Coronavirus

Coronavirus In Greater Houston: Harris County To Close Temporary NRG Park Medical Facility

As Houston enters its seventh week dealing with the coronavirus, Houston Public Media provides more live updates.

Judge Lina Hidalgo touring a new medical shelter at Harris County’s NRG Park on April 11.

This story is part of Houston Public Media’s ongoing coronavirus coverage. To see our previous live coverage, click here

Maps: Tracking COVID-19’s Spread In Texas

Updated 3:55 p.m. CT Friday

Mayor Sylvester Turner on Friday confirmed that if Gov. Greg Abbott lifted an executive state stay-at-home order, it would overrule any such local order from the city or state. Turner said he hoped the governor would allow the stay-at-home orders to continue across the state, but, he added, any order from Abbott would “trump — let me put it that way — local government orders.”

Turner also said the city would try to use some of the more than $400 million in federal stimulus funds to help with rent assistance and homelessness in the city, though he added he hoped the Texas Supreme Court would continue the moratorium on evictions past April 30. 

Updated 3:44 p.m. CT Friday

Harris County will stop using NRG Park as an overflow space for COVID-19 patients, saying she would “wind down” the contract with Garner Environmental Services to run the facility, reportedly worth tens of millions of dollars.

The facility was supposed to be used to combat a potential surge of coronavirus cases. But that surge never came, and as of Friday, it appeared the number of new local cases had begun to level off. 

Hidalgo defended her decision to open the facility, saying if  she hadn’t, and there were a surge, many more people would have died.

“I really dare anybody to say that’s not the approach we should take,” Hidalgo said Friday.

“As I said the day we opened it up: if we don’t need it, and folks say I’ve done too much, I will have succeeded.”

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner on Friday said city cases appear to have plateaued as well.  

“It does appear that things are flattening out, and we we look at all the numbers, the numbers are favorable”

But, he added, measures like social distancing and wearing face coverings would need to continue to keep those numbers low.

The city announced an additional death related to COVID-19 Friday, breaking a four-day span of no deaths announced. It was the first death in the city not related to someone 

There are now 35 deaths in Houston.

Harris Health System has secured a 50-day supply of face shields from University of Houston College of Medicine and architecture school. One month ago, HHS was day-to-day with each of its one-day supplies. With supply chains compromised, both schools chipped in to add more. 

Updated 5:36 p.m. CT Thursday

Houston has gone four days in a row without a death related to COVID-19, the longest such stretch since the first death in Houston was reported. The total number of deaths in the city related to the coronavirus remained at 34 Thursday, with 3,046 confirmed cases.

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said as the numbers improved he understood the desire to go “back to normal.” But, he added, any decision to lift restrictions on the local economy would be made according to scientific fact, without a hard deadline.

Turner also acknowledged pushback on Harris County’s mask order, saying that much of it stems from confusion from conflicting messages between state and local government. But, he said, guidelines issued by the city and county were meant to keep people safe.

“The beauty about being an American is the right to protest,” Turner said. “The good news is that we are keeping people healthy so they can protest. So, if we have done our job keeping people healthy and feeling healthy to come to the steps of City Hall to protest, than we have done our job.”

Updated 1:10 p.m. CT Thursday

The city of Houston will distribute more than 200,000 masks across the city in the coming days, Mayor Sylvester Turner said. “What’s important is to make this easy for people,” Turner said at and event announcing the effort Thursday. The masks will be distributed largely to underserved communities across Houston, 

“We are handing out more than 800 masks and each person here will receive 4-8 masks and hand soap/ sanitizer.”

“We will be handing out 100,000 more masks in the coming days.”

“This is not intended to be punitive, instead of giving citations, officers will give you a face covering.”

“If this order was done 2 to 3 weeks ago it probably wouldnt have been so controversial.”

Harris County Precinct 2 Commissioner Adrian Garcia is launching a “Senior Care Facility Task Force” to focus on the safety of people living in senior living facilities during the coronavirus pandemic. The group will be in contact with senior living facilities in Precinct 2, and present of recommendations to keep residents safe, the commissioner’s office said. The task force includes representatives from the AARP and Baker-Ripley, as well as Dr. Raouf R. Arafat, former director of Houston’s Office of Surveillance and Public Health Preparedness, and Michael Moore, chief of staff for former Houston Mayor Bill White. Moore previously assisted in the response to hurricanes Katrina, Rita and Ike, Garcia’s office said.

