Coronavirus updates in Texas: U.S. Rep. Lizzie Fletcher self-quarantines; state reports 1,396 cases and 18 deaths

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Thursday's biggest developments:

    • Texas reports 1,396 cases and 18 deaths
    • Texas vaccine expert says social distancing needs more time to work
    • U.S. Senate passes $2 trillion stimulus package
    • Campaigns face uncertainty after runoff postponed

U.S. Rep. Fletcher self quarantining with flu-like symptoms

[6:23 p.m.] U.S. Rep. Lizzie Fletcher, D-Houston, is in self-quarantine after getting tested Thursday for the new coronavirus, according to her office.

The freshman lawmaker was "experiencing flu-like symptoms, including a temperature above 101 degrees," her office said in a statement. She sought medical help and took the test "at the determination of her physician."

"I will continue to work from home, as I have been, advocating for the needs of our community and working to solve problems with my colleagues in Congress and our partners here at home," Fletcher said in a statement.

Another Democratic member of the Texas delegation, U.S. Rep. Vicente Gonzalez of McAllen, self-quarantined last week after he said he came in "close contact" with a colleague who had tested positive. Gonzalez subsequently got his own test, and the results were negative. — Patrick Svitek

Texas prisons changing how staff interact with exposed inmates

[5:12 p.m.] The Texas Department of Criminal Justice has changed its practices for prison employees interacting with inmates who have been exposed to the new coronavirus. Staff members who bring meals to the restricted inmates and check them for potential symptoms of the virus are now to wear gloves and masks, a spokesperson said Thursday.

On Wednesday, a day after the first prisoner in Texas tested positive for the virus, prison officials said the 58 men who were housed in a dorm with him were being medically restricted together, similar to a quarantine. But since the men did not have any symptoms, staff members who were regularly checking the prisoners for fevers or other symptoms, like a cough, were not wearing any protective equipment.

Since it is believed the virus can be transmitted by people who do not have symptoms, an infectious disease epidemiologist told The Texas Tribune that employees should have been wearing gloves and masks, especially in a prison environment that can act as an incubator for disease. — Jolie McCullough

Texas Democrats move their convention online due to coronavirus

[4:24 p.m.] The Texas Democratic Party announced Thursday afternoon that it will hold its 2020 convention online due to coronavirus concerns, nixing the in-person gathering scheduled for early June in San Antonio.

“Our virtual experience will be fun, exciting, and keep everybody safe during this difficult time,” party Chairman Gilberto Hinojosa said in a statement.

The convention was originally set to take place from June 4-6 at the Henry B. González Convention Center in San Antonio. But now such an event would conflict with rules recently instituted by Bexar County to slow the spread of the outbreak, the party said. Hinojosa said more details will be released next month about how the convention will be held virtually.

But, he said, “make no mistake, there will be a Texas Democratic Convention, and the Party’s business will be done.”The Texas GOP has already announced plans to move its 2020 convention from mid-May in Houston to mid-July in the same city. The State Republican Executive Committee still has to approve the date change at an April 4 meeting. — Patrick Svitek

Groups call for halt to border wall construction during pandemic

[4:15 p.m.] While the COVID-19 pandemic has forced most Texans to work from home and put more than 150,000 of others out of a job, progress on President Donald Trump’s border wall is proceeding as normal, according to attorneys with the Texas Civil Rights Project.

The group said Thursday that the Trump administration continues to file new condemnations and “motions for immediate possession” in court. In those documents, government attorneys argue they need access to private property in order to send surveyors and contractors. The TCRP represents several families in the Rio Grande Valley fighting to keep their land from being seized by the administration.

On Thursday, more than 100 advocacy and special interest groups asked U.S. Attorney General William Barr, acting Secretary of Defense Mark Esper and acting Department of Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf to halt construction as the country grapples with the pandemic.

“Your actions risk government agents and contractors spreading the coronavirus in Southern border communities, place undue strain on border communities whose main focus is survival, and strip away precious resources from the federal government that should be used to respond to the crisis and ensure that communities are prepared to stop the spread of the virus,” they wrote. — Julián Aguilar

First positive case detected in juvenile detention center

[2:53 p.m.] A child detained at the Harris County Juvenile Detention Center has tested positive for the new coronavirus, the department announced Thursday. A spokesperson with the Texas Juvenile Justice Department said it was the first positive test in the Texas juvenile justice system of which he was aware.

The Harris County Juvenile Probation Department said the youth has been isolated and is receiving medical treatment. The child is under 16 and has been in detention since December. The 12 to 15 other children who were housed with the youth who tested positive are in quarantine.

The Texas Juvenile Justice Department said in a news release that it would not be accepting new admissions from Harris County into state-run youth lockups until an investigation into the child's contacts is complete. The move follows that of the state's adult prison system, which suspended intake from Dallas County after inmates at the county jail tested positive for the virus. — Jolie McCullough

Texas reports 1,396 cases and 18 deaths

[1:20 p.m.] On Thursday, Texas reported 1,396 cases of the new coronavirus— a 40% increase in cases from Wednesday, when the state reported 995 cases. The state is also reporting six additional deaths, bringing the total of deaths in Texas to 18. Dallas County is reporting the most cases at 303, which represents a roughly 80% increase from the 169 cases that the county reported Wednesday. Dallas County is also reporting seven deaths, the most of any Texas county.

