It was two months ago when the first evacuees from Wuhan, China arrived for 14 days of quarantine at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio. Hundreds more transported off cruise ships soon followed. Their arrivals and eventual departures now seem like old news as the coronavirus pandemic continues to unfold locally.
The number of people testing positive from the virus in San Antonio grew from 231 to 384 over the past week, with deaths rising from six to eleven. Two other coronavirus deaths have been reported in Comal County within San Antonio’s metropolitan statistical area.
San Antonio’s Low-Ranked Senior Living Centers
Worse, one of the city’s nursing homes most cited for negligence by state inspectors became the site of an outbreak last week. Sixty-seven of the 84 residents and eight of the 60 staff members at the Southeast Nursing and Rehabilitation Center tested positive for COVID-19 last week. One resident died from the virus. Officials were still searching for 28 untested employees of the nursing home owned by Advanced Healthcare Solutions.
The City immediately imposed a rule prohibiting those workers from continuing to work at other senior care communities. That is one of several changes included in the City’s amended public health emergency declaration. The order led to the closing Friday of community and school playgrounds, tennis courts, golf courses, skate plazas, splash pads, and all “recreational areas where social distancing and sanitizing requirements are difficult or impossible to meet.”
The outbreak was a grim reminder that families that cannot afford private pay care often have to send seniors to sub-standard facilities.
Read the Department of Health and Human Services 11-page report on the Southeast Nursing and Rehabilitation Center issued in October 2019. It documents a disturbing lack of professional standards and adequate training. Southeast was given a dismal one-star rating from medicare.gov and cited for abuse. Nursing home officials have no comment.
There are more than 30 such low-ranked facilities in the San Antonio area. Operators are subject to annual state inspections, fines, and citations, yet little seems to change in terms of low government ratings or delivery of care and services.
Relaxing Access to COVID-19 Testing
As the number of people testing positive rose here and across the nation, health experts switched directions and began to advise everyone to use face masks when out in public. Availability remains an issue, leading to a cottage industry in construction of homemade masks.
After a detention officer tested positive last week, the overcrowded Bexar County Jail became another source of worry. About 700 detention officers and 3,200 detainees are placed in close proximity there, although the jail population is down from a high of more than 4,200 as recently as Jan. 28.
Last week brought a bellwether of sorts: So-called community contact cases now outnumber travel-related cases. City officials reacted by relaxing requirements for residents to qualify for a test.
San Antonio Assistant City Manager Colleen Bridger said in a Friday interview with health reporter Roseanna Garza that people seeking a COVID-19 test in Bexar County no longer need a doctor’s note to be tested at a drive-up testing site at Freeman Coliseum.
“We went with the least restrictive testing criteria that we could,” Bridger said during the livestreamed interview event with the Rivard Report.
An online self-screening tool asks users about their symptoms and potential exposure to the novel coronavirus. If a user’s answers indicate the possibility of infection, Bridger said, they will be directed to call a phone number to set up an appointment to get a free test at the Freeman Coliseum.
The City’s Metro Health department and private clinics had only tested 3,000 people by Friday, so the move to expand testing eligibility should give local officials a better sense of how effective social distancing, a work from home emergency order, and closure of public spaces and businesses are proving.
Schools and Churches
The coming week will test people’s endurance and adherence to the city and state emergency restrictions. Tens of thousands who anticipated attending religious services at area churches to mark Easter and the Jewish Passover will instead have to worship virtually.
Gov. Greg Abbott went against the advice of public health officials and exempted religious gatherings from a statewide emergency ban on gatherings of more than 10 people. San Antonio religious leaders appeared to be adhering to orders issued by Mayor Ron Nirenberg and Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff to keep church doors closed and pews empty.
Abbott did order schools to remain closed through May 4, effectively bringing the traditional 2019-20 academic year to an end. IDEA Public Schools became the first locally to announce it would not resume classes this spring, even if the order is lifted. Other districts are expected to follow suit soon.
School and university officials continued to conduct distance learning classes, while altering grading and testing standards. State officials announced they would suspend the annual A-F rankings for Texas public schools.
Unemployment Climbs as the Consumer Economy Sputters
In the week ending March 28, the U.S. Department of Labor reported seasonally adjusted unemployment claims totaling 6,648,000, an increase of 3,341,000 from the previous week’s record level. More than 275,000 Texans filed for unemployment last week, with millions more contacting the Texas Workforce Commission. Locally, unemployment numbers trickled in and cannot yet be reported reliably. Officials say the hospitality industry has been hit the hardest, leaving some of San Antonio’s most vulnerable workers without a paycheck or health care benefits.
With retail outlets closed everywhere, with the exception of essential businesses, the impact here, in Texas, and nationwide already meets the definition of recession and is certain to grow worse by the week.
Many small businesses and industries, meanwhile, are digging into the fine print of the $2 trillion federal stimulus bill to apply for loans and grants.
LiftFund has a link to the Bexar County Disaster Relief Fund grant application, and its 2020 Relief Loan Program. Applications opened Friday for the Small Business Administration’s Paycheck Protection for employers with less than 500 workers. Contact your bank, credit union, or LiftFund for help submitting an application.
Finding Solace and a Smile in Art, Virtually
From one-person studio performances to virtual exhibitions and hands-on workshops, local artists and performing artists went online to connect with people looking for creative responses to the moment.
The San Antonio Symphony’s principal trombonist Steve Peterson worked with fellow orchestra musicians who recorded at home studios their part of “Nimrod” from English composer Edward Elgar’s Enigma Variations, music which encourages us to never give up. Listeners unfamiliar with Elgar will recognize his Pomp and Circumstance Marches, played at high school and college graduation ceremonies, all of which have been canceled for now.
If March was the month when the novel coronavirus pandemic hit San Antonio with unmistakeable force, then April will give city leaders and the public a sense of the virus’s rate of spread and the effectiveness of measures to contain it.
Public health professionals and elected officials here and across the nation expect the number of people testing positive and the fatality count to grow in the coming weeks. The only question, here and in other U.S. cities, is by how much, how fast.