Updated 10:20 a.m. CT Thursday

The Texas Supreme Court on Thursday reinstated Gov. Greg Abbott’s executive order banning the release of some people from local jails during the coronavirus pandemic, after Harris County misdemeanor judges sued to have the ban lifted.

In an opinion issued Thursday morning, the court found that the 16 judges had no standing to seek a temporary restraining order from a lower court, and said the order did not represent a “legally cognizable injury” against the judges, as it might for inmates impacted by the order. 

“Our adversary system of justice envisions that disputes over which rules govern court procedures like bail will be settled through proceedings involving parties with a direct stake in the outcome, proceedings such as actual bail hearings involving inmates denied release because of GA-13,” the opinion read.

Abbott’s order, GA-13, was issued on March 29, in response to a series of proposed and enacted policy changes in Texas meant to free up space in local jails amid the pandemic. The order banned the release of anyone accused of a violent offense or the threat of violence, or who has otherwise ever been convicted of a violent crime.

The judges argued the order hindered their ’ ability to use discretion in releasing people from Harris County jail on personal bonds. The provision to block people with a violent history from being released could stop even misdemeanor judges from releasing people charged with low-level crimes, based on convictions that may have occurred years ago, a lawyer for the plaintiffs said.

A judge in Austin temporarily blocked that order on April 10, saying GA-13 would cause irreparable harm if kept in place.

Updated 4:30 p.m. CT Wednesday

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo officially announced her plan to require face coverings on all county residents who go out into public, in an attempt to stop the spread of the coronavirus. Under the executive order, people ages 10 and older must cover noses and mouths with a mask, bandanna, scarf or other face covering if leaving the house, beginning Monday and lasting 30 days. The order also requires employers categorized as essential businesses under Hidalgo’s stay-at-home order to provide face coverings and training to any worker required to come into contact with colleagues or the public.

Exceptions include eating, drinking, exercising, or being alone in a separate place indoors. The order also exempts wearing a mask when it poses a greater risk to security, mental or physical health. The county judge asked people not to use medical or N-95 masks if they could be avoided, in order to make them available to first responders. There would also be instructions to make a face covering at home on ReadyHarris.org.

“We have to use every tool in the toolbox,” Hidalgo said at a press conference Wednesday. “Because if we get complacent, people die, the economy takes longer to recover, and those are the stakes.”

Violations will be punishable by a fine of up to $1,000.

Updated 3:15 p.m. CT Wednesday

Houston ISD’s pre-K application process has been pushed back due to COVID-19 school closures, the district announced Wednesday. The application process for pre-K was moved online, and application deadlines were extended. Parents without online access can call HISD’s Office of School Choice at 713-556-6734 for a paper application.

“We are making changes necessary to keep our youngest scholars and their families safe as they register for pre-K instruction during the COVID-19 crisis while pursuing our goal of providing equitable educational access to as many children as possible,” read a statement from HISD Interim Superintendent Grenita Lathan.

Updated 2:54 p.m. CT Wednesday

A new program to help people with disabilities get food was overwhelmed with requests Wednesday, two days before it was set to launch. METROLift paratransit vehicles will start making food deliveries Friday for people with disabilities, as METRO joins with the Houston Food Bank and corporate partners to make about 500 deliveries a week. Deliveries will include produce and non-perishable foods, along with some household items. The goal is to help people who can’t get out because of the COVID 19 pandemic. But a sign-up form linked to the website for the Mayor’s Office for People with Disabilities said the request period was suspended due to “a high response volume.” The form pointed to additional food security resources online

More online classes could be part of the new normal for students at the University of Houston. University of Houston Chancellor and President Renu Khator told Houston Matters host Craig Cohen that the school was able to move more than 9,000 classes online in 10 days for the main UH campus, plus its sites downtown and in Victoria. “I do think in the new normal time we’ll of course have face-to-face, but there might be more degrees and more engagement online as we learn from this experiment,” Khator said.

