The inevitable creep of the coronavirus pandemic finally made its way into Kerrville on Tuesday as a Peterson Health employee became the first to test positive for COVID-19.
Peterson Health officials sent a news release out in the morning confirming the case, and later offered the details the person was an employee. Other details were scant, but Peterson did offer up that the employee had traveled, although unknown if it was domestic or international, and was admitted to the hospitals with symptoms and then sent home.
Peterson said the employee is recovering at home.
“As a Peterson employee, the individual was armed with all of the right information and instructions through our diligent preparedness and education to all employees since the outbreak of this virus,” Peterson Health President and CEO Cory Edmondson said. “We are proud of how this individual handled the situation from the beginning by recognizing the symptoms, self-reporting, and self-isolating.”
As Peterson was admitting the case, officials in neighboring Gillespie County were confirming a resident there had tested positive after being screened at a facility in Boerne. In that county, officials there were considering a shelter-in-place order — one that was urged by Hill Country Memorial Hospital last week.
After days and days of incremental movement of the virus into the Hill Country, coronavirus landed squarely on a day that was full of breaking news about the pandemic, including some staggering admissions by the White House about the scope of the problem nationally.
In Kerrville, however, officials are now faced with considering something they said they didn’t want to do — a shelter-in-place order.
“I’m seriously considering if a lockdown is the best thing for us,” Kerrville Mayor Bill Blackburn said. “That’s pretty much on the table.”
That may be coming because Gov. Greg Abbott laid the groundwork for that on Tuesday with executive orders clarifying essential businesses. While Abbott said initially not a shelter-in-place order, he later clarified that it was something that aligns Texas with other state that have put those orders in place.
Kerr County Judge Rob Kelly was definitely paying attention to Abbott’s words on Tuesday.
"One thing we are emphasizing in all of this is that people need to start thinking about whether or not what they're doing is essential, and if it's not essential, don't do it,” Kelly said. "We're trying to get people to stay home if possible, and work from home if they can at all, and only do things that are absolutely essential as they're out on the roads."
Kelly said he and other officials, including city of Kerrville staff, are in the midst of drafting joint orders reflecting the governor's order to help prevent or slow the spread of the coronavirus. Their orders may be ready by Wednesday.
He still wants Texans to know they can leave their homes to do things such as go to the grocery store or go for a jog.
"A stay-at-home strategy would mean that you have to stay at home — you cannot leave a home under any circumstances. That obviously is not what we have articulated here," Abbott said during a news conference at the Texas Capitol in Austin. "This is a standard based upon essential services and essential activities."
The state has outlined a list of over a dozen essential services that comply with Abbott's order, largely aligned with federal guidance on the issue but adding religious services.
The language of the order and Abbott's reluctance to call it a stay-at-home order caused some confusion about its scope and what specifically it restricts. But Abbott spokesman John Wittman said after the governor's news conference that the "only thing that is allowed are essential services and personal activities that correspond with those services."
"That is in addition to the personal and religious activities that the executive order explicitly allows," Wittman said.
Later, state Rep. Chris Turner, chair of the House Democratic Caucus, said "Gov. Abbott has essentially created a statewide stay-at-home order."
His press conference today was confusing at times, but we believe it amounts to a step in the right direction," Turner said.
The order, which goes into effect at 12:01 a.m. Thursday, expands on one he issued earlier this month that did four things: limit social gatherings to 10 people; close bars, restaurants and gyms, while still allowing takeout; ban people from visiting nursing homes except for critical care; and temporarily close schools. That order is set to expire at midnight Friday.
Abbott's latest order goes through April 30, aligning it with the new end date that President Donald Trump announced Monday for social-distancing guidelines.
There was also plenty of grim news to come out of Washington, D.C. on Tuesday.
President Donald Trump on Tuesday warned Americans to brace for a “hell of a bad two weeks” ahead as the White House projected there could be 100,000 to 240,000 deaths in the U.S. from the coronavirus pandemic even if current social distancing guidelines are maintained.
Public health officials stressed that the number could be less if people across the country bear down on keeping their distance from one another.
“We really believe we can do a lot better than that,” said Dr. Deborah Birx, the coordinator of the White House coronavirus task force. That would require all Americans to take seriously their role in preventing the spread of disease, she said.
Trump called American efforts to slow the spread of the coronavirus “a matter of life and death” and urged the public to heed his administration’s guidelines. He predicted the country would soon see a “light at the end of the tunnel” in the pandemic that has killed more than 3,500 Americans and infected 170,000 more.
“I want every American to be prepared for the hard days that lie ahead,” Trump said.
On Tuesday, a Minnesota-based health care data company released a dashboard that models the coronavirus for every county in the U.S. The company called Carrot Health, used a 10% infection rate based off the of the Centers for Disease Control data for influenza, along with data from the New England Journal of Medicine, and if that model’s assumptions are correct more than 350 people in Kerr County could become critically ill if social distancing measures are not enacted. The model suggests 80 people could die.
Even with a 1% model, Kerr County could see 40 people require intensive care or be placed on a ventilator. There are just 14 intensive care unit beds at Peterson Regional Medical Center.
The Associated Press and The Texas Tribune contributed to this story