Snapshots from the past year

Cooking without power, helping the homeless with care packages and staying safe with germ-killing robots

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The past year has been a challenge for Texas counties. The state has been hit by multiple waves of the coronavirus and was shaken in February by historic winter storms, which led to a loss of power and water to millions of Texans. Officials have had to pivot, duck and rebound to protect the lives and livelihoods of their constituents. The following reports are three snapshots exemplifying how counties have sought to improvise, adapt and overcome.

Hidalgo County

In South Texas, Hidalgo County Judge Richard Cortez teamed up with commissioners, Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service, and other county, city and school officials to offer the Cooking School for Emergencies. The four classes, one in each county precinct, covered how to cook safely during a power outage.

Cortez, who served as the chief chef, said, “We had a hurricane, flooding, the freeze, and God knows what else is going to happen. So we want to make sure we try to be as prepared as we can.”

The school showed how to keep families fed for up to three days during a disaster by using a chafing dish to sauté vegetables or to boil potatoes or eggs. The chefs offered several recipes, including nopalitos (or green beans can be substituted) with tomatoes, onions, garlic and onions, and a jicama tortilla filled with black beans, corn, onion, bell pepper and tomatoes.

The county fire marshal’s office also warned about the dangers of cooking indoors. Fire marshal investigator Robert Chavez said that cooking with propane, butane and natural gas raises the risk of carbon monoxide poisoning. “Ventilation is going to be key,” he said. Open all the windows in the kitchen and some on the other side of the house, Chavez said.

El Paso County

In West Texas, the El Paso County constables were called upon to help with traffic control during COVID-19 vaccination clinics and to support an initiative by the emergency services district to vaccinate the homeless. During the initiative, Precinct 1 Constable Oscar Ugarte said he and his deputies kept hearing, “Hey, can you get us some food?”

Ugarte contacted El Pasoans Fighting Hunger, and his office and the food bank started Care Package Mondays. Now, while out on their regular patrols, the constables deliver 80-90 bags a week to the intersections where there are homeless populations, Ugarte said. One week they hand out just food items — canned meat, chips, juice, and macaroni and cheese — and the next week it’s food and hygiene products, including toothbrushes, toothpaste and combs, Ugarte said. “Now they kind of expect us,” he said.


DeWitt County

Near the start of the pandemic, DeWitt County Sheriff Carl Bowen went looking for ways to keep his department and jail safe. While checking to see what devices hospitals use, the sheriff came upon a San Antonio company that makes a purple-domed, germ-zapping robot, which bears a passing resemblance to R2-D2 of “Star Wars.” These machines, known as LightStrikes, are made by Xenex Disinfection Services and use a xenon lamp to emit ultraviolet light, flashing at 67 times per second, to disinfect surfaces and neutralize viruses and bacteria, including the COVID-19 pathogen. They are not for use on people.

Since he started using two of the robots, named Ruby and Katelyn, the sheriff said, he has had no cases of COVID-19 in the jail and no cases of the flu this year. “They have done a remarkable job,” Bowen said. He also noted that the jail has boosted cleaning by trusty work crews, altered intake protocols and installed air ionizers. In addition, fate could have played a part in his good fortune. “You cannot discount luck,” the sheriff said.

The sheriff used money in the jail commissary fund, which must be used to benefit inmates, to purchase the two machines, which cost $86,000 a piece, he said. The robots have saved money overall, Bowen said, because staff and inmate medical expenses are down. He expects to continue using the machines after the pandemic passes.

The robots can also be found in the state Capitol — six in the House and six in the Senate. Another can be found at the San Antonio International Airport; it is known as the SAT Terminator. And if you go looking for R2-Clean2, it’s working in a Massachusetts hospital. (The Germinator is there too.)