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Extinguishing McLennan County COVID-19 'hotspot' would require 'culture of willingness,' local experts say

McLennan County remains a COVID-19 hotspot, and experts say it will take more than masks alone to change that.

The county avoided a worse outbreak of COVID-19 early on, but as of a July 14 White House Coronavirus Task Force report, it and the city of Waco remained areas of high concern, the county showing more than 100 cases per 100,000 residents and a testing positivity rate of more than 10%, the latter standing closer to 20%. The county has seen 35 residents die of COVID-19 so far, and another 72 residents had tested positive as of Saturday, a total of 3,957.

Dr. Rodney Richie, a pulmonologist who has practiced in Waco and parts of the Midwest, said the race to contain the disease was over before it started in the United States.

“Of course it starts at the top,” Richie said. “There should have been national leadership that was lacking, but at the very least we needed the states to impress upon people the need for wearing masks, and that’s been slower to come on.”

Richie said the key to fighting viral infections is to identify and diagnose each infected person and then to find everyone who came in contact with the infected person. But that strategy only works when the process plays out much more quickly than McLennan County, or any county in the nation in Richie’s opinion, has managed.

“First of all, you need an adequate number of tests, you’ve got to get them in a very short period of time, and you have to have enough contact people,” Richie said. “We didn’t meet any of those criteria.”

Contact tracing is most effective if test results come back within 48 hours, but becomes less so after that point as the infected person potentially comes in contact with more and more people.

“This never worked for this infection, and so what we saw was overwhelming infection, starting in New York,” Richie said.

By last month, Waco-McLennan County Public Health District officials said they had identified family “clusters” that accounted for many of the local cases. By earlier this month, they had identified more than 20 such clusters. Officials in neighboring Bell County saw similar spread among people who were well-acquainted.

“Close contacts, close friends, we’ve seen individuals that work together in close quarters become clusters. That’s very typical,” Bell County Health Authority Dr. Janice Smith said during a press conference last week.

Bell County has joined McLennan County in requiring K-12 schools to postpone in-person instruction until next month. Smith said a “community effort” is the only way to reverse the course of the virus’ spread.

“I think we are seeing some improvement in the last few days and I think part of that is that we’re finally, finally wearing masks and appreciating the social distancing. We’re farther out from holidays that bring people together,” Smith said. “But if people want their kids back in school, they really, really need to follow the guidelines. That’s the only way this is going to work.”

The other method of containing the virus would involve more shelter-in-place orders or other forms of enforced isolation. The city of Waco enacted shelter-in-place orders and closed nonessential businesses in March, along with other hard hit areas like Harris County and Dallas County. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott followed with a statewide stay-home order in early April, then started reopening businesses by executive order April 27, eventually including in-store retail and dine-in restaurants. Abbott allowed bars to reopen later on but has since reversed course.

It can take as long as two weeks for an infected person to show symptoms, meaning the effects of a decision like reopening businesses or the city’s mask order become apparent only after a matter of weeks, with lagging pursuit of treatment and lagging return of test results delaying evidence of the effects even further. Richie said the initial closing of businesses might have worked too well, giving McLennan County residents a false sense of security. Reopening in late May and early June just felt like a return to normal.

“I think Mayor (Kyle) Deaver did a really nice job of closing us up early and completely, but I think the governor was just encouraging people to open up,” Richie said. “In my opinion right now the golden key that’s going to allow us to open up is mask-wearing.”

Masks, a safety measure that quickly became politically fraught, would greatly reduce the spread if everyone wore them. When combined with social distancing, a focus on avoiding enclosed indoor areas and proper use of masks to cover both the mouth and nose could make a major difference.

Richie has been giving guidance to Vanguard College Preparatory School, advising them to open windows and doors and run fans to circulate air as much as possible. But the rooms of most modern school buildings lack windows that open.

“Any indoor setting is going to be problematic,” Richie said.

Even a small breeze is enough to dissipate aerosol droplets in the air carrying the virus, he said.

Richie said masks might be the only way to avoid widespread infection and a more drastic shutdown and shelter-in-place order.

