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Texas requests more mortuary trucks as coronavirus deaths hit triple digits for third day in a row

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott on Monday, June 22, 2020. (Ricardo B. Brazziell/Austin American-Statesman/TNS)

The U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency is sending an additional 14 refrigerated mortuary trucks to Texas as the state grapples with a rising number of coronavirus-related deaths, with state health officials reporting a record 174 new fatalities Friday.

Seth Christensen, a Texas Division of Emergency Management spokesman, said the trucks aren’t immediately needed, but the agency wanted to be prepared in case COVID-19 deaths continue to surge.

“The 14 on their way are purely for planning purposes,” Christensen told the Austin American-Statesman on Friday, adding that the state requested the trucks July 11. “These trucks are coming to the state, and we will stage them in regions throughout the state in case they’re needed by our local government partners.”

The 174 coronavirus deaths reported Friday in Texas marked a daily high for the third consecutive day, after Texas health officials reported 129 deaths Thursday, and marked the fourth time the daily death count has reached triple digits.

Travis County also requested three mortuary trucks, separate from the state’s FEMA request, “out of an abundance of caution,” according to county spokesman Hector Nieto. The county currently has enough resources to manage the virus and does not immediately need the trucks, he said.

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FEMA sent eight mortuary trucks to Texas in early April, when the daily coronavirus death toll hovered below 30.

Now, the death toll from the virus in Texas has reached 3,735, and Friday’s record brought the state’s rolling seven-day average to 103 deaths a day.

Christensen said the state still has the resources to support local jurisdictions. The trucks are expected to arrive over the next couple of weeks.

“They’re not all going to arrive at once in the state of Texas,” he said. “That’s why we have to ask ahead of time.”

Christensen noted that the state often requests additional trucks in emergencies with mass fatalities, such as hurricanes or tornadoes.

After reporting 10,256 new cases Friday, Texas reached 300,000 total COVID-19 cases, just 10 days after the state crossed the 200,000 threshold.

It took the state nearly four months from the start of the pandemic to record its first 100,000 cases.

Hospitalizations also have continued to rise, leading Gov. Greg Abbott to issue a statewide mask order and halt elective surgeries in more than 100 counties.

The state health agency reported a record 10,632 coronavirus patients in Texas hospitals Friday, the eighth consecutive day the state saw more than 10,000 COVID-19 hospitalizations.

“Many regions are running out of ICU beds, and deaths have almost quadrupled,” Abbott said in prerecorded comments for the Texas Republican Party’s virtual state convention Thursday. “If we don’t slow this disease quickly, our hospitals will get overrun, and I fear it will even inflict some of the people that I’m talking to right now.”

Some local governments have already requested FEMA trucks, according to news reports around the state.

In San Antonio, KSAT reported Wednesday that three additional refrigerated trailers will be operational by the end of the week. Two trucks are already operational.

And the Nueces County medical examiner’s office told KRIS that it would not receive the bodies of those who have died from COVID-19. The county’s medical examiner requested a FEMA morgue trailer to support the increase in deaths, according to the TV station.

A document prepared for the White House coronavirus task force found that Texas is in the “red zone” for cases and testing positivity, or a positive test rate above 10%, according to a Center for Public Integrity report.

The Washington-based nonprofit newsroom obtained the report, which found that 18 states, including Texas, are in the red zone, with more than 100 new cases per 100,000 population. Eleven states, including Texas, are in the red zone because their testing positivity rate is above 10%.

The percentage of positive tests statewide grew to 17.43% Thursday, according to the latest data available from the Texas Department of State Health Services.

Abbott has said anything over 10% would be cause for concern.

Travis County is one of 123 Texas counties considered to be in the red zone. Harris, Dallas, Bexar, Tarrant, Hidalgo and El Paso are among the other counties on the red zone list.

The document offers a number of recommendations for the state, including reducing indoor dining capacity to 25%. Abbott reduced restaurant capacity to 50% in June.

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© 2020 Austin American-Statesman

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.