COVID-19’s rapid spread in McLennan County is disproportionately affecting Hispanic and black residents, mirroring worrying national trends.
Delayed COVID-19 test results for jail staff have frustrated local health officials and McLennan County’s sheriff, who were still waiting Friday for word on nearly 100 employees tested two weeks earlier.
All 555 employees at the McLennan County jail complex were tested June 26 by the Waco-McLennan County Public Health District after concerns about the spread of the coronavirus in the jail. The swab samples were sent to a state laboratory in Austin.
Until Friday, jail administrators had only received 234 results from the lab. By midday Friday — 14 days after the testing — more results were in but 96 were still pending. A total of 381 tests were negative, while 78 tests were positive.
In the meantime, 56 infected jail staff have recovered, officials said.
“This is very concerning, because a lot can happen in two weeks and test results can come back negative, but there is no telling if they had been exposed to the virus within the last two weeks,” Sheriff Parnell McNamara said. “It is extremely frustrating and I realize the medical groups doing the testing are overloaded, but the lag time between when you get your tests done and get the results back is very dangerous.”
Fewer delays were seen in results for the approximately 1,100 inmates who were tested July 2 and 3. Of those, 999 have been negative, 53 are positive and 41 are pending.
McLennan County as a whole has seen 2,442 positive cases of COVID-19, health district officials said Friday as they announced 143 new cases. The number of active cases was reported as 2,014.
A total of 15 deaths in the county have been attributed to the disease, the latest involving a 41-year-old Black woman whose death was announced Thursday.
The cause of test delays for McLennan County Jail staff was unclear Friday as all tests had been conducted by public health administrators. Those tests were sent to Texas Department of State Health Services Public Health Laboratory in Austin immediately, health district spokeswoman Kelly Craine said Friday.
“We asked the lab for an explanation but have not received one,” Craine said. “We have not received an explanation from the DSHS lab on the delays. We are very frustrated about the delays.”
Media representatives for the Texas DSHS did not respond to requests from the Tribune-Herald this week seeking an explanation of the delay.
Craine said test results for jail staff started coming in last week via fax. On Friday, the health district sent a large number of test results to the sheriff’s office.
She said once the district gets the results, the district’s epidemiology team reviews the information, verifies that there are no duplicates or incorrect information, then contacts the patient and the jail with the information.
Fast testing is critical to contain the rapid spread of the novel coronavirus, which often is carried by people without symptoms, public health experts say.
Maj. Ricky Armstrong, administrator at the McLennan County Jail complex, said he was tested May 26 but it wasn’t until Friday that he got results showing he was negative. He said 16 jailers have tested positive while 17 jailers were quarantined out of precaution with pending test results.
“I felt fine, didn’t have any symptoms so if test results came back, I knew I was asymptomatic,” Armstrong said. “I have been in and out of the jail, because that is where my office is and I have to keep track of what is going on, but it was frustrating not knowing for so long.”
This isn’t the first time McLennan County has experienced testing delays involving state agencies. It took weeks to get results from the free drive-thru testing sites that the Texas Division of Emergency Management offered in Bellmead and West in May.
State officials in May said they collected more samples than their labs had the capacity to process. Seth Christensen, spokesman for the Texas Division of Emergency Management, told the Dallas Morning News the state added nine additional laboratories to handle the workload in hopes of catching up in mid-June.
Jail staff at both McLennan County Jail and the adjoining Jack Harwell Detention Center, which has a separate staff and houses women and federal detainees, have increased cleaning measures and have required all staff and inmates to wear face masks while moving throughout the complex.
The first thing nurses handed David Guel besides water or ice chips after he spent 16 days on a ventilator with COVID-19 was apple juice.
Now he is hooked on the stuff, and he didn’t even like it that much before he got sick.
“My cravings were not for food as much as something to drink,” Guel said. “I just wanted refreshing cold things to drink. I think my body was thirsty. The apple juice was my first drink that was not water and now I just crave it, and I never was a big apple juice guy at all. The nurse handed it to me and I thought, ‘This is the best thing I have ever had in my whole life.’”
