COVID-19 March 16 Updates: Four New Cases Reported In Austin, AISD Extends Closure

Mar 16, 2020

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

  • Confirmed cases in Austin: 10
  • What should I do if I think I have the coronavirus? If you are experiencing symptoms including fever, cough, and shortness of breath, call your health care provider. Do not go to a health care facility first.
  • If you are uninsured and/or don't have a doctor: call CommUnityCare at 512-978-9015. CommUnityCare will talk to you over the phone and send you to the appropriate location.
  • Q&A: Your coronavirus questions answered by a panel of experts

Update at 8:45 p.m. — Special election to replace Sen. Kirk Watson postponed

Gov. Greg Abbott has postponed the special election for Texas Senate District 14 because of the novel coronavirus. Originally planned for May 2, the election will now be held July 14. The Austin-area seat is being vacated by Sen. Kirk Watson.

The postponement is intended to mitigate the spread of the disease, according to a statement from the governor’s office. Candidates that want to have their names on the ballot must file their applications between April 29 and May 13. Early voting will start June 29.

Update at 7:14 p.m. – The number of confirmed cases in Austin rises to 10

Four new cases of COVID-19 have been confirmed in Austin-Travis County since Sunday, Austin Public Health reported on the city's website. That brings the total known cases to 10.

The agency said it would no longer be providing additonal details about cases, which are expected to rise as testing ramps up. 

Update at 7:06 p.m. – H-E-B donates $3 million for community support

H-E-B is promising $3 million to support groups working to control the spread of the coronavirus and help minimize the impact food insecurity might have on seniors, children and low-income families.

Most of the money will be earmarked for organizations that provide food or relief for vulnerable populations, H-E-B said in a statement Monday.

  • $1 million will go to nonprofit partners providing vital services. Of that, $100,000 will go toward the Austin Independent School District's Austin Ed Fund to help keep its meal programs going while schools are closed
  • $1.2 million will go to support 18 food banks
  • $500,000 will to go mobile food programs like Meals on Wheels
  • $300,000 will go to the Texas Biomedical Research Institute in San Antonio

Groups can still apply for funding with H-E-B’s My Community Investment.

Update at 6:40 p.m. – Austin Music Commission looks for ways to get financial support for the industry

The Austin Music Commission is looking to help venues and musicians who have been hurt from cancellations related to the coronavirus. Those efforts could be put on hold, however, by more virus-related cancellations.

Chairman Rick Carney said the commission will be looking to get some emergency financial support for any musician, venue, venue staff or music businesses affected by efforts to contain the coronavirus.

“What form that takes, we’re not sure," he said, "but we’re basically going to ask council to find whatever funds are available and try to also seek some matching funds from the community, just to see if we can find some sort of assistance relief.”

There are a few hurdles to clear, though. The first is trying to find a way to meet.

On Monday, the City of Austin canceled all board and commission meetings for the week.

It may cancel future public meetings, as well. Carney said his commission will hear from the city in the next day or two about how to proceed.

Update at 5:09 p.m. – Home Slice Pizza shifts to take-out only

Home Slice Pizza announced Monday that all its locations would offer only take-out service to "keep both our patrons and staff safe."

Jackie Romero, who was picking up a to-go order from the Home Slice in North Loop, said it was the right move.

Jackie Romero picks up her lunch order at Home Slice Pizza in North Loop.
Credit Julia Reihs / KUT

"It just sucks for everybody in the hospitality business because you've got to make a living somehow," she said. "And there is a balance between the safety of the public as well as in the service industry.

In a Facebook post, Home Slice said staff could work on a volunteer – but paid – basis.

"Any employee who wants to work will be found hours, as well as all copay costs for staff that want to see a doctor and get tested will be covered," the post said.

P. Terry’s and Taco Ranch locations also announced their dining rooms would be closed until further notice. Drive-thru and delivery is still available.

Update at 4:51 p.m. — Texas Health and Human Services limits hospital visitation

State health officials are requiring hospitals to crackdown on visitors as the coronavirus spreads.

The Texas Health and Human Services Commission announced Monday it is asking hospitals to grant access only to essential visitors like medical professionals and “authorized caregivers acting specifically on a patient’s behalf.”

These new guidelines, created at the direction of Gov. Greg Abbott, require hospitals to prevent nonessential visitors from coming into their facilities.

