By Nicole Cobler Austin American-Statesman
AUSTIN, Texas — The coronavirus death toll in Texas surpassed 1,000 for the first time Friday, a grim milestone, as salons and barbershops statewide reopened their doors.
State health officials reported 31 new coronavirus-related deaths, bringing the total number of deaths to 1,004, along with 1,219 fresh coronavirus cases.
Those figures are in line with daily totals from previous days and weeks, signs that the virus spread has reached a plateau, even as other measures offer hope. The state’s infection rate, touted by Gov. Greg Abbott, has dipped in recent days — 5.6% on Friday — as testing has increased. And the number of COVID-19 patients being treated in Texas hospitals — 1,734 on Friday — has remained remarkably steady over the past several weeks.
But the state is not meeting some benchmarks recommended by federal health officials as a precursor to reopening businesses, which include showing a reduction in cases for at least 14 days, dramatically boosting testing — Texas is not meeting Abbott’s own goal of 25,000 daily tests — and effectively tracking people with confirmed infections and those with whom they came into contact, known as contact tracing.
And while the rate of new cases has slowed in most large urban areas, the effect of nearly two months of social distancing restrictions, some smaller Texas cities and rural areas have seen a surge in cases, often the result of outbreaks in prisons and nursing centers.
Twelve counties with at least 10 reported cases of COVID-19 have seen cases increase by 50% over the past week. In four of those counties, cases have doubled, according to an Austin American-Statesman analysis of state data.
In the Amarillo area, officials have been grappling for weeks with outbreaks associated with workers at meatpacking plants. This week, Abbott dispatched a so-called surge response team to the area to tamp down the spread.
At a virtual news conference Friday, Amarillo officials juggled updating residents of stark COVID-19 numbers with news of food donations and business reopenings.
Amarillo City Manager Jared Miller reminded viewers that Abbott had allowed salons to reopen.
“You’ll be able to get your hair cut and get your nails done, which is something people have been waiting for eagerly,” Miller said.
One week ago, Abbott ended his stay-at-home order and allowed restaurants, retail stores, malls and movie theaters to reopen with limited occupancy. The second phase of reopening got underway in earnest Friday. On May 18, nonessential manufacturing plants and office-based businesses can reopen, along with gyms.
In a White House meeting Thursday with President Donald Trump, Abbott touted the efforts of the response teams made up of public health officials.
“We’re going into these meatpacking facilities, and we’ll test everybody,” he said. “Basically there’s only three categories causing any type of outbreaks — meatpacking plants, jails and senior centers. If it weren’t for those three categories, the people in Texas testing positive would be very minimal.”
Testing increased near Amarillo this week, where the Texas National Guard is working to test every employee at a Tyson beef processing facility. The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also is assessing the outbreaks to make safety recommendations by early next week, according to local officials.
Roughly 1,400 people were tested Thursday, Amarillo Mayor Ginger Nelson said in the Friday news conference.
“With all of those additional tests our positive case numbers are going to go up,” Nelson said. “But it’s just showing us what is already there.”
Amarillo straddles two counties: Potter and Randall. Potter saw its cases jump from 684 on April 2 to 1,027 Friday, a 50.2% increase. In Randall County, cases increased from 256 on April 2 to 343 on Friday, a 34% increase. Moore County, to the north, also saw a 34% increase over the past week.
By comparison, cases grew by 18% in Travis County, 22.2% in Bexar County and 12.6% in Harris County over the same period.
In the Friday press conference, Dr. Scott Milton, Amarillo public health authority and infection specialist at Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center, estimated that half of the new coronavirus cases in the area are associated with meatpacking plants and prisons.
The Tyson outbreak is the latest meatpacking outbreak in the area. More than 200 workers at a nearby JBS beef slaughterhouse tested positive for the coronavirus, a Texas Department of State Health Services spokeswoman said last week.
The department did not respond to requests for comment Friday about the JBS plant or other meatpacking facilities.
A spokeswoman for JBS USA said the plant “received positive feedback” about its adherence to federal guidance and has made new adjustments based on discussions with federal health officials.
“We also identified some opportunities for improvement as people enter and exit the facility as well as in areas where people congregate, like the designated smoking area outside the plant, to better ensure people are maintaining social distancing,” she said. “No one is forced to come to work and no one is punished for being absent for health reasons.”
Amarillo officials remained optimistic Friday, confident that more testing will help limit the outbreaks.
“That’s been the strategy all along — do as much testing as possible and have a small army of people who can do contact tracing,” Milton said.