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‘It’s that rampant’: COVID-19 is widespread in Victoria, officials say

The coronavirus is so widespread in Victoria that just being in a crowd of people without a mask is enough to consider yourself exposed to the virus, the county’s top health official said Tuesday.

Dr. John McNeill, Victoria’s local health authority, spoke at a news conference with other leaders Tuesday about the dramatic rise in positive cases of the disease that have been confirmed in just a matter of days.

“If you go out into a crowd of people ... and you don’t have a mask on, you’re not social distancing, you can pretty much consider yourself exposed to COVID,” McNeill said, paraphrasing the county’s epidemiologist Brittany Burgess. “It’s that rampant, it’s that widespread right now.”

Victoria is now considered to be at a state of widespread community transmission of the virus, officials said.

Although cases are growing, city and county leaders have decided against mandating that businesses require their customers to wear masks, as some other Texas counties and cities have opted to do.

County Judge Ben Zeller and Mayor Rawley McCoy said they would continue to promote education and voluntary compliance as a way to increase the use of facial coverings in public spaces.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, numerous health experts, and local health officials have said that wearing a facial covering can help to block or prevent the respiratory droplets that an infected person sprays when they breathe, talk or sneeze. The virus is thought to spread most often through these droplets that are sprayed by an infected person and ingested by a healthy person.

“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 said.

Business owners can, however, decide for themselves that their employees and customers must wear masks while on the business’s property. Zeller said such a requirement would be similar to “no shoes, no shirt, no service” policies typical of many establishments.

Starting Wednesday, visitors and employees at the Victoria County Courthouse and Annex will be asked, but not required, to wear a facial covering when social distancing is not possible. Masks will be provided at the entrances of both buildings for those who do not have one, said Caitlin Weinheimer, the county’s chief of staff.

McCoy and Zeller also signed new emergency orders Tuesday, declaring a local state of disaster for the city and county, respectively.

Another 24 county residents tested positive for COVID-19 as of Tuesday evening as the state reported 5,489 new cases in the same day, setting another record.

Of Victoria County’s 165 active cases, 97 were added in the last three days. A total of 371 resident have been infected. The outbreak at Citizens Medical Center has infected 19 employees, McNeill said, but he added that he now considers that outbreak to be contained.

Fourteen county residents are in area hospitals, according to data from the Victoria County Public Health Department.

In total, there are 21 COVID-19 patients, including both residents and non-county residents, in Citizens Medical Center and DeTar Healthcare System, McNeill said.

He warned that the number of hospitalizations could increase in the coming days because Victoria was still in the early days of “a rapidly expanding acute outbreak.” The respiratory disease causes a range of symptoms in those who are infected. Although some patients will experience very little symptoms, others can get seriously ill and even die. Most patients start showing symptoms about 4 to 5 days after they are infected, and those become seriously ill usually don’t do so until about 10 to 12 days after they become infected, according to the latest data.

For now, local officials are depending on residents’ personal responsibility to slow the spread of the virus.

“I am one of those people that are at risk. And I hear people telling me that you should just go home and stay there to protect yourself,” McCoy said. “But I don’t think it’s right that irresponsible people who choose to be irresponsible in essence sentence me to house arrest.”

DeWitt County

One new case of COVID-19 was reported in DeWitt County on Tuesday. The individual, a 35-year-old Cuero woman, recently had close contact with a family member in Victoria who has also tested positive. She is recovering at home.

The county has reported 43 cases of the coronavirus. Seventeen individuals are isolating at home. Four are inpatients at Victoria medical facilities. Twenty-one people have recovered. One has died.

Matagorda County

Five new cases of COVID-19 were reported in Matagorda County on Tuesday.

The new cases bring the county’s total to 134, according to the Matagorda Regional Medical Center. Sixty-one patients have recovered and five residents have died.

The five new patients include two men between the ages of 50 and 60; a man between the ages of 30 and 40; a woman between the ages of 30 and 40; and a man between the ages of 40 and 50.

