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9:17 p.m. Today’s “COVID-19 in 60” video updates the latest combined case counts for Houston and Harris County, and provides highlights from Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s plan to reopen the state.
9:07 p.m. Mayor Sylvester Turner joined some HISD seniors’ virtual prom on Friday night.
The mayor, dressed in a suit and bow tie in his home, told the teens that the city is with them– even if it has to be virtually for a while.
While on the video call, one of the kids asked Turner what his favorite song is.
“What’s something lit, Mayor turner?” she asked.
The mayor chuckled, but didn’t elaborate on his go-to bop in a video of the virtual meeting released by his office.
8:32 p.m. Quinceañeras, celebrations which encompass family and faith with Latina girls turning 15 as a centerpiece, are another element of life swiftly dimmed by the coronavirus pandemic, reports Jose R. Gonzalez.
Quarantine measures to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 are forcing some Montgomery County parents to set aside long-held, and sometimes costly, plans for their daughters’ milestone event.
8:07 p.m. There are now more than 2 million confirmed COVID-19 cases worldwide, according to the World Health Organization. There have been more than 140,000 deaths globally. More than 550,000 patients have reportedly recovered.
7:22 p.m. The statewide total of confirmed COVID-19 cases is now 18,001, reports the Chronicle’s data team. That’s an increase of 893 cases, or 5.2 percent increase.
Twenty six more COVID-19 deaths were confirmed in Texas, bringing the state’s total to 447. That is a 6.2 percent increase.
The Houston region count is now 6,349, up 250 from yesterday. There have been 109 deaths in the Houston region, up 6 from yesterday.
7:10 p.m. In light of Gov. Greg Abbott’s order for schools to remain closed through the rest of 2019-2020, the University Interscholastic League and Texas Association of Private and Parochial Schools each canceled spring activities amid the COVID-19 outbreak, reports the Chronicle’s Adam Coleman.
Abbott’s announcement came Friday afternoon and the expectation the UIL and TAPPS would cancel activities for the rest of the school year became reality three hours later.
6:41 p.m. A Texas state district judge on Friday issued an order allowing voters to use the coronavirus as a reason to vote by mail for as long as the pandemic lasts — an early victory for the Texas Democratic Party and civil rights groups seeking to expand mail-in voting, though the ruling is almost certain to be quickly appealed by the state.
Judge Tim Sulak’s temporary injunction says the state can’t stop voters from voting by mail based on disability “as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic,” and it stops the state from “taking actions” preventing county elections officials from accepting and counting mail-in ballots from those voters.
State law allows voters to claim “disability” and apply for an absentee ballot if showing up at a polling place risks “injuring the voter’s health.”
Democrats and voting rights groups, who have sued in both state and federal court, argued the disability clause should cover voters who are worried about showing up to a polling place during a pandemic. But Republican Attorney General Ken Paxton has said fear of the coronavirus is not an acceptable excuse to claim disability to vote by mail.
-Reporter Benjamin Wermund
6:07 p.m. The Texas Department of Criminal Justice “surreptitiously” transferred at least 121 COVID-19 positive inmates to two units in Brazoria County without prior notice to local officials, County Judge Matt Sebesta said on Friday.
Sebesta penned a letter to Gov. Greg Abbott after learning of the transfers, who comprised about 37 percent of the 326 inmates in the state who tested positive for the disease caused by the new coronavirus.
“TDCJ has inundated Brazoria County with a disproportionate share of its Covid-19 cases and caused a disproportionate exposure to Covid-19 for TDCJ employees and their families who are residents of Brazoria County, first responders in Brazoria County and other residents of Brazoria County,” Sebesta said in the letter.
TDCJ spokesman Jeremy Desel confirmed that the state prison system removed an unidentified number of inmates from the Beto unit near Palestine and the Telford unit, near Texarkana, and relocated them to the Scott Unit in Angleton and the Stringfellow unit in Rosharon.
-Reporter Samantha Ketterer
5:47 p.m. In a rare move, Texas’ highest court on Friday issued a warrant for a man accused of assaulting his ex-girlfriend and her grandmother after he had been released on bail by a Harris County magistrate.
The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals set the man’s bail at $100,000 and ordered that he could not be released on personal recognizance bond.
The county magistrate originally set his bail at $500, according to the Harris County District Attorney’s Office. Prosecutors filed a motion challenging the magistrate’s original bond order, which the higher court granted.
Timothy Singleton, 31, was charged with aggravated assault for allegedly beating his ex-girlfriend and throwing her grandmother to the ground on Wednesday. Two weeks before that, Singleton was released on $500 bail after he allegedly pulled a gun on another man on March 31.
