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Governor Greg Abbott declares state of disaster for Texas as coronavirus cases increase

Gov. Greg Abbott, left, and Dennis Bonnen, right. (Jay Janner/Austin-American Stateman/TNS)

Gov. Greg Abbott declared a state of disaster Friday over the coronavirus pandemic and announced that more tests will become available through measures like drive-thru facilities.

The disaster declaration encompasses all counties in Texas, and will authorize the state to reallocate state resources, waive state laws that hinder agencies’ abilities to respond to the pandemic and more. Abbott’s declaration came ahead of President Donald Trump’s expected declaration of a national emergency, according to multiple reports.

“From the very start, the state of Texas anticipated the possibility of community spread of COVID-19,” Abbott said at a press conference at the Texas Capitol. “This is not a death sentence we’re dealing with here.”

As of Friday afternoon there are at least 39 confirmed cases in Texas, excluding those from repatriated individuals being monitored at the Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Abbott said.

Currently, Texas’ public health labs have the capacity to test about 270 people per day, with the number expected to grow, Abbott said. As of Friday afternoon, 220 Texans have been tested in either Texas public health labs or through the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and there are about 75 Texans “who are being tested as we speak,” Abbott said.

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Abbott declined to specify how many testing kits Texas has available and said it’s “a lot and growing exponentially.”

He also announced that the state’s first drive-thru testing facility opened Friday afternoon in San Antonio. It will initially be limited to testing certain high-risk patients, first responders, operators of critical infrastructure and health care workers. Abbott said it was too soon to estimate how many patients the new facility will be able to test each day.

Abbott’s office is also working with local officials to open similar drive-thru testing facilities in Austin, Houston and Dallas in the coming weeks. In addition, Abbott said additional stand-up testing facilities may soon be implemented.

The Dallas-Fort Worth Hospital Council said Thursday that North Texas hospitals will be opening remote testing sites in an effort to keep potentially sick patients out of emergency rooms and doctor’s offices.

Abbott also directed state agencies to restrict visitation at nursing homes, hospitals, daycares, state-sponsored living centers, jails, prisons and juvenile justice facilities. There will be limited exceptions made for end-of-life visitations, and all visitors will be required to go through the proper screening measures.

John Hellerstedt, the Texas Department of State Health Services Commissioner, said that private labs’ testing capabilities are “rapidly expanding,” and said that Texans should contact their doctor to determine whether testing is suitable.

Hellerstedt said current criteria to warrant testing includes individuals and health care works who: are showing symptoms, have had close contact with a confirmed case, have traveled to a location with ongoing coronavirus cases, have risk factors or who are hospitalized with symptoms that COVID-19 exhibits, like fever.

“We don’t recommend and we aren’t able to test people who do not have symptoms,” Hellerstedt said.

Stage agencies were also directed to take necessary steps to facilitate telemedicine and provide flexible policies to allow state employees to work from home if necessary.

Thursday night, Dallas County officials announced the first North Texas case of community spread — instances where people who have been infected do not know how or where they were exposed, such as recent travel.

More than 20 governors have issued disaster proclamations or states of emergency over coronavirus concerns. Tarrant County Judge Glen Whitley declared a local state of disaster Friday afternoon, as the number of cases in Tarrant County rose to two.

City and county officials in AustinSan AntonioHouston and Dallas previously declared local states of disaster, canceling large events like the SXSW festival.

Abbott stressed that state officials began planning as early as January and this is “a constant step-up operation process.” He urged Texans not to stockpile supplies.

“I want to assure the people of Texas that we’re going to make it through this. We’ve been through situations like this before. We made it through SARS, we made it through Ebola, we made it through H1N1 and we’re going to make it through this together as well.”

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© 2020 the Fort Worth Star-Telegram