Additionally, four patients are currently seeking treatment for COVID-19 in the Matagorda Regional Medical Center.

Officials are reminding the public that a COVID-19 testing site will be available from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday at the Bay City Civic Center, 201 7th St., Bay City.

There is no cost for the test. All tests will be scheduled in advance and patients will be given appointments for their test. To be eligible for testing, a person must show one or more symptoms of COVID-19.

To schedule a test, call 512-883-2400 or visit txcovidtest.org.

Lavaca County

One more case of COVID-19 was reported in Lavaca County on Tuesday, bringing the county’s total number of cases among residents to 89.

As of 4:30 p.m. Tuesday, 11 of the county’s COVID-19 cases were confirmed, 51 were pending investigation and one was classified as probable. A total of 25 patients had recovered from the coronavirus and one had died.

Jackson County

Two additional COVID-19 cases that are pending investigation were reported in Jackson County on Tuesday, according to state data.

In total, 27 county residents have either confirmed cases or cases that are pending investigation.

Calhoun County

One additional COVID-19 case that is pending investigation was reported Tuesday, local officials said.

In total, 61 residents have either confirmed, probable, or pending investigations cases.

Refugio County

Three new cases were reported in Refugio County on Tuesday, according to a news release from the county’s emergency management coordinator.

In all, nine county residents have tested positive for the disease, and three have recovered. The new cases include a woman in her 70s, a boy in his teens and a woman in her 40s. All three new cases are isolated, according to the news release.

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Shiner Police Chief retires after 45 years in public service

As a kid, Ronnie Leck liked to bike the streets of Yoakum. One day, he asked his mother for a sheet of cellophane and placed it over the light on his handlebars. From then on, the light cast a red glow on the pavement, just like a police light, as he biked up and down Nelson Street.

Though Leck wouldn’t be Chief Leck for a while longer, he already fit the part.

“I was probably 12, 13, 14, acting like I was a cop,” Leck said last week. “Maybe it started back then.”

Those childhood patrols were the precursor to a lengthy career in Lavaca County that included two terms as County Judge lasting 2003 to 2010, two stints as Shiner police chief and 20 years working for Yoakum police, including a decade as police chief.

After 45 years in public service, Leck is retiring at June’s end. He leaves behind a legacy of integrity and devotion to the communities he has served throughout the county.

“Ronnie is honest as the day is long,” said Marvin Boedeker, owner of Boedeker Plastics in Shiner, who has known Leck for 36 years. “He’s just a real fair guy and darn straightforward.”

After graduating from Yoakum High School, Leck spent two years in the Marine Corps in California, where he was a call away from heading to Vietnam.

He joined the Yoakum Police Department in December 1973, working the 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. downtown watch shift.

During one patrol, Leck heard a noise behind him and swung around to look. An air compressor at a feed store had just kicked on, getting the best of his new-officer jitters. But Leck soon settled into the role.

Leck’s first chief, Billy Moore, instilled in him the importance of fairness.

“I was just a little scared of him because he was pretty tough,” Leck said. “If you did something wrong, he’d let you know about it. But he supported you real well. Once I became a chief, I said, ‘I’m going to be like Billy.’”

Leck was appointed Shiner’s police chief in 1983. He led a memorable sting at Wendel’s Jewelry in Shiner, busting a would-be diamond thief. A plaque with a fake diamond donated by the store’s owners still sits in the lobby of Shiner’s police station.

But Leck said the best part of the job was simply being out in the community.

“I’ve always been a real visible police chief,” Leck said. “I get up at 5 o’clock sometimes and go to work. I just like being out and waving at the citizens of my community and letting them know I’m out there.”

Boedeker said Leck built relationships with Shiner’s business community and local students, working traffic in the morning and football games at night.

“I think Ronnie did a good job of not just being the police chief but being a fellow citizen of Shiner,” Boedeker said. “That’s pretty big in my book.”