Guel, a 45-year-old Connally High School world history teacher, is thankful to announce he is fully recovered from his life-threatening bout with the coronavirus. Two months after his release from a 31-day hospital stay, the main lingering evidence that he was sick is an unexplained scar on his forehead, his new affection for apple juice and an estimated $230,000 worth of medical bills.
Guel said the small scar on his forehead, which he calls his “Harry Potter scar,” might have come from an allergy to medical tape or from rubbing his head on the hospital bed railing when they flipped his roto-bed over so he was face-down to ease his breathing.
“I kind of felt like a rotisserie chicken in that bed,” he said with a laugh.
However the scar got there, it is the least of his worries at this point.
Now, David Guel is looking forward to resuming his teaching career — whenever or whatever form that might take — and is thankful for his students and Connally High School teachers and administrators who prayed for him and expressed their concerns, especially during his medically induced coma.
David’s wife, Lauren Guel, also battled a case of COVID-19, but her case was not as serious as her husband’s, whose hereditary liver condition made his symptoms much worse. The couple will be married a year in November.
“I didn’t have to be hospitalized,” said Lauren Guel, who works at home as a loan service officer for the Federal National Mortgage Association, commonly known as Fannie Mae. “I had the classic symptoms, a dry cough, body aches, a low-grade fever, fatigue. I was pretty much down for two-and-a-half weeks. I lost senses of taste and smell, lost my appetite, was not eating much. I just tried to keep fluids in my body. It was like having a bad case of the flu but having it for two weeks or more consecutively.”
The couple have friends who have had milder cases and were better in four or five days, Lauren said. Then there was David, whose brush with death had Lauren, family members and friends hoping at times merely for small signs of improvement.
“Obviously, this is a new disease and we are still learning a lot,” David said. “But our doctors tend to think we have antibodies now and likely are immune from getting it again. They are not saying 100 percent, but saying 80 to 90 percent, just based on how viruses work in general.”
Lauren has donated plasma twice, which will be processed and used to help COVID-19 patients who are critically ill fight the disease. David asked about donating but was unable to because of his underlying health conditions.
“We joke that we are probably immune now,” David said. “We are still extra cautious. We wear masks when we go out and we have yet to eat in a restaurant. One, we are trying to be responsible to other people, and two, we are being extra cautious. We are not trying to tempt fate.”
David underwent five weeks of rehabilitation when he got home, slowly building back his strength and lung capacity. At first, just getting out of bed and taking a shower had him gasping for breath. They walked inside the house at first, then down the driveway, and later, down the block, all the time with trusty Labrador Springer, named for Houston Astros outfielder George Springer, at their side.
All the bills have not come in yet, but the couple said they have received estimates that the total for David’s treatment, hospitalization and rehab will run about $230,000. Luckily, they have good insurance through Lauren’s work, and their maximum out-of-pocket expenses will be $3,300, they said.
David, who started working at Connally after the school year had begun when another teacher got sick, is thankful for his co-workers, who he said were very supportive in filling in for him and helping keep his students informed about his progress.
“David is a great teacher, especially for coming in mid-year,” said Jill Talamantez, former Connally High School principal who is moving to chief human resources officer. “He just took the bull by the horns and went straight forward. The kids really embraced him, and he has a way of bringing history to life. I am so very thankful that he is back 100 percent.”
After David became ill, Michelle Castelli, head of the high school history department, took over his classes, which shifted to online learning after spring break.
“David has a heart for the kids,” Castelli said. “He really cares about our kids. He has unparalleled patience that is absolutely needed when you are a teacher. He is an excellent teacher. He is smart, intuitive, but overall the best thing teachers can possess is love and patience, and he has that in spades. He is a wonderful fit for Connally and he is really going to make a difference with our kids.”
As Tuesday’s primary runoff election approaches, candidates are battling nerves, repelling increased opposition attacks, and at least one is emerging from a bout with COVID-19.