Khator said a task force is working on what a new normal would look like once students can go back to school and how to continue if there are more waves of the coronavirus. She said UH is still assisting about 1,000 students living on campus and trying to prepare upcoming graduates for the uncertain job market.

What was going to be a climate march in front of City Hall has turned into a three-day livestream event.  The Houston youth climate strike kicked off this morning with personal stories from Houstonians who have been impacted by climate change.  Participants shared stories, showed artwork and read poems over the course of about an hour. Virtual events on Thursday and Friday include a phone bank for companies to divest from fossil fuels, and a town hall on Houston’s Climate Action Plan. 

Updated 1:22 p.m. CT Wednesday

Ride-sharing company Uber made a $50,000 grant to the city to provide free rides for victims of domestic violence and human trafficking, Mayor Sylvester Turner announced on Wednesday. The city also announced an awareness campaign alongside the Houston Area Women’s Center and Harris County Domestic Violence Coordinating Council, including a domestic violence hotline, at 713-528-2121, and a website with more resources.

The rides will be accessed through Uber’s Health Platform. Anti-trafficking groups will have access to that platform after a training session scheduled for Friday. The platform will also be made available to domestic violence organizations if they choose to use it. Those groups will then book on the person’s behalf. 

Altogether, those partnering on the ridesharing program include anti-trafficking groups The Landing and Rescue America, the Houston Area Women’s Center and the Harris County Domestic Violence Coordinating Council, city case managers who sit at Salvation Army Houston Family Residence, and the Ben Taub NeuroPsychiatric Center, who help provide survivors with mental health and other services. The Health Platform is HIPAA compliant, the city said. The $50,000 balance will be allocated based on a passed history of use.

The Mayor’s Office of Anti-Human Trafficking will manage the program — including logins, users and remaining balance — and make sure there are additional methods of ensuring the program is only used for its intended purpose, according to Minal Patel Davis, special adviser to the mayor on human trafficking.

The city announced it would also partner with H-E-B to print large quantities of fliers to be distributed, and the Houston Food Bank will place those fliers in boxes for those who receive food. 

City Council is working on freeing up short-term hotel lodging for survivors of domestic violence, as shelters are forced to reduce populations amid the pandemic, and the city’s Office of Emergency Management will issue text messages with resources. The city will also post safety tips on its social media accounts.

Domestic violence calls were up 8.72% in March, according to the Houston Police Department.

Updated 1:01 p.m. CT Wednesday

The Houston Police Officers’ Union and the Harris County Deputies’ Organization blasted a yet-to-be-announced plan to require Harris County residents to wear face masks in public, with Houston police calling Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo’s proposed executive order “idiotic” and “draconian.” HPOU said it has contacted Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton to seek an opinion on the order’s legality.

Both unions said they lacked resources to properly enforce such an order.    

Judge Lina Hidalgo touring a new medical shelter at Harris County’s
NRG Park on April 11.

Updated 9:31 a.m. CT Wednesday

Starting Monday all Harris County residents will be required to cover their faces in public for 30 days to help stop the spread of the coronavirus, a spokesperson for Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo confirmed Wednesday.

Under the new order, scheduled to be announced Wednesday afternoon, people ages 10 and older must cover noses and mouths with a mask, bandanna, scarf or other face covering if leaving the house. The order, first reported by the Houston Chronicle, also requires employers categorized as essential businesses under Hidalgo’s stay-at-home order to provide face coverings and training to any worker required to come into contact with colleagues or the public.

Exceptions include eating, drinking, exercising, or being alone in a separate place indoors. The order also exempts wearing a mask when it poses a greater risk to security, mental or physical health.

 
Updated 4:27 p.m. CT Tuesday

Gov. Greg Abbott on Tuesday painted a positive picture of Texas’ recovery effort ahead of a possible reopening of the state’s economy in coming weeks — even as testing remains behind much of the rest of the country

More than 200,000 Texans have been tested for COVID-19 so far, and the number of positive tests remain around 10%, Abbott said. But testing still lags behind neighboring states Louisiana, Oklahoma and New Mexico, though Abbott insisted Tuesday that with the addition of more private sector testing and help from the federal government, the state was getting closer to recovery. 

