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Coronavirus In Greater Houston: Harris County To Train 300 New Contact Tracers By Next Week

As Houston enters its 10th week dealing with the coronavirus, Houston Public Media provides more live updates.


Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo at a press conference inside Harris County Public Health on Wednesday.

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 7:15 p.m. CT Thursday

Former Houston Astros player and manager, Art Howe, is in the ICU with COVID-19, according to local outlets.

Howe, 73, told KPRC 2 that he first felt symptoms on Sunday, May 3. He later got tested and went to the ICU after his symptoms worsened.

Howe said he lost his sense of taste and felt "total fatigue." "I've never experienced anything like it in my life," he told KPRC 2. The former baseball star said he's starting to feel better.

Howe played for the Astros from 1976-1982 and then came back to manage the team from 1989-1993.

Updated 10:46 a.m. CT Thursday

Mayor Sylvester Turner has tested negative for COVID-19, he announced Thursday. The mayor, some staff members, and members of City Council were tested Tuesday in light of City Council member Letitia Plummer’s positive COVID-19 test.

“I encourage Houstonians to get tested. It is a quick process, and it does not matter if you have symptoms or are asymptomatic. The results will help you take better control of your health during the pandemic,” read a statement from Turner. “While my test result was negative, I will continue to practice social distancing and wear a face covering to do my part to stop the virus from spreading in our community.”

Updated 3:48 p.m. CT Wednesday

As many as 30,000 people were viewing the city’s rent relief website in the minutes leading up to the launch of its application process, an indication of the demand for rental assistance as COVID-19 continues to impact the economy and cause skyrocketing unemployment, city officials said on Wednesday.

More than 6,000 landlords signed up with the city last week to receive rental payments on behalf of their tenants, and on Wednesday, close to 12,000 tenants were ultimately successful in applying before the website was shut down. At one point, as many as 17,000 people were trying to apply, leading to a significant lag in the website’s response and shutting out many people before they were able to apply.

Local nonprofit Baker Ripley will screen the applications, and then work to provide rental payments directly to the landlords.

Mayor Sylvester Turner said on Monday that the city was “overwhelmed” by the response, before the city was forced to shut it down.

“I’m going to tell you, if we kept it open, we would have had thousands more who were applying,” Turner said.

Updated 3:07 p.m. CT Wednesday

From KUT in Austin: The Texas National Guard will send teams to disinfect nursing homes across the state, Gov. Greg Abbott announced Wednesday. Six have already been deployed, with more to follow.

“The Texas National Guard plays a crucial role in our ongoing response to COVID-19, and I am grateful for their work to address the unique challenges our nursing homes face during this pandemic,” Abbott said in a statement. “The training these Guardsmen have received will equip them with the knowledge and tools they need to provide this crucial assistance to these facilities.”

Almost half of all reported deaths from COVID-19 in Texas have been at long-term-care facilities, including at least 38 deaths in Travis County.

Video released by the U.S. Department of Defense shows a team disinfecting West Oaks Nursing and Rehabilitation Center. KUT reported earlier this month that the facility had several cases of COVID-19.

On Monday, Abbott directed state officials to test all staff and residents at nursing homes in the state.

The disinfection teams are made up of Guardsmen from Joint Task Force 176. They're equipped with advanced personal protective equipment, ionized sprayers and vital oxide.

The Texas National Guard has also been providing mobile COVID-19 testing and support for PPE manufacturing and food banks.

Other states, including Georgia, have already deployed the National Guard to assist nursing homes in the fight against COVID-19.

Updated 2:05 p.m. CT Wednesday

Harris County will onboard and train 200 new COVID-19 contact tracers by Friday, and a total of 300 new contact tracers by next Friday, according to Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo.

The contact tracing program is part of the county’s three-prong approach of testing, tracing, and quarantining positive coronavirus cases, which health officials say is crucial in the process of safely lifting regulations ordering people to stay home and businesses to remain closed.

Harris County Public Health has gone from a staff of 25 contact tracers, to a total workforce of more than 400 tracers by next Friday.

As Gov. Greg Abbott continues to lift regulations in the state, superseding local executive orders, the county is ramping up outreach to people who may have been exposed to the virus — even as Hidalgo again warned the state’s “reopening” was too soon.

“We've been moving heaven and earth to do everything possible to contain the spread of this in light of the state’s reopening, which I still believe is too fast," Hidalgo said.

Hidalgo on Wednesday also urged people to continue to remain indoors when possible, and to wear face coverings whenever necessary to leave the home.

Contact tracing is a process in which health officials reach out to people who may have come into contact with patients who have tested positive. Those who have possibly been exposed are then tested and quarantined until confirmation of whether or not they have the virus.

The contact tracing announcement came after Hidalgo toured the Harris County Public Health facility, where local Health Authority Dr. Umair Shah described the tracing process, and where Hidalgo thanks the people working on testing and tracing for the virus.

“I know the work you're putting in, I know the hours you're putting in,” Hidalgo said. “That fire you guys have to keep going even when there is no end in sight.”