McLennan County runoff voters will choose from a two-party field of candidates seeking to replace retiring U.S. Rep. Bill Flores, who has served District 17 since 2010; Republican candidates seeking to succeed five-term Judge Ralph Strother; and Democratic challengers to U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, among other races.
The Democratic Party runoff ballot includes MJ Hegar and Royce West for U.S. senator; David Jaramillo and Rick Kennedy for District 17 U.S. representative; and Chrysta Castaneda and Roberto R. “Beto” Alonzo for railroad commissioner.
Republicans are choosing between former Congressman Pete Sessions and businesswoman Renee Swann for District 17 U.S. representative; and between Kristi DeCluitt and Thomas West for judge of 19th State District Court.
Precinct 1 residents also will choose the Republican nominee in the race to replace retiring McLennan County Commissioner Kelly Snell. The winner between former Robinson ISD Superintendent Jim Smith and Chrissy Brault, Snell’s longtime administrative assistant, will face Democrat Alice Rodriguez in November.
Election Day for the primary runoff was postponed from May 26 because of the pandemic sweeping the nation, which forced candidates to drastically alter their campaigning styles. Swann and her husband both came down with the virus and have had to quarantine themselves during the final days of the campaign.
Early voting for Tuesday’s election was brisk, and part of the reason for that likely is that some voters wanted to avoid possible COVID-19 exposure in potential lines at the polls on Election Day, McLennan County Elections Administrator Kathy Van Wolfe said.
Voter turnout in runoff elections historically is low, with somewhere around 5% to 10% normally going to the polls. Through Friday’s close of early voting, a little more 8.2%, or 11,848, of the county’s 143,988 registered voters had cast a ballot. County elections workers recorded a total of 3,928 Democratic voters and 7,920 Republican voters who cast early ballots. Those totals include 4,566 mail-in ballots, 1,862 in the Democratic runoff and 2,704 in the Republican, according to Van Wolfe’s office.
Van Wolfe has been challenged to convince her regular troop of election workers, including many who are elderly, to keep manning those posts in the face of coronavirus spikes. A number have told her they will not be working elections this year, but as of Friday, Van Wolfe remained cautiously optimistic that she will have enough workers to cover the 31 polling sites in operation Tuesday.
“So far, right now we do, but who knows what tomorrow will bring,” Van Wolfe said. “It changes every day. We have had some normal workers who don’t feel comfortable, or their family members or doctors have told them it’s not a very good idea to work because they have some other health issues. I really appreciate those who are going to be out there on the front line. Maybe some of the stress will be taken off Election Day because we had a pretty good turnout for early voting.”
Swann’s campaign manager, Michael Blair, said the Swanns have remained asymptomatic during their illness and are eager to continue last-minute campaigning, if possible, when their quarantine period ends Saturday. He said Swann has meet-and-greets scheduled Sunday afternoon in Milam County and Monday night in Falls County, and the campaign will adhere to health professionals’ recommendations for face coverings, social distancing and limited crowd size.
As the primary campaigns come to a close, the Tribune-Herald asked candidates for Congressional District 17 and 19th State District judge for final thoughts for voters before they go to the polls.
“I care about you, your family, and your future — the most important thing I can do in Congress is to faithfully be your voice and your champion,” said Swann, who has the backing of Flores after he launched a recruiting campaign for a candidate with deep roots in the district.
Sessions, formerly of Dallas, served 11 terms in Congress before his defeat two years ago by former Baylor University linebacker Colin Allred. Sessions has since moved back to Waco and has said his former congressional district included a large part of Central Texas before it was redrawn.
“I was born, raised and live in Waco, Texas,” Sessions said. “During my career, I have a 100% National Right to Life voting record, 98% support for President Trump and 100% Texas Farm Bureau voting record. I am endorsed by Texans for Life and the National Rifle Association. I look forward to bringing my conservative record and 22 years of seniority to be more than just a vote.”
Sessions and Swann, retired chief operations manager for her husband’s eye surgery center in Waco, emerged from an 11-candidate primary field, with Sessions getting 32% of the vote and Swann getting 19%.