The governor made the statements at a press conference announcing a new job search database in Texas. About 500,000 job openings are listed on the site, which provides unemployed people access to job postings, and education and training services. People can also complete and upload resumes and job applications. People looking for work can also visit the Texas Economic Development website for links to the state’s local workforce development boards, which help unemployed people find jobs and help employers find employees.

MORE: With Abbott’s Plans to Reopen Economy, Many Texans Still Anxious About Testing, Public Health

State and federal officials are reporting a surge in COVID-19 cases at immigration facilities in Texas. Immigration and Customs Enforcement confirmed 30 COVID-19 cases at adult detention facilities in Texas — up from just a handful of cases late last week. The majority of those cases were at a detention center outside Dallas. Other cases were confirmed at El Paso and Houston-area facilities. Texas Health and Human Services also confirmed that 5 unaccompanied migrant children have the coronavirus, but didn’t specify where those cases were identified. At least 12 staff at both adult and children immigrant holding facilities in Texas have also tested positive for COVID-19, all in the Houston area.
 
 
The Archdiocese of Galveston Houston says low enrollment and financial challenges have forced it to close four parochial schools. They are Our Lady of Mount Carmel, Queen of Peace, St. Francis of Assisi and Saint Pius the Fifth in Pasadena. Superintendent Debra Haney said that even before the pandemic, schools were struggling with low enrollment, but the coronavirus made the financial situation worse. The archdiocese said it is giving students a tuition credit to attend another Catholic school next school year and is trying to place about 40 staff members in new positions. 

Updated 1:12 p.m. CT Tuesday

A group of activists is bailing out people across the state, after Gov. Greg Abbott blocked the release of some people detained in Texas jails. The Texas Organizing Project said it would start by bailing out people with low bond amounts sitting in Harris, Dallas, Bexar and Fort Bend county jails, arguing that Abbott’s order was inhumane, and put people who were only accused of crimes in a possibly deadly situation because they could not afford bail.

“If a person has money, they get to go free, without regard to community safety,” said Michael Sneed of TOP. “But if the person is poor, Abbott doesn’t want that person to have the same access to justice.”

Abbott’s executive order blocked the release of anyone accused of a violent crime, or the threat of a violent crime. The order also blocked people who were previously convicted of a violent crime in their lifetime, regardless of the new charge. 

That order is currently being challenged in the Texas Supreme Court. 

Sheriff Ed Gonzalez at a press conference announcing increased testing at the Harris County Jail Tuesday.

Updated 12:20 p.m. CT Tuesday

The Harris County Sheriff’s Office will expand COVID-19 testing in the Harris County Jail, local officials announced Tuesday. The testing will be provided both to employees of the jail, as well as to people detained in the jails.

The jail currently tests about 200 people a day. It was unclear how many tests would be performed going forward, but Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Houston) said Tuesday that the sheriff’s office can pull from a pool of 2,000 test kits. Doctors from United Memorial Medical Center will also provide extra manpower to help expand testing in the jail.

Harris County has one of the largest jail systems in the nation, with about 7,500 people currently detained, 75% of whom are held pretrial and haven’t been convicted of a crime.

The jail is a “city within a city,” Gonzalez said, and the close quarters have made it impossible to practice social distancing. More than 140 sheriff’s office employees have tested positive for COVID-19, most of whom work in the jail system. Ninety-five inmates have tested positive, with 144 more presumed positive pending confirmation, and an additional 2,000 on observation because of exposure.

“We’re often forgotten because we’re a jail system,” Gonzalez said. “But people forget that they’re innocent until proven guilty These are human beings as well. They have families. We have families.”

Currently just 2% of people in the jail are tested right now, which Gonzalez said was above average from what others are doing. But his hope was it would increase dramatically. Testing would likely start with the more than 100 people entering the jail daily, and those unconfirmed in quarantine, according to the sheriff’s office.

People in quarantine inside the jail do so for just seven days as opposed to the recommended 14, because of space issues, according to a physician with the sheriff’s office.