Contact tracers have already begun reaching out to those who may have come into contact with a positive patient, but Hidalgo and Shah also warned of possible fraud, and said Harris County would never ask people to provide a social security number.

But while people should avoid giving out personal information, Shah added that people who were contacted by the county should help provide as much relevant health information as possible.

“One person can touch as many as five, 15, 20, sometimes markedly more people in a day or in a week,” Shah said, “and we want to make sure we are making contact with all of those individuals.”

“None of us know if we’re going to test positive tomorrow or the next day,” he said.

Updated 11:06 a.m. CT Wednesday

Texas Public Radio reports that the Department of State Health Services is distributing 1,200 vials of the drug remdesivir to 15 Texas hospitals to treat patients with COVID-19. Ben Taub Hospital and the Memorial Hermann Hospital System will each receive six cases, with each case containing 40 vials of the drug. Some hospitals in Texas are able to receive remdesivir through clinical trials or the manufacturer’s expanded access program.

Medical staff at each hospital will determine how the drug will be used, in accordance with U.S. Food and Drug Administration guidelines, according to DSHS.

The state is expanding coronavirus testing within the Texas prison system, TPR reports. The Texas Department of Criminal Justice will deploy tens of thousands of COVID-19 oral fluid tests that will be self-administered by the person being tested. The tests were approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s emergency use authorization. The tests are currently being utilized by the U.S. Air Force, and have been used at drive-thru testing sites in Los Angeles.

More than 1,700 cases of COVID-19 are reported by the TDCJ among its inmate population. At least 30 inmates have died.

Gov. Greg Abbott was tested for the coronavirus upon his return from Washington D.C. last week, after two White House aides recently tested positive.

The Dallas Morning News reports Abbott, three aides, and security-detail officers with the Texas Department of Safety all took tests when they returned to Texas. Abbott’s spokesman John Wittman says all have tested negative.

Abbott also was tested for COVID-19 last Wednesday, prior to his meeting with President Trump.

Houston City Council member Letitia Plummer has tested positive for COVID-19, her office confirmed Monday.

Updated 10:26 a.m. CT Tuesday

Houston City Council member Letitia Plummer has tested positive for COVID-19, her office confirmed Monday.

In a letter to Mayor Sylvester Turner, Plummer said she has instructed her staff to be tested for the virus, and added she would not attend any Houston City Council meetings until after recovering for the virus.

No additional family members had tested positive for the virus, she added.

“Please keep me in your thoughts and prayers,” the letter said.

Turner said Houston City Council meetings would still be held in person rather than via web conference on Tuesday and Wednesday.

Plummer, who was elected to council in December in a run-off, is the first elected official in the city of Houston to test positive for COVID-19. She represents the council’s At-Large Position 4.

In April, Plummer opened a pop-up kitchen with local chefs, to serve seniors and Houstonians who were out of work due to the coronavirus.

Updated 3:36 p.m. CT Monday

More than 4,000 Houston landlords have signed up for a program meant to provide their tenants with $14 million in rent relief for April and May, according to the city.

The city of Houston received $400 million from the federal CARES Act, of which it’s spending $14 million on rent relief. The money could cover April and May rent for just 7,000 households — what critics say is a small fraction of all people facing evictions.

Starting Wednesday morning, renters can begin applying online. They won't qualify unless their landlords have signed up, and agree to the terms of the program — including waiving late fees and holding off on any evictions.

When renters are awarded the money, the city will provide it directly to the landlord to cover rent.

So far, over 4,013 landlords have signed up to participate. Renters and landlords can apply on the Houston rental assistance website.

Houston’s skyline.

The greater Houston region is now entering its 10th week dealing with the coronavirus. In that time, more than 7,800 people have tested positive for COVID-19 in Harris County alone, and more than 170 people have died.

Oil and gas companies across the state have started to declare bankruptcy, with more likely on the way. And thousands of Houston’s oil and gas workers have been laid off, during an unprecedented oil market crash. That’s all part of what some experts have called the worst recession Houston has faced in 100 years.

And experts say the economy won’t be bouncing back any time soon. State officials have pushed for a full reopening of the Texas economy, and Gov. Greg Abbott has lifted some of those restrictions against the opening of businesses across the state.

While the pressure to return to normalcy mounts, health experts have urged caution, fearing that lifting restrictions too soon would lead to a second wave of outbreaks. Without more testing and contact tracing, at a rate significantly higher than Texas is currently performing, it’s not clear the state should be reopening at all, some doctors have said. And local city and county leaders have largely shared those fears.

That tension between public safety and a desire to reopen many businesses shuttered by the pandemic has amplified already existing state and local tensions.

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Katie Watkins

Katie Watkins she/her

Environmental Reporter

Katie Watkins is a senior reporter at Houston Public Media where she covers environmental issues in Greater Houston. She has reported on environmental injustices, toxic waste sites, conservation and the impacts of climate change on the region. She also loves quirky science stories about what makes our natural environmental unique, wonderful and...

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