Leck took the assistant chief job at Yoakum in 1992 after a brief stint working as a salesman at Boedeker Plastics. Four months later, he found himself in the top job again. For the next decade, he commuted from Shiner, parking his white Crown Victoria in his driveway at the end of his shift.

In his years as chief in Shiner and Yoakum, he met former President Gerald Ford, future President George W. Bush and Dallas Cowboys head coach Tom Landry.

Leck decided to run for County Judge in 2002. He believed his approach as chief would carry over into politics.

“As a judge, you have to show no favoritism,” he said.

Alongside Mary, his wife of 45 years, he campaigned at picnics, auctions and community events, doling out plates of Laura Bush’s signature cookies. He was elected.

During his two terms, the county restored its historic 1899 courthouse in downtown Hallettsville to pristine condition, converted a supermarket to a courthouse annex and built a new county jail and EMS building.

Lavaca County Clerk Liz Kouba, who took office the same year Leck did, said she remembers him as a thorough and professional administrator.

“He was always willing to help, always here to make sure things were attended to and taken care of,” she said. “He had the county’s best interests at heart.”

Kouba praised Leck for the work he did to help overhaul the county’s records department. When they both took office, some of the county’s records were kept in a boxcar.

“We had to drive four miles out of town and open a gate and make sure the cows didn’t get in,” Kouba said.

Leck worked with the Lavaca commissioners court to establish a records committee and start the lengthy process of building a climate-controlled archives center. The facility opened in 2016 and holds public records and historical documents dating back to the 1840s.

Leck’s second tenure as Shiner police chief began in 2013. During a battle with squamous cell carcinoma in his cheek in 2015, he took a brief leave, but returned after four months off the job. For several weeks, he drove to Sugar Land for radiation in the mornings and returned to his desk before noon.

“He’s always taken his job seriously,” Mary said. "We’ve always known when the phone rings, you go.”

In anticipation of retirement, Leck bought a new bicycle. After decades of service in Lavaca County, he’ll be patrolling the streets of Shiner on two spoked wheels, just like he did as a kid in Yoakum.

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Outbreak occurs at Boedeker Plastics facility in Shiner

Officials from Boedeker Plastics Inc. have confirmed an outbreak at the facility in Shiner where about 150 people work.

“Even after countless precautions, preventative preparations and employee awareness, one of our facilities has experienced positive cases of COVID-19,” according to a statement the company released Friday announcing the outbreak.

Lavaca County Judge Keith Mudd did not confirm the number of county residents who contracted the virus in the outbreak, but said it is a hotspot in the county where a total of 89 residents have tested positive for COVID-19.

Lavaca County’s total number of COVID-19 cases more than doubled between Friday and Monday – from 37 to 88 cases, said Egon Barthels, the county’s emergency management coordinator. One more case of COVID-19 was reported on Tuesday, bringing the county’s total to 89.

Before Monday, the county last reported nine new COVID-19 cases Friday evening, bringing its total number of residents who had contracted the virus to 37. The number of active cases in the county is 63 and one resident has died of the disease.

Marvin Boedeker, company president and founder, would not comment on the number of employees who’ve tested positive for COVID-19, but said those who’ve exhibited symptoms have had minor cases. He said no employees are currently hospitalized with the disease caused by coronavirus.

Boedeker said the plant is currently operating, but at a reduced capacity that is “considerably less than what we normally do,” he said.

He attributed the decrease in operations to social distancing measures in effect.

The company employs about 150 people, according to the most recent estimate by the Victoria Economic Development Corp.

“Boedeker Plastics and our affiliated companies have played and continue to play a major role in the fight against the COVID-19 virus,” according to the company’s statement issued Friday. “Our customers depend on us to provide life-saving products used in prevention, detection and life-sustaining equipment across the medical industry. Our business continues to remain open to support critical infrastructure and provide essential services to the medical and national defense industries.”