“We understand these new restrictions will be difficult for patients and their families and loved ones,” David Kostroun, HHS deputy executive commissioner for Regulatory Services, said in a statement. “We must take every measure to protect patients, as well as hospital personnel who are on the front lines in the battle against this new virus.”

According to the health agency, this applies to general hospitals, special hospitals and private psychiatric hospitals – but excludes outpatient clinics operated by hospitals.

HHSC said in a statement that essential visitors include “government personnel; one designated caregiver acting on the patient’s behalf, such as a parent of a minor or a legally authorized representative; patient family members no more than one at a time; clergy members authorized by the hospital; and additional family members of patients at the end of life or presenting at the emergency department, subject to hospital policy.”

State health officials said these restrictions are effective immediately. 

Updated at 4:21 p.m. — Texas orders stricter rules for child care facilities

Licensed day cares and child care facilities in Texas are being ordered by the state to follow stricter new requirements intended to limit the risk of coronavirus spread.

Starting immediately, children must be picked up and dropped off outside the daycare, unless there is a “legitimate need” for the parent to enter. No one may be granted access to a child care operation except the people who work there, the children themselves, their parents or legal guardians, or people with legal authority to enter like a police officer or state inspectors.

Anyone who does enter a licensed child care facility, including children, must be screened upon arrival each day. The facility must deny entry to anyone with a temperature over 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit, who shows signs or symptoms of a respiratory infection like a cough or sore throat, who had contact with someone with a confirmed COVID-19 diagnosis or who traveled in the last 14 days to one of the countries with “widespread, sustained community transmission.”

These rules apply to almost 17,000 regulated child care facilities across the state.

Update at 3:13 p.m. – Williamson County prohibits gatherings of more than 50 people

Williamson County is restricting public gatherings to 50 people or fewer. The order from County Judge Bill Gravell is in effect for eight weeks in an effort to slow the spread of the coronavirus. The order came Tuesday at about the same time that the White House Coronavirus Task Force advised people from gathering in groups of more than 10.

The county order states there will be no large events, such as conferences, festivals, concerts, parades, weddings, sporting events or other assemblies of 50 or more people in the county. The order does not apply to daily operations of facilities like daycare centers, schools, institutes of higher learning, and private and public business sectors. 

Update at 2:54 p.m. – Hays County reports a second COVID-19 case

A second person has tested positive for COVID-19 in Hays County, according to the county’s epidemiologist Eric Schneider. A statement from Hays County says the patient is an adult who lives in the county and was tested at a clinic. The individual will self-isolate at home until they don’t have a fever for 48 hours without the use of fever-reducing medication. [Update at 5:11 p.m. – The county announced a third person has tested positive.]

The statement from Hays County did not indicate how the person contracted the virus or whether any steps were being taken to notify people with whom the patient may have had contact. A spokesperson said there was no additional information on how the person contracted the coronavirus or whether it was related to the first case, but said that information will be shared when it's available.

Update at 1:26 p.m. – Doctors call for tighter restrictions on events, more testing and supplies

Dozens of Austin-area physicians are asking the city and county to implement tighter restrictions on public gatherings to stanch the spread of COVID-19.

In an open letter to officials, 80 physicians asked local authorities to "implement mandatory lockdown measures to enforce social distancing." [Update at 4:19 p.m. – 160 physicians have signed.]

"Public health officials should not assume that such businesses will take these drastic measures voluntarily," they said.

The letter suggests schools stay closed for longer than two weeks while authorities gauge the severity of COVID-19's spread. A handful of school districts in the Central Texas area announced shortly after the letter's release that they would suspend operations until early April.

Events with more than 250 people are currently prohibited in Austin. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended Sunday that gatherings with more than 50 attendees should be banned to prevent the spread of the new coronavirus.

Physicians also asked for a stronger effort on the part of municipal officials to expedite testing. While state and federal leaders have suggested the capacity for testing patients suspected of having COVID-19 will increase in the next week or so, physicians are asking local officials to do more to facilitate on-site testing at major hospitals sooner.

They asked city and county leaders create a taskforce to streamline response and communication between hospitals and outpatient centers to boost overall testing capacity.

The doctors also requested more protective equipment for health care workers.

