AUSTIN — Testing, sanitizing and emergency food benefits increased as Texas entered its third month of fighting the COVID-19 pandemic.


Notably, Gov. Greg Abbott released a statement concerning an outbreak of the deadly coronavirus in Amarillo, where more than 700 cases were reported on May 16. The report came after the governor's Surge Response Teams conducted site surveys and testing in high-risk areas, including meat-packing facilities in the Amarillo area. Two more weeks of testing would be conducted in high-risk areas, Abbott said.


Abbott on May 13 announced that Texas National Guard disinfection teams operating in coordination with the Texas Department of State Health Services have been deployed to help limit the spread of the deadly coronavirus in nursing homes.


Major Gen. Tracy R. Norris, adjutant general of Texas National Guard, said each of the six teams on duty across the state received training from the Texas Military Department’s 6th Civil Support Team, which specializes in manmade and natural disaster assessment and rapid response in hazardous environments.


The Texas National Guard also fights the COVID-19 pandemic by providing personal protective equipment manufacturing support, food bank support, mobile COVID-19 testing and points of distribution for essential items.


Last week, as more Texans increased public activities, official data showed COVID-19 is not contained. On May 17, cumulative figures posted by the Texas Department of State Health Services showed that some 47,784 people in Texas had been diagnosed with COVID-19 and 1,336 deaths resulting from the influenza-like virus had been confirmed.


Order: Test nursing homes


Abbott on May 11 directed the Texas Health and Human Services Commission, the Texas Division of Emergency Management and the Texas Department of State Health Services to test 100% of residents and staff in Texas nursing homes. The collaboration of those agencies, Abbott said, would "ensure that any potential clusters of COVID-19 cases in nursing homes are quickly detected and contained."


Food benefits announced


Abbott on May 12 announced that the Texas Health and Human Services Commission received approval from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to provide more than $1 billion in food benefits through the federal Pandemic Electronic Benefit Transfer program to families with children who have temporarily lost access to free or discounted school meals due to COVID-19-related school closures.


The program, to be administered through the state health department, the Texas Department of Agriculture and Texas Education Agency, provides a one-time benefit of $285 per child. The benefit can be used in the same way as Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) food benefits to pay for groceries. Visit hhs.texas.gov/pebt to learn more.


Hospitals receive antiviral drug


The Texas Department of State Health Services, with FDA approval, on May 12 distributed 1,200 vials of the antiviral drug remdesivir to hospitals to treat patients with COVID-19.


Clinical trials of the antiviral drug reportedly have sped up by several days the recovery time of COVID-19 patients. Remdesivir was provided to the DSHS by the federal government from a supply donated by Gilead, the manufacturer.


Hospitals in these cities received shipments of remdesivir: Amarillo, Austin, Corpus Christi, Dallas, El Paso, Fort Worth, Houston, Laredo, Lubbock, McAllen, Odessa, San Antonio, Tyler and Waco.


Mail-in ballots thwarted


Texans who wanted to vote by mail to reduce their exposure to COVID-19 still must go to their polling place if they plan to cast an election ballot, pursuant to a stay granted by the Texas Supreme Court on May 15.


In effect, the stay accepts an argument lodged by Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, who said Texas law prohibits a registered voter who is not disabled, not over age 65 and not an absentee from voting by mail-in ballot. Paxton said Texans should not be allowed to vote by mail merely because they fear contracting the deadly coronavirus if they must vote in person.


Texas Democratic Party Chair Gilberto Hinojosa issued a statement in response to the high court’s action, saying, “This is a dark day for our democracy. The Republican Texas Supreme Court is wrong to force the people of Texas to choose between their health and their right to vote. They would have Texans die, just so they can hold on to power.”


Sales tax holidays set


Texas Comptroller Glenn Hegar last week promoted the state’s Water-Efficient Products and ENERGY STARŪ sales tax holidays, May 23-25.


“Inefficient appliances and outdated water systems put a tremendous strain on our power grids and water supplies,” Hegar said. “Even in these uncertain times, Texans can take advantage of this sales tax holiday to buy more energy-efficient items, support local businesses and save money. You can practice social distancing and other precautionary measures when shopping in person or shop online. Qualifying products are tax free.”


More information is available at comptroller.texas.gov.


Ed Sterling is director of member services for the Texas Press Association.