COVID-19 Live Updates: UT Seeks Volunteer Contact Tracers, National Guard Cleaning Nursing Homes

11 hours ago

We'll be updating this story throughout the day Wednesday with the latest local news on the coronavirus pandemic. If you'd like to go through a roundup of COVID-19 news from Tuesday, read it here. If you have a news tip or question, email us at news@KUT.org.

Update at 3:50 p.m. – UT Health is looking for volunteer contact tracers

UT Health Austin and the Dell Medical School are seeking volunteers to help with contract-tracing efforts to help slow the spread of COVID-19.

Contact tracing involves finding people who may have come into contact with an individual who has tested positive for COVID-19. They’re asked whether they are feeling symptoms and encouraged to get tested. They’re also advised to self-quarantine. 

Experts say contact tracing and home monitoring are key to reducing the impact of the pandemic. 

Volunteers will receive training. They are asked to either be available 24 hours a week for contact tracing or for eight-hour shifts to check in on people asked to self-quarantine. 

More information on the program and how to sign up can be found here.

Update at 3:28 p.m. – Travis County adds $10 million in federal aid money for rent, mortgage and utility payments

Travis County Commissioners agreed Tuesday to make available $10 million in federal coronavirus relief funds to people who need help paying their rent, mortgage or utility bills. The county is receiving roughly $61 million in relief money from the federal government.

This $10 million would supplement an existing emergency rental assistance program and be open to Travis County residents making below 250% of the federal poverty level; for a single person, this equates to no more than $31,900 a year and for a single parent with two kids, no more than $54,300 a year.

While it’s hard to say how many people have been affected financially by the COVID-19 pandemic, there is a great demand for rental assistance. On Tuesday, the City of Austin announced it received nearly 11,000 applications for its rent assistance program, although the city estimates that money will be able to help only 1,000 households.

In the past, the county has offered rental assistance for only up to half the monthly rent on a certain-sized home. But with the federal money, the county will pay 100%; for a one-bedroom, that means a resident could get up to $1,134 toward a rent or mortgage payment. And whereas the county typically allows residents to receive this assistance only once a year, residents who qualify can get payments up to three times until the end of December.

Travis County is not yet accepting applications for assistance. It’ll take at least three weeks before that happens, Kirsten Siegfried, a division director with Travis County Health and Human Services Department, said Wednesday.

– Audrey McGlinchy

Update at 1:40 p.m. – Texas National Guard to disinfect nursing homes

The Texas National Guard will send teams to disinfect nursing homes across the state, Gov. Greg Abbott announced today. Six have already been deployed, with more to follow.

"The Texas National Guard plays a crucial role in our ongoing response to COVID-19, and I am grateful for their work to address the unique challenges our nursing homes face during this pandemic," Abbott said in a statement. "The training these Guardsmen have received will equip them with the knowledge and tools they need to provide this crucial assistance to these facilities." 

Almost half of all reported deaths from COVID-19 in Texas have been at long-term-care facilities, including at least 38 deaths in Travis County. 

Video released by the U.S. Department of Defense shows a team disinfecting West Oaks Nursing and Rehabilitation Center. KUT reported earlier this month that the facility had several cases of COVID-19.  

On Monday, Abbott directed state officials to test all staff and residents at nursing homes in the state.

The disinfection teams are made up of Guardsmen from Joint Task Force 176. They’re equipped with advanced personal protective equipment, ionized sprayers and vital oxide.  

The Texas National Guard has also been providing mobile COVID-19 testing and support for PPE manufacturing and food banks.

Other states, including Georgia, have already deployed the National Guard to assist nursing homes in the fight against COVID-19.

– Samuel King

Update at 1:13 p.m. – Texas receives $63 million in coronavirus aid from HUD

Texas is receiving $63 million in federal coronavirus relief from the Department of Housing and Urban Development, Secretary Ben Carson announced today.

The money will go toward help for low-income individuals, elderly residents and poor children; families and businesses struggling to pay rent and mortgages; and efforts to reduce risk and transmission of the coronavirus.

“Coronavirus has impacted our communities and populations in unprecedented ways, and while some begin to see a decline in reported cases, others continue to fight this invisible enemy aggressively,” Carson said in a press release. “This funding will afford states the ability to respond to the unique circumstances they are facing – from reducing risk of transmission to regaining the sound footing of their economy.”