Texas also reported Thursday that a total of 21,424 people have been tested for the new coronavirus. A Texas Department of State Health Services spokesperson said that the testing numbers still do not include all testing done by private labs. With the governor’s executive order in place to bolster reporting capabilities, officials anticipate that additional labs will be reporting their numbers soon.

As of Thursday, The Texas Tribune’s total number of cases no longer includes the 21 American evacuees from China and cruise ships who were quarantined at Lackland Air Force Base. Every person who was under quarantine has gone home, and there will be no new cases from that group. — Carla Astudillo

Texas vaccine expert: Give social distancing, restrictions more time to work

[12:10 p.m.] Peter Hotez, co-director of the Texas Children's Hospital Center for Vaccine Development and the founding dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at the Baylor College of Medicine, said concerns about how the new coronavirus pandemic is hurting the U.S. economy are valid but shouldn’t be put above the need to first control the growing health crisis.

“I understand how devastating this is, especially for people who are losing paychecks, and the unemployment is going up, and that’s having a huge psychological impact, so let’s not underestimate the psychological impact of this epidemic,” Hotez said in a livestreamed interview with The Texas Tribune on Thursday.

“But here’s why I don’t think we should set a firm deadline for saying we’re going to do this by Easter and lift all of the social distancing recommendations and restrictions. … I’m sorry to say, [we’re] still in the early stages of this epidemic, and we really need to get a better sense of where we’re headed with this.”

In New York, the nation’s epicenter for COVID-19 infections, Hotez said the hospital systems are being overwhelmed and don’t have beds for the surge of patients, while doctors, nurses and other health workers are getting sick and have to stop working.

“This is the nightmare scenario that so many of us worked so hard to avoid,” he said.

Hotez recommended maintaining strict measures to reduce the number of new cases for at least another month.

“Let’s give it at least 30 days, let’s give it to the end of April and then make a reassessment of where we are,” he said. “Don’t set a time now.”

Watch the rest of Hotez’s interview with the Tribune’s Edgar Walters here. — Dave Harmon

U.S. Senate advances $2 trillion stimulus package

[5 a.m.] The U.S. Senate unanimously passed one of the most sweeping pieces of legislation in American history late Wednesday night, aiming to mitigate the fallout from a COVID-19 outbreak that has forced people across the nation to self-isolate and disengage from American commerce.

Nearly 900 pages in length, the $2 trillion bill will direct payments of up to $1,200 to adults and $500 per child. There is also $500 billion allotted in aid to large corporations, including airlines, and $350 billion in small business loans.

The affirmative votes included those of Texas’ U.S. senators, John Cornyn and Ted Cruz. In all, 96 senators voted in favor the bill. Three Republican senators missed the vote due to self-quarantines after being potentially exposed to the virus.

The bill now heads to the U.S. House and faces a complicated trajectory. U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was deeply involved with the Senate negotiations, but House members are currently in their home districts — many sheltering in place. There is little appetite to bring those representatives back to Washington and risk endangering their health.

With those concerns in mind, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer alerted House members as the Senate vote concluded that his chamber would gavel into session Friday morning to take up the bill via a voice vote. The House GOP leader, U.S. Rep. Kevin McCarthy, expressed his support for that procedural maneuver Wednesday.

A voice vote is when the presiding officer decides the bill’s outcome based on the strength of ayes versus nays, rather than the normal procedure of members punching a voting card into an electronic slot. — Abby Livingston

Texas campaigns prepare for uncertainty after runoff reset by coronavirus

[5 a.m.] Not only has the pandemic of the novel coronavirus upended how candidates campaign for the foreseeable future, it has also caused the May runoff election to be pushed back seven weeks, adding more uncertainty to a high-stakes election cycle in Texas. The changes impact runoffs in a slew of especially consequential races, from the U.S. Senate contest to most of the U.S. House races that national Democrats are prioritizing.

The state's marquee runoff is the one to determine which Democrat will challenge U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas: MJ Hegar, the former Air Force helicopter pilot, or Royce West, the longtime state senator from Dallas. Both have moved their campaigns entirely online, and Cornyn announced March 17 that he was "suspending all campaign-related activities."

West has had the additional responsibility of responding to the outbreak in his capacity as a current elected official — not to mention one representing Dallas County, the hardest-hit part of the state. And Cornyn has given the Democrats plenty to seize on, from his comments blaming the Chinese for the virus to his running Twitter commentary on congressional negotiations over coronavirus aid. — Patrick Svitek

Disclosure: Texas Children's Hospital and Baylor University have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2020/03/26/coronavirus-updates-texas-campaigns-adjust-rescheduled-runoff/.

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