“We have worked hard to keep the citizens of Harris County safe through this crisis by agreeing that non-violent defendants should be released from the jail, but the public needs protection from violent offenders accused of violent crimes,” said District Attorney Kim Ogg in a statement. “The ruling, and the urgency with which the Court of Criminal Appeals acted, shows that our concern for public safety has to be taken into account by our local judges.”
Ogg’s office said it argued that judges can’t legally consider concerns about the COVID-19 outbreak to set bail amounts.
“Singleton did not present a specific health concern that would have placed him at higher risk of COVID-19 infection than any other member of the community,” prosecutors said in a statement.
5:20 p.m. Houston Fire Chief Samuel Peña said Friday that his department’s captain who has been in the ICU with COVID-19 has been released from the hospital.
There are currently 62 firefighters in quarantine, down from 220 on April 8. Of the 29 firefighters who tested positive, the chief said 19 have returned to work.
4:48 p.m. Mayor Sylvester Turner said he will name the city’s COVID-19 “recovery czar” on Monday, as the city charts a path forward in the pandemic.
The mayor said his selection and one that County Judge Lina Hidalgo names will lead some kind of a recovery group. More details are expected Monday.
Turner said he is still reviewing Gov. Greg Abbott’s executive orders, one of which established a strike force to reopen the state economy. The mayor said he wants more details about Abbott’s plan to expand testing in a state that has lagged behind most, if not all, others in tests per capita.
“The testing has always been and continues to be the most important thing,” Turner said. “We need to hear a lot more on the plan for robust, ubiquitous testing. That’s the critical piece.”
Turner said residents can expect some measures, like practicing social distancing and the recommended use of face masks in public, to continue through May.
“The governor will set the overall parameters, but within those parameters we will determine what are the measured steps that we need to take in order to maintain the health and safety of the people of Houston,” Turner said.
-Reporter Dylan McGuinness
4:44 p.m. Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo announced Friday Harris County will open coronavirus testing to people without symptoms, reports Zach Despart.
Houston made the same change on Monday, followed by Galveston. Hidalgo previously said she had held off because there weren’t enough tests to do so.
New: @LinaHidalgoTX announces Harris County will open #coronavirus testing to people without symptoms. #Houston made this switch on Monday, followed by Galveston. Hidalgo had held off because she said there weren’t enough tests for those with symptoms.https://t.co/5ZswkkjWo9
— Zach Despart🖊️ (@zachdespart) April 17, 2020
4:20 p.m. With just under two weeks left on Montgomery County’s stay-at-home order, County Judge Mark Keough has terminated the local order but said the county will remain under orders and guidelines of the state, reports Catherine Dominguez.
Keough’s action also lifts the curfew placed on residents.
In a video statement, Keough said his decision to terminate the local order and follow the state’s orders means nothing will be “standing in the way” locally as Gov. Greg Abbott works to roll out a phased plan to reopen businesses.
4:05 p.m. Mayor Sylvester Turner reported Friday afternoon that there were 114 new confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the city, brining Houston’s total to 2,570.
There were two additional deaths confirmed Friday as well, brining the city’s total to 31. The new deaths include a woman and a man in their 80’s who had underlying health conditions, according to officials.
Mayor @SylvesterTurner reports 114 new cases (2,570 total), and two new deaths (31) in Houston.
The new deaths include a white woman in her 80s (4/9) and a white man in his 80s (4/7). Both had underlying conditions.
— Dylan McGuinness (@dylmcguinness) April 17, 2020
3:59 p.m. Given Gov. Greg Abbott’s most recent order, retail businesses will be able to provide to-go services, with some restrictions, starting on April 24, reports the Chronicle’s Emma Balter.
This does not apply to “essential” businesses such as grocery stores, which have been able to operate during the stay-at-home order; it is for all retail stores considered “non-essential.”
Customers will be able to buy items from a retail store via pick-up and delivery (by mail or to a customer’s doorstep), but will not be allowed inside the store.
For more information about what retail to-go will look like, click here.
3:32 p.m. On Friday, Justin Verlander and Kate Upton announced they’ve funded donations of facemasks, touchless thermometers and protective shields for first responders in Detroit.
The couple partnered with Bella+Canvas to donate 25,000 masks for the Detroit Police Department and also with Ford Motor Company to supply a protective face shield for every police officer, paramedic and firefighter in Detroit.
They sent touchless thermometers, too, in partnership with B Strong. Verlander and Upton also made a donation to Feed the Frontlines Detroit, an organization that provides meals to Detroit first responders and supports the city’s local restaurants.
