of a large number of deaths. The refrigerator was never needed and has since been returned, she said.

But elsewhere in the county, other people who deal with death say they are bracing for the possibility of more bodies.

Jay Carnes, the owner of Texas City’s Carnes Funeral Homes, said Friday that demand for his company’s services has been at an all-time high over the past month. Carnes owns a crematorium used by multiple mortuaries in the county.

“I have been 24/7 busy,” Carnes said. “I’m not behind, but it’s pushing me more than I’ve ever been pushed before.”

Part of that demand is not simply that more people are dying, Carnes said. More people are seeking cremation services over burials during the pandemic because of concerns about health and safety, he said. Cremations also have become a generally more popular choice in recent years.

As at the medical examiner’s office, Carnes’ employees are busy but not overwhelmed, he said. The demand for funeral services is about what he would experience during winter months of a bad flu season, he said.

The difference is it’s the middle of summer and not yet flu season.

Galveston County’s situation also isn’t as dire as other parts of Texas, Carnes said. Earlier this month, he sent some employees to South Texas to help with body recoveries there after a call for help from state officials.

“They literally can’t pick people up fast enough,” Carnes said.

Given the situation in other parts of Texas and the demand he was already seeing in Galveston County, Carnes doesn’t envision his work slowing down soon. On the contrary, he’s negotiating to purchase new equipment in case of a future surge.

“I’m going to buy additional refrigeration,” he said. “I think it may be needed.”


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Houston developer buys rare Galveston tract with direct beach access

GALVESTON

A real estate consulting firm that owns luxury condominiums in Houston has acquired one of the last tracts with direct beach access on the island’s West End.

Houston-based Satya this week closed on the acquisition of 2.86 acres from IBC Bank at 10327 Termini-San Luis Pass Road. The parcel is adjacent to Diamond Beach Resort and was meant to be the second phase of that development.

Satya doesn’t have immediate plans for the property, but CEO Sunny Bathija said a hotel or condo, or both, was possible on the parcel that’s zoned for high-density development.

With the parcel, Satya also acquired the permitted uses previously secured by Diamond Beach Resort developers, meaning tenants of whatever is developed — be it a hotel or condominiums — can use the public amenities, such as the lazy river, at the existing resort, Bathija said.

Diamond Beach, a 117-unit mid-rise resort, came online in 2009 as real estate markets were recovering from the Great Recession caused by the burst of a housing bubble and Hurricane Ike, which struck in 2008.

In 2012, with the threat of foreclosure looming, owners of Diamond Beach in Galveston and resort Sapphire South Padre filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection seeking to prevent foreclosure on personal and commercial properties.

The Chapter 11 filing was the latest legal move in a dispute between developer Randall Davis and IBC over a $40 million loan. IBC Bank held the mortgages on both Texas properties.

Eventually, IBC Bank took possession of the properties.

Satya in January began working to acquire the West End tract, but much was sidelined by COVID-19, which the World Health Organization declared a pandemic on March 11, toppling what had been a strong economy and postponing or killing real estate deals around the world.

Satya’s assets include luxury Houston condominium developments The Westmore, The Sophie at Bayou Bend and The Giorgetti Houston, which is a design collaboration with Giorgetti, a renowned Italian cabinet and furniture maker.

Satya’s assets also include large shopping centers. Since the pandemic, the company has been preoccupied with navigating a commercial real estate market stunned by retail closures and tenants struggling to make rent, Bathija said.

“We’ve been trying to help our tenants,” he said.

Development for the West End tract still is in the planning stages.

But Bathija, whose family owned a condominium for five years in Galveston, sees potential in the market for development.

The pandemic has made planning difficult, but a development will rise on the island tract, he said.

Satya will decide the details of that development sometime in the first half of next year, Bathija said.

“Our primary focus was to acquire the land,” he said. “It’s pretty unique and well-situated.”

When the pandemic passes, he expects Galveston to resume its status as a robust real estate market increasingly popular with vacationers and second-home buyers, he said.

“We are confident it will come around,” he said. “It’s just a matter of time.”


Coming Tuesday

While larger Galveston County high schools must wait to start their seasons, La Marque and Hitchcock sports teams begin their first practices as scheduled. How will that look, and how will the pandemic affect turnout?


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Delay sports, stagger return of students, Galveston County health officials advise

GALVESTON COUNTY

School districts should consider delaying sports programs, return groups of students to in-person classes in stages and allow 10 days between each wave to give time for the coronavirus to incubate, Dr. Philip Keiser, Galveston County’s local health authority, said in a list of recommendations he released late Friday.

