This article has been updated throughout.
AMARILLO, Texas (Nexstar) — Nursing homes, meatpacking plants, and jails are all home to outbreaks of COVID-19 in Texas.
Amarillo has all three.
That’s one of the reasons Gov. Greg Abbott traveled to the Texas Panhandle to provide his latest update on the state’s response to the novel coronavirus.
With state and local leaders by his side on Wednesday, the governor says the numbers look good for positive cases and hospitalizations in the state. He also believes that Amarillo has “turned the corner.”
Abbott met with state lawmakers and local leaders before holding the afternoon press conference from Amarillo City Hall. He was joined by Texas Division of Emergency Management Chief Nim Kidd, as well as Amarillo Mayor Ginger Nelson and the city’s Public Health Director Casie Stoughton.
Abbott mentioned how the state turned to action in Amarillo, breaking out the surge response teams at potential outbreak areas earlier in May. After the concerted effort in the region, the governor says Amarillo can now be part of the process of reopening the state’s economy.
“It is important that we be able to open up, open up while maintaining the safety and lives of our fellow Texans,” Gov. Abbot said. “One thing about Texans is they’re not looking for a handout, they’re looking to get back to work…while co-existing with COVID-19.”
On Tuesday, Abbott announced updates to the list of employers that could reopen under Phase II of his layered plan to reopen the state’s businesses. Driver education programs and shopping mall food courts can reopen immediately with certain measures in place. Water parks can open Friday and adult recreational sports can begin practices May 31. Abbott delayed five counties in the Panhandle and far West Texas from entering Phase II because of their hotspot statuses and hospital capacity.
“All of our numbers are moving in the right direction right now,” Abbott said in an interview Tuesday.
The state has sent more than 60 surge response teams statewide to tackle COVID-19 in the facilities where the virus has hit hardest.
“It has been a large partnership, and a lot of people have put their hand to the plow in order to work on this situation,” Amarillo Mayor Ginger Nelson said.
In East Texas, meatpacking plants pose similar problems, with outbreaks at facilities in Shelby County and Titus County.
“The problem is not opening up too quickly, it’s opening up and not abiding by the guidelines,” Titus County Judge Brian Lee said Wednesday.
“On a per capita basis, I’m sure we’re about to lead the pack in the state of Texas, and that’s not something that we’re proud of,” Lee said. “But it is something that we’re going to deal with without going into mass hysteria.”
State leaders aim to apply the strategy used in Amarillo to other areas with outbreaks across Texas.
“Amarillo has been the place where we launched it first, and we’ve seen great success,” Chief Kidd said Wednesday. “It’s the model that we’re pushing in other parts of the state as well.”
“Every time we have pushed these surge teams into hot zones, they’ve met with very good results,” Abbott said Friday. “But what happens is over the first week you will see a massive increase in the amount of tests as well as the amount of the people who test positive, and then after about two weeks, you see a decline in both tests and those testing positive and you see a containment of the problem.”
“We know right now that nursing homes, meatpacking plants and jails and prisons are the top three areas where we see outbreaks occur,” Kidd said Friday. “What we’re trying to do — and doing with success — is getting into those locations, testing everybody in the facility. Trying to get a very rapid turnaround on those tests, which isn’t always as fast as I want it to be, and making sure that we take people that are positive and keep them together, and people that are negative and keep them together.”
Asked about the state’s supply chain of personal protective equipment for front line healthcare workers and first-responders, Abbott said the U.S. had outsourced some equipment and supply manufacturing. The country is now bringing those operations back stateside so the nation would be less dependent on other countries for supplies down the road.
Abbott and the Texas Health and Human Services Commission announced $3.6 million in funding for facilities to buy tablets, webcams and headphones so nursing home residents can connect with their families during the pandemic. Abbott has previously restricted physical access to nursing home facilities during the COVID-19 outbreak.
Amarillo city leaders discussed mass-testing at area facilities during a city council meeting Tuesday. Area nursing homes accounted for 126 cases of COVID-19, with testing at the local JBS plant nearing completion. 45% of the positive tests from a Tyson Foods plant were asymptomatic.
Gov. Abbott says he expects one last spike in the positivity rate from the JBS plant over the next week.
“Those large number of tests at Tyson are going to skew on the front and the backside of their process,” said Amarillo City Manager Jared Miller. “So on the front side, it was a lot of positives and on the backside it’s going to be a large number of recoveries that’s what we all hope for.”
Abbott had initially set a soft Wednesday deadline to complete testing all nursing home patients and staff at approximately 1,200 facilities across Texas. As of Tuesday night, a Texas Division of Emergency Management spokesperson confirmed results for 45% of those facilities had been returned. The state is still waiting for large chunks of test results to come back from the local public health authorities and fire departments that are using local resources to collect tests, spokesperson Seth Christensen said.
“It is looking like there are some regions in the state of Texas that will not meet that deadline,” Abbott said Friday.
“Obviously, we want this done as quickly as possible,” he continued. “The hope is that by the end of next week all of these will be completed.”
The state has leaned on local fire and EMS departments to help meet the Governor’s mandate of testing all of the state’s nursing homes and providing additional testing for workers at meat processing facilities where outbreaks have taken over.
The Commission on Fire Protection is coordinating the fire department involvement, said Seth Christensen, spokesperson for the Texas Division of Emergency Management.
Once the larger city departments complete their assignments, they’ve been reaching out to facilities in unincorporated areas of those counties to support testing measures. The Texas Intrastate Fire Mutual Aid System, a coalition of 19 departments around the state, is also distributing personal protective equipment and test kits to fire departments administering tests.
Mye Owens contributed to this report.