-Reporter Chandler Rome
3:10 p.m. A Houston federal judge ordered a 28-year-old woman released from a Montgomery County immigration detention center on Friday because her compromised health was imperiled by COVID-19, given the near-impossibility the facility could adhere to hygiene and social distancing measures necessary to protect her.
U.S. District Judge Keith P. Ellison released Georgina Rojas from the Montgomery Processing Center, an Immigration and Customs Enforcement lockup in Conroe on the grounds that her body-mass index is 48.3, putting her at elevated risk amid the pandemic under CDC guidelines, reports the Chronicle’s Gabrielle Banks.
Ellison’s case initially involved four people detained at the facility on civil immigration matters. Two of the litigants left the facility by other means prior to his ruling. Ellison denied a request by the fourth person, Bassam Jebril, a 37-year-old with respiratory issues and high blood pressure
The judge said Jebril wasn’t a good candidate for expedited release because of his recent history of domestic violence and his failure to heed court orders prohibiting him from contact with relatives.
3:05 p.m. Construction, professional, scientific, and technical services, manufacturing and healthcare industries were the bulk of recipients from a federal business loan program that ran dry Thursday, the Chronicle’s Washington correspondent Benjamin Wermund reports.
Congress had no clear plan to bolster the program as companies across Texas struggled to get much-needed help. Rules for the program gave big corporations a weeklong head start over sole proprietor businesses and independents, said Imtiaz Munshi, an accountant in Sugar Land who helped his clients apply, which further tipped the scales.
The loans were available to companies with fewer than 500 employees and have gone to a range of businesses from accounting and architecture firms to fast-food chains, including San Antonio-based Taco Cabana.
New data released Friday showed the bulk of the loans issued under the program went to businesses in the construction, professional, scientific, and technical Services, manufacturing and healthcare industries.
The state has more than 546,000 businesses that could have qualified, according to the most recent data from the Texas Workforce Commission. Lawmakers say more funding is urgently needed as unemployment claims skyrocket, passing 1 million in Texas in just four weeks.
2:53 p.m. Workers gathered outside the back of HCA Houston Healthcare in Conroe on Friday morning where a colorful sign displayed “heroes work here” and a nearby message was written in chalk on the concrete to say “our heroes wear scrubs.”
The Chronicle’s Meagan Ellsworth reports dozens showed up to create a prayer circle around the hospital, a bit of front and center good vibes from faith for workers on the front lines of the COVID-19 care crisis.
“They were backed up bumper to bumper around the hospital,” West Conroe Baptist Church Pastor Jay Ross said, describing the cars surrounding the hospital. “It was amazing. A lot of the workers came outside, they were waving, our folks were honking and waving. There were a ton of people out there.”
2:45 p.m. State Rep. Garnet Coleman, D-Houston, said he wants lawmakers in January to re-establish the Office of Minority Health Statistics and Engagement, citing the new coronavirus.
“The COVID-19 pandemic has made it painfully obvious that the state of Texas made a huge mistake in de-funding the office,” Coleman said.
During the 2017 legislative session, lawmakers stopped funding for the office which helped track racial disparities in health care, effective Sept. 1, 2018.
2:25 p.m. A seventh Montgomery County resident has died from COVID-19 complications, the county’s public health office confirmed Friday.
“She was a woman in her 80s, who was a resident of The Conservatory at Alden Bridge,” he Montgomery County Public Health District said in a statement. “She is the fifth person who has died related to the senior living apartment complex.”
One of every five fatalities from COVID-19 are happening in Texas nursing homes.
Montgomery County has 370 total positive cases of COVID-19, up 20 cases from Thursday, officials said.
2:22 p.m. Pearland joined the ranks of cities and counties using dashboards to offer real-time infection information on the COVID-19 crisis, the Chronicle’s Ted Dunnam reports.
The dashboard — www.pearlandtx.gov/coronavirus — features data supplied by the Brazoria, Harris and Fort Bend counties’ health authorities to provide updated numbers related to COVID-19 cases and is updated hourly.
As of 1:50 p.m. April 17, for example, the site showed 171 COVID-19 cases reported in Pearland, with 53 active cases, 115 with total recovery and three fatalities. Brazoria County at that time listed 285 total cases, with 142 active cases, 140 recoveries and the three fatalities from Pearland.
“It’s a much more comprehensive view than what we had before,” city spokesman Joshua Lee said. “We were posting numbers on the site manually, but our goal is always speed of access to information that’s easy to understand.
“Hopefully, this helps us accomplish that goal a little better.”
2:10 p.m. State unemployment numbers and payments are rapidly increasing, according to the Texas Workforce Commission.