In addition to the new testing resources, the jail received a donation of 600 masks and 3,000 bars of disinfectant soap from investment firm Havenrock Investments.

Jails across the country have been impacted by the spread of the virus. The Cook County Jail, in the Chicago area, is the largest coronavirus hot spot in the country. In Ohio, 2,300 people in the jails have tested positive in three state facilities, with 1,858 in one jail alone. 

There has not yet been a death in the Harris County Jail related to COVID-19, according to county officials. 

Jackson Lee on Tuesday praised the county’s response to the virus, and in particular, a “compassionate release” policy put forward by Gonzalez and Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo, which is currently on hold due to an executive order from Gov. Greg Abbott. That executive order is currently being challenged in the courts.  

The congresswoman added that she hoped people would look at the work the sheriff has done in trying to lower the spread in the jails.

“We want to be able use the Harris County Jail as a national model, and ask the question, ‘what is going on with our jails across America?’” Jackson Lee said.

The Texas National Guard will set up mobile testing sites across medically underserved parts of Texas.

Updated 3:26 p.m. CT Monday

The Texas National Guard will set up new mobile testing sites across medically underserved parts of Texas as part of the state’s response to the coronavirus pandemic, Gov. Greg Abbott said Monday. More than 1,200 Texas National Guard members make up the COVID-19 mobile testing teams, with the first two 45-member teams deployed to Fredericksburg and Floresville. The other 23 teams will be “deployed to additional locations based on assessments made by DSHS,” according to a press release from Abbott.

Each team with be made up of 11 medical professionals and support staff, as well as 34 Texas National Guard soldiers. Each mobile testing site has the capacity to test 150 people per day, Abbott said.

Updated 3:26 p.m. CT Monday

Marvin E. Odum, former president of Shell Oil Company and former chief recovery officer for Houston’s Hurricane Harvey efforts, was tapped to be the city’s recovery czar Monday, after Harris County announced its own representative to help the region rebound from the coronavirus pandemic.

The news was announced at a Monday afternoon press conference by Mayor Sylvester Turner, who charged Odum with coming up with plans in case of a virus resurgence, including contact tracing, and to work with a task force to work on ways to open up the local economy, and how to focus on underserved communities, similar to responsibilities laid out by Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo Monday morning.

Odum would also come up with ways to respond to future pandemics, Turner said.

The mayor did not give specifics on Odum’s authority, but did say the former oil executive was given “broad discretion” to come up with solutions and strategies to lift restrictions.

“Based on what Marvin did during Hurricane Harvey…the result was masterful, and it laid the groundwork for what we needed to do moving forward,” Turner said. “Quite frankly, if he speaks, he speaks for me.”

Some have been calling for the immediate lifting of travel and business restrictions. Turner himself said the city would likely have to furlough employees because of the economic impact on Houston.

But Turner, like Hidalgo, stressed that the virus was not yet under control, and that any decisions would have to be based on medical and scientific data.

“I, too, want to reopen our economy,” Turner said. “But if we are going to have that conversation now, we need to take a measured approach, and follow the guidance of medical professionals.”

A federal appeals court has blocked pill-induced abortions in Texas, the Texas Tribune reports:

Reversing course, the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said access to pill-induced abortions can be restricted while the state fights the coronavirus pandemic.

The decision is the latest in a fast-moving court case that has ricocheted between the politically conservative appeals court and a federal district judge in Austin — and at times amounted to a near-total ban on abortions in Texas. In previous rulings, the New Orleans-based appeals court has allowed pill-induced abortions to proceed, as well as abortions for women nearing the legal limit to have one in Texas, which is 22 weeks after the last menstrual period.

Medication-induced abortions can be performed in Texas through the 10th week of pregnancy. It was not immediately clear how the court’s ruling will apply after Tuesday, when a strict bar on nonessential surgeries in Texas will be relaxed.

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo at a press conference announcing the appointment of new “recovery czar” State Rep. Armando Walle on Monday.

