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Victoria Mayor issues order requiring businesses to mandate masks

As COVID-19 cases in the region surpassed 1,000 on Thursday, Victoria Mayor Rawley McCoy signed an order requiring all businesses in the city to mandate the use of facial coverings.

In Victoria County, 54 more cases of COVID-19 were confirmed in 24 hours – the highest daily increase since the pandemic began, surpassing Wednesday’s record of 45.

Of Victoria County’s 468 cases, 238 were active Thursday, officials said. A total of 222 residents had recovered from the coronavirus and eight had died.

Dr. John McNeill, Victoria County’s health authority, said Thursday evening after the mayor issued his order that he was “really worried” about Victoria and “really worried about it getting worse.”

With the number of cases continuing to rise and hospitalizations surging in larger, surrounding cities, McNeill said the community has to use every tool available to protect itself.

“This (requiring masks in businesses) is just one of the things that we hope will slow the spread of this virus in our community,” he said.

McCoy’s order requires every commercial entity that provides goods or services to the public to develop a health and safety policy for employees and customers to follow.

The policy must be posted in a conspicuous location so it will be visible to employees and customers, and the business must begin enforcing the policy by 8 a.m. Monday.

At minimum, businesses must require employees and customers to wear facial coverings “when in an area where 6 feet of separation is not feasible or performing an activity which will necessarily involve close contact or proximity to co-workers or the public,” the order reads.

Starting Monday, city employees and members of the public must also wear facial coverings at city-operated facilities under the new order. Anyone not wearing a face covering may be denied entry or removed from the facility.

In compliance with Gov. Greg Abbott’s executive order signed June 3, no individual will be fined or punished for failing to wear a mask.

Businesses that fail to comply with the new local order, however, are subject to a fine of no more than $1,000 for each day that they are in violation of the order.

Peace officers, city code enforcement officers, building inspectors and the City of Victoria Fire Marshal Office are tasked with enforcing the new city order.

Tom Legler, the city’s fire marshal, said he had not been fully briefed about the order as of Thursday evening, so he could not detail how his office plans to enforce the order.

“I will certainly have more details available tomorrow,” he said.

McCoy could not be reached for additional comment Thursday.

He previously told the Advocate he was considering mask orders other county and municipal governments, such as Bexar County, started issuing last week.

At the time, the mayor said, “I want to make sure I understand the situation and where the health authorities suspect the weaknesses to be and see if what is happening in Bexar County and some of the larger cities is applicable to us.”

In complying with Abbott’s orders, the City of Victoria will hold businesses responsible for requiring customers and staff to wear facial coverings.

As COVID-19 cases continue to rise in Victoria and the surrounding region, McCoy previously said the intersection of public safety and individual rights was critical to consider.

“Our individual rights are precious ... what separates us from other countries and societies is our freedom,” he said. “I’ve exercised my rights throughout my life, but there comes a time when you have to analyze and ask, is my individual right valid when the exercise of my right puts someone else’s health at peril?”

Up until Thursday, neither McCoy nor County Judge Ben Zeller said they had planned to issue an order requiring businesses to mandate facial coverings.

During a news conference Tuesday, Zeller said, “The approach we’re taking with this public health issue is to serve as a resource for direction and information and guidance rather than by issuing orders or mandates or threatening residents and businesses with fines like you’re seeing in some other jurisdictions.”

Zeller could not be reached Thursday for comment about the city’s shift in plans, which comes a day after the Victoria Chamber of Commerce passed a resolution encouraging business owners to require masks of employees and business patrons.

The resolution was passed unanimously with support from Zeller, McCoy, McNeil and the Victoria County Public Health Department.

Chamber CEO and President Jeff Lyon said Thursday that the chamber was “very pleased with what the city has done.”

“We know it was a hard decision on their part and we know that they struggled with it, but they also know that this is a good alternative for us to lower the curve without making some drastic changes that we’ve gone through previously,” he said. “We have to look out for each other. This is not a political issue; this is a health issue.”

With cases rising, McNeill said his main concern is make sure local hospitals do not become swamped.

“It is already happening in Houston and we would be foolish to think that it couldn’t happen here,” he said.

In an effort to increase bed availability and protect staff as COVID-19 cases continue to rise in Victoria, Citizens Medical Center officials said Thursday that all elective surgical procedures will be postponed until July 6.

The decision was scheduled to go into effect midnight Thursday.

Patients with scheduled elective procedures will be contacted, and plans for rescheduling will be coordinated with their physician, according to a news release from Citizens. Urgent surgeries and all other hospital services, including endoscopies and outpatient treatment, will continue.