“Practically, masks are going to be the best thing until we have vaccines, assuming vaccines work, which, at that point, is a big question mark,” Richie said.

Richie said RNA viruses, the category the novel coronavirus and influenza viruses fall into, are more prone to mutation than their DNA counterparts.

“My concern is we’re working toward a vaccine based on a virus that was elicited out of Wuhan … but in another six months or nine months it’s conceivable the virus may mutate and no longer be affected by vaccines designed by the original virus,” Richie said.

White House Coronavirus Task Force image 

According to a White House document dated July 14 and obtained by the Center for Public Integrity, 11 states, including Texas, are in the “red zone” for test positivity, meaning more than 10% of diagnostic test results came back positive in the previous week. McLennan County and Waco are listed as "red zone" localities in the report.

Richie said the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention initially was slow to let other American researchers work on their own tests, instead deciding initially to rely on its own tests, which later turned out to be faulty.

In addition, early testing was also restricted to people who had traveled abroad or people who had been in contact with someone who had tested positive, a limitation Richie said proved to be a “huge mistake.”

“Now we’re at the very sad situation of these longs lines of cars that wait six and eight hours to get a test, and it’s just all totally worthless if you don’t get a result back in 24 or 48 hours,” Richie said. “The person doesn’t know what to do. The doctor doesn’t know what to do. You really need a fast response.”

Waco Family Health Center CEO Dr. Jackson Griggs said for McLennan County to get back to pre-June levels of spread would take a drastic change in behavior.

“I think we’re aiming for mitigation of spread, containment when possible in the highest risk areas, but in large part we’re just trying to change behaviors so the virus will slowly decrease in incidence,” Griggs said. “If there was widespread, wholehearted adoption of the kind of behavior change that we’ve been discussing I think we would see a really sizable decrease in the incidents of disease.”

Griggs said getting McLennan County back to the number of infections the county had before the June spike would take a near-universal adoption of safety measures. Individuals would have to fully commit to avoiding contact with members of other households and to wearing masks, and businesses would have to ensure employees are not exposed to contact with the general public for long periods of time. Enclosed spaces would need continual ventilation.

“I think there’s a finite amount of emotional willpower in any community to make widespread behavior change,” Griggs said. “I don’t know that we have yet summoned all of our capacity to make those changes, but I do see a strong effort being made by many and that makes me hopeful.”

Griggs said a less universal effort would still help to contain the spread, but would not be as effective.

“We can keep things very steady, but we may still see a fair number of new cases every day for the foreseeable future,” Griggs said. “To get to where we don’t see new cases every day, we need near-universal adherence to a shared community culture and safety, a culture of willingness to adopt behavior change to protect the vulnerable.”

Griggs said he would estimate McLennan County residents should be tested for the virus at about double the rate they are currently being tested. Even more tests would be required for a proper containment strategy, but he said the resources are not available for that.

“If behavior change happens and prevalence goes down, the number of tests you have to do also goes down,” Griggs said. “It’s a moving target, and it’s not linear. It’s multiplicative.”

The number of tests being performed hinges on the availability of the tests themselves and whether people can afford them, willingness to participate, and an existing infrastructure to distribute the tests.

“America has lacked the infrastructure for widespread community testing, it’s lacked access to tests, which involves a supply chain … and it’s lacked the widespread culture that this is important and that people need to come get tested,” Griggs said. “For containment, we’d need to be testing asymptomatic people. Why haven’t we had a widespread asymptomatic testing strategy in Waco-McLennan County? Well, because across the state and country there’s not infrastructure for that, and only a certain portion of the population would consider it worthwhile to support public health to get a swab stuck halfway into their brain.”

Cases involving deadly Highway 6 curve getting fresh look after repairs appear to reduce danger

Every time it rained, Jacob May listened for the frightening, tell-tale sounds of another car hydroplaning and skidding off the dangerous portion of State Highway 6 that locals call “Dead Man’s Curve.”

