New COVID-19 testing team to be deployed to nursing homes

HOUSTON, Texas (KTRK) -- On the rollout of the mandatory mask order in Harris County to help protect against the spread of COVID-19, Judge Lina Hidalgo announced a new team to help facilities most at risk for the virus.

Hidalgo said a 'COVID-19 strike team' will be deployed starting Tuesday at the most vulnerable places for the coronavirus, such as nursing homes. The goal is to try to contain the virus and stop it in its tracks.

Over 10,000 deaths are related to nursing homes across the country, officials said.

The team, which will be made up of epidemiologists, clinicians, social workers, data analysts and environmental health workers, will start with one nursing home a day.

The focus will also be on those who live in close contact, such as at domestic violence and homeless shelters.

SEE ALSO: Harris County to expand internal COVID-19 testing inside jails

In the second part of her announcement, Hidalgo said pop-up testing locations will double from two to four.

This week, two mobile locations will spend Monday and Wednesday in Tomball and southeast Houston, and Thursday through Saturday in Crosby and southwest Houston.

The third and fourth locations have not yet been announced.

Those mobile sites are aimed at getting testing to those who may be home-bound or are otherwise unable to leave and go to a site. Hidalgo said a map will be up on the Ready Harris website by the end of the week, so that people can track the mobile sites.

Fixed testing sites also exist in Baytown and Katy. For more information on those, call 832-927-7575.

The judge opened the briefing with an update on coronavirus cases in the county, saying the number of new cases is now up to 24. The total number of cases in Harris County stands at 5,700.

Hidalgo reported one new death, with that toll now over 90.

When it comes to coronavirus testing, Texas is among the worst in the nation.

Texas is conducting 7,762 tests per 1 million residents, according to a 13 Investigates analysis of data from the COVID Tracking Project. That puts it in 49th place nationwide when compared to all 50 states and the District of Columbia.

Gov. Greg Abbott, who is set to make his own big announcement later in the afternoon regarding reopening the state, has pledged to increase testing by 10 percent every day in Texas, and promised last week that testing supply chains are starting to loosen up, but so far, the state is nearly 10,000 tests behind where it should be if testing were increasing at that speed.

You can read more on the 13 Investigates testing report here.

Before Hidalgo's briefing, Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner announced the opening of the newest test site, but called again for more testing citywide. Turner said they're working to open more test sites over the next week in vulnerable communities.

He also brought up people may be asymptomatic, but infectious, and reiterated the importance of adhering to the mask order.

Under the mandate, residents age 10 and older will be required to wear a covering. The order will last for 30 days. Coverings can be a mask, scarf, bandanna or handkerchief.

The masks or coverings must cover the nose and mouth, but the coverings are not limited to medical or N-95 masks. The only exceptions to the rule will be when exercising, eating, drinking, if you're alone in a separate place, or at your home.

Health officials say the masks are needed to stop the spread of germs as much as possible.

"We know anywhere between 25 to 35% of the people who are infectious are asymptomatic. They're not showing any symptoms, they're not coughing, no tightness of chest, no fever, but they are still infectious. And so they can infect someone else. So the purpose of the mask is to protect other people from you," Turner said last week.

Still, the order has faced opposition from county and state leaders, including Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick who called Hidalgo's mandate overreaching.

Hidalgo addressed pushback on social media from those who don't want to wear the mask because they see it as an infringement on their rights.

"There's a small group of people trying to play politics and make a statement, 'I'm not gonna wear a mask.' This is not about you. It's not about the person wearing a mask. It's about everybody else. It's about you may be at the grocery store next to somebody who's immunocompromised. It's about you may lead to the death of somebody because you've given the virus to them or you've given the virus to a person who may then infect somebody else," Hidalgo explained.

She said it was not the time for "political acrobatics," adding this is a matter of life or death. "I didn't pull this out of nowhere. This is out of the CDC. It's out of the fact that if you're standing next to somebody, and you have the virus, you may not know you have it, and you're giving it to somebody else," she continued.

Hidalgo said those who are choosing to make a political statement and not wear a mask, should "stay home for the sake of everybody else. You can make a political statement, but it's not your right to be making everybody else sick just because you want to get some attention."

Hidalgo said the mask order will be enforced by a $1,000 fine. However, HPD Chief Art Acevedo and Mayor Turner said the focus will still be on education, and a fine will be a last resort.

While it's not clear to what extent the state will be reopened under Gov. Abbott's plan, some local businesses have moved forward with reopening.

Over the weekend, Federal American Grill reopened its dining room in defiance of the stay-at-home orders. Owner Matt Brice told ABC13 reservations "sold out" in 10 minutes.

When asked why the restaurant was not fined, Hidalgo first pointed out the community overall has been "fantastic" at working to flatten the curve. Though we have not reached the peak, it's not rising.

"The vast majority of the people, 99.9% of people, are doing their part, and so I'm not gonna say anything more about that restaurant. I'm not gonna give them any more time for a political stunt, and I believe that their 15 minutes in the limelight are over," Hidalgo said.

According to Rice University, all the efforts to stop the spread of the virus have already saved over 4,500 lives.

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