Update at 12:12 p.m. – Austin ISD, other Central Texas school districts extend closures

School districts across Central Texas are extending their closures in an attempt to reduce the risk of coronavirus spread. The Austin, Hays, San Marcos, Leander and Eanes school districts are among those announcing they will stay closed at least until Monday, April 6.

In a letter to the Round Rock ISD community, Superintendent Steve Flores says the district will keep schools and district offices closed through Friday, April 3, unless conditions warrant an extension. The school district's administration is finalizing a plan to use virtual and distance learning.

Pflugerville ISD plans to keep schools closed at least through Friday, March 27. Superintendent Douglas Killian says the district hasn't decided yet whether to continue closures beyond that.

The Texas Education Agency is periodically updating a list of Texas school district closures. Here's a list of local closures:

  • Austin ISD: Classes resume April 6
  • Bastrop ISD: Classes resume April 6
  • Del Valle ISD: Classes resume April 6
  • Dripping Springs ISD: Classes resume April 6
  • Eanes ISD: Classes resume April 6
  • Elgin ISD: Classes resume April 6
  • Georgetown ISD: Classes resume April 6
  • Hays CISD: Classes resume April 6
  • Lake Travis ISD: Classes resume April 6
  • Leander ISD: Classes resume April 6
  • Manor ISD: Classes resume March 30
  • Pflugerville ISD: Classes resume March 30
  • Round Rock ISD: Classes resume April 6
  • San Marcos CISD: Classes resume April 6

Read more from Claire McInerny here. 

Update at 11:52 a.m. – Austin Animal Center closes, seeks volunteers to foster animals

The Austin Animal Center will be closed to the public until at least March 30. That means the center will not be taking animals from the public or offering animals up for adoption. But it is asking for volunteers to serve to foster animals “to provide animals relief from the shelter environment.”

To do that you can sign up by emailing animal.foster@austintexas.gov or visiting its website. The city’s goal is to get at least half the animals into foster homes during this closure.

If you find a lost or stray animal, you can take it to a fire station to be scanned for a microchip to help find its owner.

The Austin Animal Centers says veterinarians’ offices, emergency animal hospitals, pet stores and certain recreation centers also have the capacity to scan for chips. But, it's worth remembering some of these locations may be closed due to the pandemic.

The Animal Center also recommends filing a "Found Animal Report," by calling 311 or using the Austin 311 app, and posting information about lost and found animals to social media.

Update at 11:47 a.m. – Old Settler's Music Festival postponed until fall

The annual Old Settler’s Music Festival, planned for mid-April near Lockhart, is being postponed until the fall. Organizers made the announcement Monday following Caldwell County’s decision to prohibit public gatherings of 250 or more people.

They say they cannot give refunds, but say tickets already purchased will be honored when the festival is rescheduled.

Update at 9:03 a.m. — Gov. Abbott waives STAAR testing requirements 

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott has waived the state-mandated STAAR testing requirements for the 2019-2020 school year. The governor said he has requested the U.S. Department of Education waive federal testing requirements as well.

Public school students in grades 3-12 take STAAR tests. The standardized tests – which assess reading, writing, writing and math skills – determine if a student is ready for the next grade level.

The governor's office said it's working the Texas Education Agency to make sure students are being taught while schools are closed and to tailor instruction for students with special needs. 

Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath said it has become apparent that, with schools closing across the state, "schools will be unable to administer STAAR as they would normally."

"Your health and safety are top priorities, and the state of Texas will give school districts flexibility to protect and ensure the health of students, faculty, and their families," Abbott said. The governor said superintendents should continue to prioritize the health and safety of students, faculty, and their families. 

Austin Public Libaries close starting Monday through March 29

The Austin Public Library announced Sunday that all library locations, the Austin History Center and Recycled Reads will be closed to the public starting Monday through March 29 "to balance the safety and health of our community."

That means all programs and events, including story times and computer classes, are canceled.

Holds and due dates on books and materials will be extended a full renewal period (3 weeks), the library said, and book drops will remain open during the closure.

APL's Virtual Library is still up and running, providing access to e-books, audiobooks, e-learning, entertainment, magazines and newspapers, homework help, and research and databases. The library is also extending its services on the virtual library, including: KANOPY (play credits extended to 5 per month), CLOUDLIBRARY (checkouts extended to 10 days) and HOOPLA (checkouts extended to 5 per month).

The library says the decision to reopen the library system or extend its closure will be based on the coronavirus situation.

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