May lives on a hill about a mile south of Riesel in Falls County and has a bird’s-eye view of what he calls one of the most dangerous stretches of highway he has ever encountered. He, and many times his 21-year-old son, Brennen, ran from the warmth of their home into rain-soaked ditches to help motorists who rounded the banked bend in the highway, hit a water-filled dip in the roadway and started careening out of control.

On at least three horrific occasions since 2016, they have encountered fatal accidents there, including the death of a 30-year-old mother of six in June 2019 in a wreck involving a Baylor University football player and the death of Falls County Sheriff’s Deputy Matt Jones four months later in the same spot.

Staff photo — Rod Aydelotte  

Northbound Highway 6 in Falls County, just south of Riesel.

While the Texas Department of Transportation added signs last year and resurfaced the roadway this spring, May says the dangerous spot was well known to officials with TxDOT and law enforcement and should have been dealt with sooner. May reported the hazardous conditions a few years ago when a speeding driver came around the corner, saw a school bus stopped on the side of the roadway and swerved, forcing another car in the adjacent lane to slam into the back of the bus.

May contacted TxDOT after the wreck with the bus, but he said nothing was done to alleviate the situation. Since then, he has responded to so many accidents there after hearing tires spinning or metal crunching that he should be known as the good Samaritan of Dead Man’s Curve.

May, a 39-year-old grounds supervisor at Texas State Technical College in Waco, said whenever it rained, at least five cars would slide off the roadway in that location just below their home on the northbound side of State Highway 6. Most get back on the roadway on their own and continue their journey. Others need a push from May and his son to get out of the ditch, while many others with damage to their vehicles require the assistance of the local tow truck driver, whom May has gotten to know quite well.

Staff photo — Rod Aydelotte  

Jacob May, (from right) Jackie Niles and Brennen May at their house overlooking Highway 6 south of Riesel, where they have helped motorists who skidded off the road there for years.

May estimates 90 to 95 percent of accidents caused by the roadway were not reported to law enforcement because there were no injuries, no damage and the motorists simply got back on the road and drove on.

Still, enough were reported, including the fatalities, that TxDOT should have acted sooner, May and his girlfriend, Jackie Niles, said, lamenting that they think it took the death of Deputy Jones to force improvements to the roadway. Since the upgrades, there has not been a single wreck in that spot caused by roadway conditions, May said.

“They didn’t do nothing until the deputy got killed, which is sad,” May said. “But I guess that is just how it is. We can be mad until we are blue in the face, but nothing happened until one of their own got killed, and that is sad. The road has been repaired since then and we have not seen any accidents since this road has been fixed. And it has rained since then and people are still driving just the same crazy way that they did, so as the old saying goes, the proof is in the pudding.”

TxDOT spokesperson Jake Smith said the agency put up $40,000 worth of signs warning travelers to slow down for the curve. He also said plans to improve the roadway between Riesel and Marlin had been on the drawing board for two years, adding that such large projects take time to come to fruition.

Armed with that new information provided by May and his family, and after speaking with law enforcement and others about the dangerous nature of the roadway, Falls County District Attorney Jody Gilliam last week dismissed manslaughter charges against Baylor University football player Logan Compton in the June 2019 wreck in which Hermaleen Haney, 30, of Granbury, was killed.

A Falls County grand jury indicted Compton, a freshman tight end-defensive end who played at Tomball High School, less than two weeks after Deputy Jones was killed and Riesel Police Chief Danny Krumnow suffered serious injuries after a driver hydroplaned and slid into them while the officers were working an earlier wreck in the same spot.

Logan Compton photo  


Gilliam said she thinks dismissing the case is the right thing to do despite the fact that the “black box” in Compton’s 2008 Dodge Ram pickup truck showed he was driving 86 mph in a 75 mph zone when he lost control on the slick road, slid across the median and struck the car driven by Haney.

As officers from different agencies who responded to the fatal crash huddled to discuss the incident, the investigating DPS trooper can be heard on his body camera warning the others to be careful because he said he worked six wrecks at that location the last time it rained. Among the officers working the crash that day was Jones, the 30-year-old Falls County deputy who would be killed four months later at the same location.

