COVID-19 March 22 Updates: Austin Issues New Rules For Retailers, City And County Open Testing Site

Mar 21, 2020

This post has a roundup of local coronavirus news from the weekend of March 22-23. If you'd like to go through Monday's live updates, read them here. If you have a news tip or question, email us at news@KUT.org.

Gov. Abbott issues orders to increase hospital capacity, but passes on 'shelter-in-place' 

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott announced Sunday he is issuing orders to increase health care and hospital capacity as COVID-19 spreads throughout the state. He said he was not, however, going to issue a "shelter-in-place" order for Texas, as many other governors have done.

Abbott is directing health care professionals to postpone all surgeries and procedures that are not necessary to correct a serious medical condition or to preserve the life of a patient. He said he is also suspending regulations that prevent doctors from treating more than one patient in a room.

“Together these orders will free up countless hospital beds across the entire state of Texas to be able to treat the potential increase in COVID-19 patients,” the governor said. 

Read more from Marisa Charpentier here.

Capital Metro is looking for more bus operators and cleaners

Capital Metro announced Sunday it is hiring full-time and part-time positions to help provide essential services to the community during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The agency says it’s hiring 100 full-time positions for bus operators, with immediate paid training, a signing bonus and benefits.

It’s also looking for 50 part-time workers to clean buses. Training will be provided.

Hays County confirms seventh case of COVID-19

Hays County announced its seventh confirmed case of COVID-19 on Sunday. The individual had been in contact with someone who previously tested positive for the disease, according to a press release from the county. 

The county also said the individual had been on the San Marcos High School campus March 12. The adult was not showing symptoms at the time but later developed them and tested positive.

Eric Schneider, an epidemiologist at Hays County Local Health Department, says the risk of transmission is low for people who were on campus, but he recommends that all staff and students on campus monitor themselves for symptoms until March 26. Symptoms typically include fever, cough and congestion. 

Of the seven cases in Hays County, one is in Austin, one is in Buda, one is in Dripping Springs, two are in Kyle and two are in San Marcos, the county says.

Burnet County announces first confirmed COVID-19 case

Burnet County has its first confirmed case of COVID-19, County Judge James Oakley announced Sunday. 

“This news is not a surprise just as subsequent confirmations will not be,” Oakley wrote in a press release.

The positive test came out of a drive-thru test center at Baylor Scott & White in Marble Falls. 

Hospitals implement 'no visitor' policies

Ascension Seton, Baylor Scott & White and St. David’s HealthCare are implementing a “no visitor” policy in all hospitals starting Sunday. The goal of this change is to protect patients, physicians and staff as COVID-19 spreads in the community, a spokesperson for the hospitals said. 

There are exceptions to the policy for patients in labor or post-partum, patients with disabilities, patients in the pediatric or neonatal intensive care units, patients in need of surgery and patients requiring end-of-life care. One caregiver 18 years or older can accompany these individuals after passing a health screening when entering the hospital. 

“We encourage support persons to use alternate methods of communication to stay in contact with loved ones, such as phone calls, video chats or texting,” the spokesperson wrote in a statement. 

Catch up on what happened Saturday

New Austin rule requires social distancing at stores

Austin Mayor Steve Adler on Saturday signed an order requiring retail businesses like grocery stores to ensure social distancing of at least 6 feet between customers in front of and inside stores.

"Controls may include, but are not limited to, requiring each person to take a shopping cart or placing markers on the floor," the order said. The city said the goal is to keep people from being too close together and spreading the coronavirus.

The rule went into effect at 7 p.m. on Saturday. Read it here. 

Read more from Mose Buchele here. 

Austin-Travis County opens first COVID-19 testing site

The City of Austin and Travis County opened its first COVID-19 testing site Saturday, one of 11 sites in a public-private partnership between Austin Public Health, St. David’s, Ascension Seton, UT's Dell Medical School and Baylor Scott and White.

The city says there is a big gap between the number of tests available and the number of people seeking a test, so sites will prioritize individuals who are sent by referral and have an appointment. Priority will be given to individuals with specific symptoms and risk factors such as travel, close contact with confirmed cases, or underlying health conditions.

Federal disaster loans open to small businesses and nonprofits

Austin small businesses and nonprofits hurt by the COVID-19 crisis can now apply for emergency loans from the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA). The Austin City Council is also considering a gap-financing program that could provide loans to applicants as they await the federal loans.

The SBA disaster assistance loans became available in Texas after the state received a federal disaster declaration over the coronavirus. The loans offer borrowers up to $2 million to pay “fixed debts, payroll, accounts payable and other bills that can’t be paid because of the disaster’s impact,” according to this SBA fact sheet.  

The loans can be paid back over terms as long as 30 years, with interest rates of 3.75% for small businesses and 2.75% for nonprofits.

Read more from Mose Buchele here.

FDA approves first rapid COVID-19 test

The Food and Drug Administration has approved the first rapid point-of-care COVID-19 test, which can deliver results in less than an hour.

Cepheid, a Silicon Valley diagnostics company, made the announcement Saturday, saying it has received emergency authorization from the government to use the test.

While the agency has approved about a dozen other COVID-19 tests in response to the public health emergency, this is the first one that can be used at the point of care.

Cepheid said the test kits will be available by the end of the month.

Until now, to get a test result, a health care worker would take a swab from the back of a person's nose, and send it off to a public health, commercial or hospital lab, or to a lab at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta. The process can take days.

The newly approved test kit still involves taking a nasal swab, but the test can be done in a doctor's office or clinic with a detection time of approximately 45 minutes, according to Cepheid.

Read more from NPR here.