Counties respond, adapt to COVID-19 pandemic

5 reports on Chambers, Comal, Hidalgo, Knox and Tarrant counties

By Liz Carmack

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Soon after Texas logged its first case of COVID-19 on March 4, county officials across the state moved to slow the spread of the virus while continuing to serve the public.

In addition to the disaster declarations issued by President Donald Trump and Gov. Greg Abbott, many county judges issued their own orders governing their communities. (Abbott’s executive orders for reopening Texas superseded these orders.) Courthouses and other county buildings began restricting entry, and commissioners courts turned to communication technology to distance themselves from others while still holding public meetings. County clerks and other officials have adjusted operations to perform their constitutionally required duties while keeping county staff and residents safe.

This following five stories provide a snapshot of how some Texas counties are responding to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Knox County judge's COVID-19 videos go viral

When Knox County Judge Stan Wojcik imposed protective measures in March, the rumor mill kicked into gear. Residents’ frustrations with his disaster orders led to misinformation and unfounded accusations.

"Not everyone liked them," Wojcik said of his orders, which included limiting the number of customers in a business to 10 and requiring anyone who had traveled on commercial airlines to another country or U.S. city to quarantine for 14 days upon their return to the county.

Knox County Judge Stan Wojcik
Knox County Judge Stan Wojcik posts smartphone videos on the county's AgriLife Extension Service Facebook page. In his videos, he presents news about COVID-19, reports on the county's efforts to slow its spread and addresses community concerns.

Wojcik had never dabbled in social media, but he knew he needed a way to reach his constituents directly. The rural county (population 3,600) west of Fort Worth has only a weekly newspaper and no television or radio stations, so when county AgriLife Extension Agent Lorrie Coop showed him a Facebook video created by another local official and suggested that he do the same, he had a eureka moment.

"I said, 'What a great way to get the information out.' I wanted to give the people the information that concerns them, explain what the county was doing and what affected their lives," Wojcik said.

The result is eight short videos that share news about COVID-19, report on the county’s efforts to slow the spread and address concerns in the community. The videos have gone viral, and some have garnered more than 22,000 views and more than 500 shares.

In each video, Wojcik sits at his desk inside the courthouse and looks into the camera. Speaking off the cuff, he looks to be delivering a casual lunchtime talk to a local Rotary Club. An iPhone propped up by a stapler on a table captures his presentation.

"We're very high-tech," Wojcik said with a laugh. "Adapt and overcome. What you have is what you have."

Tarrant County clerk relies on business continuity plan

The Tarrant County clerk's office adapted quickly to the COVID-19 outbreak and the social distancing restrictions by relying on its business continuity plan.

"I was told a long time ago, 'If you fail to plan, you plan to fail,'" said Tarrant County Clerk Mary Louise Nicholson. "A well-designed business continuity plan becomes invaluable when a natural disaster like the COVID-19 pandemic forces you from your normal routines."

A Tarrant County Clerk's Office staff member slips processed paperwork to a customer through an office door slot. Photo: Courtesy Tarrant County Clerk's Office   The Tarrant County Clerk's Office uses a laptop and videoconferencing software in a room near clerk’s staff to check the identification of a customer while processing a couple's marriage license. Photo: Courtesy Tarrant County Clerk's Office

As county offices restricted public access during the immediate response to the pandemic, her office put its plan into action, she said. Steps included:

  • Consulting with the district attorney’s office to identify the county clerk's statutory duties during such a disaster.
  • Conducting an inventory of office hardware and software.
  • Collaborating with the county's information technology department.
  • Creating a communications plan that includes public service announcements, social media posts, news releases, public notice boards and internal staff messaging.

She said her office has learned the importance of internal and external communication during this time. In addition, her office is continually evaluating solutions for improvements and tweaking responses to changing needs.

Hidalgo County updates residents, helps those in need

To keep county employees and residents current, Hidalgo County shares COVID-19 information on its website and sends a newsy Hidalgo County Daily email to all staff and the local media, said Hidalgo County Public Affairs Division Director Carlos Sanchez.