Keiser’s recommendations come as school districts across Galveston County and the state are crafting plans to reopen campuses to in-person teaching in the new school year.

District officials must balance the benefits students receive from in-person classes with the dangers still posed by the coronavirus pandemic, Keiser warned.

Given the rates of transmission, cases of COVID-19 inevitably will develop among students, Keiser said. Galveston County as of Friday has recorded more than 8,000 cases of the virus, with 78 hospitalizations and 73 deaths.

That means about one of every 10 county residents has coronavirus and is transmitting it, Keiser said.

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton this week also weighed in, releasing legal guidance arguing school officials — not local health officials — have ultimate authority about whether to close schools to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, according to The Associated Press.

Keiser in his guidance acknowledges Paxton’s guidance, pointing out that the advice allows health district officials to order limited quarantines in response to outbreaks at a specific school.

The percentage of positive cases has stabilized at 9 percent for the past two weeks, officials said. There is no optimal threshold for numbers or percentage of cases for reopening schools, according to the recommendations.

To combat a rise in cases locally, school districts should follow all guidelines set out by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Texas Education Agency, Keiser said.

Although the two sets of guidelines contain some differences, each recommends social distancing in the classrooms, grouping students, maintaining small class sizes, universal masking, excluding sick children and employees, consistent cleaning of rooms and surfaces, following guidelines for food service and cafeterias and limiting visitors to campus, among others.

In addition to those recommendations, districts should also delay the opening of brick-and-mortar schools for as long as possible under Texas Education Agency guidelines, he said. Those guidelines require districts to provide face-to-face learning for students whose parents demand it within eight weeks or face a loss of funding.

Districts that are staggering reopenings should allow 10 days between each wave of students, Keiser said. Districts should delay sports programs and develop a detailed response plan for cases in schools.

Districts are also required to notify the health district of any known or suspected cases, send those people home, keep a seating chart for each class and work with the health district on contact tracing and isolation of cases and contacts, officials said.

School openings are among the most recent points of conflict in the ongoing response to the coronavirus pandemic.

Clear Creek Independent School District, for instance, this week announced it will proceed with reopening plans despite a Harris County order that would have delayed the opening for about a week. Some of the district’s schools are in Harris County and others are inGalveston County.

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo on July 22 issued a health order prohibiting schools from opening before Sept. 8 but said it could extend beyond that.

Galveston County, meanwhile, doesn’t have such an order in place.

Clear Creek’s reopening plan had been to host all students online starting Aug. 24, and then all in-person learning would return by Sept. 8.

But pre-kindergartners, kindergartners, sixth graders, ninth graders and special education students were set to return to in-person classes Aug. 31, which would be before Hidalgo’s order allows.


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Some Galveston businesses face backlash over social media posts

GALVESTON

It wasn’t the kind of social media post island resident Danielle Bell wanted to see.

Last week, Bell spoke out on her Facebook page about the post by popular island restaurant ShyKatZ Deli & Bakery, 1528 Ave. L.

Bell didn’t appreciate the post, which depicted a photograph of a Black woman running through a shattered storefront window with a bag over one shoulder. The implication was clear, and the post asked whether looters should lose government assistance. The post propagated at least two racist stereotypes, said Bell, who is Black.

“ShyKatZ needs to know it can’t do that,” Bell said.

But owner Kat Kearns Crain didn’t mean it to be about race, she said.

“It’s something that keeps me awake at night trying to understand how that question would make you not want to support the cafe,” Crain said. “It’s hard for me to understand how could someone misunderstand if they know me.”

ISSUE OF THE AGE

Regardless of intent, social media posts and other messages that take businesses into politics have drawn objection from customers who say they won’t patronize places because of the messages.

Backlash could become even more common in this age of social media and social justice, marketing researchers warn, and that means business owners have to be much more conscious about what they say publicly and how they say it or risk alienating parts of their markets.

It’s a reality national companies such as Goya Foods and Papa John’s Pizza have faced in recent months.

Earlier this month, Goya Foods, a purveyor of packaged products especially popular among Hispanics, felt backlash from many of its customers when the company’s president, Robert Unanue, praised President Donald Trump during a White House visit and said “we’re all truly blessed” to have a leader like Trump. The remarks drew calls on social media for a boycott of the company’s products.

Pizza delivery company Papa John’s also felt pushback and saw its stock tank after founder John Schnatter confirmed he had used a racial slur on a phone call with a marketing agency in 2018. Schnatter later stepped down as chairman of the company.

