AUSTIN, Texas — Gov. Greg Abbott on Sunday ratcheted up travel restrictions into Texas during the coronavirus pandemic, while announcing the state's first pop-up hospital to deal with the crisis. He also said he was moving to "stop the release of dangerous felons" amid the outbreak.
Texas health officials reported that the state now has 2,552 cases, including 34 deaths as of Sunday afternoon. Almost half of Texas’ 254 counties — 118 — are reporting cases. In El Paso County, there are 35 confirmed cases, with an additional half-dozen being reported at Fort Bliss.
Abbott said 176 Texans have been hospitalized due to the virus, which he emphasized is still a small fraction of those who have contracted the disease. Officials said 25,483 people have been tested statewide so far.
The governor said he was dramatically expanding a previous executive order that requires a 14-day self-quarantine for anyone flying into Texas from New York, New Jersey, Connecticut or New Orleans. Now, the state is also mandating a 14-day self-quarantine for anyone driving into Texas from anywhere in Louisiana and for those flying in from Miami, Atlanta, Detroit and Chicago, as well as anywhere in California and Washington states.
But how aggressively Texas troopers will patrol incoming traffic wasn’t immediately clear. Hours after Abbott’s announcement, traffic both in and out of Texas was freely moving along Interstate 10 near the Sabine River that divides Texas and Louisiana. No state troopers were seen patrolling the interstate, although multiple highway electronic signs in both directions warned drivers that “Personal travel from Louisiana must quarantine.’”
Meanwhile, Abbott said the state's first ad hoc health care facility to respond to the pandemic will be at the Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Center in Dallas, an original hot-spot for the outbreak at the state level. The convention center has the capacity for 250 beds "with plenty of room to massively expand that number if needed," Abbott said.
He said the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was also looking at setting up other similar temporary healthcare centers in El Paso and other key Texas cities where such care might be needed.
“Our job is to make sure that we’re looking one, two, three, four weeks ahead, and make sure that Texas is going to be prepared to meet the needs of your communities if COVID-19 continues to increase,” Abbott said.
At the same time, Abbott added that there is "plenty of hospital capacity" to deal with the outbreak statewide and existing hospitals remain the "primary location" for treatment. He said the number of hospital beds available for coronavirus patients statewide more than doubled in the past week, with over 16,000 beds free. Most of those beds became available after he issued an executive order a week ago banning non essential surgeries in the state.
Abbott announced the latest executive orders during a news conference at the state capitol in Austin, and text of the orders were not immediately available. It was unclear, for example, how he was defining the kinds of prisoners who cannot be released.
Abbott’s newest orders come as state and local officials continue to battle over whether to release as many as thousands of inmates awaiting trial from the Harris County Jail, where at least one inmate has tested positive for the new coronavirus and some 30 others are showing symptoms.
Advocates have fought for as many inmates as possible to be released from county jails, citing the increased risk of spread given close quarters and poor sanitary conditions. Abbott and Texas Attorney General Paxton on Sunday asked to intervene in a federal lawsuit in Harris County in which a federal judge is weighing whether and how to release Harris County Jail inmates.
According to the Houston Chronicle, Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo had been drafting an executive order for compassionate releases of inmates on no-cost bonds before trial, but shelved it over concerns that Paxton’s office would halt it.
The growing spread of coronavirus throughout Texas comes as Abbott continues to resist calls to issue a statewide shelter-in-place order, a move that many of the state's biggest counties and cities have already taken. Asked Sunday about the possibility of further statewide action, Abbott said he was waiting to see new federal guidance that is expected to be issued this week.