State officials talk coronavirus in Q&A with Texans

TEXAS — Texas Governor Greg Abbott held a televised Q&A with Texans in response to the coronavirus last Thursday. Also present were key members of his staff, from Texas Department of State Health Services Commissioner John Hellerstedt to Texas Education Agency Commissioner Mike Morath.

Appearing on an ABC affiliate, the officials answered questions on everything from coronavirus testing to school closures. But Abbott remained vague about what the state planned to do to help businesses and employees who have already seen economic impacts from coronavirus. And when asked what they were doing to ensure Texans who don’t have insurance can get care, a top state official said that broader health coverage wouldn’t “resolve the immediate issue” of the deadly new disease. Around 5 million Texans — about 18 percent of the state — don’t have health insurance, in part due to Texas’s decision not to expand Medicaid in the wake of the Affordable Care Act.

“I know many of you are scared,” Abbott said at the start of his address. “Maybe concerned. Maybe confused. You deserve answers.”

Describing coronavirus as an invisible danger, he compared the pandemic to other disasters that have hit the state in recent years — including Hurricane Harvey, which saw roadways in and around Houston “turned into riverways.” “Together, we will make it through the coronavirus also,” he said.

He said Texas was “ready in January” before the first Texas coronavirus case in March — a markedly different message from the one in a letter he sent to President Donald Trump on Monday, in which he said Texas was low on medical supplies and stressed that “resources of the federal government are needed.”

Still, he noted that Texas had five deaths from coronavirus — up from three earlier that day. (As of press time, there were at least eleven deaths in Texas, according to state figures.) Facts like that “show how fast this can move,” he said of the virus.

Abbott said Texas was “focusing on testing” and hoped to do 15,000 to 20,000 coronavirus tests per week — a goal that is far off from today. At press time, a little over 13,000 Texans, in total, have been tested for coronavirus.

John Hellerstedt, commissioner for the DSHS, likewise said that the statewide testing process was “pretty efficient.” Once a lab got a coronavirus sample, it could produce results in 48 to 72 hours, he said. But many of those labs are now experiencing a backlog.

On childcare and education, Mike Morath, commissioner for the TEA, said that students would “absolutely” be able to advance grades even without STAAR testing, which was waived earlier this month. Decisions on grade advancements would be decided at the school level, he said.

When asked whether schools could reopen before the end of the regular school year in May, Morath said he didn’t know. “We need to wait and see how the spread of the virus unfolds,” he said.

Texas schools had already set up over 1000 meal pick-up locations and there would be a “huge number” of more locations in the coming days, he said. Governor Greg Abbott said Texas was looking into childcare options and that he was “urging” childcare centers to stay open but to “make sure there are heightened standards” for cleanliness and safety.

Abbott also offered reassuring words on food security. He said he was in “constant contact” with grocers and other food retailers and that they were “stocked and ready to go.”

After speaking to CEOs of grocery stores and other food businesses, he said he was “very confident about their supply chains.” And he promised a “very aggressive” response to complaints of price-gouging throughout this crisis.

On the economy and healthcare, though, the officials were less forthcoming. Asked if Texas would defer sales taxes, Abbott said they would consider it. Asked about workers and employers who were feeling an economic pinch from coronavirus, he said there were “multiple pathways” at the federal level that could help people get aid.

When a salon owner asked about people who worried about rent and other expenses, Abbott replied that “the type of business she’s in has not been shut down yet.”

“Salons have not been shut down,” he said. “She should still be able to earn money.” He stressed that business owners could apply for disaster loans from the Small Business Administration but acknowledged that “that particular individual” would likely not qualify.

When a citizen pointed out that Texas had “consistently” denied a Medicaid expansion and asked about the high rates of uninsured residents, Texas Medicaid Director Stephanie Muth jumped in.

“It’s really important to remember this is a public health crisis,” Muth said. “Access to health insurance isn’t going to resolve the immediate issue we need to focus on.”

But politicians in Texas and beyond are mulling the conflict of combatting coronavirus versus the economic slowdown that’s resulting. President Donald Trump tweeted that “WE CANNOT LET THE CURE BE WORSE THAN THE PROBLEM ITSELF.”

Then, on Monday, Texas Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick appeared on Fox News to propose that “we can get back to work.” At that point, restrictions on Texas businesses had been in place for less than a week.

Patrick told Fox News host Tucker Carlson that grandparents like himself should be willing to accept the risk of death if it meant keeping the economic engine running.