Staff members from the office of Hidalgo County Commissioner Eduardo Cantu volunteer at the county's Community Service Agency and help process the increase in applications for assistance. Photo: Courtesy Hidalgo County   To help those sheltering in place during the outbreak, workers in the Hidalgo County commissioners' offices have delivered meals and care packages to the elderly and other vulnerable residents. This truck carries some of the 1,000 care packages delivered by the office of Commissioner Joe Flores. Photo: Courtesy Hidalgo County

The county also shares information on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, including COVID-19 case numbers and deaths in the county and the state, as well as testing locations and safety and financial assistance tips.

County commissioners and their staffs have delivered meals and care packages to the elderly and other vulnerable residents, and they have helped the county's Community Service Agency to process the onslaught of applications for utility assistance and other services.

Chambers County services react to pandemic

Chambers County departments have reacted to the spread of COVID-19 by ramping up work and modifying how they deliver services.

County Epidemiology Program staff members, tasked with disease surveillance and reporting, have kicked their operations into high gear.

Wearing a mask, April Knight, children's librarian at the Anahuac branch of the Chambers County Library System, provides curbside delivery of books to a patron. Photo: Courtesy Chambers County   The Chambers County Epidemiology Team includes, back row from left, investigators Ashli Fletcher, Kevin Crump, Sarah Johnston and Lena Turner, as well as, front row, Public Health Services Director Mary Beth Bess. Photo: Courtesy Chambers County

The team helps coordinate the testing of residents for COVID-19, keeps track of the results and performs contact tracing. They work with residents who’ve tested positive to determine where they have been and with whom they have come into contact with.

The Chambers County Library System initially shut its three branches under County Judge Jimmy Sylvia’s orders but reopened for drive-thru service on May 4.

Library staff members have helped patrons by phone, through email and over social media. They’ve provided temporary library cards, waived all late fees and unblocked expired cards. "We want people to have access to our resources because we know how important that is, especially at a time like this," said County Librarian Valerie Jensen. "We also have our Wi-Fi available at each of our three branches 24/7 so people can park in the parking lot and use it. Many people don’t even have that luxury at home."

Preparation pays off for Comal County Public Health

In early January, as COVID-19 began to take hold in Wuhan, China, the Comal County Public Health office was keeping a close eye on the virus’s spread and starting to plan for its arrival.

Before the county saw its first case on March 18, the office hosted a COVID-19 tabletop planning exercise with 58 community partners, including school districts, hospitals, nursing homes, businesses, first responders, utilities and others. It also put an emergency plan in place to respond to the pandemic.

"Our process for the screening, isolation and quarantine of confirmed or suspected cases of COVID-19 was actually drafted about a week after the first U.S. case in late January, before the federal travel bans or the official declaration of a public health emergency by the World Health Organization," said Public Health Director Cheryl Fraser. "We began preparing with our local hospitals and health care partners very early in the outbreak."

Knox County Judge Stan Wojcik
Comal County Director of Public Health Cheryl Fraser and Deputy Shawn Trevino show one of the testing methods, called serum antibody testing, for COVID-19. In the background is Public Health Emergency Preparedness Coordinator Gentrea Hendrickson. Photo: Laura Skelding

In response to the virus, the office collaborated with local physicians, county and city officials, first responders and laboratories to offer the community drive-through virus testing. It has also provided N95 masks to first responders and personal protection equipment to primary care offices. In line with local disaster orders, it has issued shelter-in-place and social distancing guidance for residents and answered more than 2,000 COVID-19 hotline calls.

Office staff members are performing extensive contact-tracing investigations to pinpoint people who may have been infected. The geographic information systems team is helping to provide data that is used, along with other information, to update COVID-19 statistics and locations daily on the county website.

"The goal of these reports is to gather disparate data from various sources and put it together in an easy format for our health care personnel, first responders and local leadership to use in their decision-making," Fraser said.

"Our county officials, the Comal County office of Public Health staff, our emergency management coordinator and our public information officer have been working long hours, nights and weekends to ensure that the public is protected during the COVID-19 pandemic," she said.

County staff members continue to provide essential services to the public during the outbreak. Many are working from home, and those who come into the office follow best practices as outlined by the Public Health office.

Fraser said that the office's planning has paid off and that she expects it will continue to be fruitful.

"Over the past year, we have also been revising our points of distribution, or POD, plans," she said. "These plans can be used to help direct the distribution of vaccines for COVID-19 when they become available."