In a briefing streamed online, the agency said jobless claims and service needs are growing so much that the workforce commission is hiring and plans to open an eighth service center.
This week –> $579 million in benefits to 387 thousand claimants
Last week–> $137 million in benefits to 227 thousand claimants
For more on unemployment insurance Texas –>
— Texas Workforce Commission (@TXWorkforce) April 17, 2020
Roughly 1,500 workforce commission staff are handling claims. More are in training to open a the seventh and eighth call centers. Offioials are encouraging people waiting for assistance or answers by phone to try online options, or plan for lenthy hold times as they address the surging demand.
1:58 p.m. Gov. Greg Abbott’s announcement that Texas will slowly reopen for business after a month-long furlough comes as the rate of positive COVID-19 tests has risen since March to over 10 percent, according to state data, the Chronicle’s Jeremy Blackman reports.
Democrats have called for increased access to testing and medical supplies, as well as a focus on the virus’s disproportionate impact on black and Hispanic people in the state.
“We have not even been able to scratch the surface of testing,” Rep. Senfronia Thompson, D-Houston, said Thursday in a call with reporters. “We’re all ready to get out of our houses and go back to work. but we don’t even know what’s out there.”
The governor did not provide specifics Friday for how testing will expand in the coming weeks, saying only that it will continue to grow.
“In the short term, you will see daily increases,” Abbott said. “It will be going up quite a bit.”
1:51 p.m. Despite Gov. Greg Abbott starting the process of reopening Texas, the state’s peak for deaths is likely a couple weeks or more away.
A mortality model developed by UT Austin researchers estimates there is only a 25 percent chance the peak of deaths caused by coronavirus in Texas comes within the next seven days. It’s more likely, researchers said, within the next 14 days.
“On average, there seems to be a 3-4 week lag between when someone gets infected with COVID-19 and when they’re at risk of death,” said professor Lauren Ancel Meyers, who co-leads the UT COVID-19 Modeling Consortium, in a release. “That means we’re just beginning to see the life-saving benefits—and the clear signal in the data—of social distancing that began in mid- to late March.”
Most states will not peak until after May 1, the model shows. Nonetheless, Abbott and other state officials are gearing up to revive shops and offices.
“Glimmers of the worst of COVID-19 may soon be behind us,” Abbott said at his noon press conference, crediting Texans for heeding advisories to stay at home and reduce exposure.
“You truly helped to save lives,” Abbott said.
1:30 p.m. Mattress Mack is mobilizing an army of delivery drivers, the Chronicle’s Greg Morago reports.
Jim McIngvale, owner of Gallery Furniture, will hold a press conference Friday afternoon to ask for volunteers to help deliver food to thousands of homebound senior citizens on April 18. Volunteers are needed from 6 to 10 a.m. to delivery groceries to seniors as part of a partnership between Gallery Furniture and Kroger.
As of April 16, Kroger has delivered more than $350,000 of groceries to Gallery Furniture as part of an effort to feed more than 10,000 Houston seniors in need.
At the press conference McIngvale ask that volunteers report to Gallery Furniture, 6006 N. Fwy., where bags of food will be loaded into their trunks; volunteers will receive a list of addresses located within a single ZIP code to deliver to seniors’ doorsteps.
“The stories that I have heard from seniors seeking food have been heartbreaking,” McIngvale said.
1:23 p.m. The Texas Department of Criminal Justice “surreptitiously” transferred at least 121 COVID-19 positive inmates to two units in Brazoria County without prior notice to local officials, County Judge Matt Sebesta said Friday afternoon, the Chronicle’s Samantha Ketterer reports.
Sebesta penned a letter to Gov. Greg Abbott on Friday after learning of the transfers, who comprised about 37 percent of the 326 inmates in the state who tested positive for the disease caused by the new coronavirus.
“TDCJ has inundated Brazoria County with a disproportionate share of its Covid-19 cases and caused a disproportionate exposure to Covid-19 for TDCJ employees and their families who are residents of Brazoria County, first responders in Brazoria County and other residents of Brazoria County,” Sebesta said in the letter.
The judge has requested that the state provide additional personal protective equipment and reimbursement of any additional expenses that might result from the patient transfers.
1:20 p.m. Maybe it stands for Make America Gather Again.
Residents in parts of the country that voted for President Donald Trump have worried less about COVID-19, especially as the new coronavirus was first emerging in the U.S., a new study out of Rice University found.
The Chronicle’s Benjamin Wermund writes that the findings suggest that the new coronavirus — and efforts to curb its spread — have fallen into the partisan divide, something that appears to be the case in Texas, where a group of conservatives, including an influential Texas activist, penned an open letter to Trump this week, calling stay-at-home orders “tyranny.”