Update at 12:49 p.m. – St. Ed's announces layoffs

St. Edward’s University has announced it is laying off professors, reducing salaries and postponing construction projects because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

In a letter to the St. Edward’s community, President George Martin said the pandemic and the need to cancel in-person classes has led to less revenue and more expenses.

“Reductions in staff were the last things we considered, and desperately wanted to avoid,” Martin wrote. “Unfortunately, there was no other way to balance the budget. Thus, the Fiscal Year 2021 budget includes the reduction of employee positions, effective this month.”

The exact number of layoffs has not been confirmed.

Read more here from Claire McInerny.

Update at 9:11 a.m. — New judge to lead Travis County's coronavirus response

Travis County has a familiar new county judge. Sam Biscoe was sworn in Tuesday night to replace Sarah Eckhardt, who led the county's response to the coronavirus pandemic. Eckhardt is stepping down to run for the Texas Senate. 

Biscoe preceded Eckhardt on the dais, serving as county judge from 1998 to 2014. He will serve on an interim basis until a replacement is chosen.

Eckhardt will continue on with the county, helping Austin-Travis County's response to the COVID-19 pandemic on a volunteer basis. But she said goodbye to Travis County Commissioners Tuesday evening ahead of adjourning her last session – at least for now.

"My work with the county spans 20 years at this point," Eckhardt said, laughing. "God that sounds awful! I love working with you all, and I look forward to continuing to work with you all." 

The July 14 special election includes Eckhardt and fellow Democrat and current state Rep. Eddie Rodriguez. Former Austin City Council Member Don Zimmerman is running as a Republican. Former Lago Vista City Council Member Pat Dixon is running as a Libertarian.

Update at 9:01 a.m. — Thunderbirds set to fly over Austin today. Here's where.

NOTE: The Air Force now says today's show will be delayed an hour and will now start at 3:40 p.m. This story has been updated.

Credit U.S. Air Force

The U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds are planning to fly over the Austin area this afternoon as a tribute to Texans working on the front line of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Six aircraft will fly in formation starting near Leander, Georgetown and Pflugerville, then continuing around downtown Austin, Buda and Kyle. The event is scheduled from 3:40 until 4:05 p.m.

The squadron asks people along the route to watch from home and avoid gathering in large groups.

Update at 5:33 a.m. — SNAP recipients can use benefits for online purchases starting today

Texans who receive food assistance can use their benefits to buy groceries online starting Wednesday. 

The Texas Health and Human Services Commission says Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program recipients can visit the website of participating retailers and use their Lone Star Card to buy groceries for curbside pickup or home delivery. Currently – the only participating retailers in Texas are Walmart and Amazon.

Officials say SNAP funds may only be used to buy grocery items. Other items and associated charges – like delivery or convenience fees – cannot be paid for with a Lone Star Card. 

Catch up on what happened yesterday

11,000 Austinites applied for rent assistance from the city. 1,000 will get it. 

The City of Austin and the local public housing authority received 10,738 applications for a slice of $1.2 million the city put aside to help people affected by the COVID-19 pandemic pay their rent. But only about 1,000 families will get help.

“The demonstrated need, as expected, far outweighs the amount of support that we have to offer right now,” Rosie Truelove, director of the City of Austin’s Neighborhood Housing and Community Development Department, told council members at a meeting Tuesday.

Renters who get the help will be chosen by lottery and the city said landlords will be paid directly by Friday.

Applications for the rental assistance program opened last week. To be eligible, applicants had to have been unable to pay rent for May and making less than 80% of the median family income which, for a family of four in Austin, is about $78,000 a year.

Other local coronavirus news from Tuesday:

  • The rate of COVID-19 hospitalizations is nearly double among the Latinx population in Austin and Travis County, health officials said.
  • Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton sent a letter to Austin Mayor Steve Adler and outgoing Travis County Judge Sarah Eckhardt saying some of the requirements in their local public health orders are unlawful and “likely to confuse residents.”
  • The Travis County Commissioners Court approved more help for long-term care facilities dealing with the impacts of the coronavirus. It authorized more funding for "strike teams" that provide needed health care and staffing support. 
  • The Texas Department of Criminal Justice is expanding its COVID-19 testing in prisons across Texas. The state is deploying “tens of thousands” of self-administered oral fluid tests approved last month by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration emergency use authorization.

What's happening statewide? Check out special coverage from KERA for North Texas, Houston Public MediaTexas Public Radio in San Antonio and Marfa Public Radio.

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