Across the country, there has been a push to move toward expanding mail-in ballot access to keep people from physically visiting poll sites and potentially spreading the new coronavirus. The Bexar County Elections Department has 141,000 mail-in ballots waiting in the wings for July’s runoff election, Elections Administrator Jacque Callanen told county commissioners Tuesday.

Only 25,000 voters had requested mail-in ballots for the March election, so that means those 25,000 will receive a mail-in ballot for the July run-off. But if the office has to process more than 100,000 absentee ballots for a single election, the department will need more machines from the county, Callanen said.

County commissioners met Tuesday for their regular meeting with chairs spaced 6 feet apart for audience members and separated desks for commissioners. The commissioners had masks on hand, though they did not wear them while sitting at least 6 feet from each other.

The decision to move largely to mail-in ballots is in limbo thanks to a lawsuit brought against the State of Texas by Travis County and the Texas Democratic Party. Judge Tim Sulak of Texas’s 353rd District Court issued a temporary injunction last week that would allow all voters who risk exposure to the coronavirus if they vote at a polling site to vote by mail. As the case moves into the appeals courts, Bexar County Elections Department must wait to see what happens next, Callanen said.

“We tend to be type-A personalities [at the Elections Department], and we all have our plans,” she said. “We like to stay on time, stay on date, stay on task. And right now, we’re in a holding pattern.”

Callanen said she spoke to the county clerk’s office about having county employees bolster election official numbers. About 60 percent of the county’s election officials are over the age of 65, and the average age is 72, Callanen said, so most are at higher risk of becoming ill from the coronavirus.

Dawn Emerick, who heads the San Antonio Metropolitan Health District, also walked county commissioners through the public health authority’s response to the new coronavirus so far. Though she understands why people continue to advocate for more testing, the reality is there is a shortage of certain items needed to process COVID-19 tests, she said.

“We have swabs, we have the supplies to put swabs up your nose,” she said. “What we don’t have in large supply are the vials to transport the medium in the bottle. That’s called transport media. That’s in short supply across the country. You can swab, but if you don’t have a bottle to put it in, that’s no good.”

The chemical reagents used to analyze swab samples are also in short supply across the nation, Emerick said.

“I welcome continued conversation around the importance of testing,” she said. “But also, I want to caution you – there are limitations. We need to be thoughtful, we need to be deliberate, we need to be scientific and use data to inform our decisions.”

The majority of tests are being conducted by medical providers, Emerick said, while 22 percent of testing is done at the drive-thru site at Freeman Coliseum. Of the 1,029 positive cases in Bexar County so far, 29 are from the county jail. Sheriff Javier Salazar said Tuesday that though he was concerned with the number of inmates who have tested positive for COVID-19 so far, the numbers from the Bexar County Adult Detention Center were much better than those of jails in other major Texas counties.

Salazar assured commissioners that sanitizing efforts at the jail were up to proper standards. He said the jail currently has enough masks for deputies and those incarcerated.

“As of right now, we’ve got 22,000 inmate masks on hand,” he said. “We’re waiting on another 30,000 to be delivered this week.”

Though inmates had been issued one bar of soap per week, the sheriff’s office will increase that to two bars of soap “as needed,” Salazar said. The jail has had problems with food service, as the inmates who worked in the kitchen had to be removed after a possible exposure to coronavirus. 

“That did present some challenges for Aramark, our current provider,” Salazar said. “They have to supplement with employees, and they don’t want to bring those employees to the jail.”

There have been delays in food service to inmates, though the jail remains in compliance with state jail standards, Salazar said.

Commissioner Tommy Calvert said he would like to add negative pressure rooms to the existing jail supply in future renovations. The jail has four rooms that people can be isolated in, with air pumped outside to avoid infecting the rest of the jail’s population.

“I’m supportive of what you have to do to contain the spread,” he said to Salazar.

Commissioners also voted Tuesday to accept federal funding from the Coronavirus Relief Fund established by the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, which the county plans to use for coronavirus response purposes, as well as funding from the Disaster Relief Fund established by the CARES Act. The funds have yet to be disbursed, and it’s unclear how much will be allocated to Bexar County.

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Jackie Wang

Jackie Wang covered local government for the San Antonio Report.