The study used internet search data, as well as smartphone data to analyze average daily travel distance and visits to non-essential businesses over the last several weeks. It found that searches were low and travel was common in Trump country, especially in the early weeks of the outbreak.
1:09 p.m. Business leaders, some of whom are losing wealth as the COVID-19 crisis continues, will be integral to deciding when the shroud of stay-home orders are lifted. Some are well-known political players.
Mike Toomey, mega lobbyist and longtime @GovernorPerry confidant, to play central role in @GregAbbott_TX’s effort to reopen economy. https://t.co/MkAvv7T2NP
— Jay Root (@byjayroot) April 17, 2020
Gov. Greg Abbott’s “strike team” isn’t the only avenue, the Chronicle’s Jay Root writes. Details of just how Lt. Gov. Patrick wants to jump start commerce in Texas, and who all is advising him on it, remains a state secret — with one notable exception, that is.
Patrick announced last week that G. Brint Ryan, a multimillionaire Dallas businessman and Donald Trump ally, would lead his “Task Force To Re-Start the Economy.”
12:58 p.m. The decision to not reopen Texas schools for the academic year means more distance and online learning and the loss of some seminal moments for seniors, the Chronicle’s Jacob Carpenter and Jeremy Blackman write.
Gov. Greg Abbott’s announcement means all public school districts must continue to provide online instruction through the remainder of the school year to avoid losing state funding and extending their calendar.
The decision also ensures the state’s 350,000-plus seniors will not return to class before graduation, causing them to miss seminal events marking the end of their time in high school. Many districts have pushed back graduation ceremonies into the summer, though it remains to be seen whether public health officials will advise against holding those gatherings.
“I’ll be very heartbroken if we can’t go back, but I’ll understand because safety comes first,” said Magaly Rosales, a senior at Houston ISD’s Scarborough High School. “Our last day here, we were just hanging out like it was any other day. If we were able to go back, it would mean I would get those last couple moments with them.”
12:44 p.m. The “strike force” tasked with restarting the Texas economy will be topped by state elected leaders, along with a cabal of business owners.
Leading the strikeforce will be Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, House Speaker Dennis Bonnen, Attorney General Ken Paxton and Comptroller Glenn Hegar, Gov. Greg Abbott announced. They will be advised by several health and business experts, including Houston’s Jim “Mattress Mack” McIngvale and Tilman Feritta.
The team will return in 10 days with more details on next steps.
That strikeforce will be working over the next 10 days to develop more plans to slowly open the economy while keeping the integrity of social distancing and slowing the spread of COVID-19.
“Together we can bend the curve and we can overcome this pandemic, we can get people back to work,” Abbott said. “Step by step we will open Texas.”
12:40 p.m. Gov. Abbott, in announcing the reopening plans for Texas, said flexibility is going to be necessary and the possibility remains for some steps forward and backward. The goal, he said, is to avoid re-shuttering some businesses, but that might happen.
In some cases, Abbott noted people will draw their own conclusions about returning to work or venturing out into public.
“Employees should not be coerced in going back to work,” @GregAbbott_TX about his #RetailToGo executive order.
— Nancy Sarnoff (@nsarnoff) April 17, 2020
12:29 p.m. Gov. Abbott says increased testing will accompany efforts to reopen the economy, saying “being able to test entire communities” is part of containment.
“This can still spread and as a result people will have to maintain distances,” Abbott said.
He said by late April or early May testing will rapidly increase across the state, though he did not offer specifics.
@GovAbbott laying out a plan for re-opening businesses but no clear plan for ramping up testing. Until we have the widespread community testing necessary to contain the virus, “opening up the economy” only opens Texans to higher risk of #COVID19. #txlege
— Celia Israel (@CeliaIsrael) April 17, 2020
Testing in Texas has lagged other states in the nation, but cases are starting to flatten in some areas.
12:20 p.m. Schools will remain closed across Texas.
BREAKING: All Texas public and private schools must remain closed for the rest of the school year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Gov. Greg Abbott announces.
Public schools still must provide online instruction to continue receiving funding and avoid extending their school year.
— Jacob Carpenter (@ChronJacob) April 17, 2020
12:12 p.m. A team topped by state elected officials and four doctors will begin the likely slow process of restarting the Texas economy, Gov. Greg Abbott announced at a noon press conference.
“We must be guided by data and by doctors,” Abbott said, noting his executive order will start the process Friday to re-fire the economy and open businesses.
The process will vary, Abbott said, so businesses that can safely open can do so, while protecting people from exposure by reopening some shops and offices too soon, he said.