Updated 12:11 p.m. CT Monday

State Rep. Armando Walle (D-Aldine) will lead Harris County’s coronavirus recovery response, and will be tasked with working with other local leaders toward easing restrictions made in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Both the county and city announced they would pick a “recovery czar” to lead the response. Hidalgo said her first responsibility is to protect peoples’ safety, and that the czar’s role would be to focus on economic recovery. 

“We’re still, very much, in the thick of this fight,” Hidalgo said. “From the moment I wake up every morning, to the second I close my eyes at night, I’m thinking about saving lives, and I’m thinking about how quickly we can get through this to get the economy back on track. Every time I hear of a new death, every time somebody loses their lives, gets sick, loses a loved one, I think about how all of this, each of those deaths can be prevented to the extent that we stay home and stop spreading the virus to other people. My only priority is preventing those deaths.”

“Saving lives has been my No. 1 priority, and I want to make sure none of these issues fall to the background,” Hidalgo said.

In his new unpaid role, Walle will work with the city and other local leaders to look at steps to “lead relief and recovery with a range of stakeholders,” Hidalgo said. That includes relief for small business owners, but will also focus on underserved areas, and look at providing relief for workers, including undocumented workers, Hidalgo said.

“The goal of this is to make sure that our relief and our recovery is inclusive, that its fast and that it’s coordinated,” Hidalgo said. 

There was no deadline set on that recovery effort, and instead the county and city would constantly monitor the spread of COVID-19 to make a decision on when to lift her executive order placing those restrictions, she added.

“The decisions, as to lifting the order, are all based on the data,” Hidalgo said. “They are not based on a deadline that we have decided.”

“If we make the decision based on our best guess, on a hunch, on an arbitrary deadline, then the cases will begin to rise again,” she said.

In response to the governor’s order easing restrictions in Texas, including opening parks and allowing certain elective surgeries to move forward, Hidalgo urged caution. She said in part that in speaking to local hospitals they’ve concluded there is enough capacity for now, but that the county would monitor that capacity in the face of eased restrictions possibly taking up needed medical resources.

The county judge also said that while the sharp increase in COVID-19 cases appears to be waning, it was still important not to relax efforts at social distancing to stop the virus’ spread.

“It’s simple math,” she said. “The more people will come into contact with one another, the higher the risk that those case counts are going to go up.”

“We expect to work with a wide variety of regional stakeholders in this effort including from the private sector, faith based organizations, non profits, and local governments.. From the city of Houston to unincorporporated Harris County.”

“We need to save lives, while also saving livelihoods.”

Walle, who first took office in 2009, is deputy floor leader of the Texas House of Representatives Democratic Caucus. He serves on nine House committees, including both the appropriations and infrastructure resiliency committees. 

The state legislator reiterated that he would work closely with “regional stakeholders…including from the private sector, faith-based organizations, nonprofits, and local governments.”

“We need to save lives, while also saving livelihoods,” Walle said.

Charles Grant, left, bumps elbows with Houston businessman and philanthropist Jim “Mattress Mack” McIngvale at a distribution site in Acres Homes, Tuesday, April 14, 2020.

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo and Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner will each announce a “recovery czar” to help craft a coronavirus response in the region, as the COVID-19 outbreak in greater Houston enters its seventh week.

The two are set to announce their picks at separate press conferences Monday.

Both picks would lead a task force, announced Friday by Turner, to work toward eventually opening up the local economy again. 

The plan is similar to one already put forward Friday by Gov. Greg Abbott. Abbott made his announcement during a press conference announcing the easing of restrictions to the state economy. As part of Abbott’s executive order, parks opened up and restrictions on some surgeries loosened Monday, and “retail-to-go” services were set to begin this week. The governor also announced a “strike force” to work on opening the economy.

Turner said he would use Abbott’s order as a guide, but that some restrictions would remain in place through at least the end of May, until he was comfortable with the level of testing being performed.

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Paul DeBenedetto

Senior Producer

Paul DeBenedetto is Houston Public Media's senior web producer, writing and editing stories for HoustonPublicMedia.org. Before joining the station, Paul worked as a web producer for the Houston Chronicle, and his work has appeared online and in print for the Chronicle, the New York Times, DNAinfo New York, and other...

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