Eerily, Krumnow, who is fighting through his multiple injuries to get back to work, issued a similar warning to Jones in October, seconds before the out-of-control vehicle skidded off the roadway and slammed into the officers. Krumnow, who underwent knee reconstruction surgery two week ago, can be heard on video warning the deputy that they are standing in a very bad location for wrecks.

Gilliam said despite her decision to dismiss Compton’s charges, she plans to present his case to a grand jury again Aug. 10 with the additional evidence she has learned about the roadway conditions since his first indictment and possible testimony from May and Niles. She also hopes to present the case involving Jones’ death to the grand jury on the same day. The driver in that case, Michael Palmer, of Fort Worth, has not been arrested but has been named in lawsuits involving the wreck.

While declining to discuss specific evidence in Compton’s case, Gilliam said the new information about the road, from May and others, could call causation issues into question.

“I made a decision to re-present the case to a grand jury with the additional knowledge that the road may have played a major factor,” Gilliam said. “Was Mr. Compton at fault or was the road at fault? The neighbors have provided additional evidence. We were aware of the wrecks. We were aware that there were other accidents and that was a bad spot, but the neighbors reported much more. And since the road has been fixed, the neighbors say there has not been one single, solitary car slide off the road, and that was the thing that was important to me. It tends to make it look like the road could be a fault.”

Since the dismissal of the charge, Baylor has approved Compton’s request to return to school this fall, Compton’s lawyer, Cody Cleveland, said. Cleveland said Compton was so affected by the accident that he has been receiving counseling for post traumatic stress and survivor guilt and has had the date of the crash tattooed on his chest in Roman numerals as a forever reminder of the tragic incident.

Cleveland said Gilliam is doing the right thing. He thanked her for reevaluating the evidence.

“What happened on Highway 6 last June was a tragedy that could have, and should have, been avoided,” Cleveland said. “A family lost a loved one, and 18-year-old Logan Compton was arrested and charged with manslaughter, all due to a road defect locals had warned authorities about for years.

Haney family photo 

H. Haney was killed along the stretch of Highway 6 south of Riesel that has seen multiple fatalities in recent years.

“Just four months after Mr. Compton’s accident, Highway 6 claimed the life of a Falls County deputy and seriously injured a local chief of police. It wasn’t until a law enforcement officer was killed that the state finally took action to repair the roadway. Since those repairs were completed last December, not one single accident has occurred in that location. If those repairs had been ordered after a fatal crash in 2016, both Hermaleen Haney and Deputy Matt Jones would be alive with their families today,” Cleveland said.

In a statement approved by Baylor, Compton thanked his family, Cleveland, friends and Baylor for their love and support.

“The events of June 16, 2019, have haunted all of those involved for over a year,” Compton said. “Not a day has gone by that I haven’t thought about the tragic accident that took place. Although I am excited about the opportunity to continue my education and rejoin my teammates, my heart still breaks for the family that lost a love one. I will continue to keep the Haney family in my prayers.”

Haney family photo 

Andrew Haney (left) said the death of his wife, Hermaleen Haney, has left behind a lot of heartache for him and their six children.

Andrew Haney, 38, who owns his own construction company in Granbury, said he and his wife were on their way to pick up their son in Houston when his wife was killed behind the wheel of their car. He said he does not support Gilliam’s decision to drop the charges against Compton because he said he was speeding and driving recklessly, no matter the weather or road condition.

“I know he didn’t intentionally kill my wife, but he was intentionally driving recklessly and speeding,” Haney said. “We have six kids. That is a lot of heartache here. I don’t want to see the kid go scot-free, OK? I’m not saying send him to prison. But he needs to be held accountable. To drop charges is just an insult.”

Smith, the TxDOT spokesperson, said the agency reviewed the Highway 6 curve sections just south of Riesel at the end of last year. Since then, based on engineering evaluations, TxDOT installed “Curve Ahead” signs and advisory “60 mph Speed Limit” placards, he said. Also, TxDOT installed a series of yellow directional signs along the curve.