Retailers that can open with to-go capabilites will be allowed to do so next week, Abbott said. Prohibitions on elective medical procedures will be lifted so doctors can get back to business, the governor said. State parks will also reopen, but with bans on large crowds.
11:58 a.m. Local officials and businesses and trying to take a bite out of the hit Houston’s food scene is feeling, Chronicle food writer Greg Morago writes, promoting #TakeUsToYourTable to encourage Houstonians to support local restaurants through delivery and curbside takeout.
Cameron James, president elect of the Greater Houston Restaurant Association, emphasized the dire situation the restaurant community is grappling with.
“We need every Houstonian’s support right now to get through this or else your favorite restaurant won’t be there after this pandemic is over,” said James, operations director of LaTrelle’s Management Corp.
There are about 12,000 restaurants in Houston employing more than 300,000, making it a major economic issue to keep kitchens open.
“Houston is a foodie town, and our restaurants reflect the city’s diverse culinary tastes and vibrant culture,” Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said. “The COVID-19 public health crisis is having a devastating effect on the men and women who work in the foodservice industry.”
11:50 a.m. Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton blasted federal court ruling Friday that said prison inmates are entitled to masks and other protective equipment, including hand sanitizer.
“It is outrageous that Texas should provide inmates with unlimited personal protective equipment and testing kits when the medical professionals currently combating this health crisis are in desperate need of supplies to protect themselves and the Texans who are actually suffering from this virus,” Paxton said in a statement.
Late Thursday, U.S. District Court Judge Keith Ellison granted the inmates’ request for hand sanitizer, “unrestricted access to hand soap,” and masks for all prisoners at the Pack Unit. His ruling also ordered TDCJ to provide a detailed plan within three days to test all inmates in the unit. The agency typically has only been testing symptomatic inmates.
Paxton’s office has released sometimes thrice-daily updates decrying rulings and challenges they found unfavorable and cheering those that coincided with their opinions.
“In the same way a federal judge tried to order personal protective equipment to abortion providers, now a judge wants supplies reserved for hardened criminals,” Paxton said in Friday’s statement. “Medical professionals on the frontline of this battle cannot be pushed aside.”
11:34 a.m. Seventeen people at a Dallas homeless shelter have tested positive for COVID-19, the Dallas Morning News reports, potentially exposing up to 200 others to the virus.
11:18 a.m. Since the coronavirus forced the closure of the Houston Livestock Show & Rodeo and slowed the pace of the region, Houston’s paramedics and EMTs have watched the virus buckle fire departments across the nation — and bring profound change and anxiety to their jobs. More than two dozen Houston firefighters have tested positive, with hundreds more having possible exposures, the Chronicle’s St. John Barned-Smith writes.
“They show up ready to go,” Fire Chief Sam Peña said. “But in the back of their mind, they’re just as concerned as any other citizen. They don’t want to take this home.”
Instead of whole teams going into homes to assist patients, just one paramedic or EMT will now approach a patient, said Shelby Walker, who supervises Station 33 and other stations serving the fire department’s operations south of I-10.
“We have to be a little more standoffish, which takes a lot,” he said. “We’re used to just walking up to people and asking what’s going on.”
10:59 a.m. Gov. Greg Abbott has scaled back media access to his noon press conference where he will outline plans to restart the Texas economy., the Chronicle’s Jeremy Blackman writes.
The governor, who has come under intense pressure from both Democrats and fellow Republicans on the contours of the plan, selected three outlets to attend his Friday briefing. His spokesman, John Wittman, said the announcement will be made in the public reception room of the governor’s mansion, which is small and can’t fit more reporters at safe distances apart. Previous press conferences were held in a larger room.
“The governor felt it was a more appropriate place to make the announcement,” Wittman said. He added, “I think it’s absolutely ridiculous that the Houston Chronicle is writing this story and I think you should be ashamed.”
The governor’s decision to restrict access comes as the statewide infection rate has increased in recent days. About 10.4 percent of Texans tested are coming up positive for the new coronavirus as of Thursday, according to state data, and Democrats have called for increased access to testing and medical supplies, as well as a focus on the virus’s disproportionate impact on black and Hispanic people in the state.
10:52 a.m. Jazz musician Henry Darragh joins the newsroom Friday to perform over at the Preview from the Houston Chronicle Facebook page. He’ll do jazz standard “Alone Together” and a Selena classic. Darragh is a pianist and a trombonist who played in rock and ska bands as well as a variety of jazz configurations around town.
10:41 a.m. Severe weather this weekend could dampen Harris County’s attempts to ramp up COVID-19 testing, officials said.
