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County residents have attended super-spreader “secret parties,” EMS Chief says
Faced with coronavirus statistics and contact tracing survey results from the beginning of the holiday season, La Salle County commissioners agreed Monday, December 7, to renew their emergency order and to put a total ban on all family and group gathering known as super-spreader events.
In a brief statement relayed via a prepared statement to the commissioners’ court this week, County Health Authority Dr. Gregory Roth said he believes there is a need for local government action in preventing the spread of the coronavirus.
“I am not a fan of government restrictions,” Dr. Roth wrote in his message to the court, which was read by County Judge Joel Rodriguez, “but this is a high-risk time.” He added a recommendation that commissioners consider imposing new restrictions on group gathering until the end of January.
“People are not staying quarantined,” the county judge said, telling commissioners that he believes a number of county residents who have tested positive for COVID-19 are ignoring health and safety guidelines and are leaving their homes when they should be isolated.
La Salle County is reporting that it added more than 30 new cases of coronavirus contagion to its tally last week alone, and that free testing provided before and after the Thanksgiving holiday supports the new data but does not include any contagion that may have occurred during the holiday weekend itself. Those numbers, according to La Salle Fire Rescue & EMS Chief Daniel Mendez, are expected within the next week.
Free coronavirus testing in Cotulla on three occasions during the past month recorded visitor numbers of 104, 129 and 110, with flu shots being offered on the last day. Additional flu shots remain available; City Hall has indicated it may schedule an additional vaccination day.
Commissioners were told that Cotulla ISD had ordered as many as 84 students into quarantine after test results showed at least 14 were positive for the coronavirus. Contact tracing and research into those with whom the infected students had spent time resulted in the recommendation that siblings and close associates be isolated.
Mendez echoed the county health authority and county judge in warning that numbers of coronavirus cases in La Salle County are expected to rise because many residents continue meeting in groups or attending events at which the virus is being spread.
“All cases of coronavirus that we have found so far went back to exposure before Thanksgiving,” the fire chief said on Monday. “We expect the numbers to rise from the Thanksgiving holiday and then decrease, before they rise again after Christmas and New Year’s.
“You can expect a significant number of cases in the new year,” Mendez told commissioners. “Our contact tracing all led back to mass gatherings, super-spreader events. People have been going to birthday parties, or they have held secret parties.”
The county judge said he believes La Salle may take its cue from urban counties such as Bexar, where new restrictions are being considered, including a return to reduced occupancy limits at restaurants and other businesses, notably those with dine-in service.
Government entities enacting new restrictions that do not match recommendations from the Texas governor may need to file applications for the stiffer regulations, Rodriguez said.
Failure by La Salle County residents to heed health and safety recommendations, according to the judge, may force local government’s hand and may require stricter enforcement action by the county sheriff’s office.
“When you trace someone and ask them to quarantine, and you don’t have a sheriff’s officer with you, they aren’t going to quarantine,” Rodriguez said.
“One of our concerns is that families gather, they have parties, and then they call us the next day and ask what to do because they were exposed to the virus,” the fire chief said. “People need to take self accountability. Yes, there is a light at the end of the tunnel; we just have to work towards it.”
“It has a ripple effect,” the county judge said of virus contagion, cautioning that he believes families should take the risk seriously and heed recommendations. “Eighty-four students are quarantined, but they could be spreading it at home. Children are children; they like to touch and hug.”
“The school district has been doing very well,” Chief Mendez said. “Our issue is incidents such as parents who are on their way to a COVID test still taking kids to school. With one child positive in the home, everybody needs to quarantine. We know that’s not being followed.”
The fire chief said his staff have been met with mixed reactions by county residents in contact tracing or in quarantine order.
“Thirty percent of people are not talking to us,” Mendez said. “They hang up the phone or they slam and bolt the door. That’s a challenge we are facing.”
“You may have to hang a notice on the door,” the county judge said.
“We are getting a lot of anonymous messages, by phone or on social media, about people who should be quarantining but aren’t,” Chief Mendez said of the community’s feedback to first responders. “When there are fifty-four active cases, and each one of those has four, five or six additional family members in the household, it’s a daunting task.”
Mendez added that no recent contact tracing has led back to virus contagion at bars, funerals or game parlors. Those who attended funerals at which they believed they had been in contact with potential virus carriers voluntarily quarantined themselves, Mendez said, and none showed symptoms of the illness.
The recommended quarantine time is 14 days, as per guidelines from the US Centers for Disease Control (CDC), a recommendation supported by Dr. Roth.
Mendez asked commissioners to review their county policy regarding the circumstances under which a recovered or post-quarantine subject may return to work. The fire chief said the county government should bear in mind that a person recovering from the coronavirus may continue to test positive for the virus for as much as three months. He said commissioners should consider Dr. Roth’s recommendation that a return-to-work policy be based on a 14-day quarantine and the patient not showing signs or having symptoms of coronavirus contagion.
The fire chief also supported a policy change banning all mass gatherings regardless of special permits.
“What can we do differently now?” Judge Rodriguez asked before amending the county’s emergency order.
“We are doing everything we can do,” Chief Mendez said. “A lot of this comes back on the community. Be responsible.
“There is a ‘COVID fatigue,’ but people really need to start listening,” Mendez said. “Follow the guidelines, masking, don’t meet family, don’t have parties.
“Vaccines are on the horizon,” he added. “We are going to get it done as quickly as possible. Probably by next May we can be back to somewhat normal.”
Both Mendez and Judge Rodriguez said they expect La Salle County to follow a state-mandated vaccination plan under which emergency responders, healthcare providers and those at nursing homes are among the first to be protected when vaccines are made available. Those with underlying medical conditions will be given priority in the second stage of the plan.
“It will probably be April, May or June before all citizens have it,” Mendez said. “The governor isn’t going to make it mandatory, but I’m going to take it. I’m not scared of it.”
When vaccines become available and refrigerated storage is made accessible, the estimated 20,000 healthcare workers in the region will be the first to receive the shots, Mendez said, and supplies of the vaccine will be distributed equally across the region.
The county judge said he believes La Salle may not receive its portion of the vaccine supplies as early as has been indicated.
“It took us four or five months to get masks,” Judge Rodriguez said. “Bigger counties spend more money. Even when we did everything right, we still got bumped off. And we may get bumped off again. Small communities get pushed down the list.”
Commissioners were unanimous in their support of an extension to the county’s emergency order, which reiterates the need to follow health and safety guidelines, bans all mass gatherings and voids any permits for such events, continuing through the first week of January. Curfews are likewise renewed, and businesses are instructed to maintain social-distancing recommendations and continue requiring mask use.
“We are going to reach out to the governor, to see what we can do,” the county judge said. “If the numbers don’t go down, he is going to be forced to take action.”