Community adapts to social distancing

Local businesses and residents are adjusting to a temporary new way of life after a fast-paced week culminated in new challenges and restrictions in the state’s fight against COVID-19.
With community spread of the novel coronavirus that has impacted the world now evident in Texas, Governor Greg Abbott issued a sweeping order Thursday, March 19, to shut down schools, restaurant dining areas, gyms and bars to try and slow the spread of COVID-19.
This is the first public health disaster declared in the state since 1901, when a quarantine was issued to stop the spread of smallpox.
Abbott’s executive order prohibits public gatherings of more than 10 people, closes all nursing homes and retirement centers to visitation unless for medical care, limits restaurants to takeout only, closes bars, gyms and massage parlors, and shuts down all schools. It will be in effect through Friday, April 3, unless it is extended.
Dr. John Hellerstedt, commissioner of the Department of State Health Services, also declared a public health disaster in Texas and called COVID-19 “the greatest public health challenge in living memory.”
As of Sunday, March 22, Hill County did not have any confirmed cases of the virus, but Ellis, Johnson and McLennan counties were reporting cases. Because very little testing is available locally, and testing has been sparse throughout the state, local officials stressed that the lack of a confirmed local case does not mean that the virus has not already made it to Hill County.
“The virus, I believe, is already in our community,” said Hill County Judge Justin Lewis.
Goodall-Witcher and Whitney Medical Urgent Care reported that they had begun offering limited testing last week, but widespread testing was still not available as the week began, and only those who met certain criteria were being administered tests.
“It’s not that the doctors don’t want to (test), it’s because they can’t get their hands on these tests,” Lewis said.
Private doctors have struggled to obtain any of the limited number of tests that are available. The judge said that this was due, in part, to the fact that the minimum order last week was 9,800 kits. “That’s a bit of a financial hurdle,” Lewis said.
In what he said was a proactive move to position Hill County to receive the maximum amount of support available to manage the stress on its healthcare infrastructure and economy, Lewis issued a County Judge Declaration of Local State of Disaster Due to Public Health Emergency Thursday, March 19.
Lewis said that this action will make the county eligible to receive reimbursements for any expenses incurred as it moves forward through this situation.
Bosque County also declared a disaster, and many local cities, including Whitney, issued their own disaster declarations following the governor’s action.
Hill County released its action plan, which is comprised of three phases that encourage increasing measures of social distancing, early last week, but as the situation became more serious and the state issued its declaration, local officials said that they would enforce the governor’s order.
“We appreciate everyone who is voluntarily following the CDC guidelines for hygiene and social distancing, and we cannot emphasize enough how important compliance with these guidelines are to limit the spread of COVID-19,” Judge Lewis said. “Please continue your vigilance and help take care of any of our neighbors who fall into the most vulnerable populations susceptible to this illness.”
While the situation is rapidly changing as testing increases, as of the latest numbers released prior to press time Sunday, there were 334 confirmed cases and five deaths in the state.
Lewis, who is conducting daily calls with state health officials along with a county team that has been assembled, said the goal at this point is to lower the rate of new daily infections of COVID-19 and help stabilize the situation.
“This is a very real virus that kills very real people. Family members of ours are going to be exposed to this, and people in our community are going to be exposed,” the judge said. “With all that doom and gloom being said, 80 percent of the people who get this will have a bad couple of days and they’re going to be alright.”
Most people contracting the virus can be cared for at home with only mild symptoms occurring. People are being asked to treat at home when possible, but those who feel medical attention is warranted are asked to contact their health care provider to receive instructions about where to go and how to proceed. This is essential to help minimize exposure for others.
The county is forming a plan to provide assistance for those who may be quarantined while stricken with the virus. “If you’re quarantined, you’re not a burden on us,” the judge said. “We’ll figure out how to get food and medicine to you. We’re going to be able to accomplish those things in our community. We always pull together in our times of need.”
Many local businesses are modifying their services and offering options such as curbside delivery, drive-through and online ordering to comply with the federal social distancing guidelines. Local officials are encouraging the community to continue supporting local businesses in these ways as they remain flexible to serve residents.
Some grocery stores have reduced their hours to allow employees to restock as shoppers clear certain items, most notably toilet tissue and other staples, from shelves. Local and state officials have emphasized that this type of shopping is unnecessary.
“There is no reason to panic,” Lewis said. “Our supply chains have plenty.”
Local stores have been struggling to keep specific items stocked, and brand loyalty has been the last thing on shoppers’ minds as they search for items on their lists. But while finding certain products has been difficult, local grocery store managers emphasized that the overall supply is strong, and there is plenty of food to go around.
Bobby Riney, manager of Brookshire Brothers (David’s) in Whitney, said that deliveries are still coming but shoppers are clearing shelves of certain items as soon as they are stocked.
“People are panicking like there’s no food,” he said. “We are not running out of food. There’s plenty of food.”
Stores that had full warehouses when panic buying started quickly emptied them to meet local demand, and extra drivers are being hired by grocery chains to speed up deliveries to individual locations.
Smaller stores are experiencing similar rushes on newly-stocked products, but they also said that they were getting everything that they needed—just not quickly enough to meet the suddenly increased demand.
“We are still getting deliveries as normal and we are still getting everything we need,” said Sheila Stout, manager of the Dollar General location on FM 1713 near Whitney. “The customers are just buying it all before we can even get it stocked.”
Stores stressed that until people start shopping normally, the temporary shortages are not going to improve.
Hill County schools have announced closures through at least April 3, and each district was contacting families about getting lessons to students and meal availability during the closure.
Lewis said that the county has assembled a team to monitor the situation, compile information and provide updates to the public on a regular basis. The most current information can be found on the Hill County website or on the Hill County Emergency Management Facebook page. The county will also provide regular updates to Hill County media outlets.
The county also has an emergency notification system. To sign up to receive phone call, text or email updates as warranted, you can register with the Hill County Emergency Notification System. Visit the Office of Emergency Management website at http://www.hilloem.com, scroll to the bottom of the home page, and click on emergency alerts. Follow the prompts to set up your account.