COVID-19 March 18 Updates: St. David's Doctor Tests Positive; Austin-Area Cases Now Up To 23

Mar 18, 2020

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

  • Confirmed cases in Austin: 23
  • 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 512-978-8775. 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
  • How to get help (and help) in Austin

Update at 7:02 p.m. — UT Austin student and dean test positive for COVID-19

Two members of the UT Austin community have tested positive for COVID-19 — a UT student and a dean, UT President Greg Fenves announced Wednesday evening. 

“Unfortunately, we expect that many more cases will be detected during the coming days and weeks,” he wrote in an email. 

This is the first UT student known to have contracted the respiratory disease. The second individual who tested positive is Brent Iverson, dean of the School of Undergraduate Studies. 

“With these confirmed cases today, the impact of COVID-19 could not be clearer,” Fenves wrote. “It is here in Austin and within our university community, and we must act — through social distancing and other preventive measures — and do our part to limit its effects.”

Fenves announced last week that his wife, Carmel, also tested positive for the disease. Fenves himself tested negative, UT said on Sunday. 

Update at 6:14 p.m. – Taxi drivers face uncertainty

Taxi driver Merga Gemeda got one fare in nine hours on Tuesday.
Credit Julia Reihs / KUT

Merga Gemeda had given one taxi ride by 1 p.m. on Tuesday – despite having started driving at 4 a.m. A taxi driver and board member for ATX Co-op Taxi, Gemeda says the coronavirus pandemic is taking a huge hit on his already-suffering business. 

“There is no way of surviving in this situation,” he said. “I don’t know what to do.”

Gemeda is 62-years-old with health issues, including high blood pressure, and his kids urge him to stay home. “But how can I stay home if I don’t make money?” he asks.

On Wednesday, he surrendered his meter. He says he plans to wait at home for the next week or two in hopes that things change.

Update at 5:39 p.m. – St. Ed's extends spring break, moves classes online

St. Edward's University is extending spring break through March 27, after which classes will be held online for the rest of the semester, it announced Wednesday.

In a letter to the St. Ed's community, it also said on-campus student housing would be closed beginning April 5 and that graduation ceremonies at the Frank Erwin Center were canceled. Staff and faculty were working remotely, but available by phone or email to support students, it said.  

Update at 4:24 p.m. — Hays County believes it has community spread of COVID-19 

Hays County has five confirmed cases of COVID-19 as of Wednesday afternoon, and the county thinks at least one case was from community spread.

Four of the individuals had traveled before experiencing symptoms, so the county says they likely contracted the virus that causes the respiratory illness somewhere outside of Texas. One of the newest cases, though, did not have travel history prior to getting sick, nor did the person knowingly come into contact with another positive case. 

“So it is believed that we have community spreading in Hays County,” the county said in a press release.

The county encouraged people to practice good hygiene by washing hands regularly, staying home when sick, cleaning frequently touched objects and avoiding large gatherings. 

Update at 4:09 p.m. – Austin-area malls to close at 7 p.m. Wednesday

Barton Creek Square, The Domain and Lakeline Mall will be closed starting at 7 p.m. Wednesday until at least March 29, Simon Property Group announced in a press release.

"The health and safety of our shoppers, retailers and employees is of paramount importance and we are taking this step to help reduce the spread of COVID-19 in our communities," CEO and President David Simon said.

Update at 3:33 p.m. — Williamson County confirms first COVID-19 cases, limits gatherings to 10 people

There are four confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Williamson County, officials announced during a press conference Wednesday. 

County Judge Bill Gravell then enacted his second order on mass gatherings, limiting them to no more than 10 people. Churches, weddings, religious services, funerals, concerts and fundraisers are all included. On Monday, Gravell had restricted gatherings to no more than 50 people.

As part of Wednesday's order, Gravell is requiring restaurants to close dining areas to the public. Take-out and no-contact delivery are still allowed. Bars must also close indoor and outdoor spaces.  

The order goes into effect at 6 p.m. Wednesday and lasts until May 11. 

“These are drastic measures that we are taking to reduce the spread of this virus in the community so that our health care facilities will not be overwhelmed in the days to come,” Gravell said in a statement on the county's website.

Update at 2:12 p.m. – Three deaths from COVID-19 reported in Texas

A 64-year-old Plano man who died Tuesday has tested positive for COVID-19, Collin County health officials confirmed Wednesday. He is the third person known to have died in Texas from the virus.

Tarrant County Public Health officials said Tuesday a 77-year-old resident at the Texas Masonic Retirement Center in Arlington also died from the disease. Officials said they would be working with the retirement center to assess other residents and staff to determine the source of his infection and who he may have come into contact with while he was ill.

