Hemphill County officials urge greater caution as COVID-19 case count grows here

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Hemphill County officials urge greater caution as COVID-19 case count grows here

Fri, 06/26/2020 - 17:56
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City and county officials responded to a sudden surge of positive COVID-19 test cases in Hemphill County recently, with an appeal to residents to be more attentive to the recommended safety protocols.

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City and county officials responded to a sudden surge of positive COVID-19 test cases in Hemphill County recently, with an appeal to residents to be more attentive to the recommended safety protocols.

The first positive test in Hemphill County was reported on April 2. Since then, no other Hemphill County residents had tested positive until last week when, in a period of 48 hours, two new positives were announced. This week, alarms sounded when four additional positive tests were reported locally, bringing the total of COVID-19 cases reported by Hemphill County Hospital to seven local residents, and seven non-residents whose tests were also processed by the hospital.

“Perhaps we’ve gotten a little lax as things have gotten better,” said Hemphill County Judge George Briant, “and haven’t done as much of the things we were doing when this started back in March. Everybody was just a little more careful.”

“I guess I would just encourage our citizens and visitors to the community to display a little more attention, to use a little common sense and good judgment,” Judge Briant said. “It’s just about practicing social distancing, and washing and sanitizing your hands, and doing things that we probably just needed to do a little longer.”

Mayor Terrill Bartlett also encouraged greater caution by the community. “We need to always try and be safe, and do the things the CDC has been recommending all along,” Mayor Bartlett said. “Wash your hands. Use sanitizer. Use a mask if you feel comfortable with them.”

“And if you’ve tested positive,” he said, “stay home.”

Dr. Tony Cook, at the Canadian Family Physician’s Clinic, was far more direct in his assessment.

“If we don’t start wearing masks and social distancing,” Dr. Cook said, “we will be back where we were. The governor will have to take action we don’t want him to take.”

Masks can help, Cook said, but if most people are not wearing them, they don’t help a lot. “I encourage people to wear masks, especially when they are in stores,” Cook said. “Masks and social distancing and good hand hygiene—those are the key.”

“If we don’t do a better job, then the government will shut things down again and we’ll have no choice,” Dr. Cook said. “Let’s not have Hemphill County be part of the reason, if we can.”

“When you have 1 or 2 cases for months, and all of a sudden take a jump like this, eyes are opened,” he said. “Hopefully, this is a trend that stops and we catch all of the exposure cases. But if not, you just don’t know.”

Dr. Cook said the most recent cluster of positive tests were the result of community spread.  He also said the clinic and hospital district are doing their best to do contact tracing on all patients who test positive. “The state health department (DSHS) does tracing on their end,” he said, “but we’re trying to do it before they get to it. They are so overwhelmed that, if we wait, it will be too late.”

It has been over three months since the first cases of COVID-19 were officially reported in Texas. Today, Texas has the fourth highest number of confirmed cases in the United States. After issuing what was effectively an order to stay home for most of April, Governor Greg Abbott began a phased-in lifting of those restrictions in May, and by early June had permitted most businesses to open to at least 50 percent capacity.

Positive test counts have increased rapidly statewide, in recent weeks. This week alone, Texas saw a record number of new cases—nearly 6,000—and hospitalizations. The numbers were alarming enough that on Wednesday, Governor Abbott urged Texans to stay home, and reminded the public to practice the best safe practices of wearing masks, using hand sanitizer, and maintaining safe distances. He also gave local officials the authority to place restrictions on outdoor gatherings of over 100 people.

Just two days later, though, Gov. Abbott took a far more aggressive stance, ordering Texas bars to close again and restaurants to scale back to 50 percent occupancy from 75 percent, as coronavirus surged. He also ordered a prohibition on outdoor gatherings of 100 people or more unless local officials explicitly approve them—an order obviously aimed at tamping down big public Fourth of July gatherings.

How those orders would affect Canadian’s scaled-back Fourth of July plans was uncertain. The Canadian Rodeo Association’s (CRA) request to use the rodeo arena here had already been approved by county commissioners and is unlikely to be rescinded. Their approval was accompanied by a request that organizers ensure social distancing in the spectators’ stands, and that the bleachers be disinfected and hand sanitizer made available.

Approval for the rodeo dance, however, was put on hold by the court in its June 8 meeting. CRA representatives offered to hold the dance outside in a parking area near Jones Pavilion, which seemed to assuage some of the commissioners’ concerns, but Judge Briant suggested the court wait to make a final decision until closer to the event. This week, CRA announced plans to stage the dance inside the pavilion, but to leave all the doors open.

Judge Briant did not comment on those plans, but following Gov. Abbott’s order, issued Friday morning, said, “It certainly appears that the court will have to give approval to the Rodeo Association to hold the dance.”

That decision is on the court’s agenda again Monday morning.

Asked what number of positive COVID-19 tests might trigger another shut down here, Briant said, “I don’t know. If Canadian has 50 cases, you know, it might be time we need to do something. But if we can keep our arms around these that we have, maybe it will be alright.”

Dr. Cook was less willing to cite any specific number of cases, saying instead, that if they start seeing multiple random cases popping up in unexpected places, “That’s when we get concerned. Lots of these positives…we wouldn’t be surprised if we have more in the next few days. But if it’s random exposures, that’s the scary part.”

Meanwhile, Mayor Bartlett said, “Use common sense. It’s not that hard to do. The sooner we get through this, the sooner we’ll get back to normal.”