In a Friday briefing Francisco Sanchez, deputy director of the county’s emergency management office, said storms can close testing sites that rely on parking lot testing, including the two Walgreens locations that added testing.
Thunderstorms are expected to roll in Friday afternoon, with some heavy rains predicted throughout Saturday and potentially into Sunday. Sanchez said the rains are not expected to flood local bayous, but could lead to some minor street flooding.
Sanchez added county officials are coordinating with local and state agencies to procure more personal protective equipment for health professionals and first responders, and still urging people to stay home and away from others.
“We know here is a fatigue there, but what is critical is people know what they do matters,” Sanchez said.
10:32 a.m. While we all stay home to keep our bodies healthy, the Chronicle’s Gwendolyn Wu writes that the people who treat our minds are concerned for their patients as well as their practices.
Houston’s therapists are increasingly worried that clients will drop out of therapy while improvising solutions to keep their businesses afloat and pay the bills.
“I’ve accepted I’m going to take a cut,” counselor Tricia Miller said.
Many patients have either lost jobs or had hours cut, and can’t afford to attend therapy regularly.
“Everyone’s in survival mode and needs to get their basic needs met,” said Nirmeen Valiani, a licensed professional counselor in Montrose. “People can’t take care of their mental health because they can’t even go to work.”
10:19 a.m. Lunch for 1,000 people Friday will come from a cooperative between Harris County Precinct 2 and four local restaurants, Commissioner Adrian Garcia’s office announced this morning.
The meals will be on a first-come, first-served basis at four community centers, Garcia’s office said.
Grayson Community Center 13828 Corpus Christi St., Houston, TX 77015
Barrett Community Center 11901 Mulberry St, Barrett, TX 77532
Northeast Community Center (10918 1/2 Bentley, Houston, TX 77093)
JD Walker Community Center (7613 Wade Rd., Baytown, TX 77521)
This is the first week of free lunches, Precinct 2 officials said, with eateries rotating from week to week. The goal is provide food for the needy and revenue for the restaurants, officials said. The eateries this week are The Teapot Depot, Azalea Creek Catering, Armenta’s Mexican Restaurant and Snapper Jack’s.
9:51 a.m. The way forward for Texas’ economy through the COVID-19 scare could come at noon, when Gov. Greg Abbott will announce his plan for reopening the state’s businesses.
The White House on Thursday issued broad guidelines for restarting the national economy, but President Donald Trump said he would defer to governors on how to manage reopening their states.
Pressure is increasing from shop owners and restaurateurs, who say stay at home orders are destroying their businesses.
9:30 a.m. Recovery expert Angela Blanchard the Chronicle’s Lisa Gray in their latest chat that Gov. Greg Abbott has “punted the tough decisions” while local leaders need to do more to build consensus while adhering to the best advice from doctors, not restaurateurs.
Where we don’t see these frictions, these tug-of-wars and this rebellion, is in states where you have a really strong governor. These governors have a dashboard, they are staring right towards that moment in time when they can meet the World Health Organization’s six standards for reopening. They know where they stand on each of the driving metrics. They have a greater mastery of the dates and the data.
Those strong governors are creating the container in which county executives and mayors can act.
Whereas in this state, we’ve had a governor that has punted the tough decisions. He’s placed the burden of decision-making about a global pandemic on the shoulders of each county executive and each city mayor, which I find… [long pause] unacceptable.
[Laughs.] I was searching for a polite word.
9:16 a.m. Asian Americans are not only navigating their own fears about COVID-19, but worries of what it is doing to their standing in the community and their safety.
Almost 1,500 hate incidents against Asian American and Pacific Islanders in the U.S. have been reported to the STOP AAPI HATE initiative since it began tracking incidents on March 19, even though those communities are at the forefront of efforts fighting the pandemic, writes the Chronicle’s Olivia Tallet.
“We know that (that) number is only a drop in the bucket; we know that this is really ubiquitous now,” said lawyer Manjusha Kulkarni, executive director of the Asian Pacific Policy and Planning Council and founder of the tracking hate initiative, headquartered in California.
Although the tracking isn’t well known around the country, it has already received reports of incidents in 46 states, including Texas, said Kulkarni. The majority of the attacks are verbal, but some are also physical.
Houston, a city known for its diversity and tolerance, is not spared from the racist trend. Earlier this month, a woman verbally attacked the owner of the Vietnamese restaurant Vietopia in the parking lot in front of the business, screaming expletives and “You, get out of our country.”
“I felt unwanted here; we were very offended,” said Sammi Tran, co-owner and wife of the victim, who videotaped the incident. ) “My husband was born here in America. We don’t harm anybody, but this is happening now, I’ve never felt like this before.”