On the Democratic side, Kennedy, an Austin software engineer who lost his first political bid in 2018 to Flores, pulled in 48% of the Democratic primary vote, while Jaramillo, a Marine veteran from Waco, got 35%.
Kennedy said the “divisive and dysfunctional Congress” is not serving the people, and Central Texas is not properly represented in Washington.
“The incalculable human and economic costs we are suffering due to our chaotic, incompetent response to the COVID-19 pandemic demonstrate that Congress and this administration are incapable of fulfilling government’s most basic function — to protect the lives and livelihoods of its citizens,” Kennedy said.
“My goal as your representative will be to make sure Central Texans are properly protected and supported as we work through this pandemic. To make sure everyone has access to quality, affordable health care. To restore access to markets for our farmers and ranchers and make sure our rural communities have the 21st century infrastructure they need to attract 21st century jobs. To reform our criminal justice system to end the disproportionate violence against and incarceration of people of color,” he said.
Jaramillo thanked his family, friends and supporters.
“Without you, none of this would be possible, and thank you for believing in me,” he said. “I have a vision for our district, where we lead in unity and equality for all. Where we have representation that will have an open door policy that will fight for everyone, and not just a select few. I want to thank everyone again for their support. It will be an honor to serve as your representative.”
In the local judicial race, the winner of the Republican primary will be the next judge of 19th State District Court, one of McLennan County’s two primary felony criminal courts. No Democrats entered the race.
“I will run my court like I have run my campaign: with honesty, efficiency and accuracy,” said DeCluitt, an assistant Waco city attorney. “I have the support of the Waco Police Association, former Governor Rick Perry and the only other lifelong Republican in the primary, Ret. Lt. Col. Michael Flynn. I was a felony prosecutor, defense attorney and an elected, full-time judge for over eight years who knows how to run a large docket efficiently. I will be ready on day one to serve the citizens of McLennan County.”
West has been endorsed by Citizens for Pro-Life Action and the fourth primary candidate, Waco attorney Susan Kelly.
“It has been my pleasure and honor to meet thousands of citizens from McLennan County during my campaign. I have run a positive campaign focusing on facts and was praised by Jon Ker, chairman of the Republican Party of McLennan County, for running such a campaign.
“My real-world experience of 120 plus jury trials, handling thousands of felony cases and being board certified in criminal law since 2002 have prepared me to ensure all citizens receive a fair trial and to enforce the rule of law. I am conservative to the core and proudly serve as a deacon at First Woodway Baptist Church,” West said.
DeCluitt, 50, led the primary with 32.5% of the vote, while West, 55, got 28.1%.
Ker has said he does not endorse primary candidates and has told both West and DeCluitt they have run positive campaigns.
Black Waco and McLennan County leaders criticized the federal and state government during a virtual town hall Thursday night for their haphazard responses to the COVID-19 pandemic and the way the disease disproportionately kills people of color.
Waco NAACP President Peaches Henry called out Texas Gov. Greg Abbott for creating a “dangerous and deadly situation” in his haste to reopen businesses, while McLennan County Commissioner Patricia Chisolm-Miller also lamented the lackluster response to COVID-19 from national and state leaders.
“Officials at the national level have no interest in providing Americans with life-saving information about this disease,” Henry said. “Even people who head national organizations, such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, are not willing to do their duty, which is to provide scientifically based information to citizens about how to protect themselves from the coronavirus. In following the federal government in its neglect of its citizens and reopening, the Texas governor has created a dangerous and deadly situation across the state.”
Abbott has recently told reporters he regrets some of his reopening measures, and he has reversed course on some.
The virtual town hall held by the city of Waco, McLennan County, Waco Family Health Center and the Waco NAACP chapter focused on concerns about the impact COVID-19 is having on Black people. People submitted questions for the panelists during the town hall conducted on Zoom.
COVID-19’s rapid spread in McLennan County is disproportionately affecting Hispanic and black residents, mirroring worrying national trends.
Of the 15 people who have died from COVID-19 complications in the county, five have been Black people. The most recent death reported Thursday was a 41-year-old Black woman, who is the youngest person in McLennan County to die from the coronavirus yet.