The hospital made this decision after Abbott suspended elective surgeries at hospitals in Bexar, Dallas, Harris and Travis counties earlier Thursday, said Jennifer McDaniel, a spokeswoman for Citizens.

McDaniel said Citizens is currently treating 10 COVID patients, one of whom is in the ICU. The hospital’s ICU beds are at 60% capacity, she said.

Two additional CMC employees have tested positive, McDaniel said, bringing the total number of employees infected in an outbreak reported earlier this week to 23.

DeWitt County

Officials reported three new cases of COVID-19 on Thursday, bringing the county’s total to 50. All three individuals are isolating at home.

One is a 14-month-old baby boy who lives in Cuero. His infection was attributed to household exposure related to out-of-town travel.

One is a 23-year-old Yorktown woman. Her infection was attributed to community spread while visiting Victoria.

One is a 47-year-old Cuero woman. Her infection was attributed to community spread or exposure at work.

Cuero Regional Hospital revised its visitor policy on Thursday. Only patients with appointments are now allowed inside the hospital.

This change goes into effect at 7 a.m. Friday. Screenings will no longer be taking place on Saturdays or Sundays at the hospital.

Lynn Falcone, CEO of Cuero Health, said no visitors will be allowed in the emergency department, outpatient areas, clinics, day surgery unit and inpatient units. Exceptions will be made for pediatric patients, elderly patients, special needs patients, surgery patients, end-of-life patients and labor & delivery patients.

Matagorda County

The number of COVID-19 cases in Matagorda County hit 155 after 12 new cases of the disease were reported Thursday.

The county has reported 86 new cases of the disease in June alone, according to a news release from the Matagorda County Emergency Operation Center.

Of the county’s total 155 cases, 61 have recovered, and five residents have died. Six patients are currently seeking treatment in Matagorda County medical facilities, the release said.

Wharton County

The Wharton County Office of Emergency Management reported 12 new cases of COVID-19 among residents on Thursday.

A total of 141 residents have tested positive for the virus, officials said. That figure includes 60 patients who have recovered from the illness and one who died.

Eighty cases remained active as of Thursday, according to a news release from the county.

Calhoun County

Officials in Calhoun County said Thursday that 11 county residents had tested positive for COVID-19 in the past 24 hours.

In total, there are 75 cases in the county as of Thursday evening. That includes 55 confirmed cases and 14 cases pending investigation, which are patients who have tested positive for COVID-19 but who haven’t yet been interviewed by state health officials. Another 6 cases are probable, meaning they believed to be COVID-19 cases but don’t yet have a positive lab test.

The 75 cases include 22 active cases and 50 patients who have recovered. Three county residents who had COVID-19 have died.

Lavaca County

Lavaca County officials said 16 new cases of COVID-19 were confirmed in the county on Thursday.

Of the county’s 113 cases, 82 are active, according to the Texas Department of State Health Services.

That figure includes 36 cases that have been confirmed by state health officials, 44 that are pending investigation and 2 that are classified as probable.

Jackson County

The Texas Department of State Health Services reported nine new cases of COVID-19 in the county Thursday.

In all, 36 residents have tested positive for the disease. There are 23 confirmed cases and 13 that are still pending investigation by investigators.

Of the 36 cases, 15 are still active and 20 patients have recovered. One county resident with COVID-19 has died.

County Judge Jill S. Sklar and the mayors of Edna, La Ward, and Ganado asked residents to continue to be cautious to avoid the spread of the disease.

“Less than a week ago, we had zero active cases and now we have 15,” the letter to residents said.

There are more than 100 tests from the Jackson County Hospital that are still waiting to be processed by a lab, according to the letter.

Officials test 747 people for COVID-19 at Victoria Community Center

A line snaked around the side of the Victoria Community Center on Thursday, where the sun beat down on the asphalt and hundreds of people waiting to get tested for COVID-19.

Toward the front entrance, a woman said she had been waiting nearly three hours to get tested for the coronavirus at the site, which was coordinated by the Texas Military Department in partnership with the Texas Department of Emergency Management, Victoria County and the City of Victoria.

As 54 more cases of COVID-19 were confirmed in Victoria County on Thursday and cases in the region surpassed 1,000, many people found the wait worth the test.

One woman read a book while shuffling her feet in line. Another sat comfortably in a lawn chair with an umbrella. Toward the back, a few children played games to keep themselves entertained.

A total of 747 people from Victoria and surrounding counties were tested for the virus at the walk-up testing site on Thursday, said Rick McBrayer, the Victoria County Emergency Management Coordinator.

All were wearing a mask, except maybe a handful to a dozen people, he said.

“We were estimating that there were at least 1,500 to 2,000 out in line, but some people were coming with family members and there might have been four or five people in one family, but only one was getting tested,” McBrayer said. “As the heat came on, we also saw some people get tired of waiting and leave.”