SkyKatZ tries to keep it light and positive with some sarcasm on the restaurant Facebook page, Crain said. The restaurant’s social media is active with motivational quotes, humorous memes and Bible verses.

The post about looting was about criminal actions, and Crain was asking for people’s opinions, she said. But because of the post, some people have said they don’t want to support ShyKatZ, Crain said.

“I don’t have a political stance,” Crain said. “I just believe in right and wrong.”

BACKLASH AGAINST POSTS

To Bell, the post promoted stereotypes that Black people rely on government assistance and that Black people are responsible for rioting and looting that occurred during some of the recent protests calling for racial justice, she said.

Bell works for a company that checks her social media pages and would fire her for posting objectionable things, she said. Business operators need to realize their customers are doing the same thing, she said.

“If they check my social media, we’re checking yours,” Bell said. “Eyes are watching.”

NOTHING PERSONAL

Crain likened the looter post to a sticker supporting the police she has had on the cafe door for years, she said. Neither was intended as a political message, she said.

But now some people have criticized her for the sticker.

“Now, I’m racist,” Crain said.

Galveston business owner Rudy Betancourt came under fire last month when residents spoke out about some posts on his personal Facebook page.

Betancourt, owner of Black Pearl Oyster Bar, 327 23rd St., The Press Box, 2401 Postoffice St., and Safari Beach Company, 910 Ave. M, declined to comment on record for the story.

One post, using images, stated that if the Confederate flag must go, so too must the pan-African and rainbow LGBTQ pride flags.

Another advertised a “white lives matter” event in Crystal Beach over the Fourth of July weekend. There were no reports of such an event, and peninsula beaches were partially closed that weekend. The posts have since been taken down.

The posts surprised Todd Slaughter, owner of Rumors Beach Bar, 3102 Seawall Blvd., a member of the local LGBTQ community, he said.

Slaughter felt offended by the posts and doesn’t think he’ll frequent Betancourt’s businesses anymore, he said.

“If I were in his shoes, I would have apologized,” Slaughter said. “I’ve stuck my foot in my mouth, but pull it out and let people hear you.”

CONSCIOUS MESSAGING

Businesses ought to be very mindful and specific when they make politics public, said Trent Ross, chief research officer of corporate reputation management for market research nonprofit Market Science Institute.

“It’s a very conscious process rather than something that is emotional and a knee-jerk reaction,” Ross said. “This conscious process should leverage their value and back up things they do as a business.”

Companies, big and small, need to pick messages that align with their core values and organizations and target their messaging toward those values, Ross said.

Business owners have to make the same decisions for their personal content, he said.

“Whereas in the past you might have been able to disassociate your personal opinion from the opinion of your business, with the availability of information these days, it’s much harder to do,” Ross said.

RISKY BUSINESS

It’s becoming more common for companies to make public statements about issues, said Anastasiya Zavyalova, associate professor of strategic management at Rice University’s Jesse H. Jones Graduate School of Business.

Making those statements and speaking on current issues inspires reaction from customers and stakeholders, Zavyalova said.

“On one hand, stakeholders that agree with you can become your loyal fans, your loyal customers,” Zavyalova said. “But it also invites the opposition.”

The discussion about business’ role in society has gained steam since the 1980s, she said.

“With social media, it’s more upfront and visceral and difficult to ignore,” Zavyalova said. “Everyone’s a journalist, in a way.”

The key is that businesses take a stance that’s related to their product or the viewpoints of customers, said Julie Irwin, professor of marketing at the University of Texas McCombs School of Business.

“If the posts seem random or out of character with the company and its branding, then it would be at best weird for them to post political viewpoints,” Irwin said.

ODD AND GRATUITOUS

People expect brands to take a stance on issues that are intimately associated with their business, but if a post or political action seems odd or gratuitous, it could drive customers away, Irwin said.

“Consumers may not want to think about weighty political issues when they are trying to escape by eating a pizza,” Irwin said.

The good and bad news for businesses is that the news cycle goes so fast these days, people tend to forget, Ross said.

“It tends to get lost in the sea of information,” Ross said.

Crain’s regulars are still coming in and business hasn’t been hurt, she said. But the fact that people won’t come to her business because of her posts hurts, Crain said.

She didn’t mean to offend anyone and just wants people to love each other, she said.

“I guess people are just super sensitive right now,” Crain said. “Seems as though there’s always someone waiting to criticize or complain.”