ANGLETON — Brazoria County still had only two presumptive positive COVID-19 cases in Alvin on Tuesday and no deaths, but the possibility a rapid spread could overwhelm hospitals prompted County Judge Matt Sebesta to urge residents to take social distancing seriously and avoid large groups of people.
Late Tuesday, neighboring Matagorda County officials announced their third positive case of COVID-19.
The patient, a woman age 50 to 55, recently traveled to Washington state, where more than 1,000 cases of the virus have been reported and 50 have died.
All 50 states and the District of Columbia have confirmed cases of the novel coronavirus, the Washington Post reported late Tuesday. West Virginia announced its first patient Tuesday, the last state with a positive test. At least 100 people have died nationwide.
At the early onset of symptoms, the woman with the third case in Matagorda County underwent screening and testing for COVID-19, according to a press release from Matagorda Regional Medical Center. She immediately went home to self-quarantine, and she has been in self-quarantine since Friday.
“The patient reported that she has been in contact with state health officials who are monitoring her health status, and that she expects to hear from them in the next day or two for more information on the expected duration of her self-quarantine,” the hospital release read.
Sebesta signed a disaster declaration for Brazoria County on Tuesday morning that allows him broad authority in an emergency. With that authority, he announced closure of the county library and museum through March 30.
Brazoria County has 380,000 people and only 325 hospital beds, with an additional surge in capacity that could bring that total to 408, if needed, he said in a live conference via Facebook Live on Tuesday. Only 35 of those hospital beds are intensive care beds.
“We have a very finite list of resources, and we are trying not to crush our healthcare systems, because most of those beds are already taken with folks who have the flu, moms having babies,” surgery cases and non-coronavirus emergencies, Sebesta said.
Neighboring Matagorda County so far had three positive COVID-19 cases and one death.
Despite the uncertainty of this unprecedented situation, Matagorda County resident Byron Battle knows officials are looking out for everyone’s best interests.
“I’m confident in what the county is doing,” Battle said while shopping at Stewarts in Sweeny. “They are doing what they have to do. This will blow over eventually, just gotta stay strong.”
Battle knew the family of the Matagorda County resident in his 90s who died Sunday. Tests confirmed Monday that the man had COVID-19, the first known death from the coronavirus in Texas.
Both Brazoria County patients are improving each day, Sebesta said. They have been in self-quarantine on that Alvin home since Thursday.
County offices are open, but will be working with skeleton crews until the end of the week. Sebesta urged people with business with the county to call ahead and see if they can take care of it online or by mail.
The disaster declaration, spelled out in Section 418 of the Texas government code, allows Sebesta to authorize quick purchases and to track costs and later submit those to the state and federal agencies for reimbursement.
“Government, by nature, is slow. Section 418 gives us a lot more flexibility to act and react,” he said.
It also grants Sebesta authority to close restaurants and bars to on-site dining, an action Sebesta did not take Tuesday.
“At this time, no, but it’s always on the table,” Sebesta said. “I hope that people will be responsible and do what they need to do.”
He discouraged people from dining in restaurants and encouraged the community to support local businesses in other ways, with drive through, delivery or carry-out.
Sebesta echoed government health officials in asking people to avoid gathering in large groups and asked people to check on their elderly and immuno-compromised neighbors who might be feeling lonely and scared. Offer to run their errands, he said.
“Over the last few years, we have been through a lot together here in Brazoria County,” Sebesta said.
Through floods and hurricanes over the last few years, the county has seen no loss of life.
“This event is probably our most significant challenge that we’re going to be in for God knows how long,” he said.
Call Center established
Also Tuesday, Brazoria County Health Director Cathy Sbrusch announced the opening of the Health Medical Operation Center to increase surveillance and improve communication among response teams. A call center has also been set up, to address questions from residents.
The number is 979-864-2167. It is open from 10 a.m to 6 p.m. weekdays and 9 a.m to 2 p.m. Saturdays.
Appraisal district ADOPTS changes
The Brazoria County Appraisal District announced it would eliminate in-person customer service and informal meetings.
The office will no longer provide in-person customer service or informal appraisal meetings to local property owners, effective immediately, according to a news release from the Appraisal District office.
Chief Appraiser Cheryl Evans assured concerned property owners the office will assist them however possible.
“We will help each of you throughout this tough period,” Evans said. “This is for the good of the taxpayers and our staff without becoming susceptible.”
Evans announced the office will provide two drop boxes at the rear entrance of the Snow Building, across from the Angleton courthouse. One will take protest forms while the other will take other miscellaneous forms such as homestead exemption and other exemption forms, Evans said.
Protest form notices will be mailed out by March 24 and hit mailboxes by March 30, Evans said.
The decision is the district’s response to the continued spread of COVID-19, and appraisal districts across the state are following suit, the press release states.