The site was open from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., but because of the large crowd that showed up, officials decided to halt incoming traffic at 1 p.m. to give time to test everyone who was already in line.

“We quickly knew that we were going to have an influx of people, more so than the military had seen in other locations they had been at,” McBrayer said.

Orange cones blocked off entrances to the parking lot after 1 p.m.

People tried to park on the side of East North Street and walk up, but were told to come back Friday, when the site will reopen from 8 a.m. to noon.

The Texas National Guard members broke into two testing teams in the morning to be able to run two lanes of testing at once.

Once a person gets to the front of the line, they are taken to check in, where their identification information is verified, said a National Guard captain who was in charge of the mobile collection site.

From there, they go to a holding area and are briefed on how the test will work before getting swabbed.

On Wednesday, Gov. Greg Abbott announced that starting on Thursday, every person who gets tested for COVID-19 at a mobile site will be given four free masks.

“Wearing a mask or facial covering in public is an effective way for Texans to protect themselves and others from the transmission of COVID-19,” Abbott said in a news release. “This program helps ensure that Texans have the resources they need to effectively mitigate the spread of this virus.”

Everyone who got tested at the community center on Thursday was handed masks as they walked out the door.

Some people did complain about the collection site being walk-up and not drive-thru, which meant having to stand outside while waiting, McBrayer said.

But that is preferred by the Texas Military Department and Texas Department of State Health Services for a reason. The majority of people waiting to get tested were understanding, he said.

No appointment or screening was required to get tested for COVID-19, and testing was provided at no cost.

Walk-up testing sites are more efficient than drive-thru because more people can be swabbed in the same time frame, the National Guard captain said.

Each team can test about 40 people every hour at a walk-up testing site, compared to 15 every hour at a drive-thru site, the captain said.

Officials handed out bottled water and set up tents for shade, but McBrayer said there were a few medical emergencies at the community center.

He said a handful of people, who either had health conditions or were elderly, started feeling the effects of high temperatures, which neared 89 degrees.

One woman was transported to a local hospital from the center, he said. The others met with medics, got hydrated and were able to go inside and get tested.

The collection site will reopen at 8 a.m. Friday.

Any person planning to get tested is encouraged to bring a chair and wear comfortable shoes and clothing.

Because of high temperatures expected on Friday, officials are also encouraging residents to bring water, stay hydrated and find shade while waiting.

“Expect that there is going to be a wait because the sample collection takes a few minutes,” McBrayer said. “We’re doing the best we can, but be patient, make sure you’re appropriately ready for hot and humid weather, and standing out in the sun for an extended period of time.”

Mayor Rawley McCoy

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Despite pandemic, Citizens Medical Center passes balanced budget

Citizens Medical Center expects to break even next year in spite of the pandemic, which has left many hospitals and providers struggling after a three-month dip in routine medical services.

The county hospital’s board of managers passed a $157 million operating budget at its meeting Wednesday, a 3.5% increase from what the hospital is expected to spend this year.

Duane Woods, the hospital’s chief financial officer, initially expected to lose money next year because of the pandemic’s setbacks.

“We’re anticipating this year to come in right about break even, maybe a little under water,” Woods said. “The budget we’re putting forth is a little bit above water, a $375,000 positive bottom line.”

But a budget is merely a planning document, and with the future of the pandemic unclear, things could change quickly for Citizens and other medical providers in Texas if case counts continue to rise in Texas.

“We haven’t really been able to budget for the what if’s,” Woods said. “If we have another broad shutdown, I’m going to need to come back with some adjusted budget numbers for the board because we just can’t make all of those variables in.”

Although COVID-19 cases are rising rapidly in Texas, Gov. Greg Abbott said Monday that a complete shutdown of the state would be the “last option.”

The initial shutdown in March, when most of the country was under some type of stay-at-home order, was meant to curb the spread of the virus to a safe and containable level. But instead, most experts cautioned that the caseload of the virus had not dipped low enough by the time states like Texas began reopening in May.

For Citizens, outpatient surgeries and emergency room visits both decreased by about 45% in April, compared to the same month last year. Hospital leaders said numbers have improved in May and June.

The 2021 budget does not include a standardized pay raise for employees. Woods said he hoped to return to the board in early 2021 to discuss a possible budget enhancement to offer raises depending on how the coming months go.

The hospital’s current fiscal year ends June 30, and officials are expecting a net loss of about $278,000. Also Wednesday, the board approved a three-year capital budget, a plan for the major equipment and investments the hospital wants to make in the next three years. The budget outlines about $10 million in expenses in 2021.