“We go to the supermarket and they look at us as if we were ugly people,” Tran said.
8:49 a.m. New cases continue in Fort Bend County, which after a slump Thursday morning in additions, reported Friday that 39 cases were confirmed.
8:21 a.m. Bigger is not necessarily better for tech startups weathering the new coronavirus and its effects on the economy, Chronicle tech columnist Dwight Silverman writes. Surprisingly it’s the smaller, newer startups with fewer expenses, smaller staffs and less to lose that may survive best, tech leaders said.
“If you have not yet brought on any staff or signed any agreements, you are actually not all that vulnerable,” said Harvin Moore, president of Houston Exponential, a nonprofit that works to grow the city’s tech community. “The vulnerable companies are the ones that have grown, added staff and obligations, but they have no funding runway.”
Sector leaders and those who help startups get off the ground said companies are scrambling to make their businesses and their interactions more virtual even as they seek emergency capital to keep going.
8:10 a.m. The Houston region’s superstar of sickness spread sounded a bit more optimistic on the chances of stopping the march of COVID-19 through the community on Friday morning.
Hotez, dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine, and co-director of the Texas Children’s Hospital Center for Vaccine Development, has been one of the chief proponents of people staying at home to lessen demand on medical facilities.
I anticipate revised #COVID19 forecasting for #Texas later today or tomorrow @IHME_UW. Based on Chris Murray’s comments last night I suspect we might find our early social distancing had a + impact. @HarvardChanSPH models: Early stop transmission = big reductions ICU admissions pic.twitter.com/dwid8apgQS
— Prof Peter Hotez MD PhD (@PeterHotez) April 17, 2020
Houston medical and public health leaders say the area has begun to flatten the COVID-19 curve, the rate at which the disease is spreading through the community, Chronicle medical writer Todd Ackerman writes.
“We haven’t peaked yet, but we’re seeing very encouraging signs that the curve is flattening,” said Dr. Marc Boom, president of Houston Methodist. “The number of people testing positive has slowed and hospitalizations have also leveled off.”
7:57 a.m. Texas prisons are becoming a focal point in how testing, isolation and hygiene can stave off spread of COVID-19, with prisoners complaining not enough is being done.
Health officials warn that without widespread testing, it’s impossible to know whether asymptomatic inmates with COVID-19 are spreading the disease, the Chronicle’s Julian Gill writes, both within the prison population and in the community.
Inmates in dorm settings may not be aware they are infecting people like Laddy Valentine, 69, who said he has not been tested. They might touch door handles or other commonly used items.
“If you have one person infected, you can infect the entire dorm before that person becomes symptomatic,” said Dr. Esmaeil Porsa, CEO of Harris Health System and vice-chairman of the Texas Commission on Jail Standards. “In the dormitory setting, obviously it’s a lot more dangerous.”
From a community standpoint, the agency releases close to 65,000 inmates per month, according to its most recent annual statistical report from 2018. If those inmates don’t know they are infected, they could bring a wave of new cases to the community.
7:45 a.m. Texas jobless claims during the COVID-19 crisis have topped 1 million, as officials sort out the specifics of how federal unemployment benefits will flow, The Chronicle’s Erin Douglas reports.
It remains unclear how quickly the workforce commission, which oversees unemployment insurance in the state, plans to administer and pay expanded benefits included in the stimulus package. Computer system updates for two of the major revisions to the unemployment insurance system — expanded benefits to those who don’t traditionally qualify and an additional $600 per week to those affected by the pandemic — were completed this week, a spokesperson said Wednesday.
Details are sparse on how the state will implement the two unemployment stimulus programs: Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, which adds an additional 13 weeks to benefits and extends them to workers not traditionally eligible, and Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation, which adds an additional $600 per week to claims.
7:09 a.m. As record low oil prices due to the coronavirus pandemic continue to wreak havoc on the industry, the largest oilfield service company in the world is reporting a $7.4 billion loss for the first quarter of 2020, the Chronicle’s Sergio Chapa reports.
Houston-based Schlumberger, which made $421 million profit on $7.9 billion of revenue during the same quarter last year, traditionally reports its earnings first. Friday’s report sets the tone for what is expected to be an ugly earnings season in the oil and gas industry.
“This double black swan event created simultaneous shocks in oil supply and demand resulting in the most challenging environment for the industry in many decades,” said Olivier Le Peuch, Schlumberger CEO.
Schulumberger’s first quarter figures missed Wall Street expectations of $7.5 billion of revenue by $60 million, Chapa reports.
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