“As part of its routine maintenance program for all roadways, TxDOT crews performed an operation to lay sealcoat from Marlin to Riesel this past spring,” Smith said. “This effort was planned and budgeted two years before work began. TxDOT will also perform a speed study along this stretch of road in the near future now that the roadwork is complete.”

Staff photo — Rod Aydelotte  

Jacob May and Jackie Niles stand along Highway 6 near their home near Riesel. The cross marks the spot where Falls County Deputy Matt Jones was killed last year by a motorist who lost control of his car.

However Niles, the Highway 6 resident, said the action by TxDOT was long overdue.

“It should have been addressed after the first death four years ago, not the third death,” she said. “But I am thankful now it has been taken care of. I feel that people are all the same. It shouldn’t have taken somebody in uniform to die.

“Don’t get me wrong. I appreciate the work they do and the sacrifices they make. But it breaks my heart that two other people weren’t given the same justice that the officer was given. They are just as human as he was, but at least it’s not going to happen anymore and that in itself is a blessing.”

Permit issued for large mystery building in Waco industrial district

A national company that has handled projects for the likes of Amazon and FedEx, among many others, has a permit to lay the foundation for a 700,000-square-foot distribution center and warehouse in Waco’s industrial park.

Heavy equipment has arrived to install waterlines on the 93-acre parcel, and the city of Waco inspection services department and the local Associated General Contractors of America office confirmed the building would cover 700,281 square feet at 2000 Exchange Parkway. BL Companies secured the permit, but the intended user of the building remains a mystery.

Putting a structure that size in perspective, consider the hulking Coca-Cola Minute Maid plant at Imperial and Hewitt drives occupies 660,000 square feet. Richland Mall covers 708,000 square feet at highways 84 and 6.

And right across the street from the ongoing project, at 1800 Exchange Parkway, stands a 688,000-square-foot Army and Air Force Exchange Service facility that warehouses merchandise trucked to stores on military bases.

But local officials are not commenting on what purpose the new complex might serve or the number of people it could employ. It will occupy prime space in Texas Central Park, an almost 4,000-acre industrial zone with convenient access to U.S. Highway 84, Loop 340, Interstate 35 and Bagby Avenue, rail service provided by Union Pacific and land lots controlled by the Waco Industrial Foundation, which often sells at below-market prices.

“I am not at liberty to say anything about an economic development project,” said Kris Collins, industry recruiter for the Greater Waco Chamber of Commerce, when asked about the building permit.

Collins works closely with the Waco Industrial Foundation, serves as the chamber’s senior vice president of economic development and updates city and county elected officials regularly on major projects.

City of Waco Planning Director Clint Peters likewise demurred.

“It is my understanding a permit has been issued for site work, for a foundation, but they have submitted no plans,” Peters said. “I don’t know what’s being built and won’t until those plans are submitted. The Waco Industrial Foundation has not shared that information.”

The foundation controls the site in question, which the city of Waco annexed earlier this year at the foundation’s request. In May, when the Waco Plan Commission voted to recommend the council annex the land, Peters told the Tribune-Herald the city has a longstanding agreement with the foundation not to annex properties until the foundation is ready to sell or develop them.

Signs announcing the land’s availability are posted on the site.

Foundation-owned property is in the city’s extraterritorial jurisdiction, meaning the city holds sway but does not levy taxes. The Waco chamber manages much of the day-to-day functions of the foundation, which was formed in 1952 and is formally led by a 24-member volunteer board.

McLennan County Judge Scott Felton said he could not comment on apparent progress in developing the 93-acre site. The Waco City Council and McLennan County Commissioners Court must both agree to spend money from a taxpayer-supported fund used to entice and assist industry.

“Not yet,” Felton said, when asked if money had been earmarked to accommodate the potential user of the acreage on Exchange Parkway.

Army and Air Force Exchange Service spokesperson Chris Ward said AAFES is not expanding its presence in Waco. He said management is aware of plans underway to develop the land across the street.