Waco City Council Member Andrea Barefield said her birthday is next week and that she is near the age of the woman who died Thursday, a fact that came over her like a splash of cold water.
“It’s not OK,” Barefield said. “We’ve got to make sure we’re expressing the severity of this.”
Seven of the 15 McLennan County residents who have died from COVID-19 complications were Latino, and three were white. Their ages range from 41 to 89, according to the Waco-McLennan County Public Health District.
“That means that 80% of the people who are dying of COVID-19 are people of color,” Henry said. “It is our community, our people, Black and brown people, who are getting sick and who are dying because no one is coming to save us. We must save ourselves.”
The national NAACP released a statement July 2 in response to the recent spike in people testing positive for and dying as a result of COVID-19, denouncing the Trump administration’s decision to cut federal funding to testing sites across the country as hospital admissions hit record highs in seven states, including Texas, as “social malpractice.”
“As numerous states pause reopening efforts and re-enact more stringent policies and practices for social engagement, we urge all federal, state and local government leaders to take necessary precautions toward an effective and responsible resuming of activities and to ensure that the lives of our people are weighed more prominently than economic profits,” NAACP officials said the statement.
Chilsolm-Miller, the only woman and only Black person on the commissioners court, echoed Henry and the NAACP, saying the federal and state government “appears to be tone deaf in addressing this disease” and how it “pertains to the plight of minorities living and surviving this pandemic.”
Dr. Iliana Neumann with the Family Health Center said in her 20 years in medicine, she has never seen such a “lack of leadership from top organizations that I usually count on to give us clear guidance.”
Just under 20% of Black people are able to work from home because many are essential workers and have been required to return to work, Chisolm-Miller said. The majority of these are lower-paying positions that do not allow people to create savings, so they must work to continue to pay their bills, even during a pandemic.
“As we were returning to work, we were placed in a position to be exposed, more so than others, to the chance of contracting the coronavirus,” she said. “We know that there are structural and systemic issues that we have had to overcome. We need to make sure we understand there are environmental factors, as well.”
Chilsolm-Miller said sometimes the places Black people live are surrounded by environmental hazards, such as unclean water and polluted air, which explains why more Black men develop lung cancer than white men. Black people also are more likely to have respiratory illnesses at greater rates than other demographic groups, she said.
“If there is a takeaway from this, it is we need to understand the stressor that racism does to the African American body,” she said.
Neumann, who is Latina, agreed that Black and Latino people should not blame themselves for the way COVID-19 ravages unhealthy bodies, because they are more likely to have the underlying health conditions that make them more susceptible to the coronavirus due to structural inequity and racism. Black and Latino people are more likely to live in areas without grocery stores and to lack access to affordable health care.
“I do want people to feel empowered, even though there are so many things that are going against them,” she said. “Our communities have always shown resilience and strength.”
Recent Baylor University graduate and first-year medical student Veronica Prince discussed why more young people are testing positive for COVID-19. She said at first the message was to get tested and isolate yourself if you had symptoms, but then more information came out about younger people carrying the virus without symptoms. Many people in her age group, 20s and younger, decided to throw “corona parties” and enjoy this “extended summer.”
“I believe for us, it’s beginning to be real,” she said. “Sadly it took us taking over the incoming case volume for it to register.”
Prince said Black people are at a higher risk not because they are going to bars but because they frequently live in crowded housing facilities or must take crowded public transit to work as essential workers. She feels a sense of relief that this pandemic is forcing people to open their eyes and see the systemic racism that has been in place for centuries.
Neumann agreed, advising people with sick family members not to come into contact with them but to leave groceries and other supplies on the doorstep. If they share living quarters, the sick family member should stay in a room alone as much as possible. If they share a bathroom, it should be disinfected after the sick person uses it.
“A lot of our families, both in the brown and Black communities, live in extended families with other people who may not have resources to have their own bedroom and their own bathroom,” she said. “You can still self-isolate as much as you can by continuing to wear your face masks.”