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Local service provider challenges broadband funding in Victoria

A new funding initiative by the Federal Communications Commission is raising hopes for more high-speed internet options in rural communities across the country.

The Rural Digital Opportunity Fund aims to bring voice and broadband internet services to homes and businesses in U.S. census blocks that are entirely unserved. Across the country, 25 states have more than 100,000 census blocks that entirely lack access to these services, according to the FCC. There are 381,000 in Texas.

But in the Crossroads, the opportunity for local internet service providers, or ISPs, to receive funding in the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund’s first phase may have been squandered.

In April, TISD Inc., a Victoria-based internet service provider that serves 5,000 households in five counties, wrote to the FCC, challenging the eligibility of 28 census blocks in the Crossroads deemed initially eligible for the funding.

In that letter submitted to the FCC, TISD said the challenge was based on the company’s claim that it began serving these areas with voice and broadband services, which the FCC defines as internet service with speeds of 25 megabits per second or higher, as of June 30, 2019.

Money in the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund will be distributed through a reverse bidding process, in which ISPs compete by submitting proposals to deliver broadband and voice services at low costs.

If the challenge is accepted by the FCC, local internet service companies would not be able to submit bids for $16 billion available in the fund’s Phase 1 auction. The auction will open in October.

The Victoria Electric Cooperative, which planned to submit a bid for the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund’s first auction phase, wrote the FCC asking them to reject TISD’s challenge.

In their letter, the Victoria Electric Cooperative said the FCC should reject the challenge because it claims TISD’s prices for its services do not meet FCC’s pricing standards for broadband.

Nina Campos, a spokeswoman for the VEC, said in a statement that she wants her company, among others, to be able to bid on local census blocks because she wants residents in the Crossroads to have affordable high-speed internet.

“This is an underserved area. We want all of the benefits of the bigger city; we’re not able to bring some of those resources here,” she said. Especially during the COVID-19 pandemic, “Broadband is no longer a luxury, it’s a necessity.”

TISD may not be the only company challenging the funding eligibility of local census blocks.

Because the FCC relies on data from local internet service providers to determine whether a census block will be eligible for funding, some experts are also skeptical about how well eligibility records reflect internet coverage in an area.

Brian O’Hara, the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association’s senior director of regulatory issues for broadband and telecom, said in an interview with Cooperative.com that internet providers can report a census block as ‘served’ even if only one location in the census block obtains fixed voice and broadband services.

In a statement, TISD Inc. explained its decision to challenge the eligibility of local census blocks: “As a local company, we do not support federal funding to bring outside companies that will take money away from the local economy,” wrote company spokesman Byron Cumberland.

He said the last government internet funding project, the Connect America Phase II Auction, made him skeptical about the ability of out-of-town providers to follow through on their bids.

“There were local areas bid on and won by companies not local to the Victoria area,” Cumberland said. “Those companies have not begun the build out. They have not attempted to service the residents they said they would. When and if they do decide to build out, they will bring in outside contractors to install the service and all of the revenue from providing the service will leave the local economy. We challenged the FCC in the areas we provide broadband internet service which exceed their requirements. The revenue we receive goes directly back into improving our network and the local economy.”

Campos said in a statement that local ISPs won’t know whether the challenges to auction eligibility are accepted until the FCC releases a map providing the census blocks eligible for the auction. She anticipates that map will be released before mid-July.

If the census blocks are deemed ineligible for the Phase 1 auction, they may become eligible for the RDOF’s second phase auction, in which $4.4 billion will be available for bidders. The Phase 2 auction does not yet have a set date for bidding.

Campos said both the uncertain time frame and the fewer dollars available are both reasons she hopes TISD’s challenge is rejected.

In her statement, Campos wrote that of the initial amount of money available “the Crossroads area would be eligible for approximately $30 million over the next ten years. The likelihood of this same level of funding being available for the community during the second phase is highly unlikely.”