While not specifically addressing the property on Exchange Parkway, Collins said the economic development office “has a strong pipeline of activity that could result in additional job growth for the market and capital investment for the area, both of which are good things. Despite everything happening in the world right now, this could be a strong year for announcements.”

News last week that Tesla will place a vehicle manufacturing plant in Austin employing about 5,000 also had Collins thinking positively.

“I think we’re in close enough proximity to that market that there could be a regional spinoff. That could represent opportunity, if one considers the impact other manufacturing facilities have had around the country,” Collins said.

Waco-based economist Ray Perryman agreed.

“Having the Tesla gigafactory in Austin brings many benefits, some of which will spill over to firms across the state,” Perryman said by email. “In the near term, it offers a large number of jobs at various skill and education levels that will directly benefit the economy and have positive effects on other segments. It also has the potential to create a clustering effect of other firms in the Austin area.”

It also puts a big player in battery technology near the University of Texas, where a co-inventor of the lithium-ion battery recently has continued to take part in new battery developments with his colleagues.

“Battery technology is certainly one of the growth areas of the future, and much of the pioneering work occurred at the University of Texas,” Perryman wrote. “The Tesla facility opens up a new opportunity for Austin to be at the center of the emerging expansion and build on current synergies. Entities across the state, including those in Waco, have enhanced opportunities to provide products and services to the gigafactory.”

Perryman said his economic modeling shows the first phase of hiring will generate more than 21,000 jobs and $1.7 billion in local gross product, factoring in the ripple effects of spending on the economy.

“Waco has the potential to capture some share of the increase in business activity and opportunities,” he said. “In particular, there may well be training opportunities associated with TSTC (Texas State Technical College) for various elements of the supply chain and, two, with truck and SUV manufacturing now taking place in Arlington (GM), Austin (Tesla) and San Antonio (Toyota), there may well be suppliers of components that would benefit from a central location such as Waco.”

The website for BL Companies, the firm that secured a permit for work on the 700,000-square-foot building foundation in Waco, shows it has offers a variety of services, and that it has done architectural work for an array of companies, from FedEx to Columbia University, and has overseen multiple retail developments.

Local news reports by and by The Sun Chronicle in Massachusetts show BL has worked on Amazon distribution centers in that state, with one approved last summer and one starting the permitting process earlier this month.

Virus-weary Texas braces for Hurricane Hanna's arrival

CORPUS CHRISTI — Hurricane Hanna rumbled toward the Texas Gulf Coast on Saturday, lashing the shoreline with wind gusts, rain and storm surge, and even threatening to bring possible tornadoes to a part of the country trying to cope with a spike in coronavirus cases.

The first hurricane of the 2020 Atlantic hurricane season was expected to make landfall late Saturday afternoon or early evening south of Corpus Christi, the U.S. National Hurricane Center said. As of Saturday afternoon, it had maximum sustained winds of 80 mph (129 kph), was centered about 70 miles southeast of Corpus Christi and was moving west at 8 mph.

Many parts of Texas, including the area where Hanna was expected to come ashore, have been dealing with a surge in coronavirus cases in recent weeks, but local officials said they were prepared for whatever the storm might bring.

Corpus Christi Mayor Joe McComb said Saturday that he had seen some residents doing last-minute shopping for supplies, but he warned that if that hadn’t been done already, people should stay at home.

Judge Barbara Canales, Nueces County’s top elected official, said officials were highly concerned about storm surge that was already moving inland. Live webcam footage showed waves sweeping over popular Whitecap Beach near Corpus Christi hours before the hurricane was expected to make landfall.

First responders in Corpus Christi proactively placed barricades near intersections to have them ready to go if streets began to flood, McComb said. More than 17,000 people in the Corpus Christi area were without power early Saturday afternoon, according to AEP Texas.

The main hazard from Hanna was expected to be flash flooding. Forecasters said Hanna could bring 6 to 12 inches of rain through Sunday night — with isolated totals of 18 inches — in addition to coastal swells that could cause life-threatening surf and rip current conditions.

South Texas officials’ plans for any possible rescues, shelters and monitoring of the storm will have the pandemic in mind and incorporate social distancing and mask wearing.