Gov. Greg Abbott announced efforts to allow hospitals to add more beds specifically for patients fighting the new coronavirus. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott has announced two new orders meant to prepare the health care system for an onslaught of coronavirus cases, though he stopped short of the kind of statewide lockdown other governors have imposed to slow the spread.

In a televised press conference Sunday, Abbott said that approximately 8,700 people across Texas have so far been tested for the virus, with 334 people across 43 counties testing positive. The disease has killed six in the state so far, Abbott said.

“You can continue to expect an increase in the number of people that are tested as well as an increase in the number of people to test positive,” Abbott said.

The number reflects a sharp increase from Friday, when only 2,335 people had been tested, Abbott said. As of Saturday, the number tested had more than tripled to more than 6,400.

However, testing supplies and personal protective equipment such as masks remain in short supply for the entire U.S., Abbott said. The State is now working to secure the equipment from any provider it can around the world, bypassing the federal government if necessary.

Abbott said governors around the country all face the same need: more protective and testing equipment.

“I am strongly urging our federal partners to step up the production and acquisition capabilities that they have in a way that’s far superior to the states,” Abbott said. “We’ve tried strategies, and there’s delivery dates in July. That’s not going to work. We need delivery dates tomorrow, the next day.”

Abbott said he would not at this time be issuing stay-at-home orders, as had governors of California, Illinois, New York, and others states, saying that most of Texas’ 254 counties do not yet have confirmed coronavirus cases.

Abbott, a two-term Republican governor who has been an opponent of local regulations, on Sunday affirmed the ability of mayors and other local officials to enact stricter lockdowns.

“If they choose to do so, I would applaud them for doing so,” Abbott said. “But at this time, it is not the appropriate approach to mandate that same strict standard across every area of the state.”

Asked by a reporter when officials estimate Texas will experience its peak in coronavirus cases, John Hellerstedt, commissioner of the Texas Department of State Health Services, said it depends on what actions people take today. Federal health officials are urging people to stay indoors, avoid gathering in groups of 10 or more, and wash hands frequently to stop the virus’ spread.

“It is a very fast, very steep rise, and that is the thing we want to prevent,” Hellerstedt said. “We want to slow it down so the peak comes later and lower.”

Last week, Abbott issued orders requiring bars and dining rooms in restaurants across Texas to close down and banning large gatherings. At the press conference, Texas Division of Emergency Management Chief Nim Kidd urged residents to follow the orders and stop hoarding food and household supplies.

“We need to quit the panic-buying, slow that down, and follow the governor’s orders,” Kidd said.

Hellerstedt said many Texas communities remain in their “early stages of community spread.”

“Now is the time,” Hellerstedt said. “We have the opportunity. If we do what we’ve been asked to do together, as Texans, we can have the opportunity to dramatically decrease the spread.”

On Sunday, the number of positive coronavirus in Bexar County rose to 45, six more than Saturday, according to the San Antonio Metropolitan Health District. Health officials on Thursday publicly confirmed that the virus was spreading from person to person in the city.

At the conference, Abbott announced that Keith Meiars, a senior vice president for procurement at Dell Technologies, and Clint Harp, an executive at the Lower Colorado River Authority, would join a State of Texas “strike force” focusing on procuring supplies from around the world and readying the health care system for an influx of cases.

Other members include John Zerwas, a doctor and former Republican Texas House member, who will coordinate with hospitals to provide additional hospital beds and staff, the governor said.

Elaine Mendoza, a San Antonio native and chair of the Texas A&M University System board of regents, will focus on expanding Texas’ day care capacity to provide adequate child care for doctors and nurses, Abbott said.

Abbott said he would be issuing two executive orders meant to free up hospitals to respond to the crisis. One directs hospitals to suspend any surgeries not deemed medically necessary, at doctors’ discretion. San Antonio-area hospitals have already agreed to suspend all nonessential surgeries and procedures.

Abbott also suspended some hospital regulations to allow hospitals to add a bed to some rooms. Some hospitals have indicated that they might be able to allocate 50 percent of their beds for coronavirus patients, Abbott said.

“Together, these orders will free up countless hospital beds across the state of Texas,” Abbott said.

On Friday, Abbott had waived some nursing regulations to allow graduate and vocational nurses who have yet to take the State license to begin practicing, along with students in their final year of nursing school. Abbott also fast-tracked permits for out-of-state medical professionals to work in Texas.

Last week, the governor activated the Texas National Guard to assist in the coronavirus response. On Sunday, Abbott said the Guard would be deployed to focus on increasing hospital and testing capacity by helping local authorities staff drive-thru testing stations and “standing up additional health care facilities.”

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Brendan Gibbons

Brendan Gibbons is a former senior reporter at the San Antonio Report. He serves as the assistant manager of the Greater Edwards Aquifer Alliance.