Cases continue to rise, testing scarce



The fifth death attributed to the COVID-19 virus in Williamson County – a male in his mid-30s – was announced Monday afternoon, following nearly two weeks without a death.

The announcement came as calls have become louder across Texas and the nation to pull back stay home orders and reopen businesses to ease economic strains. Williamson County Judge Bill Gravell addressed that issue indirectly this week by focusing on the families that have lost loved ones to the virus.

“Every time we have someone who has lost their life to this horrible disease I’m mindful of the kids and grandkids, parents and grandparents that have to deal with this tragedy,” Gravell said. “I’ve heard individuals say, ‘Well, look at the cost and what it’s done to our area businesses and we’ve only had four or five people pass away.’ Perhaps for them, and through that filter maybe their attitude is right, but for those five that have lost loved ones this is a nightmare they’re having to live.”

Nine new confirmed cases Wednesday ended and a three-day slowdown where the County total rose by only three cases. The County total Wednesday was at 167, with 101 being reported as recovered.

County health officials consider a patient recovered following a negative test after a positive test or seven consecutive days of being symptom free after a positive test.

Both cases announced in Liberty Hill are reported as recovered, according to Mayor Rick Hall.

The erratic rise in cases in the county, along with an average of 839 new cases per day announced in Texas over the last two weeks highlights the importance of much-needed testing of the general public.

“Something we’ve struggled mightily with is test kits, and test kits were very difficult and complicated to get,” Gravell said, adding that the nationwide need complicates the effort to get kits. “It’s never been that simple when you have a nationwide crisis and disaster it is really difficult.”

In spite of that challenge, Gravell said testing for the public is a primary focus now.

“The two main focuses in the days ahead is testing locally for our residents and if possible, free testing for our residents to learn if they are COVID positive,” Gravell said. “We can’t know how large the problem is until we know how many individuals have or haven’t been tested.”

Planning for community testing has begun with discussions on how to establish testing sites in the county.

“We’re having conversations right now about how to stand up testing sites internally as a county and how to partner with our state and federal friends,” Gravell said. “I’m not going to be comforted until I know we have broader testing. What we’ve learned is that if we can test people and discover where the virus is we can have them self-quarantine in a way that helps others. I think testing is certainly a top priority and the health district is discovering as quickly as it can how we stand up our own testing facility and who would be the prescribed folks that would fall under that.”

But the bigger issue than setting up sites is coming up with the test kits themselves. Williamson County has been able to purchase a total of 2,500 test kits from American Institute of Toxicology Inc., and has paid $112,500 for those kits. The County did receive 500 free kits to be used in nursing homes. Gravell said at present, there are 2,082 kits on hand designated for first responders and the 500 kits designated for nursing homes or senior care facilities.

Gravell remained adamant, though, that testing has to happen.

“We don’t make decisions based upon nonscientific data,” he said. “We make good decisions based upon science and based upon the law. It’s not realistic that we test 600,000 (people) but it’s not realistic either that we’ve tested 1,000. We don’t even know all the residents that have been tested in Williamson County. We only know the ones tested through our health authority.”

Options for business
At the same time Texas Gov. Greg Abbott announced schools would not reopen during the current academic year, he issued new statewide guidelines April 17 on limited reopening for nonessential businesses. However, the new rules had little impact on business in Williamson County.

The order comes with many stipulations, with the primary requirement being that customers may purchase items from a retail location for pickup, delivery by mail, or delivery to the customer’s doorstep, but may not enter the premises.

Abbott was asked how his announcements impacted the stay-at-home order that he issued late last month, which is effective through April 30, and he noted the new guidelines were “additional exceptions to that stay-at-home policy.”

He said if the data shows Texas is continuing to slow the spread of the coronavirus by April 27, it’s possible the state could go back to the statewide standards it had prior to the stay-at-home order. Guidelines from Abbott expected on April 27 are expected to go into effect May 4.

Abbott said additional testing and monitoring would be required should the economy open up more to be ready for a resurgence in the virus.

“There is a possibility of a resurgence of COVID-19,” Abbott said. “That’s one of the reasons why we will utilize enhanced testing strategies, enhanced containment strategies, to make sure that when it does arise we’ll be ready. If a spread does arise in a very meaningful way, there may need to be pockets of the economy shut down.”