Worried about current compliance, Gov. Greg Abbott signals openness to stricter coronavirus order


By Patrick Svitek

Gov. Greg Abbott expressed some dissatisfaction Tuesday with how Texans are responding to various measures to curb the coronavirus pandemic, signaling an openness to imposing stricter statewide action soon.

"It's clear to me that we may not be achieving the level of compliance that is needed," Abbott said during a news conference in Austin. "That's why I said before I remain flexible in my statewide standard.

"We will continue to evaluate, based upon all the data, whether or not there needs to be heightened standards and stricter enforcement," Abbott added.

Abbott's comments came on the heels of the state's biggest counties issuing stay-at-home orders in the absence of a statewide mandate. Abbott has resisted such a sweeping order so far, saying many counties are still not reporting cases and that he wants to see the full impact of an executive order he issued Thursday. That order, which expires at midnight April 3, limited public gatherings to 10 people and closed restaurants and schools, among other things.

However, Abbott's remarks Tuesday indicated his thinking may be evolving. He said that while he was heading to the news conference, he was "surprised at how many vehicles I saw on the road." (Austin is home to Travis County, whose stay-at-home order goes into effect at midnight Tuesday.)

Citing numbers from the Texas Department of State Health Services, Abbott said that 715 Texans have tested positive for the new coronavirus. The true number of people who have been infected could be much higher, however, since testing is still not widespread. More than 11,000 people have been tested in Texas so far. There have been 11 deaths.

At the news conference, Abbott made a couple of announcements regarding medical supplies and hospital capacity in Texas. Starting next week, the state should be receiving a million masks per week for health care workers responding to the pandemic, Abbott said. Half those masks are being obtained by a “strike force" that Abbott named Sunday and that placed an order for more than $80 million in medical supplies the next day, according to the governor.

Abbott also unveiled an executive order — effective at 11:59 p.m. Tuesday and to remain in place until it's rescinded or updated — that requires hospitals to submit daily reports on their bed capacity to the Texas Department of State Health Services. The order, which followed orders he issued Sunday aimed at boosting hospital capacity, also mandates that health care providers issue daily reports on testing.

Abbott’s news conference was his first since President Donald Trump took a newly urgent tack against letting the pandemic destroy the U.S. economy, saying he wants the country to get back to work soon. Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick amplified the message Monday night, telling Fox News that many grandparents like himself would be willing to die if it meant saving the economy for their grandchildren.

Asked about Trump's and Patrick's comments, Abbott said at the news conference that he was relying on the advice of medical professionals such as John Hellerstedt, the state health commissioner; Deborah Birx, the response coordinator for the White House coronavirus task force; and Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

"I will base my decision as governor of the state of Texas on what physicians say," he said, adding that public health remains his top concern. "If the goal is to get the economy going, the best thing we can do to get the economy going is to get COVID-19 behind us."

Earlier Tuesday, almost all the Democrats in the Texas House wrote to Abbott asking him to issue a statewide stay-at-home order.

“In order to flatten the curve and give us time to win this war, we need to take immediate action,” the lawmakers’ letter said. “We know that this can work if we act appropriately.”

During a tele-town hall ahead of Abbott’s news conference, Patrick said state leaders were still aiming to avoid a statewide order.

“We’re not locking down all [254] counties," Patrick said. "We haven’t. I hope we don’t have to."

This article originally appeared at the Texas Tribune.

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