At a news conference with Gov. Greg Abbott on Wednesday, Arlington Mayor Jeff Williams issued a city-wide call to prayer at 6 p.m. He reiterated that seniors and people with chronic medical conditions are most at risk from the coronavirus and asked residents to take care of their neighbors – but by phone or Skype.

The first death in Texas, a man in his late 90s in Matagorda County, was reported Monday.

Update at 1:24 p.m. — Municipal court closes until March 30

The City of Austin says it's closing all municipal courts until March 30. All court dockets are canceled and will be rescheduled after May 8.

All due dates for payments are postponed until May 8. People with hearings scheduled during the time the court is closed will be contacted by mail to set a new date.   

Update at 11:39 a.m. — St. David's doctor tests positive for COVID-19

A physician who practices within St. David's HealthCare has been confirmed as having a presumptive case of the coronavirus, Dr. Ken Mitchell, St. David's chief medical officer, said.

Mitchell says St. David's is working to trace any potential exposure to patients and other health care workers.

"The majority of the interaction between the physician and patients/staff occurred in areas where most healthcare workers were wearing personal protective equipment (PPE), which reduces the risk of exposure to a very low level," Mitchell said.

St. David's is contacting patients and providers who may need observation and/or testing.

"This exposure was not the result of a breach of protocol in our hospitals, and we will continue to follow our best practices for preventing the spread of the coronavirus," Mitchell said.

Update at 11:20 a.m. — Austin now has 23 positive tests, nearly 1,000 testing kits

Public health officials say they now have 23 positive tests for COVID-19 in Austin, up from 17 on Tuesday night. There are likely more cases already, but testing has been limited.

The city says it now has about 1,000 testing kits and is rolling out 11 new testing sites. Priority is being given to health care providers, hospital patients and people who have conditions that could lead to complications from the coronavirus. Private health care providers are also offering testing.  

People will need to be screened and have a doctor's order before getting tested.

More details here.

Update at 8:08 a.m. — Texas' second COVID-19 death confirmed in North Texas

Health officials in North Texas have confirmed the state’s second death from the coronavirus. Tarrant County Public Health says a senior adult who died on Sunday later tested positive for COVID-19.

The person lived at the Texas Masonic Retirement Center in Arlington. Officials are still trying to find out how the person became infected and are monitoring other residents at the retirement home. People 60 years of age and older are especially vulnerable to COVID-19. There were at least 10 deaths at a nursing home outside Seattle, Washington due to an outbreak of the coronavirus there.

Update at 7:50 a.m. — Whole Foods limits hours, allows shoppers who are 60+ in early

Whole Foods grocery stores in the Austin area and nationwide are updating their hours. Starting Wednesday, stores in the U.S. and Canada will allow customers who are 60 and older to come in one hour before opening to the general public. 

“We are setting aside this time to help these customers, who national health authorities have identified as among the most vulnerable to COVID-19, feel more comfortable shopping our stores and helping to ensure they are able to get the items they need in a less crowded environment,” the company said in a statement.

You’ll also notice reduced store hours of 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. The company said its stores are closing early to give staff more time to restock shelves, sanitize and rest in preparation for the next day.

Update at 5:15 a.m. — Diocese of Austin suspends public Masses

The Roman Catholic Diocese of Austin announced Tuesday evening it is suspending all public Masses and liturgies. 

“While I hoped we would be able to continue to celebrate public Mass, I made this decision after prayerful discernment and in light of recent recommendations from public health officials,” Bishop Joe S. Vásquez wrote in a letter.

The diocese includes 127 parishes in 25 counties in Central Texas. Priests will still offer daily and Sunday Masses privately in the parish sanctuaries, Vásquez said. The Masses will be made available on social media. 

He said funerals and weddings will be celebrated privately, with only close family and friends, following city and county orders that restrict the number of people that can gather in one space. People can still visit parish churches during normal hours for private prayer. Religious education programs are instructed to follow local school district closures.

Catch up on what happened Tuesday:

Austin Closes Bars, Prohibits Dining In At Restaurants And Limits Gatherings In Response To COVID-19 

Austin Mayor Steve Adler ordered bars to close and restaurants to shut down dine-in service and banned gatherings of more than 10 people in the city. The changes, which went into effect at noon on Tuesday and last until May 11, aim to slow the spread of COVID-19. 

"Collectively and individually we get to decide as a community what kind of spike we're going to have as this virus begins to enter the general population,” Adler said during a news conference when the closures were announced.

Critical infrastructure — grocery stores, pharmacies, essential government buildings, schools and hospitals — are exempt from the order. 

The city reported seven more cases of the disease Tuesday evening, bringing the total number of confirmed cases to 17 in Austin-Travis County. The city says on its website that while it has not yet confirmed that Austin-Travis County has sustained person-to-person spread of the disease in the community, it should act as if it has.

The number of confirmed cases has been expected to rise as testing ramps up. 

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