Breckenridge Texan

Stephens County continues to see spike in COVID-19 cases; local bars might reopen next week

Stephens County continues to see spike in COVID-19 cases; local bars might reopen next week
October 09
11:02 2020

By Tony Pilkington and Carla McKeown/Breckenridge Texan

In the rapidly changing coronavirus situation, the number of active COVID-19 cases in Stephens County continued to spike this week, reaching 30 by Thursday afternoon when three new positive test results were reported by Stephens Memorial Hospital. As recent as 10 days ago, the county had 9 active cases of the disease caused by the new coronavirus.

According to County Judge Michael Roach, the three new cases reported on Thursday are Breckenridge Independent School District employees. Although the school district will not release details about the staff members due to privacy issues, Superintendent Bryan Allen did issue a notice Thursday evening informing the public that one staff member was present on the junior high campus on Tuesday, Oct. 6; another staff member was present at the junior high and high school campuses on Wednesday, Oct. 7; and, the third staff member was present on the campus of East Elementary on Thursday, Oct. 8.

Additionally, on Oct. 4 and Oct. 7, the school district announced that two other staff members had tested positive for COVID-19. One had been on the East Elementary campus on Monday, Oct. 5, and one had been on the East Elementary campus on Friday, Oct. 2.

BISD also recently announced that two students have tested positive. One was on the Breckenridge High School campus on Friday, Oct. 2, and one was on the BHS campus Wednesday, Sept. 30.

As the numbers are added to the list of active cases, a few patients have been moved to the “recovered” category, but the county continues to gain more actives cases each day than are recovering.

“Every day we have some drop off, but there’s more than that added,” said Chris Curtis, the director of business development for SMH and the person who tracks the number of COVID-19 cases for SMH. “These aren’t from just random mass testing. From what I’ve seen, it’s sick people.”

Curtis said the increase of active cases is what’s concerning.

“You know, there for a while, we would get one and one would fall off, but it’s been relatively consistent, like today, two fell off but three came on, so we’re gaining more than we’re losing,” Curtis said Thursday evening.

Stephens County Judge Michael Roach, who serves as the county’s Emergency Coordinator, echoed Curtis’ concern on the upward trend.  “I think that’s the story: it’s headed in the wrong direction,” he said.

How serious is the outbreak?

Curtis said the COVID-19 outbreak is a serious situation and it can be frustrating trying to get people to understand how serious it is and how something as simple as wearing a mask in a public setting or social distancing can make a big difference in preventing the spread.

“What frustrates me is, I see both sides of the argument and I know some people say there are conspiracy theories and there’s all these different things,” he said. “But, there’s also a nurse that was working beside me one day and the next day she wasn’t. So that, to me, is what finally made it real. It’s real; it’s killing people, not as many in our community thankfully. But we witnessed it firsthand. That nurse was with us one day and it wasn’t too much longer and she was gone.”

He shares that story with people when they tell him it’s all really a conspiracy and it’s really not that bad or any worse that the flu. “None of us had a head start. None of us have a handbook, we’re all figuring out the same as everybody else,” Curtis said. “So we don’t have any hidden information or anything like that.”

Curtis said none of the health care providers at SMH predict that it’s going away anytime soon.

On Friday morning, Oct. 9, SMH announced on its Facebook page that the hospital is postponing its annual health fair. “With the increase in COVID-19 cases, we feel it is the responsible thing to do. We are looking at rescheduling for the Spring. We will be reaching out to vendors and sponsors directly. We are also working on a process for those that usually wait for the health fair to still get their labs done. Watch our Facebook page for updates. We apologize for having to postpone but feel it is the right thing to do at the moment,” the post states.

Community Health Plan

In July, Stephens County, the City of Breckenridge and Stephens Memorial Hospital introduced a Community Health Plan in regards to COVID-19. The has five stages of community restrictions, ranging from no restrictions to mandatory restrictions.

Since the plan was created in the midst of the coronavirus situation, the community started out in Stage 3, Medium Restrictions. A couple of weeks later, Stage 5, Mandatory Restrictions, was enacted after an increase in local active cases and limited capacity at area hospitals.

When the threat lessened, Roach moved the county back down to Stage 3.

With the recent increase in active cases, he changed that status to Stage 4, High Restrictions, on Saturday. Stage 4 requires local residents to practice social distancing and proper hand hygiene; wear masks, specifically when out in public indoors in a place where they cannot social distance, such as shopping in retail stores; and stay at home as much as possible.

Saturday was when the county reached 21 cases, exceeding the threshold set by Gov. Greg Abbott. At that time, Stephens County lost its exemption from the governor’s GA-29 order requiring masks. Click here to read the Breckenridge Texan article “Update: Stephens County no longer exempt from mandatory mask order as number of active COVID-19 cases surpasses 21.”

Protecting the local economy

Another reason to control the outbreak is because a lot of state mandates, like the limits on capacity in businesses, are based on not having more than 20 active cases. And if the county can keep the cases down, the mandates the county is subject to will be kept to a minimum.

“There’s a couple of reasons: one, we want protect the hospital infrastructure, and, two, we want to keep things open,” Roach said. “And the way you do that is you practice some of these proven methods to slow the spread.”

Roach said the community is already feeling the effects from the virus. He said Stephens County has lost three businesses; seen an increase in mental health calls, not only for the law enforcement, but at the hospital; seen an increase in domestic violence cases; and other things, such as an increase in thefts by people who are unemployed.

Reopening local bars

On Wednesday, Abbott said that bars in Texas can reopen for in-person service next week up to 50 percent capacity, in conjunction with county officials.

Roach said he looked at the protocols on Open Texas and, like in restaurants, patrons will have to wear masks when not eating or drinking, practice social distancing and no dancing will be allowed.

“If that those protocols are followed, then I don’t have an issue with them reopening,” Roach said.

He said there are currently four establishment in Stephens County that are affected by the governor’s current order,  the VFW Post, the Elks Lodge, The County Line and the sitting area at Jonesy’s (formerly Truman’s).

“As long as we follow the state health protocols I don’t think that’s going to be an issue because they’re pretty good as far as slowing or stopping the spread of COVID-19 in those areas,” he said. “I’m going to be very vigilant because we’re seeing a spike in cases.”

Preventing the spread of the COVID-19

Curtis and Roach both emphasize how important it is for people in the community to take the virus seriously and follow precautions like wearing a mask in public settings where required and social distancing to help slow the spread of the virus.

On Monday, Oct. 5, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) released updated information about the spread of COVID-19 and issued the following ways to prevent the illness by avoiding being exposed to the virus:

Although Gov. Abbott has loosened some of the restrictions on how many customers can be in businesses, including restaurants, the rules under the state’s Minimum Health Protocols state that all retail and restaurant employees must wear a face covering (over the nose and mouth) wherever it is not feasible to maintain six feet of social distancing from another individual not in the same household. The same rules apply to customers, except when they are seated in a restaurant to eat or drink.

Since Stephens County is no longer eligible to be exempt from the governor’s mandates, everyone in the county is required to wear a mask when out in public in a place where they can’t social distance. A few exemptions are allowed for medical reasons.

Roach said all along there have been a couple of goals the county has had in containing the virus.

The first goal is to not overwhelm the health care system to the point that there is limited capacity in the area hospitals. He said they came close to that when the county went to the Stage 5 restrictions about a month and a half ago.

Right now, it appears that the hospitals where SMH would transfer patients, such as in Abilene and Wichita Falls, have plenty of capacity and ventilators available.

“We didn’t want to overwhelm the healthcare system, and that’s still the goal,” he said. “If you have a lot of people that get sick at one time and you have a high volume of numbers, that’s what ends up happening; people have to be hospitalized and then it’s putting a strain on your capacity.”

Roach said all the precautions were never about not getting the coronavirus totally, because, like the flu, people are going to catch it. It’s about not overwhelming the healthcare system. He said they know they are going to have case numbers, but because of the recent spike, it’s starting to get out of hand.

“We can’t allow that to happen,” Roach said.

Stay at home

Roach said one of the key issues, above all the measures, is people staying home if they’re sick.

“This has been something we wrestled with where folks have been symptomatic, the didn’t want to get tested, or they did get tested and then treated like, ‘Hey, I’m going to get over it’ because maybe they weren’t part of that group that’s at high risk,” Roach said.

If somebody is sick and they not part of an at-risk group, Roach said, they need to think about the people they are going to be in contact who might not have as strong immune system as they do.

“So if you’re sick, please stay at home,” he said. “Please take those cautions and make sure you’re well before you go out and mix up with the public, because that how it spreads. We just gotta do our part.”

Roach said he’s not saying we can eradicate COVID-19, but we can certainly do our part.

“We’ve said this all along, regardless of whatever belief system you value, I think treating your neighbor as you want to be treated is pretty good way to live,” he said. “I just think we need to get back to that, and say, ‘Hey listen, I’ve gotta think outside of myself and make sure I value the health of other people in the community. And if I’m sick, I’m gonna stay home,’ and those kinds of things.”

Roach said he thinks a balanced approach is key to keeping everything running strong and everybody